Nine months of no racing finally relented at last week’s Dances With Dirt (DWD) Devil’s Lake 50 mile trail race. My last true test of fitness was in October 2012 via Milwaukee’s Lakefront Marathon (race report here) and afterwards casually throwing myself into a local / low-key 50km run. After a big break when our 2nd son was born in December, I was thirsty for change … different workouts, different mental challenges, and different terrain. Over the course of the long winter, running across the Grand Canyon and back for charity (rim2rim2rim report here), and witnessing / pacing (kind of) Western States (report here), I felt not only fit but mentally ready to take a stab at my 50-mile debut on one of the Midwest’s most rugged trail ultra marathons with over 7500ft of climb. (Note – below are my thoughts … all splits are here).
After packing up the family motor-car full of camping and running gear, my wife and I were still a bit uneasy about how the next day(s) might play out. We didn’t have camping reservations but were told Devil’s Lake had some non-reserved areas on a first come first serve basis. We also hadn’t used our tent / gear for years and didn’t know how the boys would sleep despite pleasant weather. Upon arrival, we quickly saw the “Campground Full” sign and moved along to private grounds only 5 minutes away. B-E-A-UTIFUL camping weather the whole weekend gave us a chance to not fret about forgetting the rain-fly and enjoy the rest of the evening. Joined by my wife’s parents, I was able to grab my bib and race gear from the start / finish area Friday afternoon with no hassles, set out my gear for an early morning, and relax with my pre-race meal of chicken soup, almonds, & NUUN.
That night was a pretty typical pre-race night of sleep … terrible. Our 7 month old and I tossed and turned under the Wisconsin (cooler than normal) sky – each of us wanting a bit more to eat each time we arose. But before I knew it, I woke up one last time before my alarm, dressed myself in running shorts & a giant sweatshirt with a picture of a German Shorthaired Pointer on the front (courtesy of my father-in-law), and made the 10 minute drive to the starting line by Devil’s Lake Resort. Change socks, change shoes, visit port-o-john, grab bottles, and I find myself lined up for an exciting morning on the trails.
Just a blast. Heading up the first 5 mile loop basically climbed (and then dropped) the ski slopes at Devil’s Lake Resort and things were light and easy. One 50 miler went off the front with the two 50 km speedster front-runners but I found myself comfortably in 2nd after ~6miles of some back-and-forth with a few other guys. At that point I was alone and simply popped in the ear-buds to zone out to some stand up comedy and talk radio podcasts hoping I could “fall asleep” mentally and wake up when the pain set in. Flirting with 8min/mi was encouraging considering the 3-4mi climb on some rocky single track leading up to the first few aid stations. Carrying 2x 10oz bottles and maintaining my gel-gel-banana feeding schedule every 20 minute I zoomed right through the stations and didn’t stop until ~11 miles to simply refill with water (sans a quickly needed “pit-stop” / leaf-wipe). A steep descent ~14 miles told me I’d be climbing again soon and sure enough I found myself trotting up a rocky staircase to the top of the East side of Devil’s Lake along the gorgeous bluff-line. So gorgeous that I missed a quick turn and made my first and only wrong turn of the day costing me ~3-4 minutes of walking but actually placing me with 2-3 other runners when I found my way again along the pink flags. More descending and the quads started to say, “oh, hello there … are you SURE we’re not even half way done?” I ignored them and put more gel in my stomach.
After the longest descent of the day I fell into a very comfortable rhythm running through some flat grass fields on one of the only sun-exposed parts of the course heading out to a lonely (20-mile) aid station turn around where I’d be able to visibly see how far ahead the top 50 mile runner was. At the AS I grab four gels, refill on fluids, and see I’m ~4.5 minutes back (same as 10 miles ago) … no need to panic and 30 miles remaining to calmly run my own race and hopefully close the gap. I exit the fields with the relief of shade-cover but am now faced with climbing what I flew down earlier. My brain goes from zoning out to focusing for the next 30 minutes as I shut the iPod off and look forward to meeting my family at the half way point.
Approaching the half way point I still see no sign of 50mi #1 guy but do have new life with some rolling run-able soft dirt. Then I see ’em. My little guy with my wife. I can tell he’s still tired and dirty from camping, but what 3-year-old wouldn’t and shouldn’t care? His baby brother is sleeping in the car and will have to wait to get his share of sweaty-dad hugs until later. I give kisses and hugs, say my “good-mornings” and am revitalized again! Starting my second giant loop of more stair climbing and quad-thrashing, I’m hanging in there, eating well, drinking well, but definitely feeling the miles beneath me … switch to some worship music and try to just embrace the suffering … the hardcore rap / rock will have to wait. Trotting turns to walking and I’m snatching more and more fruit at each AS. The very top of Devil’s Lake is again beautiful but my gut starts to turn as I cruise down the other side towards the field again. Forcing down a few more gels and ignoring the gag-reflex I know will eventually win me over I start to prepare for soda the rest of the way with some mental math and larger bottles. Reaching the fields and lonely turn-around AS again (36-ish miles) is much warmer than before but I am eager to see the time-gap once again. Heading out closer and closer to the turn-around I am wondering where 50mi #1 guy is more and more … did I miss him already? Then, I see him … right at the turn around I’m able to say hi and let him glance at my bib number / color before relenting he’s shot and cramping pretty bad. I take the opportunity to keep moving and waste no time going back out of the field as I see now #3 only 90sec back.
