I would have cried, but I was too tired...
I did it! Today I successfully completed my first 50-mile ultramarathon on the trails of the Kettle Moraine State Park in Southern Wisconsin. I wasn't particularly fast (10 hours, 25 minutes, 31 seconds), but considering I wasn't even certain I could finish 50 miles at all, or within the 12 hour limit, I was pleased to finished more than an hour and a half under the cutoff.
Preparing for this event was very similar to taking on my first marathon back in 2001. The essence of the challenge is that you endeavor to try something that you're not entirely confident you can achieve. So much of life is so measured and there tends to be so little risk taken in the day-to-day habits of suburban living. For my first marathon I did training runs up to 20 miles, but anything beyond that seemed like a black hole, a no-man's-land, utterly unknown. That leaves 6.2 miles of risk, fear, and challenge. And let me tell you, for that first marathon (and most subsequent marathons) that last 6.2 miles is a real whopper. It chews you up and spits you out.
Now fast forward to this 50-mile race and you've got new unknowns and uncertainties, but on a much larger scale. I've completed about 25 marathons, two ultramarathons of 33 miles, and a few weeks ago I did a 30-mile training run. In case the cold hard numbers escape you, that means there were about 17-20 miles of "unknown" in this race for me. That's a long distance, and even on a good day on flat ground with fresh legs that takes me a few hours to run. So what would it be like to run 17 miles AFTER I've just matched the longest distance I've ever run in my life? I had NO idea, but that's the challenge I guess.
Rain showers were predicted for most of the day, but we were spared rain. For that I was very grateful, but we weren't spared cold. Temps were about 38F at the 6am start and I'm not sure they rose above 50F all day. Brisk, but I'll take that over heat. The course was all trails over rolling prairies, sandy pine forests, and hilly oak forests. Most of the trails had the dipsy-doosy ups-n-downs of an old wooden roller coaster. The fall leaves made for a scenic day both on the trees and under foot.
The first 10 miles were in COMPLETE darkness. We ran with headlamps and did our best not to trip over stumps, fallen branches, shoe-sucking mud puddles, foot-sized rocks, and mounds of sand. When you've done a lot of training in the dark you acquire a sixth sense of how to negotiate trails, but it's always interesting, and always challenging. This part sounds entirely miserable to most of you, but it's probably my favorite part. I was grinning from ear to ear in the dark, but of course nobody could tell.
Things continued to go smoothly through mile 21 where I got some food and changed from my jacket into a vest. The next seven miles were more challenging. Not as challenging as a normal marathon, but I wasn't drinking enough water and eating enough food. This mistake caused me to get really tired, a little bleary-eyed, and a bit grumpy. I rolled into Aid Station #5 at 28 miles, desperate for food and drink. I drank water, sports drink, 2 cups of chicken soup, handfuls of potato chips (yummy salt), and handfuls of M+Ms (yummy sugar). My awesome support crew (aka my wife, Cindy) refilled my CamelBak with water and got me fresh shoes and socks. The new shoes felt so WONDERFUL that it seemed as if I had been running on wood slats for the first 28 miles of the race. It's amazing what happens to shoes (and your feet) when you run through ice-cold bog water, coat them with mud, and run a few dozens miles in them. Yuck! Fresh shoes and socks felt like fluffy pink slippers, potato chips tasted better than fine gourmet food, and Cindy's kiss...well, you get the picture! I was back on the trail feeling very refreshed, only 22 miles to go!
I kept chugging along and noted the exact moment I crossed the 33-mile point. From here on out was uncharted territory for me. I had never run this far before, but it came and went without stumble or surprise, not even a trumpet blast from heaven! Then came mile 35, still doing okay. I suspect I could have run a bit faster during the day, but I must admit I was a bit scared. What if I went out too fast, completely imploding in cramps, vomiting, diarrhea (sorry for being gross, but they're all fairly common for this kind of event), or worse? And what if all of that happened 10, 15, or 20 miles from the finish line? Running 50 miles seemed hard enough. I didn't want to be a hero and I had no hope of winning, so I settled for finishing with a "comfortable" pace.
That strategy seemed to be working. Mile 35 came and went. Mile 40 came and went. The last aid station at mile 46 came and went and all I needed was a few grapes and a cup of cold water. I only had 4 miles to go, and I was feeling strong. I knew at this point that even if I fell and broke my leg (sorry for being morbid, but you're mind goes strange places out there) I could belly crawl the last four miles and still make the 12-hour cutoff. I saw Cindy one last time and started to pick it up for the last few miles. I passed a few folks on my way back to the finish and enjoyed hearing the wind blow strongly (like 15-20 MPH) through the trees.
I had one more mile of big hills and I finally emerged from the woods for the home stretch. Just three quarters of a mile back to the finish line. Cindy was there waiting for me, camera in hand and cheering loudly. My strong kick (and 8:30 last mile) made me realize I had sand-bagged the race a bit, but I was happy just to finish. I cruised across the finish line feeling like I could have run a few more miles, but not wanting to take another step. It was a very emotional moment and I would have cried, but I was too tired.
Cindy met me right away in the finish chute with a big hug and kiss. She probably regrets that now because I smelled like...ya know what, I don't think any of us knows what I smelled like, but it wasn't pleasant. Possibly not even natural. Definitely not normal. Anyway, I felt good considering what I had just done. There is something funny about races like this though. When I'm done I'm not sure which force wins out: being tired FROM running or being tired OF running. Either way, mission accomplished!
Before I'm done I want to leave you with a few photos and and several thanks!
First, thank you to my wife, Cindy, who is my best friend, my greatest encourager, my beautiful bride, and still the fastest runner in the house! She was an awesome support crew all day, supplying me with everything a dirty, tired runner might need.
Second, thank you to Andrew, Katie, and Joshua, our precious children that fill our lives with joy, adventure, and lots of small plastic toys. Thank you for your encouragement and prayers for Daddy's big race. You guys are the best!
And finally, thank you to so many friends and family who sponsored me for this race and helped me raise funds for needy children through Compassion International. My goal was to raise $5,000 (100 per mile) and your generosity helped me crest the $4,200 mark. It's not too late (never is) to make a donation to this great cause, so if you've been inspired, please consider making a donation at <https://www.compassion.com/contribution/>. If you do, please shoot me an email and let me know the amount of your donation so I can add it to my totals.
And finally, a few photos that capture the day...
A cold, dark start at 6am.
Alternating swigs of sports drink and hot chicken noodle soup. The body needs lots of sodium and other electrolytes for a race like this, and Campbell's Chicken Noodle gets the job done.
Swapping socks and shoes at mile 28. Red shoes make me feel fast!
The last turn toward the finish chute after running 50 miles!
Cindy, my awesome "crew babe" got me through the day!