Why I found myself running 50 miles alone in the wintertime

Why I found myself running 50 miles alone in the wintertime
Prather Lake

An edited and improved version of this story has been been published in the Limestone Post. I recommend reading that version.

Estimated reading time: 24 minutes

It was dawn in mid-February when I stepped outside to check the weather. Snow was on the ground, but the roads were clear. The temperature was just above 40 degrees and expected to rise slightly throughout the day. Perfect for the 50-mile run I was about to attempt.

I put on my red calf sleeves, black running shorts, and navy long-sleeve top. Standing in front of my suburban house, I reached out to touch my mailbox like it was my personal starting line and paused. Wait, what, why?

These very long runs give me a lot of time to think, for better and worse. Today, after leaving at dawn, I expected to return about dusk if things went well, or earlier if I needed to bail out.

I thought about how I got to this place, a story stretching back to nine years earlier.

The first long run I remember was from top of a mountain in Vermont. I'd been stuck in a cabin all day on a computer and decided to jog down the road to explore.

Running felt easy enough and I soon found out why. I'd just been pleasantly jogging down the mountain for four miles. As I turned to face where I'd come from and looked up, up, up the mountain, I realized what I'd gotten myself into.

My return to the cabin was at a much slower pace than I left. I arrived depleted but with a sense of accomplishment. Glowing with both pride and lake of experience, I thought "since this was the first time in my life I'd ever run eight miles, then I was better prepared than ever to run 13.1 miles, right?!"

Before I ran, I biked on country roads in Indiana. I appreciated the wildlife and the time outdoors during both pursuits. While I didn't go as far, running only required a pair of sneakers and take me to even more remote trails than a bike could. I liked that. So I kept running.

Some weeks after that fateful run at age 38, I happened upon the book Finding Ultra. Rich Roll described his unhappiness and poor health at middle age. After difficulty walking up a staircase, he decided something had to change. He replaced alcohol and fast food with endurance sports and a vegan diet. My back still hurt from a previous sciatica episode and my own belt didn't tighten as far as it used to. I also needed to change. Rich was right: this was too young to feel old. Maybe it wasn't too late to become a healthier athlete.

My first mile of daydreaming was interrupted when I turned right onto the bypass and spotted another runner across the street. Luke Fowler. He's got this efficient gait that looks effortless, yet he's moving quickly.

I'm reminded I don't just need to run slower to pace myself for such a long run, I need to run efficiently. I quicken my cadence but keep my effort low. There it is-- the efficient but easy place I hope will get me through this 50-mile day. I settle into that pace and return my thoughts to what brought me there.

I didn't play sports in high school or college. Instead, I went skateboarding. A lot.

The result of all that skateboarding during my formative years was that one of my calf muscles became much larger than the other– the leg that pushes while the other leg stays on the skateboard. More than twenty years later, there's still a visible difference in size.

It would be great if that were my only physical imbalance when it came to running, but like a lot of people, one of my legs is slightly longer than the the other.

A knuckle on my middle right toe has been frozen straight since I broke it playing on a pile of rocks barefoot as child in rural Kentucky.

Then there's my chest. In college, I had a full-suspension mountain bike and had this idea to impress a college tour walking through campus by jumping off a little curb ramp at full speed. As I landed, my cheap-ass, poorly-designed suspension fork collapsed into the front wheel, bring it into a sudden and immediate stop, sending me in a superman dive over the handlebars to land chest-first on the asphalt. Not grass, asphalt. I'd love to say that only my pride was wounded that day, but my ribs hurt like the dickens.

I took a close look in the mirror and noticed to my horror that the left side of my rib cage was now concave instead of convex. That is, it bowled instead of bulging out. Now prepare to enter the Twilight Zone. I got an X-ray, but nothing was broken, just bruised. So how could my skeleton have taken on a new shape without getting broken? I scoured for other shirtless photos of myself. Where was my shirtless selfie when I needed it? In the era, the photo search was not AI-assisted, but shoebox-assisted.

And there it was. I found the photo. My chest was concave there before the accident. I called my mother. Did she know about this? And my own mother, bless her, had never noticed either. I suppose because humans are naturally asymmetric, it's one of these conditions that people don't see until you point it out to them, but then once you tell them, they can't unsee it. Perhaps I'm sorry I told you.

But to circle back, it would seem my lungs don't have as much room to inflate as other folks. Another strike against running performance.

So when I started running, I had the gait of a wounded gorilla. At a tall 6'4", I'd lunge forward with my shorter and heavier left leg, then try again on the right side with my lighter and longer leg with the frozen toe, all the while wondering if I could fully inflate my lungs.

But yet, bodies are magical and mine had a way of keeping me upright when I ran and not collapsing to catch my breath.

