I had to juggle my 100-mile training plan for the Tunnel Hill 100 due to a planned 30th anniversary trip to Italy, and it was looking like I would have to sacrifice either the 50-kilometer run or the 50-mile run. I decided that the 50-miler was probably more important to the training than the 50K, so I started looking around and found the Broken Anvil Backyard Ultra that would work perfectly for me. Running an organized 50-mile race would be a lot easier than having to do it solo and provide my own support for twelve hours. So I signed up, told the wife (hint – always tell the wife after you sign up), got a hotel for the weekend, and then started thinking about how to run the course.
After doing some research into the event, it looked like a perfect opportunity to get in 50 miles without having to walk up really long hills, shimmy down rocky terrain, or duck under or climb over fallen trees (I’m looking at you Big Hill Bonk and WausaUltra!). Seeing that there wouldn’t be any hills to force me to walk, I decided that a run/walk plan of 2 minutes of running followed by 2 minutes of walking would probably do it. Just to make sure, I did a 4.2-mile run at home on Wednesday following that pace plan and finished right around 50 minutes. Perfect.
Friday night my wife Kari and I jumped in the truck and headed west on I-80 for a little under four hour trip to our hotel in Fort Madison. After arriving, we decided to drive the route to the event location to make sure there were no surprises Saturday morning. Upon getting there we found the super-cool race director Nic still there and a few of the other participants milling around. He allowed us to set up our tent so we didn’t have to worry about it on race day, and I grabbed my bib and the event sweatshirt.
At 7am on Saturday, 30 of the 36 registrants (there were six no-shows) got into the corral and were sent off on our way. The first loop, or yard as they are also called, went really well. I quickly came to realize though, that I was the only one doing a dedicated run/walk thing, as the others just jogged until they came upon one of the few small hills or when they needed a break before doing any walking. Most of the runners were finishing about five minutes or so ahead of me, and I was consistently finishing the 4.16-miles in 50 minutes. I was really dialed in and super consistent with my pace plan. Ten minutes after each loop is plenty of time to sit, rehydrate, refuel, make clothes changes, etc. My super-sherpa race crew wife Kari was also dialed in. All of my next lap drinks, food, electrolytes, and a cold washcloth/towel were ready for me without ever having to ask. I would make some requests for certain things here and there, but she was anticipating my every need.
Some pictures of the course, a mixture of grass, crushed gravel, pavement, and a short pine needle-covered dirt trail.
The loops went by quickly as usual. A couple of women dropped after one lap, but I think they were just there to experience some fun and support other racers. One guy was using the race to get his tempo miles in for an upcoming marathon and would quickly blast through the loop. But for the most part, we would all start each loop together and I would bring up the end. Seven runners dropped before the marathon distance of loop 7, which is a little surprising. However, it was loop 7 when the Iowa skies decided to open up and pour on us.
I wasn’t really worried about running in the rain. I had an extra pair of shoes, plenty of extra running clothes, and also a rain jacket that I decided might be beneficial to help keep me warm in case the rain made me chilly. The jacket actually just made me sweat more, and I didn’t wear it for more than a loop or two. However, the rain caused a problem that I hadn’t quite planned for – chafing. I had lubed up my inner thighs in the morning as is typical for me before a long run, but the rain and the running must have caused it to wear off. When I noticed the chafing I started applying Vaseline like crazy, but I think it was too little too late. I have never had chafing as bad as that. I kept applying Vaseline every loop, hoping that I could continue on.
Races always provide some sort of distraction, and I was trying to remember all that I could. There was a guy who was talking to his group ahead of me and said “Prince Charles is a DICK!” Not sure what that conversation was about, but it gave me a chuckle. Another runner was in the starting corral when he realized he didn’t have his watch, and after the loop starts you are not allowed to leave the course except for bathrooms, nor are you to receive any outside assistance. Another guy spoke up and said “Spoiler alert! It’ll take you an hour.” That got a good laugh out of the group as the bell rang and we were off. I think he got his watch just in time.
The course took us through Pollmiller Park, which included a small lake and a campsite. I joked with one camper and asked how he was enjoying “the dumbest parade ever.” He chuckled and said “See you in an hour.” He must have gotten used to our routine. Another group of campers included some kids and one teenager asked me “What are you running from?” I wasn’t sure what she meant and I replied that I wasn’t running from anything. I asked the guy next to me how was I supposed to answer that? He said that it was just a “smart ass kid being a smart ass.” But it gave me something to mull over for the rest of the loop and the next. She asked again on the next loop, and I said “I’m not running from anything, I’m running to something.” A higher purpose, maybe? I don’t know, I’m still searching.
I really didn’t have a problem with the course other than there was a steady stream of cars in and out of the park. They were generally cognizant of us and gave us plenty of room, except for one car that came right in front of me and cut me off from the course and stopped. I wasn’t sure really what she was doing, and I don’t think she knew that she was blocking the race route, but it wasn’t a place to park, and she was miffed that I raised my hands as if to say “what the hell are you doing?” She backed up and I carried on to the finish.
When I hit loop 8/50K I knew I had 50 miles in the bag. Aside from the chafing, I felt really fresh. My legs weren’t tired, I had plenty of energy, and I was really enjoying each loop. When I was on the twelfth loop I was telling myself that I would do one more, possibly two after that. I finished the 13th loop and decided that the goal of 50 miles was reached, plus one extra for a total of 54 was enough for the day. It was the furthest I had ever run. I lined up in the corral for loop fourteen, and when the loop was started, I walked over and rang the bell. I was taping out. Everyone was extremely happy for me and they were applauding my effort. I told the race director “Let the record show that I started loop 14 but did not finish it.” It doesn’t really matter, but it sounds better than stopping at 13 loops.
It took a while for the results to get loaded up and when they were I was shocked to see what had happened. The results showed that there were two runners that finished with 66.7 miles, the top male and the top female. But in a backyard ultra, there can only be one finisher! What this means is that there was NO finisher! Everyone DNF’d this race! Kari and I were discussing this and we weren’t sure if they just didn’t know the rules, or if the weather turned worse and they decided to quit, or if they were both happy with being the top finisher in their gender. The other part of it for me was that I am sure that I could have run past 66.7 miles! That’s only three more loops!
In the end, I finished in 4th place, as there were two that did 66 miles, six that tied at 62 miles, and another runner did one more lap than me. But really I was the 10th out of 30 starters, which really pleased me.
The results of the race weren’t the only thing that surprised me. What really surprised me was how dialed in I was and how good I felt, minus the chafing of course. I could barely walk when we returned to the hotel, and the shower was extremely painful when it hit my sore groin. But overall, I had no tiredness or soreness in my legs or feet. I could have kept going. The hydration was spot on, as was the nutrition. It’s making me rethink my 4-minute run / 2-minute walk pace plan for the 100 miler in November. I might have to shorten that run time down to two minutes because it worked so well here at Broken Anvil.
Overall, I loved this event. It was super fun, and if I plan to do more backyarders in the future, this one will definitely remain on the list.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
I had a great time running a 25K trail race through a very muddy and challenging forest preserve course.
All Of The Muddy Details
Pre-race Course Reconnaissance:
Seeing that I have never run a trail race before, and because I have never run at this particular location before, I decided on Monday to drive the 30-minutes to Willow Springs and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to see what I was up against. I’m glad that I did because I received an in-depth view of the course. There were lots of missed turns, lots of rocky terrain, and lots of hills. Seeing that there was rain in the forecast for race day, I bought a pair of trail running shoes for the race. Rain or no rain, the trail shoes certainly improved my traction on this trail system.
Mud can be fun, right?
