It seemed like the right decision at the time.
I spent 3 hours talking myself into it. Changing my mind would be hard.
I was at mile 50 or so. The Finland aid station. Always a lively place since it had plenty of parking for support crews and plenty of lighting from a community center located there. Most of the aid stations at night were so dark you could hardly make out faces.
I went to the food table and asked for the aid station captain. You were instructed to find the aid station captain if you were going to drop out of the race. He was tall and skinny wearing a flannel shirt and sporting a beard. I’m guessing he’s done the race before. He had us walk away from the crowded food table to talk.
“I’m going to drop out,” I said.
He verified, “Are you sure?”
“Yup. I’ve done this race twice before and I don’t have it in me this time.”
He checked with me again.
We walked over to the ham radio operators and they radioed my number, 68, back to the race communiation HQ. Then the aid station captain pulled the tracking tag off my number. He gently shook my hand. I didn’t feel like I deserved that.
I walked back to my family to head to the hotel.
That was the question from a good friend on twitter to me the next day.
@namedpipe what happened?
— Dan Buettner (@Capncavedan) September 10, 2016
I wish I knew. I’m not one for examining the past. I don’t like to assess mistakes in detail because there often isn’t much you can do about it now. I know it’s important to learn lessons for the next time. But figuring out the specific faults for this race wouldn’t benefit me much. Each race is different. I’d probably end up in a cycle of self-hate over decisions I’d made.
- Not having enough water.
- Not eating enough.
- Moving too fast at the start.
- Eating too late the night before the race.
Truth is the race has an average finish rate of about 55-60%. I had finished twice before. Dropping out this time keeps my finish rate at 66%. Not far from the race average. Regression to the mean.
I decided back in April to do the Superior 100 again. Largely because I needed some large goal for the fall (my job had gotten mundane). Also, the lottery system hadn’t filled the race. Slots were open.
I put together a nice weekend with my parents and my family to spend in our favorite place – Lutsen, MN. It would just involve me running 100 miles (really 103.3).
I completed training in late July with a weekend of back-to-back 20-ish mile runs. That gave me the psychological confidence to complete the 100.
In August I put together my race plan. I used some previous plans I had and adapted times. I added in extra time for aid stations (which I had left out in the past). I was looking to average a little over 18 minute miles over the entire race completing it in little over 30 hours. That was a bit aggressive. But I was hell bent on finishing in the afternoon on Saturday so I’d have more time with my family. I really needed a vacation just as much as I needed to run.
In late August, the race website published the last 2 years of split data. (I had sent an email to ultralive.net about 2 weeks earlier to try to get my 2014 data from them.) This extra data was perfect for me. I was able to examine where I lost time compared to my plan in 2014. That was great information to have heading into 2016.
On Wednesday of the race week, I drove to my parents house in St. Paul. On the way up I unfortunately answered a text and phone call from someone at work. That caused me to spend most of Wednesday working when I was technically on vacation.
My parents made a nice dinner of halibut. My sister and her family came over too. I had a wonderful evening of playing with her 3 y.o. twins, while trying to hold a conversation in between the play.
On Thursday morning my parents and I headed north. The usual stops were in order. Tobies in Hinckley. Lake Avenue Restaurant in Duluth. The Whole Food Co-op in Duluth. Then to the hotel outside of Two Harbors.
We settled in to the hotel. A nice time to let my mind wander and take in the space. My mom and I sat on the patio of the hotel watching Lake Superior. While we sat there a wedding rehearsal appeared around us. The couple was getting married on Friday (the next day) at 5 p.m. We enjoyed watching them rehearse the walk and positioning for 30 minutes. It seemed like the father of the bride was also officiating the wedding. A nice distraction.
Around 5:45 p.m. we headed to the Lake County Fairgrounds for the pre-race briefing. I made sure I had my drop bags in order as I needed to leave them there. I picked up my number – 68. Then I dropped bags for the following aid stations: Co. Rd. 6, Finland, and the Temperance River.
This year we decided to stay for the pre-race briefing. (I skipped it in 2014.)
John Storkamp, the race director, gave a nice run down of the race. Highlights included his warning about bee stings in the first 50 miles.
“If you are allergic to bees make sure you have your epi-pen ready. If you aren’t allergic to bees and but you’re scared of them, what are you doing here?? This is a 100 mile race, stupid. You can’t be scared of bees,” he deadpanned.
He also ran down the entrants based on the number of finishes. He said that if you’ve done the race more than 3 times then you have “the failing”. Meaning you can’t stay away from the race. Kind of like a chronic condition.
He hoped to have 100% finish rate this year. And got the group to agree to that compact. The race usually has about a 55-60% finish rate.
Finally, he recognized some long-time race supporters. One was Bonnie who measured the race course with a measuring wheel twice in the 90s — before GPS. Crazy!
We headed back to the hotel and ate what was a too late a dinner for me. I ate light. But it was still close to 8:30 when we finished.
Back in the room I found the hilarious show ‘Match Game’ which is hosted by Alec Baldwin right now. It was perfect for me. Madcap funny and almost out of control. It helped loosen me up so I could sleep.
We arrived at the start at around 7:20 a.m. The race started at 8 a.m.
After arriving I usually just try to distract myself. The amount of nervous energy is high. Pacing. Waiting in line for the bathroom. Anything to keep the mind occupied.
After another brief speech from the race director we were off. An un-exciting start.
The first 4.5 miles are now on the paved bike trail that lines the north shore of Lake Superior. This is actually not a bad start since it allows folks to spread out more. But it’s a bit exposed. Both to the sun and to people. It took me a while to find a semi-private spot to go pee in the woods.
