By Morgan Mader
Last July, having just set a new 100-mile course record at Cry Me a River, James Solomon was killing time waiting for me to finish my own race. Sitting with some friends at the aid tent, he was being casually interviewed by Runners of the Corn podcast host, Jen Heller. Banter bounced around James’ race resume and settled on his successful finish of the Potawatomi 150 earlier in the year. Jen noted that the 150’s current record holder was David Goggins, arguably one of the most recognizable figures in the sport and no stranger to testing his limits.
Without hesitation, James said :“Yeah, until I have it.”
The gauntlet had been thrown.
What followed was a year of training designed specifically to deliver on what he promised.
It takes a very specific mentality to speak with such brazenness. Goggins’ course record was over 7 hours faster than what James had run in 2022. He knew he had work to do. Added pressure mounted as the local ultrarunning community started debating whether James would ultimately accomplish it or eat his words. Runners of the Corn even went so far as to establish a wagering system in which people could donate to Goggins’ favorite charity, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, if James broke the record. Money was now on the line.
For several months, James’ pursuit was a hot topic of discussion. Trail friends, race acquaintances, and social media all chimed in on James’ training plan. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on what it would take to get this done.
If talk is cheap and action speaks louder than words, then the lead-in to this year’s Potawatomi was all action.
James chose to race more often prior to Pot, executing an extremely successful series of timed races over the winter. In January, he set a new course record at Chill Billy, followed a month later with another course record at the Bald Unyielding Twilight Trail Trail (affectionately known as B.U.T.T.T). He often trained in freezing temperatures with eye-watering wind chills. One weekend he ran 64 miles around Lake Geneva, suffering through shin-deep snow and 25-mph winds.
And I watched him through all of this.
I was there at 2:45am when he woke for his morning run. I was there at the gym working through the push-pull sled and burpee sessions. I was there in the sauna with him 5-6 days a week for 30-minute dehydration bouts. I was there getting lapped by him as we ran hill repeats up Mt Hoy. And I was also there when we discussed race strategy, hydration and nutrition plans, and recovery techniques. We’re a team. This goal was as important to me as it was to him. I was the unwavering voice of support; the drive behind what we were going to accomplish.
Race weekend always seems eons away until it's suddenly upon you; however, we were prepared. James was in amazing shape come race day, certainly ready to make a play for the record.
I typically miss the start of James’ race as I’m out running the 50-miler. I finished just before James completed his fortieth mile. Looking to maximize my available trail time, my transition from runner to crew was nearly instantaneous. James is fully capable of handling himself, but I knew my time would come.
At the start of the weekend, the weather was some of the best that Potawatomi had ever had. It was notably hot, with temperatures in the 80’s during the afternoon, and the trail was dry and runnable. Even the creek crossings were of no consequence. Race execution was going as planned, if not better. People kept asking me about James’ pace, which was distinctly fast, and whether I believed he could maintain that for the duration. If he kept it up, he would break Goggins’ record with ease.
We had pacers lined up for the final 50 miles. James didn’t anticipate needing anyone before then. Around mile 70, he experienced his first low. With his pace being so systematic and fast, we were afforded some time to troubleshoot and focus on rehydrating. It was at this time that Daniel Williams arrived. He had finished the 200-miler the year prior and was interested in pacing. He didn’t know that he was about to be recruited to run 30 miles with James.
The night flew by as fast as the miles. After that brief low, James started to tighten his pace again, growing faster with each loop. As he transitioned from pacer to pacer, all of whom were excellent at executing what I had advised, James approached his goal with more and more drive. We were like a machine, addressing nutrition and hydration needs with precision. I would only have a few minutes with James during the transitions—only a few minutes to evaluate his mood, and what he needed, and deliver some sharp and focused words of motivation and support.
“James, you didn’t train the way you did for the last year to not get this done,” I told him. “Everything has been for this moment, these last miles.”
Saturday morning was clear and crisp, transitioning into another warm afternoon. As I tracked James’ loops, the anticipation began mounting in my chest. He wasn’t just going to break the record; he was going to break it with authority.
Watching him take off down the trail for his last loop late Saturday afternoon, I glanced down at my watch. Only 24 hours ago, I’d finished my own 50-miler. Since then, I added an additional seven miles to my step total. That’s how much running around it takes to crew a champion.
With James’ entrance song picked out for his arrival at the finish line, I grabbed a walkie-talkie and headed out to find him on the course. Race Director Mike Kelsey had asked that I radio him when James was drawing near. By now, everyone knew that the record would be broken. What wasn’t known, however, was by how much?
Sitting on a log, cheering on passing runners, I had the walkie primed and ready. Mike checked in several times, and each time I reported back a negative sighting.
“You’re killing me, Morgan.” He chuckled.
“HE’S killing ME.” I smiled and shook my head.
When I say that those 30 minutes spent sitting on that log were the tensest minutes I have ever spent doing nothing, believe me.
Then, in a blink, he was there, coming up around a tree. I let out a relieved and triumphant cheer for James and immediately reported that he’s in sight. Now on my feet, I bolted up through the trail to the open field of tents that line the course up to the finish.
“HE’S COMING! EVERYBODY GET READY, JAMES IS COMING IN!”
Moments later, James was within sight. He rang the large cowbell posted for racers finishing their last loop. Wild cheering mixed with the Metallica booming through the trees. With a warm and victorious welcome, Mike Kelsey announced, “JAMES SOLOMON! The new 150-mile record holder, a record held since 2008 by a guy named David Goggins. Welcome back JAMES!”
My body was riddled with goosebumps. I ran alongside James, pulling back just enough to allow him the finish he deserved, all the while savoring the stunning view of spectators cheering and clapping and high-fiving James as he ran past. It was a hero’s welcome and my heart warmed at the sight of it.
James finished in 31 hours and 27 minutes. He cut more than 10 hours off of his time from the previous year and smashed the course record by more than 2 hours. At that pace, he might’ve lapped Goggins.
While much of the hype and publicity was around beating David Goggins’ record, it was never really about that. Goggins is an authority on discipline, toughness, and goal-setting, all of which makes James’ victory undoubtedly richer, but, in the end, it was always just about James beating his old time. James just wanted to do better than he did before. He’s simply grateful that Goggins set the bar so high.
It's just that now, that bar is higher.
A special note is due to the individuals who donated their time and legs to pacing James during this event. We appreciate you: Daniel Williams, Lily Medina, Matt Hussung, Taggart VanEtten, and Chris Allen.
Photos provided by Ralph Deene Milam (Featured Image) and Morgan Mader.
There were crudely drawn hearts and chaotic spirals and awkward lettering like a beguiling brand of cuneiform. There were shapes that looked like ghosts and a pair of paper mittens—only one of which had been colored blue—secured to the center by Thanksgiving stickers and scotch tape.
The banner read, Mom. The banner read, Dad. The banner read, alsI—my daughter’s name, which—for whatever beautifully free-spirited reason—she chose to spell backward. Our little family scrawled sweetly in crayon.
If you could have seen her face when she gave it to me—she was so proud.
Across the top, in distinctly adult handwriting, was written: Don’t ever give up. And along the bottom: You Got this Dinosaur Man! When I asked my daughter why I was Dinosaur Man, she shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “Because you’re crazy.”
My daughter is too young to understand distance; too young to grasp why someone would choose to run a hundred miles. She was, however, deeply aware that I was attempting something difficult, something other people seemed to think was odd or absurd, or crazy. Whoever coined the term Dinosaur Man—whether it was her, a classmate, or the teacher—it made sense to her. It gave her the ability to contextualize what she thought I was doing: Dad is doing something crazy. Dinosaurs are crazy. Dad is the Dinosaur Man.
I laid the banner flat in my tent when I set up camp. I wanted to see it between loops. I wanted it to have power and magic, and help usher me through when things grew dark. I wanted it to be the answer to past failures. All my previous DNFs were simply because I didn’t have my daughter’s swirling, chaotic, confused love in writing.
At the pre-race meeting, in the simmering grey stillness before dawn, surrounded by strangers and vaguely familiar faces, watching people double-knot their shoes and tighten the straps on their hydration packs, I thought to myself: I am Dinosaur Man.
When, during the third loop, the temperature climbed into the 80s and the humidity made molasses of the air and the sun beat down on my neck and I began to worry about dehydration, I whispered: I am Dinosaur Man.
When, in the early evening hours, lightning stabbed the earth and sky with such violence and regularity that I questioned whether I should turn back towards camp, I instead put my head down, kept moving forward, and said: I am Dinosaur Man.
When, in the hours before sunrise, rain made sloppy rivers of the trails and my rain gear failed and the temperature hovered in the low 40s, threatening hypothermia, I raged against the shitty turn of weather: I am Dinosaur Man.
And, hours later, when I rang the bell and my daughter ran out to join me on the homestretch and I sobbed as I took her small, smooth hand and we ran together toward the finish line of my first 100-miler, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt:
I am Dinosaur Man.
