Finding my way – Ultras

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Running at Turqoise Lake on the Leadville 100 run course.

 

It’s amazing what an athlete will go through to become something great. There’s a drive and determination to push themselves into the red with nobody around, no cameras, just trees being their greatest spectator.  There is a point you get to, a feeling when you are near the point of passing out that makes you smile, you feel alive. Some people will never feel like this in their life. They will never know what it’s like to feel true pain and fall sadistically in love with it.  Many people give up before the pain becomes euphoric, an exaggerated physical and psychological state. But the truth is that everyone can get there. They just need a set schedule, a set guideline, and at least a pair of running shoes. You don’t need a gym pass, you don’t need much more than a dream and good group of friends. You will see some athletes nearly come to tears watching an incredible feat, not even of their own. An emotional connection between the two, supercharged by the amount of respect and passion that took them to get to that level.  A true understanding and admiration of the will, and drive it takes to push a body to its limits.  This is my journey into the ultra world.

All athletes have a varying degree of crazy, and each sport deserves respect. If you would have asked me if I would ever run the marathon, even though I had run halfs, I would have said “no, not a chance”.  Even though I was involved in cycling/mountain biking and running I had no interest in running a marathon, let alone an ultra marathon.  It just didn’t seem like it would be fun, let alone a good idea.  So what changed?  I learned how fun it was to suffer, the euphoric feeling you can only reach when pushed to your absolute max.  It’s a feeling you can’t describe, but it’s nearly an out of body experience, at least that’s how I feel.  It’s my drug.

I learned how to suffer when I took up cross country skiing (skate skiing).  For some reason, riding a bike couldn’t get the body to feel like that.  I could ride and ride,  eventually my legs would just want to stop and my heart rate would drop. I found myself getting bored with biking  and actually wanted to quit, the interest seemed gone.  Easier said than done, I also learned I love biking and can’t live without it.  Not even close.

The journey into cross country skiing was a strugglefest! Being in decent shape skiing with a friend, my heart rate would be 185, his a measly 135.  I just couldn’t figure it out, how was he in that much better shape than me?  I came to realize that nothing could compare to cross country skiing, it was a cardio monster, and he had been doing it for years.  I literally had times training and racing, that if I had passed out or died going up a certain hill,  that the pain would be over.  I came to realize it was the ability to overcome pain that I desired.  I was addicted,  all I wanted to do was ski, and suffer with whoever would join me.

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Vasa XC Ski Race

I asked an elite cross country skier, and co-worker, how to get faster in the off season.  He said to start running hills, trails, etc.  He rationalized that roller skis were dangerous and even though he used them, that he wouldn’t recommend them.  I took his advice and started running (at least for a while, yup roller skis are dangerous).  I started by going out to Sugarloaf Mountain in Marquette Mi, and ran that.  I went out to Mount Marquette, and ran that.  Hogsback Mountain in Marquette, check!  I ran the ski jump landing hill and scaffold at Pine Mountain, in Iron Mountain Mi. I ran them all, hills I never would have been able to run before cross country skiing.  I learned that nothing I could do would be harder than cross country skiing, and knowing that made me feel invincible.

Video above Roller Skiing getting ready for 2015 XC Ski Season.

I had run plenty of small races, 10k’s, 5k’s, half marathons, but I had never ran a marathon.  I wasn’t quite sold on the fact of running 26.2 miles on cement, but that was about to change.  It was a bike trip that pushed me to the mental spot I needed to go to give it a shot.  In 13 days we rode 1000 miles through the Appalachian Mountains and Ozarks on fully loaded touring bikes carrying all our own gear, in temps reaching 100 degrees.  It was a grind that I’ll never forget.  When we returned  I decided to enter my first distance race, almost like the bike trip changed me as a person I wanted more adventure.  Marathon?  No.  My first distance race ever was going to be a 50k ultra-marathon.  It was a technical single track trail race that made the summit of many of Marquette Michigan’s treasured mountaintop areas.   The Marquette Trail 50k. For those interested, there is a 50 mile option as well! http://www.marquettetrail50.com/

