“Do you have restaurants that deliver to the hotel?"
“Were you running today?"
“Yep, I just ran the 50 miler..."
“wow, I got tired after 30 minutes on the elliptical yesterday!”
It was less than two years ago that I started running and had never run more than a 5k...here is the journey to my first 50 mile race.
I felt a little bad about my interaction with the hotel clerk, recognizing that I had used the word “just” to describe what I did today, but I was thinking of all the 100 milers still out on the course in the cold and rain. We tend to normalize our activity and I try not to use words like “just” and “only” when describing my running activities, knowing that there will always be someone who does more than me. I also need to remember that the things we choose to do are a bit of an outlier from most people’s daily lives. I was a little surprised to read in Mike Pfefferkorn’s reflection that he reached out to media to cover the race, but no one came because they thought the event was too “fringe” to cover.
…but I’m getting ahead of myself. This was the scene back at the hotel after I ran my first 50 mile race at the Indiana Trail 100, Chain O’ Lakes State Park, Albion, IN. Let me take a step back and start from he beginning and tell you about my journey.
I’m currently signed up to run at least three 50 milers this year, and the Indiana Trail 100 was my first. Before this race, the longest I’d run was 36 miles at the Bad Apple Ultra 6 hour timed race last October. On January 2nd I ran the Yankee Springs Winter Challenge 50k and then started a 4 month training schedule for my first 50M.
I roughly followed Hal Koerner’s 50M-100k from his "Field Guide to Ultrarunning"
I had a couple weeks that were low and missed my weekend long runs because of travel and work commitments, but all and all felt solid with my training. Because I was going for a new distance, I focussed more on time on feet and logging miles rather than packing more workouts into the week. That will change moving forward as I now feel comfortable with the distance, I’ll be looking to do more strength and speed/hill workouts. Having the race at the end of April really motivated me to stay on top of my training throughout the winter despite the cold and snow.
Early on, I decided to do the race on my own as a solo adventure. I didn’t have any friends running the race this year and my family wouldn’t be joining me for the trip. I mostly run alone, so this felt normal and comfortable to me. I ended up running most of the race alone, only running with and chatting with maybe one or two other runners.
I had a little bit of anxiety before the race as my wife and kids were all sick the week before the race and I thought I might catch it and have to run the race sick. Luckily that didn’t happen and everyone in the family on getting better.
The drive down was an easy 2.5 hours from Grand Rapids. I had made it once before to run a preview 50k of the course about 5 weeks before. Let me just say, I was blown away by the organization, good will, and community of the people I met and everything the team, volunteers, and community do to support each other and make IT100 an amazing experience. The preview run was so well organized and supported, I had zero concerns about what I would experience during the race weekend.
The course is a 16.7 mile loop around Chain O’ Lakes State Park outside of Albion, IN. I had run two loops on the preview weekend and would run three on race day. I love the idea of a point to point race or one big loop, but having a multi-loop course makes logistics for a runner super easy.
I ended up staying at the Best Western in Kendallville, IN about a 30 minute drive from the course. I checked in with enough time to unpack, and stop by the grocery store to pick up some food for the night and morning. I picked up some bagels, bananas, peanut butter and green juice as well as some Starbucks instant coffee and a 6 pack of beer and the grocery store and heading back to my hotel. The race had 6AM start time, so the hotel decided to open up their breakfast super early so runners would have some food there before most of us headed off towards the course around 4:30AM the morning of the race. While I didn’t use the complimentary breakfast, I thought it was super great of the hotel to accommodate the runners and open things up several hours earlier than normal.
Oh, I almost forgot about this, but before heading to the course I had a minor freakout moment. Let me explain, I like being self sufficient, and didn’t want to rely on the aid stations for hydration. I use a Salomon vest with two 16 oz. soft flasks in the chest pockets. In the soft flasks is Vitargo and Clif Electrolyte mix, and this time I used a recovery tea from Runner’s Tea instead of water. I prepped everything the night before into 6 Salomon soft flasks before I left home and I would switch out bottles on every loop.
[...as an aside, I did bring a couple handheld bottles just incase I wanted to switch things up. Also to have a backup in case I forgot something, like I forgot my vest for the course preview run and had to run the entire 33 miles of the preview run free carrying two soft flasks.]
So, when I started unpacking my drop bag, the bottom was wet and I immediately knew at least one of the bottle had leaked. What?! I did have backup mixes to remake the bottle if need be, but luckily not that much had leaked out. I quickly rinsed everything off and discovered a pinhole leak in the shoulder of one of the soft flasks. Shit, what was I going to do? I had a couple options. The leak only happened if the bottle was squeezed. Could I just use the bottle as is, would it leak while I was running? Do I leave it and pour it into another soft flask during one to the loop switches. Do put it in one of the handhelds and use that for the last loop? None of these solutions seemed great to me. Luckily, I had a roll of surgical tape that I use for nipple protection (highly recommend). I taped up the bottle with the surgical tape and it seemed to hold, at least well enough to get me through the race. Crisis averted for now.
