Tag Archives: night running

Lighthouse 100 Recap, Part 2: The Long Night of the Sole

When last we left off, I had resumed my attempt to complete the Lighthouse 100 at mile 65 after coming within minutes of dropping out. A wonderful lady named Laura, crewing for another runner, had helped me recover enough to continue and said she’d see me again in 2.5 miles…

I made it the two and a half miles. It was a slog, but I was in good company. The wind was blowing so hard in our faces that running was a futile waste of energy. Laura was waiting for me. “How do you feel?” she asked.

I wasn’t well, but feeling better than I had. The Gatorade had revived me. And the sun and wind, having wreaked their havoc, had high-fived each other and were getting ready to call it a day.

“I think I can do this,” I told her.

“You can do this,” she replied firmly.

And with that, I was on my way again.

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Aid stations 5 and 6 had been pretty quiet, with runners straggling in one or two at a time. AS7 was busy with staff and crew tending to runners taking an extended rest and dealing with injuries and stomach issues. Ultrarunners are generally stoic when asked how they are doing. I heard a couple respond, “Not good,” which meant they were really suffering.

By contrast, I was starting to feel like myself again. I found Laura and thanked her profusely for her assistance, and said I could go on by myself. Then I called my wife to let her know I’d be mostly walking the last thirty miles. I calculated to my surprise that even at walking pace, I still had a shot at finishing in 24 hours. So she could meet me at the lighthouse around 6 a.m., just like we’d originally planned.

Thanks again, Laura!

It was just starting to get dark as I stepped onto the TART trail to begin the remaining ten miles to downtown Traverse City and the turn north up the peninsula.

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When you gotta go, you gotta go. – Common knowledge

It’s amazing how the mind can focus on a single subject, regardless of how one tries to suppress or divert it. Such was my case as I reached the suburbs of Traverse City. I needed to attend to a certain bodily function. Peeing in the woods is standard for ultrarunners, but number two, not so much.

Some runners don’t mind playing “bear in the woods” but I prefer an actual restroom, and I’d forgotten to bring along toilet paper anyway. The race organizers had not arranged for porta-potties because, we’d been told, there were gas stations and other places with toilets along the route. While true, their frequency did not meet expectations. And two factors complicated the issue; it was the middle of the night, and the trail ran along residential and industrial neighborhoods.

For several miles I carried on, hope rising when I saw lights ahead only to face disappointment when their source was either not open, or inappropriate (for example, the Burger King drive-thru). Civilization was everywhere, but – let’s just say the famous Rime of the Ancient Mariner quote came to mind.

Finally the trail reached a road with a Speedway station a few hundred yards away. My physical and mental relief belied description.

The salvation station!

And my stop provided an unexpected benefit, for as I rejoined the trail I met up with five other runners. For the next fifteen miles we walked and jogged together, providing support and companionship very welcome on a dark trail late in the race.

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When you’re going through hell, keep going. – Winston Churchill

“Do anybody else’s feet hurt as much as mine do?” Joe asked.

Our group had just left AS8 (Mile 80) and we had turned north at last, up the Old Mission Peninsula. The night hadn’t lowered the temperature much, but at least the wind was now at our backs.

Our unanimous answer to Joe’s question was, of course, yes. In a 100-mile race, every runner has sore feet by this point. Anyone who says otherwise is, to put it politely, a lying bastard. This was Joe’s first 100, so he was forgiven for thinking he was a weakling when in fact he was anything but.

There is Absolutely Nothing that fully prepares you for your first 100-miler. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve trained or how tough you think you are. It will push you physically and mentally well beyond whatever your limits were before. Just finishing, even five seconds before the cutoff, is an accomplishment well worth celebrating. And if you fall short? No shame. Lick your wounds, learn from it, and git ‘er done next time.

I didn’t know it when I took this photo, but I think this refers to the same Joe.

