After 26 miles and 385 yards - the distance at which a marathoner would be crossing the finish line - ultramarathoner Ann Heaslett will have not yet reached the midpoint of Saturday's second annual Mad City 100K.
A staff psychiatrist at Mendota Mental Health Institute, Heaslett, 44, is one of the nation's most accomplished ultra-distance endurance athletes. When she steps to the starting line at 6:30 a.m. near the Vilas Park shelter, the two-time national ultra champion will be among the favorites to qualify for yet another national team. For the second consecutive year, the Mad City 100K will double as the U.S. championship for that distance.
Race director Tim Yanacheck - Heaslett's husband - has once again assembled a select field. The starters at Saturday's 62.1-mile run will include a few dozen solo runners and 15 relay teams who will endeavor to complete 10 spectator-friendly laps of the classic 10-kilometer loop around Lake Wingra.
But whatever the Mad City 100K field lacks in numbers is offset by the level of talent. Three of last year's top four men, led by defending champion Greg Crowther, return for this year's race and are joined by five-time U.S. 100K team member and 2005 world masters champion Mark Godale.
Fourth among women in the 2007 Mad City 100K, Heaslett this year will face challenges from Carolyn Smith and Connie Gardner, who finished third and fifth in last year's race.
Heaslett got her start as a distance runner in high school at Green Bay Southwest, and continued at UW-La Crosse. After attending medical school at UW-Madison and completing her residency in Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s, she returned to Madison for a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry. She ran her first marathon in 1996, in Chicago. Three years later, she finished her first ultramarathon. By 2000, she was winning.
As an ultra veteran, Heaslett respects the value of patience. At last year's inaugural Mad City 100K, she set a conservative pace for the first few laps. A number of women had gone out ahead at a faster pace. "I remember thinking, 'Ooh, there's a lot of women ahead of me,'" Heaslett says now. But with each successive lap, as the field of runners stretched out along the route, Heaslett began to reel some of those women back in as they faded and she pressed ahead in conditions that turned cold, overcast and windy.
At some point after the fifth or sixth lap around the course, Crowther passed her en route to his dominant victory. "I remember feeling like I was going slower and slower and slower," she remembers. The hills near the middle of the Arboretum along McCaffrey Drive felt bigger and steeper with each passing lap. "By then, I was running by myself, and I remember the relay people were really helpful" at helping to boost her morale.
There is more camaraderie in a multi-lap ultramarathon than in a point-to-point ultra, she notes. "Sometimes, in a point-to-point race, you'll go a long way without seeing anybody else," she explains. "For me, I think it's easier to do a lap course than a point-to-point, because you always know there's another aid station coming up soon."
Heaslett was "really happy with my place and time" at the 2007 Mad City 100K, but won't admit to any specific ambitions for a finishing time or place as she approaches this year's event. Weather conditions can be too much of a factor, she explains. But she does have two goals: "A, to finish, and B, to not get injured."
Since 2002, when she claimed a spot on the national 100K team that captured the bronze medal at the world championships in Belgium, Heaslett has been dogged by chronic injuries including high-hamstring tendinitis. The fact that she has persisted is indicative of the determination required to be an ultramarathoner.
To relieve the physical toll ultramarathoning can take on her body, she logs only 35 or 40 miles of running per week. But she also cross-trains with spinning classes, swimming, biking, Nordic skiing and other endurance workouts, and employs low-weight, high-rep resistance training and a rigorous stretching routine to improve both her strength and flexibility.
The regimen appears to work. In 2006, Heaslett finished the prestigious Ironman Hawaii 22nd among women in the 40-44 age group. Returning to Hawaii last November, she finished second among all women and 11th overall out of 27 finishers at the Ultraman World Championship - an endurance test amounting to more than double the Ironman distance. Her time for the event's double marathon - seven hours, 58 minutes - was the second-fastest women's time in the event's 25-year history.
Heaslett says she feels the aftereffects of such efforts for several days. Compared to a standard marathon, she says, "your legs are more dead. They're stiffer. Your legs get sore, and they get really sore two days later." She has also noted occasional soreness in her arms and upper back. Other ultra runners have reported puffiness in their hands, and swollen feet.
"A lot of times I feel kind of drained and tired," she adds. It can be difficult to explain this sensation to people who have not extended themselves to the degree ultramarathoners do, but it is the kind of fatigue she associates with a sense of contentment and well-being.
Her best approximation of what finishing an ultramarathon feels like involves five words. "You feel," she says, "you've accomplished something."
2008 Mad City 100K
Saturday, April 12, starting at 6:30 a.m. near the Vilas Park shelter.
2007 winning times and course records: 7 hours, 14 minutes, 31 seconds (men); 8:09:04 (women). More (including link to live race webcast) at www.madcity100k.com/home.php.