It rained on Friday – a lot. I knew that this was not going to make for a good run, but what can you do? It was still raining on Saturday morning, and it was cold too. You can’t control the weather, so I always hope for the best conditions and plan for the worst. Of the bad weather races that I have done, this one ranks around fourth I would say, behind Leon’s Triathlon 2015 (3rd – downpouring rain), Ironman Chattanooga 2019 (2nd – extreme heat), and the Boston Marathon 2018 (1st – cold, downpouring rain, headwind the entire way).
I met up with Jodi, the ultra-marathon crazy friend of mine who was running the 50K.
Jodi’s race started an hour earlier than mine, so I waited around and was soon joined by my friends Jim and Leah.
We lined up, wished each other well, and off we raced!
The race started on grass and 100 yards into it my feet were feeling the wetness from the grass. That soon gave way to much softer grass, and mud and I was trying my best to jump over visible puddles, but it was quickly becoming not worth the extra effort.
I bolted out from the gate a little stronger than I probably should have and found myself trying to keep pace with some faster runners that I had no business trying to keep up with. By a mile into it, I was passed by another more sensibly paced runner and watched him slowly pace away from me. I was starting to question the choice of layers I was wearing as I was getting a little warm. I took my gloves off, unzipped my pullover, and pulled the hat up to expose my ears. I was struggling with my eyes watering and my glasses fogging up. Miles 2-3 was the portion of the trail that most likely had the best conditions. We ran the Yellow Trail for about 3.5 miles and then came to the Orange Trail. I encountered the leaders of the 50K returning back to the start on their first loop. They were impressive. I saw that someone had ditched their jacket near the unmanned water station and I gave it a brief consideration but opted to keep wearing it.
The Orange Trail was one of the worst portions – a ditch that was basically full of mud. I made an energetic effort to run the ridge and make my way through it. Thankfully, it was short-lived and soon was on the very technical Blue Trail, with lots of hills, roots, and rocks. The Blue Trail gave way to the Green Trail, but I never noticed the markers. I was too occupied with watching for the orange course marking arrows painted on the ground to make sure I was going the correct way. Thankfully, I was seeing more and more of the 50K runners coming back at me, so I knew that I was on the right path. Around Mile 6 I was hearing another runner coming behind me and he must have been watching me dodge puddles and really muddy spots. He advised, “at a certain point you just have to commit to it.” As he passed I could see he didn’t give a damn about the puddles, just trudged right through them. I paced behind him for a while, but I still lacked the confidence to plow straight ahead through the worst spots. I wasn’t afraid of getting wet or muddy, I had committed to that a long time ago. I just didn’t want to slip and fall, possibly getting hurt.
From Mile 6 until the turn-around at 7.75 miles was some of the worst of the muddy trail. I trudged through and reached the turn-around and walked over the sensor pad. I refilled my handheld water bottle, grabbed a couple of pretzels, made a quick toilet stop, and then made the turn to follow the same trail back to the finish. I was happy that I hadn’t ditched the jacket, as the light wind was now in my face and it had started to rain a little harder.
I saw Leah coming at me and figured she was about a mile behind me. One thing to be said about the runners I was seeing heading to the turnaround, they were all seemingly having a good time. I will admit, I was having some fun too.
Thankfully, I had brought some gels with me or I might have run out of energy much earlier in the first half of the race. I was eating a gel every half-hour and it was keeping my energy up. I took my fourth and last one around the 12-mile mark and hoped that it would get me through the last 3.5 miles. Back on the Yellow Trail with it’s better conditions, I pushed my pace again and tried to keep it up. I could hear another runner behind me and as I reached a rather steep hill, I slowed to a walk and he went around me. A glance over my shoulder didn’t reveal anyone else, so I made an effort to try to reel him back in and was doing a decent job of it until I hit the grassy portion with another uphill climb that just took the wind out of my sails. I ambled around the picnic area, following the course, and saw Jodi just leaving out for her second loop. That was something I would not have wanted to do at that point! I was spent. As I crossed the finish line, a guy with a clipboard told me that I was the 2nd place finisher in my age group. I made my way to the car for some much-needed warmth.
I sat shivering in the car trying to warm up, which was made more difficult by the wet clothes I was wearing. I pulled my top layers off of me, found a long-sleeved shirt to put on, topped it with a couple of windbreakers and my sweatshirt, and then hopped back into the car. I texted Kari and advised her that I was done, and she texted that she and daughter Ashley were on their way, which was a little surprising to me, but I had left some extra shoes at home and she was kind enough to meet me with them. They helped me stay warm while we waited for the awards.
I ended up with 12th place overall and second place in my age group and was very happy with that. And it was a fun and memorable experience that I won’t soon forget. Turns out running in the mud can be fun.
My last blog post was all about me asking myself if I was ready to run 100 miles. It turns out that I wasn’t. I found out that I definitely wasn’t prepared physically, and maybe I wasn’t quite prepared mentally as well. All 100-mile runs will challenge you in both ways, but I found out that I wasn’t quite up to the task. I was hoping that what training I had done would be enough, but there’s no substitute for running long miles. Running 100 miles demands respect, and I didn’t give it its due. I learned a valuable lesson. I was able to salvage something out of the race, and I am very proud of that. Here are the details.
Tunnel Hill 100 & 50 Mile Runs have been around since 2014, and the races have earned quite a reputation. The course is a world record course, and many runners have been setting personal bests there as well.
My ultra-running local friend Jodi has done the race before and provided the inspiration for me to give this race a try. A few other local friends also joined in on the challenge and came down to Vienna, Illinois to give it a go. I figured why not join in on the fun.
My wife Kari and I drove down on Friday and pulled into Vienna just in time for the start of packet pick-up. We didn’t waste much time there as the sun was starting to set and we wanted to take a drive to where the aid stations would be so that she could be familiar with the route.
After finding the southern aid station in Karnak, Illinois we headed back to eat the complimentary spaghetti dinner with the others.
After dinner, Kari and I drove to the northern aid station located near the Tunnel Hill tunnel and then headed to the hotel to check-in. It wasn’t long until my son Ben and his fiance Emily arrived, and we made some last-minute plans. I knew that Ben was going to pace me the last 25 miles of the race, but Emily also offered to run with me from Mile 50 to Mile 61 on the third leg, which I was very grateful for. Turns out neither would run at all!
After a peaceful sleep, we caravaned to Vienna to await the start. I was in a pretty good mood, with very little of the normal race day anxiety. I found the others and shared best wishes and then took a spot with the rest of the runners. The National Anthem was sung, the horn sounded, and we were off.
LEG 1 – Vienna south to Karnak and the Southern Turnaround
After a loop around the parking lot, we made a right turn onto the Tunnel Hill State Trail for the first leg. One guy standing along the road shouted “YOU’RE ALMOST THERE!” which surprisingly gave me a chuckle. I was in a good mood. I was running with Jodi until my watch beeped and told me to walk. We were barely on the trail at this point! I felt a little silly slowing to a walk four minutes into a race, but I was dedicated to my pacing plan. It wasn’t long and others started to walk as well. Jodi was now long gone. And I would later find out all my other friends would leave me in the dust as well!
The trail was pretty crowded at this point and trying to find space on the trail was hard, as very few of us were running at the same pace. But we made the best of it and kept moving forward.
Prior to getting to Karnak, I found that I was sweaty, which surprised me somewhat. I stopped at the Heron Pond aid station and took off my windbreaker. Arriving in Karnak, I saw my crew and said I was crabby. We swapped my partially empty hydration vest for one they prepped for me and was fully loaded and I made way over to the food tables. I was expecting just a bunch of cookies and such, but there was bacon! And French toast pieces! I grabbed some bacon and was glad to have something that wasn’t sugary. The two pieces of French toast were some of the best French toast I have ever had. I walked and ate and then started running the remaining couple of miles to the turnaround.