I momentarily freaked out, but quickly calmed down and assessed the situation. I figured out what was in my control and what was out of my control and what resources I had to affect change in the situation. I’ve found this adaptive mindset allows me to quickly move through potential hiccups in both life and running.
After the bottle fiasco and grocery run, I headed over to the course for packet pickup, raffle and pre-race informational meeting. As expected, everything was super smooth at packet pick up and I couldn’t believe all the cool stuff we got. I forgot that Salomon was a sponsor and scored a new Salomon jacket, IT100 hat and low and behold a new Salomon soft flask and handheld. Woohoo, now I could swap out my leaky one when I got back to the hotel.
I also won a new coffee cup from one of the other sponsors. Score!
Back at the hotel, I laid out my clothes for the morning, packed up my bags, ate a light dinner of bananas, bagel with peanut butter and about half a bottle of green juice. After dinner I had a couple beers, watched some tv and tried to relax. I think I ended up getting to sleep around 10PM with my alarm set for 3:30AM, so I could leave the hotel by 4:30AM to make sure I could get a parking spot at the main parking lot by 5AM, which was another source of anxiety for me. In the morning, everything went smoothly and I arrived at the course at 5AM and think I got one of the last parking spots at the main parking location. Nice! That was close.
It was exciting to see the line of cars and headlights streaming into the park, and all the runners walking around with headlamps doing final preparations. I got my drop bag situated and went back to my car to calm down and stay warm. I headed back to the start line shortly before we all gathered for the start at 5:50 AM.
I worked my way back towards the middle of the pack knowing I didn’t want to start too fast. My goal for the day was to finish strong and try to keep a consistent pace the entire race. I didn’t want to go out too hard and blow up at the end. I had never run more that 36 miles before, so I wasn’t sure what would happen or what my body would do.
During the course preview, I ran two loops in a little over 5 hours (5:16 moving time, 5:40 elapsed time), so I figured I could run the 50 miles between 8-10 hours. If I raced hard and everything was perfect, I figured I could run around 8 hours, but I already decided I wasn’t going to race it hard really wanted to enjoy the day. On the other end, I was confident I could finish the distance, and I wanted to at least finish under 10 hours.
At 6AM the race started, and we were off with headlamps bobbing into the soon to be breaking dawn. I’ve run at night before, but never with so many other people. It was very cool to see the long trail of headlamps winding through the woods. I think sunrise was around 6:30AM, so I didn’t have my headlamp on for long before dawn started to break, and oh man, it was glorious. The sky was clear, the air was crisp and as the light started to appear you could see wildflowers framing the trail. The first hour during sunrise was magical.
I started mid pack and to be completely honest didn’t thoroughly enjoy running in a large group. it was difficult to move or set my own pace, but soon enough I worked my way into holes and within a couple miles was able to run without any traffic. Before I knew it we hit the School house aid station which is at mile 4.5 and again at mile 14.
Every time I crossed a timing mat at one of the aid stations, I thought of my wife back home in Michigan who would be getting race updates via email every time. While I was there alone, it was nice to know we were connected in that way, and she could follow me from afar. It was also a little bit of social accountability to know she was keeping track of how I was doing.
During the next section I ended up chatting with a guy (not pictured) that was running his third 100, and hoping to finish as he had DNF’d his first two attempts. As we chatted I had the sinking feeling that this race wasn’t going to be any different for him. He seemed to be exerting more effort than I was and running too fast for what was ahead of him, but who was I to say. He said he was trying to bank time before the rain came, but that didn’t seem like a sound strategy to me. It was his journey and I didn't feel comfortable telling him what I thought. I kept it to myself and kept moving. After a mile or two I moved on and pulled away from him to continue running on my own. Sure enough, I checked the results later and it looks like he did DNF again. We are all running our own race out there.
I found myself getting into a rhythm of slowly catching someone, then running with them for a while, and then passing them to continue on my own.
On the first loop, the course was in great condition. The team had done an amazing job grooming the course. It was downright luxurious. The one thing I didn’t care so much for was all the off camber sections of the course. While it didn’t cause me any problems, it just wasn’t enjoyable to run on. Not much to do, but run through it.
Loop one finished uneventfully and under 3 hours by about 12 minutes. I stopped in the main aid station to swap out my soft flasks and took a couple minutes to take my shoe off and a get some rocks out of my sock so they didn’t cause me irritation later on. In the cold, it took me longer than expected to get my gloves off, get my shoe untied and clean out my sock. Finally, with everything back in order, I a started off again for loop two only to hit the porta-potty to pee on my way up the hill.
Loop two got off to a slower start than I would have liked with the shoe/sock issues, but I was moving again. I’m not sure why but the first half of loop two seemed like a bit of a struggle. Not that it was difficult, I just felt slow and my legs felt heavy. I think I stopped to pee again on the side of the trail about a quarter of the way into the loop, and rolling into the Rally Aid Station I stopped again, this time to poop. I don’t know how long I was in that porta-potty, but it felt like forever. Every second I was in there I felt the clock ticking on, but I exited several minutes later lighter and much happier. Rally Aid Station was the half way point for the course and on this loop it was the half way point of the race for me.
