Ice Age Trail 50: Family Reunion at the Finish Line

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By Jeff Mallach, RD

“This is the best finish line in ultrarunning,” the photographer commented, as we both stood on the more joyful side of the Ice Age Trail 50 finish banner.

In my 10 years as Race Director, I’d never considered that possibility. We do our best each year to stage a proper Wisconsin celebration for the runners who come here to test themselves against the hills of the Southern Kettle Moraine Forest. There are tables of freshly prepared food, live music from our house band, a roaring campfire, free local microbrews and plenty of room in the grass to stretch out or lay down a blanket.

But I don’t think that’s what she was talking about.

Brenda Bland is congratulated by an enthusiastic group of spectators in the final 10 minutes of the Ice Age Trail 50. Photo: Kristi Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

Almost half of the 450 or so runners who start the Ice Age Trail 50-mile race each year finish in the final 90 minutes. Among them are many first time 50-milers, runners who pushed through injuries to get to the starting line, individuals whose training was impeded by the Wisconsin winter and many for whom the hard 12-hour cutoff was always an aspirational goal.

As the display clock ticks closer to 12:00:00, a crowd begins assembling alongside the finish chute. Folks who were sitting around the campfire stood to watch the woods for signs of approaching runners. As the cheers and applause overtook the music, spectators and runners under the tent turned around to see what was happening on the trail. Children look expectantly for their parents so they can join them for the final few yards of the race.

Matthew Muto gets some help across the finish line. Photo: Kristi Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

When the clock hits 11:55, there’s a palpable restlessness. There are hundreds of people here and those with runners still on the course share looks of concern, nodding frequently to check their watches and making sober mental calculations.

With about a minute to go, Angela Johnson surges into view in full stride, running all-out to beat the clock. And she does. She is the last official finisher with a time of 11:59:15. By her side is Jose Villegas, our one-time trail sweep, who has forged his own special role at the Ice Age Trail 50. Jose, the “Mexicutioner” (his word) is the guy who gets you to the finish. As an ultrarunner himself with an acute knowledge of the Ice Age course, Jose picks out the last runner who has a chance to beat the 12-hour cut-off, often making the call miles from the finish. Then his work as a coach and cheerleader commences. Not everyone, I suppose, appreciates his ebullience – or friendly warnings. Others can’t physically respond to his commands. But those who do always finish.

Angela Johnson runs in 45 seconds under the cutoff with 12-hour pacer Jose Villegas. Photo: Rick Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

Angela Johnson stands in the finish area, overwhelmed by supporters, processing that strange but life-affirming rush of elation, fatigue and temporary disconnectedness that an ultrarunning finish often produces. Behind her, another runner rushes into the finish chute. The crowd rises again, screaming and cheering, but this time, the clock is too quick. Kathryn Dunn, a 13-time Ice Age 50 finisher, crosses the line six seconds after the official cut-off. Disappointed and exhausted, her friends surround and embrace her and offer their congratulations. This, she says, is her last Ice Age 50-miler.

The scene in the finish area of the Ice Age Trail 50 is a living expression of what most of us love about the ultrarunning community. Runners and spectators alike welcome the finishers – and those who didn’t make it – as they would a friend or family member. If you’re wearing a bib, someone is looking after you.

Jason Adams and Eric Shields exude elation at the finish line. Photo: Kristi Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

And after the clocks are deactivated, the conversations around the fire return to personal stories and adventures – and to this year’s winners. In his first-ever 50-mile trail race, Michael Quesnell, 25, of Madison, WI, won the 38th annual Ice Age Trail 50 in 6:33:20. In second place was Conner Matheson, 26, of Chicago (6:53:23) – followed by Nicholas Mockeridge, 37, from Troy, MI (7:06:04).

Michael Quesnell, overall winner, crosses a footbridge near the Rice Lake urnaround. Photo: Rick Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

Blair Doney, female champion in the 50-mile race, runs the Nordic loop. Photo: Kristi Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

Denver runner Blair Doney, 27, was our top female finisher in 7:42:48. Behind her was Relena Del Toro Ribbons (8:09:56) from Appleton, WI and Brianna Rohne, 35, from St. Paul, MN (8:15:12).

In the 50k, Scott Gall from Cedar Falls, IA finishes first in 3:52:17. Several years ago on the same course, Scott ran the second fastest time in the history of the race, a remarkable 3:18. Andrija Barker, 38, from Boise, ID finished second overall in 4:04:13 and wins the women’s race.

Next were Mikel Haggadone, 27, from Ann Arbor, MI in 4:06:30 and Chad Gruett, 42, from Pewaukee, WI (4:21:10).

Jessica Hruska, 39, from Dubuque, IA finishes second woman in 4:20:50 and Shorewood, WI runner Samantha Gries’ was #3 in 4:33:49.

We had 12 starters this year with 20 or more Ice Age Trail 50-mile buckles. All of them finished, including Andrew Klapperich and Parker Rios (#28) and Pat Gorman (#26). Ultrarunning Hall of Famer Roy Pirrung became only the seventh runner to post 25 finishes. And William Hutchinson of Hart’s Mills, WI was welcomed as the newest member of our 1,000-mile club.

Ice Age has been called a “family reunion” by our runners. The family grows and changes each year, but everyone is invited to run with us – or just stop by for a beer.

Results  50 Miles | 50K

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3 Comments

  1. Marla Neumann on

    Very true and well written, Jeff! I have been haunted by Jose and stayed til the end of the campfire party many years. It really is fun to be a part of the ultrarunning community, and specifically at Ice Age Trail 50, and those memories get me through the long training runs on the treadmill in February.

  2. John Barrickman on

    Back in 2001, I was a lazy 21 years old and my father finished the Ice Age 50. I was amazed anyone could do such a crazy thing! 50 MILES? Yeah right!

    Fast forward to 2012. Not only did I finish the Ice age 50 myself but my father was at the finish line waiting and my sons by my side bringing me in the last several yards.

    This race will always have a special place with me. Thanks for a great write up!

  3. Your written picture of the Ice Age 50 is true to the nature of that wonderful run. It was a fulfillment of a dream of mine when I ran the race in 2015. Living in Washington State I have been running its mountains and deserts for years, but something about the lakes and prairies of the Wisconcin keeps calling me …maybe because my wife and best buddy both were born to that country?
    Ice Age showed me a friendly and 1st class event, and I hope to return again someday

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