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Marquette Trail 50k Profile

After returning from my bike trip I asked Leadville 100 runner, and co-worker, Joe J when his race was.  He was the race director for the Marquette Trail 50 at the time, and had a pretty impressive ultra marathon resume.  I had never heard of ultra’s until I met him.  He ran some 50 milers training for the Leadville 100, a race I didn’t even know existed despite having some knowledge of the 100 mile bike they host in Leadville each year.  I thought he was crazy, but I wanted in.   He said the race was just 5 weeks away, and I asked him if he thought it was within reason for me to do.  “Sure you can.”, he said.  I put my trust in to him, and he gave me the recipe I needed to make it to the finish.  He pretty much told me that I needed some foot time on the trails, and to run 13 this weekend, and a 4.5 hour trail run in hilly terrain the week after.  The next 2 weeks would be a slight taper, 13 miles, and then 8.  I made it to the start line rather calm and subdued.  Around me were some amazing runners, runners that I had no business toeing the start line with.  Among the bunch were two elite level cross country skiers, also co-workers, one racing, one riding a bike off of the start line leading us out.  I seemed to have worked with some of the most influential people on the planet, confined in a small area, Marquette Michigan.

For the female race, there was never question to who was going to win it.  My co-worker Vicky was going to dominate it, one of the best trail runners in the mid-west per the race director.  As the gun went off, I ran with a friend to have some company, a girl with a pretty fast marathon time of her own.  I probably shouldn’t have been running with her, she was a little too fast for me, but I ran a good 18-20 miles by her side before letting her fade off into the distance.  I remember saying at the 13 mile mark, “This is the easiest 13 miles I’ve ever ran!”.  Which quickly changed a few miles after the Sugarloaf Mountain summit.  I started to bonk, and I just hit mile 19.  The temperature was hitting 75 degrees and there was still a couple of big climbs left.  One of the climbs is a slow climb to “Top of the World.”  About mile 22 I ran into Joe, the race director, and he assured me I was looking great, and told me that I should walk the next uphill section to conserve some energy.   The miles were ticking by so slowly that it was almost impossible to fathom running another 10 miles (32 mile course). The course disclosure stated upon sign-up:  “This will not be a PR, unless it is your first race”.  The course was tough and relentless. All I wanted to do was finish.

I kept plodding along, slowly making the climb over Top of the World and through the foothills of Hogsback Mountain.  I was blowing bubbles, at that point, slightly delirious.  I was talking to squirrels, ever since I almost stepped on one.  I kept thinking in my mind how Vicky was certainly done by now, probably a couple of hours before I would finish.

My parents were great, they made it to 3 checkpoints passing me off bottles of Hammer nutrition.   They were pretty much my saving grace, as this race was destroying me, and I needed some familiar faces and food.  I carried a small hand bottle of hammer gel, mixed with a tiny bit of water.  To this day I still can’t use the Vanilla Hammer gel, as I had about 15 gels worth  during the run.  I met my parents for the final time at the Forestville aid station, and I was depleted.  I had about 4.5 miles to go, and I was certain it was going to take all day.  My feet hurt so bad, and going down hills was a real task, my quads were shredded!  As I stumbled along like a walking zombie, I somehow found energy in the last mile when it hit two track road to up the pace.  I ran the last mile in about 9:45 which was a light-year faster than the previous 3 miles.

As I crossed the finish line, the race director congratulated me and shook my hand.  My parents were there with Powerade and I quickly made my way to the free post race food.  They had all kinds of things, KBC Beer, burgers, brats, chips, different salads.  It was amazing, I was finished, and I called my girlfriend at the time and told her not to let me do another one.  I was hooked into distance running, whether it was the food, or the amazing  people that come with it.

Without good friends, the bike ride,  without the cross country skiing, I may never have had the confidence to try a 50k ultra.  I have learned over the years that nothing is impossible, a slightly dangerous mindset, but it has served me well so far.  I believe that if you put absolutely everything you have into something, that you can get everything you have always wanted.  I’ll never be the fastest runner, but my heart beats just as fast, and probably with as much passion.  If you are thinking about getting into ultras, don’t think, just do!  Train hard, surround yourself with a great group of friends, do the best you can and give it a shot.  Don’t miss out on being a part of something great, the community, food, people, the accomplishment!  Fear of failure should never stop you from taking chances and putting yourself out there.  Failure isn’t Fatal.

This race was a stepping stone into the world of ultra running, and distance racing.  Since, I have ran multiple 50 milers, 50k’s, road marathons, and have met my challenge running the legendary Leadville 100 run.  It’s been the one that got away a few times now, but I will stop at nothing to get it.

 

Cheers!

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Pushing the pace at mile 52 of the Leadville 100 run.

 

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