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Tri-State Ultramarathon

14-May-20
Reading Time: 17 minutes

Everything in my head and body said this was dumb. As we drove west during the pandemic I thought, “This feels like a bad idea.” I kept seeing the digital Iowa DOT signs that said, “Save lives. Stay at home.” Yet, here my son and I were, leaving home to stay in a hotel in Council Bluffs. Preparing for the next day where I’d run 73 miles. Starting in Omaha and covering a diagonal path through Iowa ending in Missouri.

We arrived outside of Council Bluffs around noon. I decided to explore the route before heading to the hotel. We immediately headed south to Shenandoah, about 40 miles south of I-80. Shenandoah was near the end of the route. The route is the Wabash Trace Nature Trail. A 62 mile rails-to-trails route of crushed limestone.

When my June ultramarathon, the Bighorn Trail Run, was canceled in April, I needed to make other plans. I knew my mental health would suffer if I didn’t log some long miles and have a running accomplishment in early 2020. So I set out to create my own ultramarathon. I asked my son, Luke, to see if he could find a set of long trails that I could use as the basis. Iowa doesn’t have any National Parks or National Forests, two sources of long trails. By long, I mean 50+ miles of trails. I wanted trails because running long distances on pavement causes too much wear and tear.

Luke, who knows the state geography better than Chuck Grassley, found the Wabash Trace Nature Trail in southwest Iowa. The trail runs from Council Bluffs to Blanchard. It’s 62.3 miles. Mostly crushed limestone. Perfect for my needs.

Never being satisfied is one of my hallmarks. Since I was scheduled to do a 100 miler, I wanted to extend the 62.3 mile distance the trail offered. So I decided to create the first Tri-State Ultramarathon. Covering the states of Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. I contemplated doing an out-and-back on the Wabash Trace – totaling 124.6 miles. But I wasn’t that interested in going past 100 miles. The logistics for races that go overnight are way more complicated than one that can be completed in a day. You need multiple crews and scheduled time shifts. This was going to be me running and Luke crewing. The route and distance was set. A straight, simple line.

Now I needed to pick a weekend. Since school is closed most anytime would work. I would need a vacation day to make it work. Starting in June my work will start limiting vacations due to how they are staggering in-office staffing. So May was definitely the month. Also the later you get in May the hotter it will be in southwest Iowa. I looked at a forecast and saw that my ideal date, two weeks out, would be too warm. Climbing into the mid-70s. That’s not good weather for running an ultramarathon. So I chose a date just one week after I initially learned about the trail. Not much time for planning.

I had clocked in some regular 20+ mile runs over the past month. So I felt comfortable and ready. The biggest risk is that I wasn’t rested enough. One week off of running would have to do.

I told my wife I was planning to head to Council Bluffs on Friday. She said, “Oh, like to scope out the trail and make plans?” I said, “Nope, to run the whole thing. Next Saturday.”

My planning for the race was limited. It was so last minute that I didn’t book a hotel until Friday, the day we were staying the night.

Friday

Luke and I zig-zagged our way to Shenandoah on Friday. We took note of the turn to Malvern, a trailhead and planned aid station, but didn’t visit. As we headed directly south we passed the sign to Imogene. It was only 2 miles away. So I decided to head in to see the trailhead. The town was cute and clearly caters to the bike-riding crowd during non-pandemic times with a sizable bar and other places to eat. Luke said the church in town was on the national historic register, so we went to visit it. Then we headed back south.

We explored the first of the two trailheads in Shenandoah. The first one, which would be at mile 54 for me, was at the north end of town. The second one at the Izaac Walton League on the outskirts of town, about 5 miles away. My 12-year old daughter was planning to join me for the leg through Shenandoah. We stumbled across Retro Sundaes. I needed a chocolate malt. So we got ice cream and enjoyed that on the drive out of town.