The trip heading to the southern turnaround seemingly took forever. And it was into the wind, which made me regret taking the windbreaker off. But I think that was a little bit of a blessing, as it cooled me down and dried me off a little. As I was heading there I first saw my friend Leah, then I saw Jodi, then Jennifer, and finally Jim all coming back north! They were all kicking my butt! I was a little surprised to be bringing up the rear, as I was on my sub-20 hour pace and pretty consistent with it. It would turn out that they are much more awesome at this than my inexperienced ass.
LEG 2 – The Southern Turnaround back to Vienna
I hit the turnaround and was back to Karnak to talk with my crew again and I made the decision to swap hats, as my original ones were soaked with sweat. I was dragging on this part. I seemed to lack energy and was also a little off somehow. I found that when I was walking it seemed a little unbalanced. Running seemed okay, but I just wasn’t feeling right.
There were lots to keep my mind occupied. I was swapping places with groups of others as we took turns running and walking. There were three college-age guys running together who I nicknamed the “Bros” and they were fun to follow. They were enjoying themselves.
I finally got to Vienna and was relieved. 26+ miles done. First up was a change of clothes. Kari expected that I would want to change clothes and I was happy to get out of the sweaty stuff. I sat down in a chair and was given a ham and cheese sandwich and a bottle of Lipton Brisk Lemon Tea by my family. It was nice to sit, eat and soak up a little sun after running a little more than 26 miles. The rest didn’t last long. Ben pulled me up out of the chair, we swapped a depleted hydration vest for a full one, and I started out on the northern leg of the route.
LEG 3 – Vienna north to Tunnel Hill and the Northern Turnaround
The funk I was in during the second leg seemed to wane now that I had a sandwich and some food in me. But I think the main reason I perked up was that I was now downing gels and hydration that had caffeine in them. It was the boost that I was needing. Mentally I was in a much better place, but physically my thighs/quads were getting very sore. After every walk break, I would gingerly start my jogging routine and try not to think about the soreness. After a while, I decided that the four-minute run portion of my pacing plan was not doing me any favors any longer. I pushed some buttons on my watch and lowered the run portion to two minutes. Two minutes running and two minutes walking was now the pace plan. There were a lot of other runners walking more as well, and for longer periods of time.
The northern part of the course was beautiful. The southern portion was mostly treelined with beautiful fall colors, but the northern section had that as well as awesome rock formations and numerous bridges spanning ravines and small creeks. Plus it had an awesome tunnel. The top of the concrete tunnel entrance was stamped “1929” and it really was a relic from another time. As you approached you could clearly see the exit on the other side, and the length of the tunnel is about 200 yards or so. But once inside it got dark, even if you could see the exit. It felt really weird, the exit was clearly visible, but you didn’t really know what your feet were stepping on. Ben had heard someone describe it as “trippy” and I think that is spot on. It was a strange sensation.
Not long on the other side was the Tunnel Hill aid station and Kari, Ben, and Emily were there waiting for me. I ducked into a toilet and then walked over to a chair and sat down. I told them I was feeling good from the waist up, but the waist down was in bad shape. Kari offered me some ibuprofen and I quickly turned it down. Then she offered some Tylenol and I turned that down too. I wasn’t sure how my stomach would feel if I took some, and it’s pretty well-known that taking ibuprofen is not the best idea for distance runners.
After leaving the aid station I continued north toward the northern turnaround, and I was giving taking some Tylenol some serious thought. By this point, I had adjusted my run time from two minutes down to one, and the quad soreness was not getting better. I was now walking more than I was running. I had some Tylenol with me, so I decided to take some.
LEG 4 – The Northern Turnaround back to Vienna
The turnaround seemed like it would never come. When I finally got there it was such a relief. As the trip south now began, I noticed something interesting. This trip north was uphill, but the trip back was uphill too! Uphill both ways!
Within 20-minutes after taking the Tylenol I could feel my legs getting better. By the time I was back at the Tunnel Hill aid station I was a new man. My attitude was great, my quads felt much better, and I was kicking myself for not taking some pain pills earlier.
Kari could tell I was much better off. The food table had just put down some freshly made grilled ham & cheese sandwiches. I took one of the triangle cut portions and it literally became the greatest grilled ham & cheese sandwich I had ever eaten. I went back and grabbed another and the aid station lady was laughing that I was looking for seconds.
Another hydration vest switch, and I grabbed a headlamp, and off I went back south toward Vienna. The trip through the tunnel was much better now that I could see the ground. There wasn’t any weird sensation going through it. The ceiling of the tunnel was still soot-covered from the long-ago passing trains, but now there was some modern spray-painted graffiti added for no good reason.
I held off turning the headlamp on permanently until the last bit of fading sunlight was gone. With the artificial light making the trail visible, I made my way along the trail. There seemed to be fewer and fewer people heading north and most were now heading the same direction that I was. Occasionally I would pass a runner without a headlamp and wonder how they could see at all. It was pitch black out, even with a half-moon shining in the dark sky above.
As I pressed on I decided that maybe I could run a little more, so I bumped it up to a 2-minute run. That worked for a little while, but soon I found myself tiring. Knowing that if I was to continue on I might want to be more conservative with my energy, and I went back to the 1-minute run / 2-minute walk.
Somewhere in this stretch, I did some soul searching. I rationalized everything, taking into account how I have felt throughout the day and how I was feeling now. I had told Kari and others numerous times before the race that they should be prepared for me to drop at the halfway point. This is an option at the Tunnel Hill Runs. Those that had signed up for the 100-mile race could drop down to the 50-Mile race and become an official 50-Mile finisher if they choose to. This was looked at by some as a trap, somewhat of an enticement, or a consolation prize to those running the one hundred to drop instead of pressing on. I knew this. I also knew that after enduring the miles I had gone through already, I clearly would be struggling to continue on for another 50. I would be miserable. At one point I said I’m going to keep going. A minute later I was talking myself out of it. It was a difficult decision, but I finally said to myself that I need to attempt this another time, a time at which I’m better prepared, both physically and mentally.
The Shelby Road aid station is only about 3 miles out from Vienna, and a little puzzling as to why it’s so close to the start/finish. I arrived and took a look at the food table and decided that nothing appealed much to me. I took a small piece of banana, squeezed it into my mouth, and pushed toward the finish line.
As the lights of the Vienna aid station came into view I experienced relief for the first time. I turned off my headlamp, jogged across the timing mat, and hit stop on my watch. I was done. Fifty miles. The longest I had ever run in my life in one day.
Ben was the first to greet me and I’m sure that he could have predicted what I was about to say. “I’m done.” He offered some positive words and did what all good crew will do, he encouraged me to continue on. But I had made up my mind. Then a race official did the same. “Walk a little. Go get some food. Think it over.” I walked over to Kari and Emily and sat in a chair and was getting a little upset having to deal with those telling me to go on when I made it pretty clear that I didn’t want to. It’s their job to do that, to tell you not to quit. But I was starting to interpret their positive encouragement as “don’t be a quitter.” It was getting to me. At some point they conceded and it was over.
Kari encouraged me to go into the warming tent and have some soup. Inside I found Jennifer, who had just finished her 50 Miles, and Tony, a friend from the local running/riding group who was there helping crew others, and he offered some very kind words. I went from hearing what I was wrongly interpreting that I was quitting on myself to knowing that I just did something pretty spectacular.
I left the tent and Ben walked me over to the timing tent. Another female runner had just dropped from her 100-mile attempt to the 50, which made me feel better. I wasn’t alone. I’m not sure what her reasons were, but I’m guessing it wasn’t an easy decision for her, just like it wasn’t for me. The volunteer said, “Great job, here’s your belt buckle.” It was official, Bib #536 was now a 50-Mile finisher.
Ben and I walked back to join Kari and Emily and we started packing up. I wrapped a blanket around me and we started to head to the car. Except now my body was shutting down on me. All I could do as I was shivering was to stagger very slowly back toward the car. Each step was almost excruciatingly painful. I started to wonder what if this would have happened to me later on during the next leg. What if it had happened miles away from the aid station? As we got to the car and Ben had to help me get my legs into the car, I realized that I had made a smart move to drop.
