“Always remember our goal is Greece. Don’t mess up and I’ll try my best to get us there.” That was the final remark in the crew notes to my wife for this race.
So let’s get the main details out of the way. This is a 100 mile race in extreme southern Illinois (Land of Lincoln!) on an old railroad bed. It isn’t paved so it is still technically a trail but because it’s so flat and smooth, it is also a certified course for distance. The course is an out and back from a central location; You end up doing a Southern and Northern out and back twice for the 100 mile. It’s in November so the temperatures are near ideal and little chance for rain in November. Basically it was designed for fast times and breaking records. Despite being flat, it is quite pretty. There’s a 543 foot long tunnel you go through 4 times, and lots of trestles. Also, with 566 total starters there are plenty of chances to talk to other people. I’ll detail the race results later.
This race required a 10+ hour drive from MN to get there. That’s a long way for a race but the entire purpose was to get under 21 hours to qualify for a future race. I further wanted to get under 20 hours so that was my goal. It wasn’t just because under 20 hours seems cooler than under 21, but the race I was qualifying for has reduced their time cutoff in the past and I wanted to be under what I thought they might change it to. While this race would be easy to do without a crew since it’s an out and back past the same drop bags multiple times, I brought my awesome wife to crew once again. I had all of about 15 minutes of down time changing clothes, peeing, getting food and drink because of her. The majority of aid stations I wouldn’t even stop as she’d just hand me water and gels on the move. Not having her would’ve added 30 minutes to my time.
The drive was long and filled with “Land of Lincoln” signs all through Illinois which induced many inside jokes and voices. We got to the race bib pickup and supper before they closed. It is a good spaghetti supper with awesome desserts! They also had sweet tea so you now you were in way Southern Illinois. We stayed in a town to the North since Vienna doesn’t have much for hotel rooms. It seemed like we had to drive uphill for a long ways which made me wonder what the climb to tunnel hill would be like on the course.
I got up at 4am for a 7am start. The temperature was 28 degrees and zero wind so I had to start with a thermal long sleeve shirt, gloves and buff knowing I’d have to change after a couple hours when it warmed up. Shorts were still in order though. I saw runners wearing full jackets and long pants the entire race, I suspect they lived somewhere warmer.
There is a small warm building there at the start line you could go in and a good amount of porta-potties. Even though the course is certified for distance they had us do this loop around the parking lot at the start. I don’t know if this was required for the distance or just extra we ran. With there also being a 50 mile race, it seemed odd since we never ran this loop a second time for the 100 mile distance.
I started somewhat up front, trying to leave room for fast 50 milers. The race is chip timed but not from the starting line so your start time is gun time. I wasn’t going to start 5 minutes in the hole lining up in the back, plus I thought a sub 20 hour time should be somewhat in the front. Again, I really needed under 21 hours which is why I was so concerned with a few minutes here and a few seconds there, it really could make the difference.
I planned a slow degradation in my speed for the race with some adjustments for the incline and decline of tunnel hill. Basically I started at a 9:10 pace and would finish with a 13:20 going downhill to the finish line. I had been using Sword drink all year in preparation for this race since it would be served here and also I wanted to try something with fructose in it. I’ve liked it so far this year. BUT… I really don’t like the Orange flavor. So sure enough, that’s all they had at the race. Ugh! I could only stomach it for the first 30 miles or so and then I was going to drink my limited supply of berry flavor I brought. In the end though I only drank water the remainder of the race.
I’ll quickly state that while I’m confident the race course is indeed 100 miles (plus whatever fudge factor they always add for certified courses) I don’t agree with the distances between different aid stations. Not a huge deal if you have a GPS watch but if you’re going with just a watch, you’ll be wondering why some sections are going faster/slower than you thought. Also it’s hard to know what part of the aid station they are measuring from. Often the timing mat isn’t at all near the aid station tent and Karnak and Tunnel Hill are very long areas.
My wife made it to the first aid station Heron Pond and I just did a Sword swap. Next up was Karnak and here I changed into a T-shirt as it was above 40 now and still zero wind on the trail at least. I had been talking to people here and there up to this point. I had listened to a loud conversation about relationships by a group of women behind me for about 20 minutes. Finally I ran with a woman named Abby going for sub 20 as well. We stuck together for an hour or so but she ended up dropping to the 50 mile distance I found out later.
