Sometimes I find myself wondering about people who are highly skilled at something and how they discovered that they were good at it. Maybe more importantly what if they weren’t exposed to the thing that they had become highly skilled at. Would they have been successful at something else? What if Michael Jordan had decided to focus on baseball after being cut from his high school basketball team? What if Yo-Yo Ma had been given a trumpet instead of a cello as a child? What if Eddie Van Halen hadn’t switched from piano and drums to guitar?
I was thinking about my running history the other day and was thinking about how I have found that I am really enjoying running trails and ultra-distance events. These are a new frontier for me and have certainly become a joy of late. Not that I’m any good at either, but it made me wonder what type of runner I really am. I regret that I didn’t have running in my life as a youth. I didn’t run track or cross country, but looking back on those types of running I wish I had experienced some of it. I have tried my hand at many types of running in my adult life and found that I love it all. But what am I best at? What distance or event do I perform best at? I’m not really sure.
Looking at my race results over the years I can see that I’m slightly faster than the average runners, usually placing in the top half of finishers or higher. In races, I almost always find myself alone chasing the faster runners ahead of me and yet gapping the rest of the field. I find that very interesting. It happens in almost every race, including the 25K trail race I did last month. From 5K’s to marathons, that is where I fall.
But of the races I have done, which distance is the one I perform best at? I don’t feel like I have blazing fast 5K speed, yet I can usually win an age group award at it and finish in the top 10% or so in the local races. That’s pretty good I think. My 5K PR is 19:29, which isn’t all that quick. My current average 5K time is over 22 minutes, thanks to getting older. I’ve been fast enough at marathons to qualify for the Boston Marathon three times now. And the nine half-marathons that I have done, all have been 1:40 or under, and I have always thought that to be pretty good. I like to keep the challenge of being under 1:40 going, but as I get older that is going to be difficult. I can’t imagine trying to average 7:30 per mile for 13.1 miles right now.
Maybe short-distance running is my thing. I ran a 5:44 min/mile a couple of years ago. That was an all-out effort and I spent a good chunk of summer and fall prepping myself for that. Or maybe it isn’t a speed thing, but rather a distance challenge that I may personally excel at. I’m currently discovering pushing myself to go farther than I have ever run before and I keep surprising myself each time. Maybe long and slow is the way!
I have heard the term “jack of all trades, master of none” before and maybe that’s the type of runner I am. Maybe I’m just good enough at a variety of distances, but just not ever going to be the top dog at any one of them. I guess there’s some fulfillment in that as a running journey.
What is your best event or distance? Did you know it right away or did it eventually come to you?
After giving myself a brief few days to recover from running 41 miles at the Big Hill Bonk event last week, I felt like I was ready to start getting at it again. The weather was not cooperating, however, so I opted for a bike spin on Tuesday. That went okay and seeing that Wednesday was looking good to get outside, I planned a longer ride.
It felt great to toss my leg over the bike again. I hadn’t ridden a bike since Ironman Chattanooga last September, so I was looking forward to spinning the wheels for a while. It didn’t take long to see how out of cycling shape I was. Although I was just trying to take it easy, I was working pretty hard at it. Then my foot started having nerve pain that was very problematic last year. And then the calf cramps kicked in. I pulled the plug and cut the ride short. Not quite the welcome back to cycling that I was hoping for.
The first run after my ultra was a quick 3-miler on the dreadmill. Also not quite the welcome back to running that I had hoped for, but probably the best for me. The weekend came along with some decent enough weather to get outside. I ran eight miles on Saturday with no problems and then ran 11.5 miles on Sunday. Nice and slow and no eagerness to rush anything.
Sunday actually felt like a nice spring day. I can almost feel like winter is finally dying and I might even mow the grass this week. Warm weather would definitely be welcomed back.
Now that the first event of the season is out of the way, it’s time to start thinking about the remainder of running year. I’ll probably dial back the cycling. I’m a little worried about the nerve pain coming back, and once it is there it takes a while to go away. I handled it last year by making some alterations to my insert, adding some padding and loosening my shoe up a bit. I received some gravel-style cycling shoes over Christmas for my gravel bike, which might be more comfortable to use. I just haven’t switched out the pedals for them yet.
The only other races I have on the calendar are the Chicago Marathon in October, and Tunnel Hill 100 in November. Tunnel Hill is my “A” race and the focus. I want to check that 100-mile finish off of the list of running things I have yet to accomplish. Last year I was a little bit undertrained, both physically and mentally. I’ll be putting in some longer miles and spend more time on my feet for it this time. I’ll probably use Chicago for a training run, but I may also give using a run/walk method of running it a try and see if I can fine tune it to get me close to another Boston Marathon qualifier.