No sodas at the AS, I grab more banana and pound more water to get me up the climb out of the fields. Climbing out of the fields again is more walk / trot along with a my only digger of the day. Yes, I fell running uphill … caught a root and hand-planted on my right knee. Took some salt and kept grinding. Approaching the top of the climb I just wanted that rolling dirt road again that awaited me as I knew my family would hopefully be there to greet a slightly more battered version of myself. I notice behind me that 50mi #3 from before is now in second place (as I’m in 1st since the turn around) and he’s like … right …. there. My legs tell me to let him catch up to rest, conserve, and run with him for a while to regroup, but for some reason my brain stifled that notion and my body kept moving to just keep some kind of gap – 15 seconds maybe? I see my wife and her all too familiar wave down the road approaching mile 40 AS.
Head into the AS and get all refilled on sodas (20oz of Sprite, 10oz Coke) in my bottles as #2 comes in and exchange some heavy-breathing greetings and small talk about the temperature rising. More sweaty smooches to the wife and boys (the baby gets double this time around) and I’m off again towards the start / finish line. Ten miles of running left but all I cared about was getting into the trees / trail and out of sight … no contact. Soda / nutrition felt great, legs are starting to get really freaking tired and running down a ~3 mile stretch was the most pain of the whole day … quads are just hammered and shooting pain up to my brain. Still no sign of #2 and I’m starting to smell the finish as we actually run right by the finish line for a final aid station before closing the race out with that first original 5 mile ski loop again … talk about torture! I’m happy to see the crowds and refill on soda one last time before disappearing into the trees again.
I know it right away. Any incline and the legs are just dead. Totally dead. I can walk faster than trotting / jogging when it comes to the uphills so that’s what I do. It’s endless. Trying to recall how short this section was when flying through at 5:30am is no use as everything seems about triple … the climbs, the switchbacks, the single track, the … everything. I can’t believe nobody has passed me yet, I’m so done! I keep looking back and even then know I’ve got this victory if I can just keep moving. Then, it happens. Out on some single-track … I’m marching and he’s FLYING by. Former professional cyclist and experienced ultra endurance athlete Garrett Peltonen made me … yes, he made me … eat his dust. Hadn’t seen him the whole race except maybe out on the out-and-back by mile 20 & 35 in the fields as this was NOT the same #2 chasing me since mile 40. Garrett put his patience and experience to true form and led the race from mile ~48 to the end.
It was disheartening and yes, disappointing, but I honestly just wanted to be done running. After reaching the top of the ski hill and hobbling through some more technical terrain I started to descend until stopped by shooting hamstring cramping … while stretching I violently cursed the day I ever started running, swore I’d NEVER run again, and continued down the grassy hill. A short ~30 seconds later I loved what I was doing again, was sad the journey was almost done, and thanked Jesus for the opportunity to run and worship Him in such a way. A few more glances behind me assured me I could enjoy the run in and capture 2nd … and that I did while I entered the finish clearing and carried my baby boy while running along side my toddler in the final straight away. Every other race I’ve ever entered the last straight away is a mad sprint to the finish … trying to set PRs and out-kick whoever is ahead of you. This was different. I slowed … I enjoyed … I took it in slowing to a walk and clutching my 7 month old as my 3-year-old did NOT slow down and sprinted in ahead of us. The cheers grew louder as he, my first-born with his blonde curly hair, was striving closer to the finish line … one of my favorite running memories I’ll never forget. I couldn’t help but cheer him on myself watching from behind. Because when it’s all said and done, I can’t do anything without the Lord who gave me legs and my family who allows me to use them. They sacrifice, they cheer, and they love.
To put anymore words to this seems like overkill, but I’d like to thank Dances With Dirt for an extremely well run day, course, event, aid stations, and all of the above. Incredible work and volunteers everywhere I was the whole weekend. Their course maps, crew directions, and aid station descriptions on their website left nothing unknown to this overly-OCD-runner on race day. Thank you thank you for an incredible day!
I wasn’t very happy about getting passed in the last two miles but I feel as thought I ran smart, did a lot of things right, and had a ton of fun. The current state of ultra running is only getting more and more competitive as the top 4 of us I believe broke the old course record (7:44-ish?). Next up is The North Face 50 miler in Madison (8 weeks out) which I hope plays into my strengths a bit more being a less technical course and even better (cooler) conditions. Until then, hoping for good smart recovery, healed toenails, and another good block of training.