We caressed the Loess hills for a number of miles on the way to Council Bluffs – lost in the Loess. At one house right along the road we saw a fox trying to catch some creature in a hole. Luke took a picture.

Fox in the grass

Sights of the Loess Hills

Back in Council Bluffs we hit Lake Mawana State Park. Luke has the goal to visit all 54 Iowa State parks. He’s done 23 so far. This would be another notch. After our hike along the Missouri River we headed to the hotel.

If you want to experience something surreal, try going to a hotel attached to a casino during a pandemic. The massive parking lots are empty. There’s no one around. And every public area is closed off. Outside of that, there wasn’t much evidence of the pandemic in the hotel.

It was so empty in the hotel that seeing other people frightens you. I was going back down to my car to get something. As the elevator door opened on the ground floor there was a woman standing there. She jumped back. I stepped deeper into the elevator. As we realized that other humans exist, we nodded to each other and scooted past one another. Weird.

Luke and I ate Arby’s for dinner. Watched a movie. Stayed up later than I wanted. I wanted to be asleep by 8 p.m. It was more like 10:15 when I fell asleep with my alarm set for 3:45 a.m. I woke at 2 a.m. and tossed and turned, with an incredible amount of anxiety, until the alarm went off. Time to get ready.

Saturday

Luke and I departed the hotel for Omaha at about 4:50 a.m. I was shooting for a 5 a.m. start. When you are organizing your own ultramarathon there’s not a lot of pressure to get going. No official starting gun. Just you getting out of your car. Luke drove me to Omaha. He dropped me at the Mount Vernon Memorial Gardens. It was 38 degrees. And dark.

The first leg was cold and fast. It’s mostly downhill from Omaha to the official start of the trail. I was hoping to run at an 11-minute pace. I was closer to under-10-minute pace. Crossing the Missouri was magnificent. What a massive river!

Once in Council Bluffs I passed by the Google Data Center and took a picture. Onward to the Wabash Trace trailhead which was about 10 miles from the start. I passed by a number of runners near Lake Mawana. I wove my way under 3 sets of railroad tracks and one interstate towards the trailhead.

They day before, Luke and I had scouted out the trailhead so I knew how to get there. I was most nervous about my route from Omaha to the Wabash Trace since it was my own creation. Near the trailhead we passed the high school baseball diamond and I noticed two porta potties. I will need those in the morning, I thought.

As I approached the baseball field I knew I needed a real bathroom. (Instead of just peeing along the trail). I walked up to them to find them pristine and well stocked with TP. A luxury. Especially since every porta pottie in Des Moines has had the TP removed for pandemic reasons.

I saw Luke waiting for me at the trailhead. Now the real race begins!

I ate a left-over piece of breakfast pizza. Drank some Coke. Chomped on a piece of bacon. My hands were cold, but the rest of me was feeling good.

I paid my $2 trail fee and headed on down the trail!

Wabash Trace trailhead

The start of the Wabash Trace Nature trail

The first stop was Mineola. It was about 9 miles down the trail. The first section was quite nice with nice mixture of fields and homes. It was a little uphill, but nothing too bad. The trail surface was perfect. A little forgiving to the footfall and you didn’t have to watch out for roots or rocks. Smooth.

I was still moving a little fast. Clocking in sub-11-minute miles. I was ok with that for now since the trail is much less technical than other ultras I’ve done. A couple of times I dipped into the 9-minute pace. I had to back off.

At Mineola, Luke was waiting with the Audi and things were feeling good. I added potato chips to my diet along with my usual Coke. Coke is amazing for its pep (caffeine) and sugar. It keeps the mind clear during races.

We met a guy who was finishing his run at Mineola. I had passed him as he was on his way out towards Council Bluffs. He asked me, “How far you going today?”

I said, “I’m hoping to make it to Missouri. They canceled all the ultramarathons. So I’ve gotta do something!”

