Category Archives: Ultramarathons

Milestones, Intentional or Not

I REACHED A MILESTONE IN RUNNING last month that I didn’t find out about until today – just after I achieved a second one.

I wasn’t trying for either; they just happened in the course of things. I guess it’s true – If you just keep going, eventually you will get somewhere. Even if you don’t know it.

Today I logged onto Athlinks, as I do about once per year, to make sure my races from 2016 were properly accounted for. There were a few I needed to claim, so I took care of those. And when I was done, my main page looked like this:

athlinks-100-races-cropped

How about that? When I tramped across the snow-covered finish line last month at Yankee Springs, I completed my hundredth running event. Beginning with the Holiday Hustle in 2008, I’ve crossed the finish line of an official race one hundred times, ranging from 5K to 100 miles and everything in between. And that first race seemed to take place just yesterday. Where the heck did those years in between go?

My first race result. Not bad, but plenty of room for improvement!

My first race result. Not bad, but plenty of room for improvement!

To fend off the hordes of reporters who I’m sure would pester me otherwise, I’ll respond to their expected question here:

“Jeff! How do you FEEL about completing ONE HUNDRED races?”

Actually, I don’t feel much at all. Which is likely due to being wiped out from my gym workout and run today. It was never a goal of mine to complete that number of races – it just happened.

In fact, had you asked me ten years ago if I thought I would accomplish something like this, I’ve had said, “A hundred? I haven’t even done one yet! And who says I want to run races, anyway?”

And yet here I am with three 2017 races already completed and many more on my calendar, including my first Boston Marathon and another 100-miler in June. You really can’t make this stuff up.

And thanks to the training necessary to run those races, today I reached another milestone. When I stepped off the treadmill at Body Specs after a cooldown 5K, it marked the first time ever I’ve run for ten consecutive days. That may sound funny coming from an ultrarunner, but it’s true! The closest I’ve come before was several years ago, when to reach a yearly mileage goal I ran 9 days out of 10 at the end of December.

I began this streak to step up my weekly distance. Last year I got through my spring marathons and ultras, but had some foot issues. As this year’s 100-miler will be on pavement, it’s especially important I toughen them up. And the best way to do that is to run more miles.

I’m being careful, making most runs easy and relatively short, and so far my legs are feeling fine. And I have no problem stopping if something doesn’t feel right. It’s a fun streak to mention, but it’s by no means a vanity thing.

In fact, any prideful thoughts I might have about a running streak was put to rest by this recent news. Ron Hill, at 78, recently ended his world record run streak at – wait for it – 52 years, 39 days. That’s right, he ran every day for over 19,000 consecutive days, competing in three Olympic Games and winning the 1970 Boston Marathon along the way. There’s a milestone worth bragging about. Not that he is. From the Runner’s World article:

“[The streak] doesn’t drive me that much,” he said. “I was more driven by competition when I was younger. I do it because I enjoy it. I try not to think about it.”

ronhill

Image from therunnereclectric.com.

 

So there you go. Ron wasn’t obsessed with setting the record. He just ran, and after a while he set it. Seems like a good example to follow. I will keep on training, and we’ll see where it takes me.

As Nature Intended

Near the end of my Monday workout at Body Specs, one of the trainers and I began talking dirt.

Mud, more correctly.

As I was catching my breath after a particularly strenuous set, she (Rachel) asked me how I got into running. I explained how I’d started with occasional short runs, which eventually led to a half marathon, which started me on the slippery slope to the full marathon and beyond to the land of Ultra.

And *up* the slippery slope, too.

Slippery slopes go both down and up in the land of Ultra!

