Clinton Lake Ultra Recap - The Mudfest

If Running Events were people, the marathon and big road races would be the glitzy, gregarious, trendy and popular Hollywood stars; they are the big name rock artist with the high octane light show in a stadium filled concert. By contrast, the Ultra is its earthy and quiet sister playing in an indie, acoustic band; the venue, an intimate performance house.

At the Start. Photo by Second Wind Running
Members of the Second Wind Running Club before the start of the race.

Stripped of all the glamour (but maintaining the brawn of a marathon), an Ultra is a simple run in the woods or the mountains. There are no massive crowds, no bag drop service and no big-podium-pulsating music at the start. There are no cow-bell yielding cheering stations – out on the course, you imagine the chattering spring frogs as applause, the birds crying overhead calling your name. There are aid stations, but they are stocked with real food, even freshly prepared hot items. Instead of electronic timing chips, mats, online runner tracking or other technical conveniences, there’s a guy at the check in station logging your number while encouraging you on. Many runners experience the later miles alone, conquering the course on their own.

So I completed my first Ultra Marathon! Here's the the short race recap summary:
I finished in 6:31 and something seconds, 37th out of 98 runners who started the race. I felt great throughout the race and (most importantly) didn’t fall and hurt myself. Due to rain the night before, the course was slippery and got extremely muddy which made the hills extra fun. Instead of the forecasted heavy rain and thunderstorms, we ran in light rain and mist with temperatures in the high 50s. I was happy with my race and enjoyed the overall (muddy) experience. I ran the entire race with my training partner and friend, Pramod. Our friend, Nancy, joined us for our last loop as a pacer, keeping us focused on finishing.

The longer version:
For a Saturday morning race, I take Friday off from work in order to relax and prepare my bags with my running gear. The weather was not looking good, with a 90% chance of rain and thunderstorms starting Friday night and all day Saturday. Due to the nature of the course, runners have access to their car after each loop, so I decided to pack multiples of everything. For during the race – 3 long sleeve shirts, 3 short sleeve shirts, 3 pairs of socks, 3 hats, 2 rain jackets, 2 pairs of shoes, an extra set of shorts, a pair of gloves (and a partridge in a pear tree). I tend to get cold if I leave my sweaty running clothes on after a long run, so I always pack a set of dry clothes to change into – a long sleeve shirt, fleece pullover, sweatpants, hat and a towel.

Then there was my bag of food – almond butter / Nutella / tortilla sandwiches (pre-race fuel), Miso rice sushi rolls (fuel between loops), Tailwind Endurance drink (electrolytes and fuel), water, salt tablets and a bag of sports beans. I’ve learned that I perform better if I eat “real food” while running long distances and had trained with all these items without any digestive issues (I must have an iron stomach).

Four of us carpooled together to the race – Jeff, Pramod, Minh and me. Fortunately, Jeff’s minivan provided ample space for our week’s worth of clothing, shoes and food! We left town at 6am under cloudy skies and barely damp roads. We felt hopeful for similar conditions at the race site, 35 miles away, until we encountered the steady rain en route. A light rain had been falling for several hours. I felt chilled, donned the rain jacket I wore during last spring’s marathon in the rain and braced for a repeat of running in constant rain.

The race started at 7:30 under dreary and rainy skies. The course was wet and already muddy. Add in 100 pairs of tromping feet and watch the mud grow. Since we start right into the single track trail, it was slow going for 2 miles while the field spread out. The rain stopped (or it was less noticeable in the forest) and I got hot, so off with the rain jacket, tied it to my waist and continued on. We got into the groove, successfully finding our “trail legs” to navigate the slippery declines. On the first loop, Pramod, Jeff and I stayed together. At the start, Minh forged ahead of us, so we didn’t see him the rest of the race.

The first aid station is after 4.5 miles, at the “top” or north side of the 10 mile loop. You cross an iron bridge to reach the aid station / parking lot, so the race organizers have dubbed this aid station the “Iron Bridge Grill”. Yes, there is a grill and yes, they are cooking food. I didn’t take anything other than water the first time through.

