The Ice Age Trail 50 Mile, celebrating its 30th Anniversary, is the oldest trail race in the Midwest. Centrally located in La Grange, Wisconsin, the Ice Age Trail consists mostly of single track, runable terrain tracking through pine groves, over eskers, and around lakes. The never ending hills and valleys with occasional ankle twisting rocks and roots make it difficult to notice the courses’ natural beauty. It takes a seasoned trail runner to navigate this terrain without becoming intimate with it. Luckily, I would be one of those lucky few this year vying for chance to run one of the most prestigious races in ultra running today. As it has been for the past couple of years, the Ice Age Trail 50 Miles also happens to be race #11 of the Montrail Ultra Cup series with 2 Western States slots up for grabs. You can bet that those remaining WS100 slots will be highly contested among several elite ultra runners.
The Ice Age Trail 50 Mile race is broken into 3 sections of varying terrain. Although the elevation change isn’t significant (only ~3400ft), it is forever undulating. The first section, navigating the Nordic Trail, is definitely the easiest of the three, covering ten miles of cross-country ski trails including several small hills. Footing is easy, allowing for a quick-paced start. Section 2 begins after a short meander across Bluff Road to Confusion Corner, where all three sections of the course converge. From Confusion corner (mile 10.5), the course picks up the Ice Age Trail heading south to Rice Lake and back. Over the next 20+ miles, the course winds through changes in scenery, trail direction, elevation, and grade. After traversing the many technical hills of the southern Ice Age trail and making your way back to Confusion Corner, another 16 miles awaits on the northern Ice Age Trail. Section 3 consists of more undulating terrain from Confusion Corner to the Emma Carlin Trails, climbing over Indian Signal Hill, a Native American spiritual site that, according to settlers accounts from the mid-1800s, attracted Native American peoples from far away distances. After a return trip from the Carlin Trails, cross Bluff road and “fly” down the flatter Nordic Trail to the finish line and some cold Milwaukee Brew.
One of my goals today was to try and break into the top two and gain entry into Western State 100M on June 25th. The morning started with a 4am wake-up call. Even though I had a restless night of sleep, I felt surprising fresh in the morning. I don’t drink caffeinated coffee anymore and haven’t done so since the beginning of February. So, my breakfast consisted of the norm: cup of decaf and two pieces of whole wheat toast with peanut butter and jelly. We drove out to the Nordic Trail from our hotel in Lake Geneva, WI, (about a 30 minutes drive) arriving around 5:15am. After making a short stop at the port-a-john, I was ready to roll to the starting line set to go toe-to-toe with some of the more elite ultra runners in the nation.
The 2011 Ice Age starting line-up would not disappoint. Runners hailing from both East and West coasts, North and South, would vie for those coveted top 2 spots. After my normal pre-race research, I knew the competition would be fierce, including runners like Lon Freeman, Glen Redpath, Zach Gingerich, and many others. Zach Gingerich is one of the most prolific mid-western runners, having finished 3rd in Ultrarunner of the Year Voting, with a prestigious 1st place finish at Badwater 135M in 2010 and the fastest 50 and 100 mile times in the United States last year. Glen Redpath is no slouch either, having finished 12th at Miwok 100K a week prior, a top 10 finish at the 2010 WS100, and many more ultra wins. Lon “The Wild Card” Freeman with his not so hot WS100 finish last year, could not be overlooked, owing to his previous 5:58 at the American River 50 Mile, and top finishes at races like Mountain Masochist and many other. As for other dark horses, there are too many to count, but with break out performances, could spell trouble and hurt any chances of reaching WS this year.
