Ask any runner if they check the weather report weeks ahead of the big race and I would bet that most would say they do. I’m no different. We had really great fall temperatures the week before the race, but it was about to change – just in time for race day, naturally. Instead of packing several pairs of short sleeve shirts and shorts, I packed for a day in the low-30s, with evening temps below freezing. Kari told me later that the truck’s outside thermometer reading only reached a high of 34 degrees.
But as it turned out, the cold temperature for the day didn’t bother me at all. They say that you hope for the best conditions and prepare for the worst, and if some freezing-type temps were the worst of it, then that’s no big deal. I’ve run plenty of times in the cold. I knew it was going to get cold, but the two inches of snow we woke up to was quite a surprise. That’s the weather in the midwest for you.
Yes, two inches of freshly fallen snow greeted Kari and me as we went out to the truck for the trip to the starting line in Vienna. This will be interesting, I thought. We arrived, parked, and found our way to the start area to look for some familiar faces. My son Ben and become friends with a guy named Sean, and they had done a lot of running together. Sean was there to run the 50-mile race and I was glad to see him. We greeted each other at the pre-race dinner the night before and again just before starting our journeys, wished each other luck, and he took his rightful place in the front of the starting group and I made my way to the back. I found my local friends, Jim and Calvin, both doing the 50-miler, and we took some selfies. Jodi, Jennifer, and Lara must have been avoiding us, but I would see two of the three later in the race.
I’m not sure if I was just not hearing the national anthem or if they didn’t sing or play it this year, but the race seemed to start before I was aware it was time to do so. A trip around the parking lot led to the trail, and to the south, we all headed. As we trampled through the now slightly muddy trail, we all were taking the least sloppy line. But before too long, the trail firmed up, and only the edges of the trail and the numerous wooden bridges would show the icy reminders of the early morning snowfall.
I felt great as I pressed on, keeping on track with my plan to run for two minutes, followed by walking for two. I did really well with this method in September at the Broken Anvil Backyard Ultra, and it was netting me about 4.5 miles every hour. I met Kari at the second aid station located in Karnak, Illinois, and advised that all was good – and it really was. I tend to sweat, no matter if it’s hot or cold, but I wasn’t sweating at all. I must have picked the right amount/type of clothes for the day – two thin, long-sleeve undershirts, a pair of running shorts under a light pair of running pants, and my 2016 Ironman Lake Placid Finisher jacket, a jacket that is more like a windbreaker than what is typically offered by Ironman as a “finisher’s jacket” but was the perfect thickness for this day. I topped my head with a visor covered with a running beanie and of course a pair of gloves to keep my hands warm. I was shocked that I wasn’t sweating at all, and I attributed it to the run plan that I was following, keeping my heart rate down, and not heating myself up for too long. Of course, the weather and my clothing were contributing as well to keeping me dry.
Since I wasn’t sweating, and I was doing my best to keep hydrated, I was developing a new issue – I was peeing a lot. I estimate that I was drinking about 1/4 of a cup of water every couple of minutes. Early in the race, I was peeing every 10-15 minutes or so. By the later stages of the run, I was peeing about every five minutes. At one point it seemed like I would take a drink and then stop to pee. And since there was snow along the edge of the trail, I could clearly see that I was peeing very clear, not yellow at all. It was like the water was running straight through me. I took it as a good sign, but it was a little bit of a new experience for me and I thought about it a lot. Too much info, I know, and I’m sorry. It’s just a memory from this race that I don’t want to forget.
There are another 3 miles from the first major aid station in Karnak to the turnaround and when I got back to Karnak again I decided to make an attempt at pooping. Into the port-o-potty I went, and was glad to take care of business. I walked back over to Kari to swap out my vest and I was approached by a woman who very delicately informed me that I had toilet paper trailing behind me from my pants. I would normally be thoroughly embarrassed, but when you’ve been whipping out your wiener to urinate in front of everyone for the last 16 miles, it really didn’t faze me that much. Kari got a kick out of it though. Another bit of too much info, and another memory for posterity.
Run for two minutes. Walk for two minutes. Pee. Eat a gel every half-hour. Eat something solid every hour. Repeat for hours. And that’s how the first fifty miles went. Very uneventful, and highly executed. I was dialed in. At a couple of points, I was pretty bored, so I pulled out my phone and called my super-fan Carl and chatted him up a little. I also called my daughter Rebecca who seemed a little surprised that I was taking time out of the race to chew the fat with her. Both conversations were big pick-me-ups.
Upon reaching the 50-mile mark and being back at the start/finish again for the second time, I couldn’t help to think about how I was doing. The prior year I had quit well before I crossed the mat. This year that wasn’t happening. Kudos to Kari for being wise with where she set up her chair and had our gear; it was roughly the same place as last year, and I had no trouble finding her. Of course, she found me before I found her most of the time, but I wasn’t having to figure anything out. I would take off my vest and she would either refill the bladder of the vest I preferred or swap it out with my secondary vest with a full complement of snacks and water. Occasionally I would forget to swap my phone over, and once I realized that I didn’t have my gel flask with me. But overall all, we were dialed in.
