May 102014

by Tom Whitaker –

Indiana 50 mile trail race April 26, 2014

 Let’s face it, whenever you run 50 miles sooner or later you are going to feel awful, I mean really awful. For me running the 50 mile Indiana Trail Race that feeling came much sooner than I expected. I will give away the ending a little bit and say that I am thrilled that I overcame that feeling and was able to get my body across the finish line.

You’re probably wondering how I ever ended up in a race in Indiana? Well, my lovely wife is a Hoosier and so the family unit went to the heartland to visit with family over April break. I always look for a race while I’m out there as I enjoy running on flat ground for a change, compared to our Maine hills. So I kind of stumbled upon this race which runs simultaneously with a hundred miler. Not a real imaginative name for the race but the point gets across quickly that you’d better be in shape when you register.
The race was at the tail end of the week that I spent visiting with family and sites around Indianapolis. I even got to go to a Pacer playoff game, sadly they got blown away. The tough part about being with the in-laws was watching what I ate all week. I was able to find enough pasta to carbo load and resisted the french fries on my kids plates most of the time.
As I told my relatives where the race was to take place, none of them were able to say that they had ever been to the Chain O’ Lakes State Park in Albion, Indiana. So you know, the park lies a little northwest of Fort Wayne, and as you might have assumed, it is in the heart of farmland. A small part of the appeal of signing up was that I had lived for a few years as a kid in Albion, Maine which is also farmland.
Since Albion was a couple of hours from Indianapolis and we were supposed to be driving back to Maine after the race, my brother in-law Bruce White agreed to drive up with me the night before and then my family and his wife would drive up the next day. That meant a relaxing evening and I didn’t have to worry about my wife entertaining the kids at the park for nine hours while I was running.
Shortly before we got to the park on Friday for packet pick-up, I mentioned to Bruce that the landscape was a little more rolling compared to the flat farmland that I had been gawking at for the past couple hours. Certainly no mountains looming over the horizon but there were parcels of land not suitable for fields of corn.
After pick-up we headed back south less than half an hour to Columbia City where I had booked a hotel. I had spent sometime online looking for places to eat and discovered a couple spots where I could order up a deep fried hamburger. Sounded pretty good but not before a race, and we had to settle on a Pizza Hut in order for me to get some carbs. I told Bruce that when the waitress asked him whether he wanted a 16 ounce or 20 ounce beer to go ahead and order two 16 ouncers. He was happy with a bottle of Bud. Another table of runners close by were quite frustrated by the lack of beer selection (Bud, Bud Light or Coors Light) and the waitress explained they used to have better selection but no one ever ordered the ‘good’ beer.
The hotel was very close and I prepped all my equipment and was able to crawl into bed at a reasonable hour. I will admit I had some pretty vivid running dreams that night mostly involving pre-race activities. So when the wake-up call came at 4:15 I was quite glad for reality to slap me across the face.
The temps were quite nice as we got to the park that morning. I had packed for almost any condition but was happy all that I really needed were shorts and my Trail Monster shirt. Of course it was still dark and Bruce told me sunrise would be about forty five minutes after the start of the race. So I reluctantly donned my headlamp that I would only need for a few miles on the 16.7 mile loop. Time came to line up in the chute after I told Bruce that I would see him in a few hours.
All the runners started together, so it was impossible to tell who would be running back into the dark. I had placed myself slightly toward the back not wanting to be fast on the first of the three loops that I would be running. I figured somewhere around three hours for the first loop would mean that I didn’t push my body too hard and didn’t go too slow.
I had actually turned off my headlamp in the starting chute, not wanting to blind other runners and at the start discovered that I didn’t need it as I could mooch light from others just like I had back at the Stone Cat Marathon. I wished that I could have mooched some of the enthusiasm from other runners as well. I felt like a bag of wet sand coming out of the start as I listened to frogs chirping in the nearby swamps. I always have a nervous stomach at the start of any race but this time I was feeling like I was going to hurl whenever I coughed even in the first mile. And I certainly was coughing as I was still kind of in a recovery mode from a bout with the flu a few weeks before that culminated in an ear infection a week later. The fluid in my ear had not totally drained and so my head was not quite in proper equilibrium. UGH! This had all forced me into an earlier and longer tapering period but I had been able to get out for a few runs while in Indy. So when the pack I was trudging along with slowed down to walk a hill, one that back at home was smaller than some frost heaves, I slowed to a walk as well.
It was about four miles to the first aid station, which I made to shortly after enjoying a beautiful sunrise. I put away my headlamp while I waited for a vacant porta potty. I grabbed a little water, passing on any food as I had plenty already with me.