Photos: Tim Roberts @forbydigital
By Morgan Mader
Inside the tent, it's cold and humid, but tolerable. I’m waiting on our Kelty loveseat camping chair. My pack is filled with fluids and snacks. My trekking poles are on standby next to me. I've been awake for over 33 hours—having finished my own 50-miler yesterday—and I am about to pace my husband, James, for the last 20 miles of the Potawatomi 150—honestly, a dream come true.
The Potawatomi Trail Races is an annual event held in Central Illinois, and arguably one of the most popular ultras in the state, attracting a wide variety of runners. Central Illinois, in April, is always a mixed bag of weather. One year you may experience unseasonably warm, sunny spring weather, and the next you'll be running in ankle-deep mud, soaked by either rain, snow, or hail. With a challenging, but pleasant, 10-mile loop, event distances range from 10 miles up to 200 miles.
Sitting alone, shrouded in our oversized camping blankets, I flashback to two years ago. It took a lot of convincing to get James to concede to tackling only the 100-miler for our first visit to Potawatomi. As fate would have it, the race was canceled that year (not an uncommon occurrence in 2020) and everyone who had registered were offered free race distance upgrades for 2021. That was all it took for James to go all in for the 200 miles.
In 2020 we were just starting our second season of ultra-races. We barely knew how to run 100 miles. Now we expected to double that distance. In the end, neither James nor I were prepared to tackle the complications that come with executing a 200-mile race, and James pulled the plug 100 miles in.
Back in the tent, I laugh to myself as I ruminate on how James split the difference for this year’s race, committing to the 150-miler. A couple of years ago, he won Illinois's Temptation 200 (which, in reality, clocks in closer to 124 miles). What're another 26 miles on top of that?
Ten hours ago, James rolled into camp at mile 90. Having long since finished my 50-miler, I had transitioned to crew. I filled his bottles and pulled out his nutrition for the upcoming loop.
"Morgan, I need you to get me pacers."
I cocked my head to the side, slightly taken aback. James never requested pacers.
"Do you want them for the last 5 loops?"
We were walking away from the tent at this point, mostly on autopilot, picking up speed as we approach the trail beyond.
"Yes. Make it happen."
And off he went. I had 2 hours to come up with pacers and a plan.
Potawatomi is a prime example of how folks in the local ultrarunning scene view racing and community. While my task seemed tall, I knew that James was well-liked within the community and people would likely show up for him.
One question James and I are often asked is, “How do you prepare for these distances?” I often wonder what they’re looking for—what kind of answer they’re hoping to get—a simple response with a simple solution or some kind of elixir for success? This was James’ first attempt at a distance greater than 124 miles. His solution was to run a 500+ mile month in March. He and I have gone back and forth on whether he was overtrained for the 150-mile race in 2022. By standard definition, overtraining traditionally encompasses both a physical and mental state of being. James was emotionally ready to take on the 150. He felt fresh and energized for the experience. But we’ll never know whether his leg fatigue and niggles during the race were due to the heavy training or were simply a result of running 150 miles of trail over a cold spring weekend. Only future attempts will reveal the answer to this question.
With James’ pacer request at the forefront of my mind, I immediately darted over to the tent area, where our friends, the Goodmansons, had set up camp. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that they would be able to point me in the direction of some willing, on-the-spot pacers. As luck would have it, one of James’ good friends was sitting there and instantly volunteered for a loop. He also volunteered another pacer, so James was set for miles 100-130.
However, it was going to be up to me to pace him the last 20 miles.
Now, to some, that may sound like a piece of cake (and don’t get me wrong, I love cake!). The way we in the community often talk about distance, it makes sense that someone outside the community might think that twenty or thirty miles is nothing to us.
That’s not always true, though, especially when you’re talking about trail racing.
Ever since the start of our ultrarunning careers, I’d had a deep desire to pace James. Once it became clear that he was an exceptionally strong runner who could hold a solid pace well into 80-100 miles, I’d assumed this was most likely a pipe dream. Yet now was my chance to see if I had what it took to run with him and provide the ultimate form of support in the process. This would be no small feat. I had already run a very successful 50-mile race and essentially paced a friend of ours through every step of his first 50-mile finish. Since then, I had transitioned to crew, sleeping very little in the meantime. Additionally, by the time James would be ready for his final 20 miles, it’d be nighttime, which is traditionally the most challenging time to run. It’s dark. It’s cold. By then I’d have been awake for who knows how many hours and James would be going on more than 35 hours of non-stop running. This was a BIG deal.
Never one to take anything lightly, I was looking forward to the challenge. I would finally get to see firsthand how James handled extreme distances. Usually, I get a quick kiss and a wave as he laps me on a looped course, but now I’d get a sense of what he was thinking and how he responded to adversity. This was going to be 20 miles of grit, run in the middle of the night—not something we were unfamiliar with, as it’s often part of our training routine. There was something natural and serendipitous about us wrapping up this race together, alone in the woods, most likely as the sun was coming up.
If that isn’t romantic, I don’t know what is.
When James finishes his tenth loop, I’ve got his first pacer ready to go, which energizes him. He purposefully moves through our campsite, switching out handhelds that I’ve topped off with Fluid, his preferred electrolyte supplement. James stuffs some Spring nutrition down the hatch and then he’s off, his friend in tow.
With him gone again, I slowly start getting ready for my pacing run. The weather has warmed up, and the sun is out. I begin to go through my thorough pre-race routine. First, it’s the Normatecks. We invested in both the hip and leg attachments which have been extremely valuable in promoting leg recovery. If you train as much as we do, it’s a great investment. I lay on our zero-gravity chair going through each session—first the hips, then the legs. I cover myself with a blanket, because it may attract attention, but this is also an opportunity for me to relax, read, and even take a short nap. Once wrapped up, I start prepping my pack, hydration bladder, portable nutrition, trekking poles, headlamps, and running gear.
When James arrives at camp again, he takes a bit more time at our tent. Still, he is efficient and focused. It’s nothing but love and support, then he’s off again, this time with a different friend.
James is hungry this year, it’s obvious.
Last year’s DNF of the 200-miler taught us some valuable lessons. Races don’t work linearly. Planning and executing a 100-mile race is one thing, attempting to double that is something else entirely. The challenges and pain are increased exponentially. Being able to navigate things like poor weather, foot and gut health, and gear complications, all while maintaining a positive headspace, is absolutely essential. Admittedly, I was not prepared to support James for the 200-miler in 2021. Could I have fumbled my way through it? Of course. But it would take crewing James’ 150-miler in 2022 for me to learn what it meant to be truly excellent crew.
It’s late afternoon, transitioning to early evening. I’m keeping track of James’ average loop times and know when to expect him. He has one more loop before I’m on deck. I see James coming out of the woods into the clearing, following the long single-track trail that runs toward the start/finish area.
For as long as I’ve known James to run, his gait has been imprinted in my brain. I could recognize him running in the dark from a quarter mile away. I know when he looks fresh as a spring daisy, and I know when he may be experiencing some niggles.
As he emerges from the woods, I can see the miles working away on his body. He’s run 120 miles, and he’s sleep deprived. James trots into our campsite saying he is cold. I immediately fly into action, grabbing his jacket and bundling him into two oversized blankets. Suddenly, James does something unexpected. He pulls the blankets up over his head, becoming fully encompassed within them. As I watch, I hear a soft, almost inaudible, choking sound—James is holding back tears. I crouch under the blankets with him. He’s quiet now. I slowly rub his back. I know that just these brief few minutes of comfort can be enough to relieve his pain and get him focused again.
To mitigate his cooling down, we decide that James will leave camp with a down jacket that he’ll wear for the first mile. At that point, the trail loops back around near the starting area and I’ll be able to pick the jacket up from him after he’s warmed up.
“Okay, James, it’s time to get back out there. You’ve got one more loop, and then I’m going out with you for the last two.”
He comes out from under the blankets and stands. A small army of people has gathered to assist James with whatever he needs. They too are now invested in his finish. This is the community I’m talking about—people coming together to help each other achieve unbelievable feats of human prowess.
James and I move towards the starting line, left alone to enjoy a brief personal moment. He looks at me as we’re walking: “Morgan, I’m just so tired. I’m so tired.”
My heart cracks slightly. This is one of the hardest parts of ultrarunning. I know James is looking at me—right now, at this moment, having run 120 miles—and is begging me to let him sleep. I also know—right now, at this moment—that he’s also begging me not to let him sleep. He’s begging me to keep pushing him forward. When you love someone, you are all too familiar with the desire to prevent them from experiencing pain. That part of me wanted to make it stop, to give him some rest. But I know James. My role, then and there, was to be the solid, unwavering beacon of light ushering him forward toward his ultimate goal of finishing the race. There would be no stopping. There would be no sleep.
