Ice Age Trail 50 Mile
A homecoming, my first belt buckle, and my longest run yet
This, my first 50 mile ultramarathon, was also a homecoming for me. On our journey to La Grange in southeast Wisconsin, we spent a night with my husband Cody’s parents, stopped by his grandma’s for a pot of coffee, met my mom in Madison for dinner, and now we were meeting my dad and uncle Dave at the starting line. Later in the day my mom, step-mom, aunt, step-sister and her fiancee would join in my crew. I felt very supported.
The forecast looked grim – nonstop rain with the addition of thunderstorms all day. Luckily, we were spared by the weather gods as a 12 hour pocket of perfect running weather, cool, dry and overcast, unfolded with the 6am race start.
Right after my first ultra (the Vermont 50k) I knew I wanted to sign up for a longer race, so a 50 miler felt like the natural choice. The Ice Age Trail 50 (aka IAT50) is a historic ultramarathon founded in 1982. Many of my running heroes had run it, and it offered a chance to visit home. As the name would suggest, the course is mostly on the Ice Age Trail, a 1,200 mile long trail that winds its way through Wisconsin, particularly over glacially-interesting areas (read: actually hilly, unlike the rest of the state that was leveled by glacial movement back in the ice age). Since the race has been around so long, there were many people toeing the line for 20 or 25 times this year.
Like my first half marathon and then my first 50k, I had that nervous excitement that comes with pushing my personal distance record. Up until this point, the farthest I had run was 31.2 miles (50k), so I was going to have about 19 miles of unchartered territory to cover, which seemed like a lot considering for a half it was only three miles and for the 50k, it was around six. Most training plans for any long distance race max out around 31 miles per day for some reason or another, so this wasn’t my lack of training, but I knew that this race would push me a lot farther than I had ever gone before.
It was still dark out as we pulled into the parking lot. I left my sweatpants in the car, preferring cold legs over having to awkwardly pull them off over my shoes at the starting line. Cody and I made our way to the starting line as the sky lightened up, and were found by my Dad and Uncle Dave right away. They seemed surprised at how many runners there were for this long of a race. Like a lot of people who aren’t in this world, they assumed that what I was doing would attract a small and niche crowd, not the hundreds of runners of all shapes and sizes – normal people, more or less.
We took a lot of photos under the starting line sign as we waited for things to get going.
The race director got up and gave his instructions but I couldn’t hear a word of over everyone else nervously milling about. I hustled to get myself in order, shedding layers and saying goodbye for now to my crew. I took my place at the middle/back of the pack for the National Anthem, and then the chaos that is starting a very long race.
I had a few layers of goals for this race. My “stretch” goal was to finish in 10 hours, averaging 12 minute miles. My realistic goal was to finish before the cutoff time of 12 hours (14 minute mile average) to officially finish the race and receive a finisher’s belt buckle. After that, my goal was just to finish the 50 mile course alive. I made a chart of times my family might expect to see me at aid stations based on a 12 and 14 minute mile times so they could tell me how I was doing.
Part 1 - Nordic Ski trail loop
The first section of the course is a 9 mile loop on Nordic ski trails through a tall Pine forest. The path is wide, coated with pine needles, and easy to run, with some mild hills throughout and sections through grassy open meadow. This section was quite crowded, and I learned I should have started a little closer to the front.
I ran around an 11:00 mile average during this section and showed up back at the starting line in 1:39, ahead of my stretch goal time by several minutes. I was happy to have 9 miles in the bank and some wiggle room for when my legs weren’t quite so fresh later on. Though it was faster than expected, 11 minutes a mile is pretty leisurely, so I don’t think I started too fast out of the gate.
I enjoyed listening in on the conversations of other more experienced IAT50 runners. I especially remember hearing a man who, I think, was after his 20-something attempt of the 50 mile, tell his running buddies about the time when he was shooting for a sub 8 hour finish. He had made it to Horseriders Camp aid station (43.5 miles in) on the way back to the finish line in 7:30 when he totally bonked (a word runners use to describe what happens when you don’t fuel properly during a race, causing all sorts of bad stuff to happen). He said he couldn’t remember who he was or what he was doing. The aid station volunteers reasonably made him stay there a good while and he missed his 8 hour finish by a long shot.
If this experienced guy could forget who he was, this race was serious business – something to be respected. This was just the beginning. Pace yourself, I told myself, as I sucked down my first Gu.
