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100 miles is not that far? Well, yes and no

22 Nov
Dave Rogers, left, and I near Vienna, Ill., after completing 26 miles of the Tunnel Hill 100.

Dave Rogers, left, and I near Vienna, Ill., after completing 26 miles of the Tunnel Hill 100.

Karl Meltzer is a liar.

Harsh words, I know, but I was feeling harsh at mile 76.

Meltzer, a prolific ultrarunner, is known for famously uttering, “100 miles is not that far.”

On Saturday, Nov. 14, at 8 a.m., I set off on my first 100-mile ultrarun, the Tunnel Hill 100 trail run in Vienna, Ill. And for most of Saturday, I agreed with Meltzer. But in middle of the night, when Saturday turned to Sunday, I knew 100 miles was damn far.

I had selected the Tunnel Hill race, I told my friends, because it was the easiest 100-miler I could find — as if any ultra of this distance could be “easy.” The race was about 5 hours south of our home in Keokuk, Iowa, in the tiny town of Vienna (pronounced “VY-enna”), about 25 miles north of Paducah, Ky.  It takes place on a converted rail-to-trail, which means the grade is gentle or even flat.

I couldn't have met my goal without the help of my wife, Barb, who ran 50 miles in the process, and my daughter, Laura, who hiked 24 miles and crewed for us.

I couldn’t have met my goal without the help of my wife, Barb, who ran 50 miles in the process, and my daughter, Laura, who hiked 24 miles and crewed for us.

As we ran out of the town’s city park in the chilly air, I made a concerted effort to dampen my pace. I am definitely not a fast runner, but I was trying to run even slower than normal. I knew I couldn’t afford to expend too much energy in the first hours of the race. I had outlined a plan for the race that called for me to complete it in 27 1/2 hours, but truth be told, I had no idea what it would take to finish or how long it would actually take.

The race has a 30-hour cutoff, which equates to an average of 18 minutes a mile. I took my best guess at my endurance and pace, and figured I’d start at a 13-minute pace and tail off to a 20-minute pace by the end. I knew the race would take its toll, and I wanted to be realistic.

The start/finish line was located in the middle of the course. You leave Vienna and head south for about 13 miles, hit the turnaround at the Barkhausen Wetlands Center and head back to Vienna. From there, you head north about 12 miles, reach a small turnaround and return to Vienna from the north. That gets you 50 miles, so you repeat the whole thing to record 100 miles.

I really did feel good through those first 26 miles. Instead of my planned 13-minute pace, I was running closer to 12 minutes, which is still slower than my normal pace and part of the reason I think it felt so relaxed.

I had planned on running the first portion by myself, but I picked up a fellow runner, David Rogers, about 5-8 miles into the run, and talking with Dave made the time pass so much easier. Dave and I had a lot in common: tackling our first 100s, roughly the same age, empty nesters, Midwest guys (he’s from St. Louis), etc. He could have gone at a faster pace, but he was trying to be controlled, too.

I refilled my bottles and picked up Barb at the start-finish line at mile 26.

I refilled my bottles and picked up Barb at the start-finish line at mile 26.

When I ran into the start/finish area at mile 26, I hooked up with my wife, Barb, and daughter, Laura. Barb had agreed to pace me for 50 miles, which would help her reach that distance milestone and aid in my effort. She was going to run the middle 50 miles. Our daughter, Laura, was crewing for us, and at some point, she planned to run with me, too.

The next 24 miles would prove more difficult. In the first miles, I really couldn’t detect any change in the grade of the course. But just a few miles north of Vienna, it became obvious that there was a small but constant climb. The race info said it’s a 2 percent grade. That doesn’t sound like much, but 8 or 9 miles  of even a small climb becomes tiring. About halfway into the climb, my left groin started to ache. I feared that it was going to cramp, but thankfully it never progressed beyond a nagging twinge.

We saw Laura at mile 36, refilled some bottles, made the turnaround in another couple miles and headed back toward Vienna.

