Featured PC: Scott Laudick – https://scottlaudickphotography.smugmug.com/Sports/Badger-Trail-Races-2021/
For the first time in over a year, I lined up on a start line of an actual event. Who knew that the Tuscobia 80 DNF at the end of 2019 would be the final event of my racing career for 17 months? What a crazy year it’s been.
However, that’s behind us now, and this past Saturday I got to run the Sugar Badger 50K, hosted by some of my favorite people, the Ten Junk Miles crew. The race takes place on the Badger State Trail and Sugar River Trail in southern Wisconsin (just south of Madison). This is a historic gravel rail trail that is flat, flat, flat. Normally there’s an incredible tunnel that you get to run through, however, it’s currently closed until money can be raised to repair it. Because of this there was one short section of hills, but apart from that it was incredibly easy running.
The race offers a 50K and 50 mile option, both of which travel down the Badger Trail for roughly 9 miles before turning on to the Sugar River Trail for the rest of the journey (there’s also a half marathon option that turns around before turning onto the Sugar River Trail). Because my training had been incredibly mediocre, I opted to trust my experience and jump into the 50K. I’ve been at this trail running game long enough that I knew I could hammer out 31 miles on a crappy early running season. Fifty miles is a different story though, and I know I wouldn’t have been successful without a structured build up to that distance.
That’s not to say I haven’t been running, I’ve had over 450 miles in 2021, with a couple 20 milers. However, I haven’t been disciplined in my schedule and distances each week. Some weeks I’d knock out 40 miles no problem, and then the next week I’d run two times and maybe get 20. I was tremendously inconsistent, despite getting in miles. I was going in to this race depending on experience to get me through.
Because of this, I knew I wasn’t shooting for any major time goals. I figured an 8 hour 50K would be fine with me, and I’d make it back to start/finish in plenty of time to have some beer and chill out. However, first I had to get to the race. That involved packing up the Adventure Van for yet another journey, and driving the four and a half hours from the cities down to Belleville, WI where the race starts. I arrived the night before the race, and after picking up my packet I made some simple food, chatted with my neighbor Eric, and tucked in for a quiet night of reading.
I was quickly reminded that I need to get my reflectix window covers made for my van. The parking lot had a big streetlight in it that shone directly in my face while I was sleeping. Thankfully, it was also a very chilly night and I just covered myself up completely with my 20 degree sleeping bag. Despite all of this, I still slept well and woke up ready to hit the trail.
The day was blessed with beautiful weather, clear skies and mid-60 degree temps. This would make for some perfect running weather, despite the early morning chill (37 degrees). The 50 milers left at 6 AM and after seeing them off I got myself ready for the 7 AM start. There were about 100 people in the 50K and so I lined up in the mid-to-back of the pack area. I had a rough plan going in to the day, but it depended on not going out too fast and blowing up.
As we left the park and winded our way over to the Badger Trail I had to consciously tell myself to slow down and stick to the plan. My first mile was 10:47 and that would be the last time I would run that fast for a full mile, for the rest of the day. I knew that the only way I would be successful would be to keep my pace around 11 minute miles.
My plan consisted of running as much as I physically could, to the turnaround point 15 miles later. Unfortunately, due to the tunnel closure, I ended up needing to walk up some long country road hills to get through the detour. Yet, my legs were still fresh and able to perform well on the downhills which helped even things out. I hit the first aid station at the end of the detour and grabbed a couple quick snacks and some electrolyte drink before heading back out again.
Back on the Badger Trail the miles melted away quickly as the long straight pathway through the trees opened up for miles into the distance. Three miles later I arrived at the Hollywood aid station in Monticello where I got the see more people, eat more food, and have a brief discussion with Scott Kummer about the idea of being a liberal and a patriot at the same time.
Now that my intellectual bucket was full for the day (as much as it could be during an ultra), it was time to start the long out-and-back along the Sugar River Trail. I didn’t realize that a rail trail could actually feel flatter than flat, but that’s what the Sugar River Trail provided. The Badger Trail would sometime undulate with slight (>1%) grades over a couple of miles. The Sugar River though? Nothing. Just flat.
Thankfully, the flowers were in bloom and the tree canopy provided some welcome protection from the hot sun. Maintaining a constant running pace during this section was tough. I paused a couple times to pee, but apart from that, I was moving at a running pace the entire time. I came around a curve and in the distance saw what looked like a gathering of people. It took forever to reach them, but sure enough the Tin Can Road aid station had arrived.
Every single one of these aid stations was rocking, and did a great job taking care of everyone. They had plenty of food and drink options (a few bottles of more fiery stuff behind the tables too if you wanted), and they were all welcoming and attentive to what you needed. I never felt like I lacked for anything. However, after a year of taking care of myself on long runs it meant that anything they did have was a bonus. Apart from electrolyte drinks, I probably didn’t NEED to eat anything at the stations. I had packed way more than I could ever scarf down into my vest and drop bag. Despite this, I wasn’t going to turn down some PB&J or some Arby’s fries when presented with them.
