Big Hill Bonk – Wisconsin Backyard Ultra Race Report

When:  08/06/2021

Where:  Big Hill Park – Beloit, Wisconsin

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 

Results Link:  Big Hill Bonk Official Results

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.  

Here’s the link to my previous blog post about committing to the race:  My First Ultramarathon?

TRAINING

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.

RACE DAY/NIGHT

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.

My home for Friday night/Saturday morning. All ready for the call to the start.

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.

Off we go on Yard number 1! I’m in red, waving to Kari.

THE YARDS

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.

YARD 1 – 49 minutes, 37 seconds / 4.166 miles / 5:30 pm Friday

Heading past the tent area on Yard 1. I didn’t know it at the time, but the eventual winner was next to 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 – 49 minutes, 33 seconds / 8.33 miles / 6:30 pm Friday

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.  

YARD 3 – 51 minutes, 05 seconds / 12.5 miles / 7:30 pm Friday

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.

YARD 4 – 49 minutes, 06 seconds / 16.67 miles / 8:30 pm Friday

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.

YARD 5 – 47 minutes, 20 seconds / 20.83 miles / 9:30 pm Friday

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.

YARD 6 – 50 minutes, 45 seconds / 25 miles / 10:30 pm Friday

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.

I feel about as good as I look.

YARD 7 – 52 minutes, 16 seconds / 29.17 miles / 11:30 pm Friday

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.

Officially Bonked at Yard 8, 33.33 miles.

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.

My keepsake of my first ultramarathon.
Couldn’t have done it without my love and Coach Wife, Kari

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.

1st time up the Big Hill. Photographer caught us dogging it.
I wasn’t dogging it!!!
Changed to the visor means this is probably the 2nd yard.
Near the finish area of the 2nd yard.
3rd yard crossing the bouncy bridge and getting caught off-guard by the photographer again.

2021 Chasing the Sun 5K Race Report

When:  06/03/2021

Where:  New Lenox, Illinois

Distance:  5K

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.

Chasing the Sun 5K Results

Running Stories: Head Games

Adapting to life in a pandemic can lead to a little paranoia. Now that winter is here, any little sniffle or scratchy feeling in my throat or a need to cough makes me think that I’m coming down with a full-blown case of Covid-19 coronavirus. I’m sure most of us have gone through that and realized that you are probably overreacting. So far for me, I have not turned a need to cough into a need to quarantine myself.

As a runner, I have noticed that when it gets close to race day I can become very sensitive to some of the most minor issues that runners often deal with.  A slight twinge can make you think that you are about to have a serious running injury that will derail your race. These little aches and pains can very easily become big issues, but I find that most of the time they are benign. You just have to know when they are serious and when they can be ignored. And I have learned to ignore most of them.

Case in point – take a look at this photo:

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This is one of my favorite race photos.  Notice anything about the shoes?  Yep, they are brand new.

In 2009 I ran the Rockford Marathon in Rockford, Illinois. I was just getting back into running marathons after taking several years off from it thanks to enjoying my growing responsibilities as a new dad. Running was going well even though I was just winging marathon training as usual. Then race weekend approached and I developed a discomfort in the top area of my foot where it bends. I had not experienced this type of issue before and it only occurred when I was running. So naturally, I started freaking out. I couldn’t wear my shoes without it bugging me. I would attempt a jog around the block and think my foot might fall off. I was obsessing over it and I thought that I had really messed it up. So on the Saturday before the race, I went to the local sporting goods store and bought a new pair of shoes. And even though my foot felt weird in them still, I had no other option.

Trying something new on race day is generally thought of as a bad idea, and running in a new pair of shoes definitely fits in that category. But as I got to the race after a two-hour drive in the car fretting over the issue, I toed the line and told myself to just forget about it. And guess what?  The pain never presented itself again. Maybe all of the circuses surrounding a marathon was distraction from it enough, but I think I was just obsessing over it. It seems that I was just hypersensitive to the way the shoes felt on my feet.