Rachel said she had no intention of following me down the ultra trail, but she did sign up for a Tough Mudder later this spring. And just as she no plans to start running ultras (which I completely understand) I will not be following her into that kind of event. Chacun à son goût, as they say, but a TM is definitely not to my goût.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Tough Mudder, it’s one of a popular genre of events collectively known as obstacle races. These events combine running with various types of calisthenics and man-made obstacles to climb over, duck under, and crawl through. Here’s a sampling of typical Tough Mudder obstacles, courtesy of the Wikipedia article:

  • Arctic Enema – Participants plunge into a dumpster filled with ice water, dunk underneath a plank that crosses the dumpster, and pull themselves out on other side.
  • Electroshock Therapy – Live wires hang over a field of mud which participants must traverse.
  • Funky Monkey – A set of incline and decline monkey bars over a pit of cold water. The bars are slicked with a mixture of butter and mud.
  • Everest – Participants run up a quarter pipe slicked with mud and grease.

tough-mudder-pipe-crawl

Now I have nothing against getting dirty as part of a run. I’ve run several trail races where rain either before or during the event has turned the course into a slippery, shoe-sucking morass. My first trail 50K was a 6-hour slog following an all-night rain, and at some of the hills were impossible to climb without hand-over-hand grabbing of bushes and trees. I’ve even run through an actual swamp. Below is what happened when I stepped off the log I’d been dancing along.

DWD Hell - Deep in the Mud

I’ve run ultras in the rain, in 95 degrees and high humidity, and as of last month, in the snow. I’ve sweated buckets and frozen my tooshie. I’ve climbed piles of boulders and slid down ravines. I’ve flirted with hypothermia, bonked due to hyponatremia, and been sore everywhere a body can be sore. All with no regrets and every intent to keep doing it as long as I can or want to.

So why, you might reasonably ask, wouldn’t an obstacle race appeal to me? After all, trail race course designers make you run through tall grass, swamps, rivers, and up and down incredibly steep hills. Aren’t those obstacles?

DWD Devils Lake - Heading Down

But there’s a big difference between a muddy trail race and a Tough Mudder. The first is created by Mother Nature and the elements. The second is created by sadists with construction debris and garden hoses. And to me, that makes all the difference.

I like tackling a trail race as Nature intended. When I sign up for a trail race, I have no control over what conditions will be on race day. The trail could be dusty, hard as rock, soaked and slippery, or a paradise of soft pine needles. The uncertainty is part of the experience. It’s expecting the unexpected, as it were.

I may get covered in mud, but it won’t come about by dragging myself under electrified wire or sliding around flaming tires.

tough-mudder-burning-tires

Like Spartan Races, which I’ve written about previously, I find the concept fascinating but don’t really have the interest to participate. That said, I have yet to actually attend either a Tough Mudder or Spartan Race, so I won’t be saying “never” just yet.

Best of luck, Rachel!

===================================

P.S. For those of you hoping my title might mean the kind of run that, say, one might do at Run Woodstock, I’m sorry to disappoint you. However, you can read a couple of stories about my experience there. Here’s a post from 2012 (my first such experience) and one from 2014. Enjoy!

Saved by a Lighthouse and a Dirty German

When one door closes another door opens…

Alexander Graham Bell is given the credit for this piece of wisdom, though it sounds so universal I have to believe it’s actually far older. For sure I would’ve thought it went back to Buddha, or Plato, or Moses, or the like.

I’ve given this advice to my kids, and it’s always sounded good when I say it. But there are times I need it myself, to practice what I preach. What follows was my latest opportunity.

I’d been interested in the Great New York Running Exposition ever since I’d stumbled across it looking for a suitable first 100-mile race. I decided it would be a bit much for my first try, but I put it into my plan for 2017.

It’s a small race and their Facebook page said they fill up quickly, so I noted the opening day of registration (January 8) and set two reminders in my planner. I even included it in my work computer’s password, so I’d get a daily reminder.

Problem was, registration day was a Sunday. And I forgot. When I finally remembered later in the day and frantically called up the site, it was already too late. Best I could do was add my name to the wait list.

Well, rats. Nuts. Foo. Gosh dang it. Or to borrow a stronger phrase from one of my friends, “Fudge puppies.”

fudge_puppies_14x12

They really exist! You lean something new every day.

So now what?

