Carol's Fat Ass/Howl at the Moon
July 30 and August 13, 2011
After the debacle at Kettle Moraine, I added another training goal for this summer: heat management.
The weather certainly cooperated giving us one of the hottest summers on record. After a scorching
July, I felt ready to try my hand again at running long in the heat. I scheduled two August "Birthday"
runs, a metric version (48K) which I put on myself and dubbed, "Carol's Fat Ass" and the more standard
48-mile, which I set as a goal mileage for Howl at the Moon.
Like everybody in my family, Carol's hips were a fair bit wider than her shoulders. That's just the way
we're put together. She was always pretty good natured about it and I have to think she'd have thought
naming an ultra after her butt was pretty funny. In the ultra world, a "fat ass" run is a semi-organized
affair with no entry fee, minimal support, no prizes, shirts, or schwag. I lay out a course that starts and
finishes in Klondike Park and uses the Katy Trail to get over to the great new singletrack GORC has built
at Matson Hill. Driving out, I drop water at the Matson Hill trailhead and the entrance to Klondike, set up
a food and drink table at my campsite at the Start/Finish and, presto, a supported ultra on 30 minutes
work! No wonder they call these things fat asses; any couch potato could put one on.
As the "event" was thrown together at the last minute, only a few of my SLUG teammates make it out
for the 7:15AM start on July 30. Still, it's nice to have any company on long runs and it turns out we're all
about the same speed so nobody is on their own. We run out to Matson in a pack, split up a bit circling
the singletrack loop, and reconvene at the water stop. Coming back, Tommy Doijas wants to run a bit
faster so he and I open up a bit of distance on the others. Back at the campsite at 17 miles, we dig into
the food and drink. My wish for a test of heat has been granted and I worry that I may not have stocked
the cooler with enough Gatorade. I down a liter all by myself and could certainly drink more, but want to
make sure everybody has a chance to get some. As the course loops by this stop two more times, I'll
have my chance later if there's any left over.
Tommy wants to wait for the others, but I don't want to reinforce the bad habit of lingering at an aid
station, so I head off alone. The next section is a 2.5-mile out and back, so I see everybody on my way
back in. All appear to be doing fine. Another 2.6-mile loop brings me back to the campsite. The weather
has taken a dramatic turn with some very menacing clouds moving across the formerly blue sky. As the
first drops start to fall, the others come in from the out-and-back and decide to call it a day. That's
probably wise, but I really want to get in the full 48K so, after getting the aid station supplies moved into
the back of my car, I head out solo into what quickly becomes an exceedingly violent storm.
The downpour actually feels quite nice but the trail, which has been baking with almost no rain for the
last month, quickly turns to a river as the ground is too hard to absorb the torrent. I slip and slide my
way through the out-and-back, going down a few times and collecting a few minor cuts and bruises. The
rain relents, but there's still a lot more lightening hitting the ground than I'd like as I hit the Hogsback
trail which winds up to the top of the ridge. I'm about to bail when, as suddenly as it hit, the storm is
The final few miles are serene albeit muddy. At the finish, I linger a bit eating some of the leftover
watermelon and sandwiches from the food stash and reflect on the morning. I suppose most guys a
week shy of their 48th birthday would prefer to spend the 5 hours on the golf course or behind the
wheel of a sports car. I've done both and get the appeal but, for me, this is it. Rather than ruining it, the
confrontation with nature's fury has made it all the more special.
The next week contains two short, flat, and very hot races: the Alpine Shop Trail run on Thursday
evening and the Fleet Feet Flat Five Sunday morning. I run them both hard, but not all out, saving my
legs for Howl at the Moon a week later on August 13th.
Fog at dawn.
The Kennekuk Road Runners claim that Howl is "America's Largest Timed Ultra." I'm not sure how you'd
verify that but, with the field limit of 300 hit months in advance, it's probably legit. Easier to confirm is
the assertion that the gentle 3.29-mile loop of grass trail, double track, and pavement which you circle
as many times as you can/want in 8 hours makes an ideal venue for a first ultra. Eight laps gets you to
26.32 miles and you're officially an ultrarunner. To make the more standard 50K distance you need
another lap plus one of the half-mile out-and-backs that are available for topping off your total in the
last half hour. As noted earlier, I've officially set my goal at 48 miles in honor of my birthday on the 5th,
but I expect to cover more than that. My plan is to take it out at around 8:15/mi and let conditions
dictate whether I hold that pace (58 miles, not likely) or back off as the heat fills in.
The weather reports indicate that heat won't be the problem this year; the high is predicted in the low
80's. The 70% chance of thunderstorms is a larger concern. However, when I arrive in Danville, IL at 6AM
race morning, it's already in the 70's and foggy with no clouds above, so I'm thinking the meteorologists
may have it all wrong. I decide to treat it as a hot race in terms of fluid management. I can always stop
drinking if it doesn't heat up.
