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Trail Running

50 Miles For 50 Years

They say if you’re living right you dream big and push the boundaries of your abilities—so much so that it scares you. Taking these types of risks can make you feel very uncomfortable, but you grow and learn more when life’s uncomfortable.

For my 50th birthday last year, I wanted to do something big that would be beyond what I had previously viewed as my limits. Out of this, my goal of running a 50 mile ultramarathon started—50 miles for 50 years. This journey turned out to be a roller coaster of emotions taking me through highs and lows which spanned nine months to achieve.

The Plan

Finishing a 50 mile race was definitely beyond anything that I’d accomplished. The longest distance that I previously finished was a 50K, on two different occasions. After the last one, the Quivering Quads 50K, I felt like I’d still had some energy left at the finish and I could have ran a few more miles.

My initial goal was to run the Tunnel Hill 50 mile ultramarathon, which was scheduled for the weekend after my 50th birthday, on November 13, 2021 in Vienna, IL.

The training schedule was a huge increase in mileage compared to my previous training plans, with almost every weekend full of back-to-back long runs, eventually reaching 18/18, 20/20 and 26/10 miles at the peak of training. My nights and weekends for the next four months would be spent training.

Running on Empty

I was initially able to stay on my training schedule, but as the St. Louis summer wore on, the heat and humidity started to take its toll and I had doubt of whether I could run 50 miles. More than a month into training, on the second day of a long run, that doubt reached a new level. Overheated and lacking energy led to frustration and eventually me quitting after 8 miles into second day of back-to-back 14 mile long runs. I needed to regroup and figure this out.

Getting Back On Track

As I learned the hard way, my nutrition plan, or lack of one, was holding me back. After researching how to fuel for an ultramarathon and getting advice from other runners, I put a proper nutrition plan in place. Forcing myself to stop and refuel every 30 minutes during training runs, to replace the calories I was quickly burning, was new to me—I used to just wing it and didn’t make nutrition a priority. But as I found out, you can’t wing ultramarathon distances—physical, mental and nutrition training are all needed to succeed. With my nutrition plan in place, I got back on track.

Hitting Bottom

With the end of training in sight and only four weeks to go until race day, I was feeling good about my chances of running 50 miles. I had stuck to my training plan, since I put a nutrition plan in place, and felt good after the first of back-to-back 20 mile runs. But the next day, all of that optimism would disappear.

Three miles into the second 20 mile run of the weekend, I stopped to refuel and take a restroom break. And there it was—a huge red flag (no pun intended)—the symptoms of hematuria. The condition, where there is an abnormal amount of red blood cells in the urine, is known to happen to endurance athletes when their bodies are heavily stressed. But it could also be the symptom of more serious health problems such as kidney stones, kidney cancer or other kidney and bladder diseases.

My run was over for the day; my streak of running at least a mile a day for the last 1,022 days in row was in jeopardy of ending; and reaching my goal of finishing a 50 mile race was again uncertain.  

I went to urgent care immediately, and the tests came back negative for the serious issues that they could test for, but the issue did not improve after a few days. So, I scheduled an appointment with a specialist, but it was going to take more than a week to see them.

Disappointed is an understatement of how I felt after realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to run the Tunnel Hill 50 miler. I went through the five stages of grief:

  • Denial: “It’ll get better on its own in a few days.”
  • Anger: “It’s not getting better. I did all of that work for nothing—4 months of training down the drain!”
  • Bargaining: “Maybe if I ran less, it would get better on its own in a week or so.”
  • Depression: “Now what do I do?”
  • Acceptance: “I’m not going to be able to run this race, but I can run another one next year.”

Even though I wasn’t going to be able to run this race, I didn’t let this issue put an end to my running streak—at least that was still intact.

I eventually saw a specialist for more tests. It was discovered that a blood vessel had ruptured in my bladder. It would eventually heal on its own and I was given the green light to run again—but I needed to back off the high mileage training and ease into it.

A New Hope

Getting through this health scare, I wanted to get back to reaching my goal as quickly as I could and I starting making plans to run the Prairie Spirit Trail 50 Miler scheduled for March 26, 2022 in Ottawa, KS. My mindset changed from “Can I do this?” to “I am going to do this.” And instead of thinking “I have to run today”, I looked at training as an opportunity that some people with health problems cannot do—“I get to run today.”

There were lots of long, dark nights and weekends running during this training cycle. Through the snow, ice and freezing temperatures, I stuck to the training plan. In early March, I made it passed the hardest part of the training—back-to-back 20 mile runs and back-to-back 26 and 10 mile runs. It was time to taper back the mileage and look forward to race day.

A Final Scare

With only two weeks until race day another minor injury popped up. A bruised ankle caused so much pain, that I had to cut short a few training runs. The nagging pain would come and go and I limped through the last days of training. I mentally prepared for the pain to happen during the race—I was just going to have to fight through it.

