2022 Tunnel Hill 100 – Improving on 2021

I have been quietly putting in the running miles for Tunnel Hill 100 in November.  As I run, I have a lot of time to think about the enormity of running 100 miles – the training, the race, the external needs, etc.  I attempted the 100-mile run in 2021, but ultimately dropped at the 50-mile finish and was allowed to accept the 50-mile finisher award.  I was warned as a 100-mile registrant to resist the urge to quit at 50 by many different people but quit I did.  I’m not ashamed of it at all, as completing 50 miles is a pretty impressive accomplishment.  But as all of the people warning me indicated, I would regret it sooner or later.  For me, it was sooner.  By the time I had gotten to the hotel, cleaned up, and had some food, I was already regretting it.  I felt that I let myself down, my son and my daughter-in-law who had come to pace me, and my wife who was there for support and provide all the dumb things I needed to go 100 miles.  They were there and ready to do their jobs, I just didn’t do mine.

Continuing past the 50-mile mark while attempting to hit 100 should have been a no-brainer.  I often say that the hardest part of any run is taking the first step, as once you get started you often will finish the job.  But I just didn’t take that first step past the halfway point.  I spent miles 30 to 49 debating with myself as to whether to drop at 50 0r keep going.  I vacillated back and forth many times, but at the time I was worn out, tired and sore and felt that going on would have been rough on me.  I guess I was afraid of what was to come and getting the 50-mile finish was a pretty good consolation prize.  Until it wasn’t.

I have spent many a training mile thinking about the mistake or mistakes I made last time, but I am reluctant to call them mistakes.  I think that making improvements on what happened would be more productive, so I am focusing on the positive and trying to make improvements.  Here are some of the things I have been thinking about improving upon.

DO THE APPROPRIATE TRAINING – My first attempt at Tunnel Hill in 2021 became a secondary event to Ironman Chattanooga when Covid-19 messed up my plans and put the two races in the same calendar year.  Nothing I could do about it, but at the time I chose to make Chatty my priority, and focus my training on the Ironman and hope that it would be enough to get me through the ultramarathon.  I’m not totally convinced that the Ironman training I was doing wasn’t enough to get me through 100 miles, but it’s really hard to substitute swimming/biking/running for just long-running.  This time I decided to focus my training on just doing the ultra.  I haven’t even raced a sprint triathlon or 5K this year, I’m just doing long, slow distance running.

TRAIN THE BRAIN – Ironman can be emboldening, making you believe that “anything is possible” (a motto of theirs), so I thought that if I can finish an Ironman (or now five of them) I can easily get through an ultra.  Boy, I underestimated the ultra distance and what it took mentally to get through it.  Pushing on was something I wasn’t able to do.  How do you get over that mental hurdle?  I’m still trying to figure it out, but for now, I keep pushing myself out the door when I need to do so.  In marathon training, you typically build to one 20-mile training run before the race.  I’ve done several 18-milers and a couple of 20-mile runs so far, with many more to do.  I need to get those distances in not only for my legs but for my mind as well.  I’m guessing with the miles I run and the time I put into them, my mind will get used to being along for the ride.

Right now it’s summer and it’s been a hot and humid one too.   I have to resist the temptation to judge where I will be in November based on where I’m at now.  My brain sometimes tells me that I’m going to struggle with this, but it’s all because I’m currently struggling with heat and humidity.  Got to get through the plan and get close to race day, then I will know where I stand.

USE THE GADGETS – I acquired what I thought I might need to run long distances – shoes with more cushion, shoe gaiters, trekking poles, headlamps, portable watch and phone chargers, and other odds and ends, but I haven’t really used them much.  Last year I did use the lights from about mile 35 to 50, but I wasn’t used to running with them.  I did very little training running with lights, and they can be kind of weird.  Some runners say that the bouncing movement of the light from a headlamp can make them feel a little unbalanced.  I didn’t really have a problem with that, but I can see it having a strobe light-type effect.  I did practice with the watch charger in training last year, but having a new watch with better battery life might make them unnecessary.  I think the watch will last the full 100 miles.  But I should probably refresh myself on how to use them while running.

