Ice Age 50 Mile Race Recap

The Ice Age 50 Mile (IA50) 2012 was an amazing experience. The race drew a group of runners gunning for various objectives: a bid to the Western States 100 in June, Montrail Ultra Cup points, an IA50 course record... or simply to test their might against a competitive field. I am extremely humbled and excited to have come out of this experience as the overall winner. There was a bit of confusion about finishing times, but when the dust settled, it turned out as follows:

As for me, I entered the race when heard the list of talented runners coming to Wisconsin. I knew I could not pass up a chance to compete with them so close to home. Those who follow my blog will know that I specified my training for the IA50 course. For example, I did lots of short hill repeats. The course was relentless in this respect. I can think of maybe two areas on the course that were not rolling hills, and these areas were extremely short in duration and left little room to make big surges. And the rolling hills were not smooth: They were speckled with rocks, roots, and winding turns. This course was definitely the hardest trail course I have raced—a real quad thrasher.
I got an early start to the day. Well, let me rephrase that: I got an extremely early start to the day. I went to bed at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, and woke up at 11:20 p.m. and never fell back to sleep. I laid restless in bed until about 2:00 a.m., when I finally got up. It was crazy, but I didn't notice any additional fatigue from the lack of sleep.

The race began as I had expected. A group of five or six guys went out fast. We averaged about a 6:40/mi for the first six miles. I kept with the lead pack for the most part but fell back occasionally on the uphill climbs. My strategy going into IA50 was to be cautious on the ascents, aggressive on the descents, and aggressive on the very limited flats. The reason for caution on the ascents was to keep my heart rate down. If you drive up your heart rate early in a race, you can quickly turn your body to glycogen burning mode, and it is really difficult to go back once your body decides to prioritize glycogen. In a 50-mile race, you really need to use your glycogen stores wisely. My goal was to use fat as fuel, as much as possible.

Near the end of the first 9-mile loop was one of the sparse flat stretches. I made a move into the lead as we approached the mile 9 aid station. In transition, Tim Olson blasted right past me and gained a solid 15-second gap on me. We were both pretty aggressive through the next stretch. Once I had closed the gap, we ran together for a few miles. At about mile 16 I took the lead, with Tim following closely behind. When I reached the mile 17.5 aid station, I had a short lead on Tim, and at the time I was unaware of where the rest of the field was. The next section until the mile 21 turnaround was very technical. I did my best to maintain a reasonable pace without using too much of my late-stage energy.

I was really anxious to reach the mile 21 turnaround so I could gauge where everyone else was. The course is basically a 9-mile loop with two out-and-backs connected to it. The two out-and-back turnarounds serve as a nice way to see how far other runners are from you. At the mile 21 turnaround, my lead was slim on all accounts. I was maybe 20 seconds ahead of second place, and 40 seconds ahead of third and fourth place. If nothing else, it kept me urgent to continue to push myself.

It is worth noting that throughout the race I fell three times. Fortunately, I did not land on a rock or root, because a tumble in the wrong place on IA50 could have ended my day. All three times I bounced back up and continued onward, just with a little extra dirt.

I managed to increase my lead slightly on the way back from the Rice Lake out-and-back. At about mile 31, I was told I had about a 1:45 lead on second and third place, who were running together. This was encouraging in that I knew I had been making gains, but still alarming in that I was one bad mile away from being run down. My slim lead became even slimmer when I stopped for about 30 seconds to use the bathroom. Mentally I proceeded assuming my lead was about a minute. Soon after, I ran into a lower point in the race. I had felt very smooth up until about mile 36. Most of the previous miles I had actually felt I could be going much faster had I been more skillful on the technical descents, but during miles 36 through about 38 I started to break down a bit mentally. It was a little after mile 38 that I managed to convince myself that my mind was trying to make me feel worse than I actually was in attempt to stop me from beating up my body. This outlook helped a lot! I snapped out if it and was reassured by reminding myself I only had a bit more than 10 miles left.

Much like the mile 21 turnaround, I anxiously awaited the mile 40 turnaround so I could gauge my lead. This time I discovered that I had about a 2:20 lead on second place, and about 4 minutes on third. This made me very optimistic, because it meant I had managed to increase my lead during a stretch that included a bathroom break and my only low of the race. I started feeling that as long as I stayed upright, it was my race to lose.

Picture taken by: Tom Held of Active Pursuit

With less than 10 miles to go, I started getting really energetic. I strongly believe that my high-fat diet and Vespa fueling had much to do with this late-race energy surge. I had trained my body to prioritize fat for fuel, allowing me to reserve most of my carb stores for the back end of the race. Every rest stop I went through from miles 40 to 50 I was told my lead was growing. By mile 48.5, I had a six-minute lead. I crossed the finish line with a lead of about 9 minutes, 10 seconds.

My fueling was strategic for the most part. I waited until about 45 minutes into the race before I took in any carbs, because I wanted to make sure my body was primed to burn fat first. I also optimized my fat utilization by eating breakfast three hours before the start of the race, and nothing else between breakfast and the start other than water and Vespa. The idea was to keep my body out of carb burning mode at the race's start, something that can be easily wrecked by ingesting too many carbs close to the start. I listed my fuel intake below.

Fuel During the Race

  • 80 ounces of sports drink
  • 4 gels
  • 2 Vespa Juniors
  • 1 Vespa Ultra Concentrate
  • 12 ounces of coke (aid station)
  • 70 ounces of water
  • 1 small handful of M&Ms
  • Total of Approximately 1,300-1,500 calories

Gear Used on the Course

Post-race was a familiar affair for ultramarathons. All the competitors and spectators joined together to share their experiences—both today and in the past—and enjoy one another's company. The atmosphere at these events would be enough by themselves to draw someone to run an ultra.

One runner to keep your eyes on is Michael Owen. Many people claim that I am young for ultrarunning, but Michael is younger yet. He has some impressive finishes, including third at the Burning River 100 last season. He seems to be one of those runners who can succeed at all distances. (Dare I say a young Michael Wardian?) I know I will be following him, and hopefully competing with him many times in the future.
One final note. A huge thanks to my mom, dad, grandma, and my girlfriend Krista for crewing for me. It was a big help, especially with the higher-than-expected humidity.

Stay tuned for a more in-depth review of Fuel Belt's 2012 line and Revolution Natural Running.