The alarm went off at 3:30 AM, and I groggily reached for my phone. I hit the snooze button (a big “no, no” in the get up and get out the door motivational world), but I wanted a few minutes of not running around to plan through my day. Running is so reactive, move through the world, take in your surrounding, react and adapt to your body and your context. I reveled in these nine warm minutes of calm in bed before I started the avalanche of motion and emotion that is the Yankee Springs Winter Challenge (YSWC) 50 Mile race.
The weather reports had been fluctuating for the previous 10 days, between snow and no snow and between 0-20F. Every time I started preparing for what the race would be like, the weather report would change. I finally gave up and stopped looking at the weather all together. I knew it would be chilly (at least below freezing and likely below 20F) and there may be anywhere between no snow and 10 inches. Whatever it was going to be, we would still be running 50 miles and I would just find out what kind of day it would be when it happened. A couple days before the race my wife asked when I expected to finish. My response (and I was dead serious), was anywhere between 8-12 hours. Much of it was going to depend on the weather and conditions which were totally out of my control.
While I didn’t train specifically for this race I tried to maintain relative consistency with my running and mileage after my last 100k in October. While I thought about the race regularly in the weeks leading up to the race, I don’t think I fixated on it as much as previous races. Throughout November I had a solid month of good workouts along with regular daily runs, but once the snow started coming down in December, I had a difficult time getting in any sort of consistent, meaningful workout. I’ve been following recommendations based Jason Koop’s latest book “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning,” which I would highly recommend. I’ve seen and felt consistent progress since I’ve started using it as a guide.
So, I rolled into race day on January 7th feeling pretty solid, but relatively casual. One of my goals for this race was to run my own race and try to be as consistent as possible from beginning to end. I regularly fade at the end of long races and I would really like to be able to run consistently from beginning to end. Of course the competitive side of me would like to place well, and after placing 3rd at the double marathon on basically the same course last May, I had high hopes. However, I decided before race day, that I would treat this more as a run than a race. However, the internal dialogue between restraint and competition is ongoing and ever present.
I gave myself an hour and a half at home to get ready in the morning, wanting to leave by 5AM to make the 45 minute drive from Grand Rapids to Yankee Springs in time for the 6AM start. I had driven down the evening before with my son to pick up my race number, so I wouldn't have to check in the morning of. It was a quiet and calm morning moving about in the dark house trying not to disturb the family or the puppy. Running is always a balance between effort and impact, and sometimes that impact is on my family and support system. So, knowing I was going to be gone all day, I tried to limit my impact on the family and let everyone sleep as I prepare myself for what lay ahead.
A second alarm goes off. It’s 4:30 now. Time to go clear the snow off the car and get it warmed up before I finish packing everything up for the day. Luckily, there’s less than an inch of snow and no ice. I quickly clean off the car, crank the heater up, lock the door and head back inside. The next 20 minutes fly by in flurry of getting everything together to get out door without leaving anything behind. A quick good morning and goodbye to my wife and I’m out the door at 5AM on the nose.
The roads are decent, but there’s a lot of white stuff in the air. The drive takes a little longer than normal. I pull into the parking lot at Yankee Springs at 5:51AM. I’ve got 9 minutes to spare. Shoes gets changed, hand-warmers get activated (one in each glove, one in each pocket of my sweatshirt, and a few in my drop bag), two soft flasks go in my vest. I indiscriminately grab four gels from an assortment in my drop bag and put two in each pocket hoping the hand-warmers will keep them from freezing. I throw on my big heavy coat, grab my drop bag and bin and head to the start line. The cold air hits me like a wall when I open the door, but my adrenaline is running high now and I’m trying to make it to the start line before the proverbial gun goes off.
As I put down my drop bag at the start/finish line, Kim (RD) is already giving the pre-race instructions, I start to walk over, but decide I’d better take the limited time I have to run to the portable toilets to relieve myself before we get going. I figure, I’ve run here before, I know the course, I read the pre-race emails, what could I miss, right? I exit the toilet and hear Kim say, "I’ll count down from 5 - 4 -…” My mind races, “shit, that was quick.” I run over and throw my heavy coat over my drop bag “…2 - 1 - GO!” The group of runners take off in the dark with headlamps lighting the way. I however am running the opposite way, feeling obligated to head back the 20 feet to the start line before I take off down the trail after everyone else. I know what you are thinking, 20 feet out of the 50 miles (or 264,000 feet) we would run that day. I can’t explain it, but that’s what I did, which means starting from the back of the pack.