“I know you are, but you have to keep going. You can keep going. Just one more loop and we’ll finish this together.”
The down jacket is on him. He’s holding a warm cheese quesadilla. James looks at me, turns to look down the trail, then looks back at me. I kiss him on the mouth, then on the cheek and whisper, “Go get it.”
As he turns to trot down the trail, pacer by his side, my heart, which had been on the verge, fully breaks. The tears come quietly. I can’t let him see me. I chastise myself for crying but recognize that it’s healthy to let it out. For the final 20 miles, I would have to be tough as steel.
It’s dark now, after 10 pm. I’m sitting quietly in our tent; my pre-race ritual complete. I threw in a Theragun session and applied Amp to my legs—doing what I could to make this feel like an entirely new run. A full day removed from my race, I feel like it almost never happened. But that could just be nerves. I’m wired, but laser focused.
Suddenly I hear a familiar voice outside the tent.
“Hey Morgan, Jeff says that James should take a nap before he heads out for the next loop.”
Our friends, the Goodmansons, are relaying me a message. Jeff has seen James on the trail and feels like he needs sleep. I listen, then pop my head outside the tent to consult with a friend who is also crewing for James. I’m always open to receiving feedback, but this suggestion gives me pause. How do I best address it while keeping an eye on the end goal? No one knows James better than I do. I can’t let that slip my mind, especially at this crucial turning point. We decide to split up. He will go towards the trail opening and intercept James, then report back to me James’ own opinion as to whether he should continue.
I don’t have long to wait. I’m back in the tent, trying to stay as warm as possible, the temps have dropped back into the 30s again. All is quiet outside. Then, like a boom from across the woods, I hear, “MORGAN, HE'S NOT STOPPING!”
Immediately I get goosebumps (and still do thinking about it today). The sheer grit and determination it takes to reject the offer to stop and rest is astounding. I’m up. My pack is on. Trekking poles are in my hands. Headlamp is on. The tent is set for a quick transition when we return for our final loop.
James moves past our tent. I’ve bagged up hot food for the trail. He’s being attended to by a slew of friends. I lose track of time—unaware of how long the transition takes—and then we’re off down the trail together.
Once we make it down the first long descent, the trail evens out into prairie. It’s a classic Illinois race. My goal is to be encouraging and upbeat and keep him moving. I start in front. It’s painfully evident that James is tired. I encourage him to run for 10 steps, then we walk. I encourage him to run for 15 steps, then we walk. It goes like this for a while. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that much of this was a blur. It’s pitch black beyond our headlamps. With sleep deprivation, the scenery appears strange. You can recognize landmarks and turn them into benchmarks throughout the loop. James entertains this for a while, explaining to me what our next benchmark is as we move through the loop. We move through creek crossings—the water up to our knees—down narrow single track, up steep ascents that offer a rope to assist the climb. James’ ability to run downhill has been whittled away. He can still run and climb, but it’s clear the downhills are painful. I continue vocalizing positive thoughts, but after a while, James is not interested in conversation. It also becomes clear that he prefers me behind him, not leading. This is fine with me. It’s not my race and I’ve never paced him before.
Having brought my phone with me, I call our friend who is waiting at the tent. I update him and tell him which food items he should have ready to go. This has turned into a seriously coordinated event, and it’s exhilarating.
The end of the loop arrives sooner than I anticipated, and my legs feel great. This is astonishing to me, and I’m grateful that they’ve held up.
James has 10 miles left. He’s about 2.5 hours ahead of the next competitor. This race is his for the taking, but we have to keep moving. At the start/finish tent, he’s standing, eating a cheese quesadilla. Four people are fixing him up with a winter hat, food, and fresh bottles. His eyes are closed and I’m convinced he’s fallen asleep standing up. When we take off again, James is disorganized on the trail, almost as if he were drunk. It occurs to me that he never really needed anyone to pace him. I am strictly here to make sure he is safe.
Eventually, James steadies himself a bit. This far into the race, muscles and neurons aren’t firing as they should be. A clumsiness is more apparent in his movements. About two miles in, James’ headlamp is dimming. This is concerning but not an outright issue. I plan on changing his batteries at the next clearing. It’s ghastly quiet—the only sound is our shuffling steps on the woodland debris strewn over the path. It’s cold and still. I catch myself focusing heavily on my feet, aware of the roots and leaves we’re moving through.
Without warning, James falls.
He flies forward, owning the fall Superman-style. His trekking poles shoot off—one to the right, one to the left. We’re in a clearing, approaching where the Totem Pole aid station used to be. Now the area is turning into a soft grass field. There’s not much here to trip on, but James found what appears to be the smallest of twigs and it completely obliterates his balance. He goes down. I’m standing behind him analyzing for injuries. He rolls over on his back, and it’s clear he isn’t injured—a total relief.
James lies on the grass staring up at the clear, spring night sky. It’s completely silent. I’m not even breathing. I look into James’ eyes. They’re wet and shiny, reflecting the moonlight. I can’t ignore the thought that he is about to cry. If he does, it will just about shatter my heart. Without thinking, I bend over him and firmly say, “Get up. Get up, James.” His eyes shift to look at me—registering my presence for the first time since he hit the ground—and they are suddenly clear. I see a distinct shift occur, almost a click. My hand shoots out. He grabs my hand, and we use our collective strength to get him to his feet. James stands there. We’re eye to eye now. I encourage him to take a moment to organize himself. I give him my headlamp and take his dimming one.
No additional words are spoken. James reorientates himself and starts up again, only now his pace has quickened. We keep our trekking poles up as we run through the darkness. It’s after 3:00 am now, the witching hour. We continue along the trail, James taking fewer walking breaks.
At Heaven’s Gate—an exceptionally runnable mile-long loop—my legs start to ache. I curse this for happening now. Not wanting to ask him to slow down, I talk myself through the pain. It’s my turn now to see what I’m truly made of. I don’t want him to have to drop me.
I will not miss him finishing. I will push through my fatigue. I will be there for him.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that James’ lead-up to finish is the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen. James was a man possessed. He ran the last 8 miles. We didn’t speak a word. We used our poles on the descents, but when it was time to run, I’d watch them choke up in his hands, and I’d mimic him, knowing we were about to take off. We were like a well-oiled machine. I’ve never felt more connected with another human being than during these last 2 loops. There was only one goal. One. It didn’t take words; it didn’t take daylight. It only required our minds to be cosmically interlinked in this one unified pursuit. Never have I run an easier 20 miles.
As we approach the final uphill, anticipation is vibrating between us. James bolts up the hill and I use everything I have left to keep up. As we trot around the final bit of wooded trail, we pass the cowbell, and I ring it with the extreme might of what an army would use to announce the presence of the enemy.
It’s 5:30 am. I don’t care. I want to wake everyone up.
“JAMES SOLOMON, 150-MILE FINISHER COMING THROUGH!” I boom across the campsite.
Cheers erupt from the darkness, the finish line lit up like a beacon of salvation. We fly to the finish, towards a celebratory and triumphant reception.
James is immediately met by the Race Director, who hands him his awards for first place. Finishing in 41 hours, James hasn’t broken the course record. Still, he ran hard enough to bring us home a victory. Friends, aid station volunteers, and spectators crowd around us for hugs and photos. I look at James. It’s the first time I’ve seen his face since he’d fallen. His eyes are alert, his smile infectious. He doesn’t look like he’s just run 150 miles, without sleep, in the woods, in the cold. And it occurs to me that James might have more in him—that he could have pushed himself even further. I see it now with my own eyes—clear evidence that we’ve only just scratched the surface of his potential.
Photos provided by Morgan Mader
By Shan Riggs
I was looking for something to read in the airport bookstore when I came across Dean Karnaze's book, Ultramarathon Man. In the book, Dean talks about running now-famous races like the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon and the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run. He also tells stories about unheard-of feats of endurance such as running a 200-mile relay race solo and 350 miles in one go.
I was intrigued. Despite having gone four days of practically no sleep, I read throughout the entire flight and finished the book as soon as I got home. The next day I signed up for my first ultramarathon, the Chicago Lake Front 50-Mile.
At the time I had mostly run for fitness and had only one marathon under my belt in which I felt as if I might die and still barely finished in under 4 hours. I thought that one marathon would be my last. But after the Chicago Lake Front 50-mile, I caught the ultra bug. I also realized that I was actually competitive at these crazy things. I have now completed over fifty ultramarathons and have been fortunate to win some along the way.
Beyond competing in races, I was intrigued by the idea of someone pushing themselves to their limits as a form of self-inspection. How far can I push myself when every cell in my body is screaming for me to stop? I’d already completed a handful of 100-milers, the longest races I could find - how could I push myself even more?
In early 2008, I hit upon an idea, what about a 200-mile run? Would I be capable of something like that? I was living in Chicago and volunteering for a nascent non-profit, Meddles 4 Mettle. Started by Dr. Steven Isenberg of Indianapolis, the organization takes in medals donated by endurance athletes and awards them to courageous kids who are under treatment for a serious illness such as cancer.