DO SOME NIGHTTIME RUNNING – My wife Kari “coaches” me often with thoughtful suggestions, and one of them that I could benefit from is doing some nighttime running.  Tunnel Hill starts at 7am in November and you had daylight until about 4:30pm, so not even 10 hours of sunlight.  The majority of the race will be run in the dark.  Last year it was so dark in southern Illinois that without the light I couldn’t see anything.  There were people coming back to finish 50 miles without lights and I had no idea how they were staying on the path!  Some practice running at night with lights would be a good idea.  But I think she is also suggesting that I run at night when it’s the time of day that I’m getting tired.  I don’t really remember feeling “sleepy” tired last year, thanks to caffeine, more of a fatigued muscles-type tired.  But it is a good suggestion.  I will suggest that she join me.

RE-EVALUATE YOUR EXPECTATIONS – Last year I had no idea what to expect and just going off of what my training leading up to the race was telling me, I foolishly thought that a sub-24-hour finish was probable.  Heck, I was averaging 5.5 miles every hour in training and thinking a sub-20-hour finish might happen!  Man, did that race teach me a lesson.  I did happen to finish the 50 in 11 hours and 32 minutes, but there was no way I was going to be able to do another 12-hour 50 miles.  The experience from last year has made me adjust my expectations a little.  I’m still going to shoot for around 24 hours, but the overall goal, and one I can’t overlook, IS TO FINISH THE DAMN DISTANCE!

WHAT THE PACE? – One of the crucial elements of running 100 miles is going at a pace that won’t kill you too soon, and I think I blew this part of it last year.  That’s a surprising statement seeing that my local friends all went out much faster than me for the first 25 miles of it.  It was quite a shock to be bringing up the rear when I was holding a sub-20 pace myself!  With the exception of Leah, who turned in and impressive 22:54, Jim ended up slowing and dropping out around the 70 mile mark, and Jodi seemed to run out of gas as well, but added another exceptional finish to her ultra running resume.  I think that they tend to run until they can’t any more, and then walk some to recover.  I try to build walk breaks into my miles by run/walking, essentially running four minutes and then walking for 2.  But am I doing enough walking?

As I mentioned above, I could hold 5.5 miles/hour fairly well, which gave me the expectations of easily going sub-24, but I tired and ended up slowing down in the last 15 miles pretty dramatically.  I settled on a 4-minute run/2-minute walk method in order to give me a break and keep me from overdoing it.  But I think it was still too fast.  Since I hit the 5-mile mark around 50 minutes, I have tinkered with walking the remaining 10-minutes of every hour.  This will give me an additional extended walking break, and still keep me on track.  I will see how this goes.

GET THE NUTRITION DIALED IN – In my five Ironman races I have been fortunate to have been pretty consistent with my in-race nutritional needs.  For some reason, I just struggle with it during training.  Lately I have been a little better, but on race days I tend to skip eating solid food when I shouldn’t.  Sometimes what the race is offering isn’t all that appetizing to me.  Sometimes I don’t eat enough.  My two Backyard Ultra races this year I struggled both times with getting enough food, even though I was trying to do better.  It’s tough to run on a full stomach, so I might have to experiment with eating more over a longer period of time, rather than just scarfing down a bunch of food in a 2-3 minute break.

~~~

So there you have it, I’m sticking to the plan, trusting it, doing the work, and trying to avoid the mistakes.  I just hope I’m not overthinking it.  Future updates to follow, I’m sure.  Thanks for reading.

The Illusion of Speed

I got some new shoes the other day and immediately felt faster. I wasn’t actually faster, but I felt like I was. I could think of a couple of reasons that made me feel that way.

First, I have been running in black colored shoes. I used to avoid black shoes because they had the opposite effect on me – they made me feel slow for some reason. Black just seems clunky in my head. But black goes best with my winter running gear, and I guess I just carried black shoes over into the summer. My new shoes are a light grey and when I started the run I felt like an Olympian, running with speed and grace.

The second reason is a little more obvious, they were new, felt springy, and I was bouncing along with seemingly less effort. Feeling faster from a new pair of shoes should make it easier, I suppose.

After that initial fast-feeling run, I was surprised to see that I really wasn’t any faster than most of the recent runs I had been doing.

The faster Hoka Bondi 8 on the left and my old and slow Hoka Bondi 7 on the right. Basically the same shoe.

There are other times when I felt like a piece of gear made me “feel” faster. Going from a road bike to an aero bike surely made me feel faster, and when I stay in aero I should definitely be faster. I noticed once that I was riding on the trail with my friend John, sitting upright and having a chat and traveling at the same speed, but when I went down into aero without changing my cadence, I slowly started to edge ahead.

Sticking with the bike, I added a set of FLO aero wheels to it and immediately felt fast. Aero wheels make your bike look fast standing still. They just look cool – and fast! FLO makes good wheels and the price is among the least expensive in the aero wheel market, so buying a set made me definitely feel faster and part of the cool kids club. How much faster are they? My combo set of wheels will save you maybe 6-10 minutes in an Ironman, according to the FLO wheels website. https://blog.flocycling.com/carbon-wheels/how-much-time-will-flo-wheels-save-me/ Not exactly blazing speed, but you believe it makes a difference. Still worth it, even if looking cool makes you feel faster.

I also bought an aero helmet, which I had read once that can make one faster for a lot less than a set of aero wheels. I’m wearing the dumb thing in the picture at the top of this blog. I have to admit I don’t really feel faster wearing it. I feel rather silly, actually. I will toss it on for sprints, but I’m not sure the aero advantage of it outweighs the overall protection of a regular cycling helmet in the event of a crash. My aero helmet just seems less protective. The dumb things that are on my mind while just riding and racing a bike are sometimes pretty deep.

What else can make you feel faster? A new racing kit? For sure. A new pair of socks? Yes sir. But do they actually make you faster? Well, sometimes you just got to go with what makes you feel like you are.

I’d love to hear what makes you feel faster. Add some suggestions in the comments below.

Long Run Motivation

I thought that I might try my hand at some poetry, so forgive me if I make a mockery of it. ~ Chris

