“Time to race!” I huffed under my breath as I pushed even harder to chase down Mr. NoShirt and Camille Herron in the final miles of the Fall 50, this year’s U.S. 50-mile road championship. It all boils down to this. All the hours training, all the early mornings, all the late nights, all the travel plans, and all the race plans are about getting to this place: striking distance. I had the backs of two solid runners in sight and now it was time to go.
I worked a week of overnights the week prior to the race—which was not ideal—but it forced a taper and I was able to get some good rest in the several days before the race.
Jenny and I took the redeye Wednesday, arriving before the sun in Chicago on Thursday morning. It was an easy drive up to the sweet little harbor town of Sturgeon Bay. This city serves as the entrance to Door County, Wisconsin, a favorite vacation spot known for its cherry wines, great boating and beautiful scenery.
Sturgeon Bay is also where the race finishes and the huge after-party begins! The weather was beautiful when we arrived, so we took the opportunity drive the course stopping to pick up cheese and local craft beer along the way.
I also picked up some Coke for the race!
Last year I was signed up to run the Fall 50 as my first 50 mile but decided to target the North Face Endurance Challenge in San Francisco instead. This year, after Western States, I was seeking a bit of change and wanted to get some turnover and road speed (i.e. relative ultrarunner leg speed) back in my legs. The Fall 50 being the USATF road 50-mile national championship was good timing and the obvious choice. Given the race would be fast, I also was hoping to run a sub-5:40 time, which is a qualifying criteria to make the USA World 100K team. Additionally, it was a great excuse to visit Madison, Wisconsin to catch up with friends.
With input from my training partner and professional coach Mario Fraioli, we devised a 6-week training plan prior to the Fall 50. In this block, I tried to incorporate “marathon-style” training back into my schedule for the first time since moving to California from Minnesota in 2013. For me, this usually meant one hard interval workout and one longer road progression run a week. These progression runs are my training bread and butter. They challenge the mind and body to stay strong and focused at the end of a long run. I run these at a “comfortably hard” effort with the intent of progressing the pace to finish the last 3-10 miles around marathon to half marathon pace. During this block, it also felt great to feel the burn while chasing speedie local roadies around the track. I hoped training on relatively flat roads would help me get back the efficiency that is vital for an ultra road race.
I also got my butt kicked in a few local cross country races with the San Francisco Running Company (SFRC) Racing Team to stay sharp and have an excuse hang with friends on a Saturday morning.
Welcome back to the Midwest! As predicted, the beautiful weather from the prior days was dissipating and it was raining and 50 degrees at start the race. My former Minnesota self would have thought nothing of this but in two years California has made me soft. Though not used to rain and cold, I was actually excited to have this added factor to the race. These conditions make me feel alive and I knew the rain would only serve to favor me, given the strong field of talented runners. I wore a light Houdini jacket, head Buff, arm warmers and light gloves to start—most of which I would strip off by mile 20.
This would also be the first race that I’ve worn a heart rate monitor, which was a bit of an experiment. I had started to use it a bit in training to see how my perceived effort correlated to heart rate. I am a bit of a data geek but also value the simplicity of just running by feel. The plan was to run by feel and use the heart rate monitor as a guide. Based on training practice, Google searches, and asking around, I figured keeping my heart rate between 145-150 would be the sweet spot.
I felt great off the start line, running smooth and enjoying the early rolling hills. I did not push it, running 6:20-40 mile pace for the first rolling miles. Early on, the rain got progressively harder, which was honestly pretty fun and added a trail race-like experience to the road.
On the other hand, I cannot say many positive things about the 10-25 mph cross and headwinds that we faced throughout the day. Wind blows—pun fully intended—on the road or trail.
Hitting the first aid station at mile 5, I was ready to exchange my Simple bottle for a fresh one as planned, when Jenny handed me a disposable water bottle filled with a Tailwind mixture. “Here, use this, we forgot the water bottles,” Jenny said as I tried to cruise past. I could not believe, even after so many races, that I forgot my water bottles and two bottles of Coke at the hotel! I snagged the bottle and juggled it as I attempted to pour it into my Simple bottle while I kept running. All I could think was: “I hope she can find some Coke too!” Given the aid stations were close and we were moving well, I knew this might be tough, but I also knew that Jenny is a great problem solver and would do whatever it takes to help me stay fueled and hydrated.
Camille Herron, who had just won the 100K world title, caught up to me around mile 10. She was pushing the hills a bit harder than me. In race, I use the uphills as a place to keep a steady effort and not push. The downhills are my domain where I know I can let loose and make up any time lost on a slightly slower climb. Having spent the last two years practicing running downhill fast, I had no worries about pushing hard on the downhills, even in a 50 mile race. I knew my legs could handle it. Camille and I ran by two strong runners (Isaiah Janzen and Jeremy Morris) before descending down through the second aid station near mile 12.