He said, “I was signed up for the Des Moines Half Ironman which was also just canceled. So now I doing a virtual triathlon. Run 10k, bike 40k, and then run 3k.” Pools are all closed so you can’t do the swimming portion. He wished me luck and got in his car.

I filled up on water and headed out toward Silver City. Which was only about 4.3 miles away.

Luke and me at Mineola

Luke and me at Mineola

The route to Silver City was an easy stretch due to its shortness. It only took me 45 minutes to arrive. That gave me enough time to relax and collect some photos. The spring landscape has a beautiful palette – light greens of new growth, golds of last fall, rich black soil ready for planting. The last mile into Silver City was on concrete. I hated that. My feet can’t take all that hard surface. I need something softer on the body.

Fields of Southwest Iowa

Fields of Southwest Iowa

Silver City is cute. You arrive right downtown on the main drag of 285th St. Luke and I captured a picture of us in front of the abandoned Silver City Jail.

Silver City Jail

Silver City Jail

Luke and me at the jail

Luke and me at the jail

I headed out of Silver City toward Malvern. It would be 8 miles. A woman on a bike who stopped in Silver City passed me shortly after I left. I called to her to ask her how far she was going. She said, “I don’t know. Maybe Imogene?” I figured I’d see her on the way back at some point.

I don’t recall much of the next 8 miles. I reached a nice rhythm with my stride. That meant I didn’t spend much of my brainpower to keep moving. I kept forgetting to thank Luke for doing all this. I decided to add a trigger for thanking him. When I had my Coke at the next stop, I would thank him. That way I would remember.

I knew I’d be hitting the ultramarathon point soon. Crossing the 26.2 mile mark. As I came into Malvern, I was about 5 minutes ahead of schedule. Besides Shenandoah, Malvern is the biggest city on the route south. I thought I might get cell phone coverage here – but no luck. Since I was early, I saw the car there but Luke was no where to be found. I had roam around town looking for him. He came walking down the street with a bag of goodies from Casey’s. I filled up on water (it was getting warmer) and had my usual Coke and potato chips. Then I thanked Luke for doing all this work. He said it was fun and he gets to explore a new portion of Iowa. Plus he did get to drive the Audi all day! I stashed a fresh batch of apples in my pack and was off on what I thought would be 12.5 miles to Imogene.

Watch

Crossing the ultramarathon point

The stretch to Imogene would be the longest stretch by far. Early on, the woman on the bike I saw in Silver City passed me heading back. I waved to her. She said, “You’re still going. Wow!” After 31+ miles, my mental and physical abilities would be taxed during this section.

I tried something new here. I listened to music. I’d never done that on a run before. I don’t do that while training. I don’t like headphones. They reduce my awareness of the world. Running ultras is an extended practice of “be here now”. Headphones remove you from the auditory environment. So, instead of headphones, I played music through my iPhone speakers. I inserted myself and my music into the environment around me. What I found was that I was more present because of the music. I was less focused on getting to the next stop and more willing to just enjoy the world around me. I also found renewed faith that I would finish. I focused on each step. One foot. One foot. One foot.

But I blew my planning. I thought it was 12.5 miles. So I figured I’d be coming into Imogene around mile 44. But it was really 13.6 miles between cities. A mile difference is quite a bit more at this stage. To make matters worse it was getting warmer. I was regularly taking in water. At about mile 40 I was sucking on an empty tube from the 50 ounces of water in my Osprey backpack. I was heading toward dehydration thinking I had 4 miles or 44 minutes to go. But really I had 5 miles or 55 minutes to go. A disaster.

I trudged into Imogene. Luke was waiting as usual. Despite my weariness Luke informed me that I was only 3 minutes behind schedule. That made me perk up. My mouth was completely dry and I had about 4 cups of water before I switched to Coke. I spent a good 20 minutes there trying to get my gumption back to hit the trails. At the next stop, Shenandoah, my 12-year old daughter would be there to join me. That was a nice motivation. Nonetheless, it was still 8.9 miles to Shenandoah. I ate some more bacon. I knew there were a lot of food options in Shenandoah. So I told Luke that when I get to Shenandoah I want a piece of pizza and a chocolate malt. He said, “Ok”. Then I was back on the trail – walking.