By the time we reached there at about 7:30 p.m., it had been dark for three hours. Sunset was at 4:45 p.m., and we wouldn’t see the sun again until 6:30 a.m. — nearly 14 hours of darkness. If a relatively flat, straight, tree-lined, crushed limestone path presents a certain degree of monotony, you should trudge along that same path in the dark.

A few miles past what was the 50-mile mark for me and 24 for Barb, she began to struggle. Her stomach was queasy and her legs sluggish. After a mile or two, she insisted I go on ahead. I hesitated to leave her behind, but she continued to insist, and I relented. I soon met up with Dave again, and we’d stick together until the 76-mile mark at Vienna, when once again we’d get separated as we both refilled our hydration and nutrition and tended to our niggling injuries.

Barb can still manage a smile after completing her first 50-miler!

Barb can still manage a smile after completing her first 50-miler!

Laura had talked about going either 24 miles with me (the last out and back of the course) or waiting until the last 10 miles. We decided that if I could get to mile 90, there’s no way I wouldn’t finish, and so she took off with me out of Vienna — mile 76 or so at about 3 a.m.

Those last 24 miles turned from a slow jog to a moderate hike. I thought I was OK as I hit mile 76 at Vienna, but as I left that last major aid station, I just couldn’t will my legs to run. Thankfully, Laura helped me pass the time.

One of my big concerns was how I would even stay awake for the 24+ hours I knew it would take to complete the race. At one point, I asked Laura to talk to me — I needed something to keep my mind active and alert. She later said she wasn’t sure what she’d talk about, but that didn’t last long. I knew I could count on Lu for non-stop conversation! We’ve been doing that since we drove across Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska to attend Husker football games when she was 6 years old.

My muscles got stiff and tight, and my feet developed deep blisters. But in the end, finishing the race was simply a matter of continuous forward motion. I didn’t sprint across the finish line, but neither did I crawl. And I beat my goal time.

While I’d had doubts about finishing the race before I had started, once I’d hit the course and stuck with my pace, nutrition and hydration plans, everything really fell into place. Beforehand, I’d figured it would take me 27 1/2 hours to finish. Ultimately, I crossed in 26 hours, 48 minutes.

So in the end, maybe Karl Meltzer was right. My first 100-mile ultra really wasn’t that far.

Damn you, Karl Meltzer.

Crossing the finish line in 26:48:04. It was a great feeling to be done and reach a major goal.

Crossing the finish line in 26:48:04. It was a great feeling to be done and reach a major goal.

Yours truly talks ultras on RunIowa podcast

3 Jul

RunIowa snippedI could talk your leg off about running, but I try not to bore my friends by talking solely about the hobby that I love. I realize that not everyone is as interested in intervals and vertical and fartleks and long runs and the like.

So it was a pleasure to get to share without restraint my thoughts on ultras and running on the most recent episode of the RunIowa podcast.

Most of my training time is spent listening to podcasts, which are pre-recorded shows that you can listen to on your computer or download to your phone or MP3 player. I listen to a lot of running podcasts, a lot from NPR and a lot from ESPN. This link details some of my favorites.

As the name implies, the RunIowa podcast focuses on things around our state. The show is hosted by Rob Lindquist and David Kaeding, a pair of teachers from Council Bluffs. They’ll talk about gadgets, training, races and more. I stumbled across the very first episode that was released in late 2014, and it’s been at the top of my playlist ever since. I was honored to appear in the episode released yesterday (July 2, 2015). And I certainly enjoyed sharing my adventures in ultrarunning with fellow running enthusiasts.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the photo at the top of the post or here’s a link to the podcast on iTunes. RunIowa can also be found on Twitter at @RunIowa or here on Facebook.

Let me know what you think of the podcast by commenting below, and I’m sure Rob and Dave would love to have you as subscribers to the podcast.

 

Video: Conquering the Bighorn 52-mile trail run

24 Jun

 

Scenes from the Go St. Louis Half Marathon

13 Apr

Click on any photo above to launch the slide show.

