Category Archives: Ultramarathons

Now Leaving Reality, Return Date Uncertain

So long to the world I live in and the life I know!

For a week or so, anyway.

Yes, I’m in Nevada, about to enter Black Rock City on the playa, for my first-ever Burning Man experience. While I’m immersed in whatever mind-blowing universe they’ve built there, I will be disconnected from “defaultia” as they call it – i.e. no Internet or phone or texting. This is due in part because BM culture expects you to do so, and in part because cell phone service is so bad there anyway.

I’ll do my best to take some photos, although excessive “recording” of the event is also frowned upon, the mantra being, “participate, don’t be a tourist.” Plus there are tons of photos from past Burns on the Internet, and I’m sure there will be another bumper crop from this year.

So, here’s a brief summary of the week leading up to my getting here:

Saturday & Sunday: Manage Zero Waste at two local races. Major time suck. No time to pack.

Monday & Tuesday: Business trip in Chicago. Got back late Tuesday. No time to pack.

Wednesday: Do some shopping for the trip, then work Zero Waste at an evening race. Can’t pack because I need my car to hold race stuff.

Thursday: More shopping. Finally attempted to pack car. Fill interior, hitch bag, and roof bag, with still more stuff to get in there somehow. Strap bulky and unwieldy camping cot to roof and hope it holds.

Burning Man 2018 - Jeep packed up

Packed up except for camping cot. At this point I was still trying to figure out where to put it.

Planned departure: 2:30 p.m. Leave driveway: 6:00 p.m. Cot flips over within a quarter mile. Go to hardware store for tie-downs and strap cot to bike rack. Leave Ann Arbor 7:30 p.m. Arrive in Iowa City for the night at 2:30 a.m. Central time.

Friday: After a few hours sleep, drive 750 miles to Cheyenne, Wyoming. There’s a lot of Iowa, and even more of Nebraska. And it feels like every mile of I-80 is under construction.

Burning Man 2018 - Fat Dogs store

Saturday: Decent night’s sleep. Random guy in hotel parking lot strikes up conversation with me. He recommends I go to the Chuckwagon in Laramie for breakfast. Go to Safeway for final shopping, drive to Laramie to fill tank, and guess what I see right off the exit:

IMG_20180825_104826

Guy next to me at the counter strikes up conversation. Turns out he’s from Michigan and now is a rancher. He was also an instructor at Wyo Tech, an auto tech institute, and now is a part owner and helping keep it going.

Burning Man 2018 - Me with Jim at Outlaw Cafe in Laramie - 2

Wyoming people are the friendliest! And their cinnamon rolls are obscene.

Continue on, stop at Delle, UT for gas. Restroom out of order. So is soda machine. Why? “Someone shot our well,” the counter guy says. Yep, I’m out West all right.

Burning Man 2018 - Cowboy Cafe - Delle UT - Art on Wall - funny

After 785 miles, arrive in Winnemucca, Nevada. Just a couple of hours to reach Fernley, then onto 447 for God knows how long a wait to get into BRC. Better sign off now. I need all the sleep I can get.

See you when I emerge from the playa!

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Done Lots of Sweating – Time to Burn!

BEEN A LITTLE WARM THIS SUMMER, hasn’t it. But it hasn’t stopped me from training. Even the VM150, with its two days of 90+ degree heat and blazing sun, was useful to me.

What for? Well, in three weeks I head to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, for a small social gathering they call Burning Man.

Photo: Aaron Logan on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

The five-cent summary is that BM is a week-long event in the middle of the desert. A city is constructed on bare playa, 70,000 people move in, wear outlandish clothing, do outlandish stuff, burn this giant figure, and then they all go home. If you’d like to learn more (and I encourage you so to do), just Google “Burning Man” and you’ll get all the information and photos you can manage. You could start here, for example.

Photo: Steve Jurvetson on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

The following Q&A comes in part from those who already know, and in part from what I can hear in your heads as you are reading this.