Kari and I booked an anniversary trip to Italy at the end of September, early October. It’s a hiking tour and there will be a lot of hiking/walking involved. It comes two weeks before Chicago, but I think it will provide a good taper for me.
I finally feel like I can start building a good base and enjoy a season of running. Welcome back!
BIG HILL BONK – WISCONSIN’S BACKYARD ULTRA – LAST RUNNER STANDING RACE REPORT
April Fool’s Day can be cruel and fun at the same time, and since the second running of the Big Hill Bonk happened to occur on April 1st, thirty-one runners including myself set out to do some foolhardy running through the woods of Beloit, Wisconsin. Foolish as it may seem to run an unknown and unlimited amount of 4.167-mile trips around the park, it was also a ton of fun. April Fool’s Day treated us to a cold morning start, and a campsite with an inch of snow on the ground to place our tents upon, but that didn’t seem to bother any of us. The day would stay sunny all day long and warm up to the mid-forties providing a mostly comfortable day of running.
Kari and I set up our tent and I made my way into the Welty Center to check in and get my bib and swag. I said hello to the race director Tyler, made my way over to the table, and was greeted by Tyler’s dad, who knew my name and said he loved reading my blog posts about training for last year’s race. I’m always surprised when someone tells me they have read my blog. It wouldn’t be the last time I was greeted with “you’re the guy with the blog!” A travel coffee mug with the Big Hill Bonk on it was the swag in place of a t-shirt this year, and I gladly filled it up with some warm coffee and made my way back to the tent to get off my feet and keep warm, thanks to a little propane-fueled camp heater I picked up just for this occasion.
I believe I was one of three who had run the 2021 inaugural edition of the Big Hill Bonk to return for some more “fun” in 2022. Of course, the other two returning runners were last year’s winner Jon, and another runner named Zac, who would be the one to make sure Jon didn’t have a walk in the park win this time around. There were a couple of other significant differences between the 2021 event and this one. First, 2021 was held in August and started at 5:30 pm. This year it was moved to April, the race director Tyler’s personal preference, and we started at 10 am. So nine out of the ten yards I did was done with daylight, and I barely needed the headlamp on the last yard. It was also much colder, which I think helped prevent me from overheating and getting somewhat dehydrated like I did last year, although I was still sweating and couldn’t find a comfortable amount of layers. It was much warmer at the bottom of the course than it was at the top, and I would overheat walking up the Big Hill. Then when we hit the road for the last mile, the cold breeze was in our face and made for a slightly uncomfortable finish to the yard. Since there was snow on the ground when we began the event, I jokingly told Tyler that I was circulating a petition to get it moved back to August. But as the race progressed I’m not sure what time of year I prefer to run this type of event. I think I have more experience managing myself in the heat than the cold. It’s easier, too. Just one layer – no hats, gloves, extra pants, or other things to keep me warm.
ONTO THE YARDS
As we heard the first three whistles, letting us know that the race would begin in three minutes, we all started to stir and made our way to the starting area. I met a young man named Blair who advised that he had read my blog to gain some insight about this event. I took an immediate liking to Blair and I would spend almost the entirety of my yards running with him. We had some great conversations about ultra-running. It also helped that we were running at roughly the same pace. I was enjoying not only Blair’s company, but there were plenty of others to enjoy conversations with this time around.
Last year everyone seemed to be more serious and less talkative. A couple of ladies named Stefanie and Kerri would strike up a bond and provide a lot of positive energy for the rest of us. I asked them on one of the yards if they had known each other beforehand. Nope, they met that day and were instant pals. I loved seeing the others finding the right group for themselves. It was an eclectic group for sure. There was a guy wearing a yellow and blue jacket, who had to lead every lap and finish each lap before everyone else. Not always the best tactic in this kind of event, but he seemed determined to own that. Another guy wore just a singlet and shorts, while the rest of us had on a few layers. There was a guy who ran in sandals, which is something I could never do. Another entrant was a kid who looked about 15-years old, but I learned was 18. He was a machine and made each yard look like it was nothing. I think that I was the oldest entrant, most of the others were well under 40. The only other guy in his 50’s was very consistent with his effort and was locked in. He outlasted me.
