Oh, yeah? Where ya from?”

Oh, yeah? Where ya from?”

The door jingles and swings wide, revealing a middle-aged, yawning couple. I greet, “Hey, guys. How we doin’?” It’s ten minutes ’til 5 and the foot traffic coming in and out of Infusco is dwindling. 1 hour ’til close (and, heck, probably about 5 hours ’til bed time for most). Nonetheless, this couple wanted a surefire taste of the bean and, from the looks of it, some hospitality, too, to gather themselves. I was glad to give it to them.

After a long blank look at the menu, eyes darting everywhere, and many a sheepish expression, I chimed in and asked what they had a taste for. “Caffeine. Something strong.” Oh, they let me know that one.

Typical I-94 travelers, I thought. It’s now five ’til 5 and I asked if they were familiar with our beans.

“Oh, no…we were just passing through,” said the man.

Curious, I followed, “Oh, yeah? Where ya from?”

This turned out to be the defining chapter of our narrative.

Simply, the woman said “Idaho,” with a voice that seemed to elicit a potential and probable “WOW!” from me. However, I refrained (this is, in fact, a coffee shop…but…).

Man! This got me excited. I lit up.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by maps, geography, and the topography of the local and national land, an appreciation for the sort, particularly in places I’ve looked at renting an apartment in or even purchasing a plot of land. When it comes to personally desirable residencies, I’m picky. Although probably prioritizingly (not an adjective…or word…but, I don’t care) backwards, any location that catches my eye has most to do with the amount of trails and access to potential big running miles it possesses. For the most part, each one of these geographically attractive areas accommodate and feed this type of “outdoorsy” lifestyle, boasting four distinct season changes. Florida? Hell no. Anywhere but Florida. Southern/Southeastern US? Not a chance. Basically, I’ve distilled it down to three major regions (east to west): Northeast (basically, upstate NY – Adirondacks region to central Maine – Baxter State Park region), upper Midwest (basically, Duluth, Minnesota – Superior National Forest region to the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan – Ottawa National Forest region), and anywhere in the mountainous, western US. So, Idaho fit this criteria, the latter.

As I prepped their quad-shot Americanos (after some menu navigation and explanation), I asked where they were staying.

“Actually, we just drove straight here from Omaha, Nebraska.”

Man, that’s a trip. However, they didn’t elaborate. After prodding and poking them with my obvious curiosity, respectfully, they opened up a bit more, realizing I was friendlier and more civilized than I probably look.

Seconds of conversation grew to minutes. Minutes became tens of minutes and I soon realized how lucky we were to be conversing without any customerial (again, another non-existing adjective) interruptions, pretty atypical even for the waning hours of the Infusco day-life, especially on a seventy-degree Saturday. I discovered they were embarking on a two-week-long “spring into summer” road trip vacation to the popular Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Sleeping Bear is located at the “pinky finger” of the Michigan “mitten” shape, just west of Traverse City.

Of course, I followed with the obvious, “Well, you guys must be tired of driving…”. We began talking about their home state of Idaho and I unofficially, unintentionally lured them into sitting at the bar for a breather and a chat ’til close. They were surprised I knew a vast majority of the surrounding Idahoan mountains, cities, and even some of the sub-1,000 populated hamlets (there are many a night where I spend gobs of Internet time looking at Google Maps). They seemed pleased and relieved to know somebody this far removed from Idaho thought of it as more than just “that potato state.”

As time went by and they prepared for departure, I realized a friendship was made (even if for an hour), simply because of curiosity, “O yeah? Where ya from?”

I am far from “old,” but when I was a kid (late 90s / early 2000s), I was spending time connecting US state puzzles (and playing sports) rather than burying my head in the glow of an iPad (which, ironically, is what I’m currently doing…but that’s besides the point). Knowing the history and geography of one’s hometown in current and historical proximity to other places is very useful. It’s alarmingly shocking to find out how many adults are oblivious to their geographical and external architectural surroundings. It’s such an important aspect to truly appreciating living and taking pride in an area.

There are two types of people giving two different answers to the two questions, “Oh, yeah? Where ya from?” One simply replies with the name and/or region of his or her city or town. The other elaborates slightly then pays the question forward. If the latter of the two is executed, the conversations to follow are rewarding and truly endless. What else is there to talk about? The presidential race? The economy? Barf.