Marc on the horn.
Shortly before 7AM, race director Marc Reddy tells us all to line up. He's a fairly typical ultra director,
which is to say he's rather atypical in an endearing way. "Runners in the front; people who just came for
the beer in the back," he quips. Included in the first category is 5-time winner and course record holder
Scott Colford, a fact which significantly dampens any hopes I had of winning this thing. Also among the
favorites are my SLUG teammates Brandon Janosky (last year's winner), Tommy Doijas, and Jen
The siren sounds and a group of 6 including Scott, Tommy, and I immediately forms at the front. I hang
with them for about half a mile before deciding the pace is just a touch warmer than I'd like. I stop to
take a picture of Scott Hathaway's memorial (which all runners are encouraged to tap on the first lap),
which makes a convenient excuse to drop off the lead. I hit the first mile in 8:06, confirming my
suspicions. I'm pretty sure I got off it before any damage was done.
Pay homage or jinx your race
Just a few minutes later, I arrive at the back side aid station, which is actually the main aid station for the
loop. This makes sense since runners can access their own supplies in the start/finish area. Recalling that
I entered this race in response to the problems at Kettle, this aid station will become my field laboratory
for the next 8 hours.
In the two months since Kettle, I've done quite a bit of thinking about what went wrong there. I believe
the root problem was in aid station management. I was working very hard at getting through aid
stations quickly. I now believe it's far more important to get through them efficiently. The distinction is
subtle, but important. In shorter races (and I include full-length marathons in that), aid stations
shouldn't even break your stride. You grab as you go and if you drop or spill something, you just wait for
the next one. Aid stations are actually a relatively new phenomenon, even at marathon distance; largely
a response to the fact that the running boom brought a lot of casual competitors onto the course who
often neglected pre-race hydration.
Beyond 3 hours, however, hydration, electrolyte replacement, and just plain old calories go from being
nice to have to necessity. This is why Tour de France riders carried bottles and bags for the inaugural
event in 1903, but the Boston Marathon didn't have water on course until the 82nd running in 1978. In
ultras, the priority switches from "get what you can without losing time" to "get what you need as
quickly as possible." Again, subtle, but very, very important.
As we're not even 15 minutes into the race, I don't need to eat, so I just grab some water and drink on
the run. I do take a look at what food is offered so I can go right for the stuff I want on future laps. The
spread is pretty complete: potatoes, pretzels, nuts, bananas, oranges, sandwiches, and candy.
The second half of the loop contains the one uphill on the course. It's not much; about 30 feet of
elevation gain on a steep paved road. It makes for a nice 30-second walk break each lap. From the top of
the "hill" the course stays on pavement for about half a mile. Typically this is the hottest section of the
course. Then comes a pretty little section through the woods dumping you out into the sea of
competitors' tents, canopies, chairs, and coolers that line the last hundred meters of the loop. John Cash
is manning the SLUG supplies and hands me a water bottle as I pass.
I finish the lap in 26:10 (7:57/mi), still just a bit faster than planned, but basically on pace. My lap
counter, who is handling half of the Male Masters field, gives me a wave to indicate he's got me. This
final detail is not to be taken lightly; half an hour of running can be thrown away in a careless second if
one zips past the scoring table unnoticed. The rules are very clear on this: the lap counter is ALWAYS
Start/finish feed zone
Shortly into the next lap, Brandon comes up from behind. I'm happy to have company again. Eight hours
is a long time to run alone. At the aid station, he grabs a piece of orange whereas I still opt for fluid only
since I've got a Gu packet in my pocket to eat on the hill. By the end of the lap, we're starting to catch
the back end of the field. Aside from being the largest timed ultra on this side of the world, Howl is also
one of the most popular walking ultras, with a division set aside for walkers. As I found out last year
when injury limited me to walking, some of those walkers can go well into ultra distance in the time
After another lap with Brandon (where I finally do pick up some food at the aid station to go with my
fluids), I find I have to make a pit stop. I'm not sure why my pre-race breakfast of oatmeal and coffee
took longer than the usual 2 hours to elicit a response but, as Brandon eloquently puts it, I had no
tickets to the Super Bowl before the race. Fortunately, the porta-johns are placed right on the course so
it's only a 2-minute stop with no extra distance, which shouldn't matter much in a race of this
length, but somehow I have a feeling it might. I painfully resist the urge to hit the gas and make up the
time. I finish the fourth lap (half-marathon distance) at 1:47.
