Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tunnel Hill 50 Report


It's been awhile since I last posted. That is mostly because my activity level has been low outside of those 70ish hours I've been devoting to school each week. I did rush away to the Smokies on two weekends, including Halloween when a snowstorm buried and closed the park. Both trips yielded more unique and memorable experiences.

In late August, after four months of intermittent training and constantly seeking relief from the nerve issue, I finally hoisted the white flag. During a six week period I did not run or ride. I even limited my daily walks. Honestly, nothing that any medical professional has done for me or asked me do in the last eighteen months has given me long-term relief. My left side muscles were weak and out of balance. I even had trouble typing or writing with my left hand.

I experimented with therapies that I read about until I was able to walk normal. Then I broke into a jog during a walk in the woods. October of 2014 was the month I learned to run again. It was when I regained a significant piece of me. Those of you who run because you love to run, those whose lives truly benefit from running, know exactly what I mean. I even completed runs of 13 and 15 miles; my longest ventures at sub-7 pace since April.

Five months of inactivity rewarded me with the lowest level of conditioning I've had during my adult life. Running was difficult. My efficiency was pathetic as my muscles seemed to resist the act of running. In fact, every "run" was slower than ever and yielded a tempo effort heart rate. I spent more time preparing for and recovering from my runs than I actually spent running.

Finally feeling healthy, and having confidence in decades of healthy and active living, I decided to run the Tunnel Hill 50. I had entered the event awhile back when I thought I was on the mend. I knew that I wouldn't be fit enough to run hard and that made the adventure a little more alluring. What runner in their right mind could resist a leisurely all day run along a postcard scenic old railroad corridor? The Tunnel Hill 50 and the concurrent 100 mile runs were held on the Tunnel Hill State Trail, a rail-to-trail in southwest Illinois. I discovered the THST in 2002 just after it opened. My first visit involved a memorable walk with my son, Tyler.

Race day turned out to be unseasonably cold due to a typhoon colliding with a cold air mass in Alaska. I was sure that this was a good omen. I love cold weather running! The temperature ranged from 25 to 36 degrees during my run. Perfect!

Smiling at eleven miles
My mission was to run every step. I knew my body would rebel at some point, that one or more muscles would start the progressively debilitating onset of rigor mortis. The only unknown was when this would happen. I planned to run comfortably with my Polar V800 registering 60-65% of max heart rate (just under 8 min/mile) until I my body said "NO!" I had not been able to run every step of my previous three fifty mile runs, but all of them had involved mountain ascents and altitudes of more than 10,000 feet. Still, I knew that running every step for fifty miles was going to be a monumental challenge.

Immediately after leaving the park in Vienna I found myself running alone between two groups. I ran to the southern terminus (13.3 mi) in peace as I pushed away real life concerns and focused on the details of nature's beauty. The fine gravel path dropped unnoticeably as it bisected nearly flat terrain. A thin curtain of leafless trees separated the trail from the frozen countryside that sparkled in the early morning sun.

The first aid station (5.5 mi) came quickly. I cruised through it, having opted to only fuel at the drop bag aid stations. At the 10.9 mi aid station I changed bottles and gloves. I had removed my UD vest and taken off an outer Polar shirt at mile seven (while running a 7:38 mile and without tripping :), but I forgot about the shirt and it stayed in the vest pouch until mile 40. Just before I reached the turnaround I started crossing paths with the dozen runners in front of me.

After the first U-turn I spent several miles crossing paths with the rest of the field of runners. Then I ran solo again, with the nearest runners far enough ahead of me that I only caught glimpses of them from time to time on the constantly winding trail. Unfortunately, I dropped my left glove in the aid station at 16.9 miles. Thus, I ran 22 miles into a headwind with a numb and red hand.

26.6 miles down!
As I neared Vienna again (26.6 mi) I noted that I reached 25 miles in just under 3:17 and 26.21 miles in 3:25:45. I still felt great when I entered Vienna, but my legs never came back to life after I left as my hip flexors began to tighten. This, combined with the fifteen miles of mild two percent incline and headwind, began to take their toll on my stride length. My last sub-8 mile was mile 30.

Map and altitude data from Polar Flow for the V800
I didn't really recognize all of this during the run because the landscape north of Vienna was incredibly gorgeous and interesting. The trail cut through huge stone bluffs, passed numerous streams and lakes, and crossed several long wooden trestles. Unfortunately, my goal of running the entire distance had caused me to leave the camera behind.

Running through the famous tunnel was fun and a bit sketchy because it grew dark enough that I couldn't see the ground at my feet or even my hands in front of my face. I was high stepping because I didn't want to stumble.

Out of the darkness and into the pain
The jaw dropping landscape continued throughout the five mile out-and-back north of the tunnel. I was surprised when the volunteers at the turn around told me that I was in seventh place. Until that point I hadn't cared about placement. Finishing was a victory. This was a low key comeback run. The last half marathon, however, I was determined to hold that position, despite my ever-tightening legs.

At the mile 40.3 aid station I stopped for a couple of minutes to attend to my tight muscles, but I left ahead of Stephen Murphy. He was the guy in the bright orange shirt that I had seen in the distance ahead of me for more than two hours. I wondered if he had dropped out. I had caught him, so he had to be struggling as much or more than I was. The competitive Shane wanted to stay in front of him.

Passing back through the pitch black tunnel I worried about falling down. The legs were lifting so little that a shallow divot, small branch, or even a large leaf might have tripped me. I actually threw my arms up in a victory salute after I made it out safely. After that my focus, or lack thereof, caused me to flipflop from admiring the scenery to attempting to maintain enough form to win a hilariously slow speed race to the finish against Stephen.

Those last ten miles were tough! My pace slowed while my tight and tired body fought forward progress. To my surprise the only sharp pain I experienced was in both of my shoulders. Otherwise, my body just ached.  My breathing intensified until I was running nine minute miles at a tempo effort. Walking was out of the question. I threw in numerous short pick-ups and high knee lifts in an effort to maintain a smidgen of a stride. Somewhere during this stretch of postcard landscapes it occurred to me that I felt better than I had while running in the Duathlon Nationals earlier in this year.


I reached the finish line in Vienna in just under 7 hours and 12 minutes. They gave me the 7th place award, but from the results it appears that a couple of 100 milers quit at 50. Stephen soon crossed the line and we laughed about our epic little stiff-legged race. What a hoot!

 The rest of the day was as cloudy as the sky. I was thankful for all of the support that I had during and after the run. A large group of Evansville area runners were out there with me and several more were there to crew and pace.  Friends out of Indianapolis took most of the 50 mile positions ahead of me. All of those smiling familiar faces helped and inspired me. Some of them even finished their first hundred miler in the wee hours of the next morning after I'd slipped into a coma.

Yes, it is a real railroad tie!
Everyone seemed to feel exactly as I did. The Tunnel Hill 50/100 was an appealing event that was put on by a first class crowd. The race director, Steve Durbin, has long been known for putting on quality events. Meandering through varied and tranquil landscapes, the smooth trail surface offered an opportunity to move quickly, so PRs were abundant. (Mine lowered by over an hour, but it was my first 50 M run out of the mountains and below 10000 ft) I hope to return someday with adequate training miles in my legs to take full advantage of that speedy and scenic course.

These turkey vultures seem to sense my weakness.