At the time, the organization was active only in Indiana and Chicago and they wanted to get the word out to encourage more donors and volunteers. Turns out it was about 200 miles from Indiana to Chicago; interesting. What if I ran non-stop from my home in Chicago to a hospital in Indianapolis as a way to raise awareness (and money) for M4M? This could be the perfect physical test for a great cause. The "Medals 4 Mettle, Windy 2 Indy" run was born. Starting on a Saturday in June 2008 I left my home in the South Loop of Chicago and Monday morning (50+ hours later!) I arrived at the Clarion North hospital in Indianapolis. It was the most difficult two days of my life. Previously, I had done races in which I needed to run overnight without sleep, but this run required two nights of sleep deprivation. I actually fell asleep several times while running and nearly fell into a ditch. With only 45 minutes of sleep, I made it to the finish on Monday morning greeted by reporters, family, and friends. Many other fun things happened on that run, if you are interested you can read about them here.
In addition to proving to myself it could be done, my support crew and I raised money and brought a lot of visibility to M4M. I did many interviews with radio, tv, and print outlets, which gave me the opportunity to talk about M4M and its mission. M4M now has over 70 chapters around the world. While I can't claim this run helped them grow from two to 70 chapters, it did get the ball rolling. It also proved a concept. These unique endurance challenges don’t just give me a way to test my limits, but they can also direct more support and awareness to charities.
A few years later, after recovering from M4M, and running many more ultramarathons, I started talking to friends about other long-distance challenges. That’s when someone asked if anyone had ever run the length of Illinois. We looked into it and it turns out no one else had been crazy enough to try. In July 2013, a small group of us decided we would give it a shot. 410 miles in one week, 50-75 miles a day, about 60 on average - all to support some local running-related charities.
It was a challenging week, to say the least. It involved blood and pain in feet and other places, hyperthermia on a summer's night, pushing a broken down truck, flooded roads and other near calamities. But in the end, I and one other person, Chuck Shultz, completed the run.
Since we had run literally all of Illinois, it was time to look at places farther away from home. So in 2015, another small group of us ran 166 miles across Panama in order to raise money and awareness for a local school. It was a memorable adventure. It felt like the entire country had our backs. There was a lot of media coverage, with hundreds of people running with us, riding their bikes, or driving their cars during the last several miles. We even had a fireworks display at the finish.
Fast forward to 2020, I was living in Connecticut and working for the Hartford Marathon Foundation. When March 2020 happened my work was suddenly on hold and I had extra time on my hands. This is when I decided to do something that I had dreamed about doing for a while; run the United States from coast to coast. It ended up being a three-month, 3,255-mile trip, running about 40 miles per day. The run received a lot of local and national press and raised over $45,000 for Foodshare, part of Feeding America. It also produced a new brand and website: Shan Runs Across America. You can see a short video about that run produced by Connecticut Public Media here. After seeing what I could accomplish, I was more committed than ever to this expedition-style run for charity.
In part because of the Shan Runs Across America run, the next year I was invited to be a member of Team USA in the inaugural 1,000-mile relay race across Australia called 1,000 Miles to Light. The concept was Team USA vs. Team Australia, 4-person teams with each runner doing 5-kilometer legs across New South Wales, organized by world-famous ultrarunner Pat Foster. The run supported Reach Out, an organization that supports youth mental health, something very timely and needed in 2021. Also, it turned out that another member of Team USA happened to be the guy who inspired me to get into all these crazy runs in the first place. The Ultramarathon Man himself, Dean Karnazes. Dean and I had run into each other a few times over the years, but this was the first time I had the chance to explain how much of an inspiration he had been to me.
Like most things in 2021, Covid changed our plans. Because of new restrictions after we landed in Australia, we moved the event to a bubble at an Army base, rather than running across all of New South Wales. Still, we had a ton of fun. We got to run with Kangaroos, I almost got eaten by a dog, we raised some money for Reach Out and there was a very cool full-length documentary made about the whole expedition (they are still looking for U.S. distribution). Dean wrote a great write-up about the run in an article in Ultrarunning Magazine.
That brings us to 2022 and the most epic and meaningful trip to date, the East Coast Greenway Expedition. My partner, Joshuaine (Josh) Grant, wondered aloud one day if anyone had run the entire East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile trail that runs from Key West to Canada through twelve states and 450 communities. It looked like there had been some bikers and a few walkers, but no runners had completed the entire route. So we reached out to the small non-profit that supports the greenway, the East Coast Greenway Alliance, to work together to promote the greenway and support the alliance's mission. We planned to bring attention to the Alliance with a run/bike expedition where I would run 40 miles a day while Josh rode her bike, towing our gear (while working full time). By the time we finished 78 days later, we had raised around $20,000, been in 50+ news articles, and met with hundreds of friends and supporters. Oh yeah, we also got engaged! Mary-Paige McLaurin of the East Coast Greenway Alliance put together a wonderful short film on the expedition here.
So, what now? Well, obviously the next expedition is a 2000-mile run/ride from Canada to Mexico on the west coast! We are working with the Adventure Cycling Association to support its mission of inspiration and adventure. We plan to start in September of 2023. You can find more information on our website, where you can find links to our Instagram, Facebook and Strava.
On to the next adventure!
Photo: Mary-Paige McLaurin @mpmclaurin
Everything seems to congeal, grow leaden, and gum up. It’s sinister in a way, the heaviness that settles over everything. It nurtures a terrifying feeling of suffocation and collapse. If the sky were ever to truly fall, one could easily imagine it occurring in the stale, breezeless hours of a humid afternoon.
However, those stolid afternoon hours had long since passed with the sky intact. The sun had set. Midnight had come and gone. And still, even in the predawn darkness, the humidity remained as thick and sticky as pine resin.
And it had effectively ground Ryan Steiner to a painful halt.
He had known for hours that he wasn’t adequately hydrating. He’d tried to be more mindful, ramping up his intake as the night wore on, but it was too little too late. The humidity had overwhelmed him. Cramps were knotting up his calves. Each breath felt drawn through a wet, warm cloth. And he was tired. He had been on the move for ten hours. Yet, despite all that, it wasn’t until his quads locked up that he truly felt he might not finish.
Ryan draped himself over the back of the chariot. He stared down at the crushed limestone trail beneath his feet. It glowed like faded amber in his headlamp. On his left, the staid black water of the Hennepin Canal ran smooth and silent. A few miles ahead in the darkness, dangling like an invisible carrot, was the small, sleepy town of Colona and the finish line.
“I didn’t think I could make it,” Ryan said, recounting his experience months later. “But I knew that no matter how bad it hurt me, she needed to cross that finish line.” The she Ryan was referring to is Kala, his six-year-old daughter. Kala has cerebral palsy and utilizes a chariot to join Ryan on runs. They trained together for three years in lead-up to the Hennepin 50k. Held annually, during the first weekend in October, the Hennepin Trail Races have become one of Illinois’ most popular ultra-events. They had fought to be there, and it was as much Kala’s race as it was Ryan’s. She had earned this. She had trained and wanted to finish as badly as he did.
Bent over the handlebar of Kala’s chariot, sweat pouring from his roughly bearded face, Ryan knew he had to gather himself. Pain was nothing new to him. Pain he could handle. Ryan had pushed Kala nearly thirty miles, almost entirely at night, in humidity that never dipped below 90 percent. He had to dig in and find a way to gut it out.
“I couldn’t keep her from finishing,” Ryan said. There were no other options.
He had to keep pushing.
* * *
He speaks plainly about it; after all, it is an undeniable facet of who he is. He never belabors having a diagnosis. He never sidles into melodrama. He simply contextualizes it—choosing to see his autism as a catalyst for self-reflection and personal growth. “I have endured a lot,” said Ryan, reflecting on his life. “I went to live in an institution in fifth grade. I am what’s called an ‘eloper.’ When things got rough, I would run. It didn’t matter where I was. I would get upset and take off running. I’d be gone and no one could find me. When they did find me there would be lots of violence and wrestling. It was really hard. I never felt like anyone understood me. Everything I said was misunderstood or misinterpreted.”
At 18, Ryan left the institution and eventually enrolled in college to study autism. While studying, Ryan began to identify attributes of his behavior that informed his impulsion to act in certain ways. Recognizing his own feelings of internalized aggression as a specific autism sub-type, Ryan began to search for proprioceptive activities to off-set his aggression. “I started skateboarding and bicycling. It wasn’t quite what I needed, but I could feel myself getting close. I used to imagine myself running. I knew runners. I wanted to do that, but I was so heavy.”
Weight had always been an issue for Ryan. Prescription medications combined his with tendency to self-medicate through food, had left him severely overweight. “At my heaviest, I was 713 pounds,” said Ryan. He would eventually lose well over 400 pounds, but not before certain people had entered his life.
