It’s easy to forget how much 31 miles hurts. It’s easy to forget how cold it can be when you get outside habitation. It’s easy to forget. Until you remember, usually in the middle of it all.
Getting out of the car ten minutes before race start, and I was shivering. I jogged to a fence line to pee quickly, and ran into a friend, Paul. We shook hands, wished each other well, and he went off to warm up. He also eventually won, but that’s beside the point. I was at the start, and ready.
Now let’s rewind, just a few hours. Sitting around home with my wife Bre and her dad Jim, we chatted and drank some coffee, relaxing before we drove out to the Sheyenne Grasslands for END-SURE, a 50K trail race; my second ultra, and the first in my home state. It was 8:34am; the race start was at 11am. Time to go. I had figured an hour or so for the drive.
8:45am. After packing the car, starting it, stopping it, and running inside to grab things forgotten, we hit the road. I turned on some Phish to try and calm my increasingly anxious nerves. Once we hit the interstate, I calmed down a bit. For about a half hour I felt good.
By 9:25am, we were still about 40 minutes away from a coffee shop in Lisbon, ND. The vans left the finish line at 10am to get to the starting paddock before 11am. I inevitably felt rushed. The thought running through my mind the whole time was just go to the starting area. But not knowing if there was a race day check-in, I felt a persistent urge to get to the van loading area.
After a pit stop and a wrong turn, it was 10:15am or so, and I was behind the vans taking the runners to the starting paddock. Man how I wished I could’ve been in there. I had friends to run with, Maggie, Eric, Terry, and Paul. It would’ve probably helped immensely to have people to talk to and calm myself around. Instead, I was a bubbling cauldron of anger because I was “late”. I hate being late. Not an ideal way to start the race.
Standing around shivering in shorts with a bunch of people dressed for cold weather running, we listened to Tim Bauer, the race director, give out instructions, tips, and a phone number to call in case we decided to drop at some point. I noticed I was the only one in shorts. Soon enough, the hounds were loosed.
A first, this year the 50K race started at the West trailhead, meandering through the pastures, before eventually making it to the sand hills and woods. This led to a decent amount of fast running to start, which was great for the beginning. I managed around an 8:35/mi pace to start, which was what I was hoping to maintain throughout the entire 31ish miles.
This was the first race I’ve ever run where I had ear buds in from the start. During my last (and first) ultra, I used music after the 30-mile mark to hopefully be a tool for my mind to focus on and avoid focusing on the inevitable pain. After 2 races of using music, I can definitively say that I will never use it again. It can be awesome for a tempo run or other speed work, but during a race, I can’t get into my head and keep it together with music. I focus on it too much and use it to dictate my mood. And apparently, I like really sad, albeit uptempo, music.
And we raced; through a bunch of flat, pasture land with no cows. It was pretty dull, honestly. I prefer hills and technical trails, otherwise it feels too much like road running and my brain just shuts off. Although in this case, there were plenty of holes and cow pies to dodge. It was fun to be able to see the runners in front of me racing away (like Paul), and as the trail is barely marked, it helped to be able to know where to go other than a vague wooden post. But eventually, we hit the woods. And it was goddamn glorious.
The first patch of woods, after maybe 3 or so miles, was pretty brief but quick rollers. It was but a taste of what was to come and exactly what I needed. I ran through the first self-help aid station, stopped briefly to pet my dog Skeeter and say hi to Bre and Jim, and continued. The next AS was about 9 miles away. It was time to get moving. I followed a couple runners back through so hills before some more pasture.
While I had stood chatting with my wife and her dad, a few runners scampered passed and I tagged along, following them through the hills just beyond Highway 27. Continuing north, my legs still felt good, and I stayed on top of my nutrition and water. My Orange Mud VP2 pack worked phenomenally well for a race of this distance. I carried a 20oz bottle of water, a 20oz bottle of Hammer Perpetuem, a carbohydrate beverage that I relied on in place of gels for the most part.
At around this point, mile 8 or so, the first racers in the 100K started showing up. They had started at the 50K finish, and did an out and back along the entirety of the trail. A nice morale booster, a couple “good jobs” and I continued on my way. Slowly, the terrain began getting hillier. Mentally, at this point I noticed I began to drop a bit.
I’ve always prided myself on having a really strong sense of mental positivity and ability to endure, so the fact that my mind was starting to go less than halfway through the race concerned me. In hindsight, I would’ve ditched the music and focused much more on my surroundings and tried to gain joy from that. But those flat pastures really were unpleasant. If only I’d known how bad it was going to get.
Fortunately, there was time before that. Once I cracked the double digits, it didn’t get easier necessarily, but I almost slipped into a flow state for a bit. By this point, I was totally alone on the trail. I knew there were people in front and behind, obviously, but moving dots were the only signifiers of the other runners. That’s one of my favorite parts of trail running, the reminder of how small we really are. Road races, there’s always spectators and people cheering. Here, the only spectators were the aid station volunteers, my two family members, and a couple other people.