And for many runners it’s the first time they’ve run through the night. This can be intimidating and for some, claustrophobic. It’s hard to see very far, nothing looks familiar, and every noise is amplified (was that a raccoon, or a mountain lion?). Distances stretch out; one mile can seem like five. And even on clearly marked routes, an uneasiness sits in the back of the mind. Am I lost? How come I haven’t seen other runners? Where’s that damn aid station?

I usually enjoy night running, even solo, but I was very grateful for the company this time. I think we all were. For we all kept going, despite the pain, the lack of anything interesting to see, and that we still had many miles to go. We bitched and moaned, but we kept putting one foot in front of the other. Misery not only loves company, it needed company at that point. We broke up as the aid station approached, but we’d given each other the support we needed to get through the worst part.

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All good things must come to an end.  – Wait, how does this apply here?

“You’re flirting with the top 10,” Dave the race director told me as I settled into a chair at the mile 91 aid station.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “I melted down back there.” And so had everyone else, apparently. Only two runners had finished under 20 hours, and only a few more were ahead of me. My energy had returned around mile 85 and I’d been able to start running again. I’d passed a few people and was ahead of the group I’d been walking with.

“To hell with the top ten,” I said. “I’ve been looking forward to this chair for eleven miles, and I’m sitting in it a while.” And I did, chatting with the race staff and sipping iced Vernors. Almost heaven at that point.

When I finally stood up and jogged out of the aid station, an amazing thing had happened. The stomach trouble I’d had since early on was gone, my legs felt good, and I was full of energy. To top it off, there was a long downhill stretch ahead. Go time!

I went from a jog into a full steady run and held it. The course continued on downhill and then onto a gently curving road with hardly any intersections or residences. No one was visible either ahead or behind, adding spookiness to the dark, lonely Smokey Hollow Road – which sounded enough like “Sleepy Hollow” to do the trick.

Light finally appeared in the sky, and I emerged onto an open road and one of the final turns. I was almost home! But oops – the turn-by-turn directions I was carrying were wrong, indicating a right turn where going straight was correct. I spent 10-15 frustrating minutes figuring this out, but finally I saw the mile 95 water jug up ahead and just past that, the final turn onto US 27 leading straight to the lighthouse.

I covered the final miles in good time, and with no one around me, could enjoy them with no competitive pressures. I got to the lighthouse and crossed the finish line in 23 hours 53 minutes. And there was Joe! Sore feet and all, he’d finished the race and beaten me by over a half hour.

Even with the wrong turn mixup, I’d achieved my original goal of under 24 hours, and even won the male Masters division! Of course, the real accomplishment was finishing, given how close I’d come to dropping. Being able to come back from such a low point and finish strong tapped into a reserve I hadn’t known was there. What a great takeaway from the experience.

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I’ll wrap up with a brief race review. Based on my story you might not believe this, but I’m going to recommend the Lighthouse 100 to my fellow ultrarunners. As with the first edition of any race it had challenges, but this event has the potential to become a classic.

The course is well marked and has some beautiful sections. The long stretches on US-31 and Elk Lake Road were hot and miserable, and I hope they can find alternative routes. Aid stations were okay, but did not have as much substantial food as other ultras I’ve run, and that plus the ten-mile separations were tough on the uncrewed runners.

I give the race director and his staff full marks for effort and attitude. They were on the course the entire time we were and remained supportive and upbeat. There was also a lot of communication and opportunities to ask questions before the race. They wanted very much to provide a great experience. The weather threw a monkey wrench into the works, but they had no control over that, of course.

Some changes for next year have already been announced. The biggest is the reversal of the course, a great idea that will allow running the Old Mission Peninsula in daylight and to finish in Petoskey, where it’s a quick trip to your hotel or a restaurant instead of a long shuttle ride back. And by popular demand, porta-potties will be at the aid stations.

I think next year’s Lighthouse races will be much improved and definitely worth considering for ultrarunners who enjoy, or want to check out, northern Michigan..

Thanks for reading!

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Run Woodstock Part Deux: Shutting the Brain Off

Ninety percent of this game is mental, and the other half is physical. – Yogi Berra

Training for my first marathon four years ago, I ran 16 miles along the back roads from Honor, Michigan to Beulah and Benzonia, then back. It was a pretty route, but by mile 13 I was sick and tired of running it. Not physically exhausted, but mentally.

