Contributed by Stuart Hughes, AURA Member

Tunnel Hill 100 Mile Run (Illinois, USA)
November 9, 2019

“Oh, so you did it for bragging rights?” said the chirpy hotel receptionist upon hearing I’d come all the way from Australia to do a race for no cash prize.

He had seen straight through me.

Yep, I had my 100 miler ‘Why?’ – ‘This’ll look good on Facebook if I get anywhere near my target, so just keep running, and no one will remember how flat it was in six months’ time’.

I had found a 100 mile trail ultra where I could still be tucked in bed by midnight.

But dialling it back a bit, in 2017 Camile Herron smashed the Tarawera 100km in February, which I ran, and then in November smashed the 100 mile world record at the USATF certified Tunnel Hill 100 in Vienna, southern Illinois running 12:42 on a former rail trail.

That sounds like a PB course, I thought. Seemingly I am the only Australian or New Zealander to have had this thought so far. It must be because I don’t hear the mountains calling. I flirted with the idea of doing it in 2018 but it sold out. Just as well, as I had a year to train for it with a mission of flatter, longer and faster along the way grabbing 100km and 24hr PBs, with a 100 mile spilt of 16:51 in the 24 hour which I now hoped to beat.

I entered, booked flights, and drew it to the attention of my American-based running buddy Mandy Hufstader, who entered the 50 miler. I told Amelia Griffith (fellow AURA member) about it on one of several Sunday long runs we did (she didn’t believe the Tunnel Hill course records, at first).

I told Rohan Day (would it be a qualifier?).

Otherwise it was a secret mission, only Katherine Macmillan guessed outright what longer, flatter and faster in November meant. I can’t remember whether I denied it, or swore her to secrecy. Probably both.

I spent most of the year running enjoyable 100km weeks with an ‘easy running will get me there’ mantra, but in September, egged on by Rohan, I hit the panic button and joined Sean William’s Melbourne Pack to work on the ‘faster’ bit, with two sessions at Edithvale a week, backed up by a program from Sean that had me doing some long flat runs at specific paces, with lots of time on some of Victoria’s former rail trails.

Sean’s aim was to get me in a rhythm, and it all worked, picking up consecutive parkrun PBs the weekends before travelling to Chicago and meeting Mandy and driving south.

We stayed in a converted barn on a farm and went for a run in the frosty back blocks. Mandy put me in a hi-vis vest so I wouldn’t be shot by deer hunters.

We went to scope out the start/finish and course. Laz was there helping set up, Mandy bowled up to chat to him, we tried to help him unload his van, and we put in a good word for Aussies silly enough to want to do the Barkley Marathon.

At rego we got to hear Camile Herron give an awesome talk, two weeks out from breaking her own 24hr world record. I purchased all the merchandise, and we had a pasta dinner in the local school hall, and turned in early.

Aside from the regular hypochondria, my main worry was how I’d cope in the un-Australian cold, so I had three drop bags each with arm sleeves, fleeces, gloves, and thermals. But thanks to Brett Smith telling me about the optimal temperature for running, I took a chance and started in -5 with a singlet, shorts, a buff, arm sleeves and gloves. I dumped my jacket with Mandy 60 seconds before the start, and took off with a 4:57 first km, before settling into a rhythm as the day warmed up that got me 100km in 9:22, just before dark, at which point I put a fleece on.

The course was flat, and straight. Run south, turn and run north, then turn and run south, then turn back north, turn, and run south to the finish.

Frog Hollow parkrun has more cornering. I was able to see and say good morning to the entire 100 mile and 50 mile fields of several 100 runners, including Mandy three times, and Darrell Duke who we’d met at rego wearing a t-shirt saying ‘No one cares you run ultras’.

Some of the aid stations I could see 7km or 8km out on the straights. I cussed only once, when I put my foot on the only small stone I saw underfoot all day. I got to run through the Tunnel Hill tunnel built in 1929 four times. At one point Camile – the reason I was there – ran past on her afternoon run saying I was doing great. Eeeek!

The aim had been to run 10km an hour as long as possible, and get as close as possible to 16 hours. At 100km I had 38 minutes up my sleeve to spread over the next 61km, and I was hoping for sub-16, but of course the pace slowed and there were too many 7-minute kms after dark.

I managed to hold on and picked it up on the final push heading south, crossing the line to receive a buckle, a towel, a railway tie with my place on it, and a finisher’s jacket. Mandy, who’d just smashed out her first 50 miler sat me down, got all my drop bags, and got me to the car and back to the barn. I was completely lucid and compos mentis, and moving freely; no doubt she will tell it otherwise, but she’s a champion anyway. Thanks to her support and wisdom, and that of all my other running buddies, and Coach Sean, and Kylie, Harriet and William, I’d finished in 16:09:02.

Near enough, and good enough for 8th. I’d been hoping for top 10 based on previous year’s results. Ha ha, 8th in the world’s fastest 100 miler, or 8th in the world’s easiest 100 miler, just depends on how you look at these things!

Pictured (feature): Stuart Hughes welcomed to Illinois ahead of his race. Photograph – Supplied. 

Pictured (1): Stuart Hughes’ friend Mandy Hufstader with Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell. Photograph – Supplied. 

Pictured (2): Stuart Hughes with Camille Herron and friend Mandy Hufstader. Photograph – Supplied.