My biggest accomplishment at the Ice Age 50 mile race this past weekend was that I ran the entire 50 mile race without walking. There are other aspects of the race that I’m happy about as well, but in my progression as an ultra runner, this feat of continuing to run as my legs fatigued is what makes this a victory for me.
The weather was good for an ultra and the race was really well run by race director Jeff and his crew. The race started at 6 am. Temps were warm enough for me to comfortably start in shorts, a singlet, arm sleeves and calf sleeves. The temps stayed within a pretty narrow bandwidth which enabled me to wear this the entire race and not think about it at all throughout the race. That doesn’t mean the weather wasn’t a little crazy with scattered showers, occasional freakish windy moments, and even some hail later in the race, but after I had finished. The course was well marked and very runnable and the race workers ran a very smooth race.
I had been repeatedly warned to not underestimate the hills in Wisconsin and to be careful that I didn’t go out too hard. However, I have also found success racing this season by getting out fast early and establishing position. So I mindfully went out with the front guys, maybe a group of 8 or 9 through the first 3 or 4 miles. We then hit some actual hills on the second half of the first loop where I decided to back it down a bit and be cautious – and I’m glad I did. By the end of the hilly section of the first loop I was caught by eventual winner David Riddle. The course flattened out so I stuck with him for a little while, enjoying his pace setting.
By the third aid station I was alone, which is how it’d stay for me the remainder of the race. I settled into my rhythm, maybe a tad over 7 minute mile pace, and enjoyed the run while trying to make sure everything continued to go smoothly. I view much of racing as a continuous monitoring of my body (and mind), as if my conscious self is sitting in front of a machine with all sorts of gauges and levers, making sure that everything is working together properly and smoothly. So during the first 26 miles or so, I was basically sitting at the controls monitoring the ship, and all was going well.
The second out and back required quite a bit more mental and physical work for me. I noticed my legs tiring. Simply, while my effort level seemed to stay the same, I gradually got slower and slower. By the turn around I was doing a bit of looking back to see how far people were behind me rather than how far ahead the next guys were. Along with the eventual Master’s winner, right behind him was the first female, and she looked to be chugging along at a good clip. Soon the Master’s winner went blowing by me and I realized I had slowed to somewhere between 9 and 10 minute mile pace at times. This is when my “keep running” mantra really kicked in. The race would be a success for me so long as I kept running.
While there were other things I thought of throughout the race such as “under 7 hours”, “maybe beat my 6:26 pr”, and “don’t get chicked”, “keep running” is what really did it for me. I felt like this was really doable until the last 7 or 8 miles on some steep hills. Oftentimes, ultra runners will walk steep hills – it was one of the difficult concepts for me to grasp in switching from the track to trails. However, as I’ve gotten more comfortable racing trails I’ve found that I like running them better because I do go faster and I keep my running rhythm. I don’t like trying to start up running again after slowing to a walk. However, on these later hills I could feel my left quad tightening. I don’t normally have cramping issues but it felt like it could go. So I changed my stride a bit and thankfully, like all hills on the Ice Age course, they weren’t too long and were quickly over.
In the end, I picked it up again and finished running a little over 8 minute pace for the race (6:44) and never walked. I slowed significantly and maybe that means I went out too hard. Maybe I didn’t train well enough (definitely possible). I didn’t eat as much (16 gels total and Heed at every aid station) as I have in some other races because gels were only available at 3 aid stations so maybe that added to the fatigue. Or maybe the deceptively difficult course really is that hard and I need to get into better shape if I’m going to run faster.
Ultimately, I’m happy though. It’s my second straight race under 7 hours for 50 miles. I finished 9th overall in a competitive race. I held off the course-record setting female by 2 minutes. And I didn’t walk!
So ends my season of racing. I consider it a big success for me and I’m all the more motivated to keep at this ultra business. I feel like I have figured out some of the mental game and I also feel like I have some ideas for how to train this fall to get better for my next season. But now it’s time to hit the trail for the next few months and walk 30 miles a day instead of running. Thanks to all the wonderful people that I’ve had the good fortune to run with, chat with, and spend time with in the ultra community; you are all unique and I thoroughly enjoy getting to know as many of you as I can.