GEOFF BURNS & THE CHICAGO LAKEFRONT 50MILE/50KM.

Updated: Mar 13, 2019



I suppose the anniversary might have slipped my mind. After all, I'm very busy building parkrun South Africa. As I write this, I am sitting in a café in the Northern Cape Karoo desert, having just participated in the launch of the Vredendal parkrun.

I was reminded of the anniversary because of a wonderful piece about tomorrow’s race written by Geoff Burns, a world-class US ultra runner. His article popped up on my social media feed and, of course, I had to read it.

Tomorrow, ultra-marathoners from around the US will line up on the Chicago waterfront to race 50 miles or 50 km. The race is called the Lakefront 50/50 and I ran and won the same race 33 years ago. The name was slightly different - it was called the AMJA 50-miler in those days - and it also doubled up as the US 50-mile championships. Oh, and the mad (US English translation “crazy”) ultra runners then didn’t bother with a 50-km race. If you felt like the extra distance, they tacked a 100 km onto the progamme.

I have an Ultrarunning magazine photograph of a very young Fordyce belting along the edge of Lake Michigan on that humid morning, dodging puddles, chasing my shadow and racing the clock. The shadow I was chasing was the time I had posted in the previous year’s London to Brighton. In that 54-mile race, I was recorded passing through 50 miles in 4:50;21. But the Brighton was a hilly course (South Downs should read South Ups) and I rashly believed that, on the flat Chicago course, I could bring that time down to around 4:45. The significance was that this time was a world best for the distance. (In road racing, we should talk about world bests not world records.) The London to Brighton was a point-to-point race, whereas Chicago is a much more acceptable loop course, run over several laps).

I will not try to precis Geoff’s article. However, I would like to make a couple of observations.

The 'elephant in the room' that Geoff discusses is that before US runners try to break my 4:50 record, they first need to break 5 hours. He hints at how to achieve this in the article, but I would like to state it clearly: they need to get faster over the shorter distances before that time will become possible. It’s very simple to suggest, but perhaps not so simple to do.

Speed will always overcome endurance at events of 100 km and less. Runners take their speed - or lack of it - with them when they race distances like 50 miles. The great Barney Klecker was just a shade over a minute slower than I over 50 miles. He boasts a 2:15 standard marathon p.b. My standard time is slower than his at 2:17, but I suspect that it is quicker than most of those running tomorrow.

When I ran 50 miles in Chicago in October 1984, I had pbs of 14:26 for 5,000 metres and 29:53 for 10 km. I also had the strength to have won two 'up' Comrades marathons. While none of these perfomances would frighten runners in Nairobi or Addis Ababa, they gave me the confidence that morning to chase my Brighton shadow and race the relentless clock.

And therein lies a tale. In October 1984 I started very quickly - too quickly - and ran my first 5 miles in a shade over 27 minutes. My first 10 miles was run in about 55 minutes. Later, I paid the price for that fast start and was unable to break an hour for the last 10 miles.

Those last 10 miles were interminable. No longer dodging the puddles, I splashed through the water and fought, in vain, as my 1983 Brighton shadow slipped quietly ahead. I finished exhausted, about 30 seconds on the wrong side of the relentlessly ticking clock. But I still ran the fastest time for a loop, out-and-back course and I was still almost 10 minutes under 5 hours for 50 miles.

The key to breaking 5 hours for the distance still remains the same. Concentrate on bringing your marathon time below 2 hours 20 minutes and your 10 km as close to 30 minutes as possible. The results you wish for should follow.

The hot (37° C), dry Karoo scrub and endless ice-blue sky is in stark contrast to the skyscraper hustle and bustle of America’s throbbing city of Chicago. But Geoff is running tomorrow and I will be thinking of him and the other runners with a lump in my throat, remembering that special race and the superb hospitality of the Chicago running community. Right now, I wish I wasn't a long-distance spectator in the deserts of the Northern Cape, South Africa, trying to discover what is happening on the Lakeshore. And I hope to visit the race next year.

Oh, and to those running along the Chicago Lakeshore tomorrow, start conservatively and you will have a happy run... no matter what your time!


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