Ten years ago, I took up marathoning as a physical challenge. This year, as I celebrated my 50th birthday, I wanted to take that challenge to another level. And thus was born the idiotic idea of running a 50-mile race in my 50th year.
Actually, everyone around me thought it was idiotic. I thought it was pretty cool. I liked the symmetry of the thing. And since, at heart, I’m a stubborn guy, I stuck with my idea.
That stubbornness paid off when, after 15 1/2 hours on the trails on Saturday, I completed the Potawatomi Trail Run 50 in Pekin, Ill. (The race features 100- and 150-mile runs, too, but I’m not that crazy.) The race takes place in McNaughton Park, a large forest preserve on the edge of town, and features a 10-mile loop that I would have to complete 5 times.
It was an amazing experience — definitely one of the most memorable events I’ve participated in. It started before the sun came up, and for me, it didn’t end until 2 hours after sunset.
Along the way, I met a lot of neat people, runners and volunteers alike. And the support I received from friends and family made the difference in my completing the event. I got texts and messages from all kinds of people before, during and after the run. Knowing I had so many people pulling for me made it that much easier to finish the race.
But I couldn’t have finished the race without the love and support of my wife, Barb. She planned on doing one lap with me — probably starting with mile 30. But she ended up doing two loops, and in the dark of night, her gentle encouragement and first-hand support was invaluable.
I am admittedly a neophyte at ultras, so take the following lessons with a grain of salt, but here are a few lessons I learned at my first ultra:
- Traditional road marathons and ultramarathons are so different that it’s hard to even compare the two. I’m sure some trail runs don’t have as many hills as this one, but I think many do. And the extreme ups and downs on the trails first strain your hamstrings and then shred your quads. And I’ve never stepped around roots, balance-beamed over a log or arrested my descent on a nearby tree during a road race.
- There are standouts in every sport. When I first took up marathoning, I was awed by the runners who could pound out 4:45 miles over and over again. I still am. At this weekend’s race, I watched another breed of outstanding athlete. I saw runners churn out 150 miles over the span of 48 hours, pausing for little more than one brief cat nap. (Mad props to Spencer Swearingen of Morton, Ill., the son of my colleague in Carthage, Joy Swearingen.) And I watched some young studs finish the 50-miler in just over 8 hours, 17 minutes.
- There’s a different vibe to the participants, the spectators and the organizers. I get the feeling that trail ultras attract the outdoorsy crowd. The parking lot was filled with Subarus and the finish chute was lined by tents — by necessity. Admittedly, this was a relatively small race, but most everyone seemed extremely friendly; slower runners would concede the trail to faster runners, and I never failed to hear a “Good job” from any of them. It just had a very collegial feel — except for the one bitchy runner who wanted everyone off “her” balance-beam log NOW. Oh, well, there’s one in every crowd.
- Blisters truly are the enemy. In the couple of dozen road races I’ve done, I’ve never had a serious problem with blisters. I battled a half dozen on Saturday. From my research, I knew blisters could/would be a problem. I taped my heels beforehand because I had gotten some blisters on training runs, and my heels stayed good the entire run. But I developed blisters on the ends of several toes and one on the ball of my right foot.
- A headlight that’s fine for the roads may not be up to snuff on the trails. I do many of my training runs in the dark, and I’ve got a couple of headlights I use for those. But it’s twice as dark in the forest after the sun goes down, and it only gets worse when it starts raining. (Yes, we endured a few sprinkles, a 10-minute downpour and a whole lot of lightning.)
- Chicken soup is not only good for the soul; it’s good for the ultrarunner. Although the race featured a smorgasbord of foods – boiled potatoes, potato chips, GORP, licorice, Gummi worms, bacon, PB&J sandwiches, energy gels, oranges and on and on – nothing sounded very good after 30 miles. But a slightly warm Campbell’s chicken noodle soup hit the spot, and I ate a couple cups of that at the aid stations every 5 miles or so. The sodium and the broth proved to be a perfect elixir. I’m trying to figure out how I can adapt this to my road races.
- You can’t be held to any promises made on the trail. Barb did two laps with me, and somewhere in the middle of those she extracted a promise that I would never again do another race this long or this crazy. And I kind of agreed. But I was thinking today, if I had just done a little bit more hill training…
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