Tag Archives: Running

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.

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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!

Learning a &@$#%! Lesson

Dr. Wayne Dyer believed that everyone he met had something to teach him. All he had to do was open himself to the possibility that in every encounter with other people, be they family, friends, or complete strangers, there was an opportunity to learn.

I find this remarkable coming from one of the most influential teachers of recent times. Perhaps his success and his insights were due in part to being so receptive, taking in at least as much as he was putting out.

I’ve applied this principle many times. I can’t say exactly what I’ve learned as a result, but it helps me deal with unusual or unpleasant situations. The ability to think, “What is this person/encounter trying to teach me?” allows me to step back from a reflexive emotional reaction and view things at least partly from a detached perspective. It can get surreal, like a kind of out-of-body experience, but it works.

Why, just this morning. . .

I’m at a recycling conference in Kalamazoo this week, sustainability being one of my passions. I began the day with a run (another passion) around the Western Michigan University campus, including this pretty little park that began as storm water containment and became a wetland with local plantings.

As it was a beautiful spring morning, I ate breakfast outside and then, almost reluctantly, changed and headed to the conference. As I walked down the sidewalk toward the hotel, a woman on an old bike passed me from behind, pedaling hard. She yelled several obscenities at me as she went by.

After the initial shock, I wondered what the heck I’d done. I hadn’t blocked the sidewalk, and it couldn’t have been personal; we didn’t know each other, and the whole thing lasted maybe three seconds. Perhaps she had some mental challenges, or was just in a bad mood. But there was no point in speculation. I had to let it go.

So – what could I possibly learn from that? Yes, that thought really did come to mind. Most likely, nothing. Regardless, I told myself, I couldn’t let her bad attitude ruin my day. Getting angry at her would have been “yelling at an empty boat” – accomplishing nothing and spoiling my good mood.

But then I realized what kind of mood I’d really been in.

Right after the run I had indeed been in a good mood. It’s one of the benefits running provides me. But during breakfast my mind had drifted to our current political situation, which I happen to despise, and gradually I’d slipped into cynical mode, coming up with “snide yet humorous” things to write about our government leaders. I’d been slowly poisoning my good mood, withdrawing into myself and closing off the world around me.

And her blast of expletives, however shocking and unpleasant, had been a reboot, a mental defibrillation. For my bad attitude had vanished, and in its place came forgiveness and gratitude for what she’d done. Ass-kicked out of self-absorption, I had reopened myself to learn, and could make full use of the conference. Which was a good thing, because today’s sessions and conversations were packed full of things I hadn’t known about, or that improved my existing knowledge. It was one of the most productive learning and networking days I’ve ever had.

So thank you, mysterious bike lady, for the lesson. And Dr. Dyer, even though we never met and you’re now beyond my ability to do so, thank you too.

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!