Late last summer, I did something that pushed my capabilities to the max and changed something inside me.
And, no, it wasn’t running the farthest distance I’ve ever done. That honor goes to the Tunnel Hill 50 Miler.
No, it actually wasn’t the most elevation climbed either. I managed that when I ran the Art Loeb Trailand climbed around 10,000 feet of vert.
So, what could have been more challenging than any of my past experiences?
The Tecumseh Trail. Indiana’s second longest trail, coming in at 40 miles of quintessential Hoosier terrain.
On September 15, I headed down the new-to-me Tecumseh Trail with nothing but my headlamp to light the way. Tecumseh was marked very well with white blazes on the trees, some signage at intersections, and special markings when the TT joins another trail for a certain distance. So, as long as I kept my head up and focused, I’d know what was going on. I may not know exactly where I was or what was coming up next, or what to expect around that dark corner, but I knew I was on the Tecumseh Trail, right where I belong.
For 40 miles, I explored the woods and trails of Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood State Forests. Climbing impossibly high, by Indiana standards, and experiencing heart-filling beauty.
On paper, and on Strava, it was 40 miles and a little more than 13 hours.
But in my heart, this was an unrivaled adventure that changed me.
In the days and weeks after my run, as my legs recovered and as I started to wrap my mind around what I had accomplished, I came to realize that I broke through something – something that I still can’t quite define. I came to believe in my capabilities more, and trust that I would be able to do something. Something like run harder up that hill. Run longer, farther, faster.
Another thing I came to realize that oddly took more time to accept is that I realized the love I have for Indiana’s wilderness.
I have spent the last several years falling deeply in love with trail running. That love has come over miles and miles of Indiana hardwood forests. My through-run of Tecumseh broke down a barrier in my heart for this state and the outrageous beauty you can find here.
“But the mountains!” my romantic soul cries out.
I wasn’t born in the mountains, my soul wasn’t grown there, but somehow, I yearn for them as much as anything. At the same time, I find deep fulfillment in the knobs and ravines, man-made wilderness lakes, and the incredible dense forest of the Midwest.
I realize now, it’s not the mountains I love: It’s the mind-blowing beauty of nature in all its glory.
Yeah my Hoosier state is hot and humid in the summer. Sure it’s colder than one might expect in the winter. But there is such beauty in each season, and in each color the seasons bring.
So in an effort to embrace this newfound love, I’m diving headfirst into Indiana trail running — not because it’s all that’s available to me, but because it’s where I thrive.
There have been so many times that I’ve found myself asking: “What the hell am I doing out here?”
The 5am alarm on a Saturday morning.
Pushing through thick, wet snow and icy cold wind, my beard turned into icicles.
Deep in the woods, swimming through the humidity and heat, sweat soaking my socks and shoes.
Trudging up yet another hill during an ultramarathon, the finish line somewhere in the distance.
Why am I even bothering? I’m literally going nowhere!
But invariably – invariably – the next day, those thoughts are gone. Instead, I’m remembering what it felt like to be on an adventure. Discovering new trails, new abilities, and being inspired with new ideas.
I’ve thought about it. You know, the big “IT.” Would I give this up? Would I stop pursuing these crazy miles? And I know, without a doubt, that I would absolutely not give it up. In his song “Every Time,” David Ford says “I’d choose this mother*****, and I’d choose it again.”
That’s why I’m currently planning to complete solo runs of Indiana’s two longest trails, the Tecumseh Trail and the Knobstone Trail. For no other reason than that I love adventure, and trail and ultrarunning has taken me to some of my greatest adventures.
I’ll start with Tecumseh, a 42-mile point-to-point trail in my own Hoosier State, only a few hours from my house. Tecumseh is pretty hilly, with 4,000 – 6,000 feet of vert (depending on who you ask), so this isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but I’ll be ready. I’m building on the stellar work I put in for Gnaw Bone, so I have a pretty good head start. I’ll do this sometime in August (date TBD).
After that, I’ll set my sites on Knobstone, an infamous Hoosier trail if ever there were one. Its 50 miles rolls through notoriously difficult terrain with steep climbs and descents and very few switchbacks. It’s also well-known for being pretty dry, with little-to-no access to water on the trail. Thankfully Ashley is going to crew me for both adventures.
There’s more to plan and sort out, but I’m so excited to hit the trails for a few solo adventures.
