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.