Saturday I ran the Frozen Gnome 50k. Last summer, before I had even run an Ultra, I was looking for something to do over the winter. A race in northern Illinois in January seemed like a great idea when it was over 90 degrees out. It was 2 degrees race morning. I like it cold out, but that is what I like to call “Bullshit Cold.” That is cold that hurts your face.
But I needed a way to kick-start my year and my Kettle 100 training, so I had signed up. And so at 4:30 my alarm went off, I got up and I drove to Crystal Lake, IL and I stood in the Bullshit Cold waiting for the gun to go off. Some lovely volunteer had set out a box of hand warmers, which were the best things ever. They didn’t help my toes though, which I could not feel. I was huddled in the middle of a largish crowd as we “listened” to the prerace notes. I couldn’t hear a thing. As I contemplated how well I could run with only most of my toes the frozen mass of runners started to waddle forward. We were off! Slowly!
The first 10k was my slowest, partly because I was warming up and getting used to the course (a 10k loop that we would run five times) and partly (mostly) because there were about eight million people crowding the trail. Yes, eight million. I counted. Repeatedly. I had the time while we walked over everything that even looked like ice. Sadly, this was the first year that there was no snow on the course, and so “Buttslide Hill” was more of “Rappelling Hill.” Still a super fun and challenging course. There are maybe six hills in Illinois and this race found five of them.
At the aid station (the “Gnome Depot”) I ditched my hydration pack because it had frozen solid. I downed some Mountain Dew (a race day indulgence of mine) and got on with it. As I hit the trees again I looked up and realized that I was alone. Apparently 7.99 million of the runners had only signed up for the 10k. Cool, I could run at my own pace, which turned out to be about the same as the first lap. That is to say, slow. The ice was bad, and I had the cheap Yaktrax on. But they were better than nothing and allowed me to jog incredibly slowly on the ice. I passed a lot of people who did not pass me later. Go cheap Yaktrax!
Starting the third lap (after more Mountain Dew) I finally turned on a podcast to listen to, hunched down and kept running. That’s all you can do right? Just keep running. Just keep running.
Fourth lap, and the Gnome Depot is out of Mountain Dew. I stare dumbly at the table. What is this shit? Then a volunteer comes up with a box of two liters. Perfect timing! I down half of one and start again. The back half of the loop is all the hills. I found myself chanting something along the lines of “F-k, f-k, mother, mother f-k!” as I trudged up, practically on hands and knees. I have never experienced the Pain Cave that so many Ultrarunners talk about, but on those hills I’m pretty sure I found the Cavern of Intense Discomfort. At the top of the worst I yelled F-K! As loud as I could, then looked up to see a guy bent over just like I was. I thought I may have offended him until he said “No shit dude.”
Aid Station. Mountain Dew. Chips. Then running. I changed from podcast to music (mostly Johhny Cash and Scythian) and went all out on the last lap. At this point “all out” meant I held the same pace I had been holding all day. I wonder how many people were a bit unnerved by the guy in the Superman shirt singing loudly and poorly as he ran? I crossed the line at 06:32:03, and the man who put the medal on me said “You weren’t trying to beat six thirty were you?” I answered honestly that I was trying to beat seven. “Hell man,” he laughed, “If I had know that I would have told you when you came out of the woods. You could have walked it in!”
I went into the heated tent for coffee and was offered hot soup. Anything vegetarian? “I have vegan!” Even better. I sat and ate the best soup that I have ever tasted in my life as I slowly pulled off my soaked and frozen gear. Staring off onto the distance I wondered what the hell I was thinking signing up for a 100 miler on hills like these. But you know, I can spend some more time in the Cavern of Intense Discomfort. I may even find the portal to the Pain Cave down there. That’s okay. If finishing 31 hard miles feels like this, 100 must feel even better, right?
I hear another runner come in a few minutes behind me. “Soup?” “Anything vegetarian?” “I have vegan!” “Even better!”
Even better indeed.