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!
In April I’m heading back to Beloit, Wisconsin to give the second running of the Big Hill Bonk another go. I’m so not ready. I already feel like I’m bonking. Winter running is not my friend, and as an older runner, I try to use winter as a recovery period of sorts from what I did throughout the previous year. That makes running spring marathons tough for me. My mileage is low and my knee kind of hurts lately, but there’s still some time to get my act together and give this race another try.
I find this race format intriguing. It’s pretty simple – run 4.16 miles in an hour and keep running that 4.16-mile loop every hour for as long as you can. People will drop out until there is only one runner left and that runner is the winner. For everyone else, well, thanks for playing.
I’m not fooling myself, I know I won’t win, but I had avoided ultra-distance running for so long that I thought that I should at least experience it in order to validate my running legacy somehow. Last year I made it through 8 loops (also called yards), a total of 33-miles. The goal was to pass the 50K mark, which I did – marking my first ultra-marathon distance – and to have some fun, which I also did. I learned some valuable lessons along the way, and I’ve been thinking about them a little bit.
There’s a little bit of strategy involved in this type of race. You have to budget your effort to not wear yourself out too early, yet you have to expend enough energy to finish the loop in an hour. I came to the race last year not knowing much about how to run a trail ultra, but I got a crash course quickly. I walked more than I was expecting. Some of the hills the others were walking I would have typically never walked. I was also carrying too much stuff and noticed most of the others just had a small water bottle. I made a change to just carrying a handheld bottle myself by yard number three.
This year the race will be in April and not August, so I have to plan for running in cooler weather rather than the warm weather of last year. There’s no crystal ball for the weather this far out from the race, so I just have to assume that it could be much cooler, and possibly rainy. I wouldn’t have minded getting a little cooling rain last year, but the thunderstorms of the area thankfully skirted around us. I’ll just have to hope for cool and dry temperatures for April.
It will be interesting to see how the course is in early spring compared to summer. I’m hoping the trail will be dry. Last summer the course had a section that was a little overgrown with the typical forest undergrowth in spots, but it wasn’t an issue. I’m guessing that we won’t have to deal with that this time.
One of the other changes this time around is that the start time will be in the morning rather than early evening. Last year we were able to get in about three yards of the course before it got dark. So we will have some daylight loops to start with this time.
So far the field is about the same size as last time, about thirty runners. This is a good number for the course. More than that could make for some clogged spots in the single-track areas of the course. I won’t need to worry about it too much. It’s not a speed contest, but you do have to finish the yard before the hour is up. I think most of us will average about 50-minutes to do a yard. Having ten minutes to replenish water and food, and maybe sit for a moment is plenty of time. I think I will try to take on a little bit more food this time as well.
I looked at the registered athletes for the 2022 event and was surprised to see that at this time there are only three runners returning from 2021 – myself, Zac Lungren, who ran 13 yards/54 miles, and Jon Noll – the eventual winner, who ran a mind-boggling 34 yards, and a total of 141 miles! Last year there was a very solid group of six runners that all surpassed 100 miles and kept pushing Jon to earn his title. The rest of the 2022 field are all newcomers as of this post. I’m guessing some of the runners from last year saw that Jon signed up and said, “Well, what’s the point?” and decided to find another race to do. Maybe some of them found the course in Beloit to be a pretty good challenge, I certainly did. And since the race got moved back to April instead of August, maybe some are also like me and feeling a little under-prepared.
Of the newcomers, there are some serious contenders there. Jon will have his work cut out for him for sure. Many of them will be like me, curious to experience this kind of event, maybe challenge themselves to experience trail running, or hit a distance milestone for the first time. Maybe some think that they can win. Only Jon stands in their way. You just have to run one more yard than everyone else. Good luck!
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.
56 years, 2 months, and 16 days into my life I found out that I actually like cross country skiing!
