The Ultra Cult
They go to the forest and run till they drop.
By Sam Jemielity
JUNE 22, 1998: Robbie Smith doesn't look like he just ran forty-three miles. It's high noon and the late spring sun is cooking Horseman's Park, a grassy meadow surrounded by pine trees in southeastern Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine State Forest. Several horsemen trot their elegant beasts on a dirt loop. Sporting a white baseball cap, running shoes and shorts, a shirtless Smith slows to a halt just past a tilted white sign that reads, "Station #9. 43.4 miles." His wife, brother-in-law and two small kids greet him with words of encouragement, a water bottle and a turkey sandwich. The 33-year-old NASDAQ specialist and technical analyst from Skokie doesn't collapse in the shade, like a half-dozen fellow runners under a pine tree. He doesn't bend over with dry heaves, like one unfortunate man with a fiery sunburn. The only ostensible signs of the massive exertion Smith's body is undergoing are the trail-dust smudges on his legs and the near-psychotic intensity of his eyes. With a hurried "see ya at the finish," he strides through calf-high grass to a path cut across the meadow by hundreds of runners over the past six hours. As effortlessly as the circling horses, on legs that have carried him forty-three miles, Smith heads off to run the final seven.
The Ice Age Trail 50-Mile Run (IAT 50, for short), sponsored by the Wisconsin running club the Badgerland Striders, takes place each spring at Kettle Moraine State Forest, 100 miles northwest of Chicago. This year, Smith is one of about 500 participants - lawyers, doctors, college students, parole officers from Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, even South Dakota. The course wends back and forth along a small segment of the Ice Age Trail, a variously rocky, hilly, sandy ribbon running through forest and over rolling moraines formed thousands of years ago by glacial deposits.
Many IAT 50 participants have run marathons. Many have found that the marathon's standard distance of 26.2 miles wasn't enough of a challenge. "The first time I ran a slower [time]" on a marathon, Smith says, "I got bummed out that I wasn't improving. The joy of finishing was gone." For Smith, it takes more than 26.2 miles to bring the joy of finishing back.
That's why he's back in lower Wisconsin at 6am on a weekend for the fifth time. Jog a few miles a day, maybe five on weekends, maybe endure a marathon on a dare. That's running. Run fifty miles over rocks, sand and dirt in under twelve hours. Get heel-to-toe blisters. Lose toenails. Piss blood. Defecate in the woods. Risk heat stroke and heart attack. Break a bone, take Advil and keep on going, for ten miles, or forty. Get saline IVs from paramedics at the finish.
The Ice Age Trail is one of the top five fifty-mile runs in the country, the "Chicago Marathon of ultra-running," one competitor says. While most fifty-mile runs draw fewer than fifty competitors, more than 500 signed up for the this year's race. Generally, any race longer than a marathon-50k, 50 mile, 100 mile or more is considered an ultra-run. At a cafe near the start/finish area, a spectator tells me about a friend who went to France and ran 208 miles in forty-eight hours. When I ask how he enjoyed the countryside, she says, "Oh, no, he ran it inside, on a quarter-mile track."
The Western States, the granddaddy of ultra-runs, covers 100 miles in twenty-seven hours at high altitude in California. At the Western States, runners are weighed before the race, and again at Aid Stations. If they drop more than a few pounds, they have to drink or eat until they gain the weight back, or drop out. A runner who pushes too hard will burn up the body's glycogen stores and begin using muscle tissue for energy. One sign that this aberrant process is occurring - urinating blood.
Smith has run the Western States twice, so far. The last time, two years ago, he made it seventy-eight miles. "The fatigue was getting to me. I'd been running twenty-two hours straight." Running in the dark, Smith was following a pace runner's flashlight. "I was getting hypnotized. If I could have walked until sunrise, I think I could have finished."
On a cool May morning, just before 6am, the mood at the starting line is oddly relaxed. "Most of my friends think I'm a freak for doing the fifty," says Tom Eggers, a 39-year-old ER physician from Minneapolis. "I'm just doing this to finish, not to break any records. This is the limit for me. No hundreds." Without any starting gun cracking, the crowd surges forward. "Geez, it started," says Eggers. "Wow, that was an anticlimax."