I am very proud of what I accomplished. Finishing 50 miles is pretty awesome in its own right. The option to stop at the 50-mile mark was actually a blessing for me. In retrospect, I just wasn’t prepared to go 100-miles. I lacked the time on my feet that running that distance demands. Also, I think the main reason I stopped at 50 instead of pressing on was that I was just tired of running and the prospect of another 50 wasn’t appealing to me at all at the moment. I’ll have to overcome that feeling next time, I’m sure.
I will revisit this race again in the future when I’m better prepared and eager to make it happen. Thanks, Tunnel Hill!
My wife Kari continues to wow me with her love for me and the support she gives me when I tackle these challenges. I couldn’t do it without her.
Thanks to Ben and Emily for giving up their weekend to crew me and help out mom. Although I felt like I cheated you out of pacing me through the second half of the run, I sense that you guys were okay with it. (lol)
To my local friends:
– Jodi finished her 5th 100-mile race, which is just absolutely amazing. Thanks for providing the inspiration and sharing your ultrarunning knowledge.
– Jim, you are impressive as always. You have the wisdom and experiences that I seek.
– Jennifer, congrats on your first 50-mile finish. You provided enough enthusiasm for all of us.
– Theresa, way to go on that 50-mile finish!
– Leah, WOW! Way to kill it! Not sure how you held that pace through 100 miles, but WELL DONE!
– Calvin, your love for running and your unselfishness is amazing. Keep it up!
– Tony, thanks for the kind words in the tent, letting me know that even though the original goal wasn’t achieved, the finish I got is pretty damn good, too.
– Dan, I look forward to learning more from you. Thanks for spectating and the encouragement!
After doing this race in 2019 and nearly melting from the heat, my buddy Dave and I were in agreement about not wanting to ever experience that again. I definitely tried to avoid Chattanooga, but fate pushed me there.
I had signed up for the 2020 Ironman Louisville race but it got canceled due to some social unrest in the city and of course, a worldwide pandemic. Ironman gave me four options to transfer to, three of which were also fall 2020 races and clearly not going to happen. The only other option was to go back to Chatty in 2021 and hope that the world would settle down. Thankfully, we had a better knowledge about the virus, and the vaccine helped keep the option for racing open in 2021. Things still aren’t ideal, but it’s getting better.
So I opted for a return trip to Chattanooga and I was soon joined by my Gunner buddies Jeff, his sister Jan, and eventually Dave. A few local friends also opted to give Choo a go – Susan, John, and Charlie, as well as first-timers Angela and Daniel. At first I thought that this race was going to be a solo affair for me, but now it was a full-fledged party!
Training thirty weeks for an Ironman is an awfully long time.
Once again I broke out the old trusty Be Iron Fit training book and followed the plan. 30-weeks broken into base, build, and endurance phases that has prepared this self-coached triathlete well in four previous Ironman races.
I follow the plan pretty closely with a few changes that I have found over the previous training cycles to be beneficial to me. First, I reduced the swim from the hour-plus swim, 2-3 times per week that the book dictates, to two 30-minute swims per week. I’m not the greatest swimmer, but once I had the technique down, I found that the swim training that the book wants me to do is INSANE. Plus, I get so bored swimming that I just can’t take much more than 30-minutes. I did get in a longer open water swim in Minocqua at my lake home, and I did one 4200 yard swim in my pool in the closing weeks of training just to prove to myself that I could do the distance.
Biking was more of a group thing for me this time around, and I often joined the locals for the rides out to Elwood. My coworker Tom, who had caught the triathlon bug and signed up for Ironman Muncie 70.3 was also a training ride partner. A couple of weekends I was joined by Susan, which were much needed in order to help each other get over the mental struggle of training. She won’t take any credit for turning me around mentally, but she deserves some none-the-less. Overall, it was a pretty good year for cycling leading up to the race.
As for the running – oh boy. I foolishly signed up for a “last runner standing” format ultra which also got postponed to August. I just used my Ironman training and it got me through 8-loops and 33 miles, completing my first 50K distance ultramarathon. After that, it was back to the plan and doing the work with one exception – I also foolishly signed up for the Tunnel Hill 100, an ultra-marathon in November. I’m pretty dumb. So I decided that even though I wasn’t going to increase my mileage, I did adapt to doing some run/walk long runs. I learned that a ratio of about 4.5 minutes of running with a 1.5 minute walk break on my Sunday long runs was working pretty good for me. Since I was doing Chattanooga, I figured that I was going to be walking most of the marathon anyway, so why not get used to that style of running.
How hot is it going to be this year?
Summer was hot here in the Chicago area again this year and I could sense that race day might be ugly once again. Boy was I wrong. I generally avoid looking at the weather forecast until it gets closer to race day, but it was shaping up to be beautiful. How beautiful? How about mid to upper 70s, no rain and no wind. If you could pick the perfect day, this might have been an ideal race day forecast. And if that wasn’t good enough, it rained for several days leading up to the race which cooled the water temp down below the wetsuit legal temperature of 76.1. I think this was a first for Chattanooga – a wetsuit legal swim!
What can go wrong will go wrong.
Race week meant one final check of the bike and I decided to give the drive train one last going over. That’s when my 8-year-old rear derailleur decided to die.
I drove the bike up to Spokes in Wheaton, Illinois and begged a guy named Chris to fix it for me. He said I was screwed. Actually, he said that they don’t stock 10-speed parts as they aren’t being used anymore. But he searched through an old box of spare parts and found a lesser level Sram 10-speed derailleur in workable condition. He bolted it on, I took it for a test spin, happily forked over the $70 bucks, and then thanked my lucky stars. The next day the bike was in the car and I was headed to Chattanooga.
When Carla wasn’t involved in picking out our lodging, things can get weird.
Since Dave was a last minute sign up, his wife Carla wasn’t doing all of the work finding us lodging. I didn’t mind our last hotel that we stayed at in Chattanooga, but I was hoping for something closer. I settled on the Marriott Residence Inn, which I totally picked because it was a block away and it had a little kitchenette thing. When I checked in I got some attitude from the guy at the front desk about not canceling our second room soon enough, and then I made my way to the room. It was a little dirty and smelled a little, but I was glad to have plenty room for my stuff. It got a little weird when the toilet wouldn’t flush and they had to call a plumber in to remove the travel-sized deodorant that someone had flushed down it. Fun times.
Kari flew in and soon the whole Gunner gang was in town. The next couple of days were spent checking in for the race, organizing our gear bags, and then dropping the bags and the bikes off. Gunner Jeff, a four-time Ironman, for some reason could not remember the bike/bag drop-off procedure, which I found highly entertaining. Race week anxiety does some weird stuff to your brain.
We typically try to find a restaurant to eat a prerace meal at, but since we couldn’t find something at such a short notice for our big group, we opted for a family-style spaghetti dinner, courtesy of Jill and assisted by her daughter Emma and my wife Kari. It might have been the best prerace dinner ever. We had such good conversations and the meal was delicious.
Why am I nervous? Prerace anxiety sucks.
After setting a couple of alarms I was ready to hit the sack. Except there was no way I was going to fall asleep. At 10:30pm or so, I got back up and took a portion of an Ambien and tried again. According to Kari, I was soon asleep. According to me, my brain was active all night long.
Race day is finally here!
The alarms went off and I got up and showered. Dave always showers before the race but it’s a sometimes for me. I felt like the shower might wake me up more and needed a shave, so I took one. Next up was getting dressed and grabbing some food. Then off to meet the gang to walk down to the village and into transition to check the bike and bags.
