Sunday, April 13, 2008

"It's Just a Training Run" - Chippewa Moraine 50K 2008

"It's just a training run."

That's what I was telling myself when I signed up for the inaugural Chippewa Moraine 50K.

It's not that I really view a 50K as "just" anything other than a really long way to run, particularly seeing as this would actually be my first ultra. Rather, it's that my first step down this ultra path was to sign up for the Kettle Moraine 100K, coming up in June. Some time after that fool hearty mouse click, I got to thinking that perhaps I should try a couple shorter races first to get some experience. And that's how I found Chippewa. You know, "just a training run."

I got a bit more than I bargained for.

As race day loomed near, I started peeking at the weather forecast. It didn't look good. As much as I distrust weather forecasts of anything beyond the next 24 hours, it looked pretty inevitable that we were going to be hit by something unpleasant. But, would it be cold rain, or sleet, or snow? And, just how much? The race site appeared to be right on the line between rain and snow as part of a huge storm sweeping across the country. Areas to the north were forecast to receive a foot or more of snow in the 24 to 36 hours before the race. For New Auburn, it was looking like we would likely see just a couple inches of fresh snow.

"It's just a couple inches."

We arrived in Chippewa Falls on Friday afternoon, picked up a few groceries, and after a brief scare that our van's cooling system was crapping out on us (turned out to be nothing serious), we headed out to the race site to get checked in. The Chippewa Moraine Interpretive Center on the Ice Age Trail northeast of New Auburn was great. My three year old son, Derek, (he'd be quick to point out, "I'm three and three quarters") was having a blast checking out the snakes and turtles and all the various items on display. The staff there was very friendly, and they came over to let Derek see and touch the painted turtle, and let us watch him "run" across the floor. I noted for the record how much quicker the little guy was running than I probably would be the next day.

In the race packet was a flier for a place in Chippewa Falls called Loopy's Saloon and Grill which sounded right up our alley, so that made dinner plans easy. I filled up on the classic athlete's pre-race meal of beer and pizza before heading to the Country Inn and Suites for the night. Our initial plans had us heading about 70 miles farther north to stay with my parents east of Hayward, but given that they were being pounded by a major snowstorm, we had already tweaked the itinerary and decided to stay closer to the race site.

We awoke early Saturday to see that, sure enough, Mother Nature had delivered the promised inch or two of fresh snow. It didn't seem like that should be a big deal. The big unknown for me was, how much snow was already out there on the course, still hanging on from the winter that just wouldn't quit? Reports were that there was still snow on much of the course, particularly on north facing slopes.

So, what to wear on my feet? I decided to go with insulated shoe covers/gaiters and Kahtoola Microspikes. The shoe covers are made more for cycling than running, but I've used them together with the Microspikes several times this winter, and the combo has worked pretty well, particularly on hard packed snow and ice. On several inches of soft snow, the spikes do little good, except to hold the toe end of my shoe covers in place. Not exactly sure what to expect out there, I wore a waist pack thinking that if I wanted to shed the extra footwear I could stuff them in my pack. I figured it would be better to have my spikes and not need them then to need them and not have them.

We arrived at the race site less than 15 minutes before the scheduled start time, which was about 15 minutes later than we had planned. So, I left my wife, Jenni, and a sleeping Derek, in the van, and with a rushed description of how they could get around to the aid stations along the course. Jenni will be the first to admit that she's a bit "directionally challenged", so I wasn't sure when I'd see them next.

I arrived just in time to catch Wynn's pre-race talk before we all gathered in the snow covered field in front of the Interpretive Center for the start. I found myself a bit farther back in the pack than I wanted, so as soon as we started running I quickly made my way around the crowd to settle in about 1/3 to 1/4 back from the front of the field before we entered the trail, figuring passing would be challenging once we entered the woods.

The first couple miles of the trail didn't seem too bad. There was a fair amount of snow out there, in addition to the couple of newly added inches, but the dozens of feet pounding away in front of me quickly packed the snow down to form a narrow path with reasonable footing. I learned very quickly that in a trail ultra, especially on snow, you can't always run your pace. Within the first mile I found myself in a single file line with a small group going a bit slower than I would have liked. Passing meant stepping outside the freshly packed narrow path into soft snow several inches deep with who knows what hazards possibly hidden beneath. I decided it was probably best to just settle in and take it easy. After all, there were still 30 miles to go.

At the first aid station about two miles in I was happy to see Jenni already there with camcorder in hand, cheering me on. Around mile three I was reminded about why I had done virtually no running in the two weeks leading up to the race. My left calf started to complain. At 3.5 miles it actually hurt pretty bad. Not good when you have more than a marathon still to go. But, you know, I started to get pretty pissed off at my calf about this rebellion. My calves have been giving me grief on and off for a handful of years now, and it's about time they suck it up and get with the program. So I decided, fitting with race director Wynn's directive of "no whining", that I wasn't going to listen to this whimpering from my calf. Enough already. Go ahead and hurt. It's not going to get you off the hook. You're coming with me, and I'm not about to DNF my first ultra at less than five miles, dammit! That was the end of the conversation with my calf. It may have kept moaning, but I stopped listening.

Upon meeting up with a crowd again, I decided to try and pass while a small group in front of me walked up a hill. It took more effort than it was probably worth, but I really wanted some open trail in front of me so I could dictate my own pace for awhile.

The trouble with this plan, as I well know from experience, is that once I spike my heart rate like that it just doesn't seem to want to settle back down again to match my perceived effort. At least that's what I told myself. In reality I was having trouble coming to grips with the fact that this was going to be a much, much longer and harder effort than I had imagined. Any thought I had about my anticipated finishing time was already long gone, and even at what was a seemingly ridiculous slow pace, the going was tough. The snow seemed to start getting thicker, the traction worse.

