31.0 miles, 6:23:21, R/W: 4/1 thru 21, then 2/1; 12:22/mile
Who'd a thunk it? Running 50 km on a cold day in January on county roads in central Illinois. And enjoying it?? Amazing.
With little planning other than a desire to get in a long run, on Sunday, January 9, the Illinois FA 50K became my first bona fide ultramarathon. I truly enjoyed the experience. Despite a couple of mental low spots in the 18-20 mile section, the race went well and I finished feeling terrific.
The Gory Details
As I detailed a couple of days before the race, this event popped up on my radar screen just two weeks ago. So it worked out great to drive to Chicago on Saturday, drop son Matt off for the start of his last semester of college (amazing on its own), the drive the 2 hours or so south and west of the city, where I spent the night near the small village of McNabb, Illinois.
The weather turned out to be great for a January race in the Midwest. The overnight lows were in the teens but the day dawned with full sun and no wind…that's an amazing thing. While the mercury never got much above 23F all day, the lack of wind and the visual pleasure of a sunny, blue sky made the weather a non-factor for those dressed correctly. I learned from race veterans this was far better than last year's race with snow-pack, a vicious wind and lead-grey skies.
The race HQ was a rural Junior High School. About 70 of us gathered and, since there was no entry fee or other complex organization, we signed in and heard the race director give us two instructions; Have fun and when you cross the finish line, write down your name, time and distance you ran on this clipboard. He stepped back, said "Go" and we were off.
If you've ever driven across central Illinois, you will recall just How Very Flat it is. I had read a description of the course, stating it had several hills but wondered just where we'd find any hills in this flatland. On race morning, I found out. To make the 31 miles for a 50K race, we first ran a half mile east of the school and back. The remainder of the day was on a wonderful five-mile route on virtually deserted but paved country roads to the west.
Mile 1 was flat at first, with a modest down and up at the end. Mile 2 wound down and around a bluff, up a smaller hill then down again. Miles 3 and 4 were flat and picturesque, winding along a small stream through small farms, one with a herd of fine looking Black Angus cattle. Mile 5 then took us up and over a ridge to the turn around point. Lather, rinse, repeat. Three round trips added 30 miles to our initial one mile for 50K.
The first round trip and the second run out went fine. I used a 4/1 run/walk ratio from the beginning, averaging 10:45/mile at a heart rate of about 120 bpm. I had a bit of tightness in my right Achilles tendon around mile 8 but a stretching session against the side of a barn cleared that up.
The first of two low spots arrived midway back on the second trip and surprised me. It was mile 18 or so and I started to feel stiff and tight. I reviewed pace, form and, oh yes, hydration. Up to that point I had been regularly drinking water with Camelbak Elixir, a new addition to my system. And I realized I had drifted off into some introspection and quit drinking for a mile or so. I immediately corrected that; the grape-fizzy flavor of the electrolyte drink tasted great and within about 10 minutes the tightness eased and I was running comfortably again.
The second low spot I had anticipated. The race layout was convenient for folks wanting to run either 11 or 21 or 31 miles…you just got off the bus after one or two trips. As I approached the school with about 20 miles done I debated what to do. A third trip would entail another 2+ hours running, the sun was fading, maybe this was nuts, I really ought to be driving home by now and I'd hurt myself for any spring marathons and and and. Yet, this was my best situation to finish a 50K. What to do?
The geek mind came to the rescue. I had given myself permission before the race to switch from a 4/1 ratio to a 2/1 ratio for the last 10 miles. So, just before the school parking lot, I pulled off a mitten, reset my timer to a 2/1ratio and decided to go for it. At the turn around, I grabbed a banana from my car (delightfully un-frozen), made a pit stop, filled my water bottles and headed out once more. Just making the decision was invigorating.
It is really kind of amazing to truthfully report there were no more low spots in this race. I knew the course now after two trips. The shift to a 2/1 worked. I walked all the steeper uphills and just enjoyed myself. At the far turnaround, the race director (who was driving the course) stopped, actually remembered my name (gotta love small races!) and paid me a nice compliment saying "Joe, I'm worried about a couple of folks still out here but not about you!"
I headed back, knowing I still had five miles to go, yet knowing full well I had this race in the bag. As near as I could tell, I hit the marathon distance at 5:08. This made me smile, as 3 of my 4 marathons last year were way over 5:08 yet here I was on a cold day on a lonely road in a tiny race in rural Illinois running 50K and feeling so much better than in big city marathons in LA and Chicago. I think I smiled most of the way back.
As I got within sight of the school and the finish line I laughed out loud. Only about eight cars remained in the parking lot and not a single person was anywhere in sight. It was so fitting for this simple, free race. I ran across the finish line, arms up and let out a whoop which nobody heard. It was terrific to finish strong. I dutifully wrote down my name, my time of 6:23:21 and headed to the locker room.
Yes, the locker room. For a free race, this event had wonderful perks. Being able to walk about 100 feet from the finish line and get a hot shower before driving home was a huge treat. Two other guys were there and we all chuckled we hadn't had a locker-room conversation in decades. After the shower, I had a piece of pizza with the other late finishers, hopped in the car and began the 3 hour drive home across the dark prairie.
I learned a lot in this most enjoyable race. I'll write more about that before long. What a great way to start the year.