I was still feeling awful after my first stop and had to hit the toilet at the next aid station about four more miles away. I found myself roughly around the same group of runners through most of the first loop. Someone might go ahead or fall behind for awhile but we all moved about the same eleven minute mile pace and of course even slower up the small hills. I was getting frustrated with myself for running so slow for me and not feeling any better. Sadly, thoughts of giving up were crossing my mind as my unbalanced head couldn’t contemplate running forty more miles. I knew those thoughts were so completely foolish as I really couldn’t have a much better running day as the temps were only slightly rising and a light breeze dried any sweat that seeped out of my epidermis. Besides, the trail conditions were spectacular. Roots, rocks and mud, I don’t believe they exist in Indiana. Okay, a little mud but my shoes have gotten dirtier walking the kids to school.
At the last aid station, which was at the same location as the first, I was pretty dejected and seeing a runner taking off leaving the first meant that he was already seven miles ahead of me. Sure, I didn’t know which race he was running, but to know you are seven miles behind does not encourage you when you’re mustering up all you have just to feel ‘normal.’
Miraculously, somewhere between the last aid station and the start area I had a transformation. Maybe it was when I finally passed the lady wearing the purple tutu and other highly decorative clothes while running up a hill instead of walking it that I began to feel like a runner for the first time all day. There were a couple other small hills that I decided to run up, not at full pace, rather than walk and soon I began to see that my pace was not in double digits anymore. I still hit one more toilet just before that start area. I signaled to Bruce where to meet up with me so I could reload my bladder bag.
I turned down food resupplies from Bruce as I still had plenty, even though I had been doing a better job than usual in taking in some calories. Someone stepped up to help me fill the bladder bag and I was taking off for my second loop before the 3:10 mark. Slower than I expected but at least I was feeling stronger and looking forward to making up some time on the second loop.
The frogs were still croaking as I slowly began to pass a few runners I had seen near the start. I enjoyed seeing the landscape around me that was obscured the first time around. It wasn’t really that pretty as spring hadn’t really sprung in that part of the state. Back in Indy, many of the trees were beautifully blooming while here in Albion you could gaze for long distances through the stark forest.
My focus turned more to my pace than the scenery and as I got to the first aid station I was thrilled to find some potatoes all ready for consumption and also that I didn’t need to drop the kids off at the pool. I followed some strong looking runners out of the station and although I walked the hills with them we continued to pick up the pace. Soon it was just me behind two others and one asked if I wanted to pass. I wasn’t quite yet ready to set the pace and so I stayed behind for another mile or so until we caught some others and then I moved on past over one of the few rough areas of trail.
There were a few minor sections of road running involved on the course, the longest stretch coming into the second aid station, certainly less than a mile but long enough to get into a solid pace and hold it without having to think about any obstacles. I felt even better coming into the aid station as Bruce was there to support and encourage. I grabbed some more potatoes and water walking as fast as I could eager to get back on the trail.
All continued to go well and every time my watch beeped marking another mile I made sure to drink from my bladder and grab something to eat every second mile. My head was still slightly off and I knew there was really nothing I could do about that other than see a doctor when I got back home, but more importantly my legs felt good, my stomach felt good and I had less than a lap and a half to go.
Sadly, on the part of the trail where I began to feel good the lap before, I now began to feel rotten again. Oh crap, I thought, did I wear myself out pushing the pace when I should have been saving energy for the last lap? Bruce moved to the same spot near the starting area as I came in at the end of lap two. I had finished in less than three hours but now I began to realize that the mileage on my watch was wrong as it read over thirty four miles. Bruce grabbed my pack to refill the bladder while I grabbed some more potatoes.
This was it, there was no stopping me now. I really didn’t care what it would take to complete that third lap, I was determined to finish. Sure I wanted to stop and hurl my guts out but I didn’t want to drive all the way back to Maine wondering what if. Four miles to the next aid station and about forty minutes if all went well.
It was hard getting back on pace, the small hills were now mocking me a little but I could still take some of them down without feeling any worse for the wear. In my head though I was saying to respect these hills as there were still plenty ahead and that although small they could still suck away whatever energy I had left.
There was also a road leading to the first aid station, and I got a kick watching other runners and myself running on the loose dirt that had built up on the shoulder. Plenty of nice even pavement to run up the hill to the aid station but we all just had to run on whatever dirt there was to be found. More potatoes, now washed down with some Pepsi. No Coke, we serve Pepsi here.