From Karnak to the Southern turn-around is almost 2.6 miles according to my watch and Google Earth and not the 2.4 miles listed. To compensate for this Karnak to Heron Pond and Heron Pond to Vienna are both shorter than listed but mostly the Karnak to Heron Pond is shorter. I’m going from tent to tent for measurements.
Abby and I got to the turnaround which has a timing mat but isn’t updated to the live results website as far as I can tell. I assume it is there to make sure you didn’t cheat. Soon after the turn I saw a friend of mine that I knew was also going for a qualifying time. I had previously told her I’d slap her butt if she wasn’t keeping up so I started motioning as to get her back side as she passed me. Of course I wasn’t really going to slap her, but in the process I scared the crap out of the woman running in front of her. I yelled “sorry” over my back and hope she heard me.
So 14 miles down and a bunch more to go. The trail is tree lined the entire way and very pretty, especially on the North section. I went into cruise mode. Eating gels and some ham and cheese sandwiches they had at aid stations, and Sword. Still doing under 10 minute miles and banking some time. I was up 10 minutes by the time I finished the first Southern loop and got to Vienna.
The photos are from somewhere around mile 20 I think.
I got my music out now as people were just kind of following their own game plan. There is an aid station called Shelby Road just under 3 miles from Vienna going North. I just got some more gels and Sword from my wife. This is were I typically slow down in an ultra. My stomach gets acidy, it usually is hot (not this race though), and I’m just out of glycogen after 30 miles. I only drank water the rest of the race and didn’t eat much until I got back to Vienna at 50 miles.
I planned on 11 minute miles for this Northern loop but I was slower than that and I could feel it. I had even done some math 20 miles into the race on what it would take to do sub-19. Now I was hoping I could somehow hang onto sub-20. I of course knew there are ups and downs and yet I’m always seemingly surprised when the first down shows up. I had to start a running/walking pattern at Shelby Road that I maintained the remainder of the race. Run 5 / walk 1. The same I had done at my first 100 miler at Heartland 100. My muscles were just tired of the same flat surface and the walking made a huge difference on things getting loose and normal feeling again.
The trail on paper starts to climb right away from Vienna to Tunnel Hill but to me it seemed like it didn’t really start until after Shelby Rd. You go up almost 300 feet from Vienna to Tunnel Hill in 9 miles. That certainly isn’t much but like I said it seemed to be more concentrated towards Tunnel Hill. You can definitely see you’re going up during the daytime watching the trail cut into the bedrock in spots and seeing the people in front of you are uphill. It’s harder to notice going downhill. There is a long trestle before the tunnel that had gallon water jugs for an aid station. I think it is about 400 feet long and 90 feet high. You’re surrounded by hills though so there isn’t much of a view other than looking down.
The tunnel itself is 543 feet long and after about 100 feet it’s completely dark. You can see light at the end of the tunnel but that just makes it worse since the contrast is so high. I just had to trust there weren’t any holes for me to fall into or twist an ankle on. Even moving at a pretty good speed, it still takes a full minute to get through it.
I got to tunnel hill aid station which is a small town and a long parking lot along the trail. I had lost 4 minutes of time already. The Northern turn around is 2.1 miles away (not 2) and all downhill. It’s pretty and curves a lot so you really never know when you’re going to get there. Again you go over a timing mat and around a cone. Then the uphill back to tunnel hill. I saw Abby again about a half mile after the turn around so she was about 10 minutes back now and I knew behind her pace she wanted. I still didn’t try to count how many people were in front of me at this turnaround since there were still 50 mile runners and way too many people to count accurately. I didn’t see my friend Kimberly so I knew something must’ve happened to her. She did end up going over 50 miles so I should’ve past her somewhere but it was likely at an aid station. I saw some other VolState friends as well.
Back at tunnel hill it was all downhill to Vienna and I was looking forward to it. I was still only 5 minutes in front of my pace. I didn’t eat anything and only drank water. Antacids helped some. I saw people puking a lot. I heard many runners telling their crew they had puked or saw other people puking. I won’t go as far as to say it was like the Lardass scene from Stand By Me, but a case could be made that at least 10% of runners puked during the race. In fact, that’s what my friend ended up getting pulled from the race for. It wasn’t hot so that couldn’t be the reason. I suspect there are a LOT of runners trying for their first 100 mile distance at this race and inexperience was the cause for a lot of them. It’s also probably part of why so many drop to the 50 mile distance.