Three miles still to go, the little voice in my head said. That’s practically forever.

There was no shortcut back to my car, so I had to stick it out. It helped that I’d strategically parked at an ice cream shop. But I was pretty discouraged. In two months I have to run this and ten more, the voice said. Given this run, how am I gonna do that?

Shirt-Running Sucks - 2

The answer was to do more long runs to get the mind used to that distance. And after making some basic adjustments, such as conceptually breaking up long runs into manageable segments, I had no more trouble with self-doubts.

First 2 miles in. Just 30 more of those to go!

First 2 miles in. Just 30 more of those to go!

With that level of mental discipline I got through my first marathon, first 50K ultra in 2012, and first 50-miler in 2013, so I figured I would be okay for the 100K in 2014. Instead, I hit several mental challenges that I was unable to overcome:

Empty Tank of PatienceDistance stretching. Four miles (the distances between aid stations at Woodstock) are short hops on the road, but on singletrack that same distance seems doubled. Distances also stretch out in the dark, so trail running at night called for a full tank of patience. Instead, it was one of the first things I ran short on.

The worst was the section leading to the second aid station. During my second loop it seemed like I would never get there. When I finally did, all I could think about was having to do it twice more. My attitude had soured, and I was no longer having fun – a bad sign on an ultra run.

I thought so!

I thought so!

Pain management. Sore feet and chafing got worse as the night wore on. By the third loop the Body Glide wasn’t working and I was constantly adjusting my shorts, without much relief. More pain came from tripping on roots and rocks, and from branches in the trail that stung my ankles. I dealt with this increasing discomfort by getting more and more frustrated.

Bonking. When inadequate hydration and electrolyte management caught up with me, I didn’t have the focus to work through the nausea and correct the imbalances, and allow myself to recover. Despite having plenty of time to rest and still finish the race, I dropped out at the 56K mark, done in by a combination of things, but above all, insufficient mental discipline.

Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

Yeah, those tabs pretty much covered it.

Over the subsequent year I fixed the bonking problem, but as Woodstock 2015 approached I still worried that I needed a way to handle the mental challenge of those loops in the dark. Help came from an unexpected and last-minute source.

The night before the race I went to a local runner’s clinic on handling long runs. Most of the advice I’d heard before, but one comment stood out: the need to shut the brain off.

Not completely, naturally; a trail run requires being alert to the course and your physical condition at all times. What needs shutting off is the mental chatter – the continuous stream of trivial thoughts, especially the negative self talk and worries. So I would work on getting into a “zone” – a disciplined, quiet mind, at peace with itself and living entirely in the moment. Here’s how I applied it.

One flag at a time.

How do you finish 100K? One flag at a time.

– I created a mantra for myself: Focus on the trail in front of you. The milestones will come. Every time I began to fret about how much distance I had left, I silently repeated this mantra and I would settle back into the zone.

– During the stretches when the aid station seemed light-years away, I would remind myself, It’s really not that far. It just seems longer. I even used it when I passed a runner on that interminable second segment. “Man, they must have moved the aid station,” he said. I assured him out loud what I’d been telling myself silently.

– When I tripped over roots or rocks I told myself firmly that it was over and in the past. Then I’d forget about it. If that didn’t work I would stop and walk until I returned to the zone. Running is a happy activity for me; I would not run angry.

– When pain came in my feet, legs, or shoulder, I did not fight it. I acknowledged it was there, embraced it as part of the experience, and let it go.

– Staying hydrated and salted kept me on an even keel. I had no nausea or swings of equilibrium to deal with. But just in case, I was prepared this time to deal with it. As I overheard one pacer telling his runner, “You’re not having a bad race. You’re having a bad moment. You will get through it.”

marathon-sticker

The results exceeded my highest expectations. I stayed in a steady, positive mental state throughout the race. And one week later I’m still on that high. Maybe I should do this more often?