~~~

LONG RUN MOTIVATION

Breakfast was had, time to head out / I have 20-miles planned, got to hit the route

Saturday long run is about to begin

I bring my phone, not a typical action / And choose some music for the distraction

I thumb through the artists held within

Begin the day with a friendly voice” / I kiss the wife goodbye, with Rush as the choice

Out the door with my favorite band

I cue up the watch for running and walking / GPS finds me and off I go jogging

Spray on some sunscreen, getting very tanned

Over the tracks I’ve been told not to cross / It’s Barney Fife’s personal albatross

One mile in and the sweat has begun

The weather has been dry / But the wildflowers are high

The nature preserve never fails to stun 

Over the bridge, the creek filled again / Yesterday provided the much-needed rain

Two miles from home is the watch alert

Out of the hills and onto the trail / Once upon a time there were trains on the rails

Mile three, starting to sweat through my shirt

Up ahead, I see a lady running with her dog / It’s my friend Julie with Blue – out for a jog

That’s something new for Julie to do

Miles four through ten were somewhat of a blur / Runners and bikers enjoying the day I figure

Maybe for their races, they’re training too

I hit Cherry Hill road, just as predicted / Time to turn around, but I’m not conflicted

Not going away from home any longer

At twelve and a half, the vest needed filling / I replaced the warm with water that was chilling

Eat a gel and candy bar, got me feeling stronger

Off the trail and into the preserve, three miles to go / The pep in my step had turned slow

Finishing the run with hills will eventually pay off

Hit the stop button at twenty, go jump in the pool / The run is done, it’s time to cool

Recovery time has begun, a Gatorade I quaff

But Sunday comes, I awaken to realize / Another long run is the plan’s surprise

Motivation is lacking, I still put on running gear

Another breakfast, I skip the music and running vest / Just a water bottle and off on another quest

Running on some sore legs is what I fear

But to my surprise, I feel really fresh / Maybe back-to-back long runs make my legs mesh

I’m quite surprised and skip the walk breaks

A different route, to east this time I go / Running through the hills, but I don’t feel slow

Muggy but not hot, I feel few aches

Once again, I turn onto Old Plank Trail / Seeing Angela, Susan, and John running help me sail

This run is going better than I was expecting

I hit the neighborhood, a little shy of 90 minutes / I add a little extra, I have no limits

Feeling good after two days of running, I’m not objecting

The hardest part of running long distance / Might be trying to find the persistance

Got to fight the desire to quit or not even begin

An emotional finish to a couple days of long running / To the starting line I will keep gunning

I’ve learned that what it takes I might have within

Thanks for reading.

The Father of the Groom Speech

For my son’s wedding, I was asked along with others in the family to give a brief speech at the reception. Below is my contribution. ~ Chris

Thank you all for joining us tonight. I’m so proud to know that my son has found the perfect life partner, and I’m so pleased to welcome not only Emily into our family but Emily’s family as well. And to everyone here enjoying this significant moment in our lives, I think of you as family too.

