Category Archives: Ultramarathons

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!

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Veterans Memorial 150: How Did This Happen?

I RAN 150 MILES FOR THIS HERE DOUGHNUT.

I’d just run the Veterans Memorial 150 from Ludington to Bay City, and the iconic Cops & Doughnuts is a sponsor of the race. So naturally I had to stop in and thank them for their support. I bought a bunch of their ginormous cookies, but I got this doughnut for free.

How come? It’s my trophy.

Because I. Won. The. Freaking. Race.

First overall.

VM150 2018 results

Click the image if you’d like to see the full results.

151 miles in 40 hours, 6 minutes, over two days of brutal heat that dropped half the field on Saturday, and many of the rest on Sunday. Ten runners made it to the one hundred-mile mark, and only four (including yours truly) went the entire distance.

I had other “firsts” too. It was my first race over one hundred miles, and the first race where I had a crew and pacers. And yet somehow, some way, it all came together. I’m still finding it hard to believe.

As there’s a lot to share about my experience, I’ll dedicate several posts to it. In this first post, I’ll tell you why I chose the race, trained for it, and planned it. Next, I’ll recap the race itself. Then I’ll talk about the factors essential to my finishing, and winning – what steps I took to prepare, how I dealt with foot issues, and how I handled the heat. And I’ll ask my crew and pacers to chime in with their thoughts and experiences, too.

So here we go!

What’s the VM150, and why did I sign up?

The Veterans Memorial Honor Run is a 150-mile jaunt from Ludington to Bay City – Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. Taking place over the Memorial Day weekend, it is also a fundraiser for Victory Gym, a nonprofit that offers free membership to veterans and first responders, and supports people dealing with PTSD and its effects.

Exercise has been shown to help alleviate PTSD symptoms, and the gym was founded by a veteran who discovered its benefits and wanted to help others. Both the unusual distance and the wonderful cause attracted me to the race, and not too long after I found out about it, I took a deep breath and signed up.

The Course: Lake Michigan to Lake Huron

For such a long race, the general directions were quite simple:

  1. Go to Ludington Pier, face east, and start running.
  2. Stop running at Bay City State Park.

For a really cool animation of traveling the course created by a fellow race finisher, click the image of the video.

Over half the race (81 miles from Baldwin to Midland) takes place along the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail. It’s very difficult to get lost on this stretch, although I nearly succeeded once. The final 23 miles out of Midland are on open roads, so I drove it a few weeks before to get familiar with that stretch, as I figured I’d be running it in the dark.

How to Train for a 150-Miler, Summary Edition

My training followed the same basic plan as for my 100-milers the past two years; strength train and run all winter, and warm up to the distance with spring ultras.

The fine folks at Body Specs did their part, pushing me hard three days per week. They worked my entire body, with a special focus on the muscles that support running – glutes, hamstrings, and core. I did a ton of squats, lunges, crunches, and resistance training.

My spring ultras were the Land Between the Lakes 50 (a PR!), the Dogwood 12 Hour (54.5 miles, 3rd place finish), and Trail Marathon Weekend (the “No Wimps” half + full marathon). In between ultras, I recovered, and never ran more than 35 miles per week.

Unorthodox? Yep. But I’d successfully used this routine for my 100 mile races, so I knew it would prepare me physically. But mentally, running 5-6 days per week would have been tedious and non-motivating. With no sponsors and nothing to prove except to myself, I wanted to enjoy the journey to the big event. Otherwise, what was the point?

Recruiting Crew and Pacers: Otherwise Rational People Agree to Support This Crazy Adventure

Last year’s Lighthouse 100 taught me the value of a crew. I ran that race unsupported in 95-degree heat, with aid stations ten miles apart. The result was a bonk and near-DNF until I was rescued by another runner’s crew. The VM150 aid stations also average about ten miles apart, so a crew of my own would be essential.

