Chicago Lakefront 50 Mile

Before I get into the specifics of the Chicago Lakefront 50 Mile, I want to reflect a bit on ultrarunning. Ian Sharman wrote a really good blog about the recent upsurge of ultra running in America. This has been quite noticeable in the seemingly constant crumbling of course records and fastest known times, stronger event participation, and new events. It seems, though, that the majority of the upsurge has been in the trail and mountain scene. Matt Flaherty and I recently spoke about how road ultrarunning has seen little growth in comparison. With a simple glance at the record books for the 50 mile road distance, this is blatantly obvious.

The majority of top American performances are clustered around the mid-70s to early 80s. This is not because there is a shortage of guys who can crush a 50 mile road race; just a shortage in those willing. Now, there is good reason for this. With all the attention currently on trail and mountain racing, the top-notch guys head that way to find the competition, and in some cases potentially make a living. I have no doubt that some of the fastest 50-mile guys with road marathon experience would gear up for a flat road 50 mile; they would bang out sub-five hour performance (assuming fueling at that combination of pace and distance doesn’t cause them problems).

Personally, as I have grown and developed as an ultrarunner, I have begun to enjoy the roads. Sure, it doesn't always provide breathtaking views and natural scenery, but there's just something about getting on a long stretch of concrete and letting it rip that really intrigues me. With this said, I hope to see an upsurge in road ultra running in the coming years. After all, we need to see some sub-five hour performances.

Chicago started out as an experiment for me. My original goal was to run Tussey Mountainback as my main Fall ultra, possibly chasing that with the Fall 50 Miler, and finally running Chicago a few weekends later. I thought it would be a cool experiment in recovery to tackle a number of 50-milers in succession. But my recovery after Tussey had me optimistic that if I skipped the Fall 50 I would be able to run a pretty solid time in Chicago. Needless to say, I'm quite pleased I went this route.

The Chicago Lakefront 50 Mile is a 12.5-mile out-and-back course that is covered four times. This setup allows for a handy gauge of where you are in the race, especially useful for pacing. It also makes for little uncertainty after the first 12.5 miles.

The weather in Chicago was just about perfect. It was cool and overcast up until the final few miles. There was a slight headwind on the way out, which became a tailwind after the turnaround. The rain from the previous day and night made the pavement a bit slick, but this was by no means a limiting factor.

Based largely on the runs I had done between Tussey and the start of Chicago, I thought that if all went well I could probably break 5 hours and 20 minutes (5:20 is a pace of 6:24/mi.). A few miles into the race, I realized I would have to hold back quite a bit in order to run slower than 6:24/mi. I was willing to take some risks, so I allowed myself to hit a few low-six-minute miles. I told myself I would scale back a bit on laps two and three to make sure I stayed strong throughout the final 12.5 miles. I came through lap one in 78 minutes, averaging about 6:14/mile. I ran the numbers, and I calculated that I was right on target for a 5 hour, 12 minute, finish. This was both intriguing and scary. I thought about how Matt Flaherty and I had discussed that it had been about three decades since an American had broken 5 hours, 14 minutes, in a fifty miler; this intrigued me. I also thought about how crappy it would be to hobble in the final lap and sacrifice a potential PR because I had been too ambitious; this scared me.

On lap two I kept telling myself I would go easy on the way out (into the wind) and be a bit more aggressive on the return (downwind). But every time my watch would beep, indicating I had finished another mile, I kept expecting to see a pace in the 6:20/mi range, but surprisingly I was hitting low sixes on a good chunk of the miles. I couldn’t help but think that if it felt this easy going upwind, it would be even easier on the return. It was true: By the halfway mark on the way back, I had a few more low six minute miles in the bag. At this point I made my decision. I was definitely going to try to go sub-5:14.

After going through mile 25 at 2:36, I kept telling myself to just keep the same effort for lap three and I would have at least a small cushion to work with on the final out-and-back. I was pleasantly surprised that lap three was in fact my fastest of the four.

I felt really strong starting the final lap, and I began to get really excited. I thought about how small a distance one lap was when compared to the whole race. As I had been doing all day, I broke the lap into small steps. The primary aid station was about 3.7 miles into the lap. My friend and crew, Pablo Sampaio, was waiting there. It was great to get the quick supply and encouragement from him on both the out and the back on the first three laps. This aid station was mile 41 on the fourth lap, so I just told myself to get to Pablo and it would only be single digits to the finish.

Mile 41 came surprisingly fast, but I was beginning to notice the miles getting a bit more difficult. Even so, my mind was still able to remain clear and focused. Knowing the finish was not far off, I pushed harder to maintain a similar pace as before. When I got to the final turnaround, I was met with some familiar fear. What if I slowed down just a little too much and missed 5:14? On the other hand, what if I could finish strongly at 5:12? Miles 44 through 47 were definitely the hardest miles of the day. I had to keep telling myself to just get to the aid station where Pablo was at, and then it was just one final push to the finish. Still, the miles did not come easily. I was beginning to creep into the mid-6:20/mi range. As I went through the final aid station, I was met by lots of encouragement from Pablo and the volunteers. I knew now that I was too close to let my pace keep slipping. With the end in sight, I was able to push down into low-six-minute pace for the final three miles.

With a finishing time of 5:12:36 (mile splits below), I became the first sub-5:14 50-mile ultramarathoner in North America in 33 years. In fact, my time was the sixth fastest American 50 mile race ever. I am really happy about all of this, but will definitely keep it in perspective. There are lots of capable Americans who can go sub-five hours, and whether they choose to make that attempt is up to them. As for me, in the coming years, I plan to make a big push towards reaching that sub-five mark myself.

A big thanks to race director Pat Onines and all the awesome volunteers who came out early Saturday morning to keep us fueled and on track. A special thanks to Pablo Sampaio who crewed for me throughout the day.

Products Used


  1. 6:11
  2. 6:19
  3. 6:17
  4. 6:13
  5. 6:18
  6. 6:16
  7. 6:09
  8. 6:07
  9. 6:09
  10. 6:19
  11. 6:19
  12. 6:18
  13. 6:19
  14. 6:09
  15. 6:14
  16. 6:12
  17. 6:10
  18. 6:39 (bathroom break)
  19. 6:16
  20. 6:18
  21. 6:14
  22. 6:06
  23. 6:04
  24. 6:02
  25. 6:04 (halfway 2:36)
  26. 6:02 (marathon 2:43)
  27. 6:07
  28. 6:12
  29. 6:11
  30. 6:12
  31. 6:18 (50k 3:14)
  32. 6:08
  33. 6:06
  34. 6:07
  35. 6:08
  36. 6:11
  37. 6:11
  38. 6:10
  39. 6:08
  40. 6:14
  41. 6:15
  42. 6:21
  43. 6:24
  44. 6:22
  45. 6:39 (quick aid station stop)
  46. 6:26
  47. 6:14
  48. 6:14
  49. 6:12
  50. 6:20   
  51. 0:49 seconds (.14mi.)

Finish: 5:12:33