Barb and I have run the Go! St. Louis half marathon or marathon several times since moving to eastern Iowa about 13 years ago. It’s a fun, well-organized race in a neat Midwestern town. Barb and I really didn’t have any expectations for our performance in the race this year — it wasn’t an “A” race or even a “B” race. And maybe that’s why we did so well and enjoyed it so much. If you get a chance to run it, do it.

Over the years, we’ve found a few places to visit that make the trip even more enjoyable.

This time, we ate our pre-race dinner at the Schlafly Tap Room, located just a few blocks from our Drury Hotel, which was just a few blocks itself from the start line. Simple food and good beer at the tap room, which is housed in an architecturally appealing brick and timber building. I had the spinach lasagna with a raspberry Hefeweizen (the St. Louis version of a Purple Haze!). We took home a growler of a high-alcohol Imperial Stout. Good stuff.

And we had our post-race meal at Bailey’s Range, which was within walking distance of the finish line. The place featured unique burgers and sandwiches, and what they called “boozy shakes.” Barb had a white chocolate raspberry shake, while I had a Bulleit mint julep. Also, a great place for simple food with a twist.

A few other things I’d recommend from past trips:

  • Visit Laclede’s Landing, just off downtown
  • The Drunken Fish offers good sushi at Laclede’s
  • If sushi isn’t your thing, we’ve eaten a couple of times at Morgan Street Brewery, and enjoyed it both times
  • Of course, if you’re new to St. Louis, visit the Gateway Arch, also near Laclede’s and downtown. The view from the top of the arch makes the unique elevator ride worth the trip.
  • I recently read this book about the arch. It talks quite a bit about the difficulties in constructing an elevator for such an odd shaped structure. Good book.
  • It seems nearly every runner feels the need to have pasta before a race (not me), and St. Louis boasts a historic Italian neighborhood, the Hill, with a number of authentic restaurants. We’ve eaten at Zia’s twice, and you won’t walk away hungry. Perhaps the most famous is Charlie Gitto’s.
  • And if you’re looking to get off your feet for a few hours and just relax, try the Chase Park Plaza movie theaters, located near downtown. Added benefit: the theater serves mixed drinks and beer.

If you think it’s been colder this winter, you’re right

13 Feb
The Mississippi River near Keokuk, Iowa, was iced over for much of January and February.

The Mississippi River near Keokuk, Iowa, was iced over for much of January and February, which made for great eagle watching but for chilly running.

After my third or fourth run in a row in single-digit temperatures, I was ready to toss in the towel on my outdoor Iowa adventures for the winter.

But I would do almost anything to avoid the dreadmill. It hasn’t always been this way. Just a few years back, if it got into the teens, I would retreat to the warmth of an indoor workout. But as I ran further and more often, I couldn’t stand the thought of heading indoors.

A Cold WinterI enjoy the fresh air — even if it’s especially brisk air. I love the  sights, whether it’s the frozen river, falling snow or an eagle sitting by an ice-hole waiting for dinner to swim by.

But this winter has seemed especially harsh. And in reviewing my training log from the past few years, it has been. Since November, the temperature has been a bit chillier than the past couple of years. And since mid-January or so, it has been considerably colder.

But I’ve managed to avoid the dreadmill by adding an extra layer — or two — and having a ski mask in reserve for those very cold days.

Just as I thought the cold may get the better of me, I’m headed out of state for a few days. It’s bound to be warmer in New Orleans and San Diego.

But then there’s always the hassle of trying to get in a run in unfamiliar surroundings and at odd times. If you want an excuse not to run, you can always find one.

But out as my wife is fond of saying: “Suck it up, Buttercup.”

See you on the roads.

New, challenging goals help keep me motivated to run

21 Jan
Barb shot this photo of me starting a climb in the Potawatomi Trail 50 mile run.

Barb shot this photo of me starting a climb in the Potawatomi Trail 50 mile run.

I often hear of runners who have lost their motivation. Every six months or so, “Runner’s World” publishes a new story on how these folks can get their mojo back.

In a dozen years on the roads, this has never been a problem for me. The stress relief alone keeps me motivated. 