We hopped onto the school bus for the shuttle ride to the swim start and then settled into to await the start. I heard that the kayak volunteers were late getting into the water for some reason, which delayed our start by about ten minutes, but we heard the pro racers start and we would be next.
I had made a Facebook friend, a guy named Marc the Shark, and had missed seeing him at Louisville in 2017 and so far for this race too, but as I was looking around there he was just a couple of people away. I said hello and we wished each other well.
Next thing I knew I was walking down the ramp and jumping into the Tennessee River with hardly any performance expectation other than to finish without getting too worn out.
59 MINUTES!?!? THAT CAN’T BE RIGHT!
The swim went swimmingly. I drifted to the right, away from the shore and more toward the middle of the river in order to take advantage of any current that was pushing us along. The kayakers will only let you get so far away from the buoys, so I found myself pretty much between them and the kayakers. It seemed like I was swimming by myself, once again enjoying the almost 100% contactless swim. I had a little hint of a foot cramp happening, but I was able to kick it out of my system.
As the buoys turned from yellow to orange at the halfway point, I found myself getting closer to them and eventually looked up to find them on my right side for the first time. I got past the island in the middle of the river and the three bridges were dead ahead. The next thing I knew I rounded the red turn buoy and swam to the ladder, and that’s when I glanced at my watch – 59 minutes. That’s insane. I know that this course could give me a quick swim, but never in my life did I think I could swim 2.4 miles in under an hour. 00:59:43 officially. A swim PR for me.
SWIM: 00:59:43 – 52nd in Male 55-59 Age Group / 529th Male / 679th Overall
Why do I suck at the swim to bike transition?
My plan going for getting through the first transition was to not waste time like I usually do. So what did I do? I found a way to waste time.
As you can see in my swim photos I still have my swim goggles on. That’s because they are prescription and I need them to see where I am going, find my bag, and go find a place to sit down and get ready for the bike. All that went well enough but as soon as I put my eyeglasses on, they fogged up. Nice. Now I couldn’t see much at all. I couldn’t find my socks at first, but then I remembered that I had put them into one of my shoes. I found my towel and dried my feet and got some Skin Glide on them and then struggled to get my socks on. Next were the arm sleeves that went on okay thanks to me rolling them on, but then I realized that I hadn’t put on any sunscreen yet and I was sure that I would take the arm sleeves off when I warmed up. So I started looking for my spray can of sunscreen and couldn’t find it. Since I knew that they had a sun screen table at the exit of the bike corral, I stopped looking for my own and got all of my swim crap into the bag. The helmet got strapped, my nutrition, consisting of five Payday fun size candy bars, a Stroopwafel, and my gel flask, got thrown into my back pockets, and off I clopped to find my bike.
I walked the bike over to the table with the sunscreen and took off my gloves and started hitting the most vulnerable spots heavily. The gloves went back on and off I clopped again to the mount line to begin my tour of a sliver of southern Tennessee and a big chunk of northern Georgia.
They say this is a beautiful and scenic bike course. I’ll take their word for it.
Almost all of the Ironman bike courses are listed as “scenic” and I’m sure that they are. But when you are riding along at 18 mph or so, with others jockeying around you on roads that sometimes aren’t in the best shape, you tend to spend more attention to not crashing than the beautiful scenery. But this time I did actually take a few moments to gaze at the mountains and the local picturesque landscape. I did notice some low lying fog in the early stages.
I had a long sleeve shirt that I intended to put on when I started the bike but I opted not to use it and I was fine. I rode with the arm sleeves and gloves for more than half of the race before tossing them.
Heading out of town was at a fast pace. It was that way in 2019, too. I didn’t feel like I was pushing hard or anything, but after about an hour of a pace faster than I normally train at, I knew that I would be pushing pace all through the bike. The first 56 miles was under three hours by a lot, a time that I would have been really proud of if it was just a 70.3 race.
Like usual, I was glad to be getting off the bike at the end. I didn’t feel as miserable as I normally do, but 116 miles and a little over 6 hours is a long time to be riding a bike. I handed my bike to a kid volunteer to put away and jokingly told her to change the oil and give it a wash and I would be back to pick it up in five hours. She looked at me like I had two heads. Tough crowd. I guess comedy isn’t my thing.
My Garmin had me at 6:06 with the autopause turned on. That’s a huge PR for me. Garmin also has a 18.9 mph average and a top speed of 39.1 mph.
BIKE: 6:18:27 – 55th Male 55-59 Age Group / 544th Male / 662nd Overall
Time for the emotions to kick in.
As I walked from dropping the bike off with the kid, I got hit with the feels. Usually this hits me around the last mile or so of the marathon, but I was pretty proud of what I just did on the bike, as well as the swim. It didn’t last long. I was handed my Run Gear bag and off to the changing tent to waste some time.
I sat down and pulled the cycling gear off and looked for the Dude Wipe (basically a big wet wipe) and wiped my face off, as well as the bugs that I had accumulated on my sweaty shoulders. It always makes me feel a little fresher to clean up a little.
Amazingly enough, I had a sun screen can in my bag. It’s less necessary at this part of the race, but I sprayed my bald head and arms anyway. With the bib belt, shoes and visor on, I grabbed my nutrition and started out of transition.
T2 – 7:11
This marathon is no joke. I’m not going to crush this.
On Friday, I approached a first timer as he was talking with his wife about the run course and I told him that the run starts on the sidewalk about 300 yards back there and the walk starts here, pointing to the hill not even a quarter mile into the course. I was joking, but not really. I saw a photographer and gave a half-hearted effort at running for the picture but it wasn’t going so well for me.
I felt hot, which is not uncommon for me. Yes, it was still sunny and later into the day, but when you are riding you have that constant wind blowing on you to help cool you off. I walked about a half-mile before I even started thinking about running.
After the first couple of aid stations, I started to get more hydration and sugar into me and started to come around. By the time I got four miles into it I was feeling better.
It wasn’t long and Gunner Jeff caught me. I knew he would. We would leap frog back and forth sharing the run lead for the rest of the way, but seeing that he had made up the difference in what little lead I had with the swim and bike, I knew that he was ahead of me by chip time even if he was standing right next to me. The same thing happened last time as well, it just happened sooner this year. He’s good.
In 2019, I made it a goal at the start of the second loop to try to get through the wooded park along the river walk before it got dark but didn’t get it done. This time it was no problem.
I caught Jeff again and we walked up the dreaded Barton Avenue hill together and for most of the rest of that north side of the river portion of the course. I recognized my local friend Daniel just as we were turning off of Barton. He seemed to be somewhat doubtful about finishing, but I tried my best to encourage him to keep moving forward. He was in a rough place mentally, but he overcame it and finished in plenty of time.
Jeff and I also saw Dave heading up the hill as we were heading down and knew he was also going to finish not far behind us.
As we approached the walking bridge I told Jeff that I was going to walk the uphill portion of it and not to wait for me. I could have jogged with him, but I wanted him to go get his glory and cross the line first. He finished about a minute ahead of me according to the time of day, but he bested me by about 11 minutes.
As I got over the bridge I was forced to run through a gauntlet of fans that crowd the run course and one guy got an extended evil eye from me and got out of my way. I ran down the hill and turned onto the road to finish. As I approached the finish chute I kept checking in front and behind me to have a good finish for myself and things were looking good. But all at once this dope comes screaming past me and spoils my finish. And to add to that disappointment, the announcer didn’t even call me in! WTF? Oh well, it’s not my first Ironman finish, and it probably won’t be my last. But the photos still prove that I had a great race.
RUN: 5:04:47 – 50th Male in 55-59 Age Group / 476th Male / 612th Overall
FINAL TIME: 12:42:42 – 2nd fastest Ironman Finish / Swim & Bike Ironman PR’s / 5th Ironman Finish
But wait, there’s more!
Loads of thanks to go around. To my wife Kari – you’re my Iron Rock. Thanks for supporting me not only once or twice, but five times now. I promise to take next year off!
