One of my goals for 2018 was to get back into shape enough to tackle an ultra distance race again. I had a great streak of races at the end of 2015 and into early 2016, but then everything fell apart, and in 2017 my longest single run was 19 miles. I knew that part of it was needing a mental break, but I also needed to focus on running smarter and making sure I kept myself from getting injured.
I approached 2018 with the idea in mind that I would not sign up for anything until I was ready. I have given a lot of money to races in 2016 and 2017 that I never even started because I was sidelined, and I didn’t want to repeat that this year. I started out my year with a typical training plan for a 50K, but wasn’t able to follow it exactly because of illness and weather. Eventually though, the miles started to rack up. I decided to target either Chippewa 50K or Chester Woods 50K as my return to ultras, but didn’t commit to either until I felt like I could be successful.
A few weeks ago, my friend Mike and I went out for a 22 mile run around Elm Creek, and at the end of the run I felt great. That afternoon I decided to take one of the few remaining spots in the Chippewa 50K. I knew that if I was feeling that strong after 22 mile, I could tackle 9 more. Despite this confidence, I found myself approaching race day with anxiety and dread. For some reason, I was irrationally nervous about this race, and I couldn’t figure out why. Even my friend Matt told me that I looked like s*%! at the start line, completely wrapped up in some mental struggle.
The race is about 2 hours away, so we had to get up very early to get there on time. We arrived about 50 minutes early, and started checking in and talking with friends. My wife would be volunteering for part of the day, after she went out for a solo run herself. We also had the UMTR banner with us, and had to make sure we got some shots of the series participants to post on social media. Soon though, it was time for me to line up and get to it. I was still nervous, but getting in to the start corral seemed to help a bit.
At 8am we launched and proceeded to work our way down the huge hill that starts and ends the race. The Chippewa 50K is an out-and-back course that begins with a toilet bowl spiral around the trail visitor center You then do some miles on some spur trails, before joining up with the main Ice Age trail for the majority of the race. As luck would have it, weather conditions were perfect on Saturday. The sun was out, and the temps started in the 30s and climbed into the 50s. I wore a light long sleeve shirt and shorts, and was completely comfortable.
As we rounded around the backside of the visitor center, 2 miles in to the race, I handed off my gloves and buff to my wife, as I already knew I wouldn’t need them anymore. The trail was in pretty good shape and I felt like I was making decent time right off the start. I had been on this section of trail a few years ago when I did the Chippewa 10K, and my memory reminded me to watch my feet, as the first couple of miles are very rooted and rocky.
I hit the first aid station at mile 3, grabbed a small bite to eat and hit the trail again. I locked in a really good pace and found the miles ticking by easily. Eventually I got to the section where the 10K splits off and began a journey on trails I had never seen before. One of the more interesting things that I saw, just after the split, was that someone had vandalized the course the night before, and posted hardcore porn on some of the trees. Someone actually wasted money on a porno magazine and ripped out the pages to tack them up on trees. My wife, who was just doing a casual run, managed to clean up a bunch of them so the runners didn’t have to see them coming back. Apparently there was also a note about some local sports shop with all kinds of lewd comments, so this must have been some kind of local grudge.
Once the “entertainment” was out of the way I noticed very quickly that the Ice Age trail is really well maintained and built. This particular section of trail is amazingly runnable, with clear paths and only small rolling hills. You pass by beautiful lakes and prairies, which distracts you from the fact that you’re involved in a long footrace. I managed to lock in a solid pace, that in retrospect was faster than I should have gone, but felt completely comfortable on this terrain.
One of the first cutoffs you encounter in this race is the turnaround at mile 15.5. You must be through that checkpoint in 4 hours. This is despite the fact that you have 9 hours to do the entire race. I think that this cutoff time got in my head a bit more than it should have, and I ended up pushing harder than I should in the first half. However, the first 10 miles were really pleasant and runnable, so I didn’t think much about it.
I hit the second aid station at mile 10 determined to get moving quickly so that I could hit the turnaround with plenty of time to spare. However, what I didn’t know is that the middle 11 miles of this race are the toughest. Right out of the aid station I discovered the muddiest portion of the course. There was absolutely no way to keep your feet dry and clean in this section. The mud was relentless for almost a mile. Eventually, you get back to dry ground, but with that dry ground comes a lot of climbing. Chippewa doesn’t have any big mountains, but it has a relentless up and down of smaller hills that shreds your muscles without you even realizing it.
Despite this difficulty, I pushed hard and made it to the turnaround in 3:31. My last 50K race I completed took me 7:40, and so I was feeling really optimistic that Chippewa could be a PR. I even thought that perhaps a sub-7 hour race could be in the cards. It was at that point that I started doing math. Never do math during an ultra.
I headed back on the trail, saying hi to friends as we passed each other, and thinking about what lay ahead. Almost immediately after thinking I could pull off another three and a half 15.5 miles I calculated what that meant. There was simply no way that I could pull off that type of speed (13:30 min/mile) on the way back. The torment of the relentless hills, and the thought of the mile-of-mud, started to beat me down mentally.