Part 2 - To Rice Lake and back
After replacing my every-45-minute-eaten Gu wrappers with fresh supplies from Cody, I ran through the starting line again into the forest, but continued straight where we had taken a sharp right before, to cross Bluff Road. I was surprised to see my dad, camera hiding his face, in the forest right before the road a whole 11 minutes from when I last saw him. I didn’t stop at the Bluff Rd aid station, realizing that stopping at every one would seriously affect my finish time. I crossed the street and continued on.
The course was single track now, winding through the dense and impossibly green woods. At “Confusion Corner”, I was directed left by a volunteer onto the Ice Age Trail, on which I would remain for most of the rest of the race. After a couple of road crossings, there was a solid stretch of relatively flat and runnable Pine forests. The trail bent downhill to Duffin Rd aid station (13.1 miles, 2:26). I started to feel a little hungry with a half marathon behind me, so scarfed down a PB&J slice while I refilled my water bottle with some electrolyte drink mix. I was still feeling great. But the next section would knock that right out of me.
The section from Duffin Rd to Hwy 12 felt long on the way to Rice lake, and even longer on the way back. First, the trail climbs and twists through the lush green forest up and down hills, or what I’ve come to learn are called “eskers”. Then there’s a stretch of meadow around La Grange lake where you can see runners off in the distance bobbing up and down the rolling hills which feel like they go on forever. It also feels like this should be an “easy” part – there’s no roots or rocks – just grass – which makes switching to a walk for the slightest incline feel disheartening.
I arrive at the Hwy 12 aid station (17.4 miles, 3:24) feeling deflated about my time, knowing that the cushion I had after Part 1 is now almost totally spent, and it’s looking unlikely that I’ll be able to make my stretch goal of a 10 hour finish. Cody assures me I’m still doing alright, and after some quick hugs, I continue on. I made lucky time across Hwy 12 as the group waiting for the ok-go signal from the crossing guards was just allowed to cross when I met them.
I ran with this group for a while, following their cues to take it easy on the twisting and ever-climbing single track trail. By now, some of the leading runners were passing us, making their way back toward Confusion Corner, and making me hopeful that Rice Lake was in the foreseeable future for myself. I was back in good spirits by Esterly Rd aid station (19.2 miles, 3:50).
The trail was getting muddier as it was churned up by all the passing running shoes. Now there were many runners passing from the opposite direction, which made me feel like I was quite far back in the pack, and also made navigating the single trail difficult, having to pull over or attempt a graceful pass frequently. It all worked out alright though, and it always made me happy to hear their encouraging words as the trail became more and more social with the two-way traffic.
Finally, Rice Lake was in sight. I carefully crossed the wooden bridge to the aid station, as instructed. My dad told me he had seen a handful of runners wipe out here since the wooden planks were so slippery. I was happy to make it to the first of the two turnarounds of the day. I ate some pretzels, traded more empty Gu foils for fresh ones, and turned back toward Confusion Corner (21.7 miles, 4:23).
Now that it was me passing runners still on their way to RL, I got a confidence boost seeing all the people still behind me. I realized that I was solidly in the middle of the pack. I made an effort to say something encouraging to everyone I passed, which had the nice effect of making me feel better too.
Esterly Rd (24.4 miles, 4:48) and Hwy 12 (26.2 miles, 5:24) aid stations went by in a blur of scooting around runners and following the pack I was with. Things felt easier because I knew what to expect this time and had plenty of people to say hi to. When I got to Hwy 12, I was happy to be at the halfway point distance-wise, but it was daunting to think of how far I had left to go. I had run a full marathon and now had another one in front of me.
Then came the long stretch through the meadow around Lake La Grange. As before, it was strangely slow going on this open and relatively flat meadowy section. I shuffled as much as I could, but it’s hard to keep going psychologically when you can see the person in front of you walking too. I passed one guy who said “it’s a little early in the race for a death march” when I asked how it was going.
Then I was back to Duffin Rd (30.5, 6:28), followed by that nice flat(ish) stretch of pine forest, and then across Hwy H to Confusion Corner for the start of the third and final leg. I also had to say goodbye to my excellent crew for a long stretch at Duffin Rd, as the next aid station where crew was allowed was over 10 miles away at the turn around point at Emma Carlin. I ventured off into the woods and to unexplored personal miles.
Part 3 - To Emma Carlin and back
I was getting tired by this point. Physically, I didn’t feel awesome – my knees ached from bounding down hills and my swollen feet were finding interesting ways to rub against my wet-from-all-the-mud shoes – but overall I felt fine as long as I kept moving. Psychologically, things got tough. I was surprised at how tired I felt – like I wanted to pull over on the trail and curl up into a ball and take a nap. It felt a bit like when you have a long drive late at night and you know you’re going to keep moving, but you feel like you might just nod off. I had already been taking caffeinated Gus regularly, but I knew I needed the big guns. This was the race where I discovered Coca Cola.
