Completing The Door County Fall 50 mile race was a true highlight of my current era of running, now 10+ years long. I could never have imagined such a thing in the first place; to have then actually enjoyed both the training and the race itself is beyond comprehension. The support my wife, Gretchen, before the race and on race day was immeasurable.
How on earth do you describe a 50 mile race?? I don't really know, so I'll try to simply break it into the main chunks and a postscript. I have a bunch of pix as well...hope this makes some sense.
Planning the Training
In January, I privately set a goal to run this 50 mile race in late October. I didn't tell anyone but my wife, probably for fear of failure. Nevertheless, I set several intermediate milestones to determine if I could be prepared for such a task. First was a 39 mile run in July, followed by a double marathon weekend in September. Amazingly to me, I prepared for both of these toll gates through the summer and cleared them both. Could I really run 50 miles?
I picked this 50 mile race rather than others because it presented a unique combination of three favorable factors. First, it came at the right time of the year, the end of a fall racing season. Second, I was very familiar with the course. Our family has vacationed in Door County for over 30 years now. Our children know it as well as we do. Third, it was a road 50 miler. This seemed "easier" then a trail 50 miler. And so it was on.
Planning the Run
How do you plan a run that is farther than you have ever run before? You try to make intelligent extrapolations, based on your own experience and what you can learn from others.
Background: Door County is a peninsula jutting from the main part of Wisconsin into Lake Michigan, shown here in red.
Zooming in, the course followed along the western shore of Door County, along the beautiful Green Bay (yes, that's the body of water for which the Packers are famous).
My goal was simple; finish and enjoy the experience...nothing more. After much pondering and experimenting with pace on my double marathon weekend, I settled on being happy with 12 minute miles for the entire length, meaning I'd run for ten hours flat. To get to this, I would adopt a run 3 minute, walk 1 minute strategy. Further, I'd hold the run pace to 10:45/mile on my Garmin.
The organizers provided a detailed course description and I merged my plan with their course info onto a two-sided laminated chart which became my best friend on race day.
On the front, I listed the 10 aid stations, with both the leg and cumulative distances. I knew each of these spots from vacationing so long in Door County...the chart was very helpful to help me know all day just where I was.
On the flip side, I listed my expected times into each aid station for this 12 minute pace. Thus, I could know if I was ahead or behind of my target all day. Further, I added a brief reminder to myself of the plan, plus a clear statement is was OK to walk up the four major hill climbs along the course route.
I also made a copy of this for my wife, which let her know when to pop into the various aid stations and to know when she might expect me. That proved very useful.
Planning the Food
One of the biggest "ahaas" of my entire training process was just how crucial food is in a race of this length. Whereas I can navigate a marathon by paying attention to hydration and taking several gels, spending 10 hours running requires a steady intake of digestible, quality calories. I captured the details in this blog post.
A few days before we drove to Door, therefore, I prepared at home. First, I made up a big bowl of boiled potatoes. Easy to do...about 20 minutes in salted, boiling water made these little gems all set. I also prepared some gel in the small Coke bottles shown. (nice unintended side effect here: photos of our kids on the counter who also enjoy Door County, even as adults....but I digress)
In addition, our grand-kids were over just before we left and AJ jumped in to help me bake a batch of double chocolate chip cookies for the race.
I let him lick the bowl but I got to lick the spoon :-)
Once in Door County, I put 3-4 chunks of potato in 9 baggies, wrapped up about 30 pretzel sticks into individual bundles with kitchen wrap, sealed up cookies individually and laid them all out.
I then bundled an assortment of these carbo-gems into each of 9 bags, labeled with my name and bib number to take to packet pick up.
The race organizers did a terrific job welcoming us solo runners. At packet pick up, they had 9 carts, clearly labeled, where we could place anything we wanted at each of the Aid Stations. It all worked. And the food was ready.
The preparations finished, it was time to head to Wisconsin. We made a 5 day mini vacation out of this trip. We drove to Door County on Thursday, enjoying the beautiful familiar surroundings. Late Friday afternoon we drove the last 15 miles of a course with which I was less familiar, ending up in Sturgeon Bay for packet pickup. The race was well organized and packet pickup was a dream. We stopped off at a restaurant offering a pasta special, enjoyed the food and listened to a less than spectacular lounge singer....yeeesh, Billy Joel would be ashamed to have heard it, oh my.
I must mention my bib, with 61* being the best bib number I've ever had. Why?? Three reasons:
- I turned 61 two weeks before the race...how cool to have your age as your bib!!
- 61 is a prime number...the engineer in me loves having a prime bib number.
- Baseball. I added the asterisk with a Sharpie, making my bib 61*. This is a nod to my other favorite sport and the famous story of Roger Maris who hit 61 home runs in 1961 to break Babe Ruth's record. But many did not recognize the record, since he did it in 162 games, whereas The Bambino did it in 156 games. Thus the asterisk, a snub which haunted Maris to his death in 1985. My humble bib was thus a small salute to and memory of a player most have long forgotten. But I remember that home run chase well from 1961.