Now this isn’t my first attempt at XC skiing. Kari and I bought some skis for ourselves Christmas 1992. We took them out to the local park and fell down numerous times and had some fun. We got busy with our young lives together, having kids and moving that most of the time the skis were tossed up into the attic and forgotten about. We tried again shortly after moving into our current home, probably around 2001, but after trying them out on a very difficult place to ski, we brought them home and put them back into the attic again.
Flash ahead to February 2019 we decided to haul them up to our lake home in upper Wisconsin and give them a try up there, a place where winter is serious about being winter. We drove to a place called Minocqua Winter Park where they have numerous groomed trails. However that day the park was hosting a XC ski race, a marathon actually, and after deciding we’d be too embarrassed in front of this group of people we opted to head home and try them out on our frozen lake. That went well until I fell and my 25 year old ski boots ripped apart in the most comical way. The boot literally ripped itself from the sole and left the sole on the ski that was quickly skiing far away from me!
We came up north on January 1st, 2020 to spend some time before the holidays were over and tried to give XC skiing another go. I think we were all a little nervous when we got there, but we checked in and strapped on the skis and found the easiest trail we could find. We all struggled a little at first and there were a few falls, but we quickly got the hang of it and off we went.
Ashley seemed to struggle a little more than the rest of us, falling on her tush enough times that she was having some pain with that. So Kari and her headed back to the chalet and Rebecca and I attempted to complete the loop.
I forgot to start my watch’s XC ski app right when we started, but I did hit the start button after about 15 minutes of skiing. When Rebecca and I got back we had gone a little over 3.5 miles in an hour and twenty-one minutes. After reuniting with Kari and Ashley and finding out that Ashley was feeling pretty sore after falling so much, we packed it in and headed home for some much deserved hot chocolate. I can’t wait to go back!
Training while on vacation can be challenging, mainly because you want to be doing vacation stuff instead of training stuff. But fortunately for me, my family has a lake home in northern Wisconsin that allows me the opportunity to do open water swims, and run and bike on a beautiful trail. I can’t complain about that.
The training you do during the week while training for an Ironman is pretty unremarkable, and I find that the only thing I really remember about them when Sunday comes and I write this wrap up is the Saturday long bike ride. This week’s ride took place on the Bearskin Trail in Oneida County, Wisconsin, which is an old rail-to-trail conversion path. I have used this trail for most of my rides when I am up north because it offers lots of beautiful scenery and it is awesome.
I really had to motivate myself to do this ride. I was almost mad about it, but when I got to the trail, I realized how lucky I am to have this beautiful trail available to me. The ride was to be four hours long and just like the ride I did in 2017 when training for Ironman Louisville, I got to the 2-hour turn around point I decided to go just a little longer to hit 30 miles before turning around. I was feeling great, but I was getting low on water so I decided to ride by a couple of county buildings but found no outdoor water spigots. I rode a little further and found the Nokomis Fire Department building and a firefighter let me in to refill my bottles. Very thankful for that.
As I got to the three-hour mark I started to bonk. Not sure why that happened, as I was using gels and feeling good up to that point. But I limped it home in four hours and twenty minutes. Not exactly what the plan called for. I was also very sore from riding my hybrid bike on this crushed rock trail instead of my tri bike on the road. My muscles and butt just aren’t trained and used to that bike. I also made the mistake of trying to keep my pace on that bike equivalent to what I do at home on the roads, which caused me to push my effort pretty hard, only to manage a 14 mph average speed. It felt like I was averaging 20 mph by the effort I was putting out.
When I got home I hobbled down to the lake and waded into it while my somewhat concerned family watched. It took me a little bit to recover, but after a while, I was back to normal. They say being near the water restores the soul. It did that and a whole bunch more for me this week.