I may not like to admit it, but I might happen to be an old softie when it comes to romance. I love it when the guy gets the girl. My wife can attest that if a movie has some sort of romantic element as its focus, the guy better get the girl in the end or I’m not a happy camper. The movie that made me that way was an 80’s film called The Sure Thing. Now the sure thing, in this case, wasn’t about love really, it was more about… well, it was about having a fun time on a college break. I don’t think John Cusak’s character was really wanting the “sure thing” and Daphne Zuniga’s character definitely wasn’t going to be the “sure thing” either.

Ben had told me that Emily was sort of resistant to his advances at first, maybe making it clear that she was a strong woman who didn’t necessarily need a boyfriend. But the cross country and track team spirit must have led to meaningful interactions in which Ben got Emily to drop her guard a little.

Kari and I first met Emily after a Loras track meet, one that she would make a “splash” at, falling into the water pit of the steeplechase as I photographed her doing so. Rising from the cold pit of water, she charged onward, determined to still do the best she could. I was impressed with her effort. Afterward, she came by Ben’s dorm room as we were getting ready to leave and we were introduced. I could tell then that there was something special happening between them. Fortunately, the dating continued and romance bloomed. It wouldn’t be long before they shared long runs, a graduation ceremony, vacations up north, an apartment, and their first home together.

In the movie, the point was less about finding the “sure thing” and more about discovering the “real thing.” And, as a romance softie, I’m happy to say that I think Ben and Emily have both found the “real thing.”

So as you go through life, remember that moment in which you met, the moment that sparked the connection between the two of you, and remember that you have each found the real thing in each other. Cheers to you and many happy years of love and laughter together.

I Be Trippin’

I’ve heard people say that time seems to slow down when you fall, and you feel like you are falling in slow motion. But that hasn’t been my experience, quite the contrary. For the second time this year, I tripped and fell today and I barely was able to brace myself for the impact, just like the last time.

The first time I fell I was on my fifth loop of the WausaUltra Backyard Ultra in Wausau, Wisconsin back in late April. I was doing well and feeling pretty good as I closed in on twenty-one miles. But out of nowhere, something grabbed my toe, and down I went.

Today, I was pacing myself through a 10-mile run and was just coasting along on the paved bike path. It was pretty sunny and I had decided to head into the forest preserve for the much-appreciated shade. Once in the preserve, I had a choice to make; I could stay on the paved portion of the path, or I could live dangerously and run on the much more technical trail. Now, for the past few years, I had sworn off running on the dirt path because I was training for some big race and didn’t want to chance – get this – possibly tripping and injuring myself! But for some reason, my brain overrode that failsafe breaker switch, and happily, I trotted onto the tree root-laden path.

I wasn’t more than a quarter-mile into the path when I encountered a walker ahead of me, going in the same direction and wearing earbuds. I attempted to get his attention with two loud requests to pass and as I watched to see if I had got his attention, I got tripped up and down I went.

I seemed to fall with the same velocity as the first time, but I was actually able to instinctively tuck my arms underneath me and brace myself for the impact better than I did the last time. I kind of felt like a wide receiver that had been tackled by the ankles and was glad to know that I was still holding on to the football. It’s comforting to know that I’m getting better at falling. Maybe someday I will be able to do a tuck and roll and pop right back up.

As I lay there looking at some gnarly roots and groaning loudly, I could hear the gentleman asking me if I was okay, repeatedly. I guess I had his attention now. I took an assessment of what happened and I quickly came to the conclusion that I am one dumb-ass trail-running fool. It was nice to know that the guy was able to see me embarrass myself in front of him. I think it was the fifth or sixth “Are you okay?” that I finally answered him with a “yeah, I’m okay.” I also added, “Why the fuck does this keep happening to me?!” It was a rhetorical question, and he didn’t answer it anyway.

What’s the old saying? If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, if trees are anything like me, you bet your ass they do. There was a loud OOMPH! when I hit the ground. I got up and grumbled, and ran off down the path swearing loudly at myself – WTF? WTF? Dammit!

The last time I fell it was into some mud. You’d think that might have worked out better for me, but I must have hit the wooden plank footbridge first. This time I hit the dirt, but somehow managed to miss the bazillion roots that surrounded me. I looked and saw some abrasions, but no bumps or bruises this time around. I took my water bottle and rinsed the dirt out of my wound and continued down the path. Then I realized that I had to run the remaining four miles home looking like I had just ran a Tough Mudder or something.

I got home in one piece. I grabbed my phone to document my stupidity and then jumped into the pool to cool down and wash off the rest of the dirt from the fall. I think I’ll skip the trail running for a while. I’m not “falling” in love with falling.