He met Amanda at bar while she was in town visiting friends and eventually they began dating. Amanda was a runner, and it was her patient approach to the sport and to Ryan that nurtured his earliest running experiences. “She told me, “You just need to slow down, you’re going out too fast.” But I was like, “That’s running!” And she said, “No, no. You’ve got to start out slow. Follow me.’” So, Ryan did. On one of their earliest dates, they ran two miles. “The way that she slowed down was enough for me to catch my breath, but I still thought I was dying,” said Ryan. “It was amazing. Afterwards, I felt that that was exactly what I had been looking for.”
In time they married and Amanda became pregnant. Kala was born seventeen weeks premature. Weighing under two pounds and suffering a severe brain bleed, her prognosis was grim. Her internal organs were shutting down. She couldn’t breathe without a ventilator. Cortical visual impairment had resulted from neurological damage, leaving her blind. Doctors gave her a 2% chance for survival. Kala wavered on the brink for months. Without knowing the extent of damage to her body and brain, Ryan and Amanda began preparing for life outside the hospital. Amanda is a music therapist for people with disabilities. Her experiences, combined with Ryan’s, gave the couple a unique advantage in developing a treatment path for Kala. Once at home, she thrived. Amanda and Ryan worked tirelessly to stimulate her neurological development to such an extent that the vision center in Kala’s brain healed and she is no longer legally blind. Her cerebral palsy has limited her mobility; however, she uses a wheelchair and is learning to walk.
Incidentally, it was a shared desire for stimulation that led to Ryan and Kala’s running partnership. “I need a physical outlet to feel okay,” said Ryan. “I used to just bounce on an aerobics ball, but then Kala thought that movement was awesome. She wanted me to hold her while I bounced, but that didn’t give me what I needed. So, I decided I am just going to go back to running and I am going to take her with me.” Ryan recalls the feeling of that first run vividly. “I knew the moment we stepped out the door and started walking that my goal was to run 100 miles,” said Ryan. “I started this adventure with Kala with the intention of running an ultra-marathon.”
* * *
In December 2020, on the urging of a friend, Ryan started sharing their journey on Instagram. In under two months, @running_with_kala amassed over 2,000 followers. He began engaging with people through social media, appearing on podcasts and writing articles. People found inspiration in their story. Ryan went from being misunderstood and misinterpreted, to being appreciated for his thoughtful, articulate advocacy. His decision to be accessible, to tell his story—and his daughter’s story—with an unvarnished realism, resonated deeply with people. His vulnerability before perfect strangers led to his having a community behind him, to having cheerleaders, a genuine support network, and a platform. People listen because his message is essential and nourishing, but they also listen because he knows how to frame it.
* * *
Ryan stopped short of the finish line, took a breath, and briefly surveyed the final hundred feet.
It lay open beneath muted halos of generator lighting, a large white tent flanking the trail. Sponsorship banners were securely cinched to unfurled rolls of blue plastic fencing. Thin, fiberglass poles shot skyward above the fence line, each one adorned with a limp, lifeless flag—perfectly unfettered in the thick, breezeless humidity. Christmas lights twinkled demurely between the poles. Aluminum scaffolding wrapped in black cloth framed the finish. They made it. Ryan lifted Kala from her chariot and placed her in a gait trainer with her bib number securely attached.
Kala would walk from here.
A tremor rippled through the shadows. Those who had been mulling about, or were otherwise occupied, stopped to watch. Many took out their phones and began taking video. What the videos captured is a little girl dressed almost entirely in pink, walking beside her proud father toward two blue timing mats. Murmurs in the crowd became cheers which then became steady applause. Ryan, smiling widely, encouraged Kala forward. “Come on, baby bear,” he said. “Come on.” At the last possible moment, Ryan hung back just enough to let Kala go ahead and finish before him. It’s a subtle, yet rich, gesture—an act of love, humility, and grace. “I could barely move, but I reached down and picked her up from her gait trainer,” said Ryan. “She put her cheek against mine and we just squeezed each other.”
* * *
The upcoming year will likely see Ryan and Kala returning to Hennepin. “I will not miss it. That will be our family race every year,” said Ryan. He also plans on running the Earth Day Trail Races, Galena Sky Races, and a fun-run at Kettle Moraine. Each of those events are coordinated by Ornery Mule Racing, which hosts a wide variety of trail events throughout the Midwest. Ryan and Kala have found a home within the Ornery Mule community. “I find a place I am comfortable with, and I stick with that. I branch out with people I am comfortable with and who will branch out with me. That’s an accommodation I make for myself as an autistic person.” Kala will not join him for all of those races. The difficult terrain and changes in elevation on some of those courses make pushing a chariot impossible. Their goal, however, remains unchanged. Someday, Ryan and Kala will attempt to finish 100 miles together.
And, in the end, whether they succeed or otherwise, may not be the point. Perhaps the arc of their story is their story.
Ryan and Kala endure.
Running With Kala originally appeared in Eat Clean, Run Dirty Magazine - Volume 6.Banner photo provided by Jenny Thorsen
Other photos provided by Ryan Steiner
Photos by Tim Roberts
James Solomon pulls into a small, crushed gravel parking area and hooks a gentle left, sweeping his headlights across a sprawling electrical substation set back in the shadows, before coming to stop. Shifting into park, he kills the engine and peers through the windshield at the ambient red sheen of a traffic light bleeding out over Winfield Road. He sits for a moment, long enough for the clear night sky to define itself beyond the glass. The darkness here is near complete. Minor stars glimmer faintly to the east, speckled just above a distant line of black trees, barely visible like subtle variations in a shadow.
Stepping out of the car, James checks his Garmin. From here, he’ll run a mile into the park to Mt. Hoy, where his training will begin in earnest with hill repeats. This is what you do when you’re chasing a record—even when that record is one you already own—you get up before dawn and run.
Ready, James starts his watch and runs into the darkness.
* * *
Hard Prairie: What time do you wake up every morning?
James Solomon: I usually get up around 2:30 a.m. and start running around 3:30 a.m. or 4 a.m.
HP: Do you stretch?
James: No. I’ll do a little percussion therapy with a Theragun and wrap some Voodoo Floss on my ankles and calves, but no stretching.
HP: And you usually run ten miles in the morning, is that right?
James: At least, yeah.
HP: And your nights end pretty early, like 6 or 7 o’clock?
James: Yeah, that’s correct.
HP: But you also run during your lunch hour, right?
James: That’s correct. That’s like my speed work. By the time lunch comes, my legs are warmed up. I can reach a faster pace sooner than in the morning. Plus, all my morning workout are fasted.
HP: So you don’t eat in the morning or drink coffee?
HP: You don’t use any caffeine?
HP: Are you vegan or vegetarian?
James: I would say I’m vegan. I’ll celebrate with pizza that has real cheese; however, the majority of my lifestyle is vegan.
HP: So you don’t consume much sugar either?
James: Not really. For breakfast sometimes I’ll have oatmeal with blue agave in it. And I don’t skimp on the agave.
HP: And, after work, you don’t ever run?
James: Not typically, no.
* * *
Uncomfortable, but not insufferable. Not wanting to draw attention from park rangers or passing cops, James forgoes a headlamp, choosing instead to run by sense memory and instinct. Beneath him, the path unfurls like a slender tributary of pale, lusterless mercury—the crushed gravel glowing a muted silver in the dark. Off to his right, moonlight dapples the glassy surface of a lake. Along the shore, bullfrogs bellow over the chirp of katydids and June bugs. Somewhere in the underbrush a twigs snaps and a small mammal panics through the thicket.
James never breaks stride.
Last year’s Cry Me A River (CMAR ) plays on a loop in his head. He won the Peoria-based 100-mile ultra and set a new course record; however, as he runs now, he mulls over every remembered detail. He looks for lost time in the flats and downhills and questions whether he loitered too long in Green Valley and Camp Wokanda. He envisions each climb, parsing out which hills might be feasible to run, knowing that if he plans on breaking his own record this year, running up them will be imperative.
Conquering vert is the key to conquering CMAR.
And conquering CMAR, as James knows all too well, is a big fucking deal.
* * *
Hard Prairie: At what point did you decide you wanted to go back to CMAR?
James Solomon: I really got a lot a confidence after my Kettle Moraine race this year. Plus, I had put in the training, and I wanted to teach myself that even if it’s the same race, different problems will happen. It will be a totally different experience.
HP: What was it about Kettle that gave you the confidence to come back?
James: I had a solid goal of a sub-twenty-hour finish, and I went about an hour and a half under that. I surprised myself.
HP: Going into Kettle, what was your training like?
James: I wrapped up Potawatomi in April and did my week of recovery. It was just starting to get really nice out. I was beginning to do a lot more longs runs and hills at Mt. Hoy. I usually use May as a big training month for June and July races. I put in a four-hundred-mile month in May to train up for Kettle and CMAR.