As we went out, the field of ~290 runners thinned out quickly with Shaun Pope, Lon Freeman, and Zach Gingerich sprinting off the line well under 6:30 pace, while I quickly fell into 7th position with an opening 7:23 mile. Over the first 9 miles, I would remain in that position just trying to stay relaxed and slow. Each mile would click on by and I would continue to try and slow the pace down. We all know that that never really works. It may feel slower, but the pace remains the same. I chatted briefly with Tim Long from Boulder, CO (running in 6th) who had run Collegiate Peaks 50M the prior weekend. I reached the end of the Nordic Trail loop (9 miles) in 1:06:36 which included about 30 seconds of stoppage at the aid station. With a quick wardrobe change from long sleeve to short and refueling with a bottle of Ensure, I was off again into 7th position. Over the next 2 miles, I would pass Tim and take over 6th place behind Jim O’Brien and Glen Redpath. Glen had just come off a 12th place finish at the Miwok 100K last weekend in the Marin Headlands. I figure after a race like that, there has to be do-do in his legs (boy was I wrong). I quickly overtook Jim and hung on the heels of Glen over the next 6 miles of undulating terrain. We reached aid station #5 at mile 17+. Glen continued through with no stopping, while I refueled with an Ensure, changed water bottles (containing Endurox), popped 200mg of Advil and continued on my way. I dropped over a minute behind Glen. The first turnaround is a small loop of approximately 0.5 miles. Approaching the first turnaround, I passed by Shaun Pope in the lead (~11 minutes up) followed by Lon Freeman about 2 minutes behind. Zach and Glen were still on the loop, which meant I was only about 3 to 4 minutes behind 3rd position. As I left the loop, Glen was quickly within sight. I made the pass over Glen to 4th place around mile 23 and found myself about 30 seconds behind Zach (according to several out-bound runners). At halfway, I glance at my watch which read 3:10. Not a bad 25 mile split for this course, considering the winning time the past 2 years has been 6:20. That 30 seconds would grow to ~2 minutes after stopping at aid station #5 again for more Ensure, Advil, and gels. I left the aid station before Glen, remaining in 4th position. However, after a quick nature break a few minutes later, Glen approached again, breathing heavily. I figured the do-do in his legs was catching up to him. I pressed on trying to close the gap on 3rd place and Zach Gingerich, however that would never happen. I would reach 30 miles in 3:53:41. Following section #2 on the Ice Age Trail, you continue past confusion corner onto section #3. I held onto 4th until about mile 35, when Glen made his move, leaving me in his wake. Glen asked if everything was okay and I said, I was going through a rough patch. He responded, “get some caffeine!” If I had some on me, I might have obliged, but in the middle of the woods, there is none readily available. His lead over me would grow to about 10 minutes at the 40 mile turnaround. 10 minutes in 5 miles! Yikes!! Zach was only about 1 minute up on Glen, with Lon clinging to 2nd, and Shaun in first. Shaun looked strong, while Lon seemed to be having trouble with the hills. Zach was plodding along in his Nike MayFly’s. Yes….MayFly’s on a trail course!! On a side note, for those who don’t know, MayFlys are extremely lightweight (~4 oz) shoes which were discontinued many years ago. I used to use them for road courses, but would never imagine using them on a trail course….with no socks…and toes sticking out the front. Anyway, I reached the 40 mile turnaround at 5:31:45, leaving me with ~1:30 for the next 10 miles to break 7 hours. At the turn, my rough patch from mile 32-40 would pass and I picked up the pace to about 9 min pace for the next two miles, after a few 10-11 minute miles. Growing fearful of losing my 5th position, I would search for on-coming runners. The next runner to pass would be Jim O’Brien, 23 minutes behind with others in tow!! I continued to press on over the next few miles hitting the Nordic Trail with 1.5 miles remaining in 6:48. The hypoxic math mind performed some calculations, “8 minute pace to finish sub 7!” I started to push it so my Garmin was reading 8 min pace. I thought this a likely scenario, until the couple steep inclines arrived. Walking up hills at 8 min pace, doesn’t happen, not on these legs. The next 1.5 miles seemed to go on forever, however, I would cross the finish line in 7:01:06 for 5th place.
I was very happy to have survived the day. I couldn’t have done it without my wife’s motivating words, “Don’t you dare drop out of this thing, after dragging me to Wisconsin!!” Thank you, Honey!
1. Shaun Pope (6:27)
2. Lon Freeman (6:34)
3. Zach Gingerich (6:43)
4. Glen Redpath (6:48)
5. Josh Finger (7:01)
6. Peter Witucki (7:27)