It’s been a few weeks since Gnaw Bone, and I’ve started working toward my next goal run, and I want to talk about that – so maybe I need to talk about Gnaw Bone too.
So there’s really no way to sugar coat it. I did not run 50 miles at Gnaw Bone like I had planned.
That statement comes a mix of pride and disappointment. Yeah, it’s a little confusing. Not only that, but any time someone asks me how that run went, it’s not as easy as “It went great!” or “It didn’t go so great.”
Here’s what happened:
At 6:15 on race day, the director yelled “GO!”, and 50 milers and 50kers took off into the twilight. For most runners, the beginning of an ultra is not an all out rush toward the finish line because we all know we’re going to be on the trail for many hours. In my case, I was aiming for a 12-hour finish.
The Gnaw Bone course is like a crazy lollipop. The 50K and 50M run essentially the same course: both start and finish on the stick of the lollipop and run clockwise around the sucker part. The 50K runs once around the sucker, and the 50M runs twice around the sucker. At mile 27, where the stick meets the sucker, there’s an aid station. I had to reach that aid station before 1:30 pm if I wanted to go back out for a second loop around the sucker.
There’s not a ton that happened in the first few hours, except for settling into an all-day routine of run, sweat, eat, drink, repeat. I started off pushing my mind into positive space pretty early, so I would have a habit in place when the going got tough. I focused on the miles and hours I was crossing off my “to do” list. I kept saying “You’re doing great. Keep going.” I thanked the volunteers, told the other runners they were doing great. All the good stuff. I really felt wonderful.
At around mile 20, the course goes from flowy singletrack to rough off-trail bushwhacking, which is very difficult. We go straight up the steep hills instead of running up switchbacks, and instead of clear, smooth trails, the path is strewn with deadfall and bramble. But I kept going. Crossing the miles off. Even when giant horseflies started circling my head, I fought them off with my Buff and powered through.
Focused on that 50-mile finish.
When I stopped at mile 23 to meet Ashley at the aid station, my legs started cramping.
My quads seized up first, which is an unfortunately familiar feeling. But then my calves and feet cramped up. I sat still and tried to get them to relax, drinking water and taking salt pills.
This was probably the worst I felt all day. I was nearly halfway through the race, and things were really tough already. These cramps really threatened my positivity. “Why does it have to be so hard?” I asked Ashley as I sat at a picnic table, waiting for my legs to release.
A few minutes passed and my cramps eased.
I changed my shoes and headed back onto the trail.
Through more off-trail, over more ridges and through ravines, I found a new routine. Run until the cramps come, take more salt and drink more water, keep running. It was painful, and I wasn’t going as fast as I would have liked through the tougher sections, but I was moving – determined as ever.
Focused on that 50-mile finish.
I allowed my average pace to fall, but I had a plan. After the mile 27 aid station, the course goes level for a little while as we head back toward Ogle Lake. Level, and even down hill for about 4 miles. I knew I could make up some time when I got to that point, so I kept pushing. Pulling precious seconds back so I could lower my average pace and stay on target.
Finally the course came out of the woods and onto the road for a little while. I ran as well as I could, still nursing cramping calves, as I headed toward a major point in the race: the mile 27 aid station that I needed to reach by 1:30. It’s there that I could also choose whether to continue the 50-mile run or drop down and finish the 50k. Of course I was going to finish the 50-mile run.
As I approached the decision point, though, the volunteer at the aid station said, “I have some bad news for you.”
I missed the cutoff by 4 minutes.
I looked down the road and let out a sigh. I had worked hard all day with an unwavering focus on a 50-mile finish, and I was so ready to head back out on my second loop. I knew I was going to finish.
But, the rules said I would not get that chance. My 50-mile finish faded away.
I ate some food, drank some some soda, and got back on the stick part of the course and headed to the finish line 3.5 miles away.
When I crossed the finish line, I got a medal and a nice cold IPA. Then I sat on the porch of Mike’s Dance Barn with my friends.
It’s always a great feeling to finish an ultramarathon, and I’ve tried to hold onto that these last few weeks. I’m proud of what I did. Not only did I run 31.63 miles, but more importantly: I didn’t let fear and past failures dictate what I can and cannot do.
Even if I didn’t reach my ultimate goal, I ran a smart race and gave it everything I had. Sometimes it just takes a few tries to reach that goal.