I’m a veteran of exactly two Ironman races, Ironman Wisconsin in 2013 and Ironman Lake Placid in 2016, and I loved them both. In my preparation for both of those races, I gained valuable information from many different sources, including the event websites, videos, triathlon websites, and race reports and recaps. I found that some opinions on the two races were clearly subjective mainly due to allegiance to the race they did, and I also had that question in the back of my mind – how could Lake Placid be as good as Madison? The two courses are often mentioned as being among the toughest of the courses in North America. So I thought it would be interesting to compare the two, based solely on my experiences at both events and list some pros (lots) and cons (few) of each one. I don’t think I could declare a winner, they both were awesome!
(Author’s note: I’ve now also completed Ironman Louisville! Someday I will update this post to include it as well.)
RACE RECAPS FROM BOTH RACES
Here are my race recaps/reports from both races to provide some background on how the races went for me. Both days were outstanding!
Ironman Wisconsin is held in and around the Madison area. Madison is the capital of Wisconsin and is the home to the University of Wisconsin. It is the second-largest city in Wisconsin behind Milwaukee. The swim is conducted in Lake Monona in downtown Madison. The bike course takes you through the communities of Madison, Fitchburg, Mt. Horeb, Cross Plains, and Verona on a two-loop course before heading back to Madison. The run course is downtown Madison and also through the campus of UW Madison. Overall, Madison is a modern, vibrant city with lots of entertainment options and things to do. Ironman Wisconsin has been around since 2002.
Ironman Lake Placid takes place in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, and Lake Placid was the host to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympic games. Since 1999, it is the longest-running American Ironman other than the World Championship in Kona. Lake Placid is a small but awesome tourist town that seems like it would burst at the seams with all the athletes and attendees for the event, but it is more than accommodating. The swim is actually held in the smaller Mirror Lake and is known for calm water and an underwater cable that marks the course, making it easy to stay on the swim course. Biking is an exhilarating trip through the Adirondack Mountains, through the towns of Keene, Jay, and Wilmington. The run course is an out and back from downtown Lake Placid. If you can imagine the most picturesque lake and mountainous resort town, Lake Placid would fit the bill.
For both races, I was blessed to have a great travel coordinator on my side (my racing buddy’s wife) who is very savvy at securing great lodging for our races. At Wisconsin, our lodging was at the event host hotel, the Monona Hilton, which is ground zero for all things Ironman Wisconsin. Everything is right there, the expo, the transition area, the swim start, and the finish line are all right outside the doors of the Hilton. Being so close to everything was vital to me. I had a lake view from my window and it was amazing. There are many other local hotels nearby or within a short walking distance of the start and finish of the race, as well as options for renting rooms or local houses as well.
Lake Placid seems like such a small and quaint town that you wonder how they could have hosted such a huge event like the Winter Olympics, but there are plenty of options available here as well. Once again, my travel coordinator found us great lodging at the Mirror Lake Hampton Inn. This hotel was directly across the street from Mirror Lake, and the race viewing options for your crew is awesome, having a front-row view of the swim, the bike, and the run courses. My room faced away from the race, but if you have extra cash you can opt for a room that faces all the action with a balcony. The expo and transition area are within a quarter mile or so walking distance. Another nice option was the wrist strap door key, which allowed lodgers entry to the hotel and room without having to carry a plastic key card around. I even wore the strap during the race.
I couldn’t have been happier with the above lodging options. There is great lodging for both locations, but the key to getting what you want is to get it as early as possible.
There are plenty of options for eating at both locales. Madison has quite a few higher-end restaurant options than Lake Placid did, but you won’t have any issues finding places to eat at either location. In Wisconsin, we did eat at the athlete’s dinner, which really isn’t the best option for fine dining, but it fed us while we listened to Mike Reilly’s talk.
At Lake Placid, there is no athlete dinner, but in its place is a voucher for dining virtually anywhere you can find food in town. I think I prefer this method as you can choose what you want to eat and when you want to use your voucher.
At Wisconsin, it seemed like you had to hunt for a place to eat. At Lake Placid, all you had to do was walk down the main street for the many dining options.
Both IMWI and IMLP have a spectator guide that you can download from the race page or pick up a printed copy at the expo. But there are some key things about both races.
