Category Archives: Running & Cycling

Gut Check at the Potawatomi 50

My first (and possibly only) ultramarathon of 2019 is done. I can’t say I enjoyed every mile, or even most of them. Yet I’m grateful for the experience. Lemme tell ya why.

I’ve run 22 ultras now, and every one has been memorable, whether for a competitive time (Veterans Memorial, Dogwood), extreme heat (Lighthouse) or cold (Yankee Springs), challenging terrain (Voyageur) or the surreal (Burning Man). Last Saturday’s 50-miler at the Potawatomi Trail Races combined sticky mud, hard climbs, and physical discomfort into a thirteen-plus hour sufferfest.

My shoes after the event.

It was worth it.

The race website quotes a runner as saying, “…they took all the hills [in Illinois] and put them ALL into one spot and called it McNaughton Park.” Having driven across Illinois, then run in the park, I can confirm this is true.

With 1,600 feet of elevation gain per ten-mile loop, I climbed nearly as much in 50 miles as I did at the Kettle Moraine 100. The uphills are sudden and steep, including one with rope assist. Yet they are exceeded in quad-shattering ferocity by the downhills, aptly described as, “elevator shafts.”

Two friends, John and Kurt, were responsible for my presence there. Kurt was attempting the 150-miler (15 loops), while John would try the 200, a 20-loop exercise in torture which awards a belt buckle too big to wear. This I wanted to witness. I settled on Saturday’s 50-miler as my limit after an inconsistent winter of training, but I was there to see them off at 4 p.m. Thursday.

Kurt (left) and John, just before race start on Thursday.

On Friday I volunteered at the base camp aid station, ran a few miles to keep loose, and went to bed early. I headed down the muddy path at 6:00 Saturday morning fired up and feeling good.

One mile in. Welcome to nine more miles of this!

The first loop, messy, slippery, and still a bit dark, was quite fun. I completed it in two hours flat, which I was very pleased with. No PR here, but even with a shoe change or two I expected to finish in around 11 hours. That plan went south starting late in the second loop.

Runners climbing one of the signature hills in the park.

A burning sensation appeared in my lower abdomen, almost like needing to pee, except I didn’t. This had happened at the Lighthouse 100, which I’d blamed on an unfamiliar electrolyte drink. I’d stuck with familiar food and drink this time, but here was that pain again, and getting worse.

Not wanting to quit, I pressed on and began experimenting. I tried drinking less, then a lot. I consumed more salt. I tried eating and not eating. After loop three I sat for a while. Nothing made any difference whatever. Even ginger ale and a Tums had zero effect. The day was pleasant and the trail was drying out nicely, but the constant pain was ruining any chance of enjoyment.

I made it through lap four (40 miles) and collapsed into a chair next to the timer. “Ready for your victory lap, Jeff?” he asked. No, I was not. In fact, I felt a tingling in my hands and flush in my face that signaled a bonk coming on. I got to my feet, walked to a nearby grassy patch and lay down for a nap. Plenty of time for one. Heck, with race cutoff over 24 hours away, I could even leave, recover, sleep, and finish the next day. I dozed for about twenty minutes with the afternoon sun warm on my face and body.

When I got up, a miracle had occurred. The abdominal pain had vanished, and I was full of energy. Victory lap on! I walked the first mile just to be sure all was well, then ran the rest of it comfortably. With competitive pressure gone, and feeling well again, I was able to fully enjoy those final miles. I finished just as it was getting dark. At 13-plus hours it was my slowest 50, but I was satisfied. And grateful.

So what made the experience worthwhile? I learned I could push through a long period of discomfort. That I can use a bad situation to learn more about myself and what I’m capable of.

Also, two things stood out about how my body performed. Though my quads were screaming from the downhills, they held up, and everything else – glutes, hamstrings, calves, even knees – felt fine throughout. And on a steep, muddy trail, I didn’t fall once. I give full credit to the trainers at Body Specs for their attention to whole-body training and stability work. All those one-legged squats and work on the wobble boards paid off. Thanks, Skip and crew!

This will pay off…this WILL pay off…

And how did my friends doing the crazy miles make out? Mixed results. John’s attempt at 200 ended after five loops and a rainy, miserable night. He was understandably bummed, but is already looking forward to his next challenge. Kurt finished his 150 miles at 7:30 a.m. Sunday, one of three to complete that distance. And four runners actually completed the full 200. Outstanding work, guys. I am in awe.

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A Strange and Fickle Beast

Last weekend I had an opportunity to run a “fatass” trail race (up to 30 miles) reasonably near where I live. On that morning it was near freezing temperatures, raining, and I had a slightly painful knee that I’d “tweaked” somehow the previous night. Plus I had a 50-miler coming up in a week. So I passed on the fatass, stayed home, and did my taxes.

From last December’s Fatass run. I’m in the bright yellow jacket on the right. I did 21 miles because I had no excuses.

Now, those of you who aren’t ultrarunners, or who don’t know me all that well, are probably saying, “Sensible choice, what’s the issue?” The rest of you have, to a person, who I’ve told this to fully supported my decision.

