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.

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