I will always be proud of giving it everything I’ve got.
Ever since I started running ultra distances, I’ve been asked a lot of the same questions. The first and most common is: “Why?”
It’s oddly one of the more difficult questions to answer; maybe because I think too hard about it. I try to look into my psyche and find the real thing – the deep answer about what makes me want to run farther and farther.
But, really – I don’t have to dig deep to find the true answer.
Several years ago, I embarked on a backpacking trip with a group of students from the university where I work. This was going to be my longest backpacking trip, and we were going to the mountains of Pisgah National Forest to hike the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail. This was before I ever dreamed of running, let alone trail running.
To make a long story incredibly short, things didn’t go super well that week. The entire trip was a lot harder than anyone anticipated. To top it all off, we finished on the wrong side of the mountain.
While things didn’t go terribly smoothly, the trip did leave me with the desire to go back and get it right.
One year later, I went back. This time, it was with Ashley and a friend. We caught a ride from someone to take us to the trailhead. While we were in the car, that person told us about a “group of crazy people” that comes out to the Art Loeb every December and runs the entire length of it in a single day.
“What? How is that even possible? How do they carry food, water…how do they make it up the mountains….etc., etc.”
I had just run my first half marathon a few weeks earlier, so the idea of going 30 miles in the mountains in one go was unfathomable. And, as as we tried to figure out the logistics of such an undertaking, it just became more difficult to wrap my head around it. But at the same time…something stirred inside me.
I want to run the Art Loeb Trail.
For several years, I’ve had that trail in the back of my mind with every ultra I run. Every time I finish a 50k, I try to imagine what it would have been like to cover that distance on the switchbacks up Pilot Mountain, climbing up to Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain, and traversing the Shining Rock Wilderness and the Narrows – all major points along the Art Loeb, if you haven’t guessed that already.
So imagine how it felt when earlier this year, I learned that my running coach (Doug Hay) was planning to run the Loeb in March 2017. Imagine again how it felt when he asked “Want to join?”
On Saturday, Doug and I ran the Art Loeb Trail – an actual dream come true for me. I’ll write a post about the trip and the conditions and challenges we met with along the way later. But first, I want this sentiment to stand alone:
I run ultras because it feels so good to follow a dream from its infancy to its completion. It feels so good to say “yes” to the adventures that at first seem impossible or crazy. It really seems crazy and impossible are the most appealing to me.
My first 50-miler was everything I wanted it to be. It was everything I dreamed of when I registered, my new belt buckle already glinting in my eyes.
Total distance: 50.15 miles
Total elevation gain: 757 feet
Official time: 10:27:20
The race was going to kick off at 7:30 on Saturday morning, and we were fortunate enough to be able to camp (for free!) at the starting line. No 3:30 a.m. wake-up call! The morning went by really quickly from the minute I woke up to when I was suddenly standing in a huge crowd of runners who were going to run either 100 miles or 50.
I heard the race director faintly over the din of the other runners, but I didn’t hear the countdown or really even the “Go!” before suddenly everyone was surging forward to run a loop around the campground/parking area before getting on the Tunnel Hill State Trail for the rest of the day.
Nothing unusual happened for a while. The Tunnel Hill course goes along what was once a railroad track, so there aren’t any sharp turns or steep climbs ever. It’s so unremarkable of a course, generally, that I was surprised to see on my GPS that there was a little bit of an S-bend on the trail because it was so gentle of a curve.
We ran south for a little more than 13 miles before turning back to go north for about 25 miles. Then we turned around and went back to the middle to finish.
While the course may seem unremarkable, it’s really quite pretty. There are bridges that go over rivers and valleys, a few small towns, beautiful farmland, and plenty of animals. I saw a lot of cows and dogs.
Ashley was waiting for me at mile 16, 26, and 40 – and a surprise visit at probably mile 21. She was there to help me replenish my nutrition and to help keep my spirits up. Several days before the race, we talked about what would be most helpful for me at those aid stations. I had told her to not engage in any negativity I brought with me – and to make me smile and say nice things. This might seem silly, but a positive mindset, even if it’s forced, is imperative for something like this. Being able to see Ashley was always something to look forward to.
The unusual thing that happened was that I started fading fast really early in the race. My legs got achy too early, and my mind started to drift into negative territory long before that should have happened. When I first saw Ashley at mile 16, I was pretty out of it. I was starting to get crabby.