Oh, yeah? Where ya from?” shapes us in a way that’s never truly understand until the benefits are reaped and the refreshment of the simple connectedness that follows. A way that cannot be argued over as the ways of liberalism and conservatism can. A way that’s beyond what the government can control. This is a way that connects every living thing in every living way. Mountains will always be mountains. The trees, lakes,and rivers will always be there, full of life. It is living. And in the end, on Earth, it’s all there really is.

The Hills of the Southern Kettle Moraine Are No Joke

nickI try to be optimistic. Optimism seemingly aims to result in a “keep trying”/”pat yourself on the back” attitude. Fix this. Adjust that. And try again. Round 2.

Heading into the famed Midwest trail ultra marathon, the Ice Age Trail 50-miler, in southern Wisconsin, I was very confident, yet very curious. Ice Age seemed systematically and geographically beyond the pragmatic/utilitarian style of some ultra races that are created for the sake of drudgery. Those types of races/events do not inspire me at all, really. I prefer a challenging (either pace or endurance or both) event on runnable terrain against top competition (aka Ice Age). I could have chosen to run the 50k option as my first official ultra distance race but I opted instead for the big money race (50-miler), the race that folk came to spectate, report about, and dissect.

Personally, I am fit. All-time fit. Battling through 2 years of injuries and 2 collegiate careers that never even got started, I am in the best shape of my life (speed and endurance). I wisely and cautiously built up my mileage to heights it’s never reached, avoided past mistakes, applied new wisdom, included plenty of lactate threshold work, VO2 max intervals, long efforts, hills, strides, core, yadda yadda yadda…I’ve limited my daily work output to a much smaller quantity than I am capable and willing to handle, but ensuring health was more important at this point. However, I thought that after over 20 weeks of successful training (7 days per week) with no setbacks, the Ice Age Trail 50-miler would be a desirable and, ultimately, conquerable first ultra race and one that I could compete for the win in, even in a potential littered field of professional(s).

I was correct. For the first marathon…

Wisconsin, not known for it’s “sky running” aura, turned out to be a completely different beast than I imagined. Sure, I knew Wisconsin was strewed with beautiful kettle lakes, picturesque green pastures, rolling farmland hills bordered by white picket fences, and dense forests, but the Southern Kettle Moraine was a quad-shocker to say the least. I will explain.

Hoping and aiming to run around 6 hours (7:12 average pace per mile), I was still comfortable with rolling 6 flat – 6:30 pace early on, as the Nordic ski trail loop lures. As Tyler Sigl (2:17 marathoner and successful ultra runner) and another successful runner/coach, James Akita, from Chicago, were grindin’ with me down the Nordic, I realized I was locked into a group I could roll with. I can run 6:15s all day on the flat/rolling stuff. Tyler had mentioned he wanted the heralded Max King (needs no intro) record of 5:41 (6:40-something avg pace, for 50 miles, on trails. Just insanity…typical Max King). The Badgerland Striders were offering $5,000 for the mens’ and womens’ course records. Besides a wrong turn (cost us a mile total…annoying) that James and I took on the Nordic, the grandeur demanded my utter focus and, resulting, elatedness.

Then, the Ice Age Trail greeted me with relentless superiority.

Running to the southern tip of the course, the turnaround at Rice Lake, the Ice Age Trail took me by storm. A huge storm. I was sitting comfortably in 4th place, clipping along. However, I didn’t want to get caught up in the chase (partially because I knew I wasn’t going to run 5:41…50 miles is a long way) mainly because I needed to take care of myself, nutritionally, if I wanted to run 6 hours. Then, plans changed. Quickly.

I was ahead of goal pace until mile 17 or 18, when the terrain changed from runnable, stride-outable, speedy singletrack to windy, STEEP, rocky, dense deciduous/pine-forested, HUGE climbs (with occasional wooden stairs) which resulted in me feeling very insignificant. Totally aesthetically pleasing for a training run/hike…NOT for when you’re starting to sink into the pain cave during a race.

The hills were relentless. Up…down…quick up…steep down…flat section…steep long climb…short down…back up again…etc. Mixing and matching different methods to tear up a runner’s quads…which is exactly what happened to me.