In another example, my teammates and I were all together in Louisville, Kentucky to participate in Ironman Louisville in 2017 when I heard Alex complaining to his dad Dave that his foot was killing him. He was convinced that he had developed a foot injury, probably plantar fasciitis, as it was bothering him just to walk around. I immediately thought of the marathon in Rockford and told him it was all in his head, that he was just hypersensitive to the sensation he was feeling in his foot.  I’m not sure if that made him feel any better or not.  Alex ran a 3:30 marathon on his way to a 10:14 Ironman and 5th in his age group finish. I didn’t hear him complain about his foot after that.

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Me (bib 2400) on my on my first of two loops cheering Alex (bib 513) on toward the finish of his second loop/race as he passed me.  My wife Kari just happened to be in the right place at the right time to grab this great shot.  I don’t think his foot was bothering him here.

I still tell my self to ignore most little twinges of discomfort.  I would be reluctant however, to tell someone that the pain they are experiencing is not real. But when it’s near race day, sometimes it’s just in your head.

Running Stories: I Have Discovered Trail Running

It’s winter here in Illinois, and although mostly mild this go around, we’ve had a little bit of snow added to our area and it’s just enough to cover the trail and make it icy after people start packing it down. This forces me off of my usual running route and onto the local side roads where there is better running traction and little traffic, but not as much scenery.

Don’t get me wrong, I am glad I have the option to still run outside when the ice-covered trails make them difficult to run on. I have my favorite route too, it’s hilly and has enough variety that it’s a much better option than running inside on the treadmill. But after a few runs on this route, I started thinking about branching out from it and try some off-the-beaten-path trails. I am still signed up to do a “last runner standing” style trail ultramarathon and getting some practice and familiarity with running on trails would be a good idea for me.

One of these trails is located in the Van Horne Woods portion of the Hickory Creek Preserve located off of Route 30 in Frankfort, IL. The path starts just as you enter the preserve. There used to be a sign there where the unpaved portion of the trail began that said it was for use by the “Environmental Learning Center ONLY,” but that sign is now gone, and when I Googled it it said that it was permanently closed. A Facebook page for the site says it was closed in 2017. Seeing that the trail is still pretty heavily used, on Wednesday I decided to explore the icy path for the first time.

Trail running, where have you been all my life?! I loved it! Although the trail was a mix of snow, ice, and a few clear portions, my trail running shoes handled them fairly easily. I slowed down where it was necessary, but otherwise it was runnable. There is a fairly steep ravine that had some great views and lots of twisty paths through the wooded area.

On Thursday, I decided to do it again, this time running it in reverse. Another awesome run, but there was a lot of rough running going on. I still had pretty good traction, but it wasn’t the best. Occasionally the tread of my shoes would nick my ankles and that is no fun. On Friday I stopped at the local hardware store and picked up some 1/2 inch sheet metal screws and screwed them into the bottom of my shoe. This is an old trick used by runners, but one I have never tried.

Saturday morning I woke up to a new coating of about an inch of snow and I was super excited to get out there and run through the woods again. The traction I now had with my modified shoes was unbelievable. I ran like there wasn’t any packed down icy snow at all. It was a game-changer. Even my pace picked up for the run from the previous days. This time I decided to explore some more of the off-trail segments and found myself following a set of fat bike tire tracks in the freshly fallen snow. I followed those tracks for almost three miles until I ran into those two bikers on the trail. I realized that these were the same two guys that always post pictures of their rides on the local biking Facebook page that I belong to. I got to get a fat bike someday. It looks like fun.

I ran until I realized that eight miles had passed and that I had three more to get to home, and without any water or gels to fuel me along, I decided to save some exploring for Sunday. I came home and told my wife that this was one of the best runs I have ever had.

A little bit of a warm-up occurred on Saturday afternoon, melting what had fallen that morning. But I woke up again to light snow on Sunday and decided that this was going to be another amazing run. This time, however, I drove to the forest preserve so not to waste energy running three miles to get there and have to save enough energy for the three miles to run back home. I’m glad I did, this run was an awesome repeat of Saturday, only more so! I explored further east along Hickory Creek until I got turned around and lost my bearings. I found the creek and knew what side I was supposed to be on, but I truly believed that I had crossed it somehow. It wasn’t until later when I reviewed the gps map that I realized how turned around I was. I ended up backtracking until I saw some familiar things that I thankfully took the time to study for just this reason. I had also drawn some arrows in the snow to make sure I knew where I should turn at a few of the adjoining trail spots.