Make More Mistakes

Woodstock 100K: The Thrill of Victory, and the Agony of De Feet

MY FIRST EVER 100K FINISH!

I finished in the dark, so my starting line photo will have to do!

I finished in the dark, so my starting line photo will have to do!

Run Woodstock, “a weekend of peace, love, music and running,” has become my favorite annual event. Despite some brutal conditions over the years, including swamp-like trails, thunderstorms, and falling trees, it’s always a laid-back and joyful atmosphere. Out on the trails the runners encourage each other throughout, and the campers cheer on the runners as they finish each stage.

Approaching Finish Line 2

Woodstock 2013 - camp

The course is a roughly 16-mile loop through the Pinckney trails, with some dirt roads, and four aid stations. The 50K race is two loops, 50 miles three, 100K four, and 100 miles six. Severe chafing, 90+ degree heat, and dehydration did me in at the 56K mark last year, but with July’s success at the sweltering Voyageur Trail 50, I felt ready to stuff that DNF into the compost heap of history. (*)

This year the trails were nearly perfect, the temperature was in the sixties, and the threatened rain held off. We were off at 4 p.m. Friday. My main goal was just to finish, but I set a stretch goal of under 14 hours so I could watch the start of the 50K and 50 mile races at 6 a.m. Saturday. To give myself the best shot, I chose a strategy that went against a couple of the classic adages of ultrarunning:

Adage #1: Start out slow. If you think you’re starting out too slowly, slow down some more.

Pace too fast 2

Not this time. The loops in the dark would be slower anyway, so  I wanted to get in as much distance as I could before sunset in 4 hours. Also, starting in the back would stick me in a conga line on the singletrack for awhile. So I went to the front and got in those first few miles at my own pace. I finished the first 50K in 6 hours, giving me some cushion for the 14-hour goal.

Adage #2: Carry extra food and water. Also some extra gear if needed.

With a cool evening, and well-stocked aid stations only four miles apart, I eschewed (**) my backpack and relied on one handheld water bottle, with salt tablets in my belt pouch. I kept a Clif bar in my other hand for eating on the trail. I had a moment of regret when it started raining on loop 2 with my rain shell in the pack 12 miles away. But Nature was merciful and the rain lasted only 15 minutes.

On the other hand, I've been wet before!

On the other hand, I’ve been wet before!

Some critical rules I did NOT break:

Adage #3: When running in the dark, carry more than one light. I had a fully charged headlamp, but partway through my final loop it began to fail. I had another one at the aid station just 4 miles away, but getting there would take nearly an hour. So I switched to the small flashlight I carried with me and got there safely.

This is a trail at night with no headlamp. Good luck!

This is a trail at night with no headlamp. Good luck!

Adage #4: Stay on top of hydration, salt, and sugar. As at the Voyageur, I made sure I took in 600-800 mg of salt every hour. At first I relied on S-Caps, but as the temperature dropped I switched to chicken soup at the aid stations. Mmm-mm-good! For food, I carried Clif Bars and supplemented with bananas and grapes at the aid stations. I broke the “don’t try new foods during a race” rule slightly; the grilled cheese sandwiches looked too darn good. (And they were.)

The result was a finish in 13:46:27, winning my age group and finishing 9th overall!

This isn't me, but this was how I crossed the finish line!

This isn’t me, but this was how I crossed the finish line!

Physically, I felt much better than I could have expected. My legs stayed strong the entire race, allowing me to run smooth and steady. No stomach or other digestive issues, and no nausea or dizziness like last year. Not even any serious chafing – the tri shorts came through again!

Only one small disappointment to go with the big high of triumph. Sometime during the third loop I mashed some toes on my left foot from kicking a hidden rock. The pain subsided, but came back after the finish and was bad enough I went to urgent care for X rays. Nothing broken (yay!) but I won’t be jumping rope for a while.

And, finally, I know that some of you are asking the question: What about . . .?

Sign-Natural Run

Alas, not this year. In addition to my suffering toes, it was cold and damp out, making it unlikely I would enjoy even a short frolic through the woods in the altogether. Maybe next year!