Race morning, Saturday October 25, dawned with temperatures in the upper forties and a modestly brisk wind from the west. Gretchen drove me to the start line at Gills Rock, a tiny village at the very northern tip of Door County and we awaited the 7 a.m. start for the solo runners. It was daunting to finally arrive at the start of a goal race. It was even more daunting to stand in the pre-dawn light realizing I was going to be running for the next 10 plus hours! But off we went, right on time; Gretchen was standing at the start line, I gave her a kiss and the day was on.
Those of you who know me and my preoccupation with running in exactly the right combination of layers may wonder what I decided to wear. Much thought and examination of weather reports fed into what seemed an "obvious" decision. Tights were never an option...I was always going to wear shorts. For the torso, I ultimately decided on two short-sleeved tech shirts (my Marathon Maniac shirt on top), with removable arm warmers and gloves. I added my lightweight balaclava, tucked it into my shirts and used it to keep my neck warm early. One race-time decision remained, though...do I wear a full cap or a visor? In the car, at the starting line, I settled on the visor.
It all worked. Here I am at the AS #2, mile 11.5 in Sister Bay, a couple hours into the race. All the gear is on and I'm still smiling.
Around mile 14, I pulled the balaclava. By mile 18, I peeled the arm warmers, tying all the gear into my water belt. The gloves went on and off for most of the race, depending on wind direction and pace. But it all worked...I was neither cold nor hot for the duration of the race....ah, the joys of overthinking these things.
The first 7 hours of the race were a pure joy, mostly about settling into a groove and enjoying the race. It was so much fun to run through familiar areas. Jogging through the little village of Ellison Bay, snaking by the fabulous homes along Green Bay, laughing with breakfast patrons at Al Johnson's in Sister Bay, wishing Wilsons had been open for ice cream in Ephraim....all marvelous stuff.
And the secnery...it was spectacular, even this late in the fall. Here's mile 16 in Penninsula State Park.
The rhythm of the day was steady....run the 3/1, walk the hills, take a salt tab at the top of each hour, eat something every 20 minutes. It was wonderful how all the nested loops of habits fit together like a good set of Russian Dolls.
The middle miles wound along the coast and we were steadily treated with views like this of Green Bay.
The organizers did a terrific job of laying out the course. I was oh-so-grateful for how they handled each of the aid stations. I wish I had a good photo of the total AS layout but I don't. In short, though, they had two tents at each, one exclusively for the solo runners. Even though we were less than 10% of the total field for the day, they really made this effort. In each tent was water, Gatorade, banana, salty stuff, cookies, chairs, first aid gear plus the all-important drop bags each solo runner had prepared. I quickly found the "pit stop" approach to each AS, zipping in, refilling my two 10oz water bottles, finding my bag, stuffing the potatoes, pretzles and other goodies into my pockets, grabbing a banana and some cookies and getting back on the road in a minute or so, eating the banana and recalibrating with a new load of fuel.
Coming out of Fish Creek, we climbed up to this section and moved through the marathon distance, nicely marked. I hit it at exactly 5 hours...I was very pleased. The race was cruising along wonderfully at this point.
Mathematically, my projected 12:00/mile pace was easy to work with...it simply meant I needed to cover 5 miles each hour. Put another way, I hit my watch at each 5 mile marker, looking to see if I was over or under one hour. My early splits through mile 35 looked like this:
Miles 1-5 56:29
Miles 6-10 54:56
Miles 11-15 58:17
Miles 16-20 57:34
Miles 21-25 58:59
Miles 26-30 60:30
Miles 31-35 61:32
And then drama began.
On the four-mile, flat run from Egg Harbor to Murphy Park, AS #7, I started feeling twinges on the outside of my left knee. What's that, I wondered. I shifted from the left side of the road to the right, hoping a change in camber might help, which it did a little but not enough to relieve the sense a challenge was looming. I reloaded at the AS, but soon after came the steepest of the four big hill climbs of the day at mile 38.
It became evident that I did not have an injury but rather a recurrence of IT Band inflammation, a common overuse injury I've had from time to time. It was disappointing; I knew it wasn't serious but I also knew the only way to accommodate it was to slow down. This meant the consistency I had been enjoying was likely to deteriorate.
I walked up the very steep hill, reflecting on just what to do and settled on the obvious plan for the remaining 12 or so miles. Once at the top, I shifted to a run 1 minute/ walk 1 minute plan and shifted my mental outlook to accept this. It was easier to switch my watch than to switch my brain, but the mind came to accept I had to do something to accommodate the pain.
My gait clearly altered, I just kept moving. Gretchen had looped around and was waiting for me at AS #8 at Carlsville and Bluffledge Road, mile 41. She saw me before I saw her and immediately knew something was amiss. It was great to see her and let her know the problem was addressable, I was not hurting myself even though I hurt a lot and I'd be OK. She accepted that and snapped a photo of me in the solo tent at the AS, as if to assure her self I could still smile. Hey, I said, it's my knee that hurts, not my mouth!!