I was getting a little tired and a little worried that I was overdoing it, so I decided to head back and save some more of the unexplored areas for another time.

In all, I ran 53.5 miles this week, which is very high for me, and all because this little off-the-beaten-path rekindled a passion for running that I hadn’t realized was missing. I certainly felt like a kid again. I will definitely be running more natural surface trails in the future.

Running Stories: Throwing Down The Gauntlet

As I approached the trail I was about to turn onto from the sidewalk I was running on, I could see a runner off to the right about 100-yards away, heading in the same direction that I was planning to run. As I hopped on the trail I kept my pace the same as it had been for the previous three miles and didn’t think much about the guy behind me. He ran behind me for about five minutes and then I started to hear footsteps. I was about to be overtaken. He was about to throw down the gauntlet.

In Medieval days, a gauntlet was a type of armored glove used to protect the hand, but if thrown down it was meant as a physical challenge to your opponent. I had a pretty good feeling that he was challenging me, as I have done this move before. Many times before. Too many times before. Enough times that I gave it that term – throwing down the gauntlet.

You can throw down the gauntlet in a race, but everybody is challenging each other throughout the race. You might have someone kick hard near the end and you either respond or don’t. But out on the trail during a simple training run, throwing down the gauntlet is a move to see what the other guy is made of.

Since he took his time coming up from behind and then sped past me fairly quickly, I figured he was making a tactical mistake. I know that mistake well. You run hard to catch the guy ahead of you and then struggle to keep up the increased pace once you pass him. I have often thrown down the gauntlet only to regret having to run much harder than I am capable of after the pass. You learn not to throw down the gauntlet if it means that you will run out of gas by doing so.

I picked up my pace to match his from about 15 yards behind him. It was a pace I could handle. I made some noise just to let him know I was still there. A quick glance over his shoulder told me all I needed to know. He was trying to outrun me and now realized that I had responded to his challenge.

As I ran behind him for about a mile I had no plans to throw down the gauntlet myself, I was already pushing it pretty hard just to keep up with him, plus my route was about to take me on a different direction and I had about four more miles to run. As I made a left turn onto the trail that heads back home and he continued straight, I think he now knows that throwing down the gauntlet might get you the challenge that you weren’t expecting. I know this because I have learned that lesson myself many times before.

Running Stories: Reaping the Rewards

This year was going to be a special year of racing for me. In addition to the local road running races and sprint triathlons that I would normally sign up for, I was also set to return to Kentucky for Ironman Louisville with my Gunner teammates/friends, and also take my first stab at doing an ultramarathon in Wisconsin at the Big Hill Bonk in Beloit. But alas, it was not meant to be.

But that doesn’t mean I sat around and did nothing. Even though the races were taken away from me I would never have not ran or biked, or even done the occasional swim just to do it. Running has always been the thing I have done, to the point that it’s just life for me. So regardless of whether there’s a race to run or an event to do, I’m still going to do it. And even with the pandemic going on, I still went out there and put in the running and biking efforts.

Since there was no goal race to shoot for, I decided to just have fun doing my thing while maintaining my running and biking fitness. Mostly I would alternate run and bike days, with Monday being an off-day to recover. There would be low-key group rides on the weekends that usually end up being solo rides anyway. And my weekly midday runs were always there for me after getting off work. And the pool was always waiting for me post run to cool down and put in a few laps of technique focused swimming.

Even though I didn’t have any distance goals or time goals, I focused on putting in miles without going too hard. There were plenty of friends doing “virtual” races, and I gave doing that kind of thing a brief consideration, but then opted against it. Instead I used the year as kind of a recovery year, not burning out, but “keeping it real” as my neighbor likes to say. And as December rolled around I realized that I had just surpassed 12oo running miles, which was a nice accomplishment. Getting over 1000 miles in a year is a pretty good achievement for any runner.