Once you’ve dehydrated for a period of time it takes an equally long period of time to recover. So if you’ve been dehydrated for 30 minutes, it’ll take 30 minutes of water to recover. So it took me about 50 minutes to find my stride after departing Imogene. I saw a couple of runners behind me slowly approaching. That motivated me to keep going. I knew they would pass me but at least I’d get to talk to someone. There was also the subtle competitive pressure.

Just as the couple approached me they peeled off for a respite and I was alone again. Bummer. Nearing Shenandoah the population on the trail increased. I saw a woman riding a bike. A young boy and his dad riding bikes. A couple of young girls riding bikes. Lots more people than I had seen all day.

About 2 miles before Shenandoah I peered into a wooded ravine and saw something moving. I’m used to hallucinating while running ultras. I’ve “seen” iPods laying in the stream along the Superior Hiking Trail. I’ve “seen” fully built houses in the deep woods. So I did a double take looking into the woods near Shenandoah. I stopped and looked closely. Sure enough. There was something alive down in the woods. It was a giant black and white hog roaming through the woods. As I progressed along the trail I realized the woods backed up to a house with a field. The pig must belong to that house.

As I crossed U.S. Highway 59, I saw the couple of runners behind me again. Good motivation as I headed in to meet my family. They eventually caught up with me after I crossed over the Nishnabotna River. The man, who was leading them, asked me how far I was going today. I said, “Well, I’m 54 into 70.” The woman then said, “I guess I should stop complaining about finishing my 13.1 mile run.” She was supposed to do the Lincoln Half Marathon. That was canceled. So she had a friend pace her for a 13.1 mile run along the Wabash Trace trail. A perfect solution. Create your own half marathon.

Our small pack of runners arrived in Shenandoah together. My family (minus my 16-year old daughter) was waiting there. I was happy to see them. But I was about 30 minutes behind schedule. I split off from the couple running the half-marathon and headed toward our cars.

My wife, Heather, had set up a mini aid station in the trunk of the car. It had muffins, banana chips, gummy colas, pizza, and a chocolate malt. It was beautiful to see and smell. The pepperoni on the pizza was too spicy for my sensitive tastes at the moment. I had a tinge of heartburn setting it. A day of eating apples, potato chips, and Coke will do that. I peeled the pepperoni off and ate the cheese pizza. Heaven. Then I drank half my chocolate malt. More heaven.

My 12-year old daughter was ready to go. She’s been really anxious to do some longer distances. She’s probably run a maximum of 6 miles in the past. She wanted to do 10 miles or more. We started out walking. Which was fine because we had to navigate the trail as it wove its way through city streets of Shenandoah. But my daughter really wanted to run. Once we got back to the limestone trail, I was willing to run again. But I wasn’t fast enough for her. I was doing a 12ish minute pace. She wanted to do closer to 10s. I would walk and she would jog along side me. Finally I said, “You’ve gotta walk with me. It’s really discouraging to me when you are running. I don’t have much mental or emotional energy to handle you running.” She reluctantly started walking. Most of my energy was going toward digesting that food. After about 2 miles of on and off running I was able to return to form. We ran the rest of the way into the Izaac Walton League on the outskirts of Shenandoah.

We grabbed some water and a little food (and a Coke) from my wife and son. My daughter decided she really wanted to do the next leg. It was supposed to be 7.5 miles. I thought we’d come into Coin at about 66 miles. It was much closer to 68 miles.

