Monday, May 14, 2012

ICE AGE TRAIL 50: No Longer A Virgin

Ok buckle your seat belts this may turnout to be a long and somewhat rambling race recap. So lets begin at the beginning. In 2004 shortly before my retirement from the military I got the idea that I needed to run a marathon. I had always ran, both because the Army made me and because somewhere along the way I started to enjoy it. But just short stuff like 5 and 10K or maybe a 10 mile race here and there. So in 2004 I trained for and completed the Fort Collin's Colorado Old Town Marathon. That was fun, so I did the Des Moines Iowa and Madison Wisconsin Marathon's in 2005. I set a PR of under 4 hours in Madison and I was really starting to drink the koolaid as far as distance running goes. Then in late 2005 I heard about this guy named Dean Karnazes. Dean had written a book called "Ultramarathon Man." I bought it and devoured it at one sitting. I have since found out that Dean is somewhat reviled in the Ultra community for his self promotion but the story he told of all night runs and running hundreds of miles at a time inspired me. This ultra running stuff sounded like just the epic accomplishments I had been missing since I retired from Special Forces. So I found an ultramarathon within a 4 hour drive of my house. The Ice Age Trail 50 Mile was described as one of the best Ultramarathons to cut your ultrarunning teeth on. I decided that is exactly what I was going to do. Life had other plans for me however. On New Years Day 2006 I completed a training run of about 10 miles without incident. The next day my left knee started to ache. Over the next few weeks I kept running and it kept aching and then it started to swell. Sometimes it hurt so bad it would wake me up from a sound sleep. Being a guy I ignored it for  a few more months until my knee started "catching' when I bent it and sometimes the pain would bring me to my knees, no pun intended.

Finally I went to the doctor, who sent me to a specialist, who told me he could guarantee from my description that I had torn the meniscus in my knee and that I would need surgery right away to correct it. Well there went my plans to run an ultra, so I postponed my race for what I thought was a year because according to the doctor these things would be good as new in 3-6 months. Well I must be a slow freaking healer because I wore a knee brace and dealt with continued pain for another 2 years post surgery. I started to run again however and completed another couple marathons and many other races. I also started gaining weight unfortunately because I don't think I was running fast enough to burn the calories I was eating. At one point in 2010 I was at a post military high of 215 pounds, at 5'7" that is a little chunky.

I was still set on doing an ultra however and in December 2010 I entered and completed the Hawkeye 50K Ultra. Even though that was a great accomplishment I just wasn't satisfied. 50K races are only a little over 5 miles farther than a regular marathon and to me that wasn't ultra enough. 50 miles in my mind is where you get bragging rights. I waited too long to register in 2011 for the Ice Age Trail 50 and by the time I attempted to register it was sold out.. crap. It had sold out in about 3 days or less. So I was already in the middle of training for the May race. I found another race, Dances with Dirt in July and registered for that, I was going to run my 50 miles one way or the other.

Well to put it mildly Dances with Dirt was a spectacular blowup. It was July, 100% humidity, 90 degrees, killer terrain, and I still weighed about 205. This all contributed to me developing debilitating leg cramps and being forced to withdraw from the 50 mile distance and complete another 50K. But I learned and the Ice Age race was still in the back of my mind. I analyzed my failure in 2011 and decided I had been the victim of poor training, too much weight and poor race nutrition. I started listening to ultrarunning podcasts and reading about trail running,nutrition and gear. 4 months after Dances with Dirt in November 2011 I started my 6 months train up for the 2012 Ice Age Trail 50. I watched my caloric intake and slowly ramped up my mileage week by week. I also made damn sure I was registered the first day registration opened. Long story short prior to the race I ran about 1000 training miles and lost 40 pounds getting down to a weight of 165. That is what I weighed back in the 1990's. I WAS READY.

The Friday prior to race day we drove up to Wisconsin, the race being held about 60 minutes east of Madison in the Kettle Moraine state park. We had decided to camp out over the weekend and by we I meant me. My wife was ok with it although she may have preferred a nice hotel room. But me and Jay had a great time Friday night setting up the tent and watching Ranger TV.

We alos went into Whitewater and grabbed my race packet and ate some pizza. On the way back we scoped out the start line and I timed the drive from there to our campsite so I knew what time to set our alarm for. After it started getting dark we hit the old hay for some rest although I didn't sleep well in nervous anticipation of the next day. We rolled off the air mattresses bright and early at 0330 and fumbled our way around in the dark. I had slept in my running clothes so all I did was slip on my shoes and wait for Jay and my wife to get things together. At 0430 we met my sister and her husband at a nearby road intersection. they had driven in from Madison to help crew me for the race. They followed me on the 30 minute drive to the race start and we arrived right at my scheduled time of 0500 for the 0600 start. Score one for the clipboard guy, so far so good, the plan was running smooth. For the next hour  we milled around talked about strategy as I tied and retied my shoes and adjusted my gear. I hadn't been so nervous about anything in a long time. Finally the race director gave some last minute instructions and we were about to begin.

