Tag Archives: training

Gut Check at the Potawatomi 50

My first (and possibly only) ultramarathon of 2019 is done. I can’t say I enjoyed every mile, or even most of them. Yet I’m grateful for the experience. Lemme tell ya why.

I’ve run 22 ultras now, and every one has been memorable, whether for a competitive time (Veterans Memorial, Dogwood), extreme heat (Lighthouse) or cold (Yankee Springs), challenging terrain (Voyageur) or the surreal (Burning Man). Last Saturday’s 50-miler at the Potawatomi Trail Races combined sticky mud, hard climbs, and physical discomfort into a thirteen-plus hour sufferfest.

My shoes after the event.

It was worth it.

The race website quotes a runner as saying, “…they took all the hills [in Illinois] and put them ALL into one spot and called it McNaughton Park.” Having driven across Illinois, then run in the park, I can confirm this is true.

With 1,600 feet of elevation gain per ten-mile loop, I climbed nearly as much in 50 miles as I did at the Kettle Moraine 100. The uphills are sudden and steep, including one with rope assist. Yet they are exceeded in quad-shattering ferocity by the downhills, aptly described as, “elevator shafts.”

Two friends, John and Kurt, were responsible for my presence there. Kurt was attempting the 150-miler (15 loops), while John would try the 200, a 20-loop exercise in torture which awards a belt buckle too big to wear. This I wanted to witness. I settled on Saturday’s 50-miler as my limit after an inconsistent winter of training, but I was there to see them off at 4 p.m. Thursday.

Kurt (left) and John, just before race start on Thursday.

On Friday I volunteered at the base camp aid station, ran a few miles to keep loose, and went to bed early. I headed down the muddy path at 6:00 Saturday morning fired up and feeling good.

One mile in. Welcome to nine more miles of this!

The first loop, messy, slippery, and still a bit dark, was quite fun. I completed it in two hours flat, which I was very pleased with. No PR here, but even with a shoe change or two I expected to finish in around 11 hours. That plan went south starting late in the second loop.

Runners climbing one of the signature hills in the park.

A burning sensation appeared in my lower abdomen, almost like needing to pee, except I didn’t. This had happened at the Lighthouse 100, which I’d blamed on an unfamiliar electrolyte drink. I’d stuck with familiar food and drink this time, but here was that pain again, and getting worse.

Not wanting to quit, I pressed on and began experimenting. I tried drinking less, then a lot. I consumed more salt. I tried eating and not eating. After loop three I sat for a while. Nothing made any difference whatever. Even ginger ale and a Tums had zero effect. The day was pleasant and the trail was drying out nicely, but the constant pain was ruining any chance of enjoyment.

I made it through lap four (40 miles) and collapsed into a chair next to the timer. “Ready for your victory lap, Jeff?” he asked. No, I was not. In fact, I felt a tingling in my hands and flush in my face that signaled a bonk coming on. I got to my feet, walked to a nearby grassy patch and lay down for a nap. Plenty of time for one. Heck, with race cutoff over 24 hours away, I could even leave, recover, sleep, and finish the next day. I dozed for about twenty minutes with the afternoon sun warm on my face and body.

When I got up, a miracle had occurred. The abdominal pain had vanished, and I was full of energy. Victory lap on! I walked the first mile just to be sure all was well, then ran the rest of it comfortably. With competitive pressure gone, and feeling well again, I was able to fully enjoy those final miles. I finished just as it was getting dark. At 13-plus hours it was my slowest 50, but I was satisfied. And grateful.

So what made the experience worthwhile? I learned I could push through a long period of discomfort. That I can use a bad situation to learn more about myself and what I’m capable of.

Also, two things stood out about how my body performed. Though my quads were screaming from the downhills, they held up, and everything else – glutes, hamstrings, calves, even knees – felt fine throughout. And on a steep, muddy trail, I didn’t fall once. I give full credit to the trainers at Body Specs for their attention to whole-body training and stability work. All those one-legged squats and work on the wobble boards paid off. Thanks, Skip and crew!