His face a mask of intensity, Smith gives a thumbs-up as he heads off on his eight-hour tour. Two stragglers stroll from the parking lot, lacing up their shoes, casually drinking from water bottles, in no hurry to catch up to the pack. Terri Madunic, 41, who works for a dental firm, cheers on her friend, Joe Soriano. "I'm his support crew," says Madunic, armed with towels, a chest of ice, pretzels ("for sodium"), Powerbars, a spare Windbreaker, bug spray, suntan lotion and packs of what she calls "liquid goo," a carbohydrate-laden, edible slime. Soriano, 48, a Chicago native who is now a structural engineer for the City of Milwaukee, actually ran fifty-two miles in last year's Ice Age Trail run, but a wrong turn near the finish cost him the coveted finisher's belt buckle.
The Ice Age Trail 50 actually covers a relatively tiny portion of the Ice Age Trail. About 25,000 years ago, a glacier covered most of Wisconsin. As the glacier waxed and waned like the tide, it churned up the land. When the ice melted, the sand, stones, cobbles and boulders were dumped in ridges called moraines. Depressions formed by ice, called kettles, became beds for lakes. Eskers, or ridges of rounded sand and gravel, pock the landscape.
The early stretch of the race cuts through a dense pine forest. The pace along the shady dirt path, cushioned with pine needles, is very fast. "The real trick is to slow down," says a volunteer at the first-aid station, where cups of water and a foul-tasting orange-colored drink called Succeed await runners. "Then you can go farther easier. Walking is in the game plan." The cool weather and the breeze has bolstered the runners' confidence. At the aid station, four miles into the race, many runners cruise past the two cafeteria tables without stopping.
"Get something to drink," a volunteer shouts as a runner waves them off. Just down the trail, waterlogged racers duck behind tree trunks to urinate. Most of the volunteers - many from the Badgerland Striders - have done ultra-runs, or at least marathons, themselves. They know it is a bad idea to pass up chances to drink, even with a bursting bladder. "You can't drink too much water," says one volunteer. By the time you feel thirsty, says another, you're already a few quarts low.
Ultra-running is as much about patience as speed. Older, smarter runners are drawn to the sport. Donna Perkins, the women's winner for the past three years, is 39. Steve Szydlik, the men's winner in 1997, is 31. "Once you do one, you gotta keep going," says Beth Onines, 45, of Lake Zurich, Illinois. Onines has her own special trick for keeping her energy level up: tequila shots, without the tequila. "I suck cut-up limes, soaked in salt."
One of Onines' fellow members on the Lake Zurich Alpine Runners finished the 1995 race at 11:59.29, just 31 seconds before the cut-off time, to earn her finishers belt buckle. "Beverly is going on 56, and she's got the figure of a 19-year-old junior college chick," says another Alpine Runners member. The hot weather today has club members worried that Beverly won't be able to finish this time.
A confident Smith buzzes through Aid Station No. 1 at a steady pace, well behind the leaders. He has run this race four times already, and he knows not to push too hard early. Last year, he had a personally disappointing finish of about 9:20. This year he's in peak form, and shooting to break the eight-hour barrier, or even top his personal IAT best of 7:48.
Smith finds time to train between work for Chicago-based Melvin Securities at the Chicago Stock Exchange and helping his wife, Melissa, raise their two kids, son Westley, 4 and daughter Skyler, 2. During peak training times, he rides a bike each morning to the East Bank Club, where he runs four or five miles. He arrives at the Exchange by 6:30am, and after spending an hour seated in front of a computer terminal, prepping for the day's work, he stands for the remaining seven. Standing all day builds leg strength - more important than cardiovascular fitness for a long run, Smith says. "If I can't stand for seven hours," he adds, "I don't want to be running for seven and a half." After work, he runs another eight miles along the lake before heading home to sneak in some play time with his kids. Just weeks before the Ice Age run, Smith finished 20th at the Lake County Marathon, breaking the three-hour barrier (world-class marathoners finish around 2:20 or less, recreational runners in four hours or more).
