Cold and windy: 19 degrees, with northwest winds blowing about 15 miles per hour and gusting above 20. These were the conditions Saturday morning at the start of the inaugural Mad City 100K, a 62.1-mile run that doubled as USA Track & Field's national 100-kilometer championship.
The new race is the result of a grassroots effort by veteran ultramarathoner and race organizer Tim Yanachek to start something big here, or at least something long. His effort was so low-key that it was almost as stealthy as the sunrise that occurred a minute or two before the starter's gun fired.
Bang. At 6:30 a.m., 56 solo ultramarathoners and 25 relay teams set off from the starting line in front of the Vilas Park shelter. They ran 10 spectator-friendly laps around the 10-kilometer course that circles Lake Wingra by way of Edgewood College, Nakoma Road and the UW Arboretum.
For Yanachek, 59, this was the partial realization of a dream that had seeded itself in his mind six years ago. He was in Cleder, a town along France's wild Brittany coast, where the international World Cup 100K road-running championships were taking place. His wife, Ann Heaslett, was on the U.S. national team. Enthusiastic spectators had turned out in force. The French do not view ultramarathons as an oddity, Yanachek observed.
Neither do sports fans in Belgium, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Japan. Returning with his wife to World Cup 100-kilometer championships in ensuing years, Yanachek was repeatedly impressed by fans who turned out in those countries by the thousands to watch the unfolding dramas.
'We've not had a national championship in five years,' Yanachek said a week before the Mad City 100K. Instead, the U.S. team had been selected by USA Track & Field based on athletes' performances at a series of ultramarathons.
Yanachek applied to host a revived national championship in Madison. Last December, the council approved his petition. 'My competition for this bid was nobody,' he said. Securing the event was the easy part.
'Raising money has been really hard,' he said. But he found enough sponsors to make the race feasible, if not lavish. 'This is my dream,' he continued. 'We do this this year and lose money. Next year, it gets a little bigger and better. And in 2009, I'd love to have the World Cup here.'
But for now it is cold and windy. Nevertheless, the Racin' Rabbits women's relay team appears to be in good spirits as they wait for a teammate to finish her lap. They are in contention for the women's title. And they are wearing costume-shop rabbit ears on their heads.
Seattle's Greg Crowther, 33, is clocking 40 to 41 minutes per 10-kilometer lap and passes 26.2 miles in about two hours, 48 minutes ' a time that would have put him in fourth or fifth at the finish of last year's Madison Marathon. Scott Jurek, 33, also from Seattle, is losing about one minute per lap to Crowther but holding on to second.
Alaska's Julie Udchachon, an Oshkosh native, is cranking out laps of between 47 and 50 minutes en route to the women's title and fourth overall in a personal-best eight hours, nine minutes and four seconds ' the equivalent of running back-to-back marathons in three hours, 25 minutes each, and then continuing for almost 10 more miles at the same pace.
In the last two laps, she even gains time on Crowther, who fades toward the end of the race but holds on to win the men's title by a healthy margin, breaking the tape in seven hours, 14 minutes, 31 seconds.
Yanachek calls ultramarathoners 'the epitome of old-fashioned amateur athletics. They do it because they love it.' They pretty much have to. There's not much money in ultramarathoning. Crowther and Udchachon will each take home $2,000 for winning the U.S. championships. By way of comparison, winners of the New York or Boston marathons can earn $100,000 or more.
The number of participants in any given ultra tends to be a fraction of short races like Madison's annual Crazylegs Classic or the Race for the Cure, which draw thousands of entries. Even Ironman Wisconsin, which takes about nine hours to win and some people 17 hours to finish, draws more than 2,000 participants.
But if they can meet the International Association of Ultra Runners' qualifying times, those ultramarathoners who qualified for the U.S. national team last Saturday will be eligible to compete at the World Cup 100K later this year in the Netherlands.
For the rest of the 30 solo ultramarathoners who finished the race, there is the knowledge that they can persevere in conditions that were called 'pretty brutal' by one contender who abandoned the Mad City 100K a little past the midway point.
And for the Racin' Rabbits relay team, there is the achievement of 10 women in rabbit ears edging out the women's solo champion by almost 15 minutes ' and winning the women's relay title by almost an hour.