Category Archives: Ultramarathons

This is Fun? Damn Right!

A COUPLE OF MILES into last Sunday’s trail marathon, as I wound my way along the Potawatomi Trail, a low roar of excited babble came from across the lake to the right. The guy in front of me glanced in that direction.

“Sounds like the five-milers over there,” he said, referring to the shorter race that took a different path through the woods.

“Yeah,” I replied, “but they’re not having as much fun as we are.”

He agreed. “Got that right!” The morning was sunny and cool, and the Poto was in superb condition. Why settle for a measly five miles when you could run 26.2?

Saturday’s half marathon had been gray and bleak, with the wind off the lake driving most runners to warm places elsewhere for their afterglow. Working Zero Waste afterward, I shivered with the race staff and made liberal use of the heater in the volunteer tent.

No such issues on Sunday, the kind of day you’d want for a marathon, or any kind of run. Despite some fatigue from the half, I had good energy throughout. I finished slower than last year (which I’d run on fresh legs) but as I said, I was having fun.

So what exactly is “fun” about running four-plus hours up and down a trail?

I’m sure every trail runner would answer a bit differently, but “fun” and its synonyms are prevalent in our conversations. When someone says, “I nearly died out there. I couldn’t walk for a week. It was AWESOME,” we nod and make a note to look up that race.

This couple shows the joy on Sunday. (Photo from Frog Prince Studios.)

For me last weekend, enjoyment came with “being present” in the event, where outside thoughts and worries slipped away and my world shrank to the race and the trail. Hard effort, discomfort and pain mixed with runner’s high and feeling of accomplishment. The scary thrill of nearly losing control on steep downhills. Encouraging shouts from volunteers and spectators. Sweat-soaked PB&J and cookies in sticky hands. Exchanges of “Good job!” as I pass and get passed by other runners. A surge of adrenaline cresting the final rise and seeing the finish line, sprinting the final hundred yards, and capping it off with a somersault just for the hell of it.

Cruising along the back half of the loop.

Trail Marathon Weekend remains among my favorite events. I like going to new locations and rarely repeat a trail race, but every year I go to the Poto. It’s local and low-key, with, to me, a “just right” mix of smooth running and difficult climbs and descents. Not overly rocky or rooty either, though there are places that require careful footwork. You can spot them by my face prints in the dirt.

TMW also scratches a particular itch I have to push my limits. You mean I can run both the half on Saturday and the full marathon or 50K on Sunday? And it’s called the “No Wimps” option? You sadists! Where do I sign up? (You can read here about how I graduated to this from the 5-miler.) This year I even ran an “ultra half” which you get by missing a turn and running 14 miles instead of 13.1. (I’m thinking of suggesting this become an official category.)

And the marathon has a special award, the Rogucki Trophy, for the top finisher age 50 and older. Each year the male and female winners get their names and finish times put on the trophy. As the 2017 Rogucki winner, I had a title to defend, which reason would argue for resting on Saturday instead of doing No Wimps. Reason lost. (It usually does with races.)

Nearly as famous as the Stanley Cup!

So did I successfully defend my Rogucki title this year?

My name added for 2017 (bottom left).

Well, no. Two guys in the 50-54 age group smoked me like a pork butt. The winner finished second overall in 3 hours 35 minutes, a time I wasn’t going to touch even with a month of rest and an IV line of espresso. And that’s just fine with me. Frankly, I was stressing a bit too much about it. With the pressure off, I can enjoy that I won it once, and have that much more fun next year.

And, BTW, our Zero Waste effort rocked again, with reduced overall waste and a 97 percent landfill diversion rate. That’s three straight years of winning that no one can take away!

The Sunday morning Zero Waste crew – a gaggle of Girl Scouts. They did great! I’m wearing my marathon and No Wimps medals. Wooden! Very sustainable!

