I showed up at the Indiana Trail 100 April 20 hoping to log some miles as a pacer.
Turns out I was ill-equipped to even make a decent cup of slurpable ramen noodles for the headlamp-wearing ultra-runners who endured the dark, flooded trails at Chain O' Lakes State Park near Albion.
“It helps if you break the noodles up first,” said the aid station worker I was assigned to assist after the water-logged runner I was going to pace dropped out earlier in the day. “Otherwise, the noodles will be too long and the runners won't be able to deal with them.”
Initially, I'd hoped to get assigned another runner. But though I probably could've managed one 16-mile loop — many runners would be doing at least some walking by the 50-mile point, at which pacers are allowed — I'd missed the pacer-training clinic and didn't know the course. When one woman approached the aid station in tears, confused in her panic that she might miss the 15-hour, 50-mile cutoff, I wasn't even sure which direction to point her in.
As darkness fell and the temperature dropped, I wondered what I was even doing there. Not only were these runners way out of my league, but so were the volunteers, many of whom had worked the Huff 50K. I'd never used a propane camp stove before, much less tried to brew coffee on one. What did I really hope to accomplish at this race, other than gawk at some of the nation's most extreme endurance athletes?
It was Chad's fault. I met him at the back of the pack at last May's Fox Island Triathlon and assumed he was, like me, a middle-aged newbie who'd taken up running to lose weight. But when our paths crossed again at a trail run the next month, I discovered that part of the reason for his slow pace was that he was used to longer distances. He had several marathons in his past — and a 100-mile race on his bucket list.
Listening to him discuss training strategy with an ultra runner friend afterward, it sounded … well, not necessarily fun, but possibly doable. Scanning various training plans online, I found that weekly mileage totals weren't as high as I expected — often in the 50-70 mile range — with a big chunk coming in one long run.
“Relentless forward motion is a motto to stand by,” writes one ultra-runner who blogs at www.relentlessrunner.com. “Run when you can and walk when needed but always stay moving and eventually you will cross the finish line.”
Though the winner of the Indiana Trail 100 — a woman, by the way, Michele Yates of Colorado — finished in just over 17 1/2 hours at a pace of around 10 1/2 minutes a mile (including pit stops!), it's possible to make the 36-hour time limit with an average pace of 18 minutes per mile.
Computing those numbers around New Year's, I briefly considered whether my sister and I, given enough caffeine, could walk/jog the race. Thankfully, Don Lindley, one of the race directors, advised against it.
“My suggestion is to wait until next year,” Lindley wrote in an email. “I advise ultra runners to go out and volunteer at the race the year before they actually run for themselves. Then at least run a 50-mile ultra before the big one.”
Arriving at the park last weekend during a brief window of sunshine, I was smitten by the scene of mud-spattered runners who briefly emerged on roadways before disappearing back into the woods.
By early evening, those still in the race were in fairly good spirits as they scanned the snack selection at our aid station. They grabbed oranges and Oreos, pretzels and peanut butter sandwiches. But the most popular item, during the daylight hours, anyway, was cold, boiled potato pieces dipped in salt.
“I'm going to gain weight during this race,” joked one pacer, much fresher and chattier than the runner he was escorting, as he grabbed a chunk of doughnut.
Of 152 100-milers who'd started running at 6 a.m. that morning, only 57 would make it to the finish line by 6 p.m. the next day. My new friend, demoralized by the prodigious amounts of mud and water, wasn't among them. The 50-milers would fare much better, with 77 of 90 finishing.
It was amazing to see these athletes in action. This was one event in which the plodders seemed just as impressive as the leaders.
But as the temperature dipped below freezing later that night, I was glad to head home. As I drove off — watching out for runners' bobbing headlamps — I wondered what it would be like to run all night long.
I'm not sure I'll ever know. But if they hold this race again next year, I'll be back — and much more experienced at making slurpable noodles.
Tanya Isch Caylor, a News-Sentinel copy editor, blogs on diet and fitness at www.90in9.wordpress.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.