Next up: Handling the “mental side” of the race was at least as important to finishing the race as the physical side, as negative self-talk, the tedium of long solo stretches in the dark, and nagging pain all contributed to last year’s DNF. I’ll describe how I dealt with those issues this year.

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(*) As a more environmentally conscious Trotsky would have said.

(**) “Eschew” and “titillating” are two of my favorite words. Ain’t English grand?

Going Long, Going Dark, Going Easy

THE BIG EVENT at Run Woodstock is one week away, and I’m gearing up for it by gearing it down a little. Yes, it’s the hardest training period of any distance runner – taper time!

So I will be doing my very best to work out less, rest more, and eat more. I’ll get through it somehow. Actually, I’m looking forward to a little break from Body Specs. Today’s workout at 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity had me streaming sweat, leaving puddles on the mat at each station. But it’s been that kind of summer.

Stop doing this for a whole week? Oh, man!

Stop doing this for a whole week? Oh, man!

I’ve been wondering about a few things that happened to me this past week. Perhaps some of you could provide some insights or similar experiences.

  1. What’s going on with my bike rides? Last month I rode from Ann Arbor to the Crim race in Flint (see my previous post on that experience). Twice during that ride my quads were screaming so badly I pulled over to stretch and massage them. Last weekend I rode to White Lake. It was about the same distance, at the same time of day, but after running 17 miles on the trails in Pinckney, and I felt fine the entire way. Not complaining, but it seems kind of bass-ackward to me.
Maybe this was the difference?

Maybe this was the difference?

BTW, the I-275 Metro Trail from 5 Mile Road to Meadowbrook Road is a handy way to go north on a bike but I wouldn’t recommend it as a pleasure ride. As I was advised by another trail runner, it’s variable in pavement quality and the noise from the freeway is incredible. Perhaps it’s amplified by the retaining walls on the west side. The good news is that multi-purpose paths continue to head north for several more miles.

  1. On that same ride, I took one of several wrong turns and asked a gas station attendant for directions. He printed a map and showed me the road I wanted. I told him I was riding to White Lake.

“That’s a hell of a long way on a bike,” he said.

“Not really,” I said, reflexibly. My destination was about 7 miles away. As the entire ride was over 50 miles, I was pleased I only had that little bit left. But what makes a ride or run “long” depends on one’s point of view, after all. In track and field a 5K is considered a “middle distance” and 10K is “long distance.” By contrast, in the world of ultrarunning the “short run” is the 50K, and no one even talks about shorter races.

What is this "sub-marathon" distance you speak of.

What is this “marathon” distance you speak of.

It reminded me of my trip to Chicago in 2011, where the train station attendants said I might want to take a bus for the “long” 8-block trip to the convention center. When I told them I was there for the marathon, they agreed I “could walk it.” (BTW, the walk inside the convention center to get my race bib was longer than the walk to the center.)

  1. And on the same subject of perception: last night I went out for 6 miles at sunset to get used to running in the dark. The first half still had some daylight in it and passed uneventfully. I returned along the exact same route, but in darkness, and it felt longer – a lot longer. The road ahead of me just seemed to stretch on and on. I half expected Rod Serling to step into view: A man goes out for a run on a dark, deserted road…and ends up in…the Twilight Zone.

Trail - Saturday morning

Why does this happen? I’m guessing it’s due to the reduced field of view. When all you can see is what’s illuminated by your headlamp, even familiar territory can seem like the middle of nowhere. And the noises change, too, from the man-made to the animal. Between the near-total darkness, gnats in my eyes, and crickets and frogs echoing all around, it really did feel like a different world from the same path I’d taken just a half hour earlier.

And just think – a week from now, I get to run all night long. The race begins at 4:00 p.m. Friday, and with luck I will be finishing sometime around sunrise Saturday morning, just as the 50K and 50-milers toe the starting line. (Yeah, those “short distance” guys.)

Stay tuned – I’ll let you know after Labor Day how my weekend “training” went. (Isn’t that kind of ironic, that “Labor Day” is celebrated as a day off?)