But I think there’s another key to my internal motivation: I am always striving toward a new goal, a new challenge. 

2013 mileage by monthAt first, I wanted to complete a marathon. Then I wanted to complete a marathon faster. At one time, I was working hard to qualify for Boston — although a years-long injury and an acceptance of my limited abilities have prompted me to set aside this goal. Last year, the goal was to complete an ultramarathon — 50 miles in my 50th year.

So what will get me off the couch and onto the frozen, snow-packed roads this winter? The challenge presented by the Bighorn Trail 50 mile run, which will be run near Sheridan, Wyo., in June.

The unknowns of my first 50-miler kept me honest last year. The Potawatomi Trail 50 was nearly double the length of my longest previous runs. It was on a trail and featured some crazy ascents, descents and creek crossings. It started in the dark and, as it turned out, finished in the dark, too. 

The Bighorn 50-miler takes this to another level. First and possibly most obvious, it takes place in the Bighorn Mountains (the web site says that, under certain circumstances, runners may be liable for their own search and rescue costs). It tops 9,000 feet in altitude. Despite the fact that it starts on top of the mountain and ends in the valley, one climb includes more than 3,100 feet of vertical gain. If I don’t stay motivated and honest in my training, this could be a disaster.

There’s another factor that will keep me motivated: I’m running with my niece. And she’s a decade younger than me. Screw this up and Christmas dinners could be embarrassing for years to come. 

♦ ♦ ♦

2013 snapshotIt’s probably easier to stay motivated in the coming year when the previous year has been good to you, and that’s certainly the case with me. 

Having just passed the age of 51, I’ve learned that injuries can become a problem. But for the most part, they weren’t a factor in 2013. Sure, my hamstring bothered me off and on over the months. But I have learned that when the dull ache becomes a constant pain, I’ve got to lay off for a few days. 

My total mileage was up in 2013, which training for a 50-miler in the spring will do. And I ran a pair of marathons in the last quarter of the year, although my finishing time in the Belize marathon hardly qualifies me for “running” a race. But when you are in Belize, who cares?

And a review of my training log has helped me determine an area of improvement for 2014. Over the past three years, my annual mileage, monthly mileage and average run distance have all increased. Unfortunately, in 2013, my average weight increased, too, so some sort of weight loss plan will be on the agenda in 2014.

End of the World Marathon a perfect ending to the race year

20 Dec
A couple boys fish off the beach at Placencia, Belize, during the End of the World Marathon on Dec. 8, 2013. I paused long enough at mile 24 or so to take this photo.

A couple boys fish off the beach at Placencia, Belize, during the End of the World Marathon on Dec. 8, 2013. I paused long enough at mile 24 or so to take this photo.

Perhaps “Powered by Pina Coladas” is not the best approach for a marathon.

Or then again, maybe it is. It depends on the marathon. And your goals.

In my case, the End of the World Marathon in Placencia, Belize, was a cap to my racing year. I’d completed an ultramarathon in the spring. I’d made my attempt at what for me was a fast marathon in the fall.

The run in Belize on Dec. 8, 2013, was a chance to combine a warm weather adventure with one of my favorite pastimes. It didn’t disappoint on either account.

I’ll write up my thoughts about Placencia in general in a future post. In this post, I want to share a little about the End of the World Marathon.

This spring, I marked my 50th birthday with a special challenge, running my first ultramarathon. As my wife, Barb, approached the same milestone, she decided she’d like to run another marathon (because she’s only half as crazy as me). And she wanted to combine that physical challenge with an exotic locale. Enter Placencia, Belize.

Barb proudly displays her trophy for winning her age group in the End of the World Marathon. Way to go, Barb!

Barb proudly displays her trophy for winning her age group in the End of the World Marathon. Way to go, Barb!

Barb’s approach to the EOW marathon was different than mine. It was her big challenge. She wanted to not just meet the challenge but beat the challenge. And, boy, did she, winning her age division for the women’s marathon.

Me, not so much. I bumbled and stumbled my way to my slowest marathon yet.

