Tag Archives: ultramarathon

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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A Strange and Fickle Beast

Last weekend I had an opportunity to run a “fatass” trail race (up to 30 miles) reasonably near where I live. On that morning it was near freezing temperatures, raining, and I had a slightly painful knee that I’d “tweaked” somehow the previous night. Plus I had a 50-miler coming up in a week. So I passed on the fatass, stayed home, and did my taxes.

From last December’s Fatass run. I’m in the bright yellow jacket on the right. I did 21 miles because I had no excuses.

Now, those of you who aren’t ultrarunners, or who don’t know me all that well, are probably saying, “Sensible choice, what’s the issue?” The rest of you have, to a person, who I’ve told this to fully supported my decision.

Everyone except me.

Despite knowing it was the best choice, I still had some twinges of regret for at least not showing up and giving it a shot.

Why?

Because I have run ultras in the cold, and in the rain, and with a bum knee (although not yet all three at once). And enjoyed the experience each time. So I have a certain reputation of “indestructibility” that’s hard to set aside. Plus I just like being around trail runners.

This weekend is the aforementioned 50-miler at McNaughton State Park in Illinois. I arrived Thursday to see off those running the really long distances here, including my friends Kurt (150 miles) and John (200 miles). It was chilly and raining at the 4 p.m. start. The runners were geared up and ready. And no one – runners, race staff, or race director – complained about the weather.

Kurt (bib #400) and John (bib #415).

There’s very little fanfare at the start of most ultras. Runners are upbeat but quiet, grabbing a snack, conversing about other ultras, stretching, or jogging a bit to loosen up. Usually no music – that’s for pumping up people at shorter races, like marathons. And the starting “gun” is the race director saying something like, “Get outta here.”

And yet the energy is palpable, a current washing over the entire starting area. I’ve felt it every time, running or not. Watching the runners standing quietly in the queue before the start yesterday, I began twitching, and bouncing on my heels. Mind you, I was grateful not to be starting with them. But part of me was ready to jump in anyway. And had I signed up for that start time, I’d have been there, just as eager as the rest of them to get out on that trail.

They’re off! (Okay, maybe some are feeling the vibe more than others.)

My race begins early Saturday morning, and it promises to be a great day – sunny, with temperatures in the sixties. I’m really looking forward to it. And I’m only a little disappointed that it won’t be raining.

Yes, motivation is a strange beast, indeed.

An Ultra Like No Other: The Black Rock City 50K

How many running events are you aware of that have a) whiskey, b) hugs from random strangers, c) a course that takes you through a dance party, or d) shameless nudity? And the only “entry fee” is a gallon of water and a few snacks for the aid stations?

Well, as far as I know, the Black Rock City Ultramarathon is the only race that offers all of the above.

The race is hosted by the Pink Lightning camp, which provides bibs, timing chips, medals, T-shirts, and refreshments – all for no charge to the runners (excepting the crazy expensive Burning Man ticket, of course). About 250 people sign up each year.

From Pink Lightning the course runs clockwise along the Esplanade, which separates BRC from the “deep playa” containing The Man, the Temple, and the other major sculptures. Out to and along the trash fence, with an aid station at its “peak” (top of the route map). Then down the other side and back along the Esplanade and return to Pink Lightning.

Each loop is seven miles, so you run four of these loops, then do a quick 3-mile out & back to get you to 50K, (31.1 miles), more or less.

Since it’s impossible to describe everything I saw, heard, and experienced running the BRC 50K, here are a set of vignettes that hopefully give you a sense of it.

Sorry about lack of photos; my phone was nearly dead and my solar charger didn’t work. Besides, at Burning Man you are encouraged to, “be a participant, not a tourist,” and taking photos takes you out of the moment. However, at the end of this post I’ve provided some links to photos and videos others have taken.

Okay, here’s one. Yes, this “art” is an actual 747, and we ran past it during the race.

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Tuesday August 28, 4:30 a.m.: Crawl out of warm sleeping bag, put on clothes and gear meticulously laid out the night before. Ready to go – except I can’t find my headlamp. I rummage through my clothes bag, gear bag, and everywhere in my tent before I find it around my neck, tucked under my shirt. Slap head and bike to Pink Lightning as fast as I dare. They start late, thank goodness, because I don’t know BRC well enough to understand the course map. I follow the crowd until I get oriented.