This will pay off…this WILL pay off…

And how did my friends doing the crazy miles make out? Mixed results. John’s attempt at 200 ended after five loops and a rainy, miserable night. He was understandably bummed, but is already looking forward to his next challenge. Kurt finished his 150 miles at 7:30 a.m. Sunday, one of three to complete that distance. And four runners actually completed the full 200. Outstanding work, guys. I am in awe.

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Feeling The Urge Again

A little less than two years ago, my wife and I were in Boston, walking to the marathon expo to pick up my race packet. It was a gorgeous sunny late morning, and along the Charles River people of all ages and body types were running on the path and over the bridge we crossed on our way.

I felt my body twitching, urging me to join in the fun. After a week of tapering, it wanted to run! I believe I actually began whimpering. My wife gripped my arm.

“Down, boy,” she said.

Thanks to her and the vestiges of self-restraint I had left, I saved my energy for the marathon, and even managed a negative split. (*) And that energy carried through to my other spring races, peaking with the Lighthouse 100 in June. A winter of hard training and running through cold and snow had paid off. It had been worth every bead of sweat and frosty step.

This memory came to mind because, finally, spring is poking its head up and temperatures are on the rise. And after a long, tough winter, I’m experiencing the “urge to run” once more.

Due to a nagging back issue, I’ve trained less hard in the gym this winter. And I’ve run fewer miles than usual, too. When it’s close to zero degrees outside day after day, and the roads and sidewalks remain treacherous, it’s tough to maintain motivation and consistent mileage. Thank goodness for PR Run Club. Without them, I’d have been strongly tempted to sit on the couch and bitch about the weather, rather than lace up and bitch about the weather while we climb a nice snow-covered hill.

Water stop at last Saturday’s club run. Thanks to Bin Xu for the photo!

But better weather lies ahead, and a few weeks ago Coach Paul and I established a rough plan for the year. Instead of going for a crazy-long distance target race, we’ll work on improving my speed, and trying to set new personal records (PR) at the 5K and half marathon distances. It’ll be a nice break to reset me for resuming long ultras in 2020.

That settled, I popped open the laptop and began signing up for events. Here are the ones I have so far, and why I chose them:

Potawatomi Trail Runs – early April

This event takes place at Pekin’s McNaughton Park in Illinois. The course is a ten-mile trail loop with rolling hills. Various distances are offered, from 30 miles up to 200, based on the number of loops to complete.

I chose this event because I wanted to get in at least one good spring ultra, and because a couple of my friends will be there, one attempting the 150-miler, and one for the maximum 200 miles. I decided 50 miles was enough to scratch my itch, which will leave me time to cheer on my friends and recover in time for my next event…

Trail Marathon Weekend – late April

From the “Poto” in Illinois to one in Michigan! Trail Marathon Weekend is on my list every year. It’s a beautiful trail that I never get tired of running on, and was my introduction to the “joys” of trail running.

At first I just did the Sunday five-miler, but in 2014 I upgraded to the “No Wimps” group: the half marathon on Saturday (one loop of the course), and a full marathon on Sunday (two more loops). You get a special “No Wimps” medal T-shirt and medal. Totally worth it.

Yeah, totally!

The two-day event is excellent for learning how to pace yourself. How should you run the Saturday half? Go slow and save energy for the longer run on Sunday? Or go all out for an award, and just grind it out the next day? I’ve done both, depending on my goals those particular years.

TMW also has a special place in my heart because it’s the first Zero Waste event I did with RF Events. It set the stage for what is now our fourth year working together.

Recycling makes runners happy! (“Happier”, that is.)

Sleeping Bear Half Marathon – October

We’ve camped in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area for many years, and I enjoy running and cycling on the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. So when I found out there was a Sleeping Bear Marathon (and half), naturally I wanted in, but couldn’t make it work until this year. I signed up literally right after I’d chosen it, as it sells out quickly.

Not to be confused with the famous “Kick-Your-Asparagus” run in March as part of the Empire Asparagus Festival..

