“How do you drink from a water bottle when the damn thing’s frozen?”
With over three months of recovery and a sunny 75 degree day here at home, I’m just about thawed out enough to recap the Mad City 100k.
Taking place in early April each year, Madison is home to the Mad City 100k/50k/relay. Doubling as the USATF 100k road championships, each even years (i.e. 2016/2018) winner is provided an automatic entry onto the US 100k team. This usually leads to a significant amount of talent at the front of each field, and the 2018 Mad City 100k was no different.
Heading into 2018, Thomas was planning to race Mad City, as he was turning 50 and wanted to take a swing at the US Men’s 50-54, 100k road record of 7:38 (7:22/mile). The timing of the race worked well for his calendar, as it would align with training for Western States, if he received a lottery spot.
Coming off a healthy training block and race at CIM, I was excited to tackle the 2018 season. Without receiving a lottery spot for either Western States or Hardrock however, I was uncertain about the racing calendar. When Thomas first inquired about my interest to race Mad City, I thought he was utterly insane, as another several months of asphalt running was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. A few weeks later when Thomas asked if I would crew for him, it triggered several questions that I was forced to tackle:
- What was my 2018 calendar going to look like?
- What areas of my training do I really need to work on?
- Wouldn’t it be cool to set a 50 mile and 100k PR… well hopefully anyway?
- Thomas and I are nearly equal in fitness and it’s very difficult to find a friend and training partner that you can do nearly every workout with. Wouldn’t it be fun to train together for these few months?
- Am I really going to fly all the way out to Madison, and not fucking race?
Training with Thomas was a close second, but my stubbornness was the ultimate driver in deciding to ditch the crew duties and race with him at Mad City.
Since we’re both coached by Joe Uhan and our fitness levels are relatively similar, he was able to develop a training plan that allowed for Thomas and I to do nearly all of our quality workouts together. Since motivation was going to be a factor heading into Mad City because of all of the asphalt, having someone to hold me accountable was going to be imperative.
The lead up to Mad City kicked off with the Jed Smith 50k in Sacramento, in early February. Being recovered but not too fit due to some much needed time off after CIM, I was satisfied with a 4th place finish and 50k PR of 3:33. Thomas was also starting his training block equally as unfit, and was able to pull away as I started to cramp with several miles left, rounding out the podium in 3rd, 30 seconds ahead.
We wasted zero time after Jed Smith, filling the next two months with an assortment of workouts from tempo’s and track time, to multiple long runs and back-to-backs. Although the volume was relatively low for this block, peaking at 85 miles, the amount of quality work increased. Nearly every long run or back-to-back had a significant number of miles at or faster than race pace (7:15/mile). Getting comfortably uncomfortable at 7:15/mile wasn’t something either of us were used to, so we spent many, many workout miles at or under this pace.
My training wasn’t spectacular leading into Mad City, although this seems to be the norm. In my five years of training and racing ultras, I can count on one hand the number of workouts that I’ve genuinely been ecstatic about. Considering my lack of raw speed, it unfortunately makes sense that I would lack in the number of workouts that jump off the page. I needed to trust that this cumulative amount of consistent work would provide the opportunity to hold onto 7:22/mile (7:38, 100k pace) on race day.
Incredibly incremental should be my motto…
Being my first swing at a road race past 50k, I was nervous about juggling all the variables:
- Thomas and I were crewless and would need to provide our own support
- Liquid calories would be the most efficient option being crewless, but I normally only race with gels
- I’ve never ran at 7:15-7:20/mile pace for anything past 50k
- Unlike a 100 miler, one mistake could derail the entire race
- What type of weather should we prepare for?
- How the hell was I going to pee?
We prepared accordingly, training with handhelds and liquid calories, running countless miles at race pace and running in mostly “cold” weather. Thankfully pee training wasn’t part of this training block, but the race day weather would force me to make some difficult decisions.
Checking the weather forecast leading up to Mad City, the original predictions called for rain. Thankfully this cleared up as we entered April, however just as the expectations for rain dropped, so did the expected temperature. Dropping a few degrees each day leading up to race weekend, I could only laugh as we touched down in Chicago and the forecast registered 16 degrees on Saturday morning. Let alone never racing in this type of cold, I can’t even recall ever running in it.
