I DID it! I DID it! I DID it! I successfully ran the all night 38 mile trail ultramarathon "fun run" on Saturday!
Even though the name seems to be something only a very sadistic ultra-running race director could dream up, it really was “fun!” It also was truly an amazing and remarkable experience.
Although I had run many of these hiking trails before during my 50-k (31 miles) ultra three weeks ago and during my training runs, everything changes when running through the dark forest on hiking trails lit only by a head lamp. I have run on trails in the woods at night many times before, but only for an hour or two and never have gone for so long or for so far.
When I first arrived at the race, I was not sure where we were supposed to check in. There was another 38-mile runner who happened to be there and who also was not sure, so we asked around. When we found out where registration was and both checked in at the same time, the organizer assumed we were both running together. We said no, that we had just met and it was coincidental that we arrived and signed in at the same time. Then later, we talked while waiting for the run to begin.
Several other runners came up to speak with us and also assumed we already knew each other and intended on running together. However, even though we didn’t plan on it, Steve and I ended up running the entire run together anyway, because it so happened that our pace was practically identical. It seems that everyone’s assumptions that we would run together were correct.
The 38 mile “fun run” is run during the latter half of the annual Kettle-Moraine 100 mile race. The organizers have set the 38 mile run up as a non-competitive run for those of us interested in experience running the trails at night with the support of aid stations, the opportunity to be around the 100 milers without all the pain and also to keep the trails more active at night while the 100 milers are out there shuffling along.
We started just before sun-down at 8 PM. The first dozen miles passed relatively quickly as we all found our race pace and warmed up. One runner commented that being out there all night running through the forest makes him feel like a kid again and especially like a kid who is doing something dangerous or forbidden and without the permission of adults. I couldn’t agree more.
As darkness fell, we passed several ponds and marshy areas and enjoyed the noisy symphony the frogs put on for us. The bullfrogs sang out with their deep bass”BRUM!…BRUM!…BRUM!” while the green frogs shattered the air with their sharp”Clack!…Clack!…Clack!” Hundreds of other frogs, species unknown, filled out the rest of that evening chorus with a variety of squawks and croaks.
The early part of the night was dark, humid and foggy. It had just rained heavily the day before and the extreme humidity made it challenging. We were worried that we might have a thunderstorm that night but fortunately we did not. My glasses steamed up so that I had trouble seeing the switchbacks down one hiking trail and asked Steve to let me know if I missed any of them. We took turns leading. The leader is always the first to see or find the rocks or branches on the trail, often only after tripping on them. We ran along with several other 38 mile fun runners, and also some of the 100 milers. After a while, we left all of them when it felt comfortable for us to carry on at a faster pace.
It was only $20 to register for this run, much cheaper than most ultras which range from $50 to $120 or more. After we saw all of the food and experienced the enthusiastic support from the volunteers at the aid stations, we all agreed that such an entry fee was a bargain. The aid stations were 5 or 7 miles apart. After running through the dark it was a relief to hear the hum of the generators and to see the Christmas lights glowing as we arrived at each station. As we jogged in, we were met with cheers and hollers by the volunteers. Each of us was made to feel as if we were kings and queens. Three or four volunteers waited on each of us asking if there was anything they could do, filling our water bottles and offering us food. One gal found some anti-fog spray for my glasses which was a great help. My hat is off to those folks, they made the run both enjoyable and possible. They were the best and we told them so repeatedly.
The amount and choices of food were amazing. There were the usual ultrarunner foods such as boiled potatoes sprinkled with salt, pretzels, potato chips, bananas, oranges slices and chicken noodle soup, plus cookies, gummy bears, M&Ms and other sweets. There were some unusual offerings also including, green olives, bratwurst (at one aid station that was playing polka music- this is Wisconsin after all), burritos with bacon and eggs and pancakes with a breakfast sausage rolled in it. At one of the stations, festive music was playing and I jokingly asked if they had any margaritas for us. They actually did have some in back for all of the volunteers to enjoy but cautioned us that we probably wouldn’t go much further if we partook, so we abstained.
Myself, I was hesitant to try anything unusual so I stuck with energy gel, chicken noodle soup and bananas mostly. My criteria for foods to consume during an ultrarun are those that would not taste so bad if they ended up coming up further down the trail. I don’t think having a chunk of green olive stuck in the back of my nose for the last twenty miles would be very pleasant.
As we headed south for the last 4 mile leg before hitting the 19 mile turnaround at Rice Lake, we entered some steep and rocky terrain. I was glad that I had seen these trails at least once before during daylight and knew what to expect. A few of the other runners were triathletes and traditional road marathoners would had never run an ultra, never been to this area before, never run on hiking trails and never even run at night before. Though they had started out strong, they were now having a great deal of trouble. I felt sorry for them, even if they were a bit foolish for taking on something such as this with so little experience.
I also felt bad for many of the hundred mile runners. A few of them were limping along and the pain on their faces was obvious. As we passed them, we offered them words of encouragement as best we could. “Keep on going!” “Run strong!” “Looking good!” “You’re almost to the next aid station!” “It’s not far to the turnaround!” “You can do it!” However, we knew that as slow as some of them we going, they would never make the 30 hour cut-off to finish the race and would “DNF” (runner lingo for “Did not finish”). Though it would have been easier (and smarter) for them to simply drop out now than later, many of them chose instead to keep moving ahead anyway, even though they must’ve known they had little chance of finishing before the cut-off. It was inspiring and made us 38 mile fun runners feel guilty for how tired we felt ourselves.
