Ultra-Running for the Fun of It

In my short career as a runner (18 months after I sputtered through my first two-mile run, it still feels a bit strange to call myself a runner), I have noticed that there are three kinds of people in the world – those who are runners, those who aren’t runners but understand why others like to run, and a third group that simply cannot understand why someone would want to run unless they were being chased.

Even if you’re in that third group, don’t let that stop you from reading this article. You’re about to learn about the groups of people (and in some cases, individuals) that run Door County’s 50-mile ultra-run, the Fall 50. What you’ll find is that even though distance runners are a bit nuts, they also are a

Photo by Dan Eggert.

Photo by Dan Eggert.

supportive and understanding bunch. At least, that’s what I discovered when I raced the 2008 Fall 50 with four other teammates.

The Fall 50 was conceived of by Sean Ryan, who, among other things, is the Race Director for Cellcom’s Green Bay Marathon and the Door County Triathlon. As Ryan explains, the concept of the Fall 50 actually came out of plans for the Triathlon. He had befriended Jon Jarosh, who is the Director of Communications & PR for the Door County Visitor Bureau, and was telling him of his plans to have a triathlon or a team relay running event in Door County. Jarosh was into the idea but wanted the event to be held in June or September to build up the shoulder seasons of the county. Ryan told Jarosh that the triathlon needed to be in July because the water needed to be at a certain temperature for the swim portion – but that he would brainstorm a potential fall running event.

What Ryan really wanted to do was something that would showcase the fall beauty of Door County. He kept thinking about a team relay in Oregon called Hood to Coast. Hood to Coast is one of the most popular relay races in the country – a 197-mile relay from the slopes of Mount Hood through Portland’s metropolitan area, across the Oregon Coast Range to the city of Seaside on the Oregon coast. The more he thought about it, he knew that a relay race was exactly what he wanted to do.

Photo by Dan Eggert.

Photo by Dan Eggert.

Shortly after, Ryan got in his car and drove to Door County, riding down the western shoreline. He took scenic backroads from the Washington Island Ferry Dock at Gills Rock all the way down to Stone Harbor Resort in Sturgeon Bay. When he got down to Stone Harbor and looked at his odometer, he saw that it read exactly 50 miles. He thought the 50 mile trek would be perfect for running teams of two to five – and the Fall 50 race was born in 2006.

Once the race was a reality, Ryan set about marketing the race, talking to running clubs all over the state of Wisconsin. At these presentations, he was overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to run the race solo. He had no experience with ultra-marathoners (usually categorized as anyone running distances above a 26.2 mile marathon), and couldn’t believe (even as a distance runner) that anyone would be crazy enough to run the race by himself or herself.

I didn’t either. In fact, I thought I was odd enough for running a 10-mile stretch (and the fact that I had to go to my waitressing job after the run made me feel even more strange), but that didn’t stop me from saying yes when my teammate Jake asked me to run. After all, I was training for a half-marathon that was a few weeks after the Fall 50, and thought the 10-mile would be a great training run. But the morning we all got to the race, I was surprised to see more than a handful of racers with the word “Solo” embossed on their racing bibs. I was not as hardcore as I thought.

The solo runners begin at 7:00 am, with the teams starting in waves every hour between 8:00 and 11:00

Photo by Dan Eggert.

Photo by Dan Eggert.

am. The teams are assigned a start time based on their anticipated team pace, with the slowest teams starting earlier and the faster ones later. The race could be broken up into 10 different legs, all equaling 50 miles, but because all of us were long distance runners, we decided to each run two legs of the race in a row. So, we showed up bright and early at 8:00 am, in matching green long-sleeve t-shirts, ready to run. It was the third week in October, and we could feel it – the winter wind was on its way.

Krista, the first member of our team, began the first 10 miles, which ran from the tip of Gills Rock to the Bay Shore Outdoor Store in Sister Bay (including a very steep Ellison Bay hill). We sped ahead in our van to cheer Krista on, which we had decorated with red washable crayon (one of the many cool things that was given to us in our race packets). Other teams had decorated their cars – and themselves – as well, showing up in everything from striped racing tights, capes, and ballerina tutus. I vowed to myself that I would not let one of the lady ballerinas pass me.

Jake took over from Krista for the 12-mile run from Bay Shore Outdoor Store to Peninsula State Park in

Fish Creek, and Courtney followed, running from Fish Creek to the Egg Harbor Marina.

Photo by Dan Eggert.

Photo by Dan Eggert.

I ran after Courtney, which put me in a state of nervous excitement until about 1:30 in the afternoon, when I departed from the Egg Harbor Dock and ran along Bay Shore Drive. Ryan was right about the course – it is a beautiful way to see Door County – but what was even more enjoyable was seeing all the different runners on the course.

The immediate goal of the Fall 50 is, like most races, to finish, but another secondary goal was equally obvious – to not take the race too seriously. Whether it was a five-person team, a dynamic duo running one leg of the race after the other, or a gutsy runner doing the whole thing solo, one thing was for certain – these runners were actually having a great time. Every time a team’s van would speed by, words of encouragement and incessant beeps of a horn were heard. It didn’t even matter if you were part of that team – everyone was cheering for everyone else. I’m still a novice at this whole racing thing – but I had never seen anything quite like it.

I was having fun, but not so much that I wasn’t prepared to hand off the baton to Andrew, our last teammate who would complete the last eight-mile leg from Chateau Hutter on Bay Shore Drive to Stone Harbor Resort in Sturgeon Bay, where the Fall 50 after-party was being held.

As we sped ahead in our van one last time, cheering Andrew on and looking forward to our much-deserved post-run meal of pizza and beer, I had to admit that the only sad part of the day was getting passed by a very fit lady in a purple tutu. Hey, there’s always next year.