We made a quick pit stop at Starbucks. The caffeine and pretentiousness would give as a boost early in the race. I ordered a large… err, I mean venti… to get a little extra helping of both. Since I was the only one that had eaten, we stopped at a staple of Ontario and New York- a Tim Hortons. I don’t believe I had ever experienced a Tim Hortons, so it felt slightly exotic. While their breakfast sandwiches sounded very good, I opted for a bagel and glazed sour cream donut. I decided to save both for the early stages of the race. Mark received an extra-special treat when the bagel girl asked him “Would you like anything done to your bagel?” I’m pretty sure he declined. Once in the car, I suggested he asked “Are you familiar with the game of ring-toss?” Mark gave the standard male response, “It would have to be a pretty big bagel.”
We arrived at the park, drove past the zoo, and made our way to the tiny lake and surrounding asphalt path we’d become intimately familiar with over the next 12+ hours. We parked the car, scanned the surroundings, and started unloading our gear. Shelley V. came by to welcome and direct us to the packet pickup area. Here we met Liz, Shelley’s friend we know from Facebook. After getting our swag bags, I attached my race bib to my shorts. I anticipated that I’d be changing shirts often; this will prevent having to move my bib. We procured our timing chips which were embedded in Velcro ankle bands. Jesse told us they were triathlon bands. I like this idea. The absence of shoes makes it difficult to attach chips. Nice touch, Shelley!
I ate my Tim Horton’s bagel as we were called to the line. Our entire group moved to the back. Jesse and I had joked about asking where the starting blocks were located or lining up in a sprinter’s stance, but we decided against it. Maybe next year. After a brief review of the course rules, there was some sort of signal the race began. Funny how I never remember what exactly started the race.
It’s worth noting- Shelley made a rule that running on the right (outside) grassy area off the asphalt path was allowed, but running on the inside (left) was prohibited and may result in disqualification. She noted this several times in all rules, and gave us a verbal warning before the race. I’ll talk about this later as it was the lone disappointment for this race.
All of us took the conservative approach. The four of us ran together for a lap or two, then Shelly fell back a bit. Mark, Jesse, and I stayed together a bit longer. At this point, we were running at about a 10:20 pace. Bill, who had warned us about starting too fast, lapped us at least once in the first few laps. He appeared to be running at around an 8:30 pace. Clearly his definition of starting too fast was different than our definition. We wondered aloud if his advice was just meant to build an early lead. We had a good laugh and continued on.
After the first hour, Jesse and I decided to quicken the pace. I settled into a comfortable 8:50-9:20 pace while Jesse moved slightly faster. The first three hours were uneventful. I chatted with some runners, made sure I consumed plenty of HEED (my preferred sport drink), and monitored various things like chafing and the condition of my feet. At some point during this time, Jesse and I decided to occasionally hop on a series of ornamental rocks along the outside of the path. The idea was simple- it would help break up the physiological monotony of the flat loop. It would be distant approximation to trail running. I only did it every few laps until about hour five. At that point, my legs were too stiff to safely jump. Jesse continued the routine for the entire race. I wondered if the other runners assumed it was a show of arrogance instead of a feeble attempt by us trail runners to compete with these superior road runners.
Since I was running the race barefoot, abrasions and terrain variation was important. If I run on the same surface (i.e. asphalt) for more than about 20 miles, I start to develop top of the foot pain. Also, I was mildly worried about blistering after 12 hours on asphalt. To combat this, I ran on the grass along the outside of the asphalt loop for about 3/5 of the loop. The slight variation in terrain and the need to hop around to avoid sticks, goose poop, and other such debris gave me just enough variety to avoid both top of the foot pain and blisters. The strategy worked marvelously!
Around mile 15 I decided to eat my donut. I took the first bite and almost immediately vomited. I LOVE sugary food early in races, but there’s a finite point where the taste becomes absolutely repulsive. This almost always happens around mile 15-18. This would force me to rely on my as-of-yet unproven fuel source… the Mike’s Hard lemonade and chia seed iskiate. It’s not true iskiate. I pour about two or three ounces of liquid into a cup, dump in a scoop of chia, and immediately drink it. If the chia seeds are allowed to sit in the cup, they will quickly absorb water. It’s like drinking a cup of frog eyes. By drinking immediately, it went down smooth. The carbonation of the Mikes was a welcome treat. Since I usually prefer de-fizzed Coke or Mountain Dew, I was surprised to find the carbonation in the Mike’s to be refreshing.