Q. So, Jeff, ummm….. why?

Believe it or not, BM had never really been on my list of things to experience [1] until recently. But I’d been aware that they return the desert completely to its natural state afterward. They take Leave No Trace and zero waste principles VERY seriously. This I have to see.

Oh, and there’s a 50K there, too. Which is the main reason I’m going. [2]

Q. So, Jeff, how on earth does one prepare for a week-long stay in the middle of nowhere, be entirely self-sufficient, and stay cool, hydrated, and reasonably sane?

I’m still trying to figure that out. Fortunately, they provide a “Survival Guide” with all the essential information one needs. I’ll provide details as I finish up planning and stocking up, I promise.

Q. So, Jeff, let’s assume you really do intend to run 31 miles in the desert. How are you training for it?

Well, I’ve been running…

Cycling…

A little 70-mile jaunt up the Leelenau Trail to Suttons Bay last month.

And hitting it hard at Body Specs

It helped that I took my time recovering this year after my big race, instead of trying to rush back into full activity (like the previous two years). I’d credit greater maturity and wisdom, but really it was a sore knee that took several weeks to heal completely.

And although the heat’s been annoying, it’s helped me stay acclimated to what’s coming up. Nature has my permission to cool things off starting in September.

(To be continued – I’ll share as much as I can of my careful, meticulous planning and frantic, last-minute panicky decisions. I’ll let you guess what there will be more of.)

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[1] You’ll never catch me using the ghoulish phrase, “bucket list.” When I’m dead I won’t care what I did or didn’t see/do. I focus on experiencing life, not death. Plus I don’t like the imagery.

[2] That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Veterans Memorial 150, Part 3: Bringing Home the Buckle

Concluding my Veterans Memorial 150 race recap: It’s early Sunday morning on the Pere Marquette Trail, finally cooler after a beastly hot Saturday. I’m running well, but another hot day – and trouble – lie ahead…

The Field Thins Out

I arrived at AS 8 (mile 80) around 1:00 a.m. and eased gratefully into a chair. Ruth was there, which meant she’d dropped. “I’m sorry to see you here,” I said. Awkward as that sounded, she understood, admitting to not feeling well from the start. So she’d switched to aid station volunteer.

Kurt arrived and asked how I was. Fine, I told him, how were the other runners doing? “Lots of them have dropped,” he said, which he’d expected. Dean, who I’d met at Baldwin, had been taken to the emergency room with heatstroke but had recovered.

Other runners taking a break. (From the race’s Facebook page.)

Kurt said my nearest competitor, Rebecca, was about 2-3 hours behind me – a bit too close for my comfort. Heading back out, I picked up my pace to take advantage of the cool night and hopefully extend my lead.

A Ghostly Picnic, the Non-Breakfast, and Running Scared

On to Farwell for a crew stop at their park pavilion – a 4 a.m. “picnic” in misty artificial light in a dark, empty town. It was a bit surreal, even spooky. I can only imagine what any passersby would have thought.

An hour later I arrived at the Moose Lodge (AS 10, mile 92) outside Clare. A pancake breakfast would begin at 7 a.m., but nobody showed up early just for me. (Well!). So my crew made me instant oatmeal. Isn’t it wonderful to have people who care?

We checked in with Kurt and heard some startling news. Out of 32 solo runners who started, only eight were still on track for the entire distance. And there’d been some wildlife excitement on the trail overnight! One runner had spotted a black bear and been literally “scared sh**less.” Another had been so spooked by howling coyotes she’d climbed a tree, where race staff found her and talked her down.

Not the same bear, but you get the idea. (Video from Roscommon Fire Department. Click to see video.)

I’d enjoyed an uneventful night, seeing only deer and being cheered on by a chorus of bullfrogs. Nature soon made up for that. As I ran through Clare, lightning lit up the predawn sky. Hard rain soon hit, and I ducked into the van. I tried to appreciate the extra rest, but wanted to get more miles in before it got hot. So I got back on the trail as soon as it let up a bit.

