Birkie Trail Run – 100k Ultra

It is over. Last Saturday I completed my first 100k ultramarathon at the Birkie Trail Run Festival. Here is a recap of the event.

My wife, daughter, and I drove to Wisconsin on Friday afternoon. Traffic was bad so I missed the pre-race briefing but we just made it in time to pick up my bib. We headed toward Cable where our hotel was…when a deer stepped right in front of the car. First time I’ve had an airbag go off in my face. Luckily none of us were injured. The car, and the deer, however were not so lucky. Through the kindness of some Sheriff’s deputies, a tow truck driver, and a complete stranger that lived nearby we got to a different hotel in Hayward with our bags and my running shoes.

Next problem, the race started at 5:30am and we had no car to get me there. My wife has commented before when she goes to ultras with me that trail runners appear to take care of each other. In the hallway of the hotel I run into someone else who is wearing a Rocksteady Running tshirt. It turns out he is there to do the half marathon with his son. When he finds out about the accident he first offers to get up and drive me there himself, then he changes his mind…and gives us the keys to his car. Thanks Doug.

The start of the race was crisp and a sky full of stars. I think the final head count at the start was 28. The start was on the Birkie ski-trails. Easy to run but the grass was covered with frost. As we ran it melted and soaked your feet with nice freezing water. Still, I felt pretty good for the start and soon the sun was coming up. I completed the first 15 miles at a 12 min/mile pace. Then we took an extended trek through several miles of single track used by bicyclists. The trails were a little technical but not to the level of the Superior Hiking Trail. However, they were heavily covered by leaves making rocks and roots hard to see. My pace started to slow way down.

I should say one of the concerns with the run was all the trails we would be crossing. After reading the course description I was more than a little worried I was going to make a wrong turn somewhere. The crossing were very well marked. There were arrows at every crossing and tape directing you down the correct trails. During the portions in the dark the signs were hung with glow sticks. I only got turned around once and that was my own fault for blinding following someone in front of me rather than using my own eyes. It only took a minute for us to realize we were on the wrong trail though because we didn’t see any arrows at the next crossing.

Around the 40 mile mark I was starting to feel a little dragged down. By this point my mental game was to remind myself I’d already done two 50 mile runs on harder trails (Superior and Voyageur). I KNEW I could get to 50 miles and after that I could crawl the last 10 if I had to. I finally found something that worked for me snack wise as well – pickles and coke. Hey, whatever works. The one issue I had with the aid stations was the lack of diverse foods. Don’t get me wrong though, the volunteers were great…especially when you consider how many hours were put in supporting just 28 runners.

By this point there terrain was a mix of small sections of single track with ski trails. I made myself run down the hills and then walked up the next one, as much as possible. I came into the last aid station (which was actually a repeat, the route loops through it twice). Knowing that I wouldn’t be done before dark I got my drop bag and shed my remaining wet clothing for some dry things. The volunteers were very enthusiastic, “You look much better now than you did before.” Really? How did I look before?

The volunteers also pointed out it was only about 8 miles to the finish now. Just down the trail! Yeah…what they forgot to mention was about 5 miles of that was single track and the sun was setting. Out came the headlamp again. Keep in mind the single track is designed to make things interesting for bikers. That means switchback after switchback. It also means an almost endless series of little berms to hop your bike over. Those were really starting to tick me off by the end of the race. Up down up down… My one suggestion for the race organizers on this section would have been to put up more signs and glow sticks. It’s not that things weren’t labeled well but at that point in the run, in the dark, alone, with leaves on the ground…you start to second guess yourself. Am I going the right way?

The glow sticks were like little beacons of hope. Yes, I’m still on the right trail and maybe, just maybe, this is the end of the single track. So many times I would emerge on a ski trail hopeful only to see the arrow point, not right or left, but straight across to the next glow stick and arrow pointing back into the woods on the other side. Yes, I was uttering profanity to the trees at this point.

Finally the single track was done and after a short stretch on a gravel road we hit the straight trail into Cable. The last couple miles were on an abandoned railroad converted to trail. You’d think I would start running again but the entire stretch was at a slight uphill angle into town. Speed walking is my friend.

The finish was just into the town of Cable, behind a pizza restaurant/bar. No big crowds waiting for us in the dark, just some volunteers. The restaurant was waiting however. My wife, daughter, and two of our friends were there waiting for me (since there were no rental cars for 100 miles they had driven up to take us home the next day). Free pizza for all of the runners (which was actually quite good). When I ordered a beer the bartender looked at me, asked I’d run the race, and then gave me the beer free.

Out of those who started 17 completed the ultra. I came in 8th at 15 hours and 26 minutes. First place was an impression 11 hours and 38 minutes. Most of the times looked longer than those from the previous year. I heard someone say they’d tried to make the trail more diverse this year, as in they added more single track.

Final conclusion. It was a good race. A couple minor things they could improve on but it was well run and I would recommend it. The single track gave me some issues but to be fair I wasn’t able to get enough trail time in during my training so that’s on me. Overall I thought it was a good location for a first 100k.

Will I do another 100k? Jury is still out. I’m still healing up from this one. There are things I could have done to be better prepared. Of course, taking an airbag to the face and only getting a couple hours of sleep the night before might have affected things too. We’ll have to see.