Tunnel Hill 50 Mile Run Race Report
When: November 13, 2021
Where: Vienna, Illinois – Tunnel Hill State Trail
Results: 50.5 Miles, 11 hours 32 minutes 30 Seconds
Results Link: My Results on Athlinks
I am truly humbled.
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!