Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ice Age Trail 50k race report

(Originally published May 16, 2011)

No, the race is not in Iowa, but this is my site so I'll write about it.  I'll justify it by pointing out that the winner of the 50k race was the incredible Scott Gall, who was profiled a few months back and owns Cedar Falls' running store, The Runner's Flat, and races for Iowa's elite race team, Runablaze.
Complete results are available here.
So, without further ado here is my lengthy race report:
Back in December I convinced (without much effort) my brother-in-law, Greg, to join me in the 50k.  For both of us it was our first ultra.  For Greg, signing up was also a commitment to recover from a torn ACL six months earlier.  Both of us had great training leading up to the race; I had the best block of training since college 10 years ago, averaging a little over 60 miles a week in the 3 months leading up to race day and Greg ran only slightly less than that.  We had run solid 1:23 half marathons a month ago without “racing” them.  We had no significant injuries to speak of.  In short everything was going great for us.
That changed for me one week out from the race.  After running a 10k (37:07) on Saturday, the kids got sick.  I got sick.  I had my worst run of the year on Monday and later in the week the runs weren’t much better.  By Friday I was feeling pretty okay and I was thrilled with the weather forecast – 50 degrees, overcast, and light rain.  In short, almost my favorite conditions to run in.
Living in Dubuque I get to run hills all the time.  There’s plenty to choose from here and so when I read various accounts that the course was hilly I didn’t think too much of it.  I can handle that, I thought.  And I did, for the first 15 miles or so.
Getting to the race and getting checked in it was clear this was a pretty different atmosphere than the traditional road race I was used to.  When Jeff Mallach, the race director, started the race and there was nobody within 10 feet of the start line that was another indication.  And when we were a mile in and I felt like I was just out for an easy run that was definitely a different feeling.
The first 13 miles out and back to Horserider’s Camp were incredible.  On our way out we had a group of 8 people running together, including eventual woman’s champ, Annie Weiss.  The singletrack we were running on was amazing.  I’ve run or mountain biked a lot of trails out west and across the Midwest and that stretch was as fun to run as anything I’ve done.  Some rocks and roots and sand, smooth dirt, plenty of ups and downs, views… this stretch had it all.  We were all blown away and talked about it for the next mile when overall winner (and fellow Iowan) Scott Gall blew past us on his way back en route to a 3:18 finishing time.  Upon reaching the turnaround around mile 6 Greg and I were a little slower going through the aid station and lost most of the group and spent the 6 miles back by ourselves, cheering on the many other 50k’ers still making their way out.
When we reached the aid station at the start/finish, ready to begin our two loops of the Nordic trail, Greg made a stop to duct tape a growing blister on the bottom of his foot while I ate, drank and chatted up the friendly aid station folks.  It was at this time that Annie caught up to us again and the three of us left the aid station together.  After getting confused and stopping momentarily at a poorly marked corner, we continued on our way, enjoying some grassy flat stretches where we began to make some good time leaving Annie (a 3:05 Boston marathoner) behind.  This isn’t so bad, we thought.  Well, that changed soon enough and we quickly got into the hills of the back half of the loop.  For a while they weren’t that bad, but by the time we made the aid at mile 18 we knew that those hills would really hurt the second time around.  They were simply relentless.  Steep.  Rocky.  Painful.
It was during this time where we began to encounter a runner we nicknamed “the mystery pooper.”  He had been among the group of eight we ran with out to Horserider’s Camp but had gotten ahead of us.  On the Nordic loop we would catch glimpses of him and occasionally see him run off into the woods, only to pop out behind us and pass us again.  This happened no fewer than five times.  We found out from him that some pizza the night before hadn’t settled in his stomach very well and amazingly, this was his first race… ever.  Very, very impressive.
When we hit the start/finish line aid station ready to begin lap two, I was ready for anything but Heed and Montana Huckleberry Hammer Gel.  I enjoyed a few oranges and pretzels and PB&Js, knowing that the next 9 miles were going to suck.  I grabbed some Huckleberries to go and we were on our way again.  Once again we enjoyed the flats, though with trepidation, because we knew what lay beyond.  While we felt like we were running really slowly, we were passing a lot of 50kers still on their first loop and their supportive comments were really appreciated as we walked up each and every hill.  We tried to reciprocate as best we could.
With four miles to go we were at an aid station when who should run by but the mystery pooper, of course.  Apparently we had passed him again at some point.  Greg and I are a bit competitive and while we said aloud that we didn’t feel like catching him, the intensity did pick up knowing that we had lost a spot, especially for Greg as we believed MP was probably in the 20-29 age group with Greg.  I told Greg, who was clearly feeling better than me, that he should go ahead and run for himself, but he politely declined.  Around mile 29 when it was clear that we were gaining ground on the MP.  Greg wished me luck, said goodbye and took off, reeling in MP in no time and finishing incredibly strong.  For myself, I enjoyed a few more pretzels and a gel and reeled in the MP with about a mile to go.  A little adrenaline kicked in and I finished feeling better than I had felt since around mile 15.  I crossed the line in 4:31:36, almost two minutes behind Greg and about 45 seconds up on the MP.
As I finished it started to rain.  We made our way back to our car, put on some wool clothes and rain jackets and went back to enjoy a heaping plateful of food.  I don’t know if it was really good or not, but it tasted heavenly.  The best thing about it may have been the fact that it did not taste like Heed or Huckleberry gel.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon how you look at it) I had zero desire for the beer that was available.  A few hours later while driving home to Dubuque I had to crank the heat and put on a hat to keep from shivering.  Some sleep and ibuprofen and I felt fine in the morning and even walked down the stairs to get the newspaper with no problem.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with my first ultra experience.  The beautiful trail and perfect running conditions helped, as did having a great running partner for the first 29 miles.  Going in I felt like I had the fitness for a 4:10-4:15 50k time.  With illness plaguing our family the week before and my legs feeling like lead those hopes were thrown out the window.   I didn’t like struggling as much I did over the last 10 miles, but I was satisfied with my finish.
I’ve made my wife very happy by telling her that I have even less desire to run a 50 miler anytime than I did before the race but I could see doing a 50k again.  I’m still pretty happy with the half marathon to 25k race distance so I might be sticking to those for the next few years.
A special thanks has to go out to Greg for pulling me along and keeping me going.  And a very big congratulations to Zach Hepner, our “mystery pooper,” for running an amazing race.  I can not imagine running that far feeling that bad in my first race ever, but he did so with a great attitude.   I predict he’ll be back.  And to the race director and all the wonderful volunteers... thank you!  Mostly, though, thanks to my wife for putting up with me getting up way too early and spending way too much time out running on the weekends!

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