HP: When do you get it in your mind that you’re going to try and break your own CMAR record?
James: Probably my second week back into training. I took a recovery week. Then my first week back, I’m running a lot of flat stuff—but still high mileage. That second week back, I felt better than anticipated. So I began thinking about my goals for going into CMAR, and breaking my own record became my A goal.
* * *
Mt. Hoy wasn’t gouged out by glaciers or exposed through erosion, nor was it born of any grand tectonic event. In fact, it isn’t natural in any geomorphic sense at all. What it is, is a capped mountain of trash. From 1965 to 1973, this property served as the county landfill. Now it operates as Blackwell Forest Preserve, with Mt. Hoy as its most prominent feature—a seven-hundred-foot col, with a one-hundred-and-forty-foot prominence pitched at varying grades depending on which way you go up.
Coming upon Mt. Hoy’s southern base, James glances at his Garmin. He has eight miles of hill repeats ahead of him—no dogging it and no cutting corners. That shit isn’t in his blood. Veering onto the trail, he knows exactly how far he’s come and, just as importantly, exactly how far he wants to go.
* * *
Hard Prairie: What does your hill training entail?
James Solomon: Blackwell opens the gates an hour after sunrise, so I have to run into the park. I park off Winfield Rd and Butterfield. From there to the bottom of the hill is one mile. I’ll get eight miles of repeat in, then I’ll run back. I run up the steep dirt trail on the back of the hill, go halfway down a gravel path, then cut back down towards the road again. And I just repeat that, running it all without stopping.
HP: Is the majority of your hill workout done at Hoy?
James: Yeah, probably 95%. I’ll also go to Crystal Lake at Veteran Acres. They don’t have a single hill like Mt. Hoy, but it’s pretty hilly for a normal run.
HP: In a given week, as you’re building up to CMAR, what is your average mileage?
James: Between 95 and 100-plus miles.
HP: How much of that is hills?
James: Probably 20-30%.
* * *
It drips onto his calves from the saturated bill of his backwards cap. It pools in the groove between his clavicles. Every inhalation detonates in his lungs like an errant bottle rocket, the humidity wreaking havoc with his breathing. He works the hill like a machine, gutting out the miles and logging ascent after ascent. CMAR eats alive the underprepared.
James is determined to be ready.
To the east the darkness shows signs of breaking as wispy grey tendrils of light slip parallel to the horizon. Some mornings, when a run is going particularly well, there’s no notice of the gathering light. It’s just suddenly there, his sense of time all jumbled and askew.
This is not one of those mornings.
Hill days rarely are.
* * *
Hard Prairie: So, you break your own record at CMAR in July. What’s going through your mind when you cross the finish line?
James Solomon: I was super happy. But, really, I was thinking, “Fuck, yeah! This is just one step closer to a top-ten finish at Western States.” That was my honest thought. I got to pace and spectate at Western States earlier this year. I saw all these amazing runners, and I was thinking, “Why couldn’t I be Top-Ten?” So I’m going to put in the work and do the best I can. If I make, I make it. If I don’t, at least I know I put in 100% effort.
* * *
Chest heaving, he places his hands on his waist. Daybreak reflects off the smooth white bulbs of scattered water towers and the windows of office buildings. In all directions, the suburbs spread out like a bland network of rooftops and chimneys and trees. It all looks so still, so sleepy.
James, however, is wide awake.
Hill repeats are a grind—monotonous and painful. But James knows that the grind is what hardens you. It chisels away doubt and fear, clearing a path to accomplishing amazing things on a course as brutal as CMAR.
The grind is how myths are made and how records are broken.
By Morgan Mader
Photos by Tim Roberts
I’m wrapping up my first loop of 2022’s Cry Me A River (CMAR) when a runner passes me. “They’re rerouting us to avoid the creek crossing,” he says. “Another runner got washed away, so be careful.” Had I heard him correctly? I hadn’t been running long enough to begin hallucinating, right? The creek crossing was little more than a rock-skip across. How could this be happening?
“Yeah, James got washed away,” he says. I laugh. James is one of the strongest people I know. He’ll be fine. Still, this is CMAR: a race fully capable of crushing your spirit by methodically grinding away at your tenacity and will. Last year, I trudged through 100K of body-crushing hills in unrelenting rain, developing a chafe that would make most people blush.
Yet here I was. Back, not for the 100k, but the 100-miler.
CMAR is a brutal course, boasting 23,500 feet of elevation gain over 100 miles. Held each July in the rolling hills north of Peoria, nowhere else in Illinois can you find a race quite like this. Maybe it’s a sickness, craving torture in the guise of fitness, mental toughness and spirit. Though, as the saying goes: If you can do it, then you must do it.
With a noon start, the air was hot and humid. We found ourselves fully saturated in sweat after only 2 miles, and when the rain came, it was a welcome treat. At times, the downpour was so heavy, I was able to open my handheld and catch enough rainfall to enjoy a drink. But as the rain intensified and word spread of the rising creek, my thoughts turned to James. Not because I feared he’d be washed away, but because I knew exactly what was riding on his performance.
The year before, in July 2021, James won the CMAR 100, finishing eight hours ahead of the next competitor, setting a new course record, and doing what many had thought impossible—finishing CMAR in less than 24 hours. When I left out for my final loop of the 100k that year, I knew James was running well. A mile in, I saw his all-too-familiar gait running toward me. We stopped long enough for a brief kiss. I congratulated him and watched him run off to claim victory.
I still had nineteen miles left to go.
After years of weight training, powerlifting, and CrossFit, James decided to sign up for Spartan’s Ultra OCR in 2019, a 50k trail race with over sixty obstacles. Competing in the Open Category, James won, finishing in just over seven hours. Not long after he came to me with a new challenge in mind: Ultrarunning.
I had run a half-marathon before, but that was fifteen years ago. Still, I love nature and stretching my physical abilities, so the transition made sense for me. Once James began researching Illinois’ local races, it was all he could think about. He wouldn’t talk about anything else. He became obsessed, increasing his mileage exponentially. On weekends, he began tackling runs that were thirty, forty, or fifty miles long. The uptick in mileage was not without challenges, however. James learned through unfiltered, raw experience what it takes to ride the sport’s highs and lows. Occasionally, I would field phone calls from the trail when James needed help working through a low. But that’s how we work; those are the things we do for one another.
In September 2019, we ran our first ultra at the inaugural Temptation 200 at Sandridge State Park, near Forest City, Illinois. James’ goal was to finish the 200k; however, after running 100k on the unrelenting sand, he had given all he had and called it. Five weeks later, hungry for a 100-mile finish, we ran Farmdale—a beautiful course that weaves through central Illinois’ Farmdale Reservoir. Seventy miles in, James’ pace had whittled to a walk. He had over-extended himself, going out too fast. Still, he managed to gut out the final thirty miles and earn a buckle. After the race, he was as incapacitated as I have ever seen him. Watching him slowly inch across a McDonald’s parking lot, I questioned whether he’d ever run again. The following morning, I awoke to him standing over me. He was smiling his irresistible smile, asking if I wanted anything from the breakfast buffet. I knew then he wasn’t quitting, not ever.
As 2019 gave way to 2020, James’ resume of ultras continued to expand. With the onset of Covid, running outside became the simplest and safest thing to do to pass the time. Our training runs got longer. We explored more challenging trails and routes. And in September, we were able to return to the Temptation 200. This time James would not be deterred. He won the 200k and established a new course record. This was his first victory, and it was no small feat.
Furthermore, it made James hungrier.
Still, for every success or emotional high, there is heartache and toil. In the spring of 2020, our beloved dog was diagnosed with cancer. Over a period of months, our focus revolved around maintaining her quality of life. She passed soon after the Temptation 200. Heartbreak overwhelmed me. James was equally saddened by our loss, but people cope in different ways. He signed up for Missouri’s Ozark 100, held in mid-November, barely a month later. I was emotionally unavailable to crew him. My absence, and a slew of other unforeseen challenges, ended up derailing his race, and Ozark became his first DNF. However, through this setback we came to understand just how crucial a healthy headspace is during an ultra. More importantly, we recognized how essential our partnership is to our individual performances.
Simply put: We are a team.
Over the years, we have developed a systematic process for how we train, taper, race, and recover. We often run separate events at the same race so that I have an opportunity to crew James once I’ve finished. Spending twelve, twenty-four, or forty-eight hours on a trail will inevitably lead to moments of doubt but knowing that someone is out there waiting to help you—someone who loves you and is rooting for you—can be the difference between a belt buckle and a DNF.
While I, in turn, carry his.
And no rain or raging creek could dampen the truth we carry or keep James from crushing his own CMAR record. This past July, he shaved another hour-and-a-half from 2021’s mark, crossing the line in an astounding 21:39:53, further establishing his dominance over what is arguably Illinois’ most difficult race and positioning himself as one of the state’s toughest competitors.