Attack The Track! Race Report

When: Saturday, May 21, 2022

Where: Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, Illinois

Race Format: Marathon relay, 5 laps as the anchor

Results: 2000 Meters, approximately 1.2 miles, 8:19

photo credit Jim Hertz

I did something new and ran the last leg of a marathon relay with some local running club friends. It was a mild day with some humidity, but I don’t think that it affected me much. I knew going in that I was in no shape to be running fast, so I gave it the best all-out effort that I could give and was pretty happy with the result. Garmin said I averaged a pace of 7:01 for the five laps I ran.

Hanging out at the track with Big C – photo credit Calvin Jordan

I warmed up with about a 2.5-mile jog, and then took note of what mile we were on. I could see that there were a couple of teams that were a couple of miles ahead and a couple of miles behind based on the bib numbers. I paid attention to a couple of faster runners and noted that they seemed to go out too fast on their opening laps, and I took note of that.

When the baton was handed off to me I started at a pace that I felt wasn’t too hard and I think I was able to hold it pretty steady for the 5 laps that I ran. By lap two I was thinking about how heavy the baton weighed and I switched it to the other hand. By lap three I was pretty much tapped out but was able to grind out another couple of laps. I finished to the cheers of the remaining teammates and was glad it was over.

photo credit Calvin Jordan

I think there were about eight teams and I believe we finished around 6th. It was a fun day, and I’m glad I got to spend some time with the others.

WausaUltra Backyard Ultra Race Report

When: Friday, April 29, 2022

Where: Sylvan Hill Park, Wausau, Wisconsin

Race Format: Backyard Ultra, 4.167-mile loops/yards every hour

Results: Officially a DNF – 5 loops/yards, 20.8 miles – 30th out of 36 starters.

Website Link: https://www.wausaultra.com/backyard

2022 WausaUltra Backyard Race Report

I have to start by saying thanks to WausaUltra, the race directors, the staff, and the volunteers for hosting such a great event. Everything was well done. They made everyone feel welcome and became our biggest fans, even if we only made a handful of yards. They made me feel like I had a slim chance of winning. Ha!

On Facebook, the staff was welcoming everyone who had signed up with a short video and I was a little surprised at my welcome, as the guy thought that being 58 years old and doing this event was an amazing feat. Listen up, whippersnapper! I’m not old!

I drove to Wausau on Thursday afternoon and took a look around. I wanted to make sure I knew how to get there, and also know how long the drive would be from Minocqua.

Friday morning I got around and made it to the park in plenty of time to get set up. I opted for my one-man pop-up tent just because it would be easier to set up and tear down. The runners started trickling in and you could start to feel the excitement. This group seemed to be pretty serious about going deep into the event.

I set my little tent up right near the finish area to limit my walking.

We heard the 3-minute warning just before 10 am and everyone made their way to the corral for the start. The weather was cool, and there was no rain for now. It was shaping up to be a good day.

The start is somewhat anti-climatic as the first twenty yards after the pavilion area was very wet, and the road quickly became a hill. So there was no bolting out of the chute, we walked it.

Looking at the start/finish area.

I ran the first yard to get the lay of the land and then took my phone along for the second one to snap some photos. The first part of the course was crushed granite road and trail and was uphill. All uphill portions were walked.

Feeling pretty good early into the second yard.
After a short switchback, we were at the top of the sledding hill and had to choose our line. I preferred to be to the left, but that meant bending under a steel tow line a couple of times. It was less wet on the left side.
Upon getting to the bottom of the sledding hill, we made a turn through some very soft ground and had to climb this hill before climbing up an adjacent sledding hill. The guy with the red vest was the eventual winner. He wasted no use less energy on the course. Ran only when he needed to.
After getting up the hill again we wandered around and then had to descend this hill that fortunately had a very soft footing. It was like running on a hill of mulch.
After coming down the hill we had to cross some wet ground. Fortunately, the race staff had placed some stones here for us. Still trying to figure out if it was a good thing. I’m the last in line in this photo.
Photo credit: WausaUltra Facebook page
My favorite part of this course was this flat portion through the woods. Go figure.
My least favorite portion of the course was up there, a grassy portion near the local high school athletic fields. It was much cooler/breezier up there.
By far the most challenging part of the course were the sections of trail that were rocky. It took some serious concentration to get through these downhills. One misstep could really mess you up.
The race staff made a great effort to be all over the course to get photos and videos.
Some well-placed wooden bridges over some wetland areas. This is the section that would later end my day.
This gravel section led to another short hill just before the finish line.

