2017 Tunnel Hill 50 mile report

Race reports about races in which everything goes smoothly are hard to read. Who wants to spend 15 minutes having someone expand on “it went great”? That said, I have to tell you about this run because it didn’t just go “great,” it really is beginning to stand out as one of my favorite ultras ever.

If there was any actual adversity involved in running the Tunnel Hill 50 miler, it was in the week leading up to it. Allison and I ran our first ultra in a decade back in April of this year. At that race and the half dozen or so ultras that followed it, we camped the night before in our home on wheels: Gus our VW bus. We park Gus once the salt is on the roads, and that looked like it was going to happen just before race day, and then it looked like it wouldn’t, and so on. Finally we decided to just get a hotel room which, of course, made the forecast get 10 increments rosier. We woke up the morning before the race to a steady snowfall in Chicago and salt trucks everywhere. We’d made the right choice and things were working out. This became the hallmark of the whole run.

We were starring in this adventure, though, so we were not aware things were going to work out when we checked into the Quality Inn in Marion and first saw what has come to be known as the Pooperview Suite. I should have begun with this warning, but this story has some scatalogical elements that might be offensive to some. If you’re offended by poop jokes, you might want to skip ahead to **** because Pooperview Suite figured centrally to my race.

Anyway, so our “suite” had a jacuzzi tub (good) that could be entered from either the bathroom or the bedroom (bad). Basically there was a huge hole in the wall which connected the bathroom to the bedroom. There was a shower curtain covering it, but nothing anyone was doing in the bathroom was going to be out of earshot of the rest of the room. We have had many discussions since trying to determine why anyone would have intentionally created such a room. At the time it seemed funny, but the Pooperview Suite was directly responsible for the crux of my race.

Race morning dawned clear, cool, and basically (yes) perfect. This was Allison’s first 50 miler, and my first in more than 10 years, so I’d say our combined level of nervousness was above normal. We’d both run on the trail many times when we lived in nearby Cobden, so we knew what to expect. It’s a rails-to-trail, flat crushed limestone, very gently graded and largely straight. It’s also remarkably beautiful, particularly in the late fall.

The pseudo-crux of our race came about 10 miles in our so. We run most of our long runs together and we have a wicked solid plan. For long distances, we average 13 min miles, usually almost on the dot, by running 11ish m/ms and walking 15m/m in alternation. Over this year of returning to ultras, we’ve honed this pacing until I can feel almost without checking my watch when we deviate from it. So when we were averaging upper 11s after 10 miles, I pointed out that we had a very long way to go. I am not sure exactly how this degenerated into a tiff, but I do know that we spent a few miles running (slower) about 30’ apart or so. But the day was way too brilliantly beautiful to keep a tiff sustained, so by 15 miles we trucking along together again.

My actual crux came at mile 21, and this is where the Poopview Suite comes back into the story. The Tunnel Hill trail cuts through some really amazingly beautiful landscape, most of which is private property. So for the vast majority of the trail, there is one form or another of fence just a few feet off the trail on either side. So when the time came to do what I’d neglected to do pre-race because of the Poopview Suite, I suddenly realized I was in something of a pickle. The next aid station, which actually was the start/finish and had a proper restroom, was 5 miles away. At that point, that 5 miles could have been 500 or 5000. And just so this scene is properly set: there were 700 people in this race which only encompassed 25 mi of trail in total (out and backs), so there were always a handful of people in view. Allison, whom I had not informed of my predicament, looked at me and said “is everything okay?” The situation had gone from bad to dire very quickly. But then, then a miracle occured: a farm road intersected the trail, allowing access into the surrounding wood. Honestly, there were very very few of these. The magnitude of disaster that was averted by that road is really mind boggling.

(**** No more poop stories after here)

Allison’s low point also involved bodily functions, though ones more acceptable for polite company. Somewhere in the low 30s she suddenly began walking slowly and not wanting to run. Then she ate one of the tasty bars we’d picked up from our drop bag (which she made — they’re incredible). Five minutes later she was back to running like a champ.