I’m starting to run out of all wall space here at home, lined as they are with all of our buckles and ornately crafted trophies. Watching James come alive and flourish as an ultrarunner has been a tremendous journey, one made all the more special by the community of supportive, down-to-earth runners, race directors and volunteers that we have met along the way. We have both earned a measure of internal peace from the sport. It nourishes us, in a way. By pushing ourselves and one another, we have each achieved things neither of us ever dreamed possible, and—perhaps more importantly—forged a truly formidable team.
Long literary passages are inked into her arms. There’s a familiar rune and a serpent medallion—the Deathly Hallows, an Auryn; a whole coded language for initiates, for readers—rendered permanently in Ally’s skin. She has no fewer than three tattoos inspired by Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps the most beloved American satirist of the twentieth century. Vonnegut—known for writing ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ and ‘Cat’s Cradle’ among others—was a humanist. Ally, too, may well be a humanist. Her actions certainly suggest as much.
As founder (Chief Magician!) and Race Director of Chicago’s much-beloved CUSS Running, Ally has given more than $1,000 in race fees to BIPOC and LGBTQ+ athletes over the course of 2022, with hopes to double that sum next year. In July, Ally pledged all the profits from this year’s three remaining CUSS events to the Chicago Abortion Fund and Everytown, a national advocacy organization committed to ending gun violence. “Why wouldn’t I use it (CUSS Running) as a platform to speak up and give back,” says Ally. “CUSS is a passion. It is not my full-time job. It is not my career. I don’t need to make money from this.”
Alongside her wife (and Director of Fast Jogging!), Elaine Young, Ally has built CUSS Running into a dynamic, thriving community. In this interview, she discusses the perks of training in an urban environment, childcare at races, and the difference between inclusion and belonging.
I was seeing events that weren’t the kind of events I would want to attend. So, I figured, let me direct races that I really like. I’m a very silly person. I’m not serious. I’m very introverted. It takes a lot for someone to come to an event and not be intimidated. There are a lot of people who line up at the start and think they’re going to be the last to finish. It was really important to me that people feel happy and have fun. So, I started by putting out funny challenges for people to do. It was the beginning of COVID, before I started race directing. It was dumb shit. But it was dumb shit that I do over the course of my runs because I’m a silly person. And I put it out there because I thought other people would think this is fun. Luckily I’ve been right. I’ve had a lot of people embrace the challenges. There are even people in other countries who do them. So, I started applying them to races. Throughout the course, I have people do challenges and they embrace them.
People come to running so excited and so passionate only to quickly burn themselves out. I can’t tell you how many twenty-four- to twenty-eight-year-old men I’ve seen this happen to. And then they don’t run anymore. They leave the community, which is sad. I want everybody to run their whole life. I think if you can find the joy in it, like a little kid running, you can have an amazing relationship with it. You don’t need to do a 100-miler to be an ultra-runner, you don’t even need to run an ultra-distance. If you have it in your heart, and it’s a goal that you believe in, that mentality is what sets you apart. Do you think ultrarunning, as a sport, takes itself too seriously? One hundred percent, for the most part. It’s crazy to me that people are like, “It’s blowing up. It’s getting too big. Why can’t it be like it was before?” Dude, we are the tiniest, littlest niche sport. We are a blip. You need to stop taking it so seriously. It’s still a tiny little community. It has plenty of room for growth before it gets to the level of normal road races.
One hundred percent, for the most part. It’s crazy to me that people are like, “It’s blowing up. It’s getting too big. Why can’t it be like it was before?” Dude, we are the tiniest, littlest niche sport. We are a blip. You need to stop taking it so seriously. It’s still a tiny little community. It has plenty of room for growth before it gets to the level of normal road races.
Oh, totally. I think the thing that makes runners from flat, urbans environments better in a way, is that you have to conquer the mental part without the satisfaction of beautiful views or the diversity of going up or downhill. You have to be mentally disciplined to run distances that are boring. There are people that run thirty miles on the Lakeshore Trail. How wild is that, to run on that path for so long? That would be boring to me. But if people can do that, they can do anything. Also, running in the city, I can stop at a 7-11 or run a route based on bakeries, which I often do. You can’t do that on a trail.
There is a safety issue when training that doesn’t apply to male runners. And they don’t get it either. They think, “Oh, you can get up at four in the morning and run.” No, I can’t. It is a very unsafe environment out there. I think the biggest thing is teaching safety practices at races and teaching women how to be safer by running in groups and facilitating female training camps. That’s huge. They don’t feel safe on trails. They don’t feel safe running early in the morning. And men like to comment on women, which sucks. When they see it happening, I think men should tell other men to shut up. It’s a male problem, but females have to deal with it.
I’ve talked with several people about this and we’re all trying to find a solution. It comes down to taking on a huge liability. So I had this idea: In the same way that I give race entries away, I could create a scholarship fund that goes just to childcare. Like, “Hey, we have money that goes towards a babysitter for the day so you can come out and do this race.” Going through motherhood, being six months postpartum, I thought I’d be more recovered by now, but I’m not. Having education around that would also be beneficial.
I don’t think there’s a lot of diversity among race directors, quite honestly. The vast majority are men. They don’t understand a lot of those challenges as a hetero person. For me, as a queer person, I’ve had it pretty good. I’ve pretty much never been in the closet. But I have so many friends who have been closeted and still carry so much shame around that. So being able to show up to an event as yourself is something unique. If I can be that voice that not only welcomes you but tells you that you belong, that’s a big thing. There’s a difference between inclusion and belonging. Saying that you include someone, that’s something you’ve determined. You control the space. But saying you belong here, is a whole different narrative. I’m not transgender. I had to go talk to transgender runners and ask, “What am I doing here? Am I doing this right?” I give free races to queer and people from marginalized communities across the board. Just email me and I’ll send you the code. I’m not going to ask you for proof. I’ve had people email me who are in the closet, asking if they can still participate in this. I’m like, “Oh, my god. Even more reason.”
If you have an idea and a passion for it, just do it. You’re perfectly capable. There is plenty of room in the trail and ultrarunning space for more races and for female race directors. Don’t let fear hold you back.
Edited for length and clarity.
Beside him, two looming intake towers rose up out of the water like castle turrets. The squat, conical spire on the tower nearest to shore glowed pale green against the opaque morning sky. Some distance away, nearly eye-level with the bridge, an egret glided silently toward a thick stand of elm trees along the far bank. A smattering of small boats drifted at anchor between the hulking concrete pylons below, the faceless men onboard casting lures into the current. To the south, set low against the horizon, the St. Louis skyline spread out dusty and grey in the August heat like a solemn oasis. “It was serene,” says Patrick. “It was a beautiful, breathtaking place, standing over the river.”
With him on the bridge that morning were more than sixty other runners, all having gathered to fundraise on behalf of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Divided into teams, they’d spend the next two days running a relay, traveling more than 176 miles along spalling county routes; running on narrow, brittle shoulders and main streets through small Illinois towns like Bath and Havana, stopping to rest at gas stations and bingo halls, until they reached the Civic Center in downtown Peoria.
He was, after all, lucky to be alive. In December 2020, doctors diagnosed Patrick with liver failure. “That will wake you up quickly,” he says. “Unhealthy habits had developed in my life. I was 300 pounds and drinking more than the average person. I was still responsible—I had a full-time job and kids—but, looking back, it all makes sense. At the time, I just didn’t realize it.” After three days of labs and imaging scans, the doctor’s prognosis was bleak. “I was given a 50% chance that my liver would work again. But if things went wrong, it was a ninety-day mortality rate.”
While still admitted in the hospital, he and his wife, Jami, began developing a plan to overhaul their lifestyle. “We very much took this on as a team,” says Patrick. “That’s kind of how we’ve always worked. This is the problem; how do we fix it?” Any dietary changes Patrick would have to endure, so too would Jami. That was the deal. They met with a nutritionist and Jami began exploring recipes that were both sodium and sugar free. She understood that in order for Patrick to stick with a new diet, it was imperative to find things he liked. “I went full force,” says Jami. “I researched healthy eating and smoothies. I joined a Facebook group. I made lemon water to help remove bilirubin from his system. Whatever I could do to get him nutrients, I did. I probably spent 500 hours in the kitchen making sure we had healthy food.”
“Weight was falling off my body,” says Patrick. “I went to the doctor, and they said I needed to start working out. My body needed muscle.” Photos taken of Patrick during this period are difficult for him to look at. “My body was a potato with twigs sticking out of it. I was extremely happy to be alive, but it was frustrating to realize how unfit I was. I’ve never had much interest in working out. I don’t know how to lift. I don’t understand how to build muscle. So, I just decided to eat right and run.”