But as the temps dropped and I was seeing my pace come down for my typical running routes, I was interested in seeing just how racing fit I was.

First up was a sub-6 minute mile challenge that I was able to get under with a 5:44 minute mile. That was surprising to me, as I struggled through the summer to be under 6:30.

Last weekend, I decided to run a half-marathon on my own. I usually shoot to be under an hour and forty minutes when racing a half, so I set that as a goal. The hills on my route though were humbling, and I came in at 1:43 and change. Even so, I think that is pretty respectable, seeing that my run lacked the race environment that pushes me to an uncomfortable and challenging pace – fellow competitors, adrenaline, and the desire to push harder when challenged were all absent. I will take that do-it-myself 1:43 half-marathon and be proud of it.

Today I ran my normal 8-mile running route, which is also hilly, but the day seemed pretty good for another push for a good time. I turned in a time of 1:01:20, which is the fastest of the 8-milers that I have run this year. There’s a local 8-mile race that I usually do every November called “The Hot Cider Hustle” in which I can generally come in under 60 minutes. But I will take that 61 minute 20 second 8-mile run and be proud of it.

I had done some good work this year, even without having a goal to shoot for. I’m glad that the work I did produced a handful of good results for me. This year has taught me that reaping the rewards of good work doesn’t have to come from racing.

Time to dial it back a little now and get ready for 2021. Hopefully I can reap the rewards in more of a fashion I am used to. But regardless as to whether we race in 2021 or not, I’m going to put in the work. It’s rewarding.

Running Stories: The Look

On Thanksgiving Day I had very little desire to go for a run.  It was drab and cold outside.  I had been outside early in the morning with my dog and could feel the dampness chilling me and knew that on a day in which people love to get together and race Turkey Trots, I would probably opt out.  Seeing that Covid-19 was killing off most of the official Turkey Trots, the decision to opt out would be an easy one.

But as the morning progressed guilt got the better of me, and I decided that if others were out there I should be too.  Plus sitting inside watching football games that I had zero interest in probably wouldn’t make me feel any better about myself.  And I planned to feast on the fabulous meal my wife would be presenting later in the afternoon.  I needed to run to make me feel better.

I chose to run eight miles, my typical distance which follows my normal looped running route.  I can change my route up – shorten it, lengthen it, run it clockwise one day, counter-clockwise the next.  But I generally run my loop, and adding a little quarter-mile extension, it makes it an even eight miles.

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My 8-mile looped route. I know it like the back of my hand.

As I got to the looped portion of the trail a mile from home I noticed that I wasn’t alone out there on Thanksgiving Day.  Plenty of walkers and runners enjoying a moderately mild, fall day.  Families walking together, a few running together and most just doing what comes natural on Thanksgiving Day – getting together outside and being thankful for that opportunity.  About a mile and a half into my run I got the first of handful of greetings that I call “The Look.”

The look can be different things with different meanings, but for runners it generally is an acknowledgement that the looker sees you as a serious runner.  I see it a lot at races, runners eyeing each other up, giving a nod as if to say “I validate you and recognize you as my competition.”  I also see it out on the local running trail as well.

Maybe it was the Boston Marathon jacket I was wearing, or maybe it was my pace.  I’m not sure, but the kid running toward me gave me the look and a greeting that seemed to say “Nice job, old guy.”  I can assume this because he wasn’t dressed like a hobby jogger, and he looked like a high school or college cross country runner.  I have to admit that it kind of made my day.

Another mile or two into it and I came upon another runner who looked very fast.  This time it was me that gave the look of approval.  He was lean, focused and running pretty fast.  He didn’t even really make eye contact with me that I could tell.  I gave him a quick thumbs up and “nice job” and we were soon running away from each other as fast as we had been running toward each other.  I don’t think he even realized that I gave him the look.

