2014 Ice Age 50 Mile: Race Report

In the four years I have been blessed to participate in the sport of ultrarunning, one of the biggest things I have learned is that there is much to be gained from a struggle. In my last five races I was satisfied—or thrilled—about the result. I have definitely learned from these races, and I am grateful for my success, but there is a whole different type of learning and motivation that comes from a tough day. Legend Frank Bozanich said it best:

"Sometimes bad days make us stronger for our next effort. I learned many years ago while racing in Europe from the great runners over there that you can't win them all or even finish in the top, but that you just keep racing and the next time may be your day."

It was an early start in La Grange, WI, at the 2014 Ice Age 50 Mile (IA50). My goal going in was to try to earn a ticket to the "big dance," Western States 100 (WS100). I was feeling pretty confident. I had recovered pretty fast from the Mad City 100k four weeks prior. In fact, I recovered fast enough that I felt it prudent to log some pretty heavy hill and trail sessions before jumping into a mini-taper the week leading into IA50. After focusing on the track and road since late last summer, I felt the need to acclimate as much as possible to the winding hills of the Southern Kettle Ice Age Unit. In retrospect, I might have bitten off a bit too much too close to the race. But you never really do know. The speculation—and adjustments based on it—are what adds thrill and excitement to the sport. But at the end of the day, running for the sheer joy of the sport is great all by itself. The rest are exciting bonuses that just add to the joy.

The lead pack of Max King, Matt Flaherty, Brian Condon, and Michael Owen went out aggressively. And they all held up quite well, considering the IA50 is traditionally slower on the back half. Having raced IA50 the previous two years, I had an idea of how my legs should feel during the various stages of the race. After the first 9-mile loop, I felt like I was working a bit too hard, despite being 3 minutes back from the lead pack (I went through in 59 minutes). I wasn't too worried yet, as 59 is a pretty good split for that early loop, and at the time, I thought the leaders would likely have to pay for their 56-minute start.
One of my favorite sections of the course is from mile 9 through 17. I have always felt strong through this section. Today I felt like I was speeding up a bit. However, I had still lost a bit of time to the leaders.

The next stretch was very bland. I felt like I was fine mentally, but I couldn't seem to shift into high gear, which was becoming increasingly more important as the leaders continued their record-breaking pace. I came through mile 30 well behind Max King, and a solid 8 minutes behind what would be third place (the last qualifying spot for WS100). My first thought was that I had to trim that down a bit before the final turnaround at mile 40.5 if I wanted to have any chance of punching a ticket to WS100. Despite recognizing this, I just simply wasn't able to speed up. In fact, the stretch from 30 to 40.5 felt like I had really slowed in pace. I had been running with Matthew Laye for a good bit of the prior 10 miles, and when going through the aid station at mile 30 I lost him while stopping for a bathroom break. That was the last I would see of him until the turnaround.

The turnarounds are a really cool aspect of IA50. They allow you to calculate exactly where you are in comparison to the rest of the field, so they give you the opportunity to really gauge what kind of effort you'll need to muster. Max King came screaming by with what I'll just call a healthy margin between me and the turnaround. Shortly after, Matt Flaherty passed by. Both still looked strong with less than 10 miles to go. A bit after Matt came Michael Owen and Brian Condon, more or less running together. I was far enough back that there was little chance of me closing the gap for third place. On top of this, I found out when I made the turnaround that I was likely not at risk of getting caught by anyone behind me. It seemed my fate for the 2014 IA50 was sealed. In the back of my mind I knew this, and I had already recognized that it was not going to be a good day for me. The last 9.7 miles to the finish were a slow grind in which I tried to keep my mind on just enjoying the remainder of the day. Finishing in sixth with a time of 6:19:51 left me well behind the leaders and my course PR of 6:05:45 from 2012.

It was super exciting to get to see part of the women's field head towards the turnaround. Most notably Kaci Lickteig, who went on to a course record of 6:41. This was four minutes under Cassie Scallon's CR from last year, which itself had been an enormous improvement on the record before that. Both Max King and Matt Flaherty were able to get under Andy Jones' 26-year-old CR, while Brian Condon and Michael Owen both broke the elusive 6-hour mark (a feat that has been rare in IA50's lengthy history). I truly hope Kaci and Max's performances here don't get overlooked when 2014 comes to an end. They were staggering improvements on a very historic course.

One thing I've noticed in ultrarunning is that it is really easy to keep racing, until you have a bad day. In the past, I have used this as a reminder that it was time to take a short recovery break, and rebuild starting with base training. Since I won't be racing WS100, this will fit my schedule nicely, hopefully giving me the opportunity to come back strong in late summer.

The best part about ultrarunning is that even on a rough outing, the experience is always a blast. Race Director Jeff Mallach does a phenomenal job organizing things and providing a killer post-race atmosphere. It was really easy to stick around and chat with all kinds of runners about a variety of topics. The volunteers were great. My parents, grandma, and Beth (sister) provided me with an awesome crew and cheer squad at various aid stations. All this adds up to a fun and worthwhile experience.