On Saturday April 22, I ran the 2017 Earth Day 50k. It was my very first ultra marathon ever and I LOVED it! Well, that’s easy to say now that my soreness has abated. During miles 25-31 my legs were not happy and I probably would have said, “This sucks, why am I doing this again?!” But the second I crossed that finish line, I felt glorious.
Currently, I am training for the Ice Age 50 mile on May 13th. You can see how I have been training here on the blog or on Strava. The training plan I put together called for a 30 mile run on that Saturday. Initially, I was planning on going up to Kettle Moraine to do some recon on the Ice Age race course. However, the more I thought about it, the more I decided it would be a bad idea to get into a car and drive 3 hours home after running 30 miles.
Luckily, I knew some people from EDGE who were running the Earth Day 50k. It was the same distance I needed to run (eh, what’s one more mile?), much closer, and a similar terrain and elevation gain as Ice Age. I emailed the race director on Friday and she said I could still register. Nothing like a last minute decision to run an ultra marathon!
The course is a loop in Veterans Acre Park in Crystal Lake, IL. There are 3 distance options: 5 mile (1 loop), 15 mile (3 loops) or 50k (6 loops). Runners begin all at once, regardless of distance. The number of runners on the course dwindles until only the 50k runners remain, sort of like a “Last Man Standing” event. I liked that a lot.
I went onto the race’s website and quickly found that there was no course map. Nor elevation chart. There was just a short video of the whole event and a quick summary.
I’m someone who likes to study the course beforehand. For the Kentucky Derby marathon (my second marathon), I made my dad drive the entire course with me before the race so I could see where all the mile markers were and visualize what time I’d be at each place. I’m not THAT bad anymore, I just prefer to at least have a map. Lack of a one for the Earth Day 50k was frustrating but also liberating. Not knowing what was coming allowed me to approach the race with a calm I hadn’t experienced before.
Race Day Morning
I am forever grateful for my little brother. He agreed to drive Katie O. and I to the race in the morning and spend the day cheering and crewing. Between this and Tokyo, I owe him.
The three of us left the EDGE at 6 and arrived at Veteran Acres Park just after 7am. After registering, I sat back in the car for a while trying to decide what to wear. The temperature was in the upper 30s but would climb into the lower 50s by noon. I settled on wearing compression shorts and CEP calf sleeves on the bottom, two long sleeve t-shirts and my pack on top. Plus gloves, my November Project Buff, my EDGE buff and Nuun visor.
In my pack, I had a handful of cherry energy bites and a Huma Gel for fuel. I left some crackers with peanut butter plus some sweet potato cookies with Jon for fuel later in the race. One of my water bottles had Nuun Performance and the other had plain water.
Earth Day 50k Race Recap
The start of this run was unlike any start I had ever experienced. At the start there was the main aid station was, a place to leave drop bags, and a chip timing mat. After each loop, runners had to cross the mat, so I assumed we would all start behind the mat at the beginning. However, everyone was kind of milling around on the side.
I was standing with the other EDGE members waiting to be told to line up at the start. But everyone was still just chatting away in random clusters. All of the sudden at 8am the race director said, “Ok go!” and people just started running down the hill! No crossing a mat, no corrals, no gun, no national anthem, just pure running. Cool!
Because all the runners start together, the first loop was a bit congested. Being my first trail race, I didn’t know what the etiquette was for passing someone on the trail. Instead, I was just content to sit behind people and go slowly along the single track. Al was running behind me and it was nice to have someone I knew there.
It was a constant rolling terrain. The course had more rocks and roots than what I was used to, but it was manageable. There were 3 hills that I decided to walk up because they were pretty steep. I wanted to save my legs for later in the race and hold off fatigue as long as possible. Lap Time: 52:39 minutes
I came through the main area without stopping and continued right on to loop two. I had plenty of fluids and fuel left. This loop went faster because there weren’t as many runners in front of me, and soon Al took off at a faster pace. I knew what to expect from the terrain this time around and was ready for some of the hills and roots. I didn’t do as well holding back and definitely sped up. Lap Time: 50:00 minutes
I paused briefly at the aid station for some water at the start of loop three. By this point, I was running completely alone. I couldn’t see anyone in front of me and there was no one behind me. It felt like a normal long run to me. I got into a running groove and ran the same time as loop two, just a few seconds slower, which I credit to the stop at the aid station. Lap Time: 50:50 minutes
I was still running alone for this loop, but I did pass a few other runners. I was taken aback by their cheers and encouragement when I ran by. “You’re flying! Nice job!” The camaraderie amongst the other runners was incredible; I didn’t expect my competitors to be cheering me on!
A few volunteers had made their way out into the woods to cheer. As I approached two of them, I lost my footing and stumbled, but caught myself. One guy asked if I was ok, and I gave him a thumbs up and continued on. He shouted after me, “You’re not just ok, you’re AWESOME!“ I turned to smile and wave thanks, but in doing so my foot caught on a root and I fell HARD into the trail. I got up and sheepishly ran away without looking back at them, luckily uninjured.
At the end of this loop, I stopped to eat some crackers and peanut butter and say hi to with Jon. Fatigue was settling in, and the bottom of my left foot felt a little tender. This loop was my slowest one yet, due to the fall and stopping by Jon before crossing the mat. Lap Time: 54:27.
The fatigue that began on lap four settled in further during lap five. My hips were tightening up and it was harder to lift my feet up. As a result, I fell two more times. I also did more walking this lap than prior laps, power-hiking up most inclines. It felt like a peaceful ghost town now that most runners had finished, albeit a tiresome ghost town. There may have been a few curse words as I walked up some hills. Lap Time: 60:08
After stopping to give high-fives to Jon, Jerry, and a few other EDGE people, I began lap 6 and thought, “This was the farthest I had ever run.EVER!” Before I was a mile in, I caught up to another runner on a steep hill. We power-hiked it together and started to chat. The woman, Shannon, was also on her final lap. At the top of the hill, we continued to run together and I was THRILLED to have company. Pretty soon she found out that it was my first ultra and she was overjoyed. Although she definitely could have run faster, she stuck with me, encouraging me and talking with me so the loop would pass quickly. I was beyond grateful.
Before I knew it, we rounded the final turn. We actually had an argument coming towards the finish line about who should finish first! “You finish first, it’s your first ultra and I think you have a chance to podium!” “No you finish first, I couldn’t have done this without you!” Shannon refused, and stopped to carry her daughter across the finish line so that I would finish before her. Lap Time: 60:20
I completed the Earth day 50k in 5:28:26. That placed me as FOURTH female overall! First in my age group, first “Ultra Virgin,” and 12th 50k finisher in total. I was on cloud nine! At the end of the race, participants selected a unique medal; all of them are handmade!
After crossing the finish line and giving Shannon a huge hug, the race director came over to award our prizes. She also said, “Did you get anything to eat yet?There’s vegan food too!” Music to my ears! GIMME GIMME GIMME!
I loved the Earth Day 50k. I don’t think I could have asked for a better first ultra marathon experience. The trail running community is fantastic, the race was very well organized, and I enjoyed the looped course. It was the perfect transition from road racing to ultras because runners had fans every 6 miles. Plus, vegan food at the end! I’m hooked.
What do you think? Have you ever had an impromptu race? Any ultras in your future? Comment below!