For the swim at IMWI, the best viewing is on top of the Monona Terrace or the car ramps (commonly referred to as the “helixes”) on either side. Both will get you a prime elevated spot for a great view of the swim. You can also walk along the adjacent bike path and watch from the lake level. At Lake Placid, there really isn’t an elevated area in which to watch unless you consider the VIP viewing point from the second floor of the beach house next to the beach. My wife chose to stay on the ground on the left-hand side in order to see the Swim In and Out.
As for the bike, Wisconsin has more options than Lake Placid. If you can find easy to get to parking you can drive your own car out of town to the best viewing spots, but a lot of the spectators opt for the free shuttle bus trip to Verona where you can see the cyclists come through the aid station. Mike Reilly will be there and there are plenty of food options going on.
Lake Placid is very tough to watch the bike portion of the race. Almost all stay in town and some will opt for walking to the Three Bears portion of the race, which is just northeast of Mirror Lake and close to the downtown event. There are other viewing options on the backside of Herb Brooks Arena where the cyclists will be finishing loops. This is where Mike Reilly and the other announcers will be if you need to be near “the Voice”.
The run course in Madison and Lake Placid takes the runners for an out and back, but if you like to see more than just the beginning, the half-marathon turn, and the finish, you can see quite a bit more at Madison by jogging a couple of blocks to see the runners around mile 6 before they turn around.
Mirror Lake is the winner here for me hands down. I can’t believe that this little lake with its two-lap swim could handle that number of people in a mass start that was the norm prior to the change to a rolling start. Lake Monona can handle that amount of people okay, but it still is a washing machine of swimmers. Plus Mirror Lake has that cable running the entire course to guide you along. I feel like Mirror Lake is probably less prone to currents and rough water as well. IMLP feeds the athletes into the water to help spread out the field, and self-seeding helps keep the swimmers grouped with likeability swimmers. Of course, there are a few that should seed themselves more realistically, but I found we were flowing along pretty well.
IMWI struggled to get all the athletes into the water prior to the start of the race and even though there are many with their favorite starting locations, there isn’t really an advantage in my opinion to being wide or along the buoys at the start. Plus there seemed to be much more contact for me at Wisconsin than at Lake Placid. One tradition that IMWI has is that everyone “moos” like a cow going around the first turn buoy.
I liked getting out of the water after one loop at IMLP. It gave my mind a little rest and helped break up the swim for me. I had a much easier swim at IMLP than IMWI.
(Author’s note: IMWI has since changed from a mass swim start to a rolling seeded start. – Yay!)
I think Ironman Wisconsin wins this one by virtue of one fact – it’s inside the Monona Terrace. Being inside means that you don’t have to worry about the weather at all, and it’s air-conditioned and carpeted. The trip from the swim exit is sand-free and paved leading to a circular car ramp that everyone refers to as the “helix.” There are three trips on the helix, once from the swim to T1, and then during Bike Out heading down the other helix located on the other end and back up it when you return. Going down can be interesting, but coming up is a little bit of a last-minute adrenaline boosted climb into T2. The Run Out skips the helix and sends you on your way from another ramp to the street.
Lake Placid has all of the transition located conveniently in the Olympic oval. When you get to transition the gear bags are right there for you, and it’s a quick trip to the change tents. Cycling down the helix at IMWI can be tricky, but IMLP has a tough ride out of transition as well. Take caution leaving both transitions on your way out of T1.
Hanging my bags on the racks at Lake Placid.
My Run Gear bag (2585) sitting on the floor inside of the Monona Terrace.
THE BIKE COURSES
Both IMWI and IMLP have bike courses that come with a solid reputation of being tough rides and I found them both to be challenging and exhilarating. The main difference between the two courses’ difficulty lies in the type of hilly terrain that defines the rides. IMWI is very hilly, with one roller after another, whereas IMLP is very hilly in a mountainous way! The climbing tends to be short and intense at Wisconsin, but at Lake Placid, you will be doing an uphill grind for large chunks of the course.