I positioned myself towards the back telling myself I was going to start out slow then slow down. That is the strategy all the accomplished racers said you should follow. I would be able to check out the terrain as the first part of the race was a roughly 10 miles loop on the adjacent Nordic Trail that would bring us back to the start/finish prior to heading out for the next 40 miles on the Ice Age Trail. So the gun sounded and I hit the timer on my watch, a few seconds after that I crossed the timing mat and I was on my way. This race did not allow music or earphones which I run with all the time so I was a little off my game at first but I soon settled in and listened to the conversations around me. At this point everyone was pretty bunched up because the 50K racers were also starting with us and there were about 300 runners trying to squeeze on the trail. The trail at this point though wasn't very technical and fairly wide as it was made for Nordic skiing. The loop wasn't too bad with only a few steep hills and easy running. I employed my strategy of one S-Tab and one GU Gel every 30 minutes. This had served me well on the two 50K races I had run as training prior to this race. It was during this section that a Marine named Eric noticed my tattoo and my Army shorts and we struck up a conversation. He was still active duty and was an active duty liason to a reserve marine unit in Milwaukee. This conversation passed the time and soon I passed the start/finish after about 1 hour 45 minutes. I stopped to grab some more gels and some water and I lost track of Eric. I would run the next 30 miles solo.

After passing through this area we headed north for 2 miles to "Confusion Corner." I would pass this intersection 2 more times before the race was over. This particular time I took a left and headed out on the 18 mile section down to the turnaround point. From now on the race would be run on technical single track with a lot more elevation changes and many rocks, roots and trip hazards. We would run 9 miles to the turn around and 9 miles back to Confusion Corner. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Due to the wonders of technology and good cell phone coverage I called my crew and had them meet me at the aid stations. They already knew when I wanted to change socks or get more GU or whatever. They did a great job. I made it to the turnaround and crossed the bridge to the aid station. I saw Eric at this point and he was about a minute ahead of me. I was taking my time at the aid stations, grabbing plenty of trail mix, HEED and other nutrients. As I headed back out on the return trip I started feeling the slight twinge of a potential hamstring cramp. I had felt this before at Dances with Dirt but this time I was prepared I upped my S-Tab intake to 4 per hour and had no cramping problems the rest of the race. It helped that it was cloudy and about 68 degrees as well. I met my crew at Aid Station #9 and they informed me I was over 90 minutes ahead of the required cutoff time. At this point I had covered 31 miles in about 6 hours, which was a good pace.This was good news as I had been worried about running too slow. After leaving my crew I just kept it slow and steady, putting one foot in front of another. At this point I passed into new territory, I was running farther than I had ever run before. I also started struggling a bit as my body was breaking down and I was running with no one else in sight for what felt like hours. Eventually I hit Confusion Corner again and headed out on the third leg which was a 8 mile stretch to another turnaround.

I just kept on keeping on during this section to the last turnaround, run, eat, repeat, up the hill, down the hill. The terrain was rugged but the scenery was awesome . Finally I hit the last turnaround and headed out on the last 9.7 miles to the finish

So at this point my feet were swelling and the soles were tender. I was starting to feel sorry for myself but then something happened. A guy came up behind me on the trail, I turned over my shoulder and asked him if he wanted to pass. He said" No you are doing fine" We started talking as we ran, his name was Tim. He was from Wisconsin and he sold Harley's. This was his first 50 miler and he had 3 girls. As we ran we talked about our families,running and things in general. Sometimes I would lead and sometimes he would. We kept making relentless,forward progress and as we talked the miles fell behind us. We hit the last aid station with 2.5 miles to go at about 10 hours 35 minutes into the race. Then Tim said something that was totally crazy..totally. He said" You know if we finish under 11 hours we can qualify for the Western States." The Western States 100 mile race is like the Boston Marathon of Ultra running. It is held on the Western States trail in California and you have to qualify, and get chosen in the lottery to run in the race. Then you have actually finish 100 miles..crazy talk. We looked at each other and by unspoken agreement we picked up the pace. He pushed me and I pushed him. I was running faster than I had the entire race after already running almost 48 miles. We powered up the hills and were passing runners left and right. When we heard the music at the finish line we picked it up even more. Running side by side we entered the clearing and saw the finish line, the crowd was cheering us on and I had intended to cross together but in the last 10 feet Tim said "After you, Wisconsin hospitality." So I crossed the finish line in 10 hours 52 minutes 36 seconds by chip time and Tim crossed a second later. I turned and shook his hand thanking him for pacing me to the finish. He said the same and then he disappeared into the crowd. I also spied the Marine Eric who had finished about 15 minutes prior. I thanked him for his service and he did the same for me. Then I wrapped my arms around my family and headed to the parking lot. This race was everything I expected after waiting 6 years. Now I can truthfully say I AM AN ULTRAMARATHONER. One more thing, Dances with Dirt I am coming for you!!!!

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