I quickly popped into the aid station for a little water and some fruit and then hit the trail again. The back side of the trail was always more enjoyable to me and I was looking forward to finishing up loop two and heading out for new territory in loop three.
Coming through the back side of the course and into the second Schoolhouse aid station on that second loop changed the course of the race for me. While I had seen the signs leading up to the aid station on the first loop, they stuck with me on the second loop: “Know when to walk” and a little later “Know when to run.”
The aid station had a poker theme and those signs leading up to the aid station got nothing other than Kenny Roger’s “The Gambler” stuck in my head for the next 3 hours. Now I say stuck, but part of that was voluntary. I used the chorus like a mantra, and before I knew it my feet were moving again. My legs felt light, my cadence quickened and so did my pace. So thank you to all the people at the second Schoolhouse aid station for helping me get moving again.
I finished loop two just under 6 hours, which meant that second loop was considerably slower than the first. I had the fleeting thought that I might be able to finish this under 9 hours, but I would have to keep things moving on the third loop. I changed out my bottles and got moving again. Oh, and I changed my hat for one with a longer brim because the rain had started to come down towards the end of loop two. Oh, the rain. I so love running in the rain. It's empowering and energizing.
With the rains coming down, loop three would start to get a bit muddy and colder, but it was also exciting, because this was all new territory. Every step was a new accomplishment.
In reality, the third loop was pretty uneventful. I choked on a Clif Shot Blok and then blew it out my nose, while not breaking stride. What?! Did that just happen? I again slowly hunted down and passed a couple people that seemed to be struggling and hitting the wall, while I felt pretty solid. I didn’t push too hard wanting to enjoy the run and stay relaxed. I kept my heart rate low and kept moving forward.
After the last loop, in the back of my mind I was hoping to be able to finish under 9 hours, but I didn’t want to look at the time on my watch. By that I mean I really did want to look, but I kept myself from looking. I knew if I looked, I would fixate on the time, and I didn't want to do that. I just ran and let things fall as they may.
So, the park is called Chain O’ Lakes for a reason, and the course starts on the edge of a lake and weaves it’s way around several others. There’s a point on the back side of the course where you come up a hill to see a lake open up in front of you and just on the other side of that lake you can see the start/finish line and sometimes you can hear the people yelling and cheering as runners come through, but it’s not nearly as close as you think. Instead of following the contour of the lake back to the finish, the trail heads off to the left to weaves through another couple lakes and another 5 miles before you make it back to the finish.
With Kenny Rogers still in my head, I soon enough passed through the final aid station and relished the final 2.7 miles to the finish. The final quarter mile hugs the lake up to the finish. I’m getting emotional right now writing these words, and even before I hit the chute to the finish I couldn’t help but break into a huge smile knowing that the day’s journey was coming to an end, and sure enough, I met my goal by coming in across the line in just under 9 hours. I would find out later that I came in 13th overall, which was a bit of a surprise to me. I'm proud of what I accomplished, which at one time seems so unattainable to me.
As with every runner on that day, I was greeted by the RD at the finish line. Mike Pfefferkorn does an amazing job with this race and all the volunteers are top notch. What an amazing experience! Thank you! Thank you to all the people that put so much time and effort into creating this transformative experience for all of us who run.
After I crossed the finish line I rolled into the main aid station, grabbed some coffee and hot chicken soup in attempts to warm up. I slowly collected my gear and headed down to my car to warm up, dry off and change my clothes. It wasn’t until I was walking down to my car by myself that I broke down and started to cry. Tears of joy and pride and accomplishment. I was happy with the day, but also with where my life is now. More connected with the natural world, more balanced with personal, professional, and family efforts. I wept tears of peacefulness as well as excitement about adventures to come.
The second time I cried was on the drive home listening to the end of a URP episode and Matt Flaherty song “No Holding Back” was the outro, and it immediately brought tears to my eyes, again. Take a listen as you finish reading...
After warming up in the car I headed back into the cold, wet rain to cheer on other finishers and chat with other racers inside the main aid station. It was great to meet other runners and hear their stories and experiences of the day and previously. Most had much more experience than I did, so it was great to pick their brains and connect with the more experienced runners.
After an hour or so, I decided to head back to the hotel to get some food and relax for the evening and reflect on my day’s experience. I ate a whole pizza and a couple beers before I fell asleep for the evening.
What a day. So good! I have lots of memories that I will cherish moving forward.
My plan is to run my first 100 next year, and I predict I’ll be back here to run the 100 or at least the 50 again in preparation for another 100 later in the year.
Either way, I'll be back, and I definitely recommend this race to others!
In terms of gear I used the following:
- Altra Lone Peak 2.5
- Patagonia Socks
- Altra Shorts
- Territory Run Co. shirt
- Salomon vest + Soft Flasks
- Patagonia Hat
- Patagonia Gloves
As I like to do, I made a poster to celebrate and remember my experience. In fact, I sold two of these already to two people who were running their first 100 mile race at IT100.