When I first heard about the ICY-8 trail race, my palms got sweaty and time seemed to slow to a crawl for the couple hours it took to make sure my schedule would allow me to participate. With a new focus on long distances, this race fit the bill perfectly as my first official ultra-distance race. With no set distance, runners just go for 8 hours and see how many miles they can cover using any combination of the 5- and 8-mile trail loops at Lake Anna State Park. I thought this would be perfect for me as a no-pressure run – I knew I could cover at least 50k (31.1 miles) in that time and, if I was feeling really ambitious, I could make an attempt at a new personal distance record (mine currently stands at 41 miles).
The day I found out about the race, in an email from my brother, was four weeks before the event. At that point, I had started to ramp up my training for a late-winter half-marathon, so I pushed the mileage a bit in the next four weeks to include a few back-to-back long runs and replaced all of my half-marathon-focused workouts with lots of slow, easy miles. Not the optimal training window for an ultra but definitely enough to give me a little bit of confidence going in.
Race morning lived up to the event’s name – with temperatures hovering around 17 degrees, there was definitely an icy quality to the day. I rode up to the race with my brother Stephen and Meg, a friend of Stephen’s and an accomplished runner herself. This would be the first ultra for all of us. We arrived in the predawn, made last-minute preparations for the day and attended the pre-race briefing.
At the briefing we got our first real idea of what ultra-running is all about. The atmosphere was just so relaxed and the people were so familiar and welcoming. It was like a bunch of friends had gathered to run trails for the day. The race start was just as relaxed: the RD said “Go!” and people just began shuffling out – nothing like the explosive start you find in road races of any distance.
My strategy going in was to at least hit 31.1 miles – the race’s threshold for officially completing an ultra. Like I mentioned above, a “pie in the sky” goal would be to break 41 miles. To keep the math simple, and because I knew the long loop had some big elevation, I would simply run the short loop repeatedly through the day. I would need 7 loops to reach 31 miles and 9 loops to break 40. The sixth loop would get me past the marathon distance.
Another thing that made me very excited about this race was trying out some new fueling options, something that has given me a lot of trouble in the past. I had done a lot of research on the subject and had found a product that, without going into extreme detail here, seemed tailored to my specific needs. That product, Tailwind Endurance Fuel, contains a different combination of sugars than most sport-fuel supplements, and I felt like I had finally found a solution to my long-distance fueling issues.
Writing this 24 hours later, the race itself seems like a bit of a haze. I guess running the same loop over and over will have that effect. The runners spread out almost immediately, and after about a half-mile I was running alone. After about two miles we reached the fork where the long loop broke off, and several runners took that route, thinning the pack even more (the field was capped at 100 runners, so the pack wasn’t that big to begin with). I just focused on running as easy as I could and enjoying the scenery. It was so cold that the fluid in my Camelbak started to freeze, giving me another good reason to focus on sipping every few minutes.
The short loop was rolling and had only one real climb, which was a beast, but plenty of smaller ups and downs. By the second loop I was really alone, and could cover multiple miles without seeing another runner. And since anyone could run the long or short loop in either direction, there were essentially four loops available – meaning the participants were so spread out that seeing another runner was a somewhat rare occurrence.
There was a huge variety of runners out there – from the guys (and gals) that seemed to float past with such ease at even the late stages of the race to the people that walked the entire time. Most people were very friendly and would offer cheerful greetings and motivations every time we passed. Others seemed focused intently on the task at hand. But, looking back, I don’t remember seeing a single person in obvious misery the entire day – a reassuring sign that these ultra folks knew what they were doing.
The first three laps passed uneventfully. For the fourth lap I ran the loop counter-clockwise for the first time, but quickly realized the course was hillier in that direction. The fifth lap started to wear on me mentally, as I was now in the low 20s but still a lap away from crossing the first major milestone – the marathon distance.
The sixth lap was probably the hardest. I’ve heard it said that, during ultra events, you get the opportunity to “hit the wall” several times. I don’t know if I was hitting the wall, because I was still running almost all of the time that I wasn’t climbing a hill, but things were definitely getting harder. I crossed the marathon mark in 4:52, notching that distance for the fifth time in my life. At this point my hip flexors were getting quite sore, although nothing hurt in an “injury” kind of way. Everything else felt great physically. I wonder if just running the same loop so much was taking a mental toll – even though it wasn’t a hard loop in most respects, just knowing what was coming wore on me a bit.
At the end of each loop I would take a few minutes in the staging area to grab some snacks at the aid station, top off the Tailwind in my Camelbak and, if necessary, make use of the facilities. This generally took about 3-5 minutes and it was nice to have that little break to refocus and chat briefly with the amazing volunteers, who were eager to help. Most of the volunteers were ultra runners, so they knew what you needed and how to help – just the simple task of helping me refill my Camelbak was a big boost on a frigid morning where I could barely feel my fingers.
As I set off for my seventh loop I was fairly certain it would be my last one for the day, even though I still had a little less than three hours on the clock. I would still have time for another. Right now it’s hard to articulate why I didn’t do it, but in that moment I just didn’t have it in me. I was still running – strong, at times – but the mental hurdle of setting off on another 5-mile loop at that point was just too daunting. Otherwise, the seventh loop felt great – maybe because I had made the decision that it would be my last. I ran well almost the entire distance, even picking up speed to pass people on occasion (I didn’t want to be “that guy” who passes and then slows down immediately). I think another reason it felt so good is because my nutrition was working well.
I finally cruised into the aid station for the last time after running for almost 7 hours. In hindsight I’m pleased that I didn’t set out for another loop because I am sore enough as it is, and I hate to think what another 5 miles would have done to my body. And I still wouldn’t have crossed 40 miles. I ended up with 34.5 miles (according to my Garmin) in 6 hours and 48 minutes.
I hung out post-race as the other runners trickled in – both Stephen and Meg also made it past the 50k mark for the day – and enjoyed the food that included chili, hot dogs, sandwiches, chips, homemade cookies and candy. It was quite a spread and very welcome after a long day on the trails. Stephen, Meg and I were even awarded special plaques for being first-time ultra runners.
It was a special day and a special race, and even though I don’t want to think about it right now, I know I’ll be doing more ultras in the future. It feels great to be able to knock out this distance on somewhat limited training, and to have dialed in my nutrition needs. And this race was a fantastic event, put on by people who really know and love ultra running. They were so welcoming and friendly – the first-timer plaques and the words the race director said as he was handing them to us really made us feel like we were a part of a special group of people.
(Garmin stats here)