So that is the course in pictures, which show what we dealt with better than I could explain it. It was a challenging course for sure.

The first few loops went pretty well, but I still struggled with sweating too much. It was tough to balance it because it was very cool in the higher parts of the course and warm on the climbs and lower parts. I eventually ended up shedding the pants I started with and swapped my trail shoes out for my regular running shoes for some additional toe space.

My big mistake however, was not taking in enough hydration and electrolytes. I don’t know why I have this dialed in so well for an Ironman but can be clueless when attempting these backyard events.

The fifth yard became my nemesis. I was giving some consideration as to how many more yards I could get through, and figured that I would attempt at least 2-3 more. But I started to get some hamstring and calf cramping here and there toward mile three and I wasn’t so sure anymore. When I came to the little wooden bridge section in the latter part of the 3rd mile of the fifth yard I wasn’t worried about it at all – it wasn’t technical, nor really anything that you had to concentrate all that hard about. But my tired legs must have kept my foot from clearing something and I tripped, falling flat onto the boards and bouncing into the moist dirt next to it. It happened so quickly that I didn’t even have time to really catch or brace myself. I hit pretty hard and was almost in shock by it. I struggled to get myself up, as I now found myself cramping pretty badly. I knew I had to get to my feet and keep moving. That’s when I got very light-headed and quickly grabbed a tree to keep from falling again. After a brief moment I was able to collect myself and start walking again, taking an assessment of the damage I had done. I had a scraped knee and a cartoon-sized bump on my left forearm, but other than that I wasn’t in any significant pain.

As I made the last little uphill climb to the finish area, a guy standing there asked if I was okay. I told him that I fell and he went and told the staff. I made it to the finish and told the others there that I had banged myself up. Staffer Ellen was kind enough to get me an ice bag for my swollen arm and bandaged up my knee. I was advised that I still had about five minutes left to get ready for the next loop, but I told them there was no way. My two or three more yards estimate was immediately quashed as soon as I got up from that fall. I decided right there and then that I would not push my luck. Had I fallen on those rocks it could have really messed me up, and I wasn’t prepared to go back out there being behind on my hydration and energy.

Sitting in my tent, nursing my wounds.

I let the 3-2-1 minute countdown pass and stood and watched the others parade by. My day was done. I went over and rang the DNF bell of shame and then began the two hour packing up process to head home. Five yards, and a little more than 20 miles. It was less than I was expecting to do, but not too bad for this difficult course. The day sure made for a great and memorable experience.

I may be a DNF, but I added some trophies to the collection.

NOTES FOR NEXT TIME

  • This was a very technical course. I need to practice that type of terrain more.
  • Running downhill wasn’t too bad here, but it always wears my quads out quickly. Maybe add some leg press strength work or run more downhills in training.
  • Get that nutrition/hydration/electrolytes figured out.
  • Make sure my wife is there to help me! It was tough without a crew member.

I really enjoyed this event and I will definitely be back in the future. Thanks for reading!

What’s My Running Thing?

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?

(un)Welcome Back!

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 2022 – Wisconsin’s Backyard Ultra Race Report

When: Friday, April 1, 2022

Where:  Big Hill Park – Beloit, Wisconsin

Distance: Ten 4.166 mile yards (loops) for a total of 41.6 miles

Results: For the second year in a row I am a DNF, as well as 29 others, with Jon Noll once again taking the win and making it look easy.

Results Link: Big Hill Bonk 2022 Results

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.

Snow covered the ground for the first few yards, then it was gone. This is the first yard.

Finishing the first yard. Not sure if the people recording the splits remembered to do it for this lap, but we came in around 48 minutes. We had already started to shed layers.

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.

I switched out tops three times, about every third yard, because I was pretty sweaty. I also switched from my trail shoes to my road shoes. The trail had firmed up quite nicely and I wasn’t worrying about slipping. The trail shoes were a half-size small and were starting to bruise my big toe.

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).

A section of stairs that we had to go down that were slick with snow at the beginning yards. They were only about 8 inches wide as well, and we definitely paid attention to our foot strike here.
Kerri and I wrapping up Yard 9 just before teaming up for one last yard.

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.

Kerri waving, myself and Blair getting our watches ready for Yard 10. I think Blair ended at Yard 12, 50 miles.

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.

Added another “bonked” loser rock to my collection. There will be more.
Kari, the best race sherpa/coach wife/partner in crime, and I enjoying some post-race down time in Minocqua, Wisconsin. Couldn’t do these events without her help.

~~~

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!