After an hour of intermittent rain, the clouds broke up and the sun was peeking out when I arrived at Loomis (AS 11, mile 102). My running coach Paul and his wife Colleen were there, ready to begin pacing me. And Charlie, my pal from Body Specs, had taken over crew duties from Joyce and Sue, who went to catch a few hours sleep.

Another long, hot day loomed ahead, but only fifty miles to go!

Paul and I hit the trail. Dave and the crew van in the background. Charlie is behind Paul.

Stage 3: Loomis to Bay City

Pacing, Passing, and Pseudo-Napping

“You’re an hour and a half ahead of my time last year,” Kurt told me at Loomis. “I needed two naps during my race. I recommend you take one.”

I thanked him but declined; I was wide awake and had good energy. And I wanted to keep a good lead over Rebecca, who had just left Clare. Paul and I agreed a nap could wait. But as we approached Coleman (AS 12) it was already hot and I noticed reality blurring briefly –instants of fading out and snapping back. I told Paul maybe it was time.

“Lie down and cover your eyes,” he said. “Part of sleep is shutting off the input we get from our eyes. Even if you don’t fall asleep, this will help.” So at Coleman I lay down in soft grass in the shade with a cold towel over my face. It felt glorious. I remained awake but was relaxed and comfortable. Fifteen minutes of that, plus another five minutes a bit further on, was all I needed for the rest of the race.

On this stretch we caught up to Dick West, who was attempting 100 miles and had started at the 50-mile mark. A longtime ultrarunner, Dick is still out there competing at age 76. We exchanged handshakes and encouragement. (I’ll spare you the suspense: he finished!)

I want to be this guy when I grow up.

Paul and Colleen tag-teamed me until Sanford (AS 14), keeping me at a safe pace and entertained with conversation. (What do runners talk about while running? You have one guess.) It was my first time being paced, and I quickly appreciated its value. The miles were hot and miserable, but company made them pass more easily.

How am I doing? I’m fresh as a daisy. Why do you ask?

On the trail with Colleen.

At Sanford we waved goodbye to Paul and Colleen (who’d brought me a milkshake – aren’t they great?), and Sue and Joyce rejoined us. I was surprised to find Charlie ready to pace. I hadn’t expected him to start until Midland (mile 127, ten miles ahead) and even then I was a bit worried, since he’d never raced more than a half marathon.

“Dude, it’s thirty-two miles to the finish,” I said.

“Yeah,” Charlie said. “Let’s go.”

Crisis Afoot

The miles to Midland were among the hardest I’ve ever done. It was mid-afternoon, the temperature well over 90, with fewer crew stops because they had trouble finding places to meet us. But more troubling were my burning feet. All the hours spent on hot blacktop were taking their toll. By the time we neared the end of the trail, every step was extremely painful.

Charlie’s presence was invaluable. He knew I was struggling, but remained easygoing and relaxed, keeping me moving forward without the need for direct encouragement. We swapped Aikido stories (he’d also trained under Kushida-sensei), pondered the weather, anything to take my mind off the long hot slog.

Finally we reached downtown Midland – and my crew couldn’t locate the aid station. I spotted a bench next to a pretty glockenspiel and collapsed onto it while we called Kurt. He said the station was being set up a mile farther down. Oh, God, another mile of agony, I thought. And how the hell was I going to do 23 more after that? For the first time in the race, I wasn’t sure I could continue.

“We need to do something right here, right now,” I said to my crew, rather plaintively. “I can’t finish the race with my feet feeling like this.”

They sprang into action. An icewater foot bath put out some of the fire. I took two Advil. Charlie checked the bottoms of my feet – nothing cracked or bleeding, just some swelling – and applied some moleskin. I slipped thin foam insoles into my shoes for extra cushioning. I found a large blister and treated it. Finally, a fresh pair of socks. All that done, I stood up and took a few steps.