To my Gunner teammates Dave, Jeff, and Jan – thanks for being on the journey with me once again. Doing a race without you would never be as fun.
To my local friends Susan, John, Charlie, Angela, and Daniel – WELL DONE! You are all IRONMEN! And let’s not forget Casey, who magically appeared at the finish line as a volunteer and handed a much surprised me my finisher hat, medal and shirt! That was unexpected and a great way to finish.
Distance: Endless 4.166 mile yards (loops) until there is only one runner left to complete a yard
Results: DNF officially (only the last runner standing is a finisher, everyone else is a non-finisher and basically SOL), but here’s what I accomplished: 8 yards (loops) / 33.33 miles / 22nd furthest distance covered out of 35 runners
BIG HILL BONK – WISCONSIN BACKYARD ULTRA – LAST RUNNER STANDING
Finally. After three postponements and nearly a year and a half after this event was to take place, the Big Hill Bonk actually happened! And after 32+ years of running, I finally attempted and achieved my first ultramarathon.
Last runner standing format ultramarathons have become very popular as of late. I’m not sure when the first one was held, but it took a guy called “Lazarus Lake” to make it a very big deal. Laz is responsible for the Barkley Marathons, and he decided to create an event called “Big’s Backyard Ultra,” named for his dog Big, and held it in his backyard. Big’s is now the World Championship in this event, and qualifying for it means winning a similar race and getting the golden coin. Good luck getting one.
When I first heard of it I found the format to be fascinating, and when the Big Hill Bonk was announced and it was somewhat local I made it my goal to be there and attempt my first ultra-distance run.
Initially, I intended this race to be my “A” race – the focus for the year and not let anything else affect training for it and participating in it, but Covid-19 derailed those plans. The race got postponed from April 2020 to October 2020 to April 2021 and then finally to August 6, 2021. In between that span of time Ironman Louisville 2020 also got canceled and I was deferred to Ironman Chattanooga in September 2021. Since I spend 30 weeks training for Ironman and it is such an investment in time and money, I made the decision to primarily focus on that race and apply that training to the Big Hill Bonk. It resulted in me being somewhat ill-prepared running-wise to do this ultra, but it was the best that I could do under the circumstances. I think my longest run in preparation was a couple 2-hour runs.
My goal for this race was pretty simple: last at least to the 50K mark, which would be eight total yards. As the race approached I was somewhat hoping to hit ten yards, but mainly I just wanted to be an official ultramarathoner.
The race started at 5:30 pm, which is somewhat strange, but it worked out just fine. I worried about a 5:30 pm start in April when the sun would set much sooner than it did in August. I also worried about being able to stay awake through the night, but sleepiness wasn’t really an issue. Thanks, caffeine.
Kari committed to making sure that I wasn’t going to do this race without her being there to ensure I didn’t seriously injure myself or die or something. So we drove up Friday afternoon and arrived about 3:30 pm. I checked in and got my bib and t-shirt and then began unloading the car and setting up my campsite, for lack of a better description.
I made my way through some serious tents already set up by those runners who were serious enough to get a spot as close as they could to the start/finish area. I found the first open area I could and set up my little pop-up tent and laid out my junk.
My little pop-up tent worked just fine and I was glad I didn’t have to worry about a much bigger tent to deal with when I stopped running, as we had to clear out when we bonked out of the race.
I made some idle chitchat with a nearby runner and made myself eat some food and get some water in me. Kari helped me get my hydration running vest filled with fluids. At 5 pm we met with the race director Tyler and went over the rules. We found out that there would be 35 runners, with three no-shows. I can’t imagine had there been a full field of runners. The tent area would have been super crowded, and running the loop would have needed some start placement strategy to make sure I was able to pace my run at the pace I was hoping to go.
Tyler admitted that he didn’t have a whistle to blow at 3, 2, and 1 minute before the start of the race, so he advised that he would just shout out how many minutes until the start as a warning to us all. That worked just fine.
At “3 minutes!” I took notice and got up and made sure I had what I need to run with.
At “2 minutes!” I kissed Kari goodbye and made my way to the pavement where we had to assemble at the bottom of each hour.
“1 minute! 10 seconds, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… GO!” And away we went.
It’s not so much a race as it is an endurance event. Who can go the farthest is all that matters. One 4.166 mile lap or loop in this event is called a “yard” I’m guessing because Laz’s race consists of loops through his and his dog Big’s backyard. So being the first to come in every yard really means nothing other than you get to rest longer if that is a benefit to you. I was somewhat under the impression that resting may not be in your benefit, but Kari said that most of the others were coming in and sitting down and putting their feet up.
I planned to be conservative and finish each loop around 50 minutes. That would give me time to use the toilet, refill my water bottle, eat something and do any equipment changes that may be necessary.
I started out with my Nathan hydration vest filled with water and Gatorade. I also opted to wear my Hoka Challenger trail shoes. Both of these decisions would be changed by Yard 3.
The course was a combination of pavement, grass, dirt, rock, and a very bouncy wooden bridge thrown in just for fun. And speaking of fun, there were plenty of tree roots, fallen trees, weeds, stairs and big rocks to navigate around, through and over. I figured that I ran about 2.5 miles and walked about 1.5 miles. Everyone walked the hills, even the small ones, myself included. The namesake Big Hill was a 10-minute walk for me.
I had run three loops of the course back in March 2020 prior to Covid shutting everything down, and thankfully the course was still familiar to me. There weren’t any surprises and the first yard went pretty much as I planned. I spent some time monitoring my watch, checking the time when I would pass certain checkpoints so that I would know how I was doing each subsequent yard.
It was clear to me even before starting the yard that a fully loaded hydration vest was probably not in my best interest. I was carrying far more than I needed. Plus, it was making me hotter than I need to be. There were a few others also wearing one, but for the most part, everyone else was just carrying a small, hand-held bottle.
After finishing this yard, I went straight to the portable toilet and then back with Kari to my tent to refuel and discuss how I felt. I decided to just take on some gel and drink some Gatorade.
Yard 2 was just a few seconds faster than the first and I felt really good about that. I came in and committed to the peeing again, which I think was a good plan. I tried to urinate after every yard just to make sure that I was staying on top of hydration. Back at the tent, Kari handed me some pretzels and some more Gatorade and I took another hit of gel. I also decided to take a salt capsule at this time, as I was sweating a lot. I’m not sure the extra salt was needed because I was eating plenty of salty snacks and drinking Gatorade, but I was leaving nothing to chance.
I decided to take my iPhone with me and take some really crappy selfies and photos as I ran on Yard 3 because I figured it was the last lap with available sunlight. I was also now pretty familiar with the course so I wasn’t too worried about carrying the dumb phone around and snapping a few pictures. Here’s some of what the course looked like:
The yards were starting to become pretty routine – Start with running on the parking lot asphalt and transitioning to grass, down a paved bike trail, head up a steep dirt path, run across the grass to the road, down a technical path and over a bunch of roots and fallen trees, down the stairs, across a path and then head through the foliage portion of the trail always watching for tree roots and low hanging branches, across the trampoline bridge, up the gravel/crushed rock Big Hill, onto the dirt path then onto the road, back to a gravel road that changed to dirt, then back to a grassy path that leads to the finish. Into the toilet, back to the tent, down some gel, food, and Gatorade. Repeat, repeat, repeat…
It was on this yard that I decided that I was done with the hydration vest and opted to just use a handheld Nathan 8 0unce water bottle from now on. I drained the water bottle every loop. 8 ounces seemed to be about the right amount of water on this warm and humid evening.