When I began using the Mike’s iskiate, I tried opening the bottle thinking it was a twist-off. I cut my hand a bit. On my next loop, I asked Shelley if they had a bottle opener. The advantage of a loop course- I just kept running, picked it up on the next lap, then gave it back on the lap after that. Imagine how silly I felt after realizing Mike’s Hard Lemonade really was a twist-off… I was just too much of a wussy to open it.
The first three hours went by quickly. I enjoyed chatting with a few people, many of which belonged to Ultrarunning Matters. This is the club that sponsored the race. They were such a supportive, accepting group, I decided to join! I also met Linda Brooks, a runner I knew from the Kickrunners “Extreme Running” forum. She was responsible for giving me the ‘Runner of the week” idea I brought to Runners World.
This is probably when I reached the highest point on the leader board. I believe I made it to fifth. It was pretty exciting to see my name that high, but I knew it wouldn’t last. At the very least, Jesse was below me at that point. I knew it was only a matter of time before he leapfrogged me.
Mild stiffness had set in around mile 12-15 or so. By mile 20, things were starting to hurt. This is a pretty familiar pattern I’ve experienced in more or less every race. From mile 20 until about 25, I felt relatively good. I think this was about the time I ran by Jim. To say he looked bad would be an understatement. His face was caked with salt. His walk was decidedly Lurch-like. I asked him how he was doing. In a barely-audible whisper, he responded with something about Perpetuem. For the uninitiated, Perpetuem is a high-calorie drink designed for endurance athletes. It has the consistency of chalky curdled milk. Pine cones would be easier to digest. Anyway, I walked with him for about thirty feet. He said he was going to keep going. I think I may have blabbered something about this being good training for Burning River, then continued running. I wouldn’t see Jim for awhile after that.
As the race ambled on, I was eventually passed by a few runners. The leaders were plugging away with amazing consistency. Jesse was looking great. Shelly was doing well. Shelley V. kept me updated on her progress; informing me of the points where she surpassed the marathon point and eventually 50k point. Mark was doing well, too. I knew he was a few laps behind. When we would both meet at our junk pile of gear, he complained about his legs quite a bit. Since he had never surpassed the marathon distance, this was new territory for him. At some point, he came up with an idea… he was going to take off his shoes.
Mark had tried barefoot running once that I was aware of. He ran about a quarter of a mile on a trail. Now he was going to ditch his shoes? When people begin barefoot running, I advise them to start with a quarter mile. This was a half mile loop. I warned him repeatedly about the dangers of doing too much too soon. He nodded and gave me the same look my students give when asked “Are you sure you understand the directions?” I then ran ahead… I couldn’t watch this.
At around the same time, Mark also solicited a massage from an older guy that was crewing for the eventual winner of the race. I didn’t witness this, but the guy apparently gave Mark three foot and leg massages over the course of the race. I’m still a bit confused as to how the topic of massages came up, but Mark swore it helped his performance. The massages did nothing to make us forget Mark’s “Sign me up!” exclamation from the previous night.
Throughout the rest of the race, I saw Mark five or six times. Most of the time he was shoeless; only wearing his Injinji toe socks. Every time I saw him, I warned him about the potential dangers. He gave me the same defiant nod every time. He even yelled one of our now-trademarked “Shoes are for suckas!” mottos.
My lowest point of the race came sometime after Mark ditched his shoes for the first time. It was between hours five and six. It must have been around 25-28 miles or so. I hit a major funk. It wasn’t quite as bad as the 100 miler funks I’ve experienced, but it was difficult to run. Everything hurt. I felt very uncoordinated as I attempted to achieve some consistency. Luckily, the funk ended around hour six.
The half-way point. It time was going by quickly… except for the last hour. I pounded a little extra chia and Mike’s, ate some Sport Beans, and even ate some aid station food… which I think was pizza. The odd thing about this point- my memory is very sketchy. Quick sidebar- Shelley’s aid station was absolutely fabulous! The selection of food was top-notch. She had all they typical ultra foods, including candy, sandwiches, pizza, and cookies. The official drink was HEED, which I was thankful for. It’s my preferred drink and infinitely better than Gatorade.