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Once More Around the Block, and The Best Pacer Ever: 12 Hours at Dogwood

I clambered up a long, steady rise out of the trees onto a wide field of grass and sand. Up ahead I would cross a road and descend back onto the woods for the final part of the loop. The sky was dimming and a cold breeze had started up

“You’re doing GREAT!” a woman’s voice shouted.

I looked around but saw no one. Was I hearing things? I was over eleven hours into the Dogwood 12-Hour race, and the way I was feeling right then, anything was possible. I was giving all I had to get through this final loop and hold onto third place.

Then someone burst out of the trees behind me. . .

****************

The Dogwood is in the category of races measured by a fixed time, rather than a fixed distance. The most well-known is the 24-hour race, but there are shorter and faster varieties including 48 hours and even 72 hours.

These events usually take place on a short loop of road (such as one mile) or on a running track. Results are tracked by loops completed. Advantages include always having gear and refreshments close at hand, and relay team planning is simple, since each exchange takes place at the same point. Disadvantages include – well, sheer monotony – which is why I’d never run one. I like a variety of views and terrain in my ultras.

The Dogwood, however, caught my eye. I wanted an ultra around the end of March and the loop was on trail and decently long (3.4 miles). And it was in Virginia, meaning warmer weather and near where my daughter Tori lives. She even accepted my offer to pace me for a loop. Win!

I showed up at Twin Lakes State Park at 6:30 a.m. and was joined by a couple of relay teams and around 30 fellow solo runners suffering from the same condition – namely, that we find running all day something to look forward to.

I’d set a goal of 15 loops (50 miles) with an average 40 minutes per loop, which on paper would take ten hours. I would use the two remaining hours as cushion. Any extra loops would be gravy, and perhaps just enough to get into the top five.

Off we go.

We set off at 7:15, just as the sun was coming up over Godwin Lake. We ran along the shore for a bit, then up a gravel road and onto singletrack along rolling hills with a few long climbs and some fast downhills. There were a couple of stream crossings, which required nimble steps on the rocks to keep feet dry. Up to a road crossing, then back into the woods, one rooty section, then a final climb to the main park road for a downhill sprint to the finish. Quick stop at the aid station, then back out again.

I ran the first two loops with a nice chap named Alex. The morning was sunny and cool with soft, dry trail, absolutely perfect conditions for a race. My steps were light and easy, and the loops flew by. I lost track of him after that, and settled into running alone, maintaining an aggressive but sustainable pace.

Just as with the Land Between the Lakes 50, I felt terrific for the first third of the race. After five loops I was ahead of my goal pace. But I was beginning to feel subtle hints that things were going to get tougher. My legs were starting to complain on the downhills, and the bottoms of my heels were developing hot spots. I taped them more thoroughly and hoped for the best.

Finishing up an early loop.

My loop times began to slip, but I held onto the 40-minute average until loop 12, at which time I was told I was in second place! Perhaps I’d have been better off not knowing, because I struggled on loop 13, with my slowest time by far. My mind began suggesting that fifteen loops would be quite enough, thank you, regardless of any extra time. Breaking through that mental wall would take some effort, but I’d deal with that if and when I got there.

At the aid station, I met up with Alex again. Turned out he was the leader, one full loop ahead of me. He offered me his company for the next loop, and I set off with renewed energy. Unfortunately, the third-place runner (Corey) had also picked it up, and at the top of the gravel road he caught up to us. Both he and Alex were feeling stronger than I was, and on the trail they politely excused themselves and took off. Well, then, third place would have to do.

Trail runners are the best. They’ll smile and praise your effort while they blow your doors off.

Then, as I finished loop 14, there was Tori, all set to pace me for a loop. And so we ran loop 15 together. She’s a stronger hiker than a runner, but she gamely pushed through it. My one worry was that whoever was in fourth place would catch up. And about two-thirds of the way through the loop, someone ran by at a steady, deliberate speed.

Well, nuts. But what did it matter? A run with my daughter meant far more to me than a podium finish. And after this loop, with my 50 miles logged, I could quit! The clock read 10:30 as we came in. 90 minutes left, but with thoroughly fatigued legs and burning feet, I was happy to call it a race.