I had recently moved to Bloomington, Indiana when I started running. I hadn't met many other folks that run that first year. But the lack of good advice didn't stop me from what I viewed as the best chance in my life to attempt the 13.1 mile half-marathon distance, building on the "success" of my mountain run where I had no choice but to climb back up the mountain to get home.

As a nod to that run, I designed a scenic route that also was flat or downhill for the first half, then spent the second half climbing up a big hill, and generally continuing uphill for the rest of the second half. Bloomingtonians know this as the Swartz Ridge - Moore's Creek loop.

Planning a route that got harder, not easier, in the second half was one of many things that went wrong on that 13.1 mile run. Really, it was failure by just about every measure. That was clear by mile 11 when I stopped by the side of the road to catch my breath and take stock. I could feel the blisters in my shoes. Crotch chafing was setting in. I'd thrown modesty to the wind and taken off my shirt because the nipple chafing wasn't far behind. My water bottle was empty, my snacks were gone, the mid-day sun was starting to cook me and my legs felt like jelly. The last two miles seemed to stretch on for an hour made worse by a poor route choice on a busy road.

I burst through the door to my house and.... wait, that's not right. I steadied myself on the porch railing before weakly opening the door. I tried to talk but grunt-whispers came out. Water. Food. Shower. Bed.

Speaking of problems, my attention was pulled back to my 50 mile run, where I drifted along to mile eight.

My running had improved in some respects from that first 13 mile run, but I was not immune to the classic runner problem: Sometimes I go out too fast and suffer later. I had improved my pacing on my long runs, but the stakes were higher today. Too much effort early on could leave me fatigued at the end of this and I might need to bail on the project.

So when I turned from Old 37 to the massive hill on Robinson Road, my mind my was on my heart rate. It was too early to be spiking my heart rate on a hill climb. I resolved to walk it if that's what it took to keep my effort level feeling easy.

I thought I had my effort under control, but my Garmin watch disagreed. It registered my heart rate going out of the Easy Zone. I slowed my effort but my heart rate didn't seem to be falling. There were a lot of hills and this was not a good sign. It still had not recovered when the road flattened out. Gah. I started to walk some to let my heart rate recover.

But then I thought, "wow, I'm already walking on some flats". This going to be extremely long day if I'm walking up the hills and on the flats. It was at that point I decided the worrying wasn't helping. I wasn't out there to obsess about a watch. From there on, I would try to ignore the heart date on my my watch and control my effort by intuition.

I thought back to how I reacted to all the problems from my first 13.1 mile run. Sure, I thought about quitting then, or at least returning to shorter, easier, chafe-free runs. But other intrusive thoughts crept in. Thoughts about how to prevent blisters with different shoes and socks. Discovering Body Glide to prevent chafing. Better route planning. Cooler temperatures. A water bottle. Better snacks.

Sometimes I found conventional solutions. Conventional, like every runner knows to tape their nipples on long runs so they don't bleed from chafing, right? It's not something we talk about.

Other solutions were less conventional. On this 50-mile, all-day run, I was carrying everything I needed in a tall mesh belt with four pockets that go all the way around. My running shorts had another five pockets. Water is relatively heavy, so instead of carrying a lot of it, I plan my the routes and dates of my long runs to incorporate re-filling my water bottle along the way from streams or lakes. On this day I carried a small water filter for that purpose.

Gear packed for my first 50 mile run. 
Ready to attempt 50 miles, with gear hidden in a waist belt and shorts pockets

I didn't need to drink as much today thanks to the temperatures and stopped at a favorite filter stop about 17 miles in, just before I entered Morgan-Monroe State Forest. The ideal filter spots are small streams just a few steps off my route. I arrive with the BeFree flask already open and in my hand. With two quick scoops of water, I can be running again in 30 seconds. Holding and squeezing the flask with my left hand, I can filter water into my water bottle below as I run.

Filtered water will be mixed with Tailwind to drink

After going from running 8 to 13 miles, I entered this cycle of creating incrementally harder challenges for myself. After 13 miles, there were 16, 19, 22, 26 and even 31 mile runs. Ok, also 38 miles.

As I kept running, I lost weight, got faster, learned how to fail less and followed Rich Roll towards the path of cutting out the remaining animal products from my diet, little by little.

But this wasn't just an exercise in making a mileage number go up. On this day, it was important that I really understood why I was out there. Even though I had run 38 miles, why extend that by almost the distance of another half-marathon? This wasn't a morning run anymore. I'd be gone from my family and the rest of my life all day.

The big climb on the road into Morgan-Monroe pulled me back into the present.