We tried our best to control what we could control, and headed out to Madison Friday morning to pick up our race packets and shake out on the course. Our worst fears were immediately confirmed as we exited the car in Warner Park, just a couple miles away from the University of Wisconsin.
Biblically cold and windy!
Arriving at the beginning of packet pickup, we were greeted by the Race Director Timo and his amazing group of volunteers. They led us into the shelter which acted both as packet pickup and a literal shelter from the elements. Being weatherly naïve, I didn’t know this was an actual shelter used by Madison in the winter months to keep its homeless residents from literally dying. Timo unfortunately didn’t take my advice for changing the race venue to 4,000 laps inside the building, but I damn well tried.
Race morning came and found Thomas and I putting on literally every piece of clothing we brought. We arrived early to set up our makeshift aid station right outside the shelter, and saw several groups of crews doing the same.
May God rest their poor souls!
A 5k loop set around and through Warner Park with one out-and-back section about halfway through each loop. The course is relatively flat with the only “hills” at the start of each loop and on the short out-and-back sections. Starting at 6:30am, the 25ish 100k racers would have the course to ourselves for the first couple hours until the 50k and relay runners started.
For only having 25 registered runners (17 males), Thomas and I were ranked somewhere between 7-9th based on previous results. There were a handful of top notch road runners toeing the line and attempting to ink their ticket onto the US 100k team. Geoff Burns entered the race with the 2nd fastest American 100k time (6:30). Eric LiPuma was toeing the line, recently winning the US 50k championships. There was also Anthony Kunkel, fresh off a US 50 mile championship win, and also looking to make the US 100k team. Though equally short on numbers, the women’s race had some serious talent at the front of the field between Liza Howard, Traci Falbo and Denise Bourassa.
At 6:30am sharp, and piercingly sharp it was, registering exactly 16 degrees with wind chill dropping to six (6), we were off. Just as expected, Thomas and I settled somewhere into 7-9th within 800 meters after the start. Our plan was to run by feel, and settle in quickly to a pace that felt manageable for the remainder of the day. Settling in was a smidge more difficult than originally planned as I couldn’t feel my toes or fingers, and it literally hurt to breathe.
The first turn of the 5k loop exits Warner Park and brings runners up and around the perimeter. Eclipsing the first slight incline, runners head back down the outside of the park, and encounter a fully exposed headwind. I literally had to laugh out loud, as I couldn’t believe I paid to spend an entire Saturday running around this damn park in Wisconsin, on a day so cold that not even the locals would go outside. After feeling sorry for myself for the first few minutes, it was time to start juggling the variables as this would be the only shot I’d have to stick to the race plan, let alone finish.
Thomas set the early pace, as he’s like a damn metronome. All those years of racing on the track and likely a bit due to being German, have helped him develop an uncanny ability to lock into a pace. Not trying to check my watch or worry about our speed until we settled in, I felt early like we were moving a tad too quickly for my level of fitness. Chalking it up to the cold, I decided to settle in at this pace and focus on form, fluid and calorie intake. The form was difficult enough as the feeling in my toes never returned until post race, but the fluid intake was downright laughable. I’ve raced in subfreezing temps before, but only for short periods of time, and never to this degree. The first variable I wasn’t ready for was grabbing my water bottle after the first loop, and the nipple being entirely frozen.
How the hell was I going to finish this race if I couldn’t drink, especially considering all my calories were liquid?
Chewing, sucking, blowing and even sticking the bottle under my armpit wasn’t helping. After nearly an entire loop of trying to access an ounce of liquid, the nipple finally let loose and I was able to finish off my first bottle and calories of the race. There was no way we could continue to race with these jacked up bottles, especially as the longer they stayed out in the cold, the worse they would likely get. On our third loop, Thomas yelled towards one of the crew members standing in the area near our bottles, and asked if they could find a way to keep them warm. I was thankful for the Hail Mary, but wasn’t hoping for much.
At least as pacing was concerned, we were sticking to plan clocking off 5k loops all under 22:00. Our goal was to keep each loop to sub 22:30 (7:14/mile), which would hopefully provide enough of a buffer as the later miles would undoubtedly slow us down.
