The great conundrum of endurance sport is the inverse relationship between a competition's degree of difficulty and its friendliness to spectators. In general, the greater the distance or more inhospitable the terrain over which the athletes race, the more sporadic the opportunities to watch and the more difficult it is to reach a variety of perspectives from which to observe.
The Mad City 100K stands as perhaps the greatest local exception to this rule. Starting from Vilas Park at 6:30 a.m. this Saturday, April 9, the 62.1-mile ultra-marathon sends runners off to complete 10 laps of the classic 10-kilomter loop around Lake Wingra by way of the Arboretum and the quiet residential streets flanking Nakoma Country Club, Wingra Park and Edgewood College.
A 50-kilometer run and relay the latter featuring teams of two to five runners trading laps around Lake Wingra are also part of the ultra-marathoning spectacle, starting at 8 a.m. But the fifth annual Mad City 100K is the centerpiece, doubling as USA Track & Field's national championship for that distance.
The nature of ultra-marathoning is remote, unfamiliar to all but the most devoted distance-running enthusiasts. Compared to sexier endurance tests like the standard marathon distance or the IronMan series of triathlons, there is little marketing muscle behind even ultra-marathoning's marquee events, like the100-mile Western States Endurance Run or the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, which climbs out of Death Valley to Mount Whitney.
Events like these burnish ultra-marathoning to an almost mythic gleam, rendering the sport all the more remote, lending it the appearance of unattainability yet fostering a cadre of ultra-marathoning devotees who train and race in obscurity, if not outright anonymity.
It is a small, decidedly self-selecting group. Last year's Mad City 100K saw 22 solo finishers, with 20 more finishing the 50K.
Historically, winning men's times for the Mad City 100K a distance equivalent to almost 2 ½ standard marathons have ranged between about six hours, 40 minutes to a bit more than seven hours, while the winning women have tended to clock within several minutes on either side of eight hours.
By comparison, recent winning times for the Madison Marathon have been in the neighborhood of two hours, 30 minutes for men and 3:08 for the top woman. To give you an idea of the caliber of ultra-marathoner the Mad City 100K attracts, the top men this Saturday can be expected to average only about 43 seconds more per mile than recent Madison Marathon men's winners, with Saturday's top women averaging only about 30 seconds more per mile than recent female Madison Marathon winners. And they'll sustain that pace for 36 miles beyond the standard marathon distance.
Among those vying for titles in this year's Mad City 100K: a former U.S. Ultramarathoner of the Year, a former winner of the aforementioned Badwater Ultramarathon, the winner of last year's Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee, a winner of Vermont's 200-mile McNaughton trail race, and the women's course record-holder for Washington, D.C.'s JFK 50-mile ultra-marathon.
The male and female winner of this year's Mad City 100K will take home $1,000 each from a total purse of $6,000.
Spectators can watch as the drama unfolds lap by lap. With a forecast calling for cloudy skies and high temperatures in the mid-60s, it might not be ideal picnic weather. But if watching all those ultra-marathoners makes you hungry, spectators can skip out for sustenance a few blocks away at one of the restaurants along Monroe Street, and still have time to get back to Vilas Park for the finish.