Heading into the famed Midwest trail ultra marathon, the Ice Age Trail 50-miler, in southern Wisconsin, I was confident, yet very curious. Ice Age seemed systematically beyond the style of some ultra races that are created simply for the sake of drudgery. Those types of events don’t inspire me at all, really. I prefer a challenging (either distance, pace, 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 come to spectate, report about, and dissect.
Personally, I am fit. All-time fit. Battling through two years of injuries and two collegiate careers that never even got started, I am in the best shape of my life (speed and endurance-wise). I wisely and cautiously built up my mileage to heights it’s never reached, avoided past mistakes, applied new wisdom, and 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 than sheer fitness at this point. However, I thought that after over 20 weeks of successful training with no setbacks, the Ice Age Trail 50-miler would be a conquerable first ultra race and one that I could compete for the win in, even in a potentially littered field of elites.
I was correct, sort of.
Wisconsin, not known for its “sky running” aura, turned out to be a completely different beast than I imagined. Sure, I knew Wisconsin was strewn 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.
Aiming to run around six hours (7:12/mile), I was still comfortable with rolling 6:00 – 6:30 pace early on, as the Nordic ski trail loop allows. Early on, Wisconsin’s own, Tyler Sigl (2:17 marathoner and successful ultra runner) and another solid runner/coach, Chicago’s James Akita, were grindin’ with me down the Nordic. I realized I was locked into a group I could roll with. I felt I belonged.
Running 6:15s on the rolling Nordic trails was like clockwork for me. Like I said, I was fit and ready to run hard. In a brief conversation, Tyler had mentioned he was going for Max King’s record of 5:41 (6:40/mi). The Badgerland Striders were offering $5,000 for whoever could break either the men’s or women’s course records.
Nevertheless, the flow and grandeur of the Wisconsin ski trails demanded my utter focus, and my brain was turned off. I was in a flow state. However, the next 40 miles would be run on the relentless Ice Age Trail single-track. I had no idea what I was in for.
Running to the southern tip of the course, the turnaround at Rice Lake, I began to feel the effects of running hard on hilly trails. The incessant hills of the Ice Age Trail took me by storm. I was alone in 3rd place, clipping along. At this point, I was content with running “my own race.” I was unwilling to get caught up any further in the chase. I knew I needed to take care of myself, nutritionally, if I wanted to run anywhere near six hours. Then, plans quickly changed, again.
I was ahead goal pace until mile 17 or 18. Then, the terrain changed from runnable, stride-outable single-track to curvy, rocky, steep, hardwood forest climbs with occasional wooden stairs, which resulted in me feeling very insignificant. My energy was being zapped. A section like that is totally aesthetically pleasing during an easy training run, but not when sinking into the “pain cave.”
The hills were relentless. Up, down, quick up, steep down, flat, steep up, long down, short up, back down again. It was a mix-n-match of trail I hadn’t seen before. My quads paid the price.
Throughout my entire running life, I’d never walked up a hill. I love hills. I crave them. I’d done many specific hill work sessions. However, the Ice Age Trail hills were different and came at me in so many ways. Just ask the highway sentries. They heard my discomfort each time I crossed over a road intersection.
I was completely humbled. Through the first marathon, I was right on my goal pace, coming through in a low-3hr effort, and never digging too deep into the well. My heart and lungs? Dandy. Headspace? Fine. Lower legs? Solid. Quads? Smashed! Soon, I was power-hiking most of the climbs from Rice Lake back toward Duffin Road, the 50K aid station. Shortly, even power-hiking started to hurt. Descending hurt even worse. Quads, quads, QUADS. I began to worry that they wouldn’t come back around.
Still, I drank plenty. Ate enough. Sucked down my fair share of Clif Shots. At aid stations, I inhaled my Picky Bars and homemade smoothies, my “Purple Potions.” My stomach was withstanding. Yet, it 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, I was passed by three more runners. I was mentally ready to drop out of the race at the Duffin Road aid station where my crew was meeting me. Up to that poiunt, I had walked the previous four miles. Again, I was completely humbled.
Upon driving back to the Start/Finish area, I met and chatted with the race director, Jeff Mallach. He did 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, via email. Jeff mentioned that he’d had previous conversations with elites who had run Ice Age. Many of them proclaimed it to be one of the toughest 50-mile races they’d done. Why? Because it’s all on runnable terrain and there are hundreds of relentless small ups and downs, unlike most west-coast races. Plain and simple, getting into a groove is very challenging on the Ice Age Trail.
After limping around and watching the lead runners finish (Minnesota’s Chase Nowak and California’s Larisa Dannis), we headed back to Indiana.
I learned tons today:
Ultras are hard. Trails are hard. The distance and topography of the course demand huge respect. They are a completely DIFFERENT beast than the pavement and oval office.
Takeaway #1: Maintaining a fast pace for a long time on challenging terrain is absolutely mentally and physically draining, but can be practiced and improved. Takeaway #2: I need to build my mileage up to over 100/week and eat hills for breakfast (in the form of circuits to replicate Ice Age) and as much as my body allows. Takeaway #3: Learn to descend with muscles other than just the quads. I need to dance down the trail, activating my hips and glutes.
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’m in love with Wisconsin and, for the rest of the weekend, I’m opting to enjoy its tasty craft beer selection (which was my choice of souvenir), recover, and get back to work on Monday.