The Chicago Lakefront 50 mile Ultramarathon



After a few days, I did have a chance to reflect on my recent DNF at Glacial Trail. I had trained long and hard for that race only to be sidelined by the bad luck of getting an upper respiratory infection the day before. However, it is a funny thing how the human mind works. I was confident before the race that I was more than prepared for the distance. Since then, the demons of self-doubt began creeping into my mind.


I wondered:   Had I really trained enough?  Was I a fool for thinking I could run 50 miles?  Was I a fool for even running any of  these ultramarathons?


My legs actually felt surprisingly well, but I guess they should have… I had only run a half a race. Even though half of an ultramarathon is almost as long as a full regular marathon, in comparison to  what I normally run in training, 25 miles really is not that far.


Because I felt pretty good and I did not want all of my months of hard training to go to waste, I looked on the ultramarathon race calendar and found several other races being run across the country over the next two or three weeks. The closest to us was the Chicago Lakefront 50 mile ultramarathon which would be only two weeks after my failed attempt at running 50 miles on the hiking trails of Wisconsin.  This ultramarathon consists of three loops run on the bike paths on the Chicago Lakefront parks on Lake Michigan. It also happens to be the course where the world record for 50 miles was set in 1984 (an incredible 04:50:51 by Bruce Fordyce).


I tend to be better at the technical aspect of running over very rough ground on hiking trails or no trails at all. When it comes to the open road, I shuffle along with a short ground-covering stride and fall behind the “speedsters” who are able to maintain a fast and steady pace. On the trails my slowness is not so much of a disadvantage. I float over rough ground as I watch many of the faster runners trip and fall on tree roots and rocks. It definitely helps to have a sense of where your feet are when running over rough ground and the ability to change your foot placement if needed without spraining an ankle.


However, because I had trained for a trail race and not the open road, I was somewhat apprehensive about running further than I had ever run before on a hard paved surface. I was also concerned about running a race so close to my previous long run. Add to that my DNF and you could say that I was more than a bit nervous about how this race might turn out.


Nevertheless, I thought it better to face my DNF and the demons of self-doubt now than to ruminate about them all winter long. I registered for the race; what is the worst that could happen? Another DNF? I certainly hoped not.


Jeanne, Nathan and I decided to make a family trip out of it.  We went to a show the night before, the

Blue Man Group  (which we highly recommend). Jeanne and Nathan planned on going to the aquarium and seeing the other sites of interest while I was out there voluntarily inflicting pain on myself all day. We all looked forward to eating out at one of Chicago’s fine restaurants after my race, no matter how it went.


The race was scheduled to begin at 6:30 AM. However, as usual, I awoke hours early and drove to start at the 63rd street beach house at Jackson Park long before the start time. It gave me time to assemble my gear, to eat some breakfast and to get a little caffeine into my system. It was unusual to be driving through the dark city to get to my ultra. All of the other events I have run were out in the rural areas surrounded by nature and here I was in a large city. What the heck was I doing? I tried not to think about my recent failed attempt and focus on the task at hand. It would be a long day, no matter how well I did or how far I got.


On very nice thing about his race however, is if I did have to drop out early but made it past the 50-k point (31 miles), I would still get credit and a finisher’s medal for running the 50-k. I knew I could do that.


But could I go 50 miles?


Just before the race began, I looked over to see a familiar face, that of Steve, the same guy who I had run the 38 mile all-night “fun” run with earlier that spring. He lives outside Chicago but I was so busy that I didn’t think of finding out if he would be there. What luck! It would be good to run with and have the support of someone that I knew.


The race started and the first 10 or so miles floated by. I was encouraged that my heart rate stayed down to more normal level, but didn’t want to get overconfident. Our pace was under ten minutes a mile so we concentrated to keep it slower than that. Our goal was to finish before the final cut-off and we needed only slightly over a 13 minute per mile pace to do that. Most long distance races have cut-offs which must be made if you do not want to be pulled from the race. These cut-offs are in place for the safety of the runners but also for the benefit of the volunteers. It is amazing enough that the volunteers spend all day catering to tired, hungry and thirsty runners, but we cannot expect them to be out all day and all night for that very last run-walker who might literally take days to do the entire distance.