I’ve never walked up a hill in my life. I love hills. I crave them. I love doing specific workouts on them. However, the Ice Age hills were NO JOKE. Ask the highway sentries. I let them hear my displeasure each time I crossed a road/trail intersection. They knew all about it.

I was completely humbled. Through the first 26.2 miles, I was right on my goal pace, coming through in a low-3hr effort, never going deep into the aerobic/anaerobic tank. Heart and lungs? Fine. Headspace? Fine. Lower legs? Just dandy. Clipping along. Quads? TORN up, man. I started power-hiking most of the climbs from Rice Lake back toward Duffin Rd. Even power-hiking started to hurt. Descending hurt even worse. Quads quads QUADS…I started to worry (and the course demanded) that they would refuse to improve.

I drank plenty. Ate enough. Sucked down my fair share of Clif shots. Inhaled whole foods (Picky Bars and homemade smoothies, my “Purple Potions”). Stomach was withstanding. Didn’t matter. The quads were failing me…and in a relentlessly hilly 50-mile race, what else could I do?

After completely dropping off my goal pace and feeling sorry for myself as I was passed up by 3 more people, I made the decision to drop out of the race at the Duffin Rd. aid station where my crew was meeting me. Mile 30.5. I had walked the previous 3.5 miles up to that point. I was completely humbled.

After driving back to the Start/Finish area, I met and chatted with the race director, Jeff Mallach. Great guy. He seemed to do one heck of a job organizing such a large scale ultra event and answering any and all questions I had leading up to the race. He mentioned to me that (after his conversations with them) some of the best ultra runners (who reside in the western/mountainous US) run his race at Ice Age and some have proclaimed it to be the most challenging 50-miler they have ever run. Why? Because it’s all on runnable terrain. A single climb at Ice Age doesn’t last for 5 miles like at the renowned Speedgoat 50k, for example. However, the steepness and quantity of hills on the Ice Age trail present a problem for runners trying to lock into a groove. They come at you in relentless bunches and your quads, especially, pay the price. Wow. This made complete sense and, also, made me feel better about my effort. My throbbing quads seemed to agree. After chitter-chattering with Jeff and my crew for hours after the race (as I limped around), we decided to head out.

Here is what I learned today:

Ultras are hard. The distance and topography of the course demands huge respect. They are a completely DIFFERENT beast than that of the pavement and oval office. Takeaway #1: trying to maintain a fast pace over a huge distance over technical/challenging terrain is absolutely mentally and physically draining, but, certainly, fulfilling (I’m sure) if conquered. Takeaway #2: build mileage up to the mid- to upper-100s and eat up hills (in the form of circuits to replicate Ice Age) as much as my body will allow (which can be an arduous and tedious task in the Michiana area). Also, learn to descend with other muscles than just the quads. Dance down the trail. Activate hips and glutes.

Huge congrats to Chase Nowak (via Minnesota) who overtook Tyler Sigl (via Wisconsin) and James Akita (via Chicago) during the last 20 miles of the race to hoist the men’s title in a mid- 6hr effort for his third Midwest ultra win this year. Dude is tough as nails and looked like he enjoyed every second of it. Also, congrats to the ever-smiling Larisa Dannis (via Mill Valley, California) on another solid ultra win on the women’s side. She is a stud and proved, once again, why she is one of the nation’s best. Supposedly, Tyler Sigl was on Max King’s record pace until around mile 40 at Emma Carlin where he dropped out. He was AVERAGING 6:15 pace for most of it. Gutsy…to say the least. He seems to be in great shape and I hope he takes his Midwest blue-collar running spirit to the mountains and continues to shine.

Thanks to my aid station crew who provided pics/videos/encouragement (Mother), wisdom (Father), and lightheartedness (Greg T.), all of which were vital! Also, again, huge thanks to RD Jeff Mallach, who put on an excellent event. What an experience. I’m hooked.

I have 6 more races this year, ranging from 10k-50k. However, I’m saving my next 50-miler for next May…

I want Ice Age. I need to see if I can overcome those relentless Wisconsin hills, but, for the rest of this weekend, I think I will opt to enjoy its tasty craft beer selection (which was my choice of souvenir), recover (drink beer), and get back to work on Monday.