My feet still hurt, but it was a manageable hurt. Charlie and I walked to the aid station while the crew cleaned up. By the time we got there and checked in, I was physically and emotionally back on track. “We’re gonna finish this puppy,” I said to Charlie. (I may have used a slightly stronger phrase.)

Motivation

From Midland the course wound through an industrial park, then onto Midland Road and due east to Bay City. This road was five lanes wide and busy with traffic, even on Sunday. Sometimes there were sidewalks, and sometimes we had to hug the shoulder. I was grateful again for Charlie being there. I’d expected to be exhausted at this point and running in the dark, but even awake with the sun still up I felt much safer with a pacer.

And as the evening slowly cooled, I was able to run again! We began with jogs of a hundred yards or so, and worked up to half miles. My legs felt surprisingly strong, and running was actually less painful than walking. Charlie even had to rein me in at one point. “No sprinting!” he called out as I pulled away at a blazing ten-minute mile pace.

At 8:00 p.m. we reached the Auburn aid station (mile 135) and I checked on runner status. A few had stopped at Loomis, earning a 100-mile belt buckle. Only four were still on track to run the full 150. “Is Rebecca one of them?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” was the reply. “We expect her to arrive around 9-9:30.”

I couldn’t believe it. My lead had shrunk to an hour, and 45 minutes of that was due to my early start. Charlie looked at me. “We’ve got to win this by at least an hour,” he said. “For moral justification, at least.”

Charlie and I on Midland Road, ready to rock to the finish.

We took off running, and kept up an aggressive pace into Bay City. (11-minute miles never felt so fast.) We reached the final aid station, the Cops and Doughnuts store in downtown Bay City, as darkness fell. In hindsight I should have asked about Rebecca, but I was so anxious to finish the race I didn’t even buy a cookie (or three) to carry me through the final six miles.

The last stretch on Henry Street / State Park Rd. also had heavy traffic. Charlie had on a full light vest, so we were very visible. Still I was grateful when the streams of headlights diminished as we approached the park. And although I was pretty sure Rebecca couldn’t catch us, I kept looking behind me, unable to shake the fear of seeing an approaching headlamp.

Kurt had checked regularly on our progress so he could be at the finish when we arrived. And at 11:20 p.m. Sunday night, the finish line was lit up and he and other staff were there to welcome us in. I jogged across the grass, up a sidewalk, and after 40 hours and six minutes, crossed the finish line. I’d led it (nearly) wire to wire – and won it.

Finish! Kurt hands me my 150-mile belt buckle.

Aftermath

Relief, Disbelief, and Unnecessary Grief

Kurt was amazed. Despite the oppressive conditions, I’d finished over two hours faster than his time last year, and five hours ahead of my original schedule. “How did you handle the heat so well?” he asked.

Past experience mainly, I told him. I’ve run enough hot ultras, and learned the hard way from them, to know what I need to stay cool and keep electrolytes in balance. And a terrific crew and pacers. No way I could have done it without them.

We hung around for an hour, and then got ready to head back to our campground in Empire. I asked Kurt when Rebecca was due to arrive, as I’d hoped to cheer her in. “Oh, we expect her around 3:30,” he said – three more hours away. WTF?

The Auburn aid station had either misunderstood or been misinformed. She hadn’t even left Midland until after 9 p.m. We could have walked it in! I was happy to have finished strong, but I could have been spared a lot of anxiety knowing the actual situation.

On the other hand, who was really to blame for that anxiety? Charlie said it best during our trek down Midland Road, when I’d pushed too hard and thought I’d hurt my knee. “You lost your focus,” he said after I’d stretched it out. “You were worried about Rebecca instead of running your best race.” Amen. Lesson learned.

I couldn’t sleep on the drive back because someone kept moving my legs and sticking needles into my feet. When we got back to camp I considered going into Empire for breakfast, but decided to attempt a nap in our camper. I was out instantly. Nearly 48 hours after I woke up Saturday morning, my race was over.