I tried not to let it get me down, as I ate some of my sweet potatoes and drank Tailwind, just as I had planned. But it wasn’t working. I still felt energy leaving, and nothing I was doing was bringing it back.
I packed 12 dates and four roasted sweet potatoes (in wedge form). I had eaten two dates, and hated both of them. They tasted normal, but I didn’t want them. The sweet potatoes tasted fine, and were enjoyable enough, but they just weren’t doing anything for me. After a while, they would just sit in my stomach like a lump, and I started feeling pretty crummy and a little light-headed.
This was going to be a long day if I couldn’t figure this out. I ran a quick diagnostic. I felt like I was crashing, and my negative attitude was a good sign I was low on electrolytes. It didn’t make sense because I was eating and drinking plenty – but “sense” don’t mean nothing. My mind was telling me one thing, but my body was telling me something totally different: I was fading, light-headed, and crabby. Something needed to change, and quickly.
Luckily, I packed a Huma gel in my hydration pack, and one extra gel in one of my drop bags. I packed them in case I needed a “shot in the arm” later on in the day. This was not part of my nutrition plan, and I have never really practiced running with gels as nutrition. But I brought them anyway “just in case.”
It took me a while to both remember that I had the Huma gel and to move past the safety of my nutrition plan. I had spent a lot of time figuring out what works best for me and doesn’t hurt my stomach – and I was certain I had figured it out. I just need to eat more taters…I just need to drink more Tailwind…but, for whatever reason, it just wasn’t working on Saturday.
I don’t remember exactly when it was that I ate the first gel. I think it was after 25 miles, but I don’t quite remember – but I had a pretty good feeling about it right away because that thing tasted freaking amazing. It was strawberry lemonade flavored, and it blew my mind.
Before long, I was coming out on the other side of some really hard hours, and I started feeling really good. My legs and feet were sore, of course, but nothing was getting me down. The rest of my day, I ate primarily gels and drank Tailwind, and my energy leveled out, and I felt great for the rest of the day. I had a few peanut butter pretzels and some grapes at the aid stations, but I was being really cautious about what I ate.
While by now in my running “career,” I’m pretty familiar with running on tired, sore legs, it can still be difficult. It gets more difficult when you know you’ll be running nearly 20 miles longer than you’ve ever run before. So, when the going got tough, I came up with a plan that kept me moving forward. I would run 1 mile and then allow a .25-mile walk. This was important because running a mile when you’ve already run 30+ miles can seem insurmountable at times. Forcing myself to run a mile in exchange for a .25-mile walk seemed like a sweet deal. It also gave me something to think about besides simply “run,” and it gave me a strategy and took away the option to just stop running willy-nilly. I had to wait until I had gone at least a mile.
I strapped on my headlamp some time after mile 40 shortly before the sun set and the trail went dark. I ran for a little while with only my headlamp lighting the way, calling out encouragement to the other bouncing headlamps and various lights that I passed. I counted the bridges I crossed and noted the mile markers left over from the railroad. I was getting so close. My watch informed me that I passed 50 miles shortly before I exited the woods.
When I crossed the finish line, I was elated. It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done – it’s still hard to believe that I just ran 50 miles just a few weeks ago. Even with multi-day backpacking trips in the mountains, I’ve never covered 50 miles on my feet before Tunnel Hill, and I just did it all at once. I’ve built myself into the runner that five years ago I thought I could never be.
Recovery and run streak.
After finishing, we decided to go home. It was very cold, and we had unfortunately set up our camp under a really bright light, which made it really hard to sleep. So, Ashley tore down our campsite while I sat in the car and warmed up. On the way home, we got fries and onion rings. #treatyoself
On Sunday, we sat on the sofa basically the entire day – except of course for a one-mile run in a park. Another thing I told Ashley was that I really wanted to keep my run streak going, and that she might have to do some convincing to get me out the door on Sunday. But it really wasn’t that bad. We walked a little to warm up, then ran a slow, no-pressure mile, and walked back to the car. On Monday, I ran another slow, no-pressure mile. I’m now 336+ days in a row of running at least one mile a day.