I changed my shirt and visor and added a light to the bill of the visor. The little lights that I bought over a year ago got a good recharging and one little light provided enough light to see sufficiently. I also grabbed a Nathan hand-held flashlight that I carried with me strapped to my right hand and turned it on when I got to the technical stuff. At the start of this yard, Kari was telling me to turn my light on, but I was surprised at how well I could see just using everyone else’s headlamps and lights. But when we spread out, it was time to rely on my own lights.
I was glad to be done with the vest and felt refreshed after toweling off and getting a dry shirt. Simple things like this can certainly lift your mood.
In the dark, the course was now almost unfamiliar in a way. Oh sure, I knew the layout and such, but not being able to see specific landmarks that were visible in the daylight made for some new challenges. One time through the course in the dark was enough to build confidence in knowing the turns and course again.
Kari had left the park to go check into the local hotel and grab some dinner, so I was on my own for this yard. After getting back to the finish, I immediately walked over to the water cooler and filled up my bottle. After another bathroom break it was off to my tent to replenish my fuel and drink some Gatorade. In addition to taking a shot of GU Salted Caramel gels, I was snacking on salty potato chips, salty pretzels (Dot’s Pretzels are the best), fun-size Payday bars, and a turkey and swiss sandwich.
I also decided that I had had enough with the trail shoes and switched out to my normal Hoka Clifton running shoes. The bottom edge of the trail shoes would clip my ankle so often that I couldn’t take it anymore. The Cliftons were more than sufficient for this multi-surface trail.
I found a little speed this lap somehow, turning in the quickest time of the eight yards I ran.
As I ran through this loop I knew I was about to get to marathon distance and thought how strange it was to feel pretty good at this point. Normally in a marathon, I am holding on for dear life at Mile 25 trying to set a marathon personal best or get that elusive Boston qualifier. But today that was not in my game plan. Slow and steady was the motto. I didn’t have to remind myself to take my time on the hills and just kept that forward momentum going.
However, I was beginning to get a pain in my upper left thigh that would bother me when I ran. I started to think that I could definitely get in two more loops, but started thinking that eight might be my max. Besides having a goal of reaching 50K (~31 miles), I also had a goal of not wiping myself out to the point where Kari would have to deal with a dehydrated, shivering and cramping mess when I was done.
As I got back to my tent, Kari had brought me some chicken broth that she had warmed up at the hotel and placed into a soup thermos thing she purchased for this dumb event. I drank as much as I could and chased it down with some Gatorade and headed back to the start area for Yard 7.
As we started off this yard, I burped up some Gatorade/chicken broth mix and that acid reflux was not a good feeling. It was just a little too much in me for the jogging I was doing, but it settled quickly enough. The pain in my thigh was not happy however, and my overall sense of reaching my limit was becoming clear. I figured I had this yard and one more in me. At 52 minutes and 16 seconds, I didn’t really leave myself much time to get through my routine. My appetite was fading and I decided to tell Kari to start packing up the tent and junk as I made my way back to the start for the yard that would put me over 50K and make me an ultramarathon finisher.
YARD 8 – 53 minutes, 12 seconds / 33.33 miles / 12:30 am Saturday
When Tyler the race director yelled go for Yard 8, I could barely get myself going. I began walking and quickly everyone else was into a jog. I willed myself to join them. On the previous lap another runner was running through a rough spot and the lady from Canada reminded him that he may feel bad now but be much better later. I put that in the back of my mind and kept moving forward. I was determined to get through this lap in the allotted sixty-minutes.
As the steps passed I became pretty confident that I would hit my goal of eight total yards, and as I got to the bottom of the Big Hill I glanced at my watch and saw that it read 31.85 miles. There was no celebration, but just some relief. I’d never run this far before. I kept climbing the hill and caught up with Viktoria, the runner from Canada.
Viktoria looked tired as well, and she quickly corrected herself when she made a turn at the top of the Big Hill instead of going straight. She admitted that she had made a few wrong turns, but was able to get back on track again. She started off in the wrong direction again when we made it back to the road, and I made sure that she went the right way. As we ran through the fourth mile, I told her that I was pretty familiar with it from having run it before. She asked if I was the one who wrote the blog about the pre-event course run and I said Yes! She said that she chose to use trail shoes because of how I had described the course.
Seeing that she was from Canada, I asked her if it was mandatory that she liked the band Rush. She said she had never heard of them, which gave me a chuckle. So much for making small talk. She did say that she wasn’t born in Canada, so that explains it a little better. I advised her that I was done after this yard and she was surprised at that because I was running a pretty good pace with her. I said I was just finishing strong to make sure I didn’t miss the cut-off, but I was indeed done. I thought she would be done soon too, but boy was I wrong about that. Viktoria made it through the night and the next day, completing Yard 25 and 125 total miles, finishing third overall. So impressive. It’s so hard to judge these runners and how good they can be.
As I finished I found Kari and asked her if everything was packed up and in the car. She replied no! Coach Kari didn’t believe me when I told her that I was done! But I was in fact done. I had enough. We walked back to the tent and started picking up the tent and stuff, and I just let the warnings of 3 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute just go in one ear and out the other. As I heard go, I wasn’t on the tarmac for the start, and officially out of the event.
As I walked up to Tyler sitting at his scoring table, I advised him that I was tapping out and that I had a terrific time. “You got your ultramarathon!” he said, and I was very glad to hear those words. I went over and picked out a loser’s rock and threw it into my bag.
NOTES FOR NEXT TIME
I’m very pleased with how I did and I will definitely put this race on my calendar. The race director posted post-race on Facebook that he plans to have it again in April 2022. But as with any race or event, I will want to improve on this year’s total miles. I made plenty of mental notes as I went around the park, so here are a few things that helped me and a few things that I can improve.
A hydration vest wasn’t necessary. Fully loaded with water was enough to cover a large portion of the yards I ran. I was much better off just using the hand-held water bottle and just refilling it after every yard.
I think that the salty snacks were doing a good job providing enough salt for the amount of sweating that I was doing, but regardless, I was still taking a salt capsule after every even yard.
I brought one long-sleeve shirt, four regular shirts, and two sleeveless shirts and only used three of the regular shirts. I should have changed the sweat-soaked shirts and visors more often than I did.
I planned on doing this thing solo, but that would have been dumb. I’m so glad my wife Kari came along to monitor what was going on, knowing full well that I probably wouldn’t be making smart decisions later in the run.
Book a hotel ahead of the event next time.
Having some extra shoes to change into would be beneficial. Mine were very dirty and somewhat sweat soaked as well.
I had a plan of running each yard in about 50 minutes and I executed that very well. I faded a little toward the end, but I don’t believe going faster or slower is a better option. 50 minutes gives you just enough time to refuel, rest, and prep for the next yard.
So there you have it, my first ultramarathon distance of 50K in the books! I can’t wait to give it another go.
The Extra Yard – There was a pro photographer at the event and captured these shots that I am glad to have found.
First time racing a triathlon since Ironman Chattanooga in 2019! It seemed a little different, but all things considered it was just like I remembered it.
I was a little apprehensive about this race. Any first-ever race, especially one that is not governed by USA Triathlon, can raise a red flag for me. But as more information kept coming I realized that the race director wasn’t a first-timer, and in the end it was a really well run event.
The Forge is a small to medium sized adventure style park located next to the old Illinois and Michigan Canal and the Lemont Quarries, where stone was mined to help build and then rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire. Lots of old quarries located in the Lemont, Lockport and Joliet areas. The park has zip lines, climbing walls, pump tracks and paths for cycling, and utilizes one of the quarries for swimming and kayaking. Lemont is a nearby community and when a link to this race was shared on a page I follow, I decided to give it a go. Okay, on to the race!
Getting up at 4 am is never easy, but I got up, ate, and then I drove to Lemont and parked at the Lemont High School parking lot, as the participant guide indicated that parking was limited at the Forge and it was really easy to park at the school and ride my bike to the park. Once that I got there, I found the rack for my bike and got my transition all set up.