Kari had dinner ready for me again, more Ramen noodles and broth, a sandwich, some potato chips, and my favorite drink Lipton Lemon Brisk tea. I ate what I thought I needed and headed off for mile 51 and more. It was just a few miles later that I felt so good that I called Kari to tell her so. I was really feeling good, and that continued for most of the night trip on the south portion of the out-and-back course.
Upon getting back to Karnak for what was now the fourth time, things were getting a little weird for me. The energy I had in the mid-50 miles was no longer there, and I was struggling to get through the two minutes of the run portion of my run/walk. I was definitely running slower, and would occasionally skip a run turn. Another thing I noticed was that I was drifting while walking, not staggering, but just having trouble walking straight. I thought of an old childhood friend named Mike who did that type of walking normally, and it gave me a chuckle. I think that it being so dark and that I was using a headlamp to light my way was causing me to get a little off. It’s like when you are driving in a car and being okay when you stare off into the distance, but try focusing on the things speeding by right in front of you and it becomes hard to focus. And I was staring at a gazillion rocks passing by my feet very quickly.
Heron Pond aid station is between Karnak and Vienna, and I tried to eat something there. I had some more ramen and broth, and a portion of banana. Kari walked with me for a while, and I mentioned that I felt like I was starting to get drained.
One weird sensation I was experiencing was uncontrollable yawning. This happened a couple of times. I was perplexed by it because my mind was pretty sharp, having consumed caffeinated gels every 30 minutes. I think it was my body telling my brain that it was tired. A very strange sensation.
From around mile 70 to back to Vienna I knew the writing was on the wall. To continue on was going to be tough. I told myself that I would try to eat some more food, maybe drink a 5-hour energy drink, and see how I felt. Kari met me and walked me to the warming tent, and then scrambled to get me the things that might turn me around.
As I attempted to sit in a chair in the warming tent, I had already unofficially quit the race. I stumbled a little trying to sit down, which wasn’t surprising to me. I had difficulty walking in a straight line for the last six miles and felt a little wobbly for quite a while. But I had been telling myself all day to keep giving it the “old college try.” They say in ultras that if you feel crummy at some point, you may feel totally better a little later. Kari had gotten me some of the creamy potato soup they were serving inside the tent, and I began eating what I could. But it wasn’t long before I was covering my face with my hands attempting to hide my emotions, and through some sobs, I confessed I no longer had the ability, nor the desire, to continue. Kari, without a doubt the best crew/sherpa ever, would have tried to push me on, but she didn’t try to convince me otherwise. It was pretty clear that I was done and she could tell.
I scanned the faces in the warming tent and I could see some of them were making the same difficult choices. Continue or quit? Some had already quit and were at peace with it, others had that 76-mile stare like I had just before getting back to the tent. Then in walked a guy around my age, who threw down a shiny new belt buckle on the table and declared “I’m done.”
“Did you drop, too?” I asked through some foggy mind haze. “DROP?! NO, I FINISHED!” he declared. I sat there somewhat dumbfounded. Finished? Puzzled, I looked at his belt buckle again, this time a little closer – 100 Mile SUB 20. It became crystal clear and I sank further into my hard metal folding chair. This guy had just gone 100 miles in under twenty hours and looked like it was no big deal. I picked my jaw up off the grassy floor of the tent, offered a small apology for making an erroneous assumption, and advised that I just misunderstood. I told him that I was dropping and was very impressed with his accomplishment. I think at that point he realized that I was not quite all there at the moment. He offered some encouragement, but by now my body was going into recovery mode, and any further energy would be spent keeping myself from uncontrollable shivering and hobbling to the truck for the ride back to the hotel.
Last year I went into the scoring tent to notify them that I was dropping to the 50-mile finish, which resulted in them encouraging me to continue before handing me a 50-mile finisher buckle. But this year the volunteer just asked for my bib number and offered me another 50-mile finisher buckle with some brief well done’s. Kari had pulled the truck close, I stiff-legged to it and got in, and off to the hotel, we went.
Officially I am a Tunnel Hill 50-Mile finisher, with an official time of 11 hours and 50 minutes. But my Garmin watch told the real story – 76.8 miles in 19 hours and 23 minutes. Farthest I have ever run. Last year it didn’t take long to regret dropping at 50 miles. This year there is none of that. I’m damn proud of those 76 miles.
It took me three Ironman races to finally dial in my approach to that race distance, and I’m finding that it’s a learning process with the 100-mile ultras as well. I’m not sure if I’ll make it back to Tunnel Hill for another shot at 100 next year, but I’m not giving up on this quest. Hey – I made it a marathon further than last year!