Patrick had tried running before. Years back, he’d even completed a half marathon. “Unfortunately, when I crossed the finish line, I stopped running and went back to eating junk food,” says Patrick. “I’d met my goal and that was the end of it. But I like the idea of being able to run for a long period of time. It’s hard. Not a lot of people are able to do it. And I wanted to be one of them who are.” Patrick began setting small goals for himself. He liked how a quarter mile could slowly evolve into a mile, then another, and another, without any undue pressure. Slowly, as he began to ratchet up the mileage, he could feel his body beginning to heal and his muscles beginning to tone. “I lost another twenty pounds,” says Patrick. “I’ve kept the weight off. I feel on top of my health and fitness more now than I ever did before all this.”
“The biggest heartbreak I felt throughout all this was my wife telling me that she didn’t want our kids growing up without their dad,” he says. “I always thought that sounded cliché, but it’s cliché for a reason. My kids are absolutely my best friends. They are the coolest people in my life. I am overly proud of them every single day, even when they’re driving me nuts. I can’t imagine not being here for them when they need me. It’s painful to think about. They’re what I look forward to; they’re what drives me.”
Back on the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, Patrick grew anxious. “I was extremely nervous,” he says. “I had trained really hard for this, and I wanted to run every mile I possibly could.” Just before the relay began, the group listened as a fellow runner spoke of their own experience with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “It was really touching,” says Patrick. “We got to hear how fantastic they had been treated. How insurance isn’t even a question, or, at least, not the first question. All these kids are going through trials most of us will never have to face at a young age. They just want to get the kids in there and taken care of.”
Cutting a jagged course through southwestern Illinois, past large swaths of corn and soybean, thorough unincorporated villages without so much as a church or a bar, on two-lane highways and backroads without markings, past strip malls and small industrial manufacturers, antique shops and fast-food joints, over hills that rose up in isolation, in 80% humidity and an AWOL breeze, Patrick just kept clicking off the miles.
As they entered Manito, a small town twenty-five miles outside Peoria, he felt a rush of familiarity. At one point, Patrick had been a volunteer firefighter in town. In fact, it was how he came to know about the St Jude relay. “The fire department would escort the runners through our district, and they’d stop for lunch at our firehouse,” he says. “I met some of the runners. They were always poking at me to get involved, but I was never healthy enough to do it.”
“The reception we got heading into town—seeing our friends and family, our husbands and wives all cheering us on—it was really special to see everybody come out and support us. On a hundred-degree day, we were greeted with water guns and hoses. It was really cool.”
Reflecting on his experience, what stands out most to Patrick about that weekend is the camaraderie that developed between runners. “The whole experience was reminiscent of summer camp. You go away with all these people you don’t know, and by the end of that couple of days it’s like you have a bunch of new best friends. It’s really a special thing. It’s a bond you share.” And those are the things that matter, the heightened experiences that forever bind you with another person—be it your wife, your child, or a complete stranger. Those are the things you carry with you when things get dark.
When it was all over, Patrick had run more than eighteen miles. A remarkable turnaround given the prognosis he’d received less than two years ago. “I know now that if I keep doing this, I am going to see results,” he says. “I needed to see that. I needed to understand that it’s going to suck while I do it, but, so long as I continue, there’s fruit that will come of it later on.”
“He’s determined,” says Jami. “He loves his kids, and he wants to fight for his kids. The negativity is out. We don’t have time for it anymore. We have time for raising our boys and spending our life doing what we want to do, what we love to do. If your husband had been given a 50/50 chance of living, you would do that too.”
Maybe you mellow it out with cream and sugar. Or maybe for you coffee is an expression of high art, a search for the sublime in a single cup. However you regard coffee, what is indisputable are it’s inexhaustible qualities and seemingly endless variations. If a fresh idea comes along, even its newness feels vaguely familiar, like it already exists, and has existed forever.
When Tom McGinn and Jenni Guerriero began developing what would become the electrolyte-infused Long Run Coffee, they strongly questioned the originality of their idea. “Step one was figuring out if it existed already or if we were wasting our time,” says Tom. They scoured social media and Google, typing untold keywords in myriad variations, but kept coming up empty. “We really tried to find it,” says Tom. But there was simply nothing to find.
“There is no one else selling this,” says Jenni.
Looking for ways to make a distinct impact in the running community, fortifying coffee with electrolytes seemed both practical and potentially beneficial. Most runners consume caffeine in some measure—either prior to and/or during a race—why not boost it with minerals essential to maintaining performance? It just made sense. So one morning, while cooking breakfast, they finally began toying with the idea. Tom scooped two hefty spoonfuls of pink Himalayan sea salt into his coffee, stirred it, and took a sip. “It was terrible,” he remembers. “It tasted like seawater.”
Still, it was a start.
“We immediately began tinkering with it and testing it,” says Tom. Over a period of months, every trial was recorded—every tweak in the measurements, every powder or granule used, everything on down to taste was logged on an Excel spreadsheet. “Part of the problem we faced was figuring out the actual source of the electrolyte,” says Tom. “The big ones we struggled with were sodium and potassium.” Initially, they experimented with potassium citrate, which tastes nearly indistinguishable from salt and, when paired with certain sources of sodium, has the potential to blow out your palette. “There was so much trial and error,” says Jenni. “We had friends try it and other runners. We kept wondering, ‘Does this taste salty to you?’” Over time, they settled on sodium bicarbonate and potassium gluconate, both of which are easily dissolvable and have a flat, neutral taste that doesn’t interfere with the natural flavor of the coffee.
This, however, proved surprisingly difficult. “We had to go through five or ten different manufacturers, calling their customer service lines and sending emails,” says Tom. “Basically, they all responded with, “No, we’re not doing that.” Some companies said they wouldn’t add electrolytes, but they’d add CBD.” In retrospect, Tom and Jenni may have thrown off manufacturers with their explanation of the product. “If we had just said sodium or salt, instead of electrolyte supplements, maybe we would have gotten more traction,” says Tom. “I think companies got scared even though it’s pretty simple stuff. I don’t think they wanted to put any of it through their machinery. They wouldn’t have, but we didn’t get the chance to explain that to many of them.”
Eventually, they found a roastery in Spring Grove willing to partner with them. “They were like, “We’ll do whatever you want,’” says Tom. “They’re local, basically in our backyard, so it’s good. They aren’t a giant conglomerate. I can basically pick up the phone and call someone whenever.”
Offering four signature roasts, they established footing rather quickly. Among their earliest supporters were the hosts of the popular Ten Junk Miles podcast, who also happen to host events in southern Wisconsin. “We went to Sugar Badger in May and the Badger Trail Races in July,” says Tom. “We had a booth and were handing coffee out to runners. It felt like we were running an aid-station. We enjoyed that.”
As summer progressed, Tom and Jenni continued developing Long Run’s mission and reach. They sought inroads and partnerships, local and otherwise, gauging interest and honing their pitch. “A lot of great communities exist in the running space,” says Tom. “We want to make custom label coffee for different brands and communities that are already out there.” Forging relationships with race directors, neighborhood organizers, and charitable foundations, they created two lines of brand-specific custom coffee—the Race Collection and the Community Collection. In late August, they began offering those collaborations for sale on their website. ”Part of our hope is that people will come to our website and get coffee that means something to them, then see some different brands and races that they haven’t heard of yet,” says Tom. “We would like to create a little network. That might sound ridiculous to build a network on a coffee site, but I don’t think it is.”
“What happens happens,” says Tom. “Obviously, any opportunities that arise should be looked into; likewise, if things that we put a lot of time into end up not working out, that’s okay too.” Attending this year’s Hennepin 100, they brought with them a new collaboration with event host Ornery Mule Racing. Dubbed the “Flat and Fast French Roast,” Long Run set up shop at the race, offering brewed samples and selling bags of this latest custom label made specifically for the event. “We would like to start going to more races,” says Tom. “Mainly because they’re fun, but it also makes sense from a business development perspective.” Looking to establish a broader race-day impact, Long Run is also looking into developing single-serving coffee packets as a unique twist on the usual assortment of swag bag giveaways. Being that they are still a young company, however, the priority for the foreseeable future is to continue growing while clearly conveying their mission to both the running community and prospective partners. “If a Race Director reaches out to us, we’re making him a label for free,” says Tom. “We don’t need any financial investment whatsoever; we just need their approval. End of story. You don’t need to buy $600 worth of coffee. We’ll just list it on our site and fulfill it all.”
Big picture aside, Tom and Jenni want more than anything for Long Run Coffee to be that extra encouragement that propels you, the athlete, forward. “It could be a daily reminder that you’re signed up for a 100-miler,” says Tom. “Something that will be there in the morning, waiting on the kitchen counter next to the coffee pot.”
It’ll be waiting for you like so many training miles and hill repeats. It’ll be waiting for you like a belt buckle at the finish line.
“It will just be there,” says Tom.
An inexhaustible little bean, perfect for the long run.