I look at my watch as we pass the first mile split: 6’26. This is not going well. 6’26 is almost a minute than I expected; yet the pace hasn’t felt like the jog it should have. I am not pleased.
Just over an hour earlier, our car had pulled into the parking lot at the Villas Shelter on Lake Wingra and I’d been greeted by the brutal realization that I may have actually underdressed. As I shivered towards the race course, my self-pity quickly receded as I saw Geoff Burns (a friend from last year’s 50K World Championship Team) run by in shorts, already finishing the first of his ten 10km laps in the 100km US Championship race. Could be worse.
I had come to compete in a race half that distance: the Mad City 50K. The 31.1 mile ultra-marathon serves as one of two auto-selection races for the 2016 50K US World Championship team (with the winner of each race receiving a guaranteed team spot, with the caveat that he has to finish under the 3-hour qualifying time). Having already missed the first opportunity at the 50K National Championship race (held just two weeks after the US Olympic Marathon Trials), my only option for an auto-qualifying spot would come at Mad City. I’d competed on the US Team at the 2015 World Championships and suffered an asthma attack during the latter stages of the race. Despite finishing 12th and helping earn the USA the team silver medal, I’d left Doha with a bitter taste in my mouth. I knew I wanted to do everything I could to try to get back on that team and have a redemptive performance in 2016.
As I watched Geoff glide by and felt the 25 degree air sting my babied, winter-less face, I started to wonder if I’d made some terrible mistake by coming here. I loathe the cold. After a mild January, I’d spent the majority of February and March avoiding winter – traveling first to California for the sweltering Olympic Trials Marathon and then retreating to a monastic training stint in the equatorial, eternal-spring of Quito, Ecuador, neither of which had not properly prepared me for this. I was cold.
I sat in the car, distracting myself and enjoying the warmth while reading aloud to Mariana and my parents from David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”. At 7:32am – 28 minutes before the (not literal) gun was to sound – clad in my ski jacket and tights, I jogged onto the course for a short shuffle. 100k runners periodically ran by and someone asked me if I’m running in the race.
“I’m running in the 50k,” I replied. “Just warming up.”
He wished me good luck and in a few short minutes, I was back at the start line area, changing shoes, taking a pre-race gel, then some stretching, drills – all unconscious routine – as the crowds began to amass at the start. I heard an announcement: 90 seconds to the start. I pulled off my tights and tried not to panic, yanking and balancing awkwardly as I counted down the seconds and struggled to pull the tiny foot-holes over my Cliftons. It’s fine. The last thing Jon had asked me the night before: “are you mentally prepared for one thing to go wrong?”
So but then it’s like a half-dozen minutes later and we’re passing that first mile marker and I’m really not pleased at all. The race has quickly materialized as what will likely be a long duel between me and (coincidentally) another Tyler (Tyler Sigl – even more coincidentally, also a former Division III runner). The two of us have already separated ourselves from the rest of the race and will run together for foreseeable future.
We pass the second mile post in 12’00 and I then realize that the first mile was likely not correct. In my mind I also begin to question whether this second mile might also be inaccurate. I know the whole loop is 10km, so I decide to try to hold off on making any judgment about how I’m feeling until we finish this first lap. Originally, I’d wanted to start slowly – gradually working into the pace and leaving myself with plenty of energy for those brutal final five miles after passing the marathon mark – but I know that either the pace is significantly faster than I’d planned for or it feels significantly harder (the latter being the far worse option).
It’s not until we pass the Rossi mat, marking one lap, 10km, 20% of the race, in 35’15 that I realize – thankfully – we’re actually not running that slowly, that the mile markers were all kind of messed up and that I should have trusted in my body’s intuition that the pace was quicker than I’d planned. This is great news.
I pass Mariana and my parents shortly after and grab my bottle and gel. The liquid and sugar are welcome even early in the race – my engine already burning fuel at a prodigious rate in the frigid air.
I ditch the bottle on the steep hill just before 1km and tuck in behind the other Tyler. I’m still not feeling the effortless jog that I had been expecting in the early stages of the race, but at least now I know that we’re running under 3-hour pace. So, the two of us Tylers continue on as a train, a duoprass, for the most part ignoring the hundreds of other runners we run past as we encircle the lake.