Starting in the dark means we see an amazing sunrise, with the sky turning from red and yellow brush strokes into bright blue. And the temps stayed cool until late in the morning, which helped explain some very fast finish times (the first five runners were under 3:35).

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Loop one: Pain in my left big toe, like something sharp is pressing on it. It gets worse, so at the aid station I find a chair and peel off my shoe and sock. I don’t find anything, so I remove the tape on the toe – and the nail comes off with it.

No big surprise, as I’d damaged it at an earlier race. I cover the bare area with a Band-Aid, retape, put sock and shoe back on, and I’m good to go. A volunteer shakes his head. “Hard core,” he says admiringly.

Not really – just standard ultra fare. And now I’m running pain free. Never been so happy to lose a toenail.

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Loop two: I catch up to a guy wearing some really unusual shoes. Under the soles are metal bands acting as springs. Along with the bouncing stride, they add about four inches to his height. He tells me they’re “rebound shoes” with the springs providing a large energy return, and that he likes them a lot. He’s not sure if they’re “race legal,” but hell, this is Burning Man, so who cares?

Here they are. Photo from Flickr.

Here’s a link to the website if you’re interested in finding out more. They also make a brief appearance in the video below.

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Loop 3, approaching the Esplanade: a woman waves a bottle at us. “Whiskey! You know you want it!”

Runner ahead of me: “No thanks.”

Woman: “Well, F*** YOU then!”

Note: a bad attitude at Burning Man is almost always “snark” and not to be taken seriously.

I’m offered the same (and also decline) and starting loop 4, a young lady holds out a 2-liter bottle of a mysterious red liquid. “Please say yes!” she pleads.

Time for some snark of my own, I decided. “Yes!” I responded – and ran on right past her.

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Loops 2-4, returning to Pink Lightning: there’s a dance party in full swing on the Esplanade. No problem, we run right though it, getting hugs and high fives. On one loop as we get near, “YMCA” comes over the loudspeakers. Do we act out the letters during the chorus – while running? Do you even need to ask?

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Back half of loop four: My wandering thoughts hit upon the fact that while I’ve seen a few naked men running (including one guy in orange body paint), I have yet to see any women so (un)attired. Then a spectator says, “Hey, naked woman coming.”

Sure enough, a nicely proportioned woman wearing nothing but shoes soon passes me, smiling and entirely at ease. Another runner complains he’s getting warm. “Take your clothes off!” she yells to him. “You’ll be more comfortable!”

She stops at the coconut water station, so I go back ahead for a while. When she catches up to me again, I confirm she’s also on loop four, and I have to know. “Hey, you didn’t run the entire race this way, did you?”

“Oh, yeah!” she says. I mention it was cold at the start, and she shrugs. “I ran fast!”

Note: every woman I’ve told this story to goes wide-eyed and asks about whether “bouncing” wasn’t an issue. I’d wondered that too, but didn’t have the courage to ask. Apparently it didn’t bother her And she finished ahead of me.

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At Pink Lightning after loop four, grabbing some snacks: I get a surprise hug from behind. It’s my daughter Rachel and her boyfriend there to cheer me on. “I’m so proud of you, Dad!” she says. (Hard to top a moment like that, folks.)

I take off for my final three miles, and they’re waiting at the finish line, where I cross at the 5:25 mark with my hands in the air – and promptly bonk in the pavilion. Here I am with her, doing my best to look happy while waiting for the Gatorade to kick in.

Photo courtesy of Rachel’s SO Eugene.

So, did it live up to my expectations? Since I didn’t really have any, the answer is Yes. Would I do it again? Sure, although I haven’t decided if I’d run it for a PR (nice and flat) or slow down and take photos. Plenty of time to decide!

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As promised, here are some links to photos and videos of the BRC 50K from previous years. Enjoy!

YouTube – Running an Ultramarathon at Burning Man – from 2017. Really, this one is all you need to see what goes on. I didn’t see the stuffed animal trampoline this year, though.

Facebook – search on “Black Rock City ultramarathon” and a gallery will pop up. Here’s one of the photos.

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.