I started to conclude that the Microspikes were doing practically no good at all on the soft snow. In fact, snow was starting to clump on the bottom of my shoes, forcing me to flick it off every few strides. At the second aid station around mile five, I peeled off the Microspikes and handed them to Jenni. The change didn't give me any better traction, but it didn't seem significantly worse either, and the reduced weight was an instant relief. But, the clumping snow continued to be an issue, with snow sticking to the straps of my shoe covers under the arches of my shoes. So, at the next aid station around mile eight, off went the shoe covers as well.

Now, just so you don't get the wrong idea, with all the challenges of the day, the conditions of the trail, my footwear annoyances, pacing troubles, my whining calf...all of that aside, I was having a blast. The course was truly beautiful, and unique. It was hard to really take in and appreciate the full beauty of the place because taking your eye off the trail for more than one stride was to invite a sudden face plant or turned ankle. But it was the kind of place that just felt peaceful. The funky, rickety, narrow boardwalks winding over sections of marshland...that's the kind of stuff that imprints itself permanently in your memory.

But even beyond the beauty of the setting, I had a feeling during this race that I've never had in any other race I've ever run. It occurred to me out there that this was the first time in all my years of racing that I've ever been, well, not "racing". I've raced against others. I've raced against the clock. I've raced against myself. I've raced against the course. I've raced against the weather. This didn't feel like any of those. The word "participating" doesn't do it justice either. And, it's not simply that I felt content to take it easy, because there was nothing easy about what I was doing. This was damn hard work despite what the pace might later prevaricate on paper. It was none of that. I was simply immensely enjoying the challenge set before me in a way that I don't think I can properly describe. The best things in life can't be told. They must be experienced.

Derek was finally awake by the time I hit aid station #4 around nine miles, and I'm sure he has no idea how great a boost it was to see his smiling face running toward me, arms wide, yelling, "Daddy!!" No gel, no sports drink, no caffeinated beverage ever concocted can come close to matching the boost of energy you get from that!

The six mile section between aid station #4 and the turn around seemed to be where the snow got just nutty. Several sections had snow knee deep, which I learned more than once while stepping just off the beaten path. Around mile 10 I settled in behind two guys who were going about my pace and I was happy to follow. Between mile 11 and 12 somewhere I started to wonder when we'd see the leaders coming back toward us, and how cozy the narrow trail was going to get then. When we saw a few runners headed toward us, however, it was disconcerting to discover that they were not the leaders. We'd all taken a wrong turn somewhere, and they were headed back. When we asked them if they were sure, they said they got to a point where there were no more footprints. Yep, wrong turn indeed. Fortunately we weren't too far off the mark and the little detour probably only cost us five minutes, or so.

But, when we found our way back to the right trail, the mistake resulted in a major traffic jam. We found ourselves queued up in a long line of about 20 runners, moving slower than we'd been traveling before our side trip. A couple times I tried to get by a few runners only to have the terrain force me back in line, and really no further ahead. And, that's the way it would be all the way to the turn around. As I guessed, it did indeed get tricky when the leaders started coming back toward us. I always tried to step off the beaten path a bit to let them by, but it was not always so easy. The leaders were a real stand-up bunch of guys. Most of top 10 or so runners offered words of encouragement as they squeezed by, which I found really impressive.

It was a great relief to reach the turn around, but I did my best to refuel and restock quickly, and get out of there before most of the crowd I'd been running behind. As the miles progressed after the turn around, the snow conditions began to change. Snow that had been kind of "sticky" earlier was turning into a slush about the consistency of a 7-11 Slurpee, and the change was not good. You just could not get any decent traction on this Slurpee snow. You'd plant your foot, and it would slide one way or another, sending you off balance. Also, several areas had become wetter and muddier, and there was no getting around stepping into ankle deep icy water from time to time.

There were no more long lines of runners on the return trip. I was typically behind two or three people, or completely alone. In fact, there were long stretches where I couldn't see anyone in either direction as far as I could see. I couldn't help but to start becoming annoyed at the snow at this point. Besides feeling constantly off balance, I kept repeatedly kicking the inside of my left ankle with the inner edge of my right shoe, always in the same spot. And, that spot was getting very painful. Each time it happened, I'd wince with pain, and curse the Slurpee snow. I was more than done with winter. Really. Enough with the snow already.

Something else happened on the return trip. The hills. There were more of them, they were bigger, and they were steeper. Yes, I know it's an out and back course, but I'm telling you there must still be glaciers out there reforming the topology, and it happens much more quickly than tens of thousands of years. It was just a few hours, but several new hills appeared. I'm sure of it.

Returning back to aid station #2, around mile 26, I was happy to see that my parents had arrived to join Jenni and Derek. The roads to the north had finally been cleared of the dumping of snow they'd received, allowing my cheering section to double in size for the final few miles. And I needed some extra cheering, because those final few miles seemed to go on forever. What a relief it was when the Interpretive Center finally came into view. Fittingly, the final stretch to the finish is uphill, and when I arrived at the finishing chute, Derek was there and happy to see me. I encouraged him to grab my hand and we crossed the finish line together.

My time was 6:20, nearly two hours longer than the time I believed I was capable of had conditions been favorable. But, I certainly was not disappointed. It was a long hard effort, and I enjoyed a major sense of accomplishment.

It didn't take long to find my way to a hot bowl of some fabulous chili at the well stocked post race party. With some warm food in my belly, and a welcomed change into dry clothes, I had my hands on the cap of a bottle of Leinie's Honey Weiss when Derek ran up to me, and said, "Daddy, will you play with me?" I smiled, put the bottle down, and played in the snow with my son. The same snow I'd just been cursing.

The best things in life can't be told.