I got to Vienna just 2 minutes under my goal pace now. 9 hours into the race and 4pm on the clock. I was getting concerned but I was also happy that I stopped the bleeding now. I was feeling better. I had a breakfast shake, got my headlamp on and brushed aside the long sleeve t-shirt for now as it was still warm. My wife seemed kind of grumpy with my loosing time. I still technically had an hour buffer. She was still doing a great job keeping things running smoothly though.
I now had a 12 minute pace planned. I gained time again. It was dark now and I kept going back and forth with this group of 4 guys. Our run/walk patterns were different so I think we leap frogged a dozen times. I had to charge my watch from Heron Pond to Karnak so I didn’t really know how fast I was going but ended up staying pretty much where I wanted. My back started to hurt now and I could tell there was likely a blister on at least my left big toe but it only hurt if I purposely rubbed my toes in my shoes so I didn’t stop. This time from Vienna I started counting people in front of me. The leaders passed me still during the light. The first place woman was gaining on the male leader from the last 2 times I saw them. Then there was a long time before I started seeing more people in the dark. I just counted everyone, not knowing if they were just a pacer or not. I counted close to 50 by the time I got to the turn-around. I wasn’t concerned about place, just time but I felt happy with the number. In fact I was higher than 50th since there were a fair amount of pacers.
At Heron Pond the 4th time through, I stopped for the first time of the race and sat down. My lower back was all tight and I was hurting. I took an NSAID and had my wife massage me some. She got the knots out in like 4 minutes, awesome. I put on a light long sleeve shirt. With all this I also lost all my banked time. 29 miles left and no room for error.
I took some caffeine and got to Vienna. My wife had a double cheeseburger waiting for me. I knew the climb up tunnel hill would be slower so I planned on a 13:30 pace but even that was proving to be difficult. The winners had already finished so I didn’t bother to keep track of how many were in front of me. I started to get used to the idea of not getting under 20 hours as I just couldn’t get going. I finally got to the tunnel and it was much less creepy now that I had a light in the tunnel. I couldn’t believe there was no graffiti in it. I got to Tunnel Hill aid station 7 minutes behind my schedule. I drank some beet juice here and looked forward to the short downhill to the turn-around.
I cruised downhill but sucked going back up. I was 10 minutes behind schedule and basically had 2 hours to get back to the finish in under 20 hours. 9.7 miles in 2 hours. I had planned on a 13:20 pace back to the finish but would now essentially need under 12 to make up for stops and the lost time. I soon decided after leaving Tunnel Hill for the last time that I’d go for it. I took some more caffeine, ate a gel, and took off.
With the walking breaks I had to run under a 11 minute mile pace. With the slight downhill, it wasn’t all that difficult to keep the pace. I had to start mouth breathing again to get enough air and just concentrated on the 5 run / 1 walk timing and keeping the pace under 11 while running. It was clear after an hour that I was making up time very well. I would get to Shelby Rd back on pace meaning I had made up the 10 minutes already and just had under 3 more miles to go. I got to Shelby and told my wife I was going for it.
It was nice those last few miles. I knew I would make it but still kept up the pace. There were a few hundred mile people still coming from the other direction with encouraging words. I haven’t mentioned this before but there are mile markers along the tunnel hill trail and the finish line is just .15 miles after the nearest mile marker so I was constantly doing math on the way back in. I finished at 2:54am, 19:54:05 after I started! I think I made a whoo but there was basically no one there at the finish line to hear it. The crowd to watch Camille Herron break the women’s world record 100 miles on trail with a time of 12:42 were long gone. The aid station that had food before looked empty. Really the only people there were pacers waiting for their runners to do the Northern loop with them.
I finished in 28th place overall, 22nd male, and 10th in my age division.
I got a nice looking sub 24 hour buckle and running jacket. I thought there was supposed to be finish line food but I didn’t see it and maybe it didn’t start until later. Either way I wasn’t that hungry. For the first time I realized how horrible I smelled. There were supposed to be showers at the high school where we checked in the night before the race so we heading straight over there.