The course includes a climb up a rather large hill toward the finish, so I may not be able to accomplish a PR there. So my target race for that is:

Richmond Half Marathon – November

Billed as, “America’s Friendliest Marathon,” this is where I set my current half marathon PR in 2015 (1:32:43). In addition to a PR-friendly course and lots of friendly spectators, Richmond is home to my daughter Tori, So either way it will be a fine way to end the racing season. (Well, nearly, since I always run the Holiday Hustle in December.)

2015 Richmond half, finish line in sight!

That’s the race news so far. I’ll keep you posted!

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(*) “Negative split” is runner-speak for running the second half of a race faster than the first half. It’s indicative of good planning. It’s uncommon among recreational runners because the temptation is strong to run early miles too fast, when we’re feeling strong and invincible.

No BHARG This Year? What’s Wrong with Me?

I have a confession to make. For the first time in four years, I have no BHARG.

It’s February, and I ought to be at the peak of my winter training, working my buttinsky off at Body Specs and prepping for my spring ultras, culminating in a Big Hairy-Ass Running Goal in late May or early June. It’s worked like a charm for the Kettle Moraine 100 (2016), Lighthouse 100 (2017), and Veterans Memorial 150 (2018), with lesser sufferfests along the way, including 50-milers in the rain, 12 hours of trail looping, and the Boston Marathon. And it’s been an absolute blast.

Crossing the finish line at the Kettle Moraine 100, 2016.

Dirty German 50, 2017.

Third place (54.5 miles) at the Dogwood 12-Hour, 2018

Well, this year is different. I haven’t chosen a BHARG, and my strength training has been hampered due to lingering back stiffness. Had this been any of the previous three years, I’d be frustrated with the wrench tossed into my carefully laid plans. This year? Not so much. And I’m cool with it.

So what happened?

My attitude toward staying fit and challenging myself is as strong as ever. And there’s no shortage of races that look fun and suitably punishing. I just didn’t have the same enthusiasm to pursue the usual program this time. After wondering why for a while, I decided to stop worrying and just go with it. Perhaps my subconscious was telling me it was time to change things up.

For instance, I’ve been wanting to improve shorter distance times. I’m pretty sure I can still improve on my 19:38 5K PR and half marathon best of 1:32:40. But I’ve kept putting it off. After the BHARG races I’ve spent most of the summers in recovery, and then been too busy working Zero Waste at the fall events to focus on my own races.

And 2018 was going to be a difficult act to follow anyway. After running 150 miles in 90 degree weather, earning two podium finishes at the ultra distance, riding naked through a major city, and running a 50K and practicing Vulcan martial arts in the Nevada desert with 70,000 self-expressers, what am I supposed to do for an encore?

WNBR Portland, June 2018.

Burning Man, August 2018.

With all this in mind, I met with my running coach yesterday. We had coffee and kicked around some ideas, and out of that came a basic plan for the year, with a focus on improving my shorter distance event times. I signed up for two events right there and then, and added a couple more today. The enthusiasm is back, folks!

In my next post I’ll share my training plan and which races I’ve signed up for. And I’ve already started on the plan for 2020, which will definitely include a BHARG. Watch this space for developments!

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P.S. And by the way, I haven’t been idle while I worked all this out. At the end of December I ran a “Fat Ass” event with some equally trail-crazy folks. I enjoyed it a lot; a dusting of snow brightened up the woods, and an “aid station” of brownies and a shot of cinnamon schnapps provided the energy to carry me 21 miles.

And last month, like I have since 2014, I strapped on the snowshoes and ran the Bigfoot 5K up in Traverse City. It was colder than usual, but trail conditions were excellent, and I finished in the top 10 for the first time!

Sprinting to a 7th place finish!

Done Lots of Sweating – Time to Burn!

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

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

Photo: Aaron Logan on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

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

Photo: Steve Jurvetson on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

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

Q. So, Jeff, ummm….. why?

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

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

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

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

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

Well, I’ve been running…

Cycling…

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

And hitting it hard at Body Specs

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

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

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

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

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