My plan after the turnaround was to begin my interval runs. In 2020 I did a “virtual” Badger 50K and I found that doing specific interval runs made a huge difference, and so I committed to that here as well. My plan was to begin with a 70/30 ratio (run 0.7 miles, walk 0.3) and stick with it as long as I could.
I specifically chose to use mileage for my ratio because I discovered using time often resulted in my dragging my feet. When I tried time intervals in training, I’d look down at my watch and realize I only have 30 seconds left before running agin and I’d slow down even more to maximize my resting time. But when I switched to miles, I actually need to run with purpose to get to my walking time sooner.
I also committed to sticking to the 0.3 mile walk every interval, even if I felt like I could keep running. It was a way of forcing me to rest my body for a certain amount of time before beating it up again. It also forced me into a discipline that kept my mind sharper and didn’t allow me to just give up and slack off for the rest of the race. So how did this method work out for me? Amazingly.
As I was approaching the Hollywood aid station a second time I started doing the math. Based on the pace I was holding, I was probably going to be able to beat my 8 hour goal by a lot. I changed my socks and did a shot of Fireball and went right back to my intervals. When I arrived at the final aid station, 6 miles before the finish, I did math again and realized that beating 7 hours was actually within reach as well!
I grabbed a couple last minute food items, danced with the volunteers to Will Smith tunes, and immediately started on the road section of the tunnel detour. I anticipated walking most of this, but I soon realized that it had longer flat sections that I recalled from the trip out. I went right back to my 70/30 and even though I couldn’t hold to it perfectly throughout the hills, I did the best I could. Soon enough I was back on the Badger Trail and heading for the finish. I pulled up Google Maps and did a quick check to confirm the remaining distance. Beating 7 hours was not only possible, but I would beat it by a significant amount.
As each of the final miles ticked away I kept to my plan. I did extend my final walk just slightly because I wanted to run the entire section into the park after leaving the trail. Soon I was at the underpass that leads into the park and facing the dreaded handful of stairs to the pavilion. I made may way around the sidewalk, cursing at Scott for making me run AROUND the perimeter of the area, as opposed to just running across the grass. I made the sharp left turn into the finishing chute and into the arms of a big hug from my friend as he put my medal around my neck.
Final time… 6:47. A new PR by a lot. My previous 50K time was 7:04 last year during my virtual Badger 50K. The actual Sugar Badger course was slightly long, so according to Garmin my actual 50K time was 6:40, a full 24 minute PR over my previous effort.
I staggered around the finish area shocked that I had done so well. I really thought my PR days were behind me, and at my age, just completing events was enough. After wandering around in a stupor for a few minutes I went back to my van to clean up before grabbing my chair and hanging out at the finish line. I did take a few extra minutes to stretch out on my mattress before heading back, but soon enough I was enjoying beer at the finish line and cheering on others who were having the time of their lives.
The nice thing about hanging out at a race finish line is that no one questions the sleeping guy in the chair, and sure enough soon I was dozing. I don’t think I slept more than 15 minutes, but it was enough to make me feel refreshed and alive again. I grabbed some more food and contemplated how to spend the rest of the day.
Trail race finish lines are special places. People are coming across the line, accomplishing amazing things, and everyone is there to cheer them on and congratulate them on a job well done. People hang out at the line for long periods of time, just to see more and more people cross. You chat with folks, eat food, rest the legs, and just enjoy the environment. This ethos is at the heart of trail running and the Ten Junk Miles crew captured it as well as any other race I’ve been at.
Having camping, food and beverages right there at the start/finish line means that everyone can recover and relax, and not feel pressure to leave. I was able to change clothes, wipe down, eat, recover, nap… all without leaving the community. That’s a feature of trail racing that is unique and special, and makes me love this world even more. I’m grateful that the TJM crew was able to have this race, and provide this experience once again.
After hanging out at the finish line for a few hours I realized that got done much sooner than expected, and it really didn’t make a lot of sense for me to sleep over another night. My wife was at home, still on crutches from surgery, and it probably was better that I get going sooner rather than later. I said my good-byes to all my friends, went and picked up my drop bag, and began the journey home. Thanks to my nap I was feeling really rested, and made it home with only one bathroom break in the middle of the drive.
I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day for my race. Between the amazing weather, the great community support, and the awesome aid stations, it was a recipe for success. It felt so good to finally be back together again.
The TJM podcast often reads race reports, but they prefer them to be in the form of a haiku.
the weather un-matched
flat trails, a plan perfected