I'm not sure what made me think this would be a good idea. 32 miles of trail, in Wisconsin, in January. The Ice Age Trail is just what you would picture it to be minus the wooly mammoths and sabertooth tigers. I was also naive to believe that I would be able to run this event like a traditional ultra marathon, even though I had seen the results from years past where the majority of people didn't finish within the allotted 12 hours if they even finished at all. Only 6 out of 26 solo or team competitors finished in 2008 and 17 out of 36 had covered the 32 miles in 2009. The fastest time of any year had been 9.5 hours. For some reason, call it ego or ignorance, I thought I was different. I thought that many people planned to hike it, so that was why the finish times were so high. I also thought that the weather conditions, extreme cold in 2008 and extreme snow in 2009 probably slowed finishing times down as well. I had even told my wife that worst case scenario; I would finish in about 7 hours. Come race day it became quickly all too clear how wrong I was.
Lucky for me, I have friends who are crazy enough to do things like this with me. When I emailed my buddy Jay about the race back in November, I thought I would get a quick and resounding, "No way!” To my surprise, within 5 minutes of contacting him, he was on the phone ready to sign up.
We arrived in Wisconsin around 9:30pm on Friday and checked into the hotel. Within about 5 minutes it looked like an REI garage sale as we had all of our gear spread out on the beds, trying to determine the best combination of practical and lightweight. In addition to a complete change of clothes you were required to bring an emergency shelter, headlamp, first aid kit and whatever food or drink you planned on needing for the event. Aid stations were only stocked with Heed and water to refill your hydration packs. My nutrition plan was pretty solid. I had 2 flasks full of espresso Hammer Gel, a couple Clif Bars, a water bottle mixed with 8 scoops of Perpetuem, back up Perpetuem powder to mix up at the half way point, a 3 liter water bladder, and a couple packs of Starbucks VIA on the off chance that there would be some hot water somewhere along the course. The forecast was calling for 38 degrees so we figured some of the heavier coats and gloves could be left behind. By the time we woke up on Saturday morning the high was changed to 32 but it wasn't enough of a difference to make any major changes to our packing list. After triple checking everything, we headed to the starting line inside of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.
After checking in, we investigated what we thought was the trail we'd be running on. The snow was pretty well packed down but if you stepped off of it you'd be in about 10 inches of powder. I was still fairly confident that we could run the whole thing but figured I should wear my gaiters and pack my trekking poles just to be safe. Our plan was simple, 10-12 minute miles with a minute walk break each mile. We figured we'd be drinking beers somewhere warm by the time the Colts game started.
The gun went off at 11:00 and the 32 miler solo athletes hit the trail, but not the one I thought we were running. I watched as they started by ascending a hill and then ran along a ridgeline that looked like a silhouette of Cedar Point. 5 minutes later the teams went off & Jay and I quickly moved to the front. The hills weren't bad to start but they didn't stop coming. You'd get to the bottom of one just to head up another. Even so, we seemed to be putting distance on the people behind us and had even passed a couple of the solo hikers. I think one of us even wondered out loud about our ability to win the whole thing. These dreams soon came to a screeching halt. The further along the trail we went, the worse the footing had become. Even though there had been some foot traffic, it wasn't enough to completely pack down the snow. It was worse than running in sand. No matter where you placed your foot, it would twist left or right leaving me with blisters and a bruised ankle by mile 7 from constantly kicking it with the other foot. I'm sure the steel coils of the Yak Traks didn't help the bruising situation either.
Soon, the people whom we had passed while running were catching us on our walk breaks. People using trekking poles were able to move at a faster, more consistent pace then we were able to by running. At mile 5, pride gave way to reality and the trekking poles came out. I was amazed by the fact that our next two miles were actually faster than what we were turning in with our walk/run plan. Better yet, I could actually lift my head up and enjoy the beauty of the scenery around me. Carved out when the glaciers started to recede 16,000 years ago, the Ice Age trail is remarkable.