The first yard was done with snow covering the ground, but I somehow avoided getting wet shoes/feet. By the third yard, the snow would be gone for the most part, with the exception being a few areas in the woods shaded from the sun. The most technical part of the course is the descent from the top of the hillside down toward the path that would lead to the lowest part of the course. It was a little muddy and slippery, and I had seen some muddy legs from a few runners who may have slipped on this portion of the course. I took my time on it, as losing my footing would have meant a pretty good tumble down the hill. Some of the runners commented on how they weren’t expecting the obstacles that we had to get over and around, but I think they all found the course to be a lot of fun.
As we came to the finish line of the first yard, everyone pretty much started shedding the layers that they had overestimated needing. I was certainly in that group. I took the windbreaker off and went to a thinner pair of gloves. One guy had said that he was switching to just a t-shirt. But figuring out the right combination of layers and clothing was one of the harder things to figure out for the day. One runner had doubled up on running tights and was stripping down to just a single layer after the first yard. I’d start slightly cool, but at about a mile into the run we would head up a steep hill and I would get warm. The lowest portion of the course was the warmest, thanks to the namesake Big Hill shielding us from the wind coming from the west. Getting up the hill and onto the road for the last mile back into the finish area was the coolest, and I often wished I had another layer at that point.
In regard to hydration and nutrition, I think I handled it a little bit better this year. I had a decent breakfast at the hotel around 7 am, and I saw an opportunity to use the heater I bought to not only warm up the tent but to toast a Pop-Tart, which I promptly ate just before the start. I had purchased a Jimmy John’s roast beef sandwich on Thursday and was able to eat about three 2-inch sliced portions of it throughout the day. I snacked on potato chips, pretzels, a Payday bar, and yogurt in addition to eating some GU gel every lap. I also downed some Gatorade and a Lipton Brisk Raspberry Tea for the caffeine. Blair had said that he was sticking primarily with liquid nutrition, but that is never enough for me. The young kid was eating a banana often and I was kicking myself for not having a few on hand.
As for the rest of the yards, I will summarize: The day warmed up, the whistles blew, we lined up and went again, occasionally someone would drop, the guy in the yellow and blue jacket would lead us all in, and we would come back for a quick rest in the tent, eat some food, and then do it all again. A guy named Doug said he read my blog, as well as the kid – well, the kid admitted that his dad had read the blog and told him about it. When the kid saw that I was still going on Yard 9, he was genuinely happy for me to get past what I had accomplished last time. It eventually got dark and the winner from last year would get the win after 25 yards (104.2 miles).
I ran the last yard with Kerri, a runner from South Dakota, who had also said that she was dropping after ten laps. We teamed up to get through that last yard and she made the mistake of telling me that she was interested in doing an Ironman, and then had to listen to my lecture on how to do an Ironman. I’m not sure if she’ll still want to do one after that.
After getting back to the tent and giving my wife Kari and much deserved hug, I had walked over to Blair’s tent nearby and thanked him for making my day and dragging my butt through 40+ miles. The day ended with me sitting in the tent with a blanket wrapped around me and huddled in front of the heater to keep me warm as Kari began the process of tearing down our stuff and hauling it to the car. I spotted a gentleman walking by my tent and he backtracked after seeing me and said “way to go – seriously, great job!” I think he was impressed someone near his age could keep up with these young guys and gals for as long as I did. Maybe next year I’ll shoot for 12 yards. There’s still a lot of miles left in these legs.
Thinking of doing a backyard ultra/last runner standing event like the Big Hill Bonk? Here are a few pointers.
Having a tent as a home base is very helpful. You may not need it, but if the weather turns it could come in handy.
Bring extra running gear – shoes, socks, shirts, hats, etc. I sweat in summer and winter, and I made several clothing changes.
Sunscreen and lip balm are your friends. I had sunscreen on my face, but forgot to put some on my bald head. My chapped lips are still trying to feel normal three days later.
There are some common drop points in the race where it’s common to see people decide they are done – hitting the yards and covering the marathon, 50K, 50 mile, 100K, and of course the 100 mile marks. Make those your goals, or know to avoid them if you are not trying to hit a specific mileage.
Train for it like it was an ultra.
Have a support system or crew if allowed. My wife Kari was so helpful in having my water bottles replenished, my food ready, my change of clothes laid out, and give the emotional encouragement that is so important.
Although there’s usually some great ultra-type food buffet options at the event, bring some food that you know works for you.
Make some friends on the first lap and enjoy the company!