No matter how you slice it, running 50 miles on any course is tough. Ice Age 2012 marks my fifth 50 miler. Whether its roads, trails, competitively or casually, traversing 50 miles on foot is a daunting task.
And we ultra runners pay money to do this.
Not only do we pay money to do this, we stubbornly pursue these endeavors under any circumstances.
This year's weather and trail conditions were darn near perfect: temperatures in the 50s and 60s, no rain, mild wind, dry trails, downed trees removed.
Though Mother Nature had given us a nod, many of my fellow trail runners had a whole litany of physical issues.
Training partner Dennis Hanna has bone fragments lodged between bones in his ankle causing so much pain that 10 days ago he couldn't even walk. Kathy Rytman showed up with 5 recently broken ribs, that were the result of a fall on these very trails. Jim Szyjakowski has a toe that if its not broken, is darn close. Mary Gorski was nursing a recent back injury. Ashley Kumlien ran a very tough 50 miler last Saturday, the North Face Bear Mountain, and followed it with a half marathon the next day.
We started our 50 mile journey at 6am. We start with the 9 mile 'blue loop' of the Nordic ski trails. This first loop went well, I felt good, and completed it ahead of my planned schedule.
Tackling 50 miles is a bit daunting. Fortunately, we don't have mile markers. Counting down 50 miles is too overwhelming for my little brain. Instead, I have parsed the task into 6 segments, each one ending at a bag-drop aid station. I will just focus on getting to my next milestone, and not really worry about how many miles it is.
Before I reached the end of my second segment, which ended at our first visit at Hwy 12, I started feeling crappy. Nothing specific, just didn't feel great. I got a snack at Hwy 12, chugged a little Diet Coke, and headed to Rice Lake.
The Rice Lake section is my most dreaded portion. Steep ravines with timber steps suck out any rhythm or momentum you might have. The trail surface is a mosaic of jagged rocks just waiting to stub a toe and bring you down.
In previous years, Dennis and I have run this together. This year, I wanted to run competitively. The geometry of the course will allow me to see Dennis twice on the course. The first will occur as I return from Rice Lake.
Where our journeys intersected, we stopped to check on how each other is doing. We reported how we were doing, and offered each other some encouragement, and continued on.
I took a fall within a mile of returning to Hwy 12. As far as falls go, it was pretty unspectacular, and I barely had a scrape or bruise to show for it. I guess that also means it wasn't too painful. Other runners had much more visible signs of falls: clothing streaked with dirt, blood running down knee, bruises you can see from yards away.
When I got back to Hwy 12, Bill greeted me and asked how I was doing. I just shook my head. I was behind schedule already, and slowing down. I wasn't terribly upset by this. It simply wasn't my day. I had done the training, the tapering, had been eating well, sleeping reasonably well. Some days, ya just don't have it, for no explained reason. It just happens. Just keep going anyway.
I continued to simply focus on completing my six segments. Three down, three to go.
On the switchbacks that lead up to Bald Bluff, I came upon Don Ayer, race director of Waukesha's Trailbreaker marathon. He was interviewing runners for an article he is writing for Ultra magazine. With the enthusiasm of a child with a new toy, he asked me "How do you like the course?" I was not expecting such a question, and I think I uttered a rather incoherent "What?" He repeated the question a couple of times with slightly different wording. At this point, I have about 33 miles behind me, 17 in front of me, I am climbing to the highest point in Walworth County, dizzy to the point that my vision was affected, and still unsure if the last thing I ate was a wise choice or not. I don't want to be overtly rude, but sorry, Don, the timing of your question is not conducive to an insightful response. He eventually asked "Is the course hard enough for you?" to which I simply said "Yes."
I saw Bill at Little Prairie Road, which is less than half a mile from the end of my fourth segment. He asked how I was doing. I reported that my deterioration was accelerating at a slower rate.
I arrived at Horseriders camp, completing segment 4. Christine Crawford was sitting at the aid station, visibly not feeling well. Ashley Kumlien and I headed out together towards Emma Carlin. As always, she was in great spirits, and chatted about her recent 50 miler in New York. I had energy to utter very few words, but I was still able to listen. After a mile or so, Ashley ran on ahead.
According to my calculations, my second visit with Dennis should occur at the start of my last segment, just after I leave Horseriders the second time. To my surprise, I got to see him about a mile and a half before I got there. He looked good, he looked strong. Its a long day to be out there solo, and it was so nice to see him for that brief minute.
At some point along the way, everything simply hurts. Its just the way it is. But for some reason, we keep doing this.
As I approached the finish, I felt that emotional wave that choked me up a bit, and then regained composure before the crowds were in sight. I was so happy to be done. 9 hours and 56 minutes.
Ashley had finished about 15 minutes ahead of me. Christine Crawford stuck it out and still smoked us both with an 8:27.
I changed into some dry clothes, and waited for the rest of my friends to come in. Jim finished 10:45, which earned him first in his age group. Kathy Rytman finished in 11 hours, despite barfing due to the pain of her broken ribs.
I was anxiously waiting for Dennis. I walked up the course a bit, found a good vantage point and waited. When he came in, I stood up, and wanted to run him in, but my legs said 'um, yeah, right'. So I hobbled to the finish and caught up with him as soon as I could.
Dennis finished in 11:16, and Mary G was just a couple minutes after.
Dennis and I enjoyed our post-race meal together, exchanging stories of the day.
The most dramatic part of the day, is watching the last finishers dig deep to make the strict 12 hour cut off. We watched the clock tick away as the final runners came in with only minutes to spare. I get choked up seeing them strain to meet that cherished deadline. Equally emotional, but in the opposite direction, is seeing the folks that missed it by a few minutes. The most tears are shed within 10 minutes either side of the cut off.
Fifty miles is tough for everyone. Whether fast or slow, we all put in a serious effort. We all feel about the same at the end: elated to be done, physically and mentally depleted, and looking forward to doing it again.
Dennis, Jim, Kathy, Mary, Ashley... you guys are tough as hell!