My brain forms very few conscious thoughts during this lap. I ignore everything except the current lap, the current kilometer, the current minute, breath. It isn’t until 19km (12 miles), just before we pass the start line again, that I notice – for the first time – I’m actually feeling quite comfortable. Suddenly, I can extrapolate out a lap from now, maybe two. It’s not unimaginable.
We pass 20km, 40%, in 1’10’09, having run 34’54 for lap numero dos. I’m excited and smile at Mar and my folks as I grab my bottle and gel again, heading out for another lap of fun.
For the most part, I’m ignoring splits and listening very carefully for any signals from my body. Some early pain in my outer quad/IT bands. A mild thirst. A sharp pain in the right little toe taking an awkward step. Sigl seems to be content setting the pace – a bit of a surprise as we’re running 2h55 pace and he’d mentioned before the race aiming to just break three hours. Still, the pace feels comfortable and I finally feel warmed-up and smooth.
So, as we approach the halfway point, I’m feeling positive. I’m confident that even if I finish second to Sigl, I’ll run under 2h59 which would also (almost certainly) earn me a spot on the team (it’s a long, complicated story). All is well.
Things change quickly and it’s just a few strides later –19 minutes into the lap – that I feel an extreme discomfort in my lower torso. I try not to panic, relieve some pressure, but this is an embarrassingly urgent issue that I know will require the unthinkable: to stop running.
And so, I stop. Quickly pull over, nature calls, etc.
Full of panicked adrenaline, I force myself to calm down and resist the urge to sprint and make up the newly formed gap. Timing the distance to Sigl, I learn my pit-stop had taken 12 seconds. I figure I should be able to make up the gap in 2-3km of slightly more focused running. Luckily, my stomach feels fine now and – my body now adrenally flooded – I have no problem running a few seconds quicker per mile, the chasm between us shrinking with the passing of every noticeable landmark.
By 26 minutes, I’ve caught back up and sit tucked behind his shoulder, allowing myself to slow down and recover from the stop and surge. Feeling fantastic now, we share the lead as we approach the start/finish zone for the third time.
But – no – not again. Seriously. This time, I barely hesitate but repeat the 12 second process, having felt infinitely better and seeming to have no problem playing catch up. Again, I’m up and running again in less than 15 seconds and I pass the finish line at 30km (60% of race distance) in 1’45’06 (a 34’57 third lap, including stoppage). Passing my family once again, I try my best to convey that all is well (despite being well behind Sigl) and that I had simply had to take a quick pause but am actually still feeling very good. This comes out as something like “JUSTHADTOSH*T”.
I again catch up to Sigl in six or seven minutes. We’re nearing make-or-break territory – the section of the marathon and 50K when runners sometimes find themselves in cruise control one minute and destroyed the next. My body is performing better and complaining less than I’ve ever experienced at this point in a long race and I gain confident with every passing kilometer. I catch my breath again after my game of catch-up and decide that 35km (just under 10 miles left in the race) will be my decision point. If I still feel good at 35km, I’ll surge slightly and try to increase the pace to drop Sigl. If I feel a lot worse, I’ll just tuck in and hang on.
The long up-hill around the 4km (2.5 mile) mark of the loop is where I notice the pace really start to lag. I’m still behind Sigl, forcing patience, but now my legs are feeling antsy. It’s not until we near the crest of the hill, taking a left onto Seminole, that I find myself in front of him for the first time. I think nothing of it; I’d just come off the turn a half-step better. Wait. Wait. Wait.
But as we crest, I look back and suddenly he’s ten steps back. Letting my body and instincts take over, I surge down the other side of the hill. I’m a few minutes early, but I know I need to make this a real move. I need to put enough space between us that he won’t consider trying to catch me. I need him to think that I feel much better than I do.
Surprisingly, accelerating actually does feel good. Maybe it’s just the adrenaline of taking the lead and – in doing so – a not insignificant risk. But I trust my body. I’ve been here before, but never felt like this. I’ve got reserves of energy and speed that I hadn’t even realized. After a few minutes, I look back on a long straight-away: no one’s there. This is going very well.