As I kept moving toward mile six, I saw a couple up ahead walking toward me.  This time the look came from a tall, jeans wearing guy who was also wearing running shoes.  He seemed to take me in and give me the look, one that lingered, like he was acknowledging the Boston celebration jacket and knew what it took to earn that jacket.  I gave him the look as well – he looked like a guy who was a longtime runner, with a pedigree to boot.  He reminded me of the guys who used to run in the early 70’s – Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, et. al.  He had that look of a tall and thin runner.  As I ran away from them I wondered what kind of running he may have done over the years.

As I was about to finish my loop and take the trail back home, who did I see coming at me but the kid who I thought hadn’t even noticed me 2.5 miles earlier.  This time he and I were chuckling at the fact that we were seeing each other again.  I now wondered if he had given me the look, seeing that he recognized me the second time around.

Two days later I went for another run.  I didn’t give anyone the look, nor did I receive any.  I did have someone say hello to me and call me by my name.  I have no idea who it was, as he was cycling and bundled up from head to toe.  Getting recognized by another runner or cyclist is almost as good as getting the look.

So the next time you are at a race, or just out running, keep an eye out for the look.  Another runner respects you.  You deserve it.

Chasing a Sub-6 Mile – Final Chapter – I DID IT!

When Covid-19 took away my racing events for the year I decided I needed a goal to replace them.  Since I had been focused on endurance events like marathons and Ironman and the training that goes with them, I thought that maybe I would try something that focuses on speed.  After participating in the Torch Run at work and testing myself for a mile afterward and hitting 6:35, I came up with a plan to try to run a sub-6 minute mile.  

I trained through the summer and into fall and tried a few test runs to see if I improved.  The first attempt lowered my time to 6 minutes, 32 seconds.  The second attempt I hit 6:25.  Now I was seeing some improvement, but still pretty far away from sub-6.  The third attempt resulted in a DNF when I basically went out way too fast and pulled the plug on it at the half-mile mark.  The fourth attempt clocked in a 6:24, an improvement by 1 second, but still a long way from hitting my goal.  I figured a few things would need to happen.  

First, I needed a cool day.  I also needed the wind to either work for me, or not work against me, or both.  And lastly, I needed to move off the track and trail and find a course that was mostly downhill with limited interruptions.  So on my 57th birthday, I found that the conditions might be right to give it another go.  

So here’s the attempt at achieving my goal:

OCTOBER 17, 2020 – Attempt Number 5

  • TIME:  5:44.1
  • WHERE:  KENSINGTON ROAD, MOKENA, IL
  • WEATHER:  ~60 degrees, strong/gusty SSW winds
  • LEAD-UP:  9.25 mile run Thursday, rest day on Friday
  • COMMENTS:  I told my son Ben that I was thinking of giving the sub-6 mile another try, and since he was coming down for my birthday with his girlfriend Emily, he brought his special racing Nike ZOOM X shoes, which he claimed would make me faster.  I was skeptical, but I would at least be open to give them a try.

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So when he arrived, I tried them on and I had to admit that they felt pretty light and springy.  Ben had already ran 12 miles that morning, so he grabbed a bike from the garage and offered to pace me along.  As I did some warm-up through the neighborhood, I changed my mind on the route we had discussed a few minutes before.  I decided to run out of my neighborhood on Kensington because I felt like it was more downhill than the other route we thought of using.  Emily jumped in her car to follow us and watch as well.  I did a little less than a mile to warm-up the legs and to get used to the shoes and told Ben that I would pick up my tempo and hit start at the corner and we’d be off.

My pace felt good as I hit the start button on my watch and I quickly locked into the tempo I felt I could comfortably hold.  Ben was monitoring my bike computer and advised that we were right at 10-11 mph, which was just what we needed.  A quick left and then right turn about 200 yards or so into the run and downhill we started.  The wind was really strong at my back, but I could not sense that it was aiding me.  At least it wasn’t hurting me either.  

The only thing I was worried about was a street that I had to cross about a half-mile into the run.  The intersection wasn’t a 4-way stop and the cross street didn’t have to stop for traffic.  But Ben pedaled ahead and gave me the all clear and I trucked through the intersection without even looking for any cars.  

The next section was somewhat flat but still descending.  I was really starting to feel the burn in my lungs, but my legs were still churning pretty well.  The legs weren’t tiring much.  

