Thursday, November 21, 2013

Race report: Icebox 480 2013

An 8 hour race. Because, why not?

This summer, I started seeing posts about a new late-season race, the Icebox 480. As in 480 minutes (8 hours). A timed trail race just across the border in River Falls, Wisconsin. 10K singletrack mountain bike loop (maintained by the Kinnickinnic Off-Road Cyclists, thanks for the awesome trail, KORC!), do it as many times as you can/want to. Since the race director is a local, the format sounded fun, and the timing was good, at the end of the season, lots of my friends were signing up. And hey, it was 3 weeks after Wild Duluth, which sounded like a great period of time to recover from a 50K, then turn around and do another one. I signed up.

A partner in crime

I invited my number one running partner-in-crime, my mother, to join me. "It's a timed race!" I said. "You can run as little or as much as you want to. It'll be fun!" It was a serious invitation, but not one I expected her to take up. After all, she lives in Vermont, had only done two trail races, ever, and her longest run since July (when we did the Old Port Half Marathon) was 8 miles. Though she did clean my clock when we ran together at the beach in August.
A glorious day in Portland, Maine.
Heading out for a run on the Outer Banks of North Carolina
So I was surprised, but thrilled, when she wanted to come out for the race. Plane tickets weren't too expensive, and we planned a weekend of trail running and grandchildren-visiting for her.

Goals! Goals?

The unusual race format engendered a lot of discussion online before the race. There's a local 24-hour race here (the FANS 24 hour), but I think few people who signed up had done a timed race before. I certainly hadn't -- though race reports from various other run bloggers had intrigued me with the idea. A number of people planned to make it their first 50K, and a few just said, "I want to go the whole 8 hours."

(As an aside, this was one place that I was at an advantage as a slow runner. Both of my previous 50Ks (Superior and Wild Duluth) took 8 hours! So I went in knowing (a) I can definitely go for 8 hours, and (b) I can do 50K on difficult terrain in 8 hours. I may not be fast, but mentally I was 100% ready to go 8 hours.)

I didn't have big goals for this race. Wild Duluth had been so great, and I'd recovered so well, that I really didn't feel like I needed to prove anything in this race -- it was truly a fun run.  My "A" goal was to get 50K, maybe a little more. My "B" goal was to have a great time with friends in the woods. My plan was to run with Mom for a loop or two, and then see how things went. Since the terrain was pretty moderate (very runnable trail, and elevation gain/loss per loop of only about 250 feet), I figured that I wouldn't have much trouble getting to 50K. I could average of an hour and a half per 10K loop and still have 30 minutes left over.

Mom's goals were just as loose as mine. She planned to run two laps (20K), then maybe take a rest, then walk and/or run another loop, and then see how she felt. We packed extra clothes, in case she spent a lot of time standing around at the finish line.


The race organizers promised standard aid-station fare, but we amassed a huge pile of running snacks anyway. I've had good experiences this season eating a combination of Picky BarsLarabarsShot Bloks, and Gu and Roctane gels, so we packed enough of them to probably feed everyone there. Along with extra Nuun, a thermos of tea, and a massive thermos of chicken broth. You never know what'll sound good after 6 or 7 hours!
Gloves? Check. Handheld? Check. Massive stockpile of race-day nutrition? CHECK.
The forecast looked perfect for a day of running in the woods: temperatures in the 40s, no rain. There was a pretty stiff wind that picked up as the day went on, or at least felt like it, but it was possible to dress for the conditions, whether you were running, walking, or standing around.

The start/finish was only a 35 minute drive from Minneapolis. We set the alarm for 4:30 to make time for a pre-race breakfast. PB&J for Mom -- since we had neither peanut butter, jelly, bread, or a toaster, this one required a little advance shopping -- and my usual two-egg omelet with kale, rice and jalapeno peppers and steamed green beans on the side. And, of course, coffee for everyone.
We headed out the door by 6, and reached the race start with 40 minutes to spare before the 7:30 start. The sun was just coming up and the race organizers had already built a roaring bonfire in a metal drum. It was fun to see lots of local trail racing friends there, and to introduce my mother to them. We picked up our packets (which included a pretty cool cotton/poly T-shirt, a nice Salomon track bag, and Hammer gels) and set up our drop bags.
WOOOOO! (Uh, too much caffeine?)