I’m trying to hold back my excitement as I cross the finish line for the penultimate time in 2’19’37 (34’31 for lap #4 with the second 5k in about 16’35). I smile at my parents and Mariana – I probably even give them a thumbs up or do something similarly dumb. I know I’m almost there but I also know that a lot can change in the last 10km of a 50km race.
And so, in my mind, I break this last lap into what seem like manageable chunks – the first steep hill before the 1-mile post, the marathon mark, the long climb around 4km, the last of the rollers around 6km, the 5 mile marker that signified the long, flat approach to the finish. How would I describe my effort? Tentative. Cautious. Conservative. Paranoid. I knew that the only thing that would prevent me from winning the race, running sub-three, and earning my spot on the US team would be if I totally imploded. Thus, I found myself in a unique position; my goal was no longer to finish in the fastest possible time. I just needed to not screw up.
This led to actively slowing down for the first time in the race. Again, I lived in the tiny space between landmarks – passing the marathon in 2h26, churning up the long climb, and navigating the constant undulation on Arboretum Ave, each leading seamlessly into the next. My body complains with every step – too many steps – my quads revolting on the up- and down-hill grades, but nothing seems terminal. I’m going to make it. I think.
48km is when I know I’ll make it. The last 2km of each lap (and, thus, the race) is the technically easiest section – a straight and flat and well-paved road with one last left-hand turn into the long home-straight. No one is behind me and I am now actively living in this ultimate segment; the next milestone is the finish line. Finally, I let myself accelerate, the muscles in my quads complaining but complying. Even after 30+ miles, I’m surprised to have found another gear.
I enjoy the finish, soak in the moment like a sponge, so happy to share it with my family. I see the line, the clock. I’m not worried about the time – it’ll be enough. I cross in 2’56’01.
Across the line, I slow to a walk and my parents and Mariana are there to catch me (literally) as I fall into their arms. I finally understand how Geb can look so smiley at the end of a marathon.
This was a good one. Like so many athletes, I often set the bar high – resulting in both a continual striving towards self-improvement, but also generally leaving one just a bit shy of his own expectations. Today was the rare day where I walked away (with assistance) knowing that I’d accomplished all I’d set out to do:
Win the race (check).
Run under three-hours (check).
Make the World Championship team (check).
It’s not until later that I’m told the time is the fastest in the country this year.
Could things have gone better? Of course. I know I lost at least thirty seconds to my mid-race pit-stops. I know I could have pushed harder in the last 10km. But I did everything I needed to do today. I can’t ask for more and I can’t complain.
Now, I’m thinking ahead. I’ve still got more racing to do this Spring. In fact, an alarming amount of racing in a tight window.
But more importantly, I can finally begin thinking ahead to November 11th. Though I left Doha disappointed last year, my dissatisfaction fuels the fire to train smarter and prepare my body to the best of my ability to be ready to go on Race Day in 2016. Crossing that finish line in Madison sounded the gun to begin another race: a seven month journey ending at the World Championships. This is the moment.
I’d like to give a quick but heartfelt “THANK YOU” to the myriad supporters who made this possible. Of course, I’m extremely grateful to my sponsors, HOKA ONE ONE, STRIVE Trips, Nuun Hydration, and Run Gum without whose support I wouldn’t be able to race or train at the level that I do. Thanks to Timo Yanacheck and everyone at Mad City for putting on an amazing event. I’d also like to thank my coach Jon Waldron for his continuing mentorship, guidance, and friendship over the past nine years. It was also amazing to have my parents and partner there for this race – thank you for making the trip! And also to my brother who housed us in Chicago. Finally, I’d like to thank my friends, family, and fans for all of the support both on race day and the days/months/years of preparation. It’s amazing to know that I have so much support out there. Thank you!
A well-written race report to go with a fantastically run race–congrats!
Thanks, Dan! It was a good one – despite the mid-race issues…
Congratulations on the win, Ty! Really enjoy following your journey — good luck continuing the training for the World Championships!