At one point, the trail became extremely muddy, almost the texture of slippery greasy butter. We ended up pulling ourselves along the sides of the trail by grabbing onto saplings and bushes and pulling ourselves up each step. I am glad for all of the upper body training I did the past few months which came in very handy. On the way back, I saw quite a few folks bite it while going down this section but somehow I was lucky to avoid a bad fall myself, though I had several close calls.
The lightning bugs began flashing and made our adventure seem almost surreal. As we ran we could see the head lamps of the other runners ahead and behind us sparkling through the trees. However, now there were hundreds of additional lights flashing. The lightning bugs made it seem as if there were hundreds of other runners out there along with us even though we knew we were very much alone. It is strange what fatigue and lack of sleep can do to your mind when you are out there shuffling along in the middle of the night. I have heard stories of 100 milers having hallucinations in the early morning hours and now can understand how this could easily happen.
Around 2 AM, a slight wind began which lowered the humidity and cleared the fog and mist. We were grateful for the cooler temperatures, clearing skies and that we had not had any thunderstorms. The moon had risen and we could also see Venus and stars shining in the sky. The moonlight allowed us to see beyond the beams of our headlights in the open areas but the pine forests were still the darkest deepest black you could imagine. With the cooler temperatures, the frogs and crickets became completely silent. There was not a sound, which added to the surreal feeling.
Although I have not been afraid of the dark since I was a child, I admit that I was very glad that I was running along with someone else and not entirely alone. We had a conversation almost the entire run, discussing all kinds of things: our families, our work, our previous experiences running, and our interests outside running- almost anything you might imagine. From my experience with the 50-k three weeks ago and this 38 mile run, good conversation along the trail seems to be the rule rather than the exception. It helps make the hours and hours float on by and takes your mind off the deep fatigue and growing pain. It also make you feel a little less strange to know that you are not the only eccentric out there who loves this type of crazy stuff. The conversation is one of the aspects of ultrarunning that I enjoy. When you are out there, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do during the day, but rather what kind of person you are. Believe me; you really learn about what kind of person you are when out there running on the trail all night.
The woods were eerily silent and even our conversation faded by 3 AM. However, even though dawn was a couple of hours off, our moods lifted as we heard the first bird of the morning singing all by himself off in the darkness. It was a wood thrush, one of my favorite birds to hear singing out in the woods. His song was even more uplifting for us than usual. It signaled that we weren’t alone and that sunrise was finally on its way. For those of you who do not have any idea what a wood thrush sounds like, you can hear his song here: http://www.learnbirdsongs.com/birdsong.php?id=32 As dawn arrived and we began our final 8 mile jog in to the finish line, dozens of other birds began to serenade us. They included cardinals, chickadees, mourning doves, robins, warblers, flycatchers and a multitude of others whose songs I did not recognize. It was beautiful!
To my surprise and amazement, even though we passed many runners throughout the night, no one passed us; even despite how slow it felt we were moving at the end. For the last mile and knowing the end was near, we made a decision to sprint in. Well maybe not exactly sprint, it was only a 10 minute mile or so, but after 37 miles it sure felt like a sprint to us! Steve and I passed the finish line exactly neck and neck even though we didn’t verbally communicate such a plan to each other beforehand. We traded emails and I am sure we will meet at other ultras in the future.
Before we started our run, I overheard one woman say that you can always tell a traditional road marathoner from a trail ultramarathoner by what they ask you after your race. The traditional road marathoner will ask you: “How was your time?” where a trail ultramarathoner will ask you: “How was your race?” When asked: “How was your time?” by a traditional road marathoner, the trail ultramarathoner will usually reply: “My time? Oh I had a GREAT time!” Having a great experience and simply making it to the finish is the point, it is not about going fast or finishing before others.
According to the preliminary results, we finished 10th out of 25 finishers and 32 starters. It was 5:45 AM and the next runner behind us did not come in for another 20 minutes. We had been on the trail for 9 hours 45 minutes and broke the ten hour goal we had agreed upon around midnight that night. Considering that I had run a 50-k race only three weeks before and was unsure whether I had fully recovered or not, I am extremely pleased with my results. Before I started, I wasn’t even sure I would be able to finish such a long run so soon after another.
My answer to the question: “How was my time?”…. Yes, I had a GREAT time!
I am somewhat sore today as expected but not all that bad. I admit that I have been walking around like a ninety year old man today but I am a ninety year old man with a smile on his face. Actually, I feel better than I did after the 50-k; I had a massage today which was very helpful. My next goal will be to run 50 miles. This won’t be until this fall or next spring or perhaps even further in the future but I would like to try for it some day. I am now going to take off a few weeks from running completely to let everything heal before I think seriously about any other races.
I am sure that all of you non-runners out there, and many of the runners too, think I am totally crazy. I hope I have given you some slight insight to why and how anyone would choose to do something as insane as this. I also sincerely hope that all of you are able to pursue your passions and interests to the fullest extent as I have.
Run strong! *
*or walk, bike, fly-fish, horseback ride, golf, mountain climb, dance, swim, go bowling, knit, sing, play musical instruments, pet your dogs, hug your kids, hug your spouse and/or do anything else that you love to do, strong too!