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Celebrating Earth Day with a fun 50K race

Smile every mile especially when you see the photographer.

By Henry Howard


It wasn’t until after I ran the Earth Day 50K on April 20 in Crystal Lake, Ill., that I realized I hadn’t raced that distance since the fall of 2020, and that was technically a 45K.


That struck me as odd since I believe my sweet spot as a runner is the marathon and 50K distance. In the 3 ½ years between 50K-ish races, I did longer races, including several 100s. So what drew me back to the 50K other than how the distance aligns with my fitness well?


First off, celebrating Earth Day is definitely something I can support.

The handmade finisher's medal and age group awards make the Earth Day 50K special.

Knowing that the Earth Day 50K, put on by Ornery Mule Racing (OMR), was just a three-hour drive from where I live was appropriate in terms of impact on the environment. I also loved the fact that I could promote the message of Earth Day tied to the race.

In fact, race director Michele Hartwig and her OMR team do a fantastic job of incorporating an Earth Day theme into the race, which also has received the Trail Sisters Stamp of Approval. Among the connections:


• At packet pickup runners receive their bib, T-shirt and their choice of a packet of flower seeds. I chose a mixed colors packet of Bachelor Buttons.


• The race is striving to be "landfill free" so runners encouraged to bring their own water bottles.

• Gnarly Nutrition is among the sponsors (visit Gnarly and check out their NSF sport certified collection for before, during or after your workout or race). Gnarly itself is making inroads toward sustainability, as new CEO Shannon O’Grady outlined in this recent interview.


• Once runners finish their race, they choose a handmade medal, many of which were designed by children. I picked a colorful one created by “Holly,” who signed the back of it.

About the Earth Day 50K


Now in its 12th year, the Earth Day race features three distances at Veteran Acres and Sternes Woods in Crystal Lake. The course is a 5.2-mileish loop, with races ranging from a 5-miler to a 15-miler to the 50k. There is one major aid station at the start-finish area. There is also ample room for runners to set up their own aid stations, as I did.

The race is six loops of about 5.2 miles for the 50K.

Over the 5-plus miles, runners will encounter winding single track, rolling (and more rolling) hills, soon-to-be blooming spring flowers, open prairie and pine forest.


And rocks and roots.


I fell twice during the race, both times tripping over a small root or rock. It’s never the large ones that you see. It’s always the small ones that send runners doing cartwheels.


Around mile 7, I was starting to get into a rhythm as the field spread out. And that’s when I went flying, landing hard on my right hip. It took me a few minutes to get back into a running flow, and I maintained a very consistent pace for the rest of that loop, as well as the next two loops plus.


Then, around mile 23, I was navigating a very rocky and rooty downhill section for the fifth time. A rock, which clearly was exerting its landowner rights, tripped me up. This time, my left hand found one of the rock’s jaggedy buddies and my right shin turned into a sled going downhill.


Bloody but not broken


Once again, it took me a few minutes to return into a decent running pattern. What really helped was my decision to reframe the tumble with a new mantra — “Bloody but not broken” — and where it like a bloody badge of honor.


See the race photographer? Smile and wave that bloody paw in her direction? Onlookers cheering me on? Wave that hand and smile back proudly.


Bloody but not broken became my mantra.

That mindset helped me push onward to finish the fifth loop and clean up my hand before venturing out one more time.


After a minute or so at my personal aid station cleaning off the dirt from my bloody hand, I headed back out again. I saw two runners who had also recently started out on a new loop. Not knowing which loop they were on, I made it an incremental goal to catch them — and to not be caught during my final trek through the park.


I knew I had a good amount of energy left, thanks to stating out easy and adhering to my nutrition strategy for around 80 carbs per hour. About a mile into the final loop, I picked off the two runners ahead of me. And was not caught from behind.


As I approached the finish line, I pushed the pace and finished strong. It was a solid effort at the distance in both the physical challenge (3,222 feet of gain over the 31ish miles) and the mental side (overcoming the two failures to navigate rocks/roots).


I finished in 5:24:44, finishing 12th overall, 10th male and second in my age group — after being in 34th place after the initial loop.


A solid race, part of a building block to my big goal race for the first half of this year: the Kettle Moraine 100, which is June 7 in Wisconsin.


Onward and upward (and over the small rocks).






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