Arctic Frog 50 km, Illinois

Yesterday’s race, Arctic Frog 50 Km in Libertyville, Illinois, turned out to be more fun than I had been expecting. On the website and in various blogs it sounded a fairly boring set of out and backs in a fairly dreary area. I had chosen it because it was near Chicago where I intended to be around that time and there wasn’t anything that sounded better. As I drove to the race area the previous afternoon my lack of excitement was being proved justified: I drove through about the roughest neighbourhoods (still in Chicago) that I have ever driven through, on the worst maintained paved road I have ever driven on, and then once I got into the countryside it was uninspiringly flat and lacking in features. I stayed at a Motel 6 on the highway with just a couple of small malls nearby.

On race morning I drove into Independence Grove for the race start. (I was amazed at the volume of traffic on the road early on a Saturday morning.) It turned out to be a park of lakes and low hills. There was quite a crowd at the race, well over 100 in the 50 km plus some shorted distances.

The race route (25 km to be done twice) comprised a short run around the edge of a couple of lakes (lots of ducks and geese) then two out and backs from a well supplied aid station, then a continuation around the lakes with another out and back, and a mile to the finish on a ridge above  the lakes. It was well thought out because the out and backs never seemed tedious and they each featured different terrain.

It was warmer than the website had predicted back when I entered (they had said there was likely to be snow on the ground), and I decided to run in shorts for the first time on this trip, with a short sleeved shirt and my light jacket. I also wore beanie and gloves but I took them off soon.

The start by the lakes in the early morning misty light was nice and on a paved trail, and then we embarked on the first out and back which went into the woods and was on a dirt trail. We crossed a pretty creek and there were more little waterways among the trees. The trees were completely bare. The path was winding and flat and lots of bike riders were using it too.

I don’t know how far it was to the turnaround, but at that point I had been going for over 30 minutes so I decided on my first walking break. This race was intended to allow me a tryout of my strategy for next weekend's long effort, and I had decided to walk 200 paces every 3 miles. I learned a lesson at the JFK where I felt I got into trouble: if the race is flat I won’t do any walking unless I make a positive decision to do this, but I can’t possibly run the whole way without suffering and slowing in the later stages. I had hardly walked at all on the JFK until at least 35 miles, when I realised that my lack of walking was not a good idea and I had to make myself walk from time to time. I knew I could run 50 km since I can run a marathon, but I know I can’t run 100 miles. 

So I walked my 200 paces and a whole bunch of runners flooded past. I knew this didn’t matter, but that doesn’t mean I liked it.

At the 'hub' aid station we started on the second out and back. This was the longest one, taking us through farmland, crossing a couple of roads and undulating over several hills. You could see the trail snaking away far into the distance. It was a little windy here but nothing like what I’d had in Chicago and Minneapolis. Of course I made excuses not to take my walking breaks; I split them into 100 paces and then somehow stopped taking them. I just can’t do a race as a practice run!

Back after the hub aid station again we returned to the lakes, crossing the nice creek again, and then went into another patch of woods for a shorter out and back. The field had stretched out a lot by then. After this we headed for the start/finish area, and embarked on the second loop. I was still feeling pretty good and I discarded my jacket.

The second loop was more lonely as so many runners on the first loop were doing the 25 km distance. I focussed on trying to pass runners ahead of me and I was rewarded; at so many races  many mid-pack runners go out too fast. However I was amazed how my memory of the out and backs, done so recently, let me down. I was waiting for landmarks that seemed further than I remembered, especially on the longer out and back. I took one final walking break. I was very focussed on a runner ahead of me who I thought was probably in my age group, but I never managed to catch her.

It was great to reach the last out and back and then head for the finish. I did 5:30:33 which I am pleased with. It's an improvement on recent 50 km's I’ve done. There were pizza boxes lying around at the finish but the pizza was all gone. I got a bowl of chilli which was nice, but that too was running out, although half the 50 km field was still out there.


I went into the visitor centre and learnt about the history of the lakes: they were manmade on the site of a sand and gravel quarry as recently as 1997. So I felt vindicated in my assessment of the area before the race. But they had done a good job with creating an environment for runners and bikers.

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