I went up for this race on Saturday, more or less on a whim, but ended up having a pretty good showing, coming away with the win, $1,000, a course record (?), and some renewed confidence for my efforts. I almost made a post in the blog called "Fitness or Folly" the day before the race (ran out of time trying to get it up), as I knew my decision to compete was a bit dicey with the Trail Runner Ultra Race of Champions (UROC) 100k in Virginia just a week away. "Fitness" if I could run well, gain some momentum, and recover for UROC. "Folly" if I ran poorly or DNF'ed, or compromised my UROC run. Early indications point to Fitness winning out.
The reason I ultimately decided to race TNF 50 is because I thought that if all went well, it would actually help my performance next weekend at UROC. I've detailed in the past how it is rather difficult for me to prepare for the downhill pounding (and eccentric quad loading) of hilly trail ultras while living here in Chicago. I've been doing a little better, traveling to the suburb forest preserves every other weekend for some hilly long runs, and trying to do more core work focused on my legs. But even still, the forest preserves aren't that hilly, and the core work is the first thing to go when things get busy. The longest run I have done in this buildup was only about 30 miles (on trails), while I really wanted to do a 40-45 miler in preparation for UROC. So a 50 miler on hilly trails in Wisconsin was only a bit of a stretch, and could provide an important training stimulus that I wasn't able to fit in otherwise. If I recover in time, I really believe that my run at TNF 50 will have helped harden my legs to the downhill pounding for UROC. If the races were two weeks apart, I would have had no doubts. However, early signs make me think I made the right decision. My legs are not too sore today (the day after)—more or less like they feel after I race a marathon, and way better than they felt after TNF 50 in San Francisco last December (my first ultra).
As for the race itself, I drove up to Mukwanago, WI after work on Friday, got in about 9 p.m., filled my bottles, packed up my gear for the next day, and passed out. I was up at 3 a.m. for the race, as I had about a 25 minute drive to the Start/Finish area, and needed to pick up my bib and get my drop bag checked in with race officials. The official start was 5 a.m. I didn't quite weasel my way up to the front of the line, so I was about 6 rows back when we took off, but this, of course, hardly matters in an ultra. All it meant was that I barely saw the one guy who took off into the night at a pretty good clip.
I briefly found myself in a pack of three as we wound through the woods in the dark, with the first place guy already out of sight. I knew it was a long race, so I wanted to stay comfortable, but even so, I found myself slowly moving away from my small pack. In another 10 minutes or so, I started to see a light (headlamp) bobbing in the woods ahead. Maybe 30 minutes into the race, I caught up with that light, which happened to be Zach Bitter, last year's winner in 6:02:37. We began lapping other 50 mile runners, and we were unsure if this was correct (I knew the course made a few loops early on, but I didn't really think that much of those loops actually repeated the same section of trail). Zach didn't remember lapping anyone early-race like this from the year before, so we decided to turn around and run until we saw whoever was in third place to discuss. After about a minute running the opposite way, we found eventual 8th placer Jason Schatz. He wasn't sure either, but after discussing for a bit, we figured we should be getting close to the first aid station if we were going the right way, so we'd run for another mile or so to find out. Turns out we were just fine, though Zach and I added about 3:00 to our total time with this turnaround. Little did we know our fears of doing the same loop twice were about to come to fruition.
After the first loop and aid station, you do a second loop of a few miles (I think 2.4). Jason, Zach, and I ran together for most of this loop before Jason decided to let us go. Soon after, we came up to a fork in the trail with orange arrows (orange marked the 50 mile route) pointing in both directions. I was about to ask Zach what this meant, when I saw two guys who pointed us left. We later found out that we did the second loop on the course twice, adding (I think) 2.4 extra miles at that point. I also heard that disgruntled hunters (who wants a bunch of runners in the way of a good hunt in the pre-dawn light?) removed or changed some of the signs or arrows on the course and that this caused the mix up. In the end, I'm not really sure where/how we went wrong (that referenced double arrow spot may not have been it at all—adding to the confusion was the fact that some of the trails in that area were marked with orange regularly, i.e. not by TNF, so an orange section of trail could theoretically be off course). But we started lapping people again, and when we pulled into the next aid station, we found out for sure we'd done an extra loop.