Just to be sure I wasn’t in podium contention, I checked with the scorer, who shook his head. “That guy who passed you is two loops behind,” he said. “You’re still in third.”

“So…I suppose I should get back out there,” I said, trying to sound upbeat about it. He agreed. “You’re looking strong!” Perhaps he was being kind, or perhaps I looked better than I felt, but he wasn’t helping me quit. Just one more, I promised myself. Just one more.

I pushed aside the physical and mental exhaustion and walked onto the sidewalk along the beach. Then, as with the previous fifteen loops, I began a slow jog. Final loop started; now just finish it.

I start one of the later loops. Photo courtesy of Dan’s wife, Luce( sp?).

By the clock I had plenty of time, but I still had no idea where the fourth-place runner was. So I ran it scared, at as quick a pace as I could muster. If I had to run this final lap when I’d already mentally checked out, then dammit, I needed something to show for it!

Then, more than halfway though, I heard the voice from nowhere. And as I crossed the road, ready to let it go as a mystery, someone came out of the rise and ran toward me. Fast. Smiling.

*************

He was a kid, perhaps ten years old. Behind him came a woman I assumed to be his mother. Obviously her shout had been meant for him, not me. Such was my mental state that I checked them for race bibs! Seeing none, I finally relaxed and focused on just getting through the remaining mile. Loop 16 and 54.5 miles completed in 11 hours, 23 minutes. Fourth place was 14 loops. I needn’t have worried.

Podium: Me with Alex (left) and Corey (right), who are helping keep me vertical.

The bonk hit me fast and hard as soon as I’d finished. Sitting didn’t help, so I lay on the ground. Alex and Corey, bless them, looked after me and helped me stand back up at awards time. For my third-place finish I got a bottle of Tiramisu Stout. Tori and I split it. She helped, after all.

Best pacer ever!

This was a small race but really well run and a lot of fun. More people should do this one; it’s a hidden gem among ultras. Dan, the race director, is hoping to turn it into a 24-hour race in the future, which may well make it more visible and popular. I hope so.

Taking Some Self

My first ultra of the year is just a couple of days away, and I’m training for it in the most sensible manner – resting up and eating a lot.

This is not as easy as it sounds.

Having trained hard all winter, it seems unnatural to hit the brakes, even when it’s logical and my body is telling me I need the rest. My coach set me straight. “The hay’s in the barn for this race,” he said. “Pushing yourself now will do no good and could get you hurt.”

So I took some self. I cancelled most of my Body Specs gym sessions and forced myself to take several days completely off. Naturally, it was warm and sunny those days. Sigh. Land Between the Lakes, you’d better be worth it.

I also indulged in a little mental self – as in self-reflection, in particular what it is about ultramarathons that makes me want to keep running them. My thoughts went back a few years to when my wife was bringing my brother up to date on my latest ultrarunning escapade. I forget which one. At any rate, Doug didn’t seem overly impressed.

“Does he enjoy torturing himself like that?” he asked her.

He had a point.

No, I don’t care so much for the pain and discomfort. Or the grind and tedium of the continuous hours of running. Or the mud, bugs, rocks, thorns, and other features of the trail.

But all that is part of the deal. An ultra is a spectrum of highs and lows, excitement and monotony, euphoria and pain, all experienced individually and yet blended into a complete entity I find highly satisfying. All of it, every sensation and emotion, contributes its part and would be missed if absent.

For a rough analogy, try Vietnamese coffee sometime. Espresso + condensed milk = bittersweet magic.

But the satisfaction stems from more than the event. The race is the cashing in of an investment I began months, even years, before the gun goes off. It’s the culmination of all my training, and planning, and the anticipation that motivated me to sign up and get to the starting line. Running the race is the manifestation of all that work, and the medal, or belt buckle, or whatever, represents all of it, not just that I crossed the finish line.

