Old gravestones and mysterious stone structures lined the muddy wooded trail hugging the Fox River. Sam and I were hiking and going over race strategy for tomorrow morning's High Cliff 50K. Sam, a friend of mine that I met volunteering at an ultramarathon last year, was crashing at my place tonight before the race. "Man, I have to go to the bathroom but I don't want to accidentally pee on a grave and be cursed or something," he said uncomfortably. I laughed and we debated the existence of paranormal beings.
Sam was hoping just to finish strong and use the race as a solid training run for his next 100-miler. I, having trained my butt off on the course the last couple months, was hoping to drop my 50K PR significantly. I was going to be competing for the win at this little event.
Sam went to bed at a reasonable time while I stayed up way past my bedtime doing homework. After laying down, I tossed and turned for hours visualizing the race and going over my race strategy again and again. When I finally drifted off I had only 4 hours until my alarm went off.
I woke up a bit before my alarm and started whipping up breakfast. Soon after, Sam rose and my friends, Zach and Hailee, arrived at my house. The other two would be crewing me during the race by filling my water bottles, putting ice in my hat, and moving my gear from aid station to aid station. I was super grateful they chose to come.
"So, Tanner," Zach began. "What's the goal for today?" Nervously I said, "Sub 4:20:00 is the optimistic goal. With that kind of time, I should be able to compete for the win this year. We'll see how the race plays out." My 50K PR from last year was 4:48:45. I knew my goal today was aggressive but my fitness had been improving significantly the past few months.
After finding a parking spot near the start, Sam and I picked up our bibs while Zach and Hailee set up shop at the first aid station. Shortly before the start, my mom arrived to hug and wish me good luck.
As we walked over to the starting corral, Sam grinned and pointed at the front of the group, "You're up there." I smiled, forgetting I was competing for the win in this race. Granted that this was a small local ultra, it still didn't compute that I'd be a serious contender. I'd come a long way as a runner in the last year.
After a speech from the RD, Mark Garrigan, he yelled "Go!" and we were off! The lead pack pulled away from the main group pretty quickly. Jason, Jon, Ryan, and I led things out, splitting a sub 7-minute mile for the first mile.
The course was a 15.5-mile loop, a total of two loops for the 50K race. The first 5 miles of each loop are packed with big hills and technical trails while the rest of the course is pretty tame. We all stuck pretty much together for the first loop.
I kept my hat packed with ice and stayed on top of fluids and gels. I was feeling really good going into the second loop but dialed things back a little and let the three guys break away a little, knowing the current sub 8-minute pace was unsustainable for me.
Having Hailee and Zach at the two main aid stations helped a lot. They always had water and ice ready for me, making my stops significantly shorter. About mile 23 or so I caught Ryan; he was slowing down a bit. We talked for a little while but then I plowed onwards. I was going to try to pace this thing fairly evenly to the finish line.
At 26.2 miles I looked down at my Strava session. I was just 5 minutes off my road marathon PR. I could hardly believe my eyes. My legs and feet ached and burned horribly but I knew this race was going to turn out well if I just stayed focused.
At about mile 29, the final aid station, I was told the leader, Jason, was 5+ minutes ahead of me and second place, Jon, was a few minutes ahead. I had a secret weapon, though: my iPod. I was saving it for the last couple miles, hoping it would get me through the worst of the pain. I hugged my little brother who stood anxiously next to my mom. Then I plunged back into the woods.
Mountains and No Time for Caution by Hans Zimmer blared in my ears, flooding my head with endorphins. I ran as hard as I could those last couple miles. I ran so hard that my vision went blurry. My brain wasn't getting the oxygen it needed and if I wasn't careful I knew I'd pass out. I laughed to myself. This was no time for caution, after all. I maintained that effort for about a mile, trying my hardest to make out the details of the ground. I didn't want to trip; I was almost there.
About a half mile from the finish I caught a glimpse of Jon. He seemed so far, but I knew I had gained a ton of ground on him. I tried running harder but my chest felt like it would collapse; I could hardly breathe.
I finished 3rd with an official time of 4:16:16, crossing the finish line a mere 18 seconds behind Jon. Jason had won the race by a margin of just 3 minutes. A hell of a race. I'd managed to slice 32 minutes off my 50K PR as well.
After exchanging a few words with the two guys and the race director, I limped back to my crew and awaited Sam's finish.
Congrats to all the finishers and thank you to all the volunteers as well as the race director Mark Garrigan. The race was a ton of fun!