I considered my options. I could wait to find out if a spot opens for me. It could happen; plans change. I thought about volunteering instead, to scope things out; it’s a somewhat tricky course. But in the meantime, I began looking for other 100-mile possibilities. For there is a second part to Mr. Bell’s quote:

…but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”

I could have signed up for Kettle Moraine again, or Mohican, or the Indiana Trail 100, all excellent choices. But I’d set aside 2017 to do the offbeat or unusual, and those are long-established events. Initial poking around on the Internet didn’t come up with anything else promising, though

So after last Saturday’s group run, I was commiserating over coffee with one of our run club’s directors. “There’s a brand new race in northern Michigan,” she said. Why don’t you run that?”

lighthouse-100

lighthouse-100-mapWe pulled up the website. Holy party line, Batman! This is a race along the Lake Michigan shoreline from Petoskey through Traverse City, then up the Old Mission Peninsula. It’s mostly on roads or paved trails, like the New York race. It’s close to our summer campground in Empire, which cuts the travel cost and allows some of our friends there to see me start and/or finish, if they so desire. And it’s in early June, just like New York. Thanks to not getting into that one, I could enter this one!

I signed up right then and there in the coffee shop. Sorry, Big Apple, you’ve been supplanted by the cherry. Still have you on the radar for next year, though.

Now I generally “warm up” for a 100K or 100-mile race by running a 50-miler a few weeks before to assess physical readiness and do a gear check. And right in mid-May was just the ticket:

dirtygermanfinishlogoweb

Among the quirky parts of this race are beer supplied by the St. Pauli Girls (in costume) and age group awards of cuckoo clocks and German “weather houses.” Looking at the 2016 results, I’d have to really haul butt to get one, but that’s sort of beside the point.

dirty-german-agegroupaward

So just like that, two big pieces of this year’s race schedule fell into place. See? Never a doubt! Thanks, Alex.

I hope my kids read this.

Winter Warriors: Yankee Springs Winter Challenge Recap

4:45 a.m. on a January Saturday is when sensible people are nestled snug in warm beds. I was outside in single-degree temps, trudging through 100 yards of snow toward frigid vault toilets.

It was my own fault. I’d signed up for the Yankee Springs Winter Challenge 50K, and the Long Lake Outdoor Center has no indoor plumbing. Or bed linens. Or running water. “I wonder why I’m doing this,” I said to the lady at the Outdoor Center when I called for information.

“You are a winter warrior,” she replied firmly.

Geared up and ready to hit the snowy trail!

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters)!

What a great answer! But why did I sign up for a winter ultramarathon? Well, I’ve run many ultras (this was #15 for me), and plenty of times in the snow, but never the two together. So why not try it? Plus it seemed like a fitting way to kick off 2017, my self-defined year for doing oddball athletic stuff.

I spent Friday night in a 20-bunk cabin instead of a hotel. The advantages were an easy walk to the start, a warm place to keep extra clothes, and the camaraderie of fellow runners, some of whom brought water and were happy to share. (Have I mentioned before how awesome trail runners are?)

Carbo-loading at Walldorff Provisions in Hastings Friday night.

Carbo-loading at Walldorff Provisions in Hastings Friday night.

For having to get up before 5 a.m., I was surprisingly awake and energized for the 8:00 a.m. 50K start. I would run two 25K loops, so there was a chance to make adjustments at the halfway point, which was really helpful on a day like this.

For those of you interested in such things, in the next few paragraphs I will share my gear selections and race strategy for this event. If you’re not, but would like to know how it turned out, you can, “skip a bit, Brother.”

Gear Selection

Shoes were my Pearl Izumi EM N2 Trail. The course was wide singletrack, packed snow with just a little fresh powder. I had great traction throughout. I brought my old Hokas as backups or to deal with deep powder, but I wore the Izumis the entire way.

Socks were my Xmas present Darn Tough Endurance. They got a bit wet but not enough to need to change them, and they did a good job keeping my feet from sliding around, which can lead to blisters. Feet were never cold, either.

For the body I wore a Merino wool base layer with my Heater Hog over that [*] and a light wind jacket on top. Standard winter tights for the legs. Core was always warm, although arms were a bit too sweaty and got cold toward the end of the first loop, so I changed to fresh shirts for the second.

Head: a balaclava with a knit cap over it. This combo kept the wind out of my ears and the cold off my face. Some people wore buffs but they got moist from breath and then froze. The balaclava retained less moisture and dried out quickly so I could pull it back over my mouth when needed.