Now finding out early in a 50 mile race that you've just added 2.4 miles to the route—and that you've gone from first place to who knows—can be a bit demoralizing. I didn't assume anything would be done about our mishap. I'm relatively new to ultras, but I know the onus is on the runner to find the right route, even if it did seem like we were pointed the wrong way (again, I'm not sure this is 100% correct). However, volunteers started asking me if I was one of the ones who did an extra loop. Apparently there were a dozen or so people who did. I tried to regroup and refocus a bit. Zach had pulled away after I took my one and only bathroom break, so I was running solo. I was (officially) only 12 or 13 miles into the race and not feeling very good. Not a good place to be. I relaxed, tried to keep a positive outlook, and slowly began reeling people in. When I got to the 16.5 mile aid station, I was told that "something" would be done about the extra distance we added, and further, that I was in 4th place overall (including people that had gone the right way). That was some good news. Crossing a road about 20 minutes later, a woman volunteer told me that race directors would stop anyone who did the extra loop 2.4 miles early at the end of the race. I didn't have any confirmation of this until mile 40.3 (42.7 for me), but it got my head back in the right place. I was feeling better, and I had caught Zach. We were running together and gaining on the two runners in front of us.
It didn't take too long for Zach and I to pass the two runners ahead, one of whom was Mark Thompson. Mark had been the first runner not to take the wrong turn. He ended up running a smart, tough race and came in third overall, even when the discrepancies from the extra loop had been set straight. (I hung out with Mark and his wife in the beer tent for a while post-race. Very nice people.) I exchanged my bottle at the 21 mile McMiller aid station and Zach and I rolled into the toughest section of the course—a 14.4 mile out-and-back with a lot of steep, short (and some long) hills.
Zach really flies on the downhills, so it was about all I could do to keep up on those, all the while worried that the pounding would take me out later in the race. I, on the other hand, seemed to excel a bit more on the uphills, and I found myself opening up a gap around 25 (or 27.4) miles. It turned out to be a fairly small gap, as I saw when I reached the turnaround (officially 28.3 miles into the race). I stopped to fill my water bottle, and Zach was already into the aid station by the time I ran out of there.
My legs were already starting to feel the effects of the last 7.2 miles of hilly terrain, but we had a brief mile or two stretch without any big hills before we got back into it. I felt like taking it easy through here, recovering a bit, but I figured I needed to do something with this gap I had. So I pushed, probably running close to 6 minute pace. I think I managed to open another minute or two here. We were then back into the very steep rollers in the woods. This section of the course did me in, but luckily, it did Zach in too. At the 35.4 mile aid station (we were at 37.8), McMiller again, I exchanged bottles, downed a honey stinger waffle and headed out, starting to feel a little delirious. I was certain Zach would catch me in the coming miles.
I thought that after the second McMiller visit, I was supposed to get onto some much-needed flat terrain. I guess that's accurate, but only after another 5 miles or so of grueling hills. I crawled through this section. My legs were toast. I even had to power walk some small sections of uphills. On each of the steep hills, I wanted to walk the whole damn thing, but I knew that if I had any chance of holding off Zach, I couldn't walk for more than a few brief moments here and there. I was still able to move fast on the downhills, but my quads were really taking a beating.
Finally on some flat (though extraordinarily sandy) terrain, I pulled into the 40.3 mile Highway 67 aid station. Here, a race official ran with me for a bit and explained that someone would be waiting 2.4 miles back from the finish to stop me. I had been banking on this bit of info that I'd gotten earlier in the race. It was a great confirmation. I don't think I would have handled news to the contrary very well. I realized I didn't have too long to go, and that Zach still hadn't caught me. Nor was he in sight behind me. I reasoned that if he was feeling good at all, he would have passed me already. I started to entertain thoughts of winning again. I also ran into a 50k racer (they were on the same course, having started at 7:00 a.m., also on their way to the finish) who helped me along a fair bit. I passed him, but then he caught me again, and we were pushing each other until I was mercifully allowed to stop, having finally run the full race distance.