Everyone except me.

Despite knowing it was the best choice, I still had some twinges of regret for at least not showing up and giving it a shot.

Why?

Because I have run ultras in the cold, and in the rain, and with a bum knee (although not yet all three at once). And enjoyed the experience each time. So I have a certain reputation of “indestructibility” that’s hard to set aside. Plus I just like being around trail runners.

This weekend is the aforementioned 50-miler at McNaughton State Park in Illinois. I arrived Thursday to see off those running the really long distances here, including my friends Kurt (150 miles) and John (200 miles). It was chilly and raining at the 4 p.m. start. The runners were geared up and ready. And no one – runners, race staff, or race director – complained about the weather.

Kurt (bib #400) and John (bib #415).

There’s very little fanfare at the start of most ultras. Runners are upbeat but quiet, grabbing a snack, conversing about other ultras, stretching, or jogging a bit to loosen up. Usually no music – that’s for pumping up people at shorter races, like marathons. And the starting “gun” is the race director saying something like, “Get outta here.”

And yet the energy is palpable, a current washing over the entire starting area. I’ve felt it every time, running or not. Watching the runners standing quietly in the queue before the start yesterday, I began twitching, and bouncing on my heels. Mind you, I was grateful not to be starting with them. But part of me was ready to jump in anyway. And had I signed up for that start time, I’d have been there, just as eager as the rest of them to get out on that trail.

They’re off! (Okay, maybe some are feeling the vibe more than others.)

My race begins early Saturday morning, and it promises to be a great day – sunny, with temperatures in the sixties. I’m really looking forward to it. And I’m only a little disappointed that it won’t be raining.

Yes, motivation is a strange beast, indeed.

March Weather Rambles, so I Will Too

The problem with March is that it can’t figure out what it wants to be.

At the start of this month I ran on a sunny morning in Minnesota, temperature -11 degrees F. Here’s what I wore on that run – and yes, I wore EVERY article pictured.

In like a lion, out like a lamb? This year it was more like, “In like a polar bear, go through every creature in the zoo, and on the last day it snatches the lamb away (PSYCH!) and back comes the bear.”

Help! March is chasing me!

Then last Friday I ran in shorts and a single T-shirt. Spring was coming. Life was good! Saturday it rained, then snowed, and today (Sunday, March 31) it was back to winter.

I was so discouraged…I gave up a Saturday trail run to do my taxes.

NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

But some good things happened in March. Two PR Run Club members, Jason and Hirak, were awarded U.S. citizenship! The club threw a little party for them yesterday.

Jason contemplates what he’s just accomplished. Or what a wicked good cake that is.

Jason runs the club’s interval training Thursday afternoons. I’ve been able to avoid them, hiding behind my ultra training. But as I’ll be working on my shorter distances this year, I get the feeling I’ll be joining them. It’s good for me. At least that’s what I’ll tell myself.

Hirak and his family help clean up the Ann Arbor Marathon course last week.

Hirak organizes a 6-mile run every Wednesday at 6 a.m. Which I’m a regular at. After all, why just run in the cold when you can in darkness, too? While sometimes we have up to six people, sometimes, like with this week, it was just Hirak and me, and his dog Ashoka. (Bonus points if you are familiar with that name.)

And hope lies ahead. Next weekend is the Potawatomi Trail 50 in Illinois, and the forecast is for dry weather with temps in the 60s.

And my taxes are done!

Pre-Ann Arbor Marathon Cleanup Plog!

The Ann Arbor Marathon is Sunday, March 24, and I’ll again be serving as Zero Waste Team captain. Since 2017, when we began the zero waste program at the marathon, we’ve recycled or composted over 97 percent of all race waste!

2018: Less than four pounds of trash, and over 99 percent landfill diversion!

This year we’ll make it an even more environmentally responsible event by doing some cleanup before the race. And if you’re a runner in the area, you could help!

This is an event Ann Arborites, especially runners, should be proud of. It’s an official qualifying race for the Boston Marathon and New York Marathon, and the course runs through some captivating scenery including central campus, Nichols Arboretum, and a long stretch along the Huron River in Gallup Park.

The inaugural Ann Arbor Marathon, June 2012.

Unfortunately, the melting of the winter snow has revealed litter strewn along the roads – an embarrassing amount in some places. This afternoon I ran a loop of the course and observed discarded bottles, cans, paper cups, and even twelve hubcaps. Hardly stuff we want our runners to see, especially those visiting our fair city to be part of a healthy outdoor event!

So this Saturday we’re holding the first ever Ann Arbor Plog-athon!

Glad you asked! “Plog” is the nickname given to an increasingly popular activity of picking up roadside trash during a run. And on Saturday, March 23, some dedicated runners will be out on the marathon course, taking that litter off the streets and putting it where it belongs. And with Zero Waste principles in mind, we’ll recycle or compost as much of it as possible.

Readers, are any of you coming to Ann Arbor to run that weekend? Or do you live in Ann Arbor and want to help make the course condition something we can be proud of? Join us! Details are on the Happy Planet Running page on Facebook. Or email me, and I’ll forward you everything you need to know.