The course at IMWI is a two, 40-mile loop affair with a section leading from Madison to the loops that is referred to as “the Stick.” The Stick is 16 miles long and gets you out of town with a mixture of park bike path, arena parking lot, highway, and then more rural roads leading you to the town of Verona. The Stick is nothing heading out, as you are raring to go, but it will definitely get your attention coming back to Madison. Pace yourself and don’t burn out your legs for the run on the Stick coming back to T2. Overall, the course takes you through beautiful rural farmland of Wisconsin, with lots of changing scenery.
Both courses boast of a section of three hills that have garnered reputations as being miserable and difficult. At IMWI these three hills are referred to as the “Three Bitches.” The hills are tough but are easily tamed by just spinning up to the top. The hills come about halfway through the loop, around mile 42 and again around mile 85. After getting through the hills you will be treated to a nice descent back into Verona and onto the second loop or the trip back to Madison.
At IMLP the hills are cutely referred to as the “Three Bears.” They come at the very end of the first and second loops as you come back into Lake Placid. Truthfully, I did not find the Three Bears to be as difficult as the Three Bitches. Momma Bear comes first and isn’t a big deal at all. Baby Bear is very tame, and in my opinion barely qualifies as a hill. Papa Bear is the one that gets your attention. It climbs, then turns, then climbs some more. But it is short-lived. I didn’t find them to be as difficult as the climb from Wilmington back to Lake Placid, a section called “the Notch.” But if you are patient and can find a comfortable tempo to keep chugging along, you will get through this long climb.
Both courses have great fans along the route that many equate to a Tour de France feel. These stretches are a real boost emotionally and help you get through both the Three Bitches in Wisconsin and the Three Bears in Lake Placid.
The best part of biking IMWI – the fan support along the course, and the descents on Garfoot Road and Timber Lane. The parts to dread – the climb into Mt. Horeb, the Three Bitches, and the bumpy section on Stagecoach Drive. You’ll feel like you are on a stagecoach.
(Author’s note: Stagecoach Drive has since been repaved.)
You’ll love the scenery in Lake Placid and the Adirondacks on your ride. And the descent into Keene is exhilarating. It’s possible to hit 50 mph on that 6-mile ride, but it is scary as hell. You’ll loathe the long climbs that pretty much take up half the ride. Good luck with that.
THE RUN COURSES
Both of the run courses have great scenery, fan support, and awesome finishing chutes. You will do two loops at both locations, which is very typical in most Ironman races.
At IMWI you will pass the state capital building and get to run through some impressive areas of the campus of the University of Wisconsin. The highlight is heading into Camp Randall where the Badgers play for a loop around the football field. In Lake Placid, you pass the Olympic Ski Jumps as you head out and back.
As far as the courses, both are very similar. They are mostly flat, with a couple of big hills that a lot of athletes will walk up. I found that I never felt lost at Lake Placid like I did at Madison. There was several times in Madison when I wondered where I was. I went into a port-o-potty at one point and upon coming out I couldn’t remember which way I was going! Never had that issue at Lake Placid.
The main difference between the two is the scenery. Lake Placid takes you from downtown out to fields and trees, which is very nice. At Madison, you will be near buildings and people for most of the run.
I love the finishing chute at Wisconsin, with having the Capital in the background all lit up as you finish. But finishing on the Olympic Oval makes you feel like an Olympic champion. Both are cool.
The day after the race, Madison gets back to being a state capital and back to business like the race was held a month earlier. I kind of felt like I needed to get out of Madison’s way, as the town needed to get back to normalcy. At Lake Placid, it seemed like everyone wanted to stay and take some time to enjoy the wonderful town without all of the race anxiety.
As I mentioned before I can’t pick a favorite, I truly loved my experience at both locales. But I think I had my best race at Lake Placid only because I learned from what I experienced at Wisconsin.
In the end, you can’t go wrong with either race location, both are well run, beautiful and an experience of a lifetime! Do them both!