I noticed there was still snow on the north side of hills, while it was melting on the south side. This difference had a noticeable impact on the temperature. As I ran over the hills, I could feel the temperature drop on the north side of hills due to the snow pack.

It's details like that keep running the same routes fresh year around. The same route in different weather is a new route.

As I tuned into the environment, I noticed that the snow on the ground wasn't the same depth on the ground as when I left my house. It was getting deeper. It hadn't occurred to me that it had snowed more further north of me. For now, I was still running on cleared roads, but there were trail sections yet ahead.

Entering Morgan-Monroe

As my route switched from cleared roads to snowy trails, I entered slushy, sometimes slick packed snow trails. I was irrationally excited to be entering what was objectively the most dangerous part of the run: snowy trails, new routes and little cell service.

The more popular trails were packed and slippery as the snow thawed.

Soon I would arrive at the first lake I planned to water at to discover my next winter challenge. The lake was frozen! Because the air temperature was several degrees above freezing, I honestly hadn't prepared for this. Yet, I found the lake had thawed in just a small area where I needed to filter water.

I was luck the first lake was thawed just enough to filter water from

The air temperature around the lack reflected the mass of ice there. That inspired me to keep my visit short and keep moving.

So far, I was on familiar trails, but now they were transformed by snow. This made for a rewarding experience, if dicey. Since most of my run was on roads, I decided to wear road shoes for this adventure, so I didn't have great traction in the snow.

A familiar trail section, transformed by snow.

As I moved towards the north end of the forest, it was time to turn on the trails that I'd only seen on maps. I was relying on the offline maps on my watch to help navigate. The first thing I noticed was that all the footprints from the popular part of the park were gone now. At least not from humans. Deer, raccoon and coyote prints were clearly present.

As I entered the more remote part of the forest, footprints disappeared, although there were oddly fresh tire tracks.

Although more remote, this section was safer in one way: All those hiker footprints made for slicker trails, while I could blast down these powdering trails adding the first prints into them.

In the most remote sections, there were no human footprints at all, just deer, raccoon and coyote.

I was looking forward to seeing Prather Lake for the first time. When I got there, my map indicated that I should expect to find a trail along the southern shore line, but when I got there, there was no trail! Also, the lake was also frozen and this time I didn't see where I could filter water from it to refill my water bottle.

So now I'm about 24 miles in, I've been running four hours or so and things seem to be falling apart.

I scramble up a hill to find another way to get past the lake, as it's too steep to go along the shore.

And just where I need a trail to be, a mossy path appears. After running for miles on snow-covered trails, running on this mossy green trail felt magical.

Mossy trail above Prather Lake

As I ran along the mossy ridge, to my left was a steep hillside with some thin trees that went down to the frozen lake. It was so steep that if I started to fall, it seemed likely I'd roll down the lake before I caught myself.

And that's when the trail gave way beneath me. With no time to react, I found myself now sitting on the trail I'd just been running on, with my legs now dangling down the hillside, just one butt-scoot away from sliding down the hill. Close call. Yet, somehow, no injuries. No scrapes, no pains. Yes, my risk assessment for my plan for the day did flash through my head.

Close call. The trail gave way and I nearly tumbled down to the lake. 

The magical mossy trail ended just where I needed to connect with the next section of the route, and again the ice had thawed just enough for my filtering needs.

Prather Lake

The next two miles went by quickly. The trail exited the woods by a gun range, I jogged for less than a mile on the road and then I was there: CHINA BUFFET.

Eating a greasy buffet lunch sounds like a terrible idea. So despite the restaurant name, that's not what I did. I avoided meat, oil and fried foods and ordered a simple meal of tofu, veggies and white rice. To that I added three drinks: two hot Oolong teas and a water.

A mid-run lunch break...

I must have walked in there looking like I just had a bad day at adult soccer league. Bless the folks who work in hospitality who overlook the rough edges... and smells... of their guests.

As much as I enjoyed being warm and indoors again, I knew the urge to nap would set in if I rested much longer.

I paid my bill and headed back outside to reverse my course.

I felt an unexpected lightness as I got back on the trails again. I had less than a marathon-distance left to go. The remaining distance felt familiar, possible. After having trained for longer and longer runs, I knew how to pace myself for what lie ahead. I set my pace a notch faster. I was still trying to be reserved and efficient, but a tad more assertive. I smiled. Maybe I could do this.

As I returned through the remote section of Morgan-Monroe Forest, it started to drizzle. I got out my wind-breaker. It wasn't waterproof, but it trapped some heat.

I was out here on this particular day, a Friday in February, because the weather forecast was my idea of "perfect for running"– it stayed close to 45F (7.2C) all day. If the temperature swing is too high, it's like I'd need two different outfits for running, and I didn't have room to carry that. But the threat of rain that helped to stabilize the temperature throughout the day came with the possibility of actual rain.