At about 2/3’s of a mile I realized I had a decision to make ahead – I could go straight and then turn left around the neighborhood I would finish in, or I could make a left and then turn right.  As I searched my memory for how the neighborhood was laid out, I figured that the second option would be better as I would finish with a downhill and not have to climb at the end.  

My breathing was now producing spittle, which was flying out of my mouth at every breath.  I gave a quick glance at my watch to see the distance I had left and I saw that I was at about 0.86 miles.  Time to dig deep!  I also saw the pace was showing 6:15, which gave me an “oh crap” moment.  I thought maybe I was going to miss it.  

After a few more hard pressed strides, I saw the watch turn from 0.99 to 1.0 miles and I hit stop.  I gave myself a few yards to come to a stop and then looked at the watch and saw 5:44.  

5:44!

My jaw dropped.  I couldn’t believe it.  All this time I had been thinking that taking nearly a half-minute off my previous best was going to be a very difficult thing to do, but not only did I do that, I really did it!  15 seconds under my goal of sub-6!  

I told Ben and we celebrated with some high-fives and some big smiles.  

A screenshot of my Garmin results, proof of the sub-6 minute finish.
The route I took. I like how Garmin added the color coding for pace on the route. You can see that I was speedy (red) when I was heading downhill. You can also tell when I started to run out of gas (blue) near the end.
I jogged back home and had the wife take my victory picture. I could definitely feel the wind in my face coming back, hence the backwards turned visor. I hardly ever turn it backwards.

I was kind of coughing at the end of the run while my heart rate was coming down.  Ben said that it was pretty common and even has a name – “track hack.” I guess I just irritated it with the volume of air I was pushing in and out.

As I recovered I started wondering why this attempt was successful when the others were not.  I definitely had a cooler day, and the wind was in my favor, but I have to really think the most important aspect was the mostly descending route that I took.  Not having to fight gravity is a big deal.  I’ll admit the shoes were lighter and more springy, but the psychological advantage may have been a bigger factor.  If you feel like they are giving you an edge, then maybe they will.  

But I got to think it might be due to the mustache that I grew back.  The spirit of Steve Prefontaine must have been with me.

Chasing a Sub-6 Mile – Update #2

Time for another update, so here’s how my attempt at getting under a 6-minute mile is going .  (See below for the links to the previous two posts.)

I had not given the sub-6 mile attempt much thought since the last time, as I was still hoping to increase my miles for the Big Hill Bonk Last Runner Standing ultra. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has killed that event and I will have to wait until April 2021 to give that one another go. I wasn’t that focused for some reason on keeping up with getting under sub-6 minutes until I was at a group ride and one of my Facebook friends (Hi, Angela!) who read my blog inquired about it. I mentioned the above and that I have also been dealing with the typical aches and pains that usual appear at this time of year after the work I have been doing, things like plantar fasciitis, piriformis butt pain, etc. All things that I typically just ignore and train through.

But I have done a couple of attempts, one of which was a total failure and the second one today that turned out to be consistent with what I think is going to be my best effort from here on. Here are the summaries:

SEPTEMBER 7, 2020 – Attempt Number 3

  • TIME:  DNF
  • WHERE:  BEARSKIN TRAIL, MINOCQUA, WISCONSIN
  • WEATHER:  Mid-50’s degrees, windy
  • LEAD-UP:  A bike ride with Kari the day before
  • COMMENTS:  This was just going to be a quick and easy 4-mile run before heading back out of town and a six hour ride home.  But seeing the day was pretty cool and I was feeling pretty good, I decided that I would warm up with two miles of light pace and then turn around and hammer it.  Well, I did that and totally threw out the pacing strategy that I had learned from previous efforts, mainly starting a little slower and pushing for negative splits.  No, I went out like a shot and burned out very quickly.  By the time I hit the half mile mark I was near hyperventilation and had to pull the plug on it.  My watch showed 3:22 for that effort, well off the pace I needed.  I blew it.  It was a little bit of a surprise, but I quickly realized my dumb mistake.  I jogged it back to the car and enjoyed the Northwoods scenery as I went.

