Something big is happening this Saturday, April 7. Something long. At sunrise, 6:30 a.m., a bunch of runners will set off on a race around Lake Wingra.
Starting near the Vilas Park shelter, they'll follow the classic 10-kilometer route behind Edgewood College to Woodrow Street to Monroe Street to Wingra Park, continuing along Manitou Way past Nakoma Golf Club to the UW-Madison Arboretum's Seminole Highway entrance, and proceed through the Arboretum to Wingra Drive and back to the Vilas Park shelter.
But unlike all the other races that use this 10K loop, such as the Freeze for Food 10K or the Meriter Nurses Run or the Jingle Bell Run, these runners won't stop. After their first 10K circuit, they'll keep right on running. They'll run a second lap, and a third, and keep on running laps until they've completed 10 of them for a total of 100 kilometers.
This Saturday marks the debut of the Mad City 100K, a 62.1-mile ultramarathon that is doubling as the 2007 U.S. 100-kilometer national road championships. The top six men and top six women will have the inside track to make the U.S. national 100K team that will compete at this year's IAU World Cup 100K championships, scheduled for September in the Netherlands. To qualify to compete at the worlds, men must post a time under seven hours, 20 minutes, while women must clock under 8:40.
Some of the nation's top ultramarathoners will at the starting line early this Saturday. Seattle's Greg Crowther and Scott Jurek, both 33, lead a men's field that also includes Chad Ricklefs, 39, of Boulder, Colorado. Crowther won last month's 50-kilometer national championship in a course-record time. Jurek won California's grueling Western States 100-miler a record seven consecutive times, won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in 2005 and 2006, and last year became the first American to win Greece's 246-kilometer Spartathlon. Ricklefs has twice won Colorado's Leadville 100-miler. Patrick Russell, 31, of Minneapolis, is a two-time U.S. national team veteran who finished 31st overall at last year's IAU World Cup 100K with a time of seven hours, 43 minutes and 19 seconds.
According to Yanachek, Crowther has declared his intention to run Saturday's 100K in six hours, 45 minutes -- a scorching pace of about six minutes and 30 seconds per mile that would have him crossing the finish line at about 1:15 p.m.
On the women's side, Montana's Nikki Kimball, 35, has owned the national 50-mile trail race title for the past four consecutive years, and will arrive at Saturday's starting line in a quest for a spot on her seventh consecutive natioal 100K team. Alaska's Julie Udchachon, 36, will be vying for her second consecutive spot on the U.S. national team. Milwaukee's Carolyn Smith, 41, finished 11th at the world 24-hour run championships in 2005 as a member of the U.S. national team.
And then there is Madison's Ann Heaslett, 43, a decorated ultramarathoner and four-time U.S. national team member at 100 kilometers, who has shifted her focus in recent years toward Ironman-length triathlons but is returning to the 100K with the home-course advantage of cheering friends.
Other Madison residents entered in the race include Michael Bohl, 24; Christopher Clausen, 22; Alarik Rosenlund, 49; and Jim Welch, 45.
Heaslett's husband, Tim Yanachek, 59, conceived the idea for the Mad City 100K six years ago. Traveling with Heaslett to the IAU World Cup 100K that year in Cleder, France, Yanachek -- the long-time co-director of the Ketthle Moraine 100 trail run -- was impressed by the enthusiasm of French fans who turned out by the thousands to cheer the world's best ultramathoners as they raced along roads near the wild and windy Brittany coast.
That was the first of four consecutive U.S. national 100K teams for which Heaslett qualified. Returning to the world championships in Belgium, Taiwan and the Netherlands to watch her run in ensuing years, Yanachek was struck again and again by the numbers of fans.
The enthusiasm of ultramarathon spectators in Europe and Asia stood in contrast to those in the U.S. This is in part due to a contrast in settings. While ultramarathons in Europe tend to be held on specator-friendly road routes, U.S. ultramarathons like the Western States 100, Leadville 100 and Wisconsin's own Kettle Moraine 100 and Ice Age 50 are run on more remote trails.
For the Mad City 100, Yanachek opted for a spectator-friendly 10-lap course that will allow onlookers to watch the race unfold. With each lap, the field will likely distribute itself along ever greater stretches of the course, and the race may come to resemble a continuous parade. Fans will also be able to monitor the race as it unfolds throughout the day as race directors will be posting real-time updates on its race webcast.
Yanachek's own involvement in ultramarathoning extends from participation in races to the sport's governance at the national level. "We've not had a national championship in five years," he notes. Instead, the U.S. team has been selected by USA Track & Field's Mountain Ultra Trail Council, based on athletes' performances at a series of ultramarathons.
Last year, Yanachek pitched a return to the national-championship selection process, proposing Madison as the host. The council approved his application in December. "My competition for this bid was nobody," he says.
Securing the event was the easy part. When he went knocking on doors in search of sponsors for the event, he confronted a struggle.
"I didn't know it would be this hard," says Yanachek, 59. "Raising money has been really hard." Copps Food Centers, M&I Bank, BodyMechanic Fitness, Zoned 4 Fitness, The Wisconsin Cheeseman, Nicolet Water, Fleet Feet Sports, The North Face and a handful of other sponsors stepped up to support the event, Yanachek says, but his overtures toward other prospects met with unfavorable results.
As a consequence, he says, he expects to lose money on this year's inaugural event. He has scraped together a tight $30,000 budget to cover prize money, food, T-shirts and other expenses. Saturday's event will not be a lavish affair. But "this is my dream," he explains. "We do this this year and lose money. Next year, it gets a little bigger and better in 2008. And in 2009, I'd love to have the World Cup here."
That would be a coup, with the potential to draw ultramarathoners and fans from Europe and Asia to Madison in the midst of the UW-Madison Arboretum's 75th year, at a time when the International Association of Ultra Runners is gearing up to petition the International Olympic Committee to approve the 100-kilometer run to the 2012 Olympics as a demonstration sport.
By comparison, he says, volunteer recruitment proved "easy," with a corps of about 80 volunteers on board to facilitate the race. Yanachek notes that former UW-Madison and U.S. Olympic track standout Suzy Favor Hamilton is on board as the official starter.
Yanachek says spectators at Saturday's race will see "the epitome of old-fashioned amateur athletics," noting that ultramarathoners "do it because they love it." They pretty much have to. There's not much money in ultra-marathoning. The top six male and female USA Track & Field members will divide a purse of less than $10,000, with $2,000 each going to the first man and woman, $1,200 to the second, $750 to the third and so on, descending to $125 each for the sixth-place male and female finisher.
The number of participants in the inaugural Mad City 100 will be a fraction of short races like the 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.
By a little more than one week before the Mad City 100K, some 60 individuals -- about one-third of them women -- had registered to run the entire distance solo. And 25 teams of three to 10 runners each have signed up to run the event as a relay.
Among some of the names for teams entered in Saturday's race: Arboretum Orbiters, Weakened Warriors, Team CryBaby, Left Turn Only and the Vilas Voyagers.
The course will close at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, as the sun sets, giving runners exactly 13 hours to finish the inaugural Mad City 100K.