1089 miles led me to the start of the Tunnel Hill 50 miler in Vienna, IL. 1089 miles run in 25 different states and all that was left was the 50 miles that laid before me. This was my second 50-mile race, I signed up for it just days after my first one and just days after I had said I would never run another 50-mile race. But now as the race director counted down the clock to the start of the race, I wondered if 1089 miles was enough; 10:14:54 later I would have my answer.
My morning started at 3:30 am at the hotel. I dressed, ate, and then drove the 30 minutes to Vienna Park where the start finish line was located. I got there early to find a good parking spot but not to be close to start line. It was more important to be near the finish line. I arrived 2 hours early for the race, but I didn’t stretch, nor did I prepare myself to run. I went back to sleep and slept like a guy who had nothing to do all day……
The atmosphere around a start of an Ultra race is unlike any other race event I have ever been to in running. There is very little pomp and circumstance, no loud bands playing, no bright lights, in fact the majority of the lights at the start line are from the headlamps the runners are wearing. Everyone seems to know each other and if they don’t know you, they welcome you into the group. There is an unsaid kinship that is formed with the understanding of the suffering that each runner is sure to endure. We know at some point we are going to need that new friend to help us get through a dark mile. The race director called us all to the starting line, porta john visits complete, hydration and fuel was loaded, all there was left to do was to run.
The race consisted of basically two parts. Part one was a 13 mile out and back to the south, with the second part being 12 miles out and back to the north. We started running in the park, making a loop around the parking lot that was eerily similar to what I would envision the running of the bulls in Pomona to look like…minus the bulls. Now I settled into the trail, I was not nervous. A better way to describe the emotion I was feeling as the race started was confused. I have run 17 marathons and very little of what I learned there translates to running an Ultra to me. So, I set my goals to run from aid station to aid station, ten 5 mile runs were in front of me….10!
It is one thing to go mile by mile with a race report, but if you are reading a recap on a 50-mile race, even the most dedicated reader is going to hit the wall. So, basically it went like this for the first 26 miles: Run, Eat, Run, Aid Station Eat a lot, Run, be grateful for a Porta John, and run, stop for 5 minutes and wait for the train pass, then eat some more. Now this brings us back to the start finish line 26.5 miles into the race, I grabbed my drop bag and changed my shirt and shoes. For some reason, I had worn an older pair of shoes to start the race and at this moment my feet were killing me. The act of putting on the new shoes and nice dry socks was AWESOME.
The Pep Talk
I sat putting my shoes on and a guy next to me asks “have you ever run this race before?”, to which I reply…” No”. “Well” he said, “after you reach the first aid station at mile 30 get ready, because the trail has a slight uphill grade all the way to the tunnel, 2-3% at most, but it will grind on your legs by the time you reach the top” …. thanks for the pep talk man. I walked out of the aid station, eating some food, when I saw the sign that said 9.6 miles to the tunnel and reflected back to what he had just said “uphill all the way to the tunnel”, that’s a long hill.
The Dark Miles
My running had become a walk-run scenario, the miles between 30 and 40 are what I call the “dark miles”, they are full of self-doubt and suffering. This will not be the most uplifting part of this recap, but it is necessary to understand that there are moments during these runs where you seriously begin to question your life decisions, especially if you were dumb enough pay money to come run this far. But unlike the first 50 I ran in April, I had prepared myself for the dark miles. I knew they were coming, it didn’t make them hurt less, but it allowed me to compartmentalize the pain and doubt, it allowed me to push through, so I continued up the trail. You in no way could call it a hill, but more like an annoying long slope that was laughing silently as I ran it. I got passed by a lot of runners between miles 30 – 37, I was having a pity party for myself, but I just kept running/walking. But what I was forgetting to do was EAT. It is so important to continue to keep your calories up and my tired brain forgot to do it, which made my mood even worse. I finally reached the tunnel. It is an old railroad tunnel that is nearly 700 feet long and when you are in the middle of it, there is hardly any light. I felt like I was in a Walking Dead scene, as shadowy figures stumbled toward me and passed me. Then I looked and it was literally the “light at the end of the tunnel”, LITERALLY and I was overjoyed. As I exited the tunnel there was an aid station and it was a full fledge party. I was pumped, because in my head this was the turn around, this was the big moment when I start heading back, I had conquered the “mountain” and I would get to run back down, with my hair waving in the wind. Obviously, I was completely delirious at this moment (I have no hair), but it all came crashing down when someone said, “2 more miles out and then back and we will see you again” …. what, there was more? I grabbed an egg sandwich, I death marched out of the aid station and I just decided to get it over with. I was depressed, but I had prepared myself for these moments, now I had to start believing my own words that I write and share each week…. I wanted to tell myself to shut up, I just kept running.
I did the short out and back, returned to the aid station, and was energized by the volunteers that were ridiculously encouraging and not one of them said “you’re almost there”. They were extremely cool. I headed out, back through the tunnel, and onto what I thought would be a smooth 10 miles down the hill to the finish line. Here is the problem, it really wasn’t downhill, just that same easy slope and my legs still hurt. I ran, I walked, I shuffled, but I kept moving. The miles slowly lessened, the thoughts in my head were focused on what it was going to feel like to cross the finish line, to hold the buckle, to not have to move anymore, so I kept running.
RunHard, make a Friend
With 5 miles to go, I was on a walk break when a guy rolled up on my left, his name was Bill. He said that his legs were toast and he thought he was going to have to walk to the end. We commiserated for a while, and somehow how we both started running again, and I had started eating again as well. We talked and then we didn’t talk, just quiet understanding of the camaraderie needed to continue on. I didn’t know him, but I knew his pain and he knew mine and we worked together through those dark miles of 46 and 47. As we reached the final aid station, he had family there to cheer him on and has he worked with his family to refill his fuel. I filled my water bottle and told him I would see him at the finish and headed out.
Then it happened, whether it was the food or the fact that I could hear the announcer three miles away at the finish line, or that it was now dark, (I RAN ALL DAY). It was probably a combination all of them, but I was flying. (*relative) My legs were not hurting as bad; my arms were pumping and I was making moves. I ran hard the entire 2.8 miles, I visualized the 3-mile loop around my house and thought about how many time I had run it, what was one more time? This was the final miles of the ten 5 mile runs, it was almost over and I just kept running.
I made the final turn and entered the chute to the finish line, again no craziness was going on, a sign that said finish, a clock telling me I was PR’ing by 45 minutes and a RD with high-five and Finishers Buckle. After that, I stood to the side, because runners doing the 100 miler were only half way and they needed cheering, so that’s what I did, quietly lending support as they ran into the night. I waited at the finish line with Bill’s family until he crossed. We spoke quickly, and congratulated each other, then it was over. I was grateful for parking close to the finish line, and hobbled to the car. I called my wife and relayed my day to her, while the car warmed up. I sat on the heated seats and in the warmth of the car for almost an hour and reflected on my day. I was tired, I was hungry, but I was proud of myself for continuing to move forward. I was proud of my run and my finish.
What did I Learn:
Each time I run, I learn more about myself and my running. On this day, I learned how important experience is and how it can benefit you. In my first 50-mile race, the pain and exhaustion caught me off guard, it was unlike anything I had felt in a marathon. This time, I knew it was coming and I gritted my teeth and fought through it. Even in my darkest moments, I felt strong, because I knew I wasn’t going to quit.
Don’t let doubt outweigh your confidence. There are lessons in the suffering that will yield triumphant moments at the finish line. It just might take a few tries, for the light at the end of the tunnel to be the finish you want.
10:14:54 – PR