Hands: I wore my warmest gloves, but my hands always somehow get both cold and sweaty, so I changed to a fresh pair after the first loop. I brought hand warmers just in case but didn’t resort to them. Just clenched my fists inside the gloves.

Food and Hydration

I ate my usual breakfast of a banana and Clif bar an hour before the start. At the aid stations I ate mostly trail mix and bananas. My usual favorites of orange sections and PB&J froze early on, but I got down a few. I brought Gu but never used it.

I drank less than usual. The water in my bottles got so cold I didn’t drink more than a little at a time. At the aid stations where they had soup or warmer water I drank more. But my “fluids check” that occurred every 90 minutes or so was clear, so I was adequately hydrated.

Let's see...do I want frozen bananas, frozen potato chips, frozen olives - or just a Coke slushie?

Let’s see…do I want frozen bananas, frozen potato chips, frozen olives – or just a Coke slushie?

For electrolytes, I took two S-Cap salt tablets every 90 minutes. Usually I take them every hour, but figured I was sweating less. I supplemented with Gatorade and salty soup. I had no digestive problems or nausea, so it seems to have worked fine.

Race Strategy

I elected to run my standard 50K pace – faster than conversation pace but not hard breathing. I was able to run the entire way, with just a few power hikes on the steeper climbs. Toward the end of the second loop I pushed my pace to ensure a sub-6 hour finish. It was uncomfortable but not painful. My lungs seemed to handle the low temps just fine.

As I finished my first loop I noticed my cold arms and a hot spot in my left foot. In addition, my gloves had frozen. So I sacrificed about 15 minutes to change clothes and tape toes. On a warmer day I might have let these go, but Saturday was no time to fool around. The temps never got above 15 degrees, and the wind chill was most likely below zero. Safety had to come first.

===  End nerdy runner stuff  ===

So how did I do?

If I'm dumb enough to be here at the starting line, I suppose I'll have to run it!

If I’m dumb enough to be here at the starting line, I suppose I’ll have to run it!

I finished the first 25K in just under 2:40. Due to the aforementioned issues, I began my second loop around the 2:53 mark. I still hoped to finish around 5:30, but it was not to be. As many runners confirmed, the second loop seemed much harder than the first, perhaps because it got colder instead of warmer. Running in the snow also takes more effort than on dirt, so the extra fatigue added up.

The last few miles seemed to stretch on and on, with more hills than I remembered from my first loop. When it began to feel like a Twilight Zone episode, I lost it a little mentally, and the woods heard a few colorful phrases. But finally the road to the finish line appeared, and all was good again.

I ran the second loop in 2:57. finishing just under 5:51. This was good for second in my age group and #11 overall. Not too bad for my first winter ultra! And I remembered to have fun out there. Being “in the moment” even once or twice, and grateful to be healthy and fit, really puts minor discomforts into perspective.

Swag: Finisher's snow globe and age group gloves + gift certificate.

Swag: Finisher’s snow globe and age group gloves + gift certificate. Worth six hours of running on brutally cold trails? You bet!

Lessons learned for next time:

  • Maybe wear a sleeveless wind vest rather than a full jacket.
  • See if I can find a way to keep my water bottles warmer.
  • Bring water for brushing teeth and stuff the night before.

Overall grades:

  • Race organization: A. First-class job all around, from registration to the great fire at the start/finish to the aid stations to the post-race chili.
  • Course: A. Starkly beautiful. Mostly wide singletrack with a minimum of roots and rocks to worry about. Total elevation gain was about 3,000 feet, mainly from rolling hills. Only a couple of steeper climbs, and no issues with traction.
  • Lodging: B. Cabins were comfortable enough but the trek to the outdoor toilets sucked.

Bottom line: If you’re interested in trying out a winter race, Yankee Springs is an excellent choice. I might even go back next year!

P.S. In addition to the 50K, there are 10K and 25K options if you’re not up for an ultra. There’s also a 50-miler, but since you start at 6:00 a.m. and likely finish in the dark too, you’ve got to be really nuts. (I’m not saying anything those folks don’t already know.)

[*] – Unfortunately, the Heater Hog is no longer available, but you can likely find something similar out there.