Redemption
From what I had experienced through my training, I felt I was prepared for whatever could happen on race day. Mentally and physically, I was ready and the race course, weather and support were ideal.

All during the race I battled pain and I was never comfortable physically. The expected pain of my right ankle and the unexpected hip and foot pain on my left side, came and went throughout the race.

But I was mentally strong all day. The thought of quitting and not making it to the finish never crossed my mind. Mentally, I broke the race up into smaller, manageable pieces. I stopped and rested when I needed a break and walked/ran when I needed to—but most of the time I was running through pain. I had 29 hours to finish—run, walk or crawl, I was going to get there.

During the final stretch, within five miles of the finish line, I stopped to help another runner who had twisted his ankle badly earlier in the race and had been hobbling along. At first, he didn’t want help, but after seeing the pain on his face, I eventually talked him into letting me call the race organizers to come get him and drive him back to the finish line.

I don’t know if it was because I knew I was on the verge of finishing or good karma for doing the right thing and stopping to help another runner. After that point, I seemed to regain some energy as I pushed toward the finish line.

I crossed the finish line 11 hours and 9 minutes after the race began at 6:30 a.m. that morning, but my journey really started 9 months earlier, when I decided I was going to run 50 miles and committed myself to being uncomfortable. What once seemed unattainable, was finally attained.

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Red Mountain Park bridge
Trail Running Travels: Red Mountain Park

by Mike Meehan

When traveling somewhere you’ve never been before, many people want to visit the places the locals go to such as restaurants, bars, etc. Runners on the other hand, want to run where the locals run. So on a recent drive to Florida from St. Louis, when we saw the sign for Red Mountain Park in Birmingham, we had to experience the local trail running scene.

Red Mountain Park, located just south of Birmingham in Homewood, Alabama and only a few miles off of I-65, provides some of the best trail running in Alabama. The park includes 15 miles of trails with two overlooks of the city, including single track loops and dirt roads that connect along multiple points allowing runners to build runs of short and long distances.

Red Mountain Park

The park is located on former mining sites of rich deposits of iron ore. The mines helped fuel the local of economy for decades and supplied the South with iron and steel during the Civil War and helped supply the U.S. war efforts during World War II. The last mine closed in 1962, and the area laid dormant until 2007 when U.S. Steel sold more than 1,200 acres to the Red Mountain Park and Recreational Area Commission, which established the park. According to the park’s website, the creation of Red Mountain Park has helped make Birmingham one the “Greenest Cities in America,” by increasing its public park space per resident.

Ruins of the former mine’s buildings and structures are scattered throughout the park, providing a unique backdrop for trail running and a glimpse into the history of the area. The day we visited the park, heavy fog socked the area in, which didn’t allow great views from the highest points in the park. However, the gray concrete structures and heavy fog contrasted with red dirt and rocks and subtle greenery, gave the impression that even in the winter, the mountain was still alive.

red rocks along the trails at Red Mountain Park

In addition to great trails, there is a lot more to do at Red Mountain Park including ropes courses, tree houses, zip lines and Remy’s Dog Park, the largest dog park in Alabama. We could tell during our visit that this is truly a community park that the community takes pride in. The park is manned by friendly guides to help to plan your run or hike. The park also hosts a number of events throughout the year including guided hikes, group runs and trail races.

A few year’s ago, I wrote an article, “Finding the Trail in the Urban Jungle,”  published in UltraRunning Magazine, that highlighted some of the best cities for trail running. After visiting Red Mountain Park, I’d add Birmingham to my list of best places for urban trail running.

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Sperunking: Discover a vast subterranean landscape at the Sand Mine Challenge

Whether it’s grassy plains, picturesque mountains or lush forests, trail running allows us to connect with nature. While there are many opportunities to enjoy nature’s beauty above ground, very few runners experience nature’s underground treasures. The Sand Mine Challenge, held in Crystal City, Missouri, is one of just a few off-road races in the country to venture into the depths of the Earth.

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Night Time is the Right Time (To Trail Run)

During the winter months, many runners are forced to do part of their training in the dark. The daylight hours are shorter and the nights are longer. Many run at night out of necessity—not by choice. But for some runners, nighttime is the right time for trail running.

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St. Louis is Half Nuts About Running: 14 Half Marathons Held in STL in 2016

The half marathon is the favorite distance for many runners. It takes some training to accomplish – without having to commit your life to training like the full marathon requires.

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Finding the Trail in the Urban Jungle

“Urban” and “trail running” are two concepts that typically don’t go together. Concrete, brick, iron, and steel dominate the city landscape. While mountains, thick forests, and single-track trails can be hard for runners to find in the city.

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St. Louis’ “Must Do” Trail Races

The popularity of trail running has exploded across the country in recent years and St. Louis is no exception. Some of the best trail running in the country can be found in the area’s vast network of parks and trails. With the variety of terrain and race distances found in the area, there is something for everyone. From short, easy races covering a few miles, to a 100-mile ultramarathon, St. Louis has it all.

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