Veterans Memorial 150, Part 2: Saturday

My ultras this year have followed a pattern; feel stiff and low on energy the day before, sleep well, and wake up feeling fine on race morning. And so it proved with the Veterans Memorial. I got to the starting line Saturday morning fired up and eager to run.

The race officially began at 8 a.m. but Kurt, the race director, gave the “masters category” (50 and older) an option to start at 7:00. An extra hour of cooler temps? No brainer! “Be there at 6:30 for a required safety briefing,” Kurt emailed me.

I dutifully arrived on time and picked up my race bib. Only one other person would start early, a nice lady named Ruth, who left just after 7. I made some gear adjustments and was ready around 7:15. Kurt told me I could start. “What about the safety briefing?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah, safety briefing!” he said. “You are responsible for your own safety, look both ways when you cross a street, watch for traffic, and a headlamp is recommended at night.” Got it! No ten-page disclaimer needed. This is ultrarunning. You’re expected to know the risks involved. I turned to face the rising sun and headed down Ludington Avenue. On the sidewalk. Safer that way.

At the start, ready to begin the adventure!

How I Approached the Race

I split the race into three 50-mile stages, because “thirds” is how ultras seem to work for me. I feel great for the first third, things get interesting in the second, and the final third is struggle, recovery, and (usually) strong finish. I set up crew stops at the aid stations roughly ten miles apart, and additional ones in between. With these in place, I could focus on a few miles at a time instead of how much total running was left.

A couple of small worries nagged at me. To fully rest my legs I’d run very few miles in May, and I hoped I hadn’t lost any conditioning. And my feet had suffered from pain and blistering during my March 50-milers. Were they tough enough to go three times that distance?

The solution to such worries is to let them go, and trust the training. I’d run all winter and raced all spring, and the fine folks at Body Specs had kept my body in tune. Feeling restless on race day was a good sign.

Stage 1: Ludington to Chase (AS 5)

Hey, This is Fun

I soon caught up with Ruth and we chatted a few minutes while we ran. Despite several abdominal surgeries and leg issues, she’d completed 124 miles in last year’s race before having to drop with a physical issue. She was hoping to complete the entire distance this year. Man, if she had the determination to go the whole way, what would be my excuse? My pace was faster than hers, so I wished her good luck and moved on.

Once out of Ludington, I followed back roads toward AS 1 in Scottville. What a relief to switch from heavy, noisy traffic to quiet, shady dirt roads. With a crew stop every few miles, there was no need to carry extra clothes or food, just a handheld water bottle. I was running easy and light, and felt terrific. For those first ten miles there was nowhere else I wanted to be, and nothing else I wanted to be doing. It was that elusive, nirvana-like state that every distance runner hopes for and relishes when it happens.

Look! Race flags! (Actually not, but it was fun to think so.)

The next leg took me into the Huron-Manistee National Forest. When I arrived at AS 2, nothing was there yet except the sign. Thank goodness for my crew! Refueled, I ran several miles deep in the woods along double-wide dirt tracks. Some runners didn’t care for this stretch, but I enjoyed it. Except for the biting flies, which have an annoying habit of following you for a long time. (Hint to runners: Always wear a cap in the woods.)

Trouble Rears Its Hot Head

The heat hit on my way to AS 3 at Bowman Lake. I was back on paved roads in full sun, with the temperature already over 80 degrees. I ran through every shady spot, but I was really looking forward to cold water and a break. Except I couldn’t find the aid station, and my phone was acting up, refusing to dial my wife’s number.

Hot and frustrated, I finally got through and she patiently directed me to the correct spot. After I cooled down and refocused, we prepared for a long afternoon in serious heat. I got slathered in sunscreen. I took a hand towel and soaked it in ice water, then tucked it under my cap. This would keep my head cool and protect my ears from the sun, too. It would prove essential to surviving the heat on both days. The next leg to Baldwin and AS 4, while not exactly comfortable, were bearable.

Chilling out at a crew stop.

