WHITEFACE SKY RACE
Wilmington, NY – July 9, 2017
12th – 3:32:58
(written on 1-26-21)
After the Blueberry Stomp, I had signed up for The HUFF 50K, a legendary midwest trail ultra, located just outside of Fort Wayne, IN. I was ready to do what my heart desired: train for, race, and win on the trails. Also, around this time (late 2016), I had bought a used Ford Ranger with a camper shell. I became obsessed with driving “north” to explore the trails and wildernesses of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This truck became my fortress for these trips. I developed a strong relationship for running long distances on technical trails in bear country, and exploring the North.
Throughout training, I became fit, but developed another stress fracture in my left tibia about a month before The HUFF, and was unable to race. I spent the rest of the winter rehabbing my lower legs, road biking, finishing the build-out of my camper shell, and saying goodbye to my family’s 14/yr-old German Shorthaired-Pointer, my running partner. I continued to work, mostly at Infusco Coffee, where I developed amazing relationships and learned to love the art of coffee. My heart continued to yearn for the trails, the mountains.
Each summer since 2012 (except for 2014), the Thompson family allowed me to join them on their ten-day vacation to Lake Placid, NY, in the Adirondack Mountains, where a handful of them would take part in the Ironman Triathlon. Throughout the years, I had fallen in love with the Adirondack atmosphere, the trails, the peaks, the small mountain towns. Arguably the most iconic mountain in the High Peaks, Whiteface Mountain, hosts a “sky race” every summer, boasting 7,000ft of vertical over it’s 15.5mi course. Trail runners from many areas of the nation (and Canada) flock to the Mountain to compete on it, each July. I was so intrigued and, in early 2017, decided to sign up, even though I lived in an almost entirely flat area in northern Indiana. I wanted to be a great climber!
My plan was to leave a few weeks before the Thompsons, making the 13h drive myself, sleeping in my truck, racing the Sky Race, and living the dirtbag lifestyle before they arrived. However, about a month before departure, I received bad news that I (and many others) will never forget.
On a Saturday morning in June, Greg Thompson was on his way via bicycle to my family’s home for New Prairie Cross Country practice. However, he didn’t make it. A car had smoked him from behind, on the shoulder of Highway 2, outside of LaPorte, requiring him to be airlifted to Memorial Hospital. He was barely clinging to life. This effectively would end the Thompson’s 2017 Lake Placid trip. Miraculously, Greg survived. After a long recovery, he continues to train to this day, a motivation for all.
As for me, I regained almost full tibia strength by April, and was determined to perform well at Whiteface. I gradually built up my training. I performed many sessions on treadmills in friends’ basements, ramping up the incline to work on my climbing ability. I utilized the massive sand dunes of Warren Dunes and Grand Mere State Parks, just west of where I worked in southwest Michigan. I developed a sense of “power-hiking”, a skill I would need to perform well at the Mountain. If memory serves correctly, I was able to eclipse 14,000ft of vertical gain during one week of training, for perspective. I felt strong and healthy!
Standing at the foot of Whiteface on race morning was unnerving. It was STEEP. The gun went off and within the first five minutes, I was already into power-hike mode. I was somewhere in the top ten, marching up the Peak, mixing in little trots when I could. The burning sensation in my calves was otherworldly. I had never experienced something like that before. I knew I was in relatively good shape, however, and was actually enjoying the experience! I summited in about 49 minutes.
After the 2.5mi descent back to the ski lodge, my legs felt like that of a newborn baby deer’s. I ran the challenging “recovery loop” and started the long ascent of Whiteface for the second time. It was daunting. I couldn’t imagine marching up any quicker than I had the first time. I was “yo-yo-ing” in “bonk-mode” with Alaskan, Abe Meyerhofer, even giving him an extra gel I had. We were motivating each other, working together. My second ascent split was around 1h. The run back down the steep, exposed, muddy ski slopes was unbelievably painful. It was difficult to stay upright!
I finished in 3:32:58, good enough for 12th place. Overall, it was quite the experience. I had only summited a few mountains in my entire life. I was the only racer (out of maybe 100?) who lived and trained in the flat Midwest. I was hooked. I had finished a race. Yet, the winner, Pennsylvania’s Matt Lipsey finished an entire 40 minutes ahead of me. That became the standard. As a competitive athlete, I was nowhere close to where I wanted to be.
NORTH FACE ENDURANCE CHALLENGE – 50MI
Eagle, WI – September 16, 2017
DNF – dropped @ 28.7mi
(written on 1-26-21)
Looking ahead at my next challenge, I decided I wanted to avenge my DNF at the Ice Age Trail 50 by racing Wisconsin’s North Face 50-mile. The race is actually held in the same forest unit as the IAT 50, just a tad farther northeast. So, I was familiar with the type of trails that I was going to be running on. In fact, during my many truck camping trips, I made habits of stopping first to train on the Ice Age Trail, en route to the Northwoods. I developed a love for the Ice Age Trail’s terrain and became a much better trail runner by training on it.
Leading up to the race, I kept running hills. I did one-mile “hill cycles” at Bendix Woods. Sometimes as speed-climbing workouts. Sometimes as rhythmic long distance runs. I became very fit and continued to stay healthy. I was even able to sprinkle in some cycling to supplement my run training. Sometime in the process, I went out on a limb and signed up for California’s North Face 50-mile, the unofficial U.S. 50-mile championships in December. I planned to fly out solo to San Francisco to compete. I felt confident and inspired.
During training for Wisconsin’s TNF 50, I eclipsed 100 miles one week (something I had never done before) while logging a few other 80-90mi weeks. Running was starting to become “easy” again and my fitness was as solid as I could ever remember.
I traveled to Wisconsin alone. The night before the race, I decided to stealth park my truck in a large church parking lot just outside of Whitewater. That September night was unbelievably warm and humid. I was only slightly prepared, having a battery-powered fan (which was weak) and “pop-out” windows in my camper shell (that barely extended). Both proved to be worthless. I was pretty much buck naked at this point, trying to stay cool and hydrated. I was also anxious about race day and whether or not I would get any sleep. All in all, it was a miserable night.
On race morning, I fueled up and drove to the start/finish at the Ottawa Lake Recreation Area, outside of Eagle, WI. The gun went off and I immediately took the lead. We all started out with headlamps, as the sun still had not risen. This was such a cool experience! I remember the stars being out. However, we were running through a thick blanket of humidity. On the ski trail loops, I was alone, trying to stay under control. I did not want to repeat my mistakes of the past.
By mile 15, I was in a solid groove. I was running anywhere from 6:45 – 7:15/mi, feeling under control as it started to heat up. However, similarly to Ice Age in 2016, I began doubting myself as pain creeped in around mile 22. I encountered a series of “in-and-out” kettle hills in the McMiller Sports Center area and was slowed to a relatively pedestrian pace. I had at least a 10-15min lead on second place. However, I let the hills and fatigue engulf me. I slowed to a walk. My quads were on fire and I was a shell of myself. I was ready to drop from another race. Would I ever figure this out?
In my twisted mental state, dropping out was much more acceptable at races that I paid for myself, trained for by myself, and traveled to by myself. I was hurting nobody but myself. It was all on me.
I listened to my own demons, eventually dropping at the mile 29 aid station. I got a ride back to the start/finish area, chalking this one up to “Achilles soreness” and “not wanting to ruin my California race”. I returned to my truck and drove to indulge in food, my coping drug.
Could Nick Arndt ever be a tough runner? Somehow, I still believed my day would come. Somehow, I would turn the corner.