We hit the first check point at 7.5 miles in 2 hours and 17 minutes. We still felt great and after a quick application of Body Glide to me blisters, we were on the trail again. During the next 9 miles to the half way point, the magnitude of the event started to sink it. We would still have to turn around and hike another 16 miles back, this time in the dark and with temperatures falling. Physically, I was feeling ok. Mentally, I was wondering what I had gotten myself into.
We arrived at the halfway point at 5 hours and 21 minutes. I figured it would be a good time to put some dry socks on and apply some more body glide to my blisters. I'm not sure what good that did as the blisters had already ripped wide open. I was surprised my sock didn't look like Curt Schilling's from the 2004 World Series. I thawed out a Clif Bar by the fire and took advantage of the hot water to make some coffee. Jay opted for the hot cider which he later regretted. He wondered out loud later on why he had drank it when he never drinks hot cider and that in the middle of a 32 mile race wasn't the best time to test it out. I thought about switching into a dry base layer at this point as well but decided to keep my current one on that way I still had a dry shirt if I needed it later in the race. We probably spent a bit too long this checkpoint. A full half hour had passed by the time that we made it back out on the trail. I felt mentally recharged but we only had 6 hours & 10 minutes to make it back to the start and daylight was fading and the temperatures were dropping rapidly.
We made it to mile 18 before we had to turn on our headlamps. Right around this time, I started to notice stiffness behind my knee cap. I figured it would work itself out but it only got worse as the miles went on. The night started out starless and visibility was limited to the beam from your headlamp. I t was also around this time that my hose frozen up on my hydration pack. I tried to thaw it by sticking the tube down my shirt but it was frozen solid. I would have to rely on my water bottle of Perpetuem for the rest of the race.
We caught up with another group of people heading back to the finish. At one point there was a line of about 10 of us hiker up the hills. It looked like a shot of Everest when everyone is lined up to make their summit bid. I had thought about trying to pass the group but the amount of energy it would have used would have been too great with over 10 miles left to go.
As we approached the last check point, I really wanted to hear some Bob Seger. I thought that nothing would motivate me more to keep moving than rolling in to the 24 mile mark with Hollywood Nights playing followed by some Travelin' Man/Beautiful Loser as we headed back into the darkness. I was not in luck. They did have a fire, Heed & venison. I passed on the latter as my stomach was in no shape for solid foods at this point. We quickly filled out water bottles and moved on. We had 2 hours and 55 minutes to cover the last 7.5 miles.
There wasn't much talking over the last part of the race. My knee pain had now spread to encompass the entire thing. The back of my knee hurt on the way up hill and the front hurt on the way down but there was no way I was quitting. I hadn't spent 9 hours in the woods to quit now. I just zoned out and listened to the rhythm of the trekking poles in the snow. I kept thinking about Krakauer's account of climbing the Devil's Thumb in Eiger Dreams & Into The Wild, "kick, kick, swing, swing" as he forced his ice ax and crampons into the ice.
I knew we were close to the finish. I could smell that campfire in the cold, night air. Soon we were on the ridge by the finish and I could actually see the fire & people below. I've never been so elated to finish a race. We crossed the line in 11 hours and 51 minutes, 9 minutes to spare before the cut off and a long way from the 7 hours I had predicted. When all was said in done we were 10th overall and 3rd in the team competition.
At first I thought that there was no way I would run this event again. Not that it wasn't a good event. It was very well organized and the race director was helpful and promptly answered any emails I had sent him leading up to the event. I just wasn't sure I wanted to put my body through this kind of pain again. When I stopped for gas on the way back to Indiana, I could barely walk. It felt like I had a golf ball behind my knee cap that was preventing me from flexing it properly. After a couple days of compression & ice, I'm starting to feel better. I also think I'll be heading back to Wisconsin next year. Now that I know what to expect, I think I can be more prepared for the event both physically & mentally.