My wife volunteered for the job, as did my good friends Dave and Sue. As they’d never crewed before or witnessed an ultra in progress, I gave them plenty of warning and time to change their minds. I advised them that CREW stood for, “Cranky Runner, Endless Waiting” and the race would consume their entire weekend, when by all rights they should be sitting comfortably at our campground with cold drinks. They stuck to their guns, and I accepted with a mix of gratitude and concern. I would need to give them a lot of information and instruction for things to go well.

I would also need pacers. I figured by late Sunday I would be pretty tired, and running the final miles on open roads in the dark was not an attractive prospect solo. If nothing else, a pacer would keep me pointed in the right direction and save me from becoming a traffic hazard. My running coach Paul and his wife Colleen offered their services, as did my friend Charlie from Body Specs.

So I had a team. Now what I needed was . . .

My Liege, I Have a Plan (click for reference)

First and foremost, I needed a schedule, so my crew could plan their stops and my pacers knew where to find me. I created a spreadsheet detailing my expected arrival and departure times at each aid station. At 50 and 100 miles I put in an extended break to rest, stretch, and change clothing and gear as needed.

I’d finished Lighthouse in 24 hours despite my near bonk, so I figured I could cover the first 100 miles at VM150 in the same time. This could be done with 11-minute miles for the first 50, and 13-15 minute miles from there to 100. I figured I’d be walking most of the final 50, which put my total race time around 45 hours, finishing near dawn on Monday morning.

I thought this was a conservative schedule, but I found I would arrive at many of the aid stations before they were scheduled to open! Not a problem since I had a crew, but curious. Wouldn’t many other runners be in the same situation?

Gear and Equipment

Next I created a packing list for clothes and gear, first-aid and personal care equipment, and food and drink. I packed them into separate and easily identifiable boxes so an item I needed could be found quickly.

Dave and Sue offered their custom van for the crew vehicle, which had plenty of room for all my supplies, plus a bed if I needed to lie down, and even a toilet. In terms of an ultra, this was real luxury. And no need to pack drop bags and guess which aid stations to send them to!

You can see my complete packing list below.

What to Wear? What to Wear?

With warm weather forecasted, the basics were easy. Shorts, shirt, compression underwear to prevent chafing, and lightweight socks. I packed spares of each, along with a light rain cover and a jacket. A light-colored cap was a necessity, as was a hand towel to dry myself or soak in ice water to stay cool.

For shoes I used my Saucony Kinvara 9s, with my Saucony Ride ISO and New Balance for backups. As a sock change can refresh sore feet, I packed six pairs. A basic belt held my phone and a Gu, and I used a handheld water bottle. With a crew close at hand, I could save the weight of extra food and fluids I would otherwise have to carry.

Food and Drink: The Ultra Diet

Here’s how you select food and drink for an ultra: Go to the grocery store and pull stuff off the shelves at random. Once home, sort out the items with fiber or any nutritional value whatever. Throw those away. Pack what remains.

A typical ultrarunner will burn between 400-600 calories per hour during a race, but can only replace about half that. Too much food, or heavy food, will stick in the gut and cause much unpleasantness.

Humans have tens of thousands of calories in fat stores, so there’s no danger of actual starvation. The trick is to prevent the body going into calorie conservation mode. Easy to digest foods with lots of carbs work best for most runners, with a small amount of protein and fats to help prevent muscle breakdown.

I stuck with the tried and true for me: PB&J on white bread, pretzels and pickles for salt, bananas and red grapes, and cookies and M&Ms for obvious reasons. Clif bars and chewy granola bars were handy items to “grab and go” and Gu packets give me a quick shot of energy if I’m not feeling up to eating at the time.

Water was my main drink. I used S-Cap tablets for electrolytes, supplementing with Gatorade. I also included iced tea, and Vernors, which provides sugar and settles my stomach.

Finally, ice would be key. It promised to be a warm weekend, so I’d need a lot to stay cool. Plus during any ultra I like my drinks to be ice-cold. Warm Gatorade in particular is no fun to drink.

