ever ultra I ran back in 2006, a race I won in 2010, and as the only ultra in Chicago I feel like it is our home race to defend. Because of these factors, unlike most ultras, I tend to treat this race as a race to try to compete and win, rather than a personal challenge to overcome the distance.
The race is four 12.5 mile out and back segments along the lakefront, very flat and other than being a bit windy it was great weather, around 40 at the start and into the mid to upper 40's through the day.
At the start, I took off quickly to see who would come with me and right away there were three of us that pulled away a bit from the group. I was in lead for the first 6 miles, then was passed by someone I didn't recognize, and he quickly pulled away. I was happy with the speed of the first lap of 1hr and 27 minutes.
I started the second lap in second place with first place pulling out of sight. I was not too worried however, because I had a feeling he was out running himself, and we had a long way to go. This turned out to be true, after the turnaround at mile 18.75 he was nowhere to be seen. I am not sure if he dropped or just stopped for a while but it was the last time I noticed him, so I was back in first place 1/3 of the way through the race, thinking maybe I could go the rest of the way uncontested. No such luck, after only a couple of miles in the lead, I was passed by Alex Leon. Alex looked very comfortable and very fit and I thought "uh oh". I ended the 2nd lap at the 3 hour mark, happy with the time, but a quarter mile behind Alex.
During the third lap the pain started to settle in. In was really great to have the physical and psychological support of Bridget and the dozens of New Leaf Ultra Runners who were volunteering at the main aid station. Despite all the encouragement, I was slowing down and Alex disappeared into the distance. I finished the third lap with a dissapointing time around 4 hours and 47 minutes, about a minute a mile slower than my previous laps.
Starting the 4th lap, I resigned myself to second place. I was well behind first, well ahead of third, and frankly I was exhausted and in a huge amount of pain. My goal was to do my best to maintain my pace, and I was going to be happy with the results.
Suddenly, with 7 miles to go I saw Alex a quarter mile in the distance. Out loud I groaned and said: "Oh Shit", because I knew that I had chance to catch him, but it was going to be hard as hell. Then I said my mantra to myself: "You didn't sign up for this thing because it was going to be easy.", and vowed to give it my all.
With 5 miles to go I had closed the distance and decided that I needed to pass him with authority and get as much distance as possible to make him think I had plenty left in the tank, with the hope that he would give up the chase, because I didn't have anything left in the tank at all. I passed running under a 7 minute mile pace.
As soon as I passed Alex I saw Bridget and Sabine, who had been coming my way from the New Leaf aid station. I am glad that they did because I desperately needed fuel and I couldnt slow down for the aid stations or I would never get back to speed again. Because of her help I was able to get a few gulps without slowing down.
With four miles to go I had opened up a decent lead but the wheels were starting to come off. My legs were on fire, which was expected, but the real problem was cramping and the loss of what I will call "mental control". I would get light headed and kinda lose where I was for a minute, then snap back to reality. Inside my head I was screaming at myself to "wake up!" and "focus!" and "hold it damnit!". At the same time I was cramping, it started in my calves, then my hamstrings, but also my stomach and abs, shoulders, neck, tongue, face and even eventually my forehead. I didn't even know that was possible, a cramp in my forehead.
My head and body kept tilting to one side as I got light headed then I would force myself back straight, desperately trying to keep a reasonable stride so Alex would not be aware of my travails. The cramping tounge made it difficult to swallow, and combined with the minor head cold I had, made for a slobbery mess. It couldn't have been pretty.
After what seemed like a lifetime I was finally able to start smelling the finish line about a mile away. For the first time I chanced a look behind me to see how far back Alex was. I didn't see him and the thought: "I've got it", ran through my head. At the thought of "I've got it" a surge of adrenaline rushed through my body. Usually, a surge of adrenaline at the end of a race is a good thing, helping propel me to the finish line. However, my heart rate was already racing and I was already lightheaded, so as soon as I thought "I've got it", I veered off the path and nearly fell over.
I took several stumbling steps forward, completely out of my head, trying to force myself straight and to relax and get my heart rate under control without completely stopping. After a few seconds, I was running again, although much slower.
With a quarter mile to go I could hear Bridget and other people screaming at the finish line. The race ends with a very short up hill and at the bottom I nearly came to a complete halt because I took one walking step and almost fell over. I ran up the hill hunched over, leaning to the side. With 5 yards to go I collapsed to the ground as people screamed "NO!!" and continued across the finish half crawling, half rolling on the ground in 6 hours and 33 minutes.
After getting across the finish I dragged myself to the side and started a terrible cramping fit which much have looked bad based on the looks on the faces of race management. A minute later, Alex finished.
Now that was a race!