It’s bad when one ultrarunner asks ‘Are you from Indiana?’ and their response to your ‘Yes’ is ‘Oh, that stinks.’ Norm Williams was one of the four local runners battling through the trails of Georgia during the Georgia Death Race this past weekend.
He was packing his car to head home, sore and tired after being one of the 184 finishers in a race where 95 didn’t finish and 29 didn’t even start.
“Yeah we have no real hills, but we make the best of what we have,” he said.
Williams of Portage, Brenda Campbell and Paul Stofko of Chesterton, and Tammy Bucko of Hobart were the four runners who spent every possible moment in the Indiana Dunes State Park training for the 68ish-mile race in North Georgia.
The race reaches a total of 44,000 feet, has “trails” made of rocks and stones, includes miles of uphill running and hiking, and finishes up a very long staircase. This is the “hardest race East of the Rocky Mountains” the race director claims, and our NWI runners beat it, thanks to the Dunes.
Over the past six months, these runners have been out on the trails every weekend, rising to run at 7 a.m. every Sunday. The winter weather did not deter their focus, only their route at times.
They usually start off on Trail 10, heading to the beach. There, they would turn to the Ridge Loop, a seven mile-long stretch, with maybe a few hundred feet of accumulated elevation. It is a good way to train thanks to the rolling hills. Plus, the sand slides back a few inches with every step up the dune, and shifting sand makes each downhill step twist and turn the ankle in every direction. When the final hill comes, these runners don’t jump for joy. Instead, they turn around and do it backwards.
“I think the long runs back and forth, back and forth were the most beneficial,” Campbell said. “Even though the hills weren’t big it was hard and got you used to having tired legs. Then, on Tuesdays we did the big hill repeats where we would get a lot of elevation in a little bit of time.”
Those “big” hills start on Trail 8, where you will find the dunes of Three Dunes Challenge awaiting. Have you climbed through this challenge? One loop through this dune-climbing trek makes your heart pound. Well, these runners do repeats of the Three Dunes Challenge, accumulating thousands of feet of elevation. The challenge includes the three largest Dunes in the park. You climb straight up two of the Dunes and the third one is a never-ending staircase. Even with short walking breaks, you’re huffing and puffing by the top.
“Tammy and I did hours on Trail 8, probably 30 hours in total,” Williams said. “I believe that did a great job for preparing us. The most we could muster was 5,000 ft of elevation.”
Hills, stairs, repeat. Hills, stairs, repeat. It was grueling both for the mind and on the body, yet, that was called for when training for a race with the word “death” in its name.
“I guess the relentless climbs and down hills took a toll on me during the race,” Stofko said. “GDR was a mental aspect where you had push through the lows of the race, but the Dunes did help me in the physical sense and I felt very strong climbing the hills.”
Stofko finished in 18 hours, making it within the top 50 finishers.
Campbell and Williams finished just minutes apart in the 23-hour range. Bucko unfortunately was forced to stop after an injury.
Looking back, these runners realized they truly accomplished something big.
“They are right - we have no hills. After going through this race, what we have are speed bumps,” Campbell admitted. “The fact that three out of the four of us finished shocks me because people who actually trained on hills didn’t finish. I think we were determined.”
When the fact that the biggest hill in the Dunes barely reaches 200 feet, these NWI runners were laughed at and brushed off as DNF’ers.
Sure NWI may not have the mountainous, rocky, rooty, training grounds of other parts of the country, but these are our Dunes and our home. The runners of NWI – Calumet Striders, the Sunset Hill group, the Ridge Runners, anyone else with a pair of running shoes – they all join together to share in the love of the Dunes. They know every twist and turn and know that when you pass the tree that looks like a bear, you’re almost done.
The Georgia Death Race may be over and these tired runners are now resting, but come summer they will be back. Why? Because there is always another race to train for and another run to finish within the trails of the Indiana Dunes.
“They couldn’t believe we were there and didn’t believe we would finish,” Campbell said. “We proved them wrong and I proved myself wrong.”