I was on the tails of a young woman coming out of the station and after I caught up to her on one of the hills I asked if she was running through the night. Somehow I thought that was a better way to ask someone if they were doing a hundred or fifty. She said all night and would only have her mother pace her for a few miles. She was running strong but I hoped she wasn’t wearing herself out as I now was feeling again like a runner and back under double digit pace. I left her behind before I hit the road and promised another runner that there was wine, women and song just up ahead. Well there really wasn’t that, but at least Bruce was there again. I got some Ben Gay like cream from him as my right knee was getting a little sore and fueled up just as before. I didn’t care about the pain. I knew that if I could keep up the effort I would be rewarded with a finish under nine hours. That was the goal. Nine.That was my safe number, my state school college application. My Harvard acceptance letter would be closer to eight. Now, I was feeling really good about getting through that first lap and still achieving a nine hour finish. To do that I just had to continue to push myself.
There was around six or seven miles to the finish from this aid station, and jokingly Bruce told me to take it easy as my family was about a half hour away from the park. I was excited to know they would be at the finish and I greatly looked forward to seeing them all.
The light pain in my knee didn’t have any effect on my pace and I was now catching runners who I was pretty sure were still just on their second lap. I passed one guy who was actually talking on his phone. Nicely he did move aside and did say something nice to me. I was unplugged except for my watch and had very few tunes in my head all day. A little Tom Petty with some Indiana lyrics but otherwise the only thing in my head was the built up fluid still in my ear canal.
I did have one flashback to my Albion childhood as the odor of manure from a nearby field made it’s way past my blocked nasal cavity. Ahhh, the sweet smell of cow shit, you can’t have corn on the cob without it. Pass the butter please.
I passed one guy and another who had blown past me earlier in the race, the former stayed with me a little. We discussed finishing in under nine and how I thought it was totally possible as I had a little less than five miles left according to my watch. He said his watch indicated more. Whomever was right, I was more motivated knowing that I might not make nine.
I caught up with another guy, with only one arm, who did say he was doing the hundred and agreed we could make fifty in under nine. I stepped back the pace slightly to talk with him and also because my upper right thigh was getting quite sore and I was finding it difficult to lift that leg. We got to the last aid station together and I downed a couple Mountain Dews.
The one armed gentlemen,Tony, was back to the race before me, as I also asked about the mileage, which was 2.7 to the finish. Tony was running really strong out of the station, but I kept him in sight and kept a close eye on my watch.
I don’t know exactly when my watch beeped for the fifty mile mark, but it was not that close to the finish. I managed to catch back up to Tony and told him that he looked really strong. He encouraged me and now I was pretty sure about beating nine. Then suddenly, from around a corner in front of me I spotted my wife Mo’. She said she would run with me and asked a little about my finish. She soon understood that I was on a mission and as much as would have loved to run more with her I had a time to beat. Soon up ahead were my kids and sister in-law Kay, Bruce’s wife, and the kids also wanted to run with me. Mo’ was now well behind and I told the kids they would need to keep up and they did for a short while but they were just too far from the finish for me to take their hands and cross the finish line with them.
Waiting for me at the finish line was Bruce. I was glad he was there to celebrate, he deserved  to be there as I did beat the nine hour mark by less than two minutes. It’s kind of crazy but after nearly nine hours of running, it is kind of hard to stop. Just to end it by trotting under some balloons and stepping across mechanized timing mats after so much effort to be suddenly done was a slightly surreal feeling. Maybe I was really wasn’t looking forward to the long car ride home back to Maine. Running for another nine hours might be easier than sitting in a Kia for sixteen hours.
It was also hard to believe the race was over as my kids came running to me, not to congratulate me but to tell me how excited they were that I bought them The Goonies to watch on the ride home. There were other movies but this was new and well, it is The Goonies one of the greatest pirate treasure hunting movies ever made!
I slowly walked around, eating a couple of bananas and made my way back to the car. In less than half an hour after my finish we were on our way back to Maine. Of course I spent most of that half hour thanking Bruce and promising to crew for him whenever needed. I even volunteered to be his porter should he and Kay decide to head to Machu Pichu. Actually Bruce himself was to run the Mini Marathon in Indianapolis the next weekend even though he was dealing with a very sore hip. He was doing some marathons and the Mini when I first started racing, and I thank him for inspiring me as well as supporting me. Raise your glass to Bruce!
I was driving the next morning somewhere still in Western New York, as we had stopped for the night outside of Buffalo, when I looked at the clock and saw it was almost ten o’clock. I told Mo’ that the hundred mile race was coming to an end if someone hadn’t already finished. How I wished for anyone left on the course that the finish line was in view and that their family and or friends were there to cheer them on the finish.
Fortunately the drive home from there was less than the time I spent on my feet the day before. Still, that is no way to recover from an ultra. Next time around I want to stay much closer to the finish line for at least twelve hours. Until then, it’s time to train again with hopes for strong support from my crew and family, fair weather, good food, cold drinks, and to feel better later than sooner.


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