There were some interesting groups in the park throughout the day. There was a large group playing baseball for at least an hour or two. The scary part- they were using part of the course as their left field foul line. With each lap, you’d nervously run by the group. As you passed, you’d flinch at the metallic ping of each ball that was hit. Luckily, no runners were capped.
I’m not sure what rescued my from the funk, but the next hour was a major high. I ran some of my fastest laps at this point. I only made one quick stop for some iskiate. At the end of the hour (seven down, five to go), I started fading. I knew I would have to employ a good run/walk strategy. For the next three hours, I would walk one lap, them run the rest of the hour. I think I was averaging about 4.5 miles per hour using this technique.
Toward the end of my high lap, a group of four 15-16 year old adolescents (best guess) started milling about on the course. Based on their dress and mannerisms, I would use the term “hood rat” to describe their appearance. They often walked four-wide, thus blocking the entire path. I managed to avoid them because I encountered them on the “grass” sections. As a high school teacher, I was intimately familiar with their “we own this place” attitude. Oh, how I wanted to belt out a good-ole’ “GET OFF THE ROAD!” in my best teacher voice. Eventually they left without incident.
Those hours between seven and ten hours were very familiar. it’s the point where you develop what I like to call an “ultra hurt.” Your legs are no longer capable of full range of motion. you’ve experienced a few cycles of highs and lows. The areas you forgot to lube are burning from the chafing. You repeatedly ask yourself why you subject yourself to this punishment. You consider retiring from ultras and focusing on something easier… like recreational jelly fish wrestling. In other words… it’s what running ultras is all about!
I would be remiss if I did not mention Rebecca Schaefer and her mom. Along with Jesse, she was the youngest runner. This was Rebecca’s first ultra. She placed second out of all females with a hair under 60 miles. Her mom was crewing for her and walked in the opposite direction around the loop… for the entire 12 hours! I don’t remember, but she racked up over 30 miles herself!
During those three hours of walking/running, my pace would slow as each hour passed. Each walking break would rejuvenate me to a degree. At the beginning of hour seven, I was running at about a 9:30 pace. By hour ten, I was reduced to a 14:00 mile pace. My lack of crosstraining and speedwork were apparent at this point. This would give me a good list of things to improve and sharpen prior to Burning River at the end of July.
Somewhere near hour ten, a portly, drunk lady started wandering the course. As I ran by her, she mumbled something about “goin’ fishin’ bit later.” She also warned me about running around barefoot with a hearty “You gonna step in a bear trap or sumpin’ like that!” It’s good to have people looking out for your well-being.
The part of the race that disappointed me was the apparent cutting of the course. After the first few hours, a definite line appeared on one of the inner parts of the course immediately past the wooden bridge. This path was identical to the paths along the outside of the circle. Shelley has clearly explained that the inner grass was off-limits. Based on the trail that was blazed, it was obvious it was not a solitary occurrence. At first, I thought it may have been Rebecca’s mom. I was dismayed to see the blades of grass pointing in the direction we were running… it was definitely a runner.
I’m not normally the kind of person that follows rules. Running is different, though. This is especially true in an ultra. There is no prize money. The competition could best be described as “friendly.” The greatest competitor in any ultra is yourself. I simply cannot fathom how a runner could allow themselves to do anything so obviously outside the rules and still feel good about their performance. Alas, I did not actually observe anyone cutting the course. Still, it left a very bad taste in my mouth. In the event the person cutting the course happens to read this- shame on you for taking the easy way out. Sure, it may have amounted to a minuscule distance, but the rest of us made the effort to run the longer circles along the outside grass. When it comes to race ethics, this one is even worse than being rude to volunteers.
Back to the positive stuff- a little after the ten hour mark, I made it to mile 50. That was my minimal goal. My running pace was reduced to about 14:00 miles, but I was prepared to keep plugging along. Then I met up with Shelly at our junk pile. She asked me if I wanted to walk a lap with her. We don’t get to spend a ton of time together with our three kids and busy lives, so I jumped at the opportunity. We walked a lap. Then another. And we spent the last hour and a half walking, talking, and joking. We were both physically exhausted, but we were having tons of fun. I think I fell two spots on the leader board because of my walking, but I would make the same decision again. I could tell by the looks of my competitors that they didn’t quite understand why I was walking. I probably looked pretty good. Minimally, I was smiling most of the way. I was okay with letting others pass me; it allowed me to watch many great success stories. Also, running 12 hours is a testament to what Shelly and I will do to get a babysitter for our three lovely but “spirited” children.