At the 9.5-mile water stop, "I'm running less than effortless," Smith says, his unapologetically cocky swagger hinting at his nine years hanging out with fellow Chicago traders. Unlike many IAT 50 runners, Smith has a clear competitive streak. Although there are dozens of runners ahead of him at this point, Smith is confident in his tactical approach to the race. "There's gonna be lots of corpses ahead of me," he intones.
No one has expired yet on the Ice Age Trail 50-Mile Run. But that possibility is covered in the rules: "Any runner who dies on the course will be banned from future IAT 50's, no exceptions. If you drop out, there's always next year."
Tongue-in-cheek provisions aside, there is a legitimate health concern when human beings exert themselves over fifty miles for eight to twelve hours, especially in hot weather. Cramps can take runners out of a race; heat stroke and dehydration can take runners out, period. In the days leading up to the race, runners typically drink lots of water and eat lots of carbohydrates to store up glycogen, which fuels muscles. For marathon runners, pre-race glycogen stores usually last for the first twenty miles, so participants usually eat energy bars or gel packs to fuel the home stretch. Since the pace is slower in a 50-miler, runners might not hit the energy "wall" until further along, but it is essential to drink and eat along the way. The food doesn't have to be high-tech, either. Smith prefers turkey sandwichs, divided in quarters for easier eating, and potato chips. At Aid Station No. 9, another competitor snarfs down a Whopper, fries and a Coke.
Two years ago, 94 degree heat and 85 percent humidity decimated the field, resulting in the lowest completion percentage in race history. Perkins, who will win the 1998 Ice Age Trail women's bracket today for the fourth straight time, says, "Six runners were sent to the hospital in critical condition. We came close to losing people that year." The tan, tattooed Perkins should know - she is a firefighter and paramedic.
Although the Wisconsin weather warms up in the afternoon, a cool breeze blows throughout the day. A hot spring also brought the hills to life a few weeks earlier than normal, creating a green canopy in areas that were open to the elements a month earlier. The dense overgrowth by the Mud Pond stretch of the course partially shelters one unlucky man who relieves his bowels al fresco, cursing away a pesky cameraman.
On a particularly hilly, rocky stretch, Robert Rusch of Rib Lake, Wisconsin, takes a moment to discuss his motivation for tackling the IAT 50. "You have to assign a value," says Rusch, 55, a defense attorney. "Not that's it's healthy. Not that it's fun. You have to find value yourself." Rusch says that today's Ice Age run is his 108th marathon or longer run. "When I started, I was forty pounds overweight, an alcoholic. You want to know the secret to doing these races? Get into a bad relationship, or get a job that builds a lot of stress." Today, Rusch is burning off the stress of an upcoming trial. "It's one of those cases, if he gets convicted, it's three strikes. He could spend life in prison."
At Aid Station No. 9, 37.2 miles into the race, many participants drop out. It's hard to believe that someone could run that far and not feel a sense of accomplishment, but some runners, clearly unable to continue, stubbornly fight to stay the course. An older man, curled over on his knees, retches loudly. Several men lie prostrate in the shade of a small pine tree, their legs and arms sunburned. The "meat wagon" pulls up - a minivan that shuttles drop-outs - and volunteers assist a group of wobbly runners to the door.
City of Milwaukee worker Soriano, who decides to call it a day at this station, is philosophical. "I wanted to quit at 33," says Soriano, with a laugh. "I'm OK. A little intimidated, maybe, from the things I read about in previous years, finishers had received IVs. I knew it'd be close today, that I'd really have to push hard to finish on time in good weather." Madunic cheers up her friend. "Are you resting today? Or are we going dancing?"
Smith has found the going tough the last seven miles, but it's clearly tougher for the numerous people he passes. On the home stretch from Station No. 9, the path heads up several steep hills. Here, the trail overlaps, meaning runners are going in both directions. Actually, almost no one is running: some are walking, some jog very slowly.
