Race Report: 2010 Winona Lake 50 Mile
It’s midnight. I’m standing next to my car in a grassy field somewhere in the middle of Indiana. Wearing nothing but a headlamp. I’ve got 9 hours worth of sweat, dirt, mud, and smashed mosquitoes to scrub off before driving back to Chicago to catch a flight home. Such is the life of a traveling ultra runner.
A couple of weeks ago, when plans were made for a short business trip to Chicago, I surfed through a couple of race calendars to see what might be going on close by. The Winona Lake Ultra immediately hit the top of my list. They were offering 5k, 10 mile, 50k, and 50 mile distances. Although my training had been a bit limited due to my slowly improving heel injury, I felt like I had the base to jump in the 50 miler. As an added twist, the race didn’t start until 2:30 in the afternoon (mountain bike races were being held on the course all morning), which meant we’d be running in the dark for the last couple of hours. That sold me. I love running through that transition of day to night, even better when it’s in a race.
So, the goals going in were to have fun racing in a new environment, and pace myself so that I could continue training and building towards Leadville without taking a huge hit and needing time off for recovery. I felt zero pressure and was pretty relaxed about the whole thing. I’ve been kind of stuck on the marathon/50k distance for a while and was looking forward to running my first 50 miler in two years.
It was great to actually sleep in on race day for a change, and I took my time making the 3 hour drive down to Warsaw, IN. The Winona Lake area was very nicely developed, with a lot of shops and parks. It was so hot and humid, though! I knew this would be the case, but man – it’s a hard transition to make coming from the crisp air of Colorado. I tried for a quick change into my running clothes in the car, but didn’t have it idling with the AC on – I think I sweated out 15 pounds in 5 minutes! Wow, it was going to be brutal running in this stuff. I knew the key would be to run within my limits and really do a good job with hydration and nutrition.
There were only 12 runners doing the 50 mile race. Pretty small, but I was happy to even see that many turn out to take a shot at this first year event. I was a little skeptical when signing up, but have to say that Planet Adventure did a great job of putting on this race. Course was well marked, aid stations were well supplied, and the results + photos were made available in a timely manner. Nice work!
Right as we were being called to the line for last minute instructions, the skies opened up and dumped more water than I think I had ever seen falling before. Wow. The race director (even though using a microphone and nice PA system) had to shout to be heard over the wind/rain/thunder. I was smiling and shaking my head – my fingers were all pruned up before we even started. Here we go…
Lap 1: The course was a total bowl of spaghetti – cramming a 10 mile loop into a pretty tight area that we would be running 5 times. It was a challenging trail with turn after turn and tons of ups and downs to knock you out of your running rhythm. A lead pack of 5 formed pretty soon and while I didn’t feel like I was running hard at all, my heart rate was very high and I could tell I was all out-of-sorts. Just couldn’t settle in and get comfortable. After a few miles of that, I decided to slow down a bit and let the group go while my body adjusted to the effort in the heat. The rain had stopped and we were really starting to bake now. We were in a steamy jungle, being attacked by swarms of mosquitoes, and plowing through ankle-deep mud and shin-deep puddles over and over again.
Lap 2: I was still working to get comfortable, feeling a little better, but still not where I wanted to be. I had passed 2 runners without much extra effort and was now solidly into 3rd place. They were looking like heat zombies, and I’m sure I wasn’t too far from that either. This lap was extra hot and 6 runners would end up dropping out by the 20 mile point. I knew I would need to take in as much water as I could stand, but had to be careful to not go overboard. Balanced salt intake would be critical. No worries, I had 20 salt capsules in a small baggie. Well, think again – reaching into the bag a couple of times (I should have just shaken them out into my palm) started a chain reaction and reduced the whole thing to a gooey salt blob. Luckily the race provided single-serving Endurolytes in foil packets at the aid stations, that really saved my day.
Lap 3: Now we’re talking. I finally had the intensity dial tweaked and settled on the 6.5 – 7 range. Letting my legs just carry me along. I was feeling much better and starting to enjoy the course as I was getting to know it a little more each time around. A few miles from the end of the lap, another huge storm hit and it was full-on Armageddon for a little while. I was dodging falling trees and branches. The wind was intense, along with tons more rain, lightning, and thunder. At one point, a branch the size of a baseball bat fell from 30+ feet and just missed me. I’ve already been tagged pretty solidly by a rock during a race before, and I wasn’t very anxious to add a tree to that list. I was half expecting to be waved off the course when I came through the start/finish area, but was given a few words of encouragement over the PA and signaled back with a thumbs-up as I continued on.
Lap 4: The storm abated after another mile or two and things got downright peaceful for a while. It was getting to be that time where I probably should have turned my headlamp on, but kept delaying. I like to run for as long as possible without it – and the fireflies were putting on a brilliant show! Definitely a treat for me. I passed the time by lapping a few 50k runners and listening to the splash of my feet through the mud and the puddles. It was nice. I was well into the zone now and the auto-pilot was fully engaged.
Lap 5: Now it was very dark. The damp air created a little bit of mist low to the ground. I felt like I had the energy to pick up the pace a little, but every time I tried even just a little bit, I would start stumbling over the roots, rocks, and stumps. Until I finally hooked a root with my forefoot and was down like a pancake in a millisecond. Luckily the ground was soft, so no real impact damage, but I torqued my knee and it was sending sharp pains every time I tried to run. I alternated walking and jogging for a bit until it finally settled down and I was able to return to my previous steady pace. I was pretty amazed to be feeling great otherwise, I think I did an awesome job of balancing the effort with the environment and taking in the proper amounts of everything.
Final loop: A small loop was tacked on the end to get the mileage up to 50. I felt great. I dropped my bottle and emptied my pockets as I came through for the last time and ran fast and free. Cranking the dial up to 9. Normally I can hit a hill pretty hard at the end of the race, but it will cost me and I’ll need to recover a bit. This time I steamrolled them all and didn’t even flinch. Plenty left in the tank. I was fully adjusted to the trail and headlamp and was able to really let it fly.
I finished feeling strong and fast – and very satisfied with how the race had played out. Ultra number 17 was done. I’ve definitely learned a lot over the past couple of years and enjoyed putting all of it into play during this event. I ran the last 35+ miles essentially solo, and never even put on the ipod that I had with me. I stayed mentally strong and focused, and didn’t let myself go harder than what I could comfortably sustain. I wasn’t even sore after this one. Nice!
The splits: More than anything else, I’m so happy with how my lap splits played out. For the last 3 laps (30 miles) of this race on a wet, twisty, hilly course – my times were all within a 46 second window! Talk about robo-runner. 1:52:31, 1:53:17, 1:53:03.
Results here. I was only a minute out of second place and didn’t even know it until after the fact.