The second aid station transition went well and Jenny had found some Coke! I took a shot of Coke and did another quick water bottle juggle to get some more Tailwind. There was another climb and descent before entering one of the most beautiful sections of course through Peninsula Park. Jenny and I had scouted this area on Thursday so it was nice to enter some familiar and beautiful territory. It is here the course truly earns its claim as “The Most Scenic Distance Run in the Midwest.”
There were some fast miles through the rolling hills and brilliant colors of changing fall leaves. In this section, Camille and I passed Michael Borst, who was coming off a stellar Superior 100 mile finish. Unfortunately, he dropped out later in the race. I really felt smooth and was happy to have about half a mile of smooth dirt trail before getting back on the roads.
Once you pop out of the park, you quickly hit the fourth aid station followed by a gradual climb for the next several miles. Camille was in sight through this section but she was pushing harder on the climbs. I went through mile 25 two minutes under course record pace (2:42, 5:24 predicted finish), so I knew I was moving well and still had a shot at a sub-5:40 USA World 100K qualifier time.
As I approached mile 28 and the fifth aid station, I saw Camille and a second runner. This turned out to be Tyler Sigl, last year’s winner, who was having a rough day and later dropped. I stopped quickly at the aid station to restock and was passed by a shirtless runner who ran through without stopping (Mr. NoShirt turned out to be Durango-based young gun Anthony Kunkel). Having passed Tyler—and now right behind Mr. NoShirt—I remained in fourth place.
Next, there was a great short downhill before we hit the next fairly flat section. I passed 50K in 3:23. This section was the biggest grid of the day, and even though it was flat, it was also very exposed. The strong winds we had been battling all day became a bit more apparent and my paced slowed through this section (6:50-7:10 per mile). Camille and Kunkel remained in sight. My focus turned to maintaining my turnover, my effort and my individual mile splits. I figured a sub 5:40 finish was off the table given the winds and my slowing pace.
The last big climb at mile 39 is less than half a mile long and it actually felt good to use different muscles to climb, even though it was my slowest mile of the day. By now, I lost sight of Camille and Kunkel as the road became more winding.
At the last aid station (mile 45), I heard they were about a minute and a half ahead of me. I knew most runners would come back if I could maintain or quicken my finishing pace. I relied on the strength of my training progression runs and started to focus on the chase. Over the last 5 miles I steadily dropped my pace and I could see them both running strong, but also slowly coming back to me.
Finally, hitting the cemetery (which marks 1 mile to go), I glanced at my watch and did some quick math (not advisable) and realized I could still go under 5:40.
I dug deep the last mile and both runners were in “striking distance” with quarter of a mile to go and one last turn into the park for the finish. Camille turned first off the main road, then Kunkel, who I could tell was pushing hard. I saw Kunkel pass Camille after the turn and I knew I had a shot. Right then all heck broke loose as the white capped waves crashed on the lake shore and sideways rain began pelting us in the face. I squinted to see Kunkel cross the line in front of me and I pushed hard to sneak by Camille with 50 meters to go. Through the sideways rain, I could see 5:38 on the clock! Camille came quickly behind and collapsed on the ground and we all congratulated one another, finishing less than 30 seconds apart over 50 miles.
Congrats to Camille and Kunkel on their great races. Camille ran a WORLD RECORD time for the 50 mile, though, unfortunately it will not count as the course does not meet specific criteria (see Camille’s race report for details). Given the weather, no one was at the actual finish line, except for a few cold and wet crew members who quickly ushered us into the warm tent.
Zach Bitter crushed his own course record running 5:17. In talking after the race, he thought given the conditions we all lost around 10-15 minutes but who knows (Zach’s race report).
The after-party was spectacular and highly recommended. Free pizza, free beer, and tons of crazy costumes on the 50 mile relay runners made for a fun night!
Congrats to the other racers and thank you once again to the race organizers and tough volunteers!
Race Director Sean Ryan who puts on a first class road race! I hope to be back again!
Jenny for being the best crew ever and braving the wind and cold. Thanks for all the training runs and encouragement along the way. You’re the best.
Stance socks: the style and performance can’t be beat. I had no blisters after running 50 miles in wet shoes and socks!
Ten mile splits: 1:05, 1:04, 1:07, 1:11, 1:11
25-mile split: 2:42
26.2-mile split: 2:52
50K split: 3:23
50-mile finish: 5:38
Average heart rate
– Cliff bar
– Bogg’s Nut butter (4.5 oz package)
– 8 oz Redbull
– 1L Gatorade
– Simple bottle
– Tailwind Endurance Fuel
– Roctane (1 every 30 minutes)
– Salt sticks (1-2 every 60 minutes)
– Coke, as needed
– Hoka One One Huaka
– Stance Fusion Run crew socks
– Suunto Ambit 3 watch and heart-rate monitor