I managed to catch up with my friend Erik and we ended up spending a few miles together. He was coming off of Zumbro 100 a few weeks earlier, and so he was moving at a similar speed to me. We chatted about life for a while and then eventually he caught a second wind and started to move stronger, pulling away from me. I started doing more math. I thought that if sub-7 couldn’t happen, I could at least try for 7:30. Then my watch beeped and told me I just did a 17 minute mile through the mud section. 7:30 was probably out the window.
I hit the 4th aid station and did what I could to get some calories in me. Unfortunately, the race had decided to stock this product called “Silver Star Nutrition” which is some weird milk protein based energy drink. It tasted blah and felt weird on my gut (I know many people complained of stomach issues later on), so I ended up just sticking with water. This is one time in my life I actually craved HEED.
I got in and out of the station and started the plod back to the finish. It was in this section that I really got beaten down mentally. Ultras are just as much a mental challenge as a physical one. You have to keep moving forward, despite everything your mind tells you about how you should quit. As I passed mile 22 and entered the “easier” portion of the trail I attempted to run, but struggled to keep moving faster than a hike. All I wanted to do was lie down and take a nap and call my wife to come pick me up. As the miles clicked by, I realized that even a sub-8 hour finish would be hard to accomplish. I got sad.
I had been feeling so strong in my lead-up training that I felt like I should be able to tackle this with ease. In retrospect, my nervousness at the beginning of the race was most likely due to my mind knowing that this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park, but wrestling with the denial of it all. I wanted this to be easy. I wanted this to be “just another long weekned run”, but in the end, it wasn’t and it couldn’t be.
When I look back at the elevation data from Chippewa 50K I realized just how tough this race actually is. My 7:40 50K at Surf the Murph was 50% of the elevation of Chippewa. The 22 mile training run I did was 50% of the elevation of the first 22 miles of Chippewa. Nothing I had done yet this year had the level of mud that I encountered in mile 10-11/20-21 at Chippewa. This wasn’t just some random Saturday run. This was a race, and a challenging one at that. However, that’s way more math than a person can do at mile 25 of an ultra, and so I just had to deal with my disappointment.
Since I knew I was going to come in after 8 hours, I decided to take care of myself a bit more. At mile 26 I stopped at a bench and pulled out my clean socks. I could feel my feet starting to have bad things happen to them, and decided a change of socks would feel good. It didn’t matter that I only had 5 miles to go, I wanted some comfort. Needless to say, the new socks felt heavenly. It was well worth the 5 minutes it took to put them on.
I hobbled around the final 3 miles after the last aid station and discovered that this section had become a mud bath as well. All the traffic from all the racers had chewed up the trail in the warm sun. I ground up and down the final hills until I reached the prairie near the visitor center. I ran as much as I could, but anything faster than a 15 minute mile was just not happening. I practically crawled up the final hill to the finish and did my best interpretation of what a sprint should should like as I crossed the timing mat.
I was beaten, in pain, and depressed. But then, as I crossed the finish (8:08:41), there was Wendi and Matt. They were cheering and congratulating me as they handed me my award print. I went over to the grass and laid down as my wife got me some food. Everyone around me smiled at me and told me how great a job I had done, and within moments, it was all OK. I stripped off my muddy shoes, drank a warm beer (that tasted like perfection) that Erik gave me, and savored the moment.
This certainly wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My 50 mile at Zumbro was objectively more difficult. However, this race had such mental baggage associated with it, that overcoming that was the biggest victory. My last real 50K attempt was the Spring Superior 50K, where I DNF’d 7 miles from the finish. I signed up for Marquette 50K twice and never ended up going because I knew I wasn’t in shape enough to do it. Chippewa signaled my return, and I wanted it to be glorious.
In reality, Chippewa was exactly what it was going to be, a tough 31 mile race. From a physical standpoint I ran it well. I was nowhere near last place (159/195), and now, two days later am able to run just fine. Perhaps I should have controlled my pace a bit more on the way out, and taken the section to the turnaround a bit slower to conserve some energy, but it probably only would have saved me 10-15 minutes or so. Considering my abbreviated training through the winter, and how quickly I ramped up for this race, I have nothing I should be complaining about.
This race was mainly a mental test for me. Going in I thought I needed to prove my physical toughness. In fact, what I needed to prove was that I could handle the struggle with my own mind. I had to prove to myself that I could overcome my DNF and DNS’s. I had to engage that inner struggle between the part of me that wanted to stop, give up running and go back to just playing video games on the couch all night, and the part of me that knew I was better than that. Running, and specifically trail and ultra running, has had such an impact on my life that I can’t just walk away. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
I feel that I still have more to prove to myself, and Chippewa 50K was the first step towards discovering more of who I am and what I’m capable of. I’m in this for a lifetime, and sometimes we forget that life it hard. Chippewa 50K was tough, but maybe, just maybe, I can be a bit tougher.