I am familiar with the course and know the second 5.5 miles of the loop is harder than the first 4.5 miles, with challenging inclines / declines and narrow, root filled straight sections. Miles 6-8 are the hardest to maneuver, then the terrain eases up and by mile 9 you know the end is near. The milestone I look for is a steep meadow crossing which immediately turns back into the woods via the last hill of the loop. As I started up this hill, I slid in the mud and it took me down to my knees. Our little cluster of runners start crawling through the mud to reach the top which emerges out to the street. We run downhill on asphalt to the starting line, ending our first loop.

Out in the Woods
Along the trail, taken in February during a training run

After each loop, I changed into a fresh short sleeved shirt and consumed my sushi roll, refilled my fuel bottle, took extra fuel, water and a salt tablet. The rain stopped and a bit of hazy sun peaked out of the clouds - it was getting warm out and I had to make sure I took enough fluids.

The first part of the second loop went by quickly and at the Iron Bridge Grill stop, I considered taking some additional food - I opted to try the roasted potatoes dipped in salt. Yummy! I think I needed extra fuel because during the rest of loop 2, I consumed my back up sports beans.

We finished loop 2 in just over 4 hours, right on schedule. My shoes and calves were caked with mud and little rocks had made their way into my left shoe, so I took the time to take off the shoes and get fresh socks (felt so good). Nancy was ready to pace Pramod and me through the last loop. On the last loop, Pramod led the way, keeping the pace at an even, slower keel (and keeping me reined in because I wanted to run faster). Pramod learned from his experience last year that going out too fast on the start of the last loop caused him to hit the wall after mile 26. I started to experience those little muscle pings, the precursor to muscle cramps that tend to plague me after 20 miles. At our final stop at the Iron Bridge Grill, I took extra - extra salt with my potatoes and tried the sugared bacon. Wow, that bacon was really good and I ate a couple pieces. We had 5 and a half miles left.

In addition to the conversation between the three of us, I occupied my mind by noticing all the signs along the trail. When the hazy sun filtered through the trees, it cast a golden glow on the moss. The forest floor had greened up since our training run three weeks ago. Once barren branches were now tipped in chartreuse. I didn't notice the little white flowers dotting the forest floor during the first two loops, but on the last 5 miles, I couldn't help but see the abundance of delicate blooms. We took the hills with care after Pramod slipped and tumbled off the trail into some branches. Nancy and I had to help him back on his feet. We were prepared for the last slippery slope after the meadow and finally hit the final stretch of asphalt leading back to the start line.

Our friend, Brenda was there, cheering us on and taking photos of us as we finished. 6 hours, 31 minutes and something seconds. Minh had finished about 10 minutes ahead of us. Jeff would finish at 7:45, just under the 8 hour cut off.

You can see some the mud splatter on the front of my shins. The backs of my calves were completely encrusted in mud. Of all the things I packed, the towel I brought came in super handy for cleaning all of that up.

With Nancy, our 3rd loop pacer. I guess I missed the memo about wearing Illinois Marathon shirts (I wore mine on the 2nd loop)
With our Fabulous Pacer

Then there were my shoes - after the race and a day later, after I hit them with the hose and washed them in the sink.

Finally, instead of a finisher's medal, we were given these really nice stainless steel cups. Perfect for filling up with water.
Clinton lake Ultra Goodies
We also received a long sleeve quarter zip technical top with the same squirrel logo. The little squirrel charm was attached to my set of bib safety pins - I think that was just for the women runners.

Two days post race and I am definitely sore, especially my quads. The mud made things extra challenging. Will I do another similar race? Probably! I don't have a race lined up for the fall, so maybe another local 50K Ultra as the leaves are changing.

Liz  – (March 28, 2017 at 10:37 AM)  

Congratulations on a great race, Shirley!

Jennifer @ Dashing in Style  – (March 29, 2017 at 7:07 PM)  

Congratulations! So awesome that you had a great race and overall good experience. Your description of the difference between trail races and road races is one of the things that made me want to do more trail running. This makes me want to do it even more this summer. And I love the stainless steel cup!

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