Team Run Like A Moose represent!
Mom, my sister and I made these custom
race shirts for our first marathon.
(As an aside, there were some pretty nice setups among the drop bags. Clear plastic bins, which looked like a great idea, were common. One guy even brought a small folding table and set things on it! We just had a couple of old backpacks stuffed with spare clothes and race nutrition.)
Keeping warm at the bonfire.
Icebox 240 is the mountain bike race that happened that night.
Pre-race briefing and words of encouragement.
Just before the 7:30 start, the race director made a few last pre-race comments (including announcing that the directors would stop letting people start the 10K loop after the 6:30 mark, and would open the 1K loop around the 7 hour mark). Three, two, one, GO! And we're off, led by a guy riding a fatbike and wearing a red union suit. (I think ALL races should start this way.)
Race start, as viewed from the back of the pack.
The trail and aid station/start/finish were up there in the woods.

Loop 1

Mom and I took off at the back of the pack. As the 110-or-so runners funnelled down onto a singletrack trail, we slowed to a walk briefly. But by 1/4 mile in, we were running, and had no problems with crowding at any point after that.

The trail was 99% singletrack (there were a few areas where it widened out to a minimally maintained gravel road), and went through young growth woods, wound up over a ridge, and skirted a few cornfields, now bare and stubbled. In a few places, it crossed wooden bridges, banked surfaces, and rocks for the mountain bikers to play on, but for the most part it was smoother and more runnable than the singletrack trails at Theodore Wirth, where I do a fair bit of training. It was fun to see the dire "SLOW DOWN" warning signs at the tops of hills (for bikers, not runners), and the trail names, painted on posts, in the woods. There were very few non-Iceboxers on the trail during the race, just a few hikers, and no bikes.

Much of the trail was variations of this...
... with some stubbly cornfields for variety.
We ran along at an easy pace, talking and walk-running. The crowd thinned out pretty quickly, though from time to time a runner would pass us, or we would pass someone. The trail looped around so that we could often see other runners on other parts of it, and cheer them on. It was uncrowded without ever feeling isolated or lonely for long.

At the midpoint the trail crossed the ridge and there were high winds along some sections, but as long as you were running it was warm enough. I was wearing shorts, a T-shirt, armwarmers, and gloves, and that was about right for the whole race. At mile 4 or so, there was an unmanned water and Heed stop. Then a series of descents and climbs before returning to the start/finish.

We did loop 1 in about 1:33, and felt great. Quick bathroom stop and grab some more food from the drop bags. The aid station volunteers were awesome, filling water bottles, asking what we needed, and then yelling, "You look great! Now keep going!" So we did.
Goofy loop 1 selfie? Check!

Loop 2
I led the way on loop 2 instead of Mom, and pushed the pace a little more -- loop 1 had left me feeling great. She was running really well, and we got to near the halfway mark, talking with other runners as we went. It was fun to meet Byron, who had come all the way from North Dakota for the race and wanted to go for 50K.

At about the halfway mark (maybe not coincidentally, just past the longest distance she'd run for a while), Mom encouraged me to go ahead. Her hips were beginning to bother her, she said, and she wanted to slow down, but wanted me to get my 50K. We debated it for a half mile or so, but eventually I was convinced. After a hug and some encouraging words, I went ahead. It felt good to be going my own pace, and everything felt great. I continued to eat, aiming for 300 calories per loop (about 200 per hour), and finished loop 2 in about 1:30.

Coming down the homestretch, I head a loud machine noise. There was a guy walking up the trail toward me with a leaf blower! On a windy day in late fall. "You're fighting a losing battle!" I told him. "It only has to last till tonight," he said. There was a mountain bike race scheduled to start at 5:30 that evening on the same trails. In the dark. Sounded a little wild, but fun!
Two laps down!