There were supposed to be signs where to go but we couldn’t find any. The doors to the school were open so we just searched around and found a gym and then looked downstairs for locker rooms. We could hear water running so we went in that direction. This is the point where I was glad I wasn’t alone. It’s 3am, we’re creeping around dimly lit halls in a school; Basically the beginning of every horror movie. I walk into a locker room that is fairly well lit but the lights are blinking in that annoying fluorescent strobe effect. No one answers my calls to “Hello”. I get back to the shower area and can see almost half of them are dripping water at a steady pace with only 1 incandescent bulb working in there. Luckily no one else was in there as I had no idea if this was a girls or boys locker room. There were still a couple small rooms going off this locker room that I didn’t investigate for a murderer but really I wasn’t going to be able to fight one off anyway. I had a hard enough time walking by this point.
I took off my shoes and socks and discovered a huge blister on my left big toe with the toe nail already lifted up. I also realized that while I had brought a towel and soap, I had forgot clothes to change into. So I went to the door naked trying to find my wife, and yelled at her outside. Luckily she heard me and got my clothes and a safety pin to pop the huge blister. We should’ve got a picture but whatever. The left side of the nail had moved a couple millimeters towards the end of my toe as well. I had always wondered why the left side of this nail wasn’t growing as fast as the right side of the nail from when I had lost it last year. I think the tip of the nail was getting caught under the skin towards the end of my toe and now that the blister had lifted the nail up, it just went up and over it like it should’ve been. That’s also the possible reason for the blister to begin with. That or these shoes were doing something I wasn’t aware of in training. Regardless, I’m starting over with this nail yet again. I had zero blisters at Superior 100 just 2 months ago and now I’ll likely loose 3 nails from this easy flat race.
The shower was nice and quick. It took some effort to get my compression tights on but I got them on with my wife’s help. She wasn’t super tired so we started the drive home right away. I tried to sleep in the passenger seat but it’s so hard to get comfortable with my feet and legs being so painful and not being able to put them up decently. I wasn’t that tired mentally either. I couldn’t keep my eyes open but I talked to my wife to keep her up and company until we stopped at a rest stop around 5am. She got the air mattress out for me and we both slept for about 80 minutes.
I then drove for a few hours until we were both kind of hungry a few hours later. There was a Jack in the Box and we always love those so she got gas while I went in to order. Afroman’s “Because I Got High” was playing loudly from the kitchen. I started laughing since most of the workers were in the single digits old when it came out. Also a totally inappropriate song to be playing since this was the unedited version. Anyway, I asked if they had burgers and the response was a glorious “we have a full menu all day”! I got the big double bacon burger combo and another sandwich for my wife. Only $5 for the same thing Hardee’s charges $8 for. Man I wish we had Jack in the Box in MN.
The rest of the trip was fairly benign. A good night’s sleep was had by all and we both had the day off work the next day as well.
The stats for this years race: 314 started the 100 mile race. 15 DNF’d, 119 dropped down to the 50 mile distance, which leaves only 180 to finish the 100 mile distance. That’s only a 57% completion rate. You’d think by the statistics that this is a super difficult race, it’s not. I really wouldn’t recommend this for someone’s first 100 mile race unless you are the type of person who would never quit or you really don’t care if you actually finish the 100miles. You need to know yourself that well, not just hope. Otherwise you’re very likely to quit by dropping down to the 50 mile distance since you still get a buckle and go right past the quitting point halfway through the race. 37% did just that this year with absolute perfect weather and conditions. They were no where near the time cutoff either.
I’d suggest a point to point race or long distance out and back where the only way back to the start line is to finish for your first. The only way you’ll see if you can do it is to force yourself by not giving yourself an out. You will hurt no matter how “easy” of a course a 100 mile race is on. I don’t recommend going for Superior as your first either as that one is quite difficult but there are lots of races in between the two.
The race itself is well run. I didn’t really make use of the aid stations since I had my wife to help. While there was plenty of food at the beginning of the race, it was basically all gone by dark. Even water was in short supply my wife said at times. I’m not sure if people ate way more than they expected or if crews were eating aid station food or what. Maybe a bunch more food showed up at 5am when I was already done, I guess just be prepared like you always should that there might not be food at an aid station. I would probably only run this again if I needed another fast time in November since it’s a pretty long drive for me. I don’t think you could find a better race as far as setting a personal best at the 100 mile distance.