I’m pretty much sold now on the restorative benefits of active recovery of even just one-mile runs. My legs were sore for a few days (I ran 50 miles.), but the soreness faded fast. By Wednesday, I was pretty much good to go, except for a little soreness on the bottoms of my feet, which also went away pretty quickly.
I’ll have some more detail about what’s in store for 2017 in a later post. For now, I’m going to run without a plan for a little while. I’ve run 1,600+ (injury-free) miles so far this year, and I’ll probably end up close to 1,800 for the year. Stay tuned for a list of goals and races for 2017!
When I was 20 miles into my 30-mile run a few weeks ago, things started to get difficult. Of course, putting one foot in front of the other is not a difficult process – but it becomes difficult when those feet are sore, and there’s really no reason to think they won’t be sore anymore. Also, knowing that I’ve run such a long way, but still have a considerable distance to cover is not easy. The only thing I had was what I had all day: Water, Tailwind, sweet potatoes, and dates. No magic pill, no rocket-powered scooter.
I felt myself sinking into that familiar dark place where pain is hard to ignore and running isn’t fun anymore. Trees, birds, rivers, big bridges over a dizzying expanse…none of it was doing anything for me.
But, I knew this was what I was looking for. I knew that this is why I train. Sure, I need a strong body and heart to be able to run ultramarathons, but perhaps more importantly, I need a strong mind. What can I do to keep myself from focusing on everything that’s bad and everything that’s left?
I suddenly thought to myself: Don’t think about what’s in front of you. Think about what’s behind you. The miles of this run that are over and done with… The miles (1,500+) of training I’ve done to prepare for this day… The hours spent in the gym – or perhaps more accurately in the grass outside of the gym… The support of my wife. I have so much more behind me – pushing me forward – than I do in front of me.
So, that’s my plan for Saturday. When the going gets tough, I’ll avoid thinking about what I have in front of me. There’s so much more behind me, and the miles to come will be a part of that soon enough.
In a few short days, I will no longer be a person who has never run 50 miles, and I’m incredibly excited about that. Many hours of hard work has gone into preparing for this, and I am ready to cross that finish line.
But first – the start line. See you on the other side!
On November 12, I’ll be running my first 50-mile ultramarathon. I’m excited and nervous, but mostly excited. I’ve been training since May for a 50-mile race, and I’m ready to get this thing done.
Since I haven’t updated in a long time, I thought it would be nice to answer some FAQs regarding ultrarunning, and in particular my 50-mile race and the way I will be running it.
Most of the people in my various social circles know that I run, and that I run a lot. So, one of the common questions I get is: “When is your next race?” or something along those lines. Here are the answers!
The Tunnel Hill course is a crushed-limestone multi-use trail in Vienna, Illinois. It’s part of the rails-to-trails conservancy project. The trail was built on an old railroad bed. They took out the tracks and threw down some crushed limestone. It has virtually no hills, lots of bridges, and a notable 543-foot long tunnel. Through a hill.
2. 50 miles????
3. How long will that take you? Is it all in one day?
I’m estimating it will take me between 10 and 12 hours. My goal is to finish in 10. Yes, it’s all in one day, technically. All runners (of both the 100 and 50-mile races) have to finish in 30 hours.
4. What will you eat?
Throughout this summer, I’ve been working on perfecting my nutrition plan for this race, and I’ve gotten it down pretty well now.
So it goes like this: I eat throughout the whole race beginning at 45 minutes to an hour in. It’s super important to keep fueling the whole time, not just when I get hungry or when I crash. It’s really hard to bounce back after totally depleting resources.
At about 45 minutes in, I’ll eat my first date. Then a little later, I’ll have some Tailwind. Then a little later, I’ll have some potato wedges. Repeat for the rest of the day. This is my main source of fuel.
I also like to have some Chex Mix (salty, crunchy, lovely), and it’s really nice to have a soda in those later miles. Occasional Gin-Gins to help settle a crazy stomach.
And of course I’ll drink plenty of water.
Why would you do this to yourself?
I love the challenge. It feels so good to set a crazy goal, work really hard, and eventually achieve that goal. There’s nothing like it. I know that no matter what happens in other areas of my life, running is a constant. And if I work super hard, no one can take away the progress I make, and no one can tell me that I can’t finish my ultramarathon. It’s all up to me.
But what about…
Do you have any questions about trail and ultra running that I didn’t answer? Feel free to leave me a comment below, and I’ll answer it!