Okay, that’s as much drama as I can conjure out of our day because it was 98% composed of sunshine, mild temperatures ,and miles and miles of gorgeous fall trail with my fav person to run with. By the time we reached the iconic tunnel at 36 the sun was setting the day began to have a sort of golden character in my mind, a great adventure which was entering its final section. Our average pace, which barely wavered after those first few miles, actually began to speed up. At the Tunnel Hill aid station the second time (40) I pounded a slew of quesadillas and we donned lights. I’ve always loved running into the night after running all day, and this time was the best by far. I can honestly say that the last 10 miles felt joyful. That is something I have never experienced in an ultra, and I’ve probably run nearly 50 of them.

We ran into the night, and it felt like it was downhill the whole last 10 miles. Actually I think it might have been. A half mile from the finish we encountered a guy standing on the edge of the trail with a flashlight. He told us how far we had to go, which we both found sort of odd. As we turned the corner in the trail just before the finish, things got even odder: there was a huge (for an ultra finish) crowd gathered.

As we crossed the line we got what was by far the most applause I’ve ever had at an ultra finish. Thoroughly confused, I said “we’ll be giving our top of the bottom third finisher award speech over here.” Someone laughed and then more people said “Uh get out of the way. There’s a world record about to be broken.”

And 5 minutes after we finished running 50 miles, Camille Herron finished 100 in 12:42, breaking the women’s world record by more than an hour. It was also the fastest 100 run in North America (male or female) ever. It was an inspiring, beautiful, end to the long day in the woods.

Many thanks to the RD and aid station workers at the race. Things ran incredible smooth and the aid stations had everything that one would want, including “real food” which seems to slipping off the menu at ultras for some reason.

And the biggest thanks to my trail running partner, wife, and fellow adventurer: Allison. She made running her first 50 look like a piece of cake. I am happy to have been there to see it.


Cry Me a River 50k report

It’s going to be tough writing a good race report about the Cry Me A River 50k. I tend to overuse superlatives anyway, and this was a race that encourages one to indulge in a wide variety of superlatives. So let’s get em all out there right now: hardest, steepest, most unrelenting, most barf inducing, bizarrely located in Illinois of all places, longest 50k ever. I have run a decent array of 50k races over the years and I cannot remember another which inspired actual tears from participants. I saw two people weeping on this race, both doing the 50k flavor. Cry me a river, indeed!

Allison and I did a bit of reconnaissance two weeks before the race. We ran the first five miles of what would be the substantive part of the 50k race. The full race involved one 2 mi loop, then one out and back for ~20mi, then a partial out and back on the same trail for a total 34.5 miles — a 50k, wink wink. So in that five we ran a few weekends ago, we saw basically 20 miles of the course as we’d end up running it 4 times. Those five miles scared the hell out of me. Other than one 1/3 mi stretch, the trail was either straight up or straight down. I figured than maybe the other 11 miles (this was before I knew it was more like 14 more miles), had some less aggressive parts. I was dead wrong.

We arrived at race Friday night in Gus the Ultra Bus and secured a REALLY nice campsite. Camp Wokanda is a boy scout compound, and is exactly like the camp you went to in 5th grade etc. Super neat place, and outside of the raccoon that ate a hole in my Osprey hydration pack the following night, the camping almost made up for the pain of the hills. The next morning we lined up at 7am and were off at 7:05. Less than 200 yards into the first 2mi loop, we started up one of the biggest hills of the race. So much for the gentleness of the miles we hadn’t seen.

One more bit about the hills, and then I am going to let them be. These are not those long climbs that make for nice fast descents. No, my elevation data from my watch, which looks fittingly like a saw blade, says there were 14 hills in the 10 miles out to Detweiller park. As we did those 14 hills again on the way back we gave them names, none of which are repeatable in polite company. Y’all are not polite, I know, so I’ll tell you that more than half were called “fuck you hill, too” which is much funnier spoken than in print. Most of the descents were so steep that it was just as tough to run down them as it was to run up them (not that we were trying to run up them much). This resulted in something I’ve never had before. The one flat stretch comes again near the end of the race (32 mi in or so) and when we began trotting it, I found that it actually felt much nicer to run than walk!