I think it was at Young Rd (33.1 miles, 7:01) that I had my first Dixie cup of the sweet, caffeinated elixir that is Coca Cola, and from there it was what I anchored on to get from one aid station to the next. 2 more miles to Coke. 1 more mile. Maybe a half mile to go… I would tell myself. And god help us if there wasn’t Coke at that aid station (spoiler alert: there always was).
I had a “pack” on the trail by this point – a group of mostly women that I was running with. We made conversation as we shuffled the downs and flats and hiked the ups, offering to pull over if they wanted to pass, but we were all fine with each others’ pretty casual pace by this point in the game. We talked about other ultras we had done and how we got into this crazy sport. There wasn’t any complaining, but we talked about how we were “living aid station to aid station”. This made me feel better to know that I wasn’t the only one.
The miles slogged by. First, the course climbed its highest point with some views – Bald Bluff, aka Indian Signal Hill – then steeply wound down through the woods. The trail was single track and there was hill after hill to hike up and shuffle down. The lead runners were already passing by on their way back to the finish around the bluff, and I was jealous at how soon they would be done. If only I could run so fast… I still had a long way to go.
I reached Horseriders Camp (37.2 miles, 8:05), drank my Coke, and set out for one final new aid station – Emma Carlin, where I could expect to see my mom, step-mom, and aunt there joining my crew at the turnaround point. There were some muddy sections here, but it was mostly some of the same we’d been experiencing since Young Rd – single track and hills. I reached Emma Carlin (40.3, 8:45), spent a short time greeting my new crew, downed some more Coke and like a woman on a mission, then turned back toward the finish. Only single digits at this point!
Again, I was filled with more confidence once I hit the turnaround point as I saw my place in the pack was still solidly in the middle. This was also the first time I realized that I would definitely be getting a belt buckle, even if I needed to walk a large stretch of the final miles. Despite this, I was determined to do my best and at least feign a shuffle when it wasn’t uphill.
I passed Horseriders Camp (43.5, 9:28), and somewhere in between there and Young Rd I broke ahead of my pack. Based on the mile marking signs at the aid stations, I knew my Garmin watch was off, showing fewer miles run that I actually had, so I spent a good deal of this stretch calculating just how far exactly until the next sips of Coke and the finish line. It was a surprise when I reached Bald Bluff – I didn’t think I was that far – and the sun shone for the first time all day for just a minute while I was on top.
I ran down to Young Rd (47.6, 10:32) and then past Confusion Corner for the last time to Bluff Rd (48.5, 10:46) where I saw my whole family one more time. I didn’t stop though. I kept running. “Do you need anything?” Cody called. “I just want to be done,” was my reply. And so I kept shuffling through the tall Pine forest.
That last mile felt so long. As I came within a half mile of the finish, I could hear the people and the music and the announcer calling out the names of the folks finishing their race. Many on the trail had given up any semblance of running at this point. I kept making deals with myself to continue the “shuffle party”, my label for committing to that first step of kind-of-running after walking up a hill. It got harder and harder to do this.
Finally, I could see the finish line in sight. Something came over me and I bounded into the fastest sprint I think I’ve ever run. Everyone was cheering and clapping and commenting that it looked like I was ready for another 50 miles (I wasn’t). I heard my name called – “Amanda Kievet from Norwich Vermont finishing her 50 mile race”. Cheers. Commotion. I was so happy to be done that I almost forgot to take my hard-earned belt buckle. I finished the Ice Age Trail 50 mile race in 11 hours and 4 minutes.
It was an amazing day that I was happy to share with my family, most of whom have never known me as a runner (more about that here), in my home state. I congratulated other runners who I had spent sections of the trail with on their race. We joked about who was motivating who to move faster. I got to toast champagne with a guy who completed his 25th Ice Age 50. I’m still curious what happened to the two runners who came in just seconds after the 6pm cutoff time. Now, sitting here writing this two weeks later, I’m excited to get out there and start training for my next 50 miler – the Vermont 50.
Thanks to my husband, Cody for supporting me and driving all over the country to get us here. I know it’s not always easy to live with an ultrarunner. Thanks to my Dad for taking all these photos and for driving the crew around all day. Thanks to my mom, my step-mom, Uncle Dave, Aunt Jayne, my step-sister Morgan, and her fiancee, Tim for coming out to cheer me on. Thanks to my super sweet mom and dad in-laws who had a special cake waiting for me the next day.