The halfway point was a godsend. Mentally, I was cracking. I think I was probably low on calories at this point and really needed some food and a friendly face or two. Fortunately, after a handful of peanut M&M’s and a banana, along with new bottles, and seeing my wife, dog and father in law, I felt better. I also saw that at this point, we were headed to the woods. I don’t know if it was the terrain or the banana, but at this point, all the lows I had been feeling disappeared. At the halfway point, I felt great and ready to make up some time.
Getting into the woods, the trail closed around like a comfortable blanket. Suddenly, everything was clicking. The music worked, the mood lifted. Pacing wise, I was still comfortably in a 9-10min/mi range, hiking up the hills and bombing down. One of the mantras I was told before my first ultra, “don’t be an idiot, don’t be a wimp”, echoed through. The first half of a race, I try to not overexert, and the second half, all bets are off and do your best. At the halfway point, I cut myself loose.
And then it all came crashing down. Pain and the acceptance of it is a huge part of racing, particularly longer races. I expected and anticipated mental and physical pain, cramps, maybe a blister or two, general foot and muscle fatigue, it’s going to happen. I did not expect for my left quad to almost completely shut down at mile twenty or so. We’re talking “I can hardly walk, let alone run” kind of pain.
At this point, I had hoped that I was going to be a bit over five hours in finishing, which was a little slower than I originally anticipated, but expectations are going to be altered when you delve into the unknown. Around mile twenty-two, my friend Terry came running by and I tagged along with him for a bit as best I could. We chatted a bit about races from last year, he asked how my first ultra went, and plans for this year. Eventually, he skipped ahead, leaving me to do my own thing. It was a nice mental boost though. And talking helped drown out the screaming in my quad.
Then it was back to the long slog to the finish. Relentless forward progress, as some call it. I don’t know how many times at this point I kept wishing I had put that phone number in my phone because I felt completely done in. But I hadn’t, so I didn’t have options other than stopping someone and asking them for it, which was out of the question, whether because I was suffering from an intense case of being male (stubborn and unwilling to ask for help) or because I didn’t want to slow anyone down, I’m not sure.
Maggie and Eric, another couple awesome trail friends, came by at this point, checking in. I let them know what was going on and we wished each other good luck. Walk for a bit, run for a shorter bit, stretch.
That was the best I could do. It sucked, a lot. But every time my mind went to cursing myself for not having that phone number I kept thinking, “Well, if you’re going to drop, you’re still going to have to walk out to the stupid finish, because they can’t exactly drive a vehicle in here. So you might as well see how you do.”
At one point, I almost totally lost it, a first for me. I’d never been that exasperated from being unable to do what I knew I could. But then, when I started feeling bad, on the verge of tears, I thought of my friends. My FSR friends; those I’d met through running, my brother, who’s going through some struggles. Anything I could latch onto to make myself realize what I was willfully putting myself through wasn’t that bad.
Five hours turned to five and a half, then to six. I had hopes of finishing in six hours. Continually getting passed at this point, by both 50K and 25K runners, people checked in as to how I was doing, “Left quad’s shot,” was the constant refrain. About the 26-mile mark, a runner I had passed about mile seven came upon me. He asked how I was, I told him about my quad, and he said he glutes were doing the same thing. We both ran a bit before I had to stop and walk.
And then the course did the thing I hate the absolute most, and I’m sure race directors LOVE doing. It went right passed the finish line. Except we still had four miles to go, beginning with cutting through a marsh that had no trail, just a few sticks with some pink ribbon on top. Anecdotally, apparently one 50K runner took a wrong turn here, finished, and proceeded to scream at the race directors about this before getting into his truck and speeding away (don’t be that person, please).
By this point, I had basically been walking for 8 miles. I was sure I was dead f’n last. And I was totally fine with that. I knew I was going to finish. I figured if I could still walk then whatever was going on with my quad wasn’t that bad. Sure, I couldn’t really run, but I could hobble and occasionally get some speed, if only for fifty feet. More runners passed, a few more hills.
Finally, I decided that I was done with the walking though. My mind had gone through the wringer, and so had my body. I was so ready to be done. So I started running. And immediately got passed by another runner, “Shorts? Respect, man.” The grey-haired older gentleman who blew passed gave me a thumb’s up as I barely kept from shivering. This being North Dakota in pre-spring, pretty much every season showed up, now, it was heading towards winter again.
I barely remember the final mile, to be honest. There are brief clips in my mind, a cattle gate, one of the runners that finished ahead of me out running with his dog (because 50K just isn’t quite enough for one day), and a last bit of woods. Finally, the finish was in sight, and naturally, I took a wrong turn.
After a brief detour through the campground, I touched the pole that marked the end of the course, shook the race director’s hand, and was done. After a quick, delicious beer, bag of chips, and brat, we hopped in the car and headed home. At that point, I swore I would never run this race again. For what it’s worth, I finished in 6:23:xx.
Naturally, that changed after a day or two and I’m planning on running it again next year. I have unfinished business with that course. I haven’t pushed myself as far as I can there yet, and I hope to next year. That’s why I run. If you aren’t pushing yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of, you’ll never know. And I might never find out, but I’ll never stop trying.