Allison had a good run, often pulling me along, particularly on the downhills. I’m a wuss on downhills. When we came in to the start finish after 22 miles and started the out and back for another 14 was the only time I think either of us were wavering on going on. It would have been so easy to stop there, but we both kept our mouths shut and continued on. Okay Allison did say, “Look at Gus. It would be so easy to stop.” But I reminder her that our trip out to Green Valley meant another run to the bacon and PB&Js. I am not sure that convinced either of us, but we did continue on.

We ran a good bit with Galinda Miller, and it was fun hearing her stories about recent races. Ultrarunning has changed a good bit since my last go-around, and I felt like chatting with G did a pretty good job of getting me up to speed. She decided to take a breather before the second out-and-back onto the sawblade, and we just saw her briefly as we were on our way back in to finish. G, if you’re reading this: we made a valiant effort to stay awake to clap you in, but sleep won out.

Back in 2004 I ran the Superior 50 and late into the race, barely making cutoffs, Jeffrey Swainheart and I came up with the idea of a PDR: personal duration record. Basically, the opposite of a PR. Allison and I managed to make it across the finish line before it started getting dark, but just so. And we definitely set a solid PDR: 12:25 or so. My watch said total elevation was 7k feet of gain. That is one heck of a lot of 50k for a meager entry fee! The finisher’s award was a mason jar mug, so Allison and I celebrated finishing by filling them with beer (a few times) and having a second beautiful night of camping. Super “fun” race — we’ll be back next year.

Kal-Haven Trail Run 2017

I ran the Kal-Haven trail run this weekend, my first “official” ultra in almost exactly 10 years. The run is a point-to-point from Kalamazoo to South Haven Michigan on the Kal-Haven trail, a converted railroad bed.  There are conflicting reports on the exact length, but my Garmin said it was 34 miles. The easy grades and crushed limestone made for a kind reentry into the world of ultrarunning. I never entirely stopped running over those years, but when I started structured training in December, I’d only run more than five miles once in the previous several years.

For the three months prior to the race, my wife Allison and I did our long runs together. We’d go somewhat slower than I usually ran during the week, and we almost always did point-to-point runs which ended up at a brewery. We call these our “beer runs” and they were often the highlight of both of our weeks. So when we did our longest long together without problem, we decided to run the race together as well.

The day before the race we packed up our VW Vanagon camper, and headed over to Kalamazoo. We boondocked in a nearby Walmart parking lot and were at the trailhead the next morning cooking breakfast when people started to roll in. We learned something: when the van is your pre-race accommodation, you need to get all your stuff ready the night before. In our tender days of youth, we’d usually get a hotel when doing an ultra out-of-town and then grab breakfast on the way to the race. Cooking and getting everything together when living the van life takes more time.

We got underway at 7am, not long after dawn. The morning was crisp in that way that lets you know it’s going to warm up quickly. It retrospect, we started much faster than we normally did our long runs. Allison really likes to start slow and pick up, so it was tough on her. She began having GI problems after five miles or so. We were still keeping pace, but she started to encourage me to go on by myself. I was being obstinate, so she had to resort to clever means to get me to leave: she slyly provoked an argument. I am sure our fellow runners got a kick out of our whispered drama at a whopping 13 miles into the race. Anyway, it worked. I went on and assumed she was going to drop at the next aid station.

The rest of my race was relatively uneventful. I, predictably, ran too fast for the first 10 mi after I left her, then paid for it for the last 10. I didn’t have headphones because of our plan to run it together. This gave me lots of time to contemplate how doing ultras is different 10 years later. I came up with a few insights.

First, and maybe most importantly, age has changed my mental game. The 10 years since my last race have included challenges that have made me a different person. I deal with pain differently, and I’d say more effectively. Late-run pain has a tendency (for me anyway) to creep into your resolve, making you breathe faster, messing up your rhythm, and generally slowing you down. I think I can see that process more clearly now and that lets me head it off much better than I remember being able to before. So this weekend when I’d get that “oh crap I cannot run anymore” feeling, I’d focus instead on breathing. I found that if I got my breathing under control, I’d find the means to keep running. I feel like maybe, just maybe, I might have unlocked one of the secrets of the wiley old ultrarunners.

