Tuesday afternoon, me bored at work when suddenly **Ding ding** text message appears! “So a spot opened up on our relay team for this Saturday, any interest?”
Running brain immediately says, “Sure sounds fun!” Send!
Pause 30 seconds while logical-rational brain kicks in… “What’s the distance and where is it?” send.
Turns out it was to run a leg in The Hennepin Hundred, an ultra marathon out in Sterling, IL. A few people from November Project were running the 50 mile race, so a few others who were training for the Chicago marathon decided to put together a relay team and do a training run that day while also cheering on the ultra runners. I had volunteered at an aid station for an ultra marathon before and thought it were fabulous, plus I love NPChi, so I was totally in.
I was going to be the 4th leg of the race, which meant running late in the afternoon. I was anxious about what to eat during the day because I hadn’t had good luck in Boston with a race starting at 10am, and for this relay I wouldn’t be running until around 2pm at the earliest. We also were leaving at 4 in the morning to drive out there for the 7am start, so I had to pack breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, snack, post-race meal, and dinner. I felt like a hobbit.
My meal plan was to eat a seitan scramble and toast around 6am, overnight oats around 10am, toast with nut butter and strawberries at 1:30 and then a quinoa-black bean-sweet potato-avocado burrito post-run. I ended up needing two coolers to fit it all!
We arrived at the start line by 6:40am to a crowd of runners and their crews milling about. The weather was perfect- cloudy, low 50s, barely any humidity, and the atmosphere was crackling with anticipation. Yet everyone seemed very laid back and casual. It was so unlike my experiences at marathons where everyone is in racing mood (read: high-strung), it was a refreshing change.
The trail was fork shaped. Runners began in Sterling, IL and headed south along the Hennepin Canal Trail for 32.1 miles before looping east towards Wyanet, IL for the 50 mile finish. The 100 milers did a U-turn and then headed 50 miles west to finish just outside of Moline, IL. The path is non-technical, flat and fast. It follows the canal and weaves through farms, forests, and state parks. It’s scenic and peaceful, the perfect path to zen out and tackle an ultra.
The volunteers were amazing at all of the stations. As my teammates and I waited for our current runner to pass, I got a chance to chat with some of the volunteers and watch them interact with the other ultra runners. Each time a runner checked into the station a volunteer immediately would ask, “What do you need?” and then got them exactly what they requested. Anything from water, to beer, to burgers, or even vegan treats!
Our team was stacked. Matt, Kaitlyn, Lynton and I were planning on running at 7:30 pace. After our first leg, we were 30 minutes ahead of the other relay team and by the time I handed off to Tom for our final leg we were 2 1/2 HOURS ahead of the other relay team. Tom was our wild card runner. We had never met him before, but, like me, he was filling in for another empty spot on the team’s roster, and was planning more of a 10 minute pace.
My leg was to run due west (into a headwind yay! sarcasm) from miles 55.5 to 73. Given our extensive lead at that point, I ran past most of the other runners who were still heading east to the turn around point. For the ultra runners, seeing a girl fly by at a 7:20 pace during mile 60ish of the race caused looks of surprise, confusion and lots of holy shits! I wanted to make sure they knew I was on a relay team and that they were the ones who were really doing the hard work, so I made sure to yell back words of encouragement and appreciation, and give out a few high fives.
I underestimated how much water I would need given the distance between the aid stations I was going to run through and should have brought a hand-held. I am used to just grabbing a cup of water quickly and drinking as I run away, so I came running into the aid station, guns blazing, but the volunteers weren’t used to someone coming in so fast. Before they could ask what I needed, I grabbed a cup of clear liquid and downed it as I was leaving, only to realize it was Sprite! Yuck! With about 3 miles to go I noticed how thirsty I was, and resorted to putting on some chapstick that I had stuffed into my bra.
Our team was running so fast that the food truck hadn’t arrived to the exchange point yet! For the rest of the race, our team arrived at each aid station before the truck, but luckily there was always at least a little water or pack of crackers. When we arrived at the finish line, the volunteers were just setting out some snacks and heading up the grill to make some hot dogs, but they were very surprised to see us so soon!
All members of the team reconvened at the finish line, in addition to the two amazing ladies who ran the 50 miler and some of the cheer squad. We huddled in the dark around the bonfire because the temperatures had dropped to the upper 40s and listened as they recapped their race experiences. Shortly after 9pm we saw a light bobbing in the distance, so Matt, Lynton, Kaitlyn and I ran out a few meters to welcome in Tom and all finish together. Our official time was 14:13:13!
Overall, the Hennepin Hundred was a ton of fun and I am so glad that I was asked to join the team. It sure beat running along the lakefront path! Congratulations to everyone who completed the full 50 or 100 mile race and to all the other relay teams as well. Who knows, maybe there is an ultra in my future…