Loop 3
Another quick stop in the porta-john, another snack re-load and a handful of pretzels at the aid station, and I was off again. Now that I was running alone, and still feeling good, I took it a little faster. I started passing people, sometimes singles, and a few pairs or groups. At one point, just after the second cornfield, I passed a group of about four women. The one at the back yelled to her friends, "Fast woman runner coming through!" I laughed a lot at that -- I was probably knocking down blazing 12 minute miles at the time -- but thanked them and went right on. In fact, I passed a fair number of people who I didn't see again for the rest of the race.

My friend Todd was in the woods taking pictures on this loop. He'd run two loops and was now doing a third, with camera in hand. "But," he told me, "I'm doing it backwards." I said, "You know what that means?" "Yes!" he said, "I've already explained to the loop counters that they have to subtract one now!"
Fierce! Credit: Todd Rowe
About 2 miles from the end of the loop I overtook my friend Janet. Like me, she had recently discovered and fallen in love with trail running. Until very recently, she'd never run much farther than a half marathon, but in September, she'd had a stupendous day at the Chester Woods "50K or Whatever" race, planning to run "whatever" (20 miles) and ending up with 50K. She was determined to go 50K at Icebox. The problem was, that today wasn't giving her the same trail magic as Chester Woods. Whether it was the weather, the terrain, the fatigue from the end of an amazing racing season, she was hurting, and was having a tough time.

I slowed down to a jog, then a walk, and set out to troubleshoot with her. "How's your nutrition?" I asked. She'd been eating PB&J sandwiches and drinking Heed. Okay, might need some more calories. "How's your hydration and electrolytes?" Well, she'd been peeing every hour or two, and was drinking Heed. "What's hurting?" Her knee. Did it help to stop and stretch it? Well, maybe so. We walked, then jogged, making it back to the start/finish in slightly better style.

Mom wasn't there, to my surprise. It turned out she had gone out for a third, walking loop. I didn't her till the end of loop 4.

At the start/finish, I was excited to see the aid station had broken out the good stuff: chicken noodle soup and potatoes with salt! I think I may have yelled "I LOVE YOU!" at an unsuspecting aid station volunteer. Janet got a good sized snack, some S-caps and did some stretching, I checked in with her. "Do you want to try another loop? I'll pace you." Yes, she wanted that 50K! Well, we'll give it a shot.
Whoa, that's a goofy picture. ON TO LOOP 4!

Loop 4

Off we went again. I'd enjoyed running most of loop 3 solo, but it was fun in a different sort of way to have someone to talk to. I had been following 4 minutes run - 1 minute walk intervals the whole time and we continued doing that, additionally walking up hills. (What qualified as a "hill" definitely changed with successive loops!). My watch would beep: "Walk beep!". A minute later, "Run beep!" "I HATE the run beep!" Janet told me. We'd slow to a walk, to go up a hill. At the top: "Let's start running again. There's only 30 more seconds till the walk beep." And what became my refrain: "You can do ANYTHING for 30 seconds!"

We walked and ran through the loop, making pretty good time. Janet was running pretty strongly now. Her form was good and she very graciously put up with my chatter as I ran right behind her. I just turned the volume up on my interior running monologue and we talked about whatever came to mind -- stories about running, stories about not running. We stopped when we needed to for her to stretch, and she dug deep and kept going.

Todd was still out and got this picture of us:
Getting it done. Credit: Todd Rowe
It pretty much sums up the day: I was still having a great time, and Janet was pushing through with incredible grit and determination.

By now, we knew the trail pretty well and could talk about upcoming features, parts we liked and parts we particularly disliked. It felt like we had been running this trail for a long time. We HAD been running it for a long time!

We pulled into the start/finish at about the 6:10 mark. I would guess we did loop 4 in about 1:30.