Less than 9 miles to go, she walked me out of the AS and off I shuffled. The most painful part of the entire course was soon after this, as a steep downhill to the coast presented and, for the life of me, I could not run a single step down the hill; even walking hurt like crazy. I made it to the bottom and resumed the R1/W1. My split for miles 36-40 slipped to 69:34. It felt worse than that at the time, but I clearly was slowed.
Nothing slowed about the scenery, though, which truly helped. Here's a shot near mile 45.
It was in these final 10 miles I experienced something more wonderful than I've ever experienced in a road race. With many of the relay teams (who started in staggered starts up to 3 hours after I started) catching and passing me, nearly all of them offered warm encouragement. All of us wore a bib on our back, indicating which race division in which we competed. I think these relay runners, more than the spectators, grasped just how far the 50 mile course was. And runner after runner encourged me with "Way to go, solo guy!" "I wish I could do what you are doing!" "Hang in there, you are looking great!" (you know how we lie to each other in such settings!) It was the most positive, encouraging, uplifting thing I've ever seen in my years of running. In many ways, it got me through the pain of the final 3 hours of my running, saying to myself there is NO WAY I could give up with all these folks' admiration.
We approached Sturgeon Bay on a main road and the rural, coastal scenes gave way to more homes and activity. Miles 41-45 picked up a bit as I grasped just how to handle the discomfort, improving to 65:42.
My knee was still hurt like crazy but the new rhythm seemed to help; I focused on the basics of good posture and keeping moving. The mile signs were so welcome, as 46, 47, 48 all passed. Mile 49 was at the base of a large and well-manicured cemetery...in the dark humor that sometimes enters distance races, several of us had a dandy laugh at the "coincidence".
At last I could see the city park which held the finish line. I took one final walk break before going into the park, had a laugh and a high five with a volunteer about just how far this was from Gills Rock and turned, running, into the park with about a half mile to go.
It was a fabulous finish.
It happened nicely that I was by myself as I ran into the park. Many relay team participants were awaiting their final member, yet as I came into the final 150m of the course, they spotted my bib as a solo runner. Once again, cheering, encouragement, high fives erupted. It was almost embarrasing...I was hardly winning anything, yet the acknowledgement of fellow runners was both genuine and moving. I couldn't quit smiling and laughing. With about 50m to go, they announced my name, mentioned I was from West Lafayette, Indiana, to which some astute observer yelled out "Go Purdue!"...great to hear my alma mater saluted!
At this point, there was no one I wanted to see more than Gretchen. I scanned the crowd at the finish line and there she was, at the barrier at the finish line. She had seen me before I saw her, again, and when I finally spotted her I could tell she was sobbing with happiness, hands over her face, absolutely thrilled. I'm sure she was also glad to simply see me vertical, smiling and running better than the hobbled hubby she had seen earlier. Yet she also recognized this was a big accomplishment and shared the joy fully with me. It was fantastic.
I stopped right at the finish line and had a huge, long embrace with my wonderful wife. She cried and I laughed, both of us amazed and happy the event had concluded well. In a wonderful bit of perception and sensitivity, the volunteer who was handing out medals simply stood aside while we hugged, calmly waiting until we were done. Then, she walked up quietly and said to Gretchen "Would you like to present him his medal?" Perfectly done...thanks to the person whom I don't know!! It was a special moment.
I'm sorry we have no photos of the finish; it was so special and emotional, pictures simply didn't occur to either of us.
At that point, I had two objectives. The first was to locate a bag of ice for my ITB. The medical tent at the finish line was happy to oblige...they were great, I explained what happened, what I needed, they did a good "sanity check" and, amazingly, concluded I was indeed sane despite wearing a Marathon Manic shirt. They gave me the ice pack and wished me well.
The second objective was to get out of the wind and sit down. Gretchen and I walked the quarter mile or so to our car, holding hands, smiling and chatting like teenagers, both thrilled to be together, sharing such an event. It was good as well to finally get into a dry shirt, into the car, out of the wind, ice on my IT Band and head back to the condo we had rented in Ephraim. The race was over, successfully.
The numbers are kind of a hoot. Miles 45-50 went through in 67:12, with my final time being 10 hours, 10 minutes, 29 seconds. After all of this, only 10 minutes over my objective. I was thrilled.
The race itself had 143 starters and 119 finishers. I finished 103rd of the 119, and I learned the next day I was the only finisher in my age group! So, I was both first and dead last in my AG!! I contacted the race organizers later, since I had left the race site so quickly and they were very gracious to mail me my AG medal.
Or should I say "Medals".
The big medal in the middle was my race AG medal. But on the right is a special medal. The Fall 50 was the official USA Track and Field 50 Mile Road National Championship Race. And, thus, the age group winners also got a medal noting this fact. What a hoot!! Me, getting a national medal just because I happened to finish a small race with nobody else my age!!!
Hey, it's a keeper!!!
Running is nothing if it is not about setting goals that make sense to you and then seeing just how you might achieve it. This race was a goal for me for this year. Having a marvelous marriage is my lifetime goal. To achieve the one and enhance the other all at the same time, is even better.
I hope you've enjoyed this account, even though long. Thanks for listening.
And, as always, persevere.