Accelerating along the rare flat stretches, Smith walks briskly, if somewhat laboriously, up the railroad ties that ribbon the steeper hills, and skips and picks his way down the backside, hopping from rock to dirt to sand. One long, brutal incline has him nearly doubled over, pumping his quadriceps and arms.
At the top of the hill, six miles to go, Smith doesn't stop to enjoy the view of Kettle Moraine State Forest. He launches his body down the slope, toward the finish.
Medix Ambulance paramedics administer saline IVs - the express method for reviving, the handful of dehydrated souls at the start/finish area. The cool weather has limited the number of heat victims, says one paramedic. Still, "It's a brutal race," adds Bucktown resident Jim Desjardins, a tech support worker for Ameritech lying near the finisher's chute in a Vertels jersey. Desjardins has run many marathons, usually in the 2:37-2:47 range. The IAT 50 was his first fifty-miler. "I hoped to run around seven hours," he says. Instead, he finished at about 8:20. "I didn't bring a water bottle, which was a major mistake. I felt fine until thirty miles, and then the heat overtook the fluids from the water stops." Desjardins says the IAT 50 will be his last ultra-run.
"[Ultra-running] is more of a cult thing than the marathon," says Holly Neault-Zinzow, 37, president of an employee benefits company. Neault-Zinzow, today's second female finisher, is something of a legend because of an incident at a 1995 ultra-run. She was ten miles from the finish when a stone tripped her up. Falling awkwardly on her hand, she broke a pinkie. "It was stuck out at a right angle," she says, demonstrating with two hands. "I had to yank on it with my teeth." Neault-Zinzow splinted the broken bone with a stick and tape, and finished the race by holding her maimed hand against her body. She doesn't see anything unusual about finishing a race with a broken hand. "I was twenty-one miles into the race. It's not like I broke my foot." Not even a broken foot stops Joe Kaz, of the Kennekuk Running Club from Danville, Illinois, from completing his first IAT 50.
Twenty miles into the race, circling Dud Dip pond, The distracted Kaz smashed the toe of his shoe into a boulder, tripping himself. "I was watching some runners go by, and I said, 'Good job, guys,'" says Kaz, of Oakwood, Illinois, "and bam. Stone. I got back up, and I could feel it that it was broken." Numb foot be damned, the middle aged silver-haired runner stayed the course. At the finish, members of Kaz's running club offer congratulations as the IAT casualty sips a celebratory Coors in the back of an ambulance. "'Train hard. Race hard. Party hard. Kennekuk!' That's our motto," says Kaz, raising his beer can in a toast. An ice bag obscures the ugly black-and-blue ball of his right foot. "I half-assed enjoyed it," says an ebullient Kaz. "I'm a trail runner."
This year's winner, Steve Szydlik of Oshkosh, breaks the tape in just over six hours, about three minutes ahead of the runner-up. Nearly four hours later, two buff young runners in black shorts and heart-rate monitor belts enter the home stretch. Chicagoans Paul Salgado and Kirk Anderson ran the race together. At the finish line, the 26-year-old Anderson does a black flip, earning cheers from dozens of onlookers and finishers.
This is the 26-year-old Salgado's first fifty-miler. Anderson, who last year ran an 8:43 in his debut here to finish 79th overall, paced his friend all the way today. After executing his backflip, the energized Anderson runs back out to join a friend still on the trail. Salgado lounges near the finish with another friend, basking in the sun. "I'm happy," Salgado says. "Exhausted. At the end, I didn't feel anything from my waist down."
Robbie doesn't backflip across the finish line. "It was a lot tougher in the end than I thought it would be," he says. Smith crosses at 8:10, 28th overall, earning the third-place trophy for his age class. Slumped, exhausted, he sips a Coke. "I held back a little too much. I should have pushed harder in the first five miles," he says. Does that take away from the joy of finishing? "No. Not at all. Any time you do fifty miles, it feels great."
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