FIRST 5K LOOP
This first lap of the race is a quick loop on the 5k course (then the race progresses with 3 loops on the 25k course), but of course I missed the pre-race instructions, so I wasn’t positive. We’re running down the snow covered road and there’s lots of room to pass the slower runners. As usual, there’s a some that take off flying, but starting in the back helps me not chase down the lead group. I settled in with group, starting out easy, I was just sitting in a car 10 minutes ago. I’m relaxing into the calm and rhythm of the cold, snowy morning when see a sign, "50 mile first loop 5k course” with an arrow point off the road onto a trail, but the two people in front of me ran right past it, and the group ahead of them were even further up the road. Did I miss something at the pre-race meeting? But the sign is still there? It seems pretty clear. I yell to the guy right in front of me. He stops. We yell to the guy in front of him, he comes back. We yell to the group ahead of him, they keep going. Were those people even real? I don’t know, but we decide to go down the trail on the 5k course back towards the start/finish. The trail is quiet and narrow and lovely. Soon enough we hit the jeep road, which is a couple turns from the finish line. As we come through the finish area, I mention to Jake who’s running the finish line checkin about the runners who didn’t make the 5k turn, but I never found out what happened. I speed up to catch the group I was with as we head off for loop two, or the first 25k loop.
FIRST 25K LOOP
Soon enough we pass the 5k turn off sign and I break away from the group as we make the first climb on the road up to the trailhead. The lights from their headlamps are fading behind me as reach the trailhead and head off into the snowy darkness alone, knowing there were people in front and behind me, but in reality I was alone on the trail in the cold, dark of the early morning. The enormity of the day started to wash over me as I settled into the solitude of the trail. Up until now, I’d been reacting to the world: arriving late, nearly missing a turn, but now I had time to reflect and just be at peace. I came into the Deep Lake aid station before I knew it and was greeted by a warm reception, at least in spirits if not temperature. At aid stations, people always ask, "what do you need” and I never know what to say. I usually carry everything I need and don’t rely on the aid stations for hydration or nutrition, but will often grab something to eat if something looks good. This time I grabbed an olive and and was on my way. It's a short two mile loop around the mountain bike warm up loop and you are back through the Deep Lake aid station again. During these 2 miles I notice that the nipples of my soft flasks were starting to freeze up. I’ve had them freeze last winter on a few long runs, but was usually able to keep things flowing if I drank regularly enough. Hopefully this won’t be a problem. When I ran through Deep Lake again I didn’t stop and passed someone who did stop at the aid station.
It’s another 3.5 miles to the Devil’s Soup Bowl aid station and out of all the miles at Yankee Springs these seem to be the longest for me. They aren’t particularly challenging, but for some reason they always seem to take much longer than I expect. At some point between aid stations I found myself sucking on a frozen water bottle. I tried chomping down on the nipple to break up the ice blockage. That’s worked before. Nothing. I tried sucking and chomping all while running one foot in front of the other, tick, tick, tick, tick. Nothing! Shit. I’m out of water. Shit. My mind wanders. I struggle with hydration on long runs, because I tend to sweat a lot. The cold aids in this a bit and I dress to stay on the cold side, but I’m not psyched to be out of water. I’ve been out of water on the backside of these trails in summer and it totally sucks. Phil and I stopped regularly to pick berries at every chance we could get when we were both out of water. Wait a second, I just ran by one of the berry spots, but no berries this time of year. Even in the dark and covered in snow the memory of those berry cashes is strong.
Keep going. Time to adapt. Time to improvise. I’ll just have to rely on the aid stations for hydration today. Done, decision made. Keep running. I wish I didn’t have these heavy and now useless deadweights to carry around. Oh well. I entertained the idea of trying to dump them out, but I didn’t think it would be worth the effort. I'll just carry them back and drop them at the start/finish aid station.
Finally, turning the corner and making the climb into the Devils Soup Bowl aid station I hear the familiar refrain,
“Hello runner, what can we get you?”
This time the answer came quickly with “What do you have to drink?”
“Water and Gatorade"
“Great, I’ll have one of each. My bottles are frozen”
I was happy to see some familiar faces at the aid station which always lifts my spirits. I think stayed a little too long at the aid station because when I left my heart rate had dropped enough that my fingers started to get cold. Besides hydration, my fingers are my achilles heal in cold weather running. I’ve never had trouble with cold feet, but my fingers get cold, and in a painful way. I’ve found that if I stop for too long in the middle of a run and my fingers get cold, it takes at least 2-3 miles for them to warm back up. During those miles my fingers feel numb except for the fiery-ice needles that are violently stabbing me. I’ll go on to fight with this pain in my fingers off and on all day. I figure for at least 2+ hours of the 9 hours I was on the trail, my fingers were in excruciating pain. I tried everything from running with them under my armpits, cupped in each other, squeezing the hand-warmers until I thought I would draw blood, shaking them, but nothing other than time at an elevated heart rate would work to warm them back up. This would become increasingly difficult as the day wore on.