The Night Before

We loaded up the van and drove to Beverly Ludington Friday evening. For a pre-race dinner I like something simple but not greasy. This time I had a grilled chicken sandwich and chips, which pleasantly filled me. I didn’t feel the need to “carbo load” as the course wouldn’t be strenuous and I’d have a crew nearby.

To our pleasant surprise, our motel had a beautiful Buddhist-style garden and koi pond, perfect for settling the mind and getting into the moment. I felt a sense of release very much like the start of my first marathon. All the training and preparation was done, and the stage was set. All that remained was to show up Saturday morning and run.

Up next: How did the race go? What went according to plan, and what didn’t? And what did some other runners see on the trail that first night? “Bear” with me to find out!

Veterans Memorial: A Long Run for a Good Cause (and would you help?)

IT ALL HAPPENS THIS WEEKEND.

My big race for 2018, the Veterans Memorial, is just a few days away. Starting Saturday in Ludington, it ends Monday in Bay City, a 150-mile route from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. My fellow uber-nuts ultrarunners and I have 52 hours to complete it.

This is my first event of more than 100 miles. I have no idea how the final 50 will go, but you can bet I’m going to give it my best. I’ll have a great crew and pacers to support me, and I’ve trained for it all winter and spring, which included two 50-milers and a “trail marathon and a half” weekend. I’m as ready as I know how to be!

If you’d like to follow my progress, I’ve been told that runner updates will be posted on the Veterans Memorial 150 – VM150 Facebook page. Or, if I feel up to it, I will (oh, God) tweet updates. See handle @RunBikeThrow.

But this post isn’t just about me and my crazy running goals. I want to tell you about the fantastic nonprofit the race is fundraising for, and hopefully persuade you to help them out.

In addition to a real test of physical and mental endurance, the VM150 is raising money for Victory Gym, a veteran-owned nonprofit geared to serving military personnel and first responders. Veteran Mike Emory founded Victory Gym to provide a healthy outlet for those suffering the effects of PTSD, after he discovered how exercise helped him. Before I ran the race I wanted to see the place for myself, so today I went there.

I walked in and explained I was running this weekend, and was quickly introduced to Mike Troutt, their Chief Operations Officer. He will be part of the aid station support team for the race. “Just look for the RV or a big black Harley,” he told me.

Mike’s shirt says, “When life knocks you down, calmly get up, smile, and say, ‘You hit like a bitch.'” I’d say that motto fits him well.

Mike is a 17-year Army veteran, who also spent several years as a smoke jumper, and as part of the disaster response NGO Team Rubicon. Now retired, he spends 80 to 100 hours per week working at Victory Gym. His dedication to helping others, and his passion for the gym and its mission, was evident from the moment I met him.

Victory Gym offers a lot of benefits to veterans and first responders; free membership, a place to hang out with fellow vets, and regular support group meetings for those dealing with the effects of PTSD. Mike admitted to struggling with PTSD himself, and choked up a bit when describing how the gym has helped him and others.

The lounge provides a place for vets to hang out and share stories. On the back wall is a memorial to deceased veterans.

The gym is open every day starting at 7 a.m. While its focus is on veterans and first responders, membership is open to anyone, and Mike said about 40 percent of their members are civilians, who pay $15.00 per month. They also let local youth exercise there in exchange for chores, such as mowing the grass.

But the gym itself is just part of what they do. Part of their building is going to be a wood shop for people who like to work with their hands but aren’t big fans of working out. And they hold regular PTSD support group meetings.

With so little revenue from membership fees, Victory Gym relies heavily on donations of money and equipment. If you’re sufficiently moved by this post to help out, please go to the race website, www.vm150.com, and select the “Gear & Donate” link. You can buy shirts, donate directly, or “buy miles” for a runner. My name (Jeff Jackson) is on the lower pulldown list. All proceeds will go directly to the gym.

Well, I guess all that’s left to say is to wish me luck. But I’m looking forward to this weekend. Should be quite the adventure! If I survive it, I promise you’ll hear all about it in this space.

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!