The drizzle was turning into a light rain and I was starting get soaked through.

I mentally decided to take a break at the Beanblossom shelter when I got there. At that point, I would have just exited at the wet, snowy trails at mile 34. While I took a break from the rain, I treated myself to some dry toe socks to ward off blisters. The weather was marginal, and so was cell service. If the rain became harder and colder, that could be dangerous for hypothermia. But now it was mild, and as long I kept generating some warmth by running, I'd be warm enough. I thought.

I headed back out into the rain. Both my base layer and the windbreaker were wet now. But taken together, the wind-breaker trapped just enough heat to stay comfortable, so I kept going. But why was I out there again?

This was the time in the long run where I had to answer the question: why keep going, because it would be easy to quit. It was 10 miles until I could even re-fill my water again, my whole body was telling it had already run plenty, and the weather had turned from ideal to potentially dangerous.

I heard myself saying "Hobby Lobby.... Hobby Lobby... Hobby Lobby." My body was producing words without consulting my brain. I don't even shop at Hobby Lobby.

I stopped as I passed a driveway. I needed a break. Stopping near driveways has a way of summoning the owners to return home right at that instant, but I don't plan to linger. I downed some more of the Tailwind drink mix I was tiring of and started again, reminding myself why I was out there.

I was not racing. Hardly anyone knew what I planned today. I was there for that moment: when I've run far enough and long enough that my brain shuts off and I'm simply running, just there. I was there because I value putting myself in uncomfortable place. A challenge that is possible, but uncertain.

If there were an easy run, my body could do it auto-pilot while I lived in my mind. On this day, the task at hand required my full attention to succeed. I needed to run with intention, to breathe with care. I needed to tune in to the environment and my own self-awareness and adjust throughout the run for myself and the environment around me.

My day job is online, in my head, abstract. To be out in nature is vital. To connect, to appreciate.

At home, when climate change brings extreme heat and droughts, we can turn on the air-conditioning and the tap water still flows.

On these long runs, I depend on natural water sources to drink from, just like deer and other animals do. Because of these habit, I'm tuned into the water levels in streams near round. By checking the water level in a stream near my house, I can estimate with some accuracy if a small stream in a forest ten miles away will be dry or running. Like I'm sure deer can.

When the streams go dry in a drought, I can take a break from long runs, but what about the other animals that depend on them with no air-conditioning or tap water?

To be out there, to be uncomfortable, to be connected, is grounding. It's humbling. It informs the rest of my life, whether I'm called to be uncomfortable at work, or to make daily choices to impact climate change or how we share our environment with the animals who call it home.

Still, I have my limits on how long I can stay completely tuned in. After eight hours of running, I'd reached that point on this run. I'd had enough "being in the moment" and got my Bluetooth earbud to transport my head somewhere else as I ground out more miles. I felt I'd gotten what I needed out of the run. Now I just needed to keep going and get home.

The good news about the second half of my route was slightly flatter. The bad news was that I going to run on State Road 45 for some miles. It was now near "rush hour" and I was no longer in top form. I resolved to try to run a little faster along 45, just to get that section done faster.

I had my mind set on Lakeside Market in New Unionville. This gas station and food mart was my last planned stop before home.

I arrived there so ready to be done. I considered calling my wife to come and get me. But in the time I might spend waiting and riding back, I could run most of the way home.

I surveyed the range of drinks in the drink fridge. So many options for a thirsty runner. The liquid calories of a Naked Juice seemed perfect. I bought one and quickly downed it. I felt better.

Not great, but I thought, OK, I could finish this. I hobbled towards the door and pointed my body towards the rolling hills of Russell Road.

I had had in my head that the actual distance was going to turn out to be 48 miles. Which I was fine with. I'd run to Martinsville and back. Good enough.

Despite my fatigue, my legs were still carrying me up and over the rollers on Russell Road as the sun was setting. I was passing University Elementary and knew that I was a mile from home. My watch said 48.3 miles. Even in my fuzzy-brain state, I realized this meant that I was going to be within a mile of 50 miles.

And I mean, who stops a run at 49.3 miles, amirite? I hadn't been paying attention to my average pace either, but saw it was hovering just above the 10 minutes per mile.

And that was the moment I found some resolve to dig a little deeper, finish strong and GET IT DONE. My pace went from low gear to high gear. This was happening. And then I did one of the hardest things on my run: I saw my house and turned left instead of going straight so I could get that final half mile in with another lap around a block.

Then, I was done. I did it. Adventure complete. I leaned on my porch railing for stability. This time, I smiled.


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