Given the stop, that's still just a bit fast. It feels like it, too. My right leg is getting just a bit tight and my
breathing is more labored than it should be at this point. With the heat filling in, it's time to make a pace
adjustment. I knock it back about 20 seconds a mile. I also settle into the aid station routine that I'll use
for the rest of the race. Every lap, I pick up a bottle from my own stash (John is refilling and putting them
on ice for me). I also grab a Gu and fluids at the start/finish station. The fluids I drink right away, the Gu
goes in my pocket. At the backside station, I grab a couple bits of food if there's no congestion,
otherwise I just get fluids. I eat the gu on the hill and wash it down with what's left in my bottle. It works
well and I find that I'm only losing about 10 seconds on the laps when I stop for food.
The hill gets larger as the day goes on
On my 8th lap, a runner pulls up beside me. I haven't been passed since Brandon caught me on lap 2,
but this guy is really moving well. It takes me a moment to realize this isn't a pass at all. It's Scott lapping
me! Well, I had certainly hoped to be a little further in before that happened but there's no sense in
fighting it. I stick to my pace, making no attempt to stay with him. I complete 8 laps (a tenth of a mile
beyond marathon distance) at 3:36. The new pace is working well, but it's still getting hotter.
Or, at least I thought it was working well. We're far enough in that this seems to be a good time to start
taking the race part of this event seriously. I stop at the scoring table to see how I'm doing. Scott is a lap
up (I knew that), and there's one other masters runner ahead of me. I know that Tommy, Brandon, and
at least one other young-un are also ahead which puts me way back in sixth. Oops, make that seventh.
As I head back out, Matt Condron (another master) passes me. Dang, I didn't think I'd win, but I sure
didn't expect to be kicked around this badly, either.
Matt is running just a bit faster than I want to. It's very hard to let him slip slowly away, but it's hot and
getting hotter. Pushing right now would be a potentially disastrous mistake. I console myself with the
knowledge that I'm typically a strong second half runner. We're not even halfway and this heat is going
to bite hard in the afternoon. There's still time to bring back several places.
Starting lap 10, I come across Tommy. He's in good spirits, but indicates that the early pace has done
him in. He's going to content himself 15 laps for around 50 miles. Meanwhile, Matt and I are playing an
odd game of leapfrog. His pace is only about 10 seconds per mile faster than mine, which means he
never gets too far ahead. He's spending more time at the aid station, at the start/finish with his crew,
and he's walking a bit more of the hill. As a result, we keep passing each other. We get in little snippets
of conversation with each pass and after a few laps of it I've pretty much settled on the idea that I like
him plenty, but I still want to find a way to beat him.
On lap 12 I catch Brandon leaving the aid station. He's lost the pace but still moving well enough that I
run with him a bit to chat. John Cash shows up running the trail backwards to see if we need any help. I
leave Brandon in his care and return my focus to my own pace which, while still good given the heat, has
definitely slowed. I finish the lap at 5:34, for a third half-marathon split of 1:58. Every lap has been
under 30 minutes so far, but the last one just barely. I'd have to average 29's to get in five more and
that's not looking very likely. Assuming I don't come apart in the last two hours, I should wind up with
somewhere around 54 miles.
It does occur to me that this is right about the point in the race where the wheels came off at Kettle (and
that was running at a considerably slower pace, albeit on a more difficult trail). It's almost as hot today
as it was then but, so far, I'm not showing any warning signs of collapse. Matt is right in front of me and I
decide that it's time to start finding some mettle for the last quarter of this race. There's really not much
danger of overcooking the pace at this point. You just go as fast as your body will allow. I stay with him
for a mile, but finally have to let him slip slowly away.
At the aid station, they've augmented the spread with pizza. I've eaten pizza in long races before with
good results and it really looks awesome right now so I grab a piece. It does taste great, but I can't eat it
on the run. By the time I've got it down, Matt has slipped out of sight. I try to get back on pace, but find I
can't. My legs are stiffening up enough that my stride is getting pretty short. I decide I'm just going to
have to run slow for a bit and hope they come back. The lap takes nearly 32 minutes and Matt is
completely out of sight.
Figuring the place is likely gone, I shift my focus to getting a decent 50-mile split. There's no question it's
going to be a PR, so it gives something of value to shoot for. Although I'm not able to return to sub-30-
minute laps, I do manage to find a little more speed. Whereas the early part of an ultra is fun running at
a pace that seems very easy, I'm into the part of the race where it requires some fortitude to continue.
The mental games begin. "Just get to 50 and you can jog it in," I tell myself.