SEPTEMBER 23, 2020 – Attempt Number 4

  • TIME:  6:24.8
  • WHERE:  MOKENA JR. HIGH SCHOOL TRACK
  • WEATHER:  72 degrees, light wind, low humidity – a perfect day
  • LEAD-UP:  A bike ride the day prior and an easy-paced 3-mile warm-up
  • COMMENTS:  As I started the 2.75-mile jog to get to the track I could tell this was probably going to be a wasted effort.  The upper leg soreness from the bike ride the day before was pretty evident, but once I got there I decided to see where I stand.  This time I made sure that I held back at the start and the first two laps were pretty good.  I felt smooth and wasn’t really feeling terribly taxed.  I pushed harder for the third and fourth laps and surprised myself when my watch showed 6:24 at the mile mark.  I think I need some more speed work training and a cooler day to get this time a little lower.  I think I might be capable of sub-6:20, but I’m thinking maybe my goal should have been to get under 6:30!  I’d have done it by now!

Stay tuned, I plan on doing my last effort or two in October.

 

Chasing a Sub-6 Mile – Update #1

Chasing a Sub-6 Minute Mile

 

Chasing a Sub-6 Mile – Update #1

It’s been a couple of weeks since I declared that I’m attempting to run a sub-6 minute mile and it’s time for an update.  Here’s the link to the first post:  Chasing a Sub-6 Minute Mile

The summer here in the midwest has been typical – hot and humid – and my efforts have been influenced by that.  It’s no surprise that the hot weather will produce slower times and my running has fallen in line with that.  But I have been training fairly consistently and I’m seeing a few positives come my way.  And the weather this week turned much cooler and less humid, so I decided to give it another go.

First, I’ve dropped about 10 pounds from what I weighed over the winter months.  This winter weight gain is something I struggle with every year, but I generally lose the extra weight by mid-summer.  I currently weigh about 167 pounds, so another five or so pounds less might make me a little quicker.  I’ll keep that in mind.

The second positive is I ran to the local junior high school track last week and did a speedwork session of 4×400 repeats with a 400 recovery between each one.  It was a warm day and somewhat windy.  I wasn’t trying to do it for any other purpose other than to put in some work at a faster pace.  But I was very happy to see that I turned in those 400-meter laps in 1:30, exactly the time I need to be at a 6-minute mile.  Now, each 400 was followed by a recovery 400 in which allowed my heart rate and breathing to recover.  If I could string those four laps together though I would meet my goal.  I’m not counting that workout as an official attempt because it was broken into four segments, but I did get a huge confidence boost from it.

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I learned a little about pacing those 400’s as well.  The first one seemed to be the hardest. I went hard from the start and felt like I was fading at the end.  The second 400 was run similarly.  When I did my third and fourth 400 I decided to hold back at the beginning and little and push hard at the end.  That seemed to be the best way to approach it as I didn’t feel like I was dying by the end of 200 meters and staggering at the end.  That will probably be my approach to any further efforts and time trial runs.  Also, I am aware that I only ran 1600 meters and a mile is 1609 meters, so I will have to keep that in mind if I do further time trials on the track instead of the trail/road.

 

AUGUST 4, 2020 – Attempt Number 2

  • TIME:  6:25.2
  • WHERE:  MOKENA JR. HIGH SCHOOL TRACK
  • WEATHER:  72 degrees, cool wind from the north, low humidity – a perfect day
  • LEAD-UP:  A rest day prior and an easy-paced 3-mile warm-up
  • COMMENTS:  This wasn’t going to be an official attempt as I was planning on just doing 8×200 and some 100 repeats, but it was such a nice day I decided to give it a go.  I’m glad I did.  My previous attempt came in at 6:32, so to shave off 7 seconds seems to be meaningful.  I’m still 26 seconds away from going sub-6, but at least I am moving in the right direction, time-wise.  The weather was definitely a factor, and I did also hold myself back a little at the beginning of the mile.  I wish I had hit my splits, but forgot on the first lap and then just went with it.  Here’s to progress!

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