Monday, May 12, 2008

"RUN!" - Ice Age Trail 50

When the farthest you have ever run is 31 miles, how do you convince yourself you are capable of running 19 miles farther? 50 miles. I guess there is but one way. Run 50 miles. And so, at 6AM on May 10, 2008, I found myself standing amongst 250 other runners awaiting the start of the 27th running of the Ice Age Trail 50.

It was a cool morning in the upper 30s with temps expected to rise to the upper 50s or low 60s by day's end, no wind, clear skies early, clouds in the afternoon. If you were to place an order to God for the perfect running weather, that would be about how it would read.

The race starts with a 9 mile loop on wide cross country ski and hiking trails, followed by a 24 mile out and back to the southwest, then a 17 mile out and back to the northeast. The early 9 mile loop was very runnable with some flat sections on soft pine needle covered trail, and numerous roller coaster hills. It was a perfect layout to let the field of runners spread out before entering the narrow single track of the Ice Age Trail.

A few miles into the early loop I found myself running and chatting with Caroline Spencer. I learned this was Caroline's 12th Ice Age 50, that she has completed several 100 milers all over the country, and like me she has competed in every Ironman Wisconsin triathlon starting with the inaugural (and that the 2005 edition of IMWI left a similar blemish on each of our racing resumes :-(. I have found that ultra runners are such a humble lot, you have to pull out of them all the incredible things they've accomplished. I hope I didn't drive her crazy asking questions about her achievements and experiences, but to my benefit our chat helped the first 9 miles feel almost effortless.

I stopped at my drop bag at the end of the loop to shed a layer of clothes and refill my handheld bottle, and off I headed for the first out and back section. This section has everything. A few flat romps across open grassy meadows, but mostly narrow winding dirt single track, steep rocky ups and downs, projecting tree roots, and a few timber stair steps thrown in to keep things interesting. I lost track of how many times I nearly tripped and fell, and I rolled my left ankle pretty good once, but I managed to stay upright and injury-free throughout this section.

I ran by myself through much of the first out and back, and was starting to drag a bit around 18 or 19 miles. But my spirits picked up when the leaders starting coming back at us. Something about handing out a smile and a "Nice job!" to the passersby helped to lift my spirits and return some energy back to me.

After rounding the first turn, between mile 22 to 26, or so, I was actually feeling pretty good. My spirits and energy were high. It was in this section that my wife and son, Jenni and Derek, arrived to cheer me on at each of the accessible aid stations.

Somewhere after about 26 miles I started feeling less chipper, and I concluded that I had actually been taking in too much fluid. I was feeling slightly light headed, I'd been "watering the plants" a bit too frequently, and my hands and fingers were noticeably puffy and swollen. So, I started to dial way back on the fluid intake. I made sure to take salt tablets regularly, and add a bit more food from the aid stations to make up for the calories and electrolytes I otherwise would have been getting from the sports drink. I think that was the right move, but it's not like I immediately started feeling better.

Around mile 33 marked the end of the first out and back and the start of the second out and back at an intersection in the trail called "Confusion Corner". I'm glad there was a volunteer there to tell me where to go because I certainly would have taken a wrong turn otherwise.

Not far into the second out and back section is the climb up to Bald Bluff, the highest point on the course, with a memorable long steep rocky hill to take you there. This hill is also called Indian Signal Hill. The name reminds me of something I've noticed from cycling. When you're cycling it's pretty common that the most significant climbs on the route take you to hill tops with large radio antennas at the peak. I guess the Indians used the some logic for sending messages, they just used different technology.

I was definitely slowing down on the out section of the final out and back. More than once I realized that I was walking, but I'd long since crested the hill I had been walking up and just unconsciously continued walking the following flat. I had to shake myself out my daze and remember to start running again.

When I reached the final turn around at the Emma Carlin bike trails, just past mile 40, I was happy to see Jenni and Derek. I took a break to eat and drink, and to, well, just stop for awhile. But after a couple minutes of that and confessing how tired I was, Derek had heard about enough and he just yelled out, "Run!". I found that pretty funny, and started to laugh. But, Derek wasn't laughing. "RUN!!", he yelled again, louder this time. The boy was serious. He knew this was a race and it wasn't sitting right with him that I had stopped for so long. "RUN!!!", he shouted once more, and with that, what could I do but soldier on...and RUN!

Derek's lively proclamation was like magic to my psyche. As I started to head back to complete the final 10 miles, each time I found myself walking anywhere other than a steep hill, I heard Derek yelling, "RUN!" in my head, and it got me going again. With about 6 or 7 miles to go I started doing the math and I could see that I had a chance to come in under 9 hours. But, to do so I'd have to dial it up a notch. I started to dig deeper, to push harder, to walk less, and to run faster. My exhalations started to become some kind of primal growl to shed the pain and fatigue. I didn't know how fast I was going, but I knew I need to average a little better than 10 minute miles over the last 6 miles to make it, and that was nearly 2 minutes per mile faster than I'd been managing over the preceding 10 to 15 miles. And, I'd have to go back over Indian Signal Hill in the process, not to mention the dozens of other lesser bumps on the trail.

When I reached aid station #8, with 2.5 miles to go, my watch said 8:35. I was still on track for 9 hours, but just barely. There could be no slowing down now. Fortunately the biggest of the hills were now behind me and it was just a matter of pushing through the fatigue to keep the pace up. At the final aid station, with 1.5 miles to go, my watch said 8:45. I started to believe I could make it, but the final mile and a half seemed to go on forever. Finally, I could hear the announcer at the finish line and I knew I would make it. When I arrived at the finishers cute, there was Derek and he was ready to run. He jumped in with me and sprinted across the line. I'd say we crossed the line together, but I couldn't catch the little guy :-) The clock said 8:58:01.

It wasn't like 9 hours was some really important goal I had tucked away in my back pocket for this race, but I guess subconsciously, it was indeed exactly that. And, I was glad there was a part of me deep inside that wanted it because those last 10 miles could have really sucked if I didn't have that goal to wrap my mind around.

So, I guess I CAN run 50 miles. Imagine that. Now, I just need to tack 12 more miles onto that for my 100K next month. And then... Jeez, where does this end?