With all of my races this year being cancelled/deferred due to the pandemic, I’ve been spending my time just running to enjoy it. It’s honestly been my best year for running. I had been training for the North Country 50 mile run at the end of August, but when that had been cancelled I figured I would just keep my base up as long as I’m enjoying it.
Molly, one of my friends in my 5am running group was also having a great year with her running and mentioned she was considering signing up for an ultra race this year. I had mentioned the Huff at the end of the year and she mentioned Kal-Haven. It seemed like a great way to ease into ultra running (as much as that is possible) with a 33.5 mile flat course. Within a few days we had signed up along with our running buddies Craig and Ranjan.
The Kal-Haven trail is a 33 mile railroad bed running from Kalamazoo to South Haven Michigan. The surface is crushed limestone and going in this direction was a slight decline over the whole course of 600ft. It’s a point to point race where you basically run till you get to Lake Michigan. We had taken a day trip last month to run part of it and it was really the best conditions for a trail run.
My original plan was going to be to just stick with Molly and Craig and have a good time together. Craig and Molly had several great runs together this year and were planning to take it easy and just get to the finish. I know it would’ve been fun with them and in retrospect wish I had kept with this plan.
However, I really started to wonder what pace I was capable of sustaining for the full race. My marathon pace was 8:09 and so I thought I could likely stick to an 8:30 pace for this race and be fine. I knew that Craig and Molly would get each other to the finish whether I was there or not, so I talked to them about it and decided I would run the first mile with them and take off on my own after that.
For nutrition I’ve been using Tailwind this year with a lot of success, so I decided I would continue with that. There were aid stations every 3 miles on the course, but I planned to just stick with what I carried. I ended up mixing a couple scoops of Tailwind into each of my 20oz bottles and kept a bag of some more that I could mix in my pack.
We had been seeing the chance or snow in the forecast all week, but on race day it ended up so much worse. We had a 60% chance of snow during the entire morning of the race with the temps dropping from 41 degrees to 34 as the morning progressed. On top of that there were 20-30mph winds blowing against us with gusts up to 40.
We started at 7am and although 124 people had signed up, I would guess only 60-80 people were actually at the start. I ran the first mile with Craig and Molly at 9:10 pace which I know was faster than their plan then I took off. I passed people the first couple of miles of the race but soon found I was running on my own with only a couple people in sight ahead of me.
The trail had mile markers every half mile counting down to 0 at the finish. I didn’t enjoy seeing the big numbers at the beginning, but as I got to mile marker 26 I figured I was down to a marathon distance, and I know I’ve completed those, so I’ll be fine. My overall plan was similar to a marathon, to keep my pace as best as I could, but my primary goal was to get to the last 13 miles while still feeling like I could run.
The race conditions had other ideas planned for me. We were fortunate to have a lot of the race be through wooded areas with the path sunken beneath two hillsides blocking the wind, but a good portion of the race would take us out of the woods into open fields with no protection from the wind. The first of these was the most brutal with sleet blowing into my face. It felt like my face was getting sandblasted and I couldn’t do anything but push forward. I tried to remind myself to keep my head up the entire race, but the sleet made it difficult.
I realized early in the race that I had made my tailwind mix too strong. I tried to make it a point to take a couple drinks every couple of miles, but 14 miles in I started being a little lax with this. I kept drinking it but probably wasn’t getting the calories I needed. I also realized that the trail was still wet from rain the day before and my shoes were not getting traction when I hit muddy spots. I never fell, but my feet definitely started sliding in the muddy spots, and as the race progressed I really worried about where I placed my feet.
I kept a great pace for the first 24 miles. Most miles were under my 8:30 plan. At times I felt my legs wanted to move faster than I wanted them to go but I focused on keeping a steady pace and watching my breathing to make sure I wasn’t working harder than I should be.
At mile 24 I stopped at my first aid station to get some water since I didn’t want to drink any more of my tailwind mix. The water was a big relief but when I got started running again I realized my legs were locking up on me. I decided to walk for a couple minutes and start again, but from this point forward my body just kept telling me to stop.
The rest of the race was a mix of walking and running as long as I could muster. Sometimes I could run a full mile or mile and a half before stopping, but usually would barely make it a half mile. My watch had died at mile 28 so I just had to go based on feel for how long I was moving.
I couldn’t make sense of what was wrong. I would stretch my legs and that would help a little, but the best I could describe it is I just felt like I hit the wall and never pulled out of it. Quitting seemed like it was always an option even with 3 miles to go, but with a point to point race I was going to have to go 3 miles farther regardless, so I just tried to do it as quickly as I could manage.
With 1.5 miles to go I knew I was going to get to the finish and ran for most of it till I crossed the line. The finish time was 5:12:35. I think I had the potential to do a lot better than this, but I was still happy with this time. I placed 16 out of 73 which was amazing, but I just kept thinking that everyone out there really had to dig deep for that race. The people out there longer than I was were having to deal with that awful weather way longer than I did.
The real reason I started this post was so I could document my thoughts on the race and what I might do differently next time. I really wish I had just stuck with Craig and Molly and had a more enjoyable race with friends. That’s been my motivation for running, and especially with 2020, I really haven’t had the drive to push my pace, so I regret changing this up at the last minute.
Having said that, if I were wanting to run a better race, I definitely would have been better off making my Tailwind mix weaker. With my two bottles I had mixed up I had 400 calories, but I only went through one and a half bottles during the entire race. I think if I would’ve mixed it a bit weaker I would’ve kept drinking it and not felt like I had to stop for water. That probably would have kept me moving longer initially.
I’ve been trying to think about if the weather had an effect on my race and I really don’t think it did. As miserable as it was, it also kept me motivated to keep moving. I was thinking about some of my 20 mile training runs for marathons and a couple were in awful weather and also happened to be some of my best training runs, so as much as I would have rather it been better weather, I think I would’ve had the same race regardless.
I was thinking towards the end of the race and it stuck with me after that I was really thankful for my local running group. Running a distance past a marathon seemed so out of reach for me, but when I messaged our local ultra legend Steve last year asking about the North Country 50 miler, he said I could get there without hesitation. I’ve got so many positive people in our running group but I really got the confidence to go for this mileage because Steve seemed confident I could do it and that really stuck with me. Also Craig and Molly are such great running buddies, I’ve had a blast getting to see them have such a great year running and glad I could do this race with them!
This is the first 27 miles till my watch died. I averaged out the rest of this to be 10:51/mi pace.