But the fault for the sub-par race time rested with me, not with the race itself.

This was just the second running of the End of the World Marathon, but it was well organized and well supported. Organizer Chip Lovett splits his time between the States and Belize, but he answered a number of pre-race questions by email and offered us lots of great advice on the area. At the packet pickup the day before the race, Chip and his volunteers were friendly and cordial. And at the post-race celebration, Chip and several sponsors handed out beers and trophies, all to a reggae beat supplied by the entertaining local DJ.

The race traces nearly the entire length of the Placencia Peninsula, which is about 16 miles long and located in far southern Belize. At some points, the peninsula is just yards wide, with the Caribbean Sea to the east and the Placencia Lagoon to the west.

 

The medal's colors fit perfectly with the Caribbean vibe.

The medal’s colors fit perfectly with the Caribbean vibe.

The marathon started at the south end of the peninsula at Placencia village. It ran an out-and-back course along the peninsula to reach the necessary 26.2 miles. For the half marathon, participants were picked up by bus all the way along the route and taken to the north end. From there, they ran back to Placencia. It was fun to meet the half-marathoners as we marathoners made our way to the north.

The race is run on the blacktop road that is the main artery for the peninsula. Traffic control on the road is accomplished by speed humps, which also serve as the high elevation points on the peninsula. If you equate “flat” with “fast,” this is the race for you.

And if you’re sick of running in the cold and the snow, Belize in December is the place to be.

The race started at 5:30 a.m. — a little more than a half hour before sunrise — and it was 70 degrees or so already. By the time I finished, the temperature had risen to 85 degrees. The temperature topped out at 90 degrees on race day. Fortunately, the morning was overcast and there were passing showers; if the sun comes out, even the morning can get quite warm.

Marathoners Mark and Barb Smidt, from left, take a photo with their own personal support crew, Kristi and Ken Stein, before the start of the race. Thanks, Ken and Kristi, for all your help along the way!

Marathoners Mark and Barb Smidt, from left, take a photo with their own personal support crew, Kristi and Ken Stein, before the start of the race. Thanks, Ken and Kristi, for all your help along the way!

As an Iowan, I’m used to the humidity that helps us grow bumper crops of corn. But I’m not used to high humidity and high temps in the winter. During our visit to Placencia, the humidity ranged from 70-95 percent — when it wasn’t outright raining.

This year, there were 35 finishers in the marathon and 134 finishers in the half-marathon. That’s roughly double the numbers from the inaugural race. After running a few mega races over the years, it was fun to do a small run.

Despite the small number of participants, the locals came out in large numbers — relatively speaking — to support the runners. They enthusiastically cheered at several aid stations. One woman cheered on every passing runner from the balcony of her Placencia villa.

There were a number of aid stations at timely locations. Water was actually passed out in small plastic bags — about 8-10 ounces in size. Gatorade and even coconut water was handed out in some places. Bananas and orange slices were plentiful, and Gu was distributed in a few spots.

Perhaps one of the world's worst and least flattering selfies, but what do you expect when you are taking a picture of yourself while drinking a Bloody Mary at mile 16 of a marathon?

Perhaps one of the world’s worst and least flattering selfies, but what do you expect when you are taking a picture of yourself while drinking a Bloody Mary at mile 16 of a marathon?

 

The aid station volunteers at the Maya Beach Hotel and Bistro got the prize for most enthusiastic. They brought to life a circus theme, dressing as penguins, lions, the ring master and the like. And they CHEERED. Coming at mile 16 or so, their enthusiasm was really welcome.

And their unique hydration offering got the best of me.

“How about a Bloody Mary?” one costumed volunteer asked.

It took a couple steps for me to realize the offer, but when it sunk in, I did a double-take. “Why not?” I said. “I’m not going to set a PR anyway, and I’m running in Belize! Sure, I’ll take one.”

“Hey, that’s cool,” the volunteer said. “You’re the first runner to take one.”

I’m sure it didn’t help my finishing time. But it certainly added to the experience.

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