Second, I am not sure how I never noticed this before, but when you’re worn out, it hurts just as much to run more quickly than it does more slowly. There is a range of slow, from crawl to shuffle, that all uses about the same amount of cardiovascular energy. Might as well run slightly less slowly. I probably didn’t notice this when I was younger because I was faster then, of course.

Third, all things nutrition work differently than they did 10 years ago. It’s true that I am 25 pounds heavier than I ran most of my ultras, so maybe it’s some sort of camel effect. I am also no longer a vegetarian, so could be that as well. But the fact is, I don’t need nearly the sheer number of calories I did in the old days. I used to really believe in the pasta dinner the night before, complete with massive overeating. These days, that just sounds like a recipe for feeling heavy and bloated on run day. At the Kal-Haven, I survived just fine on a Kind bar an hour or so. Afterward, I was hungry but not ravenous. A burger at Paw Paw brewing was plenty enough.

Fourth, ultrarunning gets a ton of help from general time spent on your feet. While we are just getting back into ultras, Allison and I never stopped doing 10+ mile hikes frequently. I’ve been clocking a 15k step average for a long time. I think this is responsible for my complete lack of foot problems during training and the race. I can’t remember another ultra I’ve done where I had not even a little blister, sore toe etc.

Fifth, cell phones sure do make ultras a different beast! To put things in perspective, the last time I did an ultra, I had a Moto Q and would never have dreamed of brining it to a race. Now it seems that tapping away on your phone while running is the norm, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me given that it’s the norm everywhere else too. Having access to my entire music library will undoubtedly be awesome (when I actually bring headphones!). On the other hand, I found myself in a late-run leapfrog session with a woman who was listening to music on her phone’s speakers. This mild annoyance turned major when she was joined by another person who was also blaring music from his phone. They happily strolled along together with warring phone tunes (she was listening to countryish stuff while his sounded like death metal). On the up side, this led me to check the tank for the extra gas needed to leave them (and their music) behind. Is this now socially acceptable? It shouldn’t be.

In the end, my finish time was far from anything to brag about: 7:18. I beat my first ultra time (7:31) by a little, but that was the Mountain Mist so that isn’t really saying much. On the other hand, I went from two miles a few times a week to a 50k in four months without an injury. I am happy with that. In a sense, this race was the final training run to get back into ultra shape.

I crossed the finish line and checked my phone to see where Allison was (again, phones make this different!). I had no word from her, so I assumed she was still on the trail. I had barely changed clothes and grabbed a snack when she finished. She’d shaken her GI problems and come back from a pretty big time deficit to finish!

Many thanks to the Kal-Haven race organizers. Everything was very well run, and the overall vibe was super friendly. We’ll definitely be back next year.

Hello, world (again)

I wish I knew the actual number of blogs I have begun over the years. If you added those to the Moleskin journals I have also begun writing in, I am sure I am up to a couple dozen or so. In fact, at some point I started also making it a tradition to start this kind of thing with a preamble like this. So consider that done, I suppose.

I started running a little more seriously a few months ago. I have never really stopped, but this was the first time in years that I followed a running plan. The goal was to get in shape for the 50k I ran this past weekend. The title of this blog is a (bad) joke made via the title of a Haruki Murakami book about running — he’s a marathoner and one of my favorite authors. In What I talk about when I talk about running he relates that he really doesn’t think about anything while running. I’ve always found this amazing. I think about everything when running, from what I am going to make that evening for dinner to what the characters my book need to do next. I think of running time being similar to how people describe lucid dreaming: my body is occupied and my mind is free to wander around solving problems or mulling ideas or thoughts over. I can kill a ten mile run thinking of nothing but various strategies for packing gear in the van. No joke.

So anyway, sometimes I think things while running that don’t fit into other writing projects, so that’s what this place will be for.