Or in this case, a small copper kettle. Was it worth running 28+ hours for? Yep.

So is racing the reason why I run? I don’t think so. I enjoy running for its own sake, and for the social aspects, and its physical benefits. I don’t need an upcoming race to get me out of bed and off to run club on Saturday mornings, or to toss on one more layer and go out for six miles in the snow. That’s all just part of my life now.

Ultrarunning taps into something deeper within me, an urge to push outside of my normally comfortable life and prove something to myself. Races, and the training for them, are a self-test of my limits. You won’t find me BASE jumping or climbing mountains in Antarctica; I don’t need to defy death to feel alive. But running ultras are times when I feel particularly alive, and in the moment. And that’s special.

Now it’s time to take self to bed. Need my sleep. Big day Saturday!

NOTE: I have Microsoft to thank for the Millennial-style post title. When I saved the first draft, Word used part of my initial sentence as the file name, and may have inadvertently created a new catch phrase. “Taking some self” just crushes. I’m so on fleek!

Spring 2018 Races: A Season of Firsts

I’M DEEP IN IT NOW.

In my first post of 2018 I hinted about my planned races for the year. Since then I’ve discussed options with my coach, made my selections, and signed up. I’m committed for the next several months! (Many of you think I should have been committed years ago, but here we are.)

So without further ado, here are my upcoming spring races:

  1. Land Between the Lakes 50-miler: March 10

This will be my first race in Kentucky. I’m heading down there with a group of local runners who will be doing a bunch of different distances, including the only 60K race I know of. But naturally, I had to sign up for the longest option. You’ll see why below.

One challenge may well be the weather. As the race is still technically in winter, anything can happen. According to the website, last year’s race began with a “beautiful snow shower.” So as long as I pack all the running clothes and gear I own, I’ll be fine.

  1. Dogwood 12-Hour Race: March 31

This will be my first race based on time duration rather than distance. I had two motivations to choose this one. First, it will be a good test of my patience running a loop over and over. Fortunately, it will be a 3.5 mile trail loop instead of an insipid one-mile road loop, or, God forbid, a quarter-mile running track. The other reason is that it’s close to where my daughter Tori lives, and she’s planning to come out on race day and run a loop with me.

One other cool feature: the race is cupless, and runners will need to bring their own containers for hot and cold liquids. (At least I find it cool.)

  1. Trail Marathon Weekend, April 28-29: No Wimps, Baby!

This is the race that began my love affair with trail running. After several years of doing the fast & furious 5-miler, I graduated to the No Wimps challenge: the half marathon on Saturday, and a full marathon or 50K on Sunday.

2015, after the 50K finish.. two days, 44 miles, three medals!

In 2016 and 2017, as I got the Zero Waste program established, I contented myself with just the Sunday marathon. But with the program now firmly in place, I’m returning to the No Wimps for 2018. Back-to-back long runs are excellent training for – well, see below.

So what’s the “first” here? It will be the first time I’ve done the “No Wimps” combo of half marathon Saturday, then full marathon Sunday. I’ve done the half/50K combo, but not this one yet. And I’ll have the additional challenge of trying to defend my 2017 Rogucki title (1st in the marathon age 50+).

And now, the Big One. . .

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  1. Veterans Memorial 150: May 26-28

So after I finished the Lighthouse 100 last year, I promised my wife I wasn’t going to do a 200-miler. At least not anytime soon. But I didn’t say anything about 150 miles.

Actually, I didn’t even know this race existed until late last year, when someone in a Facebook running group I belong to mentioned he’d signed up for it. It’s for a good cause, and it’s in Michigan. How could I turn that down?

This will have several firsts; in addition to the distance, it will be the first race where I’ll have a crew, and the first where I’ll have pacers. God help them all.

More about this race, why I signed up, and how I’m training for it, in future posts.

But wait, there’s still more…

So much for the traditional races this year! In the second half I’ve got some really far-out stuff lined up. Stay tuned – I’ll tell you all about it coming up!