The day started out cool and misty and there was rain in the forecast. I started out in my tights and windbreaker but as the day warmed up I soon changed into my shorts. As long as I kept moving, I would be warm. Steve and I had a very good pace initially but by afternoon the clouds opened up and the wind picked up. As the 20 + mph headwinds hit us straight on, we felt as if we were barely moving. On the race website, it says there are almost no hills on this race course. Bull-pucky! Those 8 miles of running into that wind coming off of Lake Michigan were as difficult as any hill I have ever run over!


There was a gentleman running with us carrying a full-size American flag. It was his second year of running the 50 mile ultra carrying a flag. I believe that his son is now in Iraq and he is carrying the flag in honor of him. He was an inspiration to all of us and we told him so.


Although I was unsure how much a dedicated trail runner like me would enjoy running on bike trails in the city, actually it was very beautiful. To the east, the surf of Lake Michigan broke onto the beaches; to the north and west, the skyline of downtown Chicago rose overhead. It was stunning to see the light play on the buildings as that sun moved across the sky and the clouds passed overhead.




As we ran on, I suddenly heard some odd squawks that sounded both familiar and out of place. I turned over my shoulder and was surprised to see a sight that was completely unexpected. A flock of 20 or so wild parrots flying by! Who said that there was no wildlife in the city!


For those of you who have seen the documentary: “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” about a flock of wild parrots living in San Francisco, I am sure you may have heard that there are other wild flocks scattered though out the US. These particular parrots are monk parrots which build large communal nests out of sticks in the trees of city parks in Chicago. There have been many who have been rightly concerned about the potential for these non-native species to become agricultural pests as have other introduced species such as the starling. In their native homeland of Argentina, these parrots are serious pests, so these concerns are well-founded. However, apparently these particular parrots have lived in the area since the 1970s and even now only number in the couple of hundreds



So at least for the present, it doesn’t look like they are expanding their range. It amazes me that they are able to survive the harsh winter storms that blow off of the lake

I am glad that I got to see them, they certainly are prettier and cuter than the more common non-native urban birds of pigeons, sparrows and starlings.


Another curiosity we saw while running… there was a fellow running the 50 mile ultra while juggling at the same time. We were very impressed, not just by his juggling but by the fact that we was a pretty damn good runner too. Despite his juggling while running (joggling is what they call it), he actually finished 16th overall and 6th in his division. All while juggling three balls! I found out later that he even broke the world record for “joggling” at the 50 mile ultramarathon distance.  Amazing!


Around mile 38,  a couple of other runners commented on our race numbers: Steve was wearing number 93 and I had number 39. We didn’t even realize that until someone else had told us and the race was more than half over! 


By mile 42, we knew that barring any unforeseen mishaps, such as  a stress fracture, or getting hit by a car or a bike, we would make it to the finish line before the cut-off. Finally as we hit the home stretch, that head wind turned into a tail wind. We were very thankful for that. Instead of a force to be reckoned with, that wind became like a giant friendly hand resting on our shoulders gently pushing us along. Like I said, the wind was just like a hill to overcome on the way up and later enjoy on the way down.




Nevertheless, even with that tail wind, those last eight miles were some of the hardest miles I have ever done in my life. Every couple of hundred yards now felt like a mile, every mile now felt like ten… or maybe even fifteen. Though the pain I felt at mile 45 on was no worse than what I felt at mile 35, I was unable to make my legs go any faster. They felt dead and it took all of my strength and concentration to pick them up and set them down again. My body was spent. Every inch told me to sit down and stop but I focused my mind as much as I could on the task at hand and simply pressed on. I was glad to have another runner with me, I don’t know if I could have gone as long as I did at my pace without stopping if I had been entirely on my own.


Three miles from the finish line and with plenty of time to spare, Steve and I tried walking for a few minutes to see if the rest break would do us any good. However, we both decided that at that point it hurt just as much to walk as it did to run. We thought that we might as well run because that would mean that we would be over faster, so that is what we did.




We finished in 10:29:40, not a bad time for my first 50 miles. Nathan as well as Steve’s children ran along with us those last few hundred yards. I think that they got more cheers from the crowd  than we did!  I literally had tears in my eyes when we made it across the finish line and were handed our medals. They were not tears of the pain (that would not be too bad until the next day), but tears of joy knowing I had fulfilled my dream.




The demons of my self-doubt and my DNF had been exorcised!


I could and in fact just did run 50 miles! I couldn’t believe it!




The gentleman with the flag came in 17 minutes after us. I cannot believe that he carried that flag so far and did so well, even with that headwind.


After a couple of bowls of DELICIOUS red beans and rice, we went our separate ways, promising to stay in touch and try to plan for future events together.

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