After setting up I had some time to kill, so I walked to the swim start and exit, and walked back to transition to see where bike and run in/out were located. I jogged down the bike trail a little while to burn off some anxious energy and then used the bathroom and headed back to get my swim stuff.
The Swim – 11:28
I had swam on Friday and had a really good workout. Felt really strong and had no issues. I’m not sure why I couldn’t duplicate that here but I couldn’t. I was slow, felt like I couldn’t get enough air, and seemingly couldn’t get it under control. I was getting passed by a lot of other swimmers, but I finally settled in. Fortunately, the swim wasn’t long and I was out of the water soon enough.
I had planned for a non-wetsuit swim as the race director had said several times that the water temps had been high and that we should plan to swim without a wetsuit. Turns out, Friday night and Saturday morning were cool and it was wetsuit legal. I hadn’t even brought the thing. I kind of wish I had, but nothing I could do about it. There were only a handful of triathletes wearing them. I would have thought that the quarry would have been really deep, but there were several places where I could easily see bottom, and there were times where my hand was actually touching the weedy stuff growing in the water. I was in 76th place overall after that miserable swim.
T1 – 2:08 – Coming out of the water we had a thin, green outdoor carpet covering rocks, but I’m such a tenderfoot that it was a struggle for me. Then we hit the crushed limestone and I didn’t really enjoy that either, but eventually we got into transition where there was more carpet covering grass. I quickly grabbed my water bottle and rinsed off my feet and then made a decision that I later regretted – I decided to go sockless on the bike. I never do that but I didn’t want to wrestle socks onto two wet feet. 22nd overall fastest through T1.
The Bike – 37:52 – I had biked on Thursday and I thought that I could probably push close to 20 mph average on race day. Boy was that wrong. I ended up averaging about 17 mph, but it wasn’t for lack of trying to go faster. The course was new to me, and there were lots of slower riders ahead of me. But the thing that really affected my overall speed was the numerous sharp turns, as well as a few hairpin turns thrown in for fun. It was a difficult course, and even though there was a no passing mandate on a portion in which there was two-way riding on a six foot wide path, there was plenty of passing going on. But from the moment when my butt hit the seat, I was gunning hard and passing lots of the faster swimmers. I never got passed on the bike, and ended up with the 24th best bike split.
T2 – 1:25 – What I thought was a super fast transition from bike to run, it turns out I was pretty slow compared to the others. This is also where I realized how dumb it is to go sockless. My cycling shoe had worn the skin off a small spot on the top of my foot. Needless to say, I put on my socks for the run and won’t be going sockless ever again. The results had my T2 split at a questionable 164th place. Really? That surprises me because I thought I had done pretty well. But I guess having to put on socks is what killed my time.
The Run – 22:04 – Grabbing my visor and bib belt, I bolted out of T2 without yet putting them on, and I was on the trail for what is my strong suit – the run. I passed three very fit triathletes by 1/4 mile into it and was feeling great. I just kept motoring along, passing numerous other runners. I came up on one woman at the turn around who knew what was about to happen and stepped aside to let me go by. I thanked her and started trying to catch the next runner. Soon I saw another woman heading toward the turn around and I thought to myself that I bet she overtakes me soon.
Somewhere after the 2 mile marker, the course veered off the I&M Canal trail and headed onto a park trail. There was a hill and the volunteer standing there said “You’re welcome.” I said “I’m walking this damn thing.” And I walked up it. It was steep, but what goes up quickly came down as we meandered through the portion of the Forge where they have climbing apparatus and zip lining stuff. There were some pretty steep rocky stairs that I had to run down, but they weren’t too technical. Back up a couple more hills and it was back the the trail and over to where we had to pass the finish line and do a quick 1/4 mile out and back to the finish. The out portion was where the woman who I figured would pass me finally did. We went around the cone together, but she hit the gas and I couldn’t match her pace. I had the 16th fastest run split for the day and moved myself up to 22nd overall.
I cooled down, grabbed a banana and some water, put on a dry shirt, and kicked back by the quarry to wait for the rest of the triathletes to finish. The scrolling results on the projected screen would only show overall place and not age group place, so I had to wait until the awards to find out if I had placed. When the announcer announced my time first I started heading for the stage. I was slightly surprised at 3rd place in my age group, but I was glad to take home the award, even if it was an odd carabiner clip thing attached to a chunk of wood. I think I prefer medals. The Old Guy age group seems to be the most competitive group out there. 16 of the top 25 were over 40 years old, and most of the rest were in their thirties. Only two of the top 25 were under 30 years old, a 19 year old and a 29 year old.
Conclusion – The Forge Off-Road Triathlon was a fun event. It was different to have to actually think about riding on a course like this, instead of just hammering along in aero on my tri bike. I would do this one again, and would recommend it to anyone thinking about hitting the trails for the bike and run instead of what we normally race on.
Results: 22:20 – 19th Overall – 12/124 Place Male Overall – 3rd Place M56-60 Age Group
Racing is back! Not sure I am though. After a year plus hiatus from racing due to the pandemic, I decided to join three of my coworkers and jump back into racing. I felt some anxiety about participating in this race, which is the norm for me for any race, but it was mostly due to not really being prepared to race a 5K having done nothing but long and slow distance training for most of this year and last. But I figured why not jump in and test my fitness a little, so I did.
I had checked the race results from 2019 and saw that I had a pretty good chance to possibly crack the top ten in this little local race, but when I got to the race I could clearly see that the competition was going to be strong. People want to get back to racing I guess. When I noticed that Tinley Track & Trail was well represented, I knew that a top ten finish was going to be a challenge.
I arrived and did my usual warm-up, and it didn’t take too long as the temps were in the low 80’s for this Thursday evening in June. About five minutes prior to the start I took my place in the start area and waited for the gun. Instead of a gun though, the girl starting the race gave some unclear message about starting the race when she starts the music. Well, the music started and we where all like “do we go now?” Someone took off, and the rest of us followed.
My plan was to try to stick with a guy named Rich from the Tinley T&T squad, as he is a little faster than me and would help me pace to my best effort. Rich has become my main competitor (arch enemy) lately, as he is in my age group and I see him at most of the local races.
The race starts with a little uphill and then flattens off for a while. When I noticed that I was running at 6:50 pace I tried to dial it back and settle in and also realized that I was once again hitting it too hard out of the gate. That wasn’t my game plan, but I seem to always go out too fast for the first mile. I clocked a 6:54 first mile and just shook my head. Rich was still ahead of me but he was starting to build a little bit of a gap.
I used to have some dumb rules for myself about who not to let beat me in a race. I need to add mom’s pushing baby strollers to the list, as two of them passed me in the second mile. To their credit they were fit, but it sucks to get passed by anyone pushing a baby stroller!
The second mile came 7:19 and although that was a decent pace that should have been comfortable, it wasn’t because I had already burned all my matches in that first mile and that pace was being forced upon me. I had driven the course earlier in the day because I was unfamiliar with it and saw that the last mile had a good drop but the last half-mile would be a climb uphill to the finish. Once I made the turn onto that hilly portion I was maxed out. I retook one of the stroller pushing moms but knew others were chasing me down. I gave it my all but got passed by another runner named Kelly, who I know from the local running club. But I was just glad to be finishing the last mile in 7:22 and coming in at 22:16, according to my watch.
The awards were quickly posted online and I could see that being third in my age group would not get me a medal for this race that only went two deep for the awards. Rich finished a half-minute ahead of me and I couldn’t quite match the pace at the end of another guy, who beat me by about ten seconds. Oh well, I need to be a little more prepared for next time and just be happy that racing has returned. 19th place out of 281 finishers isn’t so bad.
Summary: Chasing the Sun 5K is a tough little course with lots of turns and challenging hills at the start and end. I may keep this one on the calendar. I kind of like races on weekday evenings.