As much as I disliked the idea of doing a 180 degree turn on a looped road course, the out-and-back section allowed us the ability to gauge our distance from the leaders, or at least the guys that weren’t light years ahead of us. There were also an incredible group of women volunteers bunkered down at this turnaround for the entire day. These were by far the toughest SOB’s on the course!
Aside from the 7:20ish pace that we had to hold for the day, the other factor in the way of Thomas’ Age Group US record was Chad Rickfels. Chad is another recently turned 50 year old with significant experience racing long road events. Even if Thomas were able to stick his goal time, if Chad came to Mad City fit, he would be difficult to beat and would likely break the record himself.
The race was unfortunately playing out as expected, as Thomas and I were still in 7-9th place, with Chad a few minutes ahead, and gaining on most loops. Having a few years of experience with these longer events, it was guaranteed that challenges would arise for everyone, and races rarely play out like they do on paper. I reminded Thomas to control what we could control, and was way more focused on issues that mattered like our damn water bottles being frozen.
As we rounded another loop and headed past the shelter, the crew member that Thomas begged for help earlier had magically came through and found some lukewarm water to put our bottles in. I would’ve kissed this angel, but my lips were nearly frozen shut.
With fluid now trickling in, the other variable I was worried about was the amount of intake. Since it was arcticly cold, I wouldn’t need as much water but would still need calories. Thankfully I packed some gels, and began to supplement early, placing them close to my body so they wouldn’t freeze like the bottles.
With a revamped intake plan in place, I was feeling much more confident with tackling the day… until I needed to pee.
Thomas had stopped earlier in the trees for a few seconds and then caught back up. He mentioned that it was a bit difficult to pick up the pace after a dead stop, and I couldn’t imagine doing the same. Having to pee in an ultra is an excellent sign, as it normally displays an adequate hydration level. Usually held in the mountains, it’s easy to hike off the trail to relieve yourself, or even doing it while hiking up a hill. Whipping it out in the middle of a public park however isn’t the smartest move unless you want to get chased by the cops, and I don’t have Thomas’ speed to be able to catch up or get away.
I decided on option three…
Thankfully I stumbled onto an anti chafing product after racing HURT that has worked in nearly every race setting. Sub freezing temperatures would put 2Toms to the test, as I wasn’t stopping until crossing this damn finish line. Being terrified that peeing myself would lead to cataclysmic chafing, I crossed the fingers and let it rip.
It was warm… it was wet…it also dried without any issues.
Thomas and I continued through 50 miles relatively uneventfully. As with most ultras, many of the front packers will come back if you keep them within striking distance. Thankfully this day was similar to most, in that we both moved up a few spots without any additional effort, with several of the top runners dropping off the pace, or out entirely. Crossing the 50 mile mark in 6:00, I had definitely hit my first goal of a 50 mile PR by over 2 hours, and we had moved up to around 5-6th place. Thomas started to have some stomach issues right around this time and was forced to slow down a hair. Knowing that we were too close to our goal time to slow down, I stayed with our original plan and hoped for him to catch back up.
Things got really weird over the next couple laps, as I was sticking to our race plan and moving efficiently but not fast over each loop. Within what felt like 15 minutes, I went from somewhere around 5th to passing Thomas on the out-and-back and having him yell at me, “You’re in 2nd place!” I literally had no idea where I was in relation to the other runners, as I was more worried about juggling variables and trying not to freeze to death.
Trying to take some bearings with only a few laps to go, I learned that Anthony Kunkel was 30-45 minutes ahead and Thomas was 15ish minutes behind. I couldn’t believe that this many people had fallen off or out of the race. We didn’t do anything special, but we were able to juggle variables and not let the day make the best of us. In the end, we were able to sneak into 2nd (7:34) and 3rd place (7:58), with Thomas taking the Masters win.
What the hell just happened… 2nd place at the US 100k championships!!!
What I Learned:
- A chafing product that works, is worth its weight in gold… or saffron!
- Cold weather racing does have benefits, but also an entirely different set of variables to manage
- Loop courses can be just as draining mentally as physically
- You don’t have to nail every workout to produce a successful race, but you sure as hell better trust the process
- Looks like I gave up my college eligibility with my biggest and first win of my “professional” career… $750 big ones!
- Timo’s team puts on a topnotch event, and if this race report doesn’t scare you off from running a road 100k, I’d highly recommend you make the trip to Madison