My daughter surpassed her limits. The good news for me is she was more on par with my pace after 60+ miles of running. The bad news is she was starting to hurt. It started with her ankles. Then her hips. I now needed to put mental energy into helping her keep moving. We moved into a 1/4-mile walk, 3/4-mile run strategy. We would see a bridge down the trail while walking and say to each other, “Once we cross the bridge, we’ll start running again.” We trudged for a bit until we both reached physical and mental limits. Then we walked.

Late in a long run you are balancing sending your energy to many depleted stores. Your legs, your stomach, your mental-rational brain (type II thinking), your emotional brain, your executive function, your feet. All of these things are at their lowest levels of energy. Early on in a race most of these systems are full of energy. So you only have to send energy to one depleted part of you in these early stages. But near the end it’s a constant balancing act. If the stomach demands energy, you won’t have much to send to your legs – so you walk. If you want to run (instead of walk) you send energy to your legs, so you might start crying because your emotional state can’t handle it. This is the cycle at the end of a long run.

I looked at my watch to see our mileage. We were at 65.5 miles. I said, “Let’s see if we can run it all the way to Coin at mile 66,” our next stop. My daughter agreed and we started running. About 3/4 of a mile in we looked down the trail and saw Luke in his bright red shirt. That made us excited! We were almost there. What we didn’t know was that he had walked almost a mile down the trail. We got to where we thought Luke was standing. We could not see him nor any small town. We both looked at each other, “Did we hallucinate seeing Luke? Was it a mirage?” We now second guessed how far it was. I was reviewing my calculations to see if I was off. We kept trudging along. My daughter was wearing thin. She was hurting and needed a bathroom. We were ready to give up again and walk. We persisted and soon we could see the town after we emerged from a small tunnel. Earlier on during this leg, my daughter had thought she wanted to even do the last leg of the run. That would add another 5 miles to her distance – close to 19 miles. I said it was up to her but I think she should stop at Coin. She was so warn down and needing a bathroom. She was happy to stop and have her accomplishment be 13 miles.

I changed to a long-sleeved shirt in Coin. It had gotten windy and cold in the last 30 minutes. My short sleeves wouldn’t do it for the last hour. I’d have to spend too much energy managing my body temperature to keep going. I also grabbed some mittens. I knew my hands would be cold. Then I headed off toward Blanchard – the finish!

I was slow. But I was excited! I knew this run, race, whatever we call it, was about to be over. I knew I’d finish. Every doubt I had during previous legs was gone. I always say, “Once you hit the last section of an ultra, it would take two broken legs top stop me from finishing. One broken leg and I’d still hop to the end.”

It got really cold, rainy and windy. Gusts up to 25 MPH. Luckily it was all coming at my back. Once I got running a little I turned on my music. I got pumped and optimistic. I was listening to Laurence Guy’s Making Music Is Bad for Your Self-Esteem. Which is a really kick-ass album to run to – killer beats, some relaxing, smooth tracks, great drops. I decided I wanted to really take it home so I kicked up the pace. WTF, I had nothing to lose. I clocked in an 11:15 mile, which was pretty impressive at 70 miles in. But it was unsustainable. I had to walk for a bit after that.

I noticed the birds chirping away with my music in the trees along the trail. I sang with them and when the beat dropped I screamed. That silenced the birds. At one point I startled a group of deer and they took off running. They were so close I thought they would hit me. Behind me the sun was dropping beneath the storm clouds to set in a narrow band of clear sky. It was beautiful. I took a picture. As I took the picture, my phone died and my music ended. I’d have the last few miles in silence.

Sunset

Sunset over Iowa

I saw my family’s two cars pass on the road that runs parallel to the trail. I called a loud, “Whooop, whooop!” to them. I’m sure they didn’t hear me since it was raining and they were driving fast. I stopped a couple of times as the wind died down. The silence of the Iowa country was peaceful and soothing. I’d been shuffling limestone beneath my feet all day I hadn’t paused to absorb things.