Mom was at the aid station, having knocked down an impressive 18.6 miles, between running and walking. Pretty awesome, given her training! She'd also taken a couple falls on the trail and had a really impressive split lip (but didn't want me to save the pictures of it I took). She was bonding with running spouses (and runners who were finished), eating aid station cookies, and enjoying the bonfire. I gave her the rundown on my pacing plan and she immediately focused on Janet (they'd run together this summer), telling her, "You can stop if you want to. Robyn won't tell you that [Hey! I did so!], but you can. And if you're injured, you should."
3 loops for Mom! Badass.
Janet got some food, made a phone call, stretched, and (I hope) considered stopping. And decided that no, she could do another loop. And still wanted to. I ate salty potatoes and restocked my handheld one last time. Once she'd decided to go, we hurried a little to get out on the trail before the 10K course closed down. We headed back out right around the 6:20 mark.

4 loops done. This is very serious.

Loop 5

Beep. "That's the run beep!" "Already?!" "Yeah, I think these minutes are getting shorter. But hey, this is the last time we're running this section of trail!"

"This is hard." "I know. Some races are hard. Some are magic. But you're proving that you can handle the hard ones AND the magic ones. That 50K at Chester Woods wasn't a fluke."

Beep. "Walk beep!" "Let's just keep running."

"This is loop 5, right? Right?!"

"How much time do we have left? My Garmin died." "We have more than 40 minutes. There's 2.2 miles left." "So, that's... uh..." "That's enough time. We're good."

"What do you mean, they already took down the water station?! ARGH!"

"How much time now?" "We have 25 minutes to go 1.2 miles. We're killing it."

"Hey, when we get to the finish, we'll probably have 5 to 7 extra minutes. Want to get some extra miles on the 1K loop?" "Are you kidding?" "Oh, yes."

"That's the finish line! It's right there! We did it."
At the finish line with Mom!

We did it

We did it. We ran through the finish line at about 7:55 (hey, unofficial 50K PR!). The loop counting volunteers were all counting people on the 1K loop, so we gimped over to them (my left knee was achy in the last 3 miles) and demanded they record our fifth loop. Then, back to the growing crowd of finished runners, friends, and family.

The finish line atmosphere was celebratory. People getting in a last 1K loop were speeding up in the last 5 minutes to get in as many miles as possible. People who were done cheered them on. Kids ran around, hopped up on aid station M&Ms and the 480 chocolate chip cookies a local bakery donated. All the runners I talked to were happy: Amy, Jon, and others got their first ultra distance, Joel and Eli set a new distance PR for Eli, Arika and Todd got some fun loops through the woods... and everyone seemed to have had a great day.

We stood around talking for a while, but it was getting cold as the sun set. The mountain bikers were showing up for their race. It looked to be cold, and dark, and windy. We bundled up, got in the car, and cranked up the heat.

It was a quick drive back to Minneapolis, and although it was only 4:30, we were ready for some serious dinner. Luckily, Brasa was open, had a table (only one! place was packed!), and was ready to serve us stupendous food. It turns out that rotisserie chicken, barbecue brisket, plantains, and yams with andouille sausage is the perfect post-race meal. Who knew?

We were home by 6:30 and managed to stay awake for an entire 2 hours before collapsing. It was a great day.

Final thoughts

I really liked this race. I think the format, combined with its timing at the end of the fall racing season, is ideal for a laid-back race you can do with friends. Because everyone finishes at the same time, there's an opportunity to see everyone, compare notes, and talk about the day, even if you don't see them on the trail. The volunteers were excellent, whether they were counting laps, slinging soup and aid station goodies, or just encouraging runners and troubleshooting problems. The race was well organized and supported, and it was fun and exciting to see people speed up at the end and see how much they had left on the 1K loop.

This one's going on my "must do" list for next year. Thanks, Icebox 480 directors and volunteers! It was a great late fall day in the woods!

Note: Here are a few other Icebox race reports, with better pictures of the trails and more stories!


  1. sounds like an amazing day and so special you could share it with your mom (though I have to say, as wonderful as you made it sound, it does make me want to run 50 km!). congratulations on the PB.

  2. Congrats on a wonderful race Robin and thanks for the report. It was a fun race and it was good to meet you out there.

    I expected running on a 10k loop to be crowded, but it was the complete opposite. Very well organized event and a great time.