Competitive Pressure

I jogged into Baldwin and the head of the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail, the course for the next eighty miles. A gravel path with no shade stretched into the hazy distance. I soaked my head several times with ice water and took salt tablets before leaving the aid station.

It’s not all like this…but much of the early part was. (From the Eye on Michigan website.)

As I walked toward the trail, two other runners came in. One was on the relay team, and the other, a fellow named Dean, was running solo. “I was hoping to catch up to you!” he said as we shook hands. I congratulated him and then headed down the trail.

I was a bit disappointed, but not surprised. I hadn’t expected to win the race, and was pretty pleased I’d held onto the lead this long. I checked my watch; just past mile 38. Let me lead until mile 40, I told myself, and picked up my pace a bit. It gave me something to focus on other than the long, hot trail.

When my watch read mile 40, I took a walk break and relaxed. It was a moral victory, but better than nothing! Then I dared to look behind me – and saw nobody. Surprising, but maybe he took a long break.

I’d asked my crew to change from five-mile stops to three miles due to the heat, so I had two stops before AS 5. At the second, Dean’s crew truck was also there – and there was Dean! Where did he come from? Okay, I thought as I headed back out, this is where he passes me for good. After a half mile or so, hearing no approaching footsteps, I looked back – and again, saw nobody.

I got to AS 5 at Chase and took my planned 30-minute break, stretching, foam rolling, eating, and enjoying the time off my feet and out of my shoes. We chatted with Dean’s crew, and kept an eye out for him. But by the time I got up to move on, he hadn’t arrived. We were all a bit concerned, but I had a race to run. One stage complete!

Leaving the Chase aid station. 50 miles done!

Stage 2: Chase to Loomis (AS 10)

There Will a Be a Brief Pause for Nostalgia

On my way to AS 6 at Hersey I passed through Reed City, and had a flashback moment where the Pere Marquette Trail intersected the White Pines Trail. At this spot in 2012, riding my bike from Ann Arbor to our campground in Empire, I’d turned north onto the White Pines, expecting an easy ride and instead getting an ordeal that, fortunately, ended with my safe arrival in Cadillac right at nightfall.

Looking down the White Pines trail. Ah, the memories!

The sun was on its way down this day too, finally. The temperature had cracked 90 degrees, so I walked quite a bit, running only in the shade or if I felt cool enough. This was not according to plan, but in an ultra, conditions dictate and the runner adapts. To use an Aikido analogy, the runner is Uke, who must fit with and follow the situation rather than direct it. So I did. After all, everyone else was running in the same conditions.

Impossible to Get Lost? Just Watch Me

On the way to Evart (AS 7) as it began to get dark, the temperature dropped and a cool breeze sprang up. Rejuvenated, I began running steadily again, enjoying the idea that I had a whole night of good running ahead.

Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me. At mile 68, someone was finally going to pass me. He was a relay runner, as impressed with my distance covered as I was with his pace. Soon he was out of sight. He wasn’t wearing a headlamp and it was getting dark fast, so I worried a bit about him. But this was a well-defined trail. No way to get lost, right?

Then the trail took an odd turn by some industrial buildings – and ended, seemingly – at a road intersection. In the light of my headlamp it looked like it might continue on the other side of the road. To my left was a paved path that also might be the trail, but there was no VM150 sign, and nothing in my turn-by-turn directions about this. After a few moments of indecision I turned left and hoped for some kind of confirmation.

The path ran parallel to the road and passed by an industrial area. There was no sign of the relay runner, or indication I was nearing Evart, or traffic, or anything else for that matter. I was all alone in God knows where.

I called my crew. They weren’t sure where I was either, but the relay crew was with them. Someone headed back along the trail to find me, and just as we worked out I was indeed on the correct path, I spotted him. We jogged into Evart together to applause and my effusive thanks.

Next up: The rest of that first night, what other runners encountered that night, and Sunday dawns wet, hot and humid. How did I, and the other runners, hold up? Read it here soon!