A race official noted that the time of day was 11:00 a.m. and 14 seconds. This is where my official final time of 6:00:14 came from, as we started at 5:00 a.m. But I think we must have started a bit after 5:00 on the nose, because my chip time in the results was 5:59:39. Everyone else in the 50 mile race similarly had ~35 seconds between their "Time" and "Chip" results. Last year, by contrast, saw all the top runners with the same time for both. I also dipped under the old course record of 6:01:37 from 2009, though I of course ran a slightly different course. That said, the extra loop we did was a difficult and hilly loop, so I'm confident that it didn't make the course any faster for us.
Zach rolled in at 6:08:55, also having a rough last 12 miles or so. As I mentioned above, Mark Thompson had a very solid showing in third place, running 6:29:09. My overall pace for the race was 7:13 per mile. I don't own a Garmin so I'm not sure what my pace was at any given point, but I was going pretty slow the last 15 miles, so I must have banked some time in the early and middle miles.
This race was also a bit of an experiment with fueling for me. I've been using Generation UCAN superstarch on my training runs. I'm a big believer in metabolic efficiency, and think we can get by on a lot fewer calories during races than people think. I don't think any calories are necessary in a marathon, for instance (and that people relying on them actually just hurt themselves and risk bonking more than they would if they properly trained to be fuel efficient at marathon pace). My plan for the race was to only have about 650 calories of Generation UCAN. I had 160 calories of UCAN (Vanilla) pre-race. UCAN is an especially good pre-race choice as it doesn't spike your insulin, and thus does not inhibit fat oxidation. Late race I started craving something different, so I took a bit of food that I had packed along as backup.
The totals ended up looking like this:
- 1 packet vanilla Generation UCAN (160 calories)
- 1 Salt Stick pill
- 4 packets lemonade Generation UCAN (440 calories)
- 2 packets Sport Beans (200 calories)
- 1 Honey Stinger waffle (160 calories)
- 2 small chocolate chip cookies (100 calories – going off the Chips Ahoy nutrition info here)
- 2 Salt Stick pills
- A lot of water (best guess: 130-140 ounces)
- (In order) soup, bagel, M&Ms, bratwurst, beer, pulled pork sandwich, beer, salad, beer, cookie, beer, Taco Bell (2 flatbread sandwiches, 1 quesadilla), granola bar, bagel, beer. I like beer.
So that's 900 calories for a 6 hour race, 1060 calories if you include the pre-race nutrition. Not bad. Overall, I think just about everything about this race went better than my one other 50 miler. It gives me some good momentum headed into the UROC 100k. It confirms my thoughts that I should be able to run a pretty fast flat 50 miles at the Lakefront 50 Mile next month. And it hopefully sets me up well for a competitive run at the TNF 50 Championships in San Francisco in December.
Congrats to everyone who raced out there, and a big thanks to all the workers and volunteers who helped to put on a great event.
* As I mentioned, not sure which time is official. Normally, a "chip" time would not be official, but there was clearly some sort of error here. The volunteer looking at the time of day in order to get the "6:00:14" time leads me to believe that the 5:59:39 is the correct time.
** Again, as mentioned above, not sure if this is an official course record, since we had a slightly different route (though it probably only made the race more difficult).
Running Times Recap
Chicago Half Marathon Race Report - 8th place, 1:11:20
Did this race the week before TNF 50. A pretty poor and disappointing performance to say the least. Unlike in DeKalb the week prior, I don't think I made any large tactical errors or anything. I just didn't have it. My opening 4 miles were something like 5:20, 5:18, 5:16, 5:12. Relatively conservative, and I was feeling OK, but then the wheels sort of just came off. Running 5:25s was suddenly very difficult, and the last 4 miles in were a bit of a death march. Not sure how to explain this really. I worked out on Wednesday, so I had three easy days before the race and should have felt relatively well rested. It got a little warm out, and it was sunny, but nothing too bad. Only 70 degrees at most by race end, but even still, the "heat" seemed to bother me some. I'm at a bit of a loss really, but just need to move on. No need to dwell on a poor performance. Sub-1:05 seems a far off possibility at the moment, but who knows. Another 10 weeks of fitness, some sharpening, and a taper may work wonders.