One of the best parts of the timed race format is the finish. Once Shelly and I finished, we were able to congratulate our fellow runners as they finished. We took some pictures, shook hands, thanked the volunteers, and slowly packed our gear in the car.
Shelley held the awards ceremony over pizza in a cabin-like building near the loop. The pizza tasted magical after hours of running! We talked with Rebecca and her mom for a bit, saw the award winners, then decided to head out. Even though we knew we had more than enough time, we didn’t want to risk the “liqueur store debacle” we experienced the previous night. After all, we’d need our “joint juice” to help us forget the pains of having run for 12 hours! For those that have read and will continue to read the other installments of this race report, this is where the “egg” jokes originated. Jesse won a cool large wooden egg “trophy” for his great finish. It would become the butt of many jokes. Heh, heh.
Here are just a few of the stories from the race:
Shelly: Shelly finished with 40.2 miles, which almost doubled her previous long run. This was Shelly’s first ultra. Actually, it was her first race beyond a 25k. I was very proud of her for keeping moving for the entire 12 hours. She ran the race in Vibrams… only her third in minimalist shoes. She far surpassed her goals prior to the race. I also loved walking those last laps with her. It gave us a chance to talk about the experience while it was happening. It also gave me the chance to truly enjoy our surroundings.
Jesse: Jesse finished with 63.7 miles, which almost doubled his previous long run. He placed fifth overall. He represented minimalist runners very well by running the entire race in Vibrams. The most astounding things I saw all day was Jesse’s last lap. He ran his last half mile in 2:44 or so. I can’t run an 800 when I’m fresh; he did it after running for 12 HOURS! The ultra world will be hearing Jesse’s name very often in the near future.
Mark: Mark finished with 51.5 miles, which almost doubled his previous long run also (see a pattern here.) What makes this even more astounding is that Mark ran about 17 miles in socks. At some point, Jesse and I commented that we’d feel a bit douchey for always recommending people exercise extreme caution when beginning barefoot running… then Mark runs 17 miles in socks. After the race, Mark commented that he could not have made it to 50 miles without the variety provided by switching from his foot coffins to the socks. He’s become our new poster boy.
Jim: Jim finished with 54 miles. Based on how he looked earlier in the race, I was positive he would have dropped out (or would have been pulled for medical reasons.) Not only did he survive that low, he went on to grind out some amazing mileage. I had some reservations about having convinced him to try Burning River, but I think he’ll do just fine.
Mark Seigers: Mark was the overall winner with 87.3 miles. Watching him was simply amazing. His average pace was faster than my fastest pace. If I ever have any dreams of becoming a decent ultrarunner, this is what I need to be able to do.
Bill McGovern: Bill didn’t win, but he did run 71.6 miles. Watching his approach was the best education I could have received during the race. I am grateful I had the opportunity to talk to him before and after the race.
The volunteers: The volunteers for the race clapped and cheered every single time we passed… for the entire 12 hours! Psychologically, this was an incredible lift. As soon as we’d enter the aid tent, they would quickly tend to our every need. I would do this race again just to have that support!
The other runners’ crews: The really unexpected source of support came from the other runners’ crews. Special mention goes to the gentleman manning the UM aid tent (at least I think that’s what it was.) Collectively, they added an entire layer of friendliness and welcoming to the event.
Shelley V.: Shelley did an amazing job organizing this event. It was obvious every detail had been thought out and execution was flawless. She has often touted the appeal of these silly events where you run in a tiny circle for hours and hours. I was skeptical. Based on what she was able to accomplish with Mind the Ducks, she converted me. Unfortunately for other races, this is my new gold-standard for what an ultra event should be… a supportive, fun event that brings like-minded people together. I only hope we’ll be able to register for the 2011 MTD before registration fills up!
One disappointment I had- we never got to see Shelley run. I’ve known her for about a year. During that time, she’s blossomed as a runner. I can’t wait to have the opportunity to actually see her dominating races!
What? There’s more?!? Yes, I still have a few things to say about the return trip. I haven’t talked about the anus burgers, customs searching our car, the Mountain Dew scam, or Mark and Jesse’s “hide the trophy egg” game!
To be continued…