I felt I was getting close to Blanchard. I could see the white street lights of the town. I could see the blinking red lights of the windmills in Missouri. I gave a couple more “Whooop, whooop!” calls. Still no answer. But the dogs started barking. I had woken up the town dogs. Soon I saw Luke with his iPhone light turned on down the trail. I called to him. I was almost there!

Let’s just say the end is unimpressive. The trail just ends. No park. No sign. No parking lot. Just a dead end of the trail in some trees. I called to Luke, “Where’s the border? I need to make it to Missouri.” He said, “you’ve gotta follow me through town”. So I ran through town with my family about a block and a half, waking up yet more dogs. I’m thankful for rural Iowans who just let us be. They could’ve called the sheriff but didn’t. I ran up a small hill past the post office and turned right and there it was. Missouri! I crossed over. Stopped my watch. I was done!

Me at the Missouri border

Me at the Missouri border

17 hours, 48 minutes, and 29 seconds. 73.2 miles.

Post-Run Reflections

Random Pains

In the week before the run I had a conversation with my new boss at work. He’s an avid cyclist. We talked about how it’s the odd things the start hurting at long distances. People think it’s the legs or the lungs. But usually it’s something else. Something you aren’t really using. He told me a story about a 75-mile ride he did where in the last 20 minutes he had a shooting pain go through his arm. He even just let his arm hang at his side for a while. After a bit the pain disappeared. He’s not sure what caused it.

On the Sunday after the run my right wrist was swollen and I couldn’t move my thumb or grip things very well. Somehow (not sure how?) I must have injured my wrist with the repetition of running. Who knows? I definitely didn’t use that wrist for anything special during the run.

Possiibility

On Monday, as I adjusted back to normal life I did some reading. I read Rebecca Solnit’s essay titled Woolf’s Darkness. It’s about possibilities found in darkness. The limits language puts on what’s possible. And the good that comes from uncertainty. I’ve been running ultramarathons for 10 years. I remember reading Chris McHugh’s Born to Run and marveling at the ultrarunners who would just hit the trails out west and do 50 miles. What freedom and possibility. All of a sudden that possibility was opened up to me. I thought about the couple doing their own half-marathon – no course needed. The man in Mineola who was doing his own “triathlon”. I don’t need a formal race to run 70+ miles. I don’t need all the aid stations. I don’t need someone else to plan it. I’m capable of all that. The trails are wide open now.

Family

None of this run would’ve been possible without my family. And not in the, “they support me” sense. I’ve got that internal drive part covered. But in the they contributed to making it happen. Luke drove everywhere from 5 a.m. until we got back to Des Moines after midnight. Heather bought all the right food, energy and can-do thinking to Shenandoah. Margaux ran 13+ miles of it with me. And without Nora back at home acting as a message relay service, none of my family in southwest Iowa would’ve combined forces. Thank you, Luke, Heather, Margaux and Nora!

Memory

Life doesn’t unfold with the same rhythms with which we write about it after the fact. None of what you read above may be true. There are simple facts of locations, sights and time that are reliable. But other parts less so.

During every segment of my 72.3 miles of running, except the last two segments, I thought about throwing in the towel and quitting. About 5 miles in I thought to myself, “When I get to the first stop, I’m going to just get in the car with Luke and head back to the hotel. My legs already hurt.” Reading the above might lead you to believe completion was preordained. It wasn’t.

I was nervous as hell about my family being there. I was nervous about my son getting in a car accident. Not because he’s a bad driver but because accidents happen. Things can always go bad. I didn’t know if I’d be helped or hindered by running with my daughter. None of that was clear leading up to the run or during it.

I love that uncertainty that emerges early on. It’s like a set of questions I want to find the answer to. And I don’t care what’s revealed in the answers. But I do care. It’s complicated. But filled with hope. Rebecca Solnit captures it for me:

“that you don’t know if your actions are futile; that you don’t have the memory of the future; that the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be; and that, in the end, we always act in the dark.”

Onward into the darkness!