Leaving the aid station on lap 15 (48 miles), I spot a familiar figure on the trail. Shirtless with a blue
bandana around the neck, it's Matt coming back. And it isn't pretty. The smooth stride that left me an
hour ago is completely broken. He's leaning badly to the right and his right arm is flailing wildly with
each stride. As much as I'm happy to reel him in, I wouldn't wish that kind of collapse on anybody. It's
sad to watch until, oh crap, that's not Matt, that's some other shirtless guy with a bandana. I pass him
and look up to see, MATT! And this time it really is him. He's still moving fine, but he's definitely coming
By the end of the lap, the gap is down to about 20 seconds. As usual, he gives me 10 by stopping a bit
longer with his crew. As we go through 50 (PR 7:13), I try to pull up, but find I can't close the last bit. So
much for jogging it in. The battle has been re-joined and I'm determined to give him a fight. As we
approach the aid station for the last time (where they are now handing out margaritas), I decide I'm
going to just blow through it. We're close enough to the finish that anything I take now isn't going to
make much difference. Matt turns to get something from them and I hit the gas. I blast down the small
hill after the station trying desperately to stay upright (it's been six hours since I've run this fast). It then
occurs to me that when Matt first caught me four hours ago, he mentioned that he'd "been chasing that
jersey for a while." The Carol's Team jersey is quite distinctive. As soon as I get to the bottom of the hill,
I take it off figuring it's possible he didn't see me pass. I run the uphill and try to find some pace on the
road. As this is everybody's last lap, many people are casually walking it in knowing they have plenty of
time to finish this last mile. They offer shouts of encouragement as I go by. I toss off my shirt and last
empty bottle as I pass the SLUG tents, get a wave from my lap counter, and head directly onto the half
The reality of the situation is now starting to sink in. There's still 22 minutes of racing to go and I'm
pretty well cooked from the big push. The quarter mile to the turnaround is downhill, which obviously
means you've got to grunt back up. It's not steep, but definitely noticeable after running nearly 8 hours
on flat trail. I start to panic that I'll fall apart, but my fear is unfounded; I'm not exactly setting the grass
on fire, but I'm moving OK. Coming back up I meet Matt going down and note that he's further back
than I thought. Either the shirt trick worked or he just wasn't up for a fight. I finish my fourth out-and-
back at 7:56:44 and decide there's no way I could get another done in 3:16 so I call it a day at 54.6 miles.
Matt finishes the same distance with just under a minute to spare.
Then things go all Twilight Zone for a bit. The first oddity is that when Matt and I check in together,
nobody seems to care which one of us finished first. Apparently, it's all considered a tie if you get the
same distance. Well, that was an hour of pretty serious suffering for nothing. Matt's as bewildered by it
as I am and offers the consolation that since his last name starts with a C, I'll be listed above him. I don't
deny that the Race Director has the right to make the rules, but it really seems quite weird to call a race
a tie when one person went objectively faster. However, the much bigger shock is the revelation that
follows: we're tied for SECOND OVERALL. Seriously? Everybody but Scott (56.9 miles) went in the tank?
When we're called up together to get our awards, Matt graciously announces that I covered the
distance faster. It's an unnecessary gesture as I really doubt anybody cares, but I appreciate it all the
same. In a final bit of weirdness, the fact that ties are not broken means the trophies can't be pre-
printed with your actual place. Thus, our trophies look just like Scott's and simply say "Overall Winner"
to indicate that we won something in the overall division when any reasonable person would assume
that meant you won the whole deal outright. That ambiguity won't stop me from putting it out on
display at work.
World's most misleading trophy
It's been noted that in Ultrarunning the world gets turned upside down. Women beat men. Old beat
young. Small beat large. This seemed particularly true today. The top three were all over 40 and fourth
(Tommy, who lied about settling for 50 and turned in a strong 52.3) turns 40 in October. The top four
women were 6, 7, 8, and 10th overall with the winner and 3rd (Jen, who I only saw once all day) being
Masters. Ninth place was another guy in his 40's. That leaves only 1 spot in the top 10 taken by a dude in
I think I know why. I wouldn't call this a perfect race on my part, but it's about as close as you can come
for something this long. It came under moderately adverse conditions. There's no way I could have run
this well prior to Kettle and the subsequent processing of that experience. It would be great if you could
just read how to do one of these things in a book or race report and get it right, but it doesn't work that
way. It takes hundreds of races and thousands of miles to learn the little adjustments that add up to a
race steered properly. Applying such adjustments without overreacting requires a patient mental
discipline rarely found in young men. Things will always go wrong in a long event. Usually, lots of things
go wrong. Experience is what gets you past them without disaster. There are a few who acquire such
experience before their 30th birthday and they are the best ultrarunners on the planet. But, most don't
get to that state until much later in life.
And on the topic of disaster avoidance, while the forecasters totally blew the high temp (the official high
for Danville was 86, but it was warmer than that in the park - a lot warmer in the open areas), they did
get the thunderstorm right. Shortly after awards, the front arrives and it's almost as crazy as what hit us
during Carol's Fat Ass. A mad scramble ensues to get tents and canopies down with several getting
blown quite a distance. Several of the SLUGs (including me) pat themselves on the back for having the
foresight to break camp before partaking in the post-race festivities. Paying attention to what's
happening and making adjustments can pay off even after crossing the finish line.