Other than my fingers, I felt pretty good. I rolled in and out of the McDonald Lake aid station getting more water and gatorade. So far I’d been pretty good about taking gels regularly. The hand warmers in my pocket kept them warm enough to stay fluid enough to eat. However they were constantly bouncing around in my sweatshirt pockets, I’d have to fix that for the next loop, I don’t want to run another 30 miles with all that bouncing.
I make the turn into camp and the start/finish line.
“Runner coming in. What’s your number?”
“Is that Erik? Well done.”
“Oh man, epic ice beard!”
Huh, what. I’d noticed some ice collecting on my face, but I can’t see myself. There aren’t any mirrors out on the trail. I’m curious, but I’ll figure out what he’s talking about later.
I grab my drop bag. I throw my frozen, useless bottles in the bag. What to do this time? I don’t want to take two bottle out and have them freeze again and carry deadweight for another 15 miles. Okay. I’ll take one bottle and put one of the hand warmers in the pouch with it. Then I’ll put all four gels in the one other chest pocket in place of the absent second water bottle with the other hand-warmer. We’ll see how this works. If it freezes again, I’m only carrying one, and the gels in the chest pocket should resolve the bouncing from the sweatshirt pocket. The replacement bottle is still warm because I had a hand warmer in my drop bag with the extra soft flasks of GU Roctane Energy Drink Mix (at half the recommended amount). All set, ready to go.
“Do you want to take your headlamp off?”
“What?! Oh right. Thanks. I would have totally forgotten. Thanks.”
SECOND 25K LOOP
The sun is fully up now, the other runners from the other races (50k, 25k, 5k) should be out on the trail. I settle into a rhythm again. Running alone. I haven’t run with anyone since the first 5k loop at the beginning of the race. What was that?! Shit a gel just flew out of my chest pocket. I stop, reach down and pluck it out of the snow and continue on my way. I try to stuff the gels down so the don’t bounce out again.
I start passing back of the pack 25k runners. Our interactions are limited, but it’s nice to see some other people after hours alone. It’s more of the same this lap but I’m feeling good, fighting to keep my hands warm, which is painful, but I continue to move forward.
Before I reach Deep Lake another gel has popped out of my pocket. I decide that keeping them there would be a bad idea, so I keep running but transfer them back to my zippered sweatshirt pocket so they don’t bounce out anymore. The bouncing sweatshirt is a tradeoff for losing gels all over the trail.
Other than futzing with the location of my gels, I enter Deep Lake uneventfully. I see a friend running the 25k coming out of the warmup loop as I’m entering. We high five and smile. I love seeing friends on the trail. Unexpected delights.
I come back into Deep Lake after the 2 mile warmup loop and sure enough my bottle is frozen again. Water and Gatorade at the aid station it is. Off to Devil’s Soup Bowl, where I finally I arrive to a boisterous crew of volunteers and a group of 25k runners. I get some more water and Gatorade and some trail mix. I’m chatting with one of the volunteers about being here for a second time when one of the other runners says,
“Oh, the fact that you caught me is bad news, either I’m slowing down or you are speeding up, and I’m pretty sure I’m definitely slowing down.”
I didn’t register it at first but it’s Matt Frazier who was currently in 2nd place.
“Oh wow, I didn’t expect to see you here.” I said.
“I’m not having a good race today, I’ll be happy just to finish”
“I hear you”
“I know that’s not great to say, coming from the current 2nd and 3rd place runners”
“It is what it is”
So much of running is a mental game, even though we were in 2nd and 3rd place, we were both thinking that we would just be happy to finish today.
I take off from Devil’s Soup Bowl before Matt and now in second place. How did this happen? How was I in second place? It was nice to chat with Matt for a minute. I had never met him before, but everyone in the ultra community is so friendly and open. However the joy of camaraderie and now being in second place would quickly be ripped from me as my fingers flare up in excruciating cold pain. Payback for spending too much time idle at the aid station. Ouch.
At mile 34.5, I come through the start/finish line to see Kate and Tim who happened to be standing at the finish line after they finished their own 25K and 10K runs respectively. Kate, in her enthusiasm congratulated me, “You did it!” To which I responded, “Not yet, still one loop to go!” and we all broke out into laughter.
“Nice ice beard by the way”
“Oh, yeah. Everyone keeps saying that, but I haven’t seen it yet”
So, Tim gets out his camera and takes a picture.
I’m going through my stuff. Refill my pocket full of gels. Empty out my frozen water bottle and instinctively replace it with a new one from my drop bag that’s still warm (however I’ll carry it the entire lap, but won’t even take a sip).
As I’m ruffling through my bag, I see my Salomon jacket and think that might be nice to have. I’d been slowing down on the last loop and as I slowed my heart rate dropped and body temperature dropped. It was becoming more difficult to stay warm.
“Can you throw this jacket in my back pocket?”
“Sure.” Tim said
“Roll it up like a burrito, it will fit better” Kate said
The jacket goes in, and I will be very grateful for this split-second decision and help from Tim and Kate.
Time to run again.
“What time is it, by the way”
“It’s exactly 12 o’clock”
“Oh great, I’ll be back in three hours, see you then. Oh right, you probably won’t be here then. Have a great rest of your day and congrats on your runs.”
And I’m off on my final loop, another 15.5 miles.
THIRD 25K LOOP
There is something nice and easy about the final loop. It’s the last time I’ll have to make this climb. The last time I’ll have to run that stretch. I use this thinking to get through my weekly hill workouts. “Only one more loop after this one, I can always do one more…okay, final time…yes.”
I start passing some of the slower 50K runners, but the trail is much quieter than the previous loop. I make it to Deep Lake and happily take more water, Gatorade, and a cup of chicken noodle soup (oh man, that soup was so warm and good). When I return to Deep Lake after the short 2 mile loop, I see Matt Frazier again who I passed at the Devil’s Soup Bowl on the last loop. I’d put 2 miles between us in the last 12 miles. We chatted for a bit.
The aid station volunteer offers to trade out my hand-warms with fresh ones, which is a life-saver. I also ask her to grab my jacket out of my back pocket. I put it on quickly and immediately start to feel better. Another life-saver.
I asked Matt if anyone else had passed him since I saw him on the previous loop, wondering in there was anyone else behind me or if he was the closest runner as I feel myself lingering too long at the aid station.
He said, “No, but first place is only about 3 minutes ahead of you.”
In fact, I had seen the first place runner (Andy Miller) who was just leaving Deep Lake as I was coming in the first time, but I didn’t know which race he was in. I just assumed first place was much farther ahead. I wish Matt luck and take off running down the trail. The idea of catching first place has me motivated me for about a mile. I could probably make up that time. I’m feeling pretty good. "Shit, there go my fingers again!” I stayed too long at the aid station and my body cooled off too much. I’m glad I put on my jacket, it’s helping my body warm up more quickly.
As I’m running, I start thinking about my options. I could push and try to catch first or I can relax and just run it in. If I chase him down, I’m going to be wrecked and probably sore for days. If I just run it in, I will be able to walk tomorrow. I’m a husband and a father of a seven and ten year old. I have work and family obligations at the end of the race today. I decide to back off and run it in. Save my body for my other responsibilities. I decide to back off and just run it in. I’m at peace with this decision and enjoy the miles as they click by.
I come into Devil’s Soup Bowl just as the first place runner is leaving. So close, but I stick with my decision. The aid station worker says, “I’m not sure what place you are in at this point.” To which I respond, “I’m pretty sure I’m in second and he’s in first.” To which the first place runner said, “really, there was some confusion at the end of the last loop” and he took off down the trail. I let him go. Am I at peace with this decision? Yes, just enjoy the miles and don’t wreck your body, I tell myself.
I passed a few more 50K runners in my last 6 miles and I’m happy to turn off the trail and onto the jeep road that’s about a quarter mile from the finish line. I did it again. I still can’t believe it. I’m still amazed every time my body crosses the finish line. I feel grateful for what my body allows me to do and for all the people who support me along the way.
As I cross the finish line, Jake says “9:01:24. Good enough for 7th place. Great job.”
"Wait, what? 7th? I must have really messed up some math along the way. That’s totally possible. Oh well. I’m still happy with my run. 6 minutes off my 50 mile PR from last spring on a hillier course and much worse conditions" I think to myself, and I have no idea what I actually said out loud.
“Ha. Ha. Just kidding. You are in for 2nd place. Great job, Erik.”
I’m happy and grateful to finish today in 2nd Overall and 1st Masters (40+). Amazing. I can't believe it.
I head over to put my bags in my car and put my heavy coat on and try to warm up.
POST RUN CHILI AND BEER
With my warm jacket on, I make my way over to the cabin to pick up my swag, get some traditional post-race chili and beer and chat with the other runners. It was great to meet and chat with Andy Miller, the first place runner who came in about 4 minutes ahead of me in his first 50 mile run. Amazing! We found some hot coffee and both agreed it was, at that moment, the best cup of coffee ever!
I spent about an hour chatting with other runners in the cabin and collecting my finisher’s snow globe along with a discount to Striders and a new set of IceSpikes. I was happy to get the IceSpikes, because I used them in this race, but lost several on the trail, I think when I landed on some rocks here and there.
I then spent another hour chatting with the start/finish volunteers and cheering on the final 50K runners and some of the 50M runners still coming in. It’s so great to see people come across the finish line.
What an amazing day of running and sharing the trails with so many beautiful people who chose to be out in the wild on such a blustery and chilly day.
Thanks to all the volunteers and sponsors:
And of course to all the people at SwitchBack Endurance that made the race possible.
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