I game into Split Rock about 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Both exciting and potentially too fast. I had to make sure I was closer to my split times. It’s nice to have some cushion. But too much speed would wear me out early.
I was mostly good through the first 25 miles.
Tired at Tettegouche
I came into Tettegouche pretty spent (this mirrors past races). I always forget how long that 9.9 mile stint is. I had been out of water for the past 3 miles before the aid station. On top of it, Tettegouche is super small and super crowded. I felt claustrophobic. I had to find a rock to sit down on and start drinking water. I think I drank 6 cups of water before I was able to function mentally. I made a joke to my mom, “How come you didn’t make matching t-shirts for us all?”
I had probably lost too much fluid already at this point. It had been in the 70s and quite sunny. Usually it’s in the 60s up on the North Shore.
It took me about 30 minutes after leaving Tettegouche to fully get my mind working. At this point I realized how Tettegouche doesn’t serve runners. It’s a small space and too many teams have their full crews show up there. It feels like the ratio of runners to non-runners is about 20 to 1. It makes it hard to relax and get your head straight.
Random lessons learned
The 8.6 miles heading into Co. Rd. 6 was quite nice at the beginning. This patch of trail was one where you could run. I was able get a nice rhythm going over the rolling trails. A little less roots and rocks than the normal SHT contains.
At some point I encountered some people in a crew after descending the Drainpipe. That gave me hope that I was close. But it turns out it was still much further to the Co. Rd. 6 aid station.
I also learned one critical lesson.
If you are violently vomiting, do it at low altitude.
I came across a runner who was terribly ill. He was throwing up. And not quickly. Lots of grunts and some dry heaves. I checked on him to see if he was ok. He said there’s no point in stopping. He just needs to make it to the next aid station. He’s right about that.
But he was up on the hillside doing his thing. As I descended back in to the woods, I could hear him for the next 30 minutes. Not a pleasant sound.
The last 2 miles into the aid station can be brutal. First off, you start a serious descent toward Co. Rd. 6. This means the end of running. Next, you can hear the cheering of the aid station from close to 2 miles away. At the descent pace that might take 40 minutes to get there. Finally it’s starting to get dark. When you are on a portion of the trail deep in the woods you can’t make out the rocks on the ground any more.
(As I write these details one week later, I find myself utterly confused about where the Drainpipe is in relation to Co. Rd. 6. So the order of the above progress could be jumbled.)
I finally made it all the way down after a nice, but brief, conversation with Kathy. She told me that the Superior 100 is tougher than the Leadville 100. She’d completed Leadville twice.
At this point my shoulders were beginning to hurt. That was odd. In addition, the apples that had been my sustenance were starting to come up with burps. My fear about getting heartburn again was large. I wasn’t eating enough. And the one thing I was eating was starting to cause problems.
Co. Rd. 6 aid station
I arrived at Co. Rd. 6. I was 1 hour 40 minutes behind schedule. Mind you I was quite ahead of schedule early in the race. I totally lost my pace during the last couple of miles to Co. Rd. 6.
I found my parents. And a place to sit down. I went about consuming a bunch of water. I also decided to start consuming more HEED to replenish other things lost through sweat. The chicken noodle soup looked good, so I went for a cup of it.
In my race plan this year I had put in time for aid stations. I found that in the past I lingered too long at aid stations. So I put some time limits on them. Mostly the times were helpful. You are better off moving along the trail than sitting at an aid station. The times rushed me a bit.
After consuming the soup (which tasted good) and lots of water I felt ok. But I was seriously considering giving it up at Co Rd. 6. It wasn’t even dark yet.
I had learned from previous races, that I like the night more than the next day. In fact, I’d been reading the poem “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte (sent to me by a colleague a couple of weeks back) repeatedly over the past week as inspiration for the night. This part of the poem resonated with me:
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
I was looking forward to the night time. A time to quiet the mind a little. Let the calm of the woods settle things.
“How’s the condo?” I inquired with my parents.
“Nice. Very nice,” my mom said back.
“How many drops have there been?” I said next.
That was mostly simple question of curiosity. But there was also meaning behind it.
In past races, I’d used the number of drops to help calculate my odds of finishing. Past data shows about 60% of the starters would finish. I would then find out the number of drops at each aid station. If the drop percentage hit greater than 35% then my chances of finishing would be reasonably good.
Also, while it may have been a joke, John Storkamp, the race director did mention he wanted 100% finish rate. I wasn’t going to be the first one to drop and break that pact.
I looked at my watch. I had been sitting there for 18 minutes. Much longer than I’d wanted to.
“Oh crap! I better get a move on. Nothing’s going to get better sitting here,” I mumbled to my parents.
I got up from my rock seat. I started walking to the trail. 7.7 miles to Finland. I knew my parents would be at Finland.
About 20 minutes into the next section I decided I was done. I was way behind schedule and really wanted more time to enjoy Lutsen over the weekend. I had booked an extra day through Monday so there’d be less pressure to leave. I’d booked a really nice condo at Lutsen Resort. It really was true that the vacation sounded good.
At this point I almost turned back to Co. Rd. 6.
But I decided that I had the time. I knew my parents would be at Finland. 51.1 miles is very respectable distance for a day.
I walked a lot of the next section. I had faster night-time hikers past me. Probably about 10 of them. But I kept steady with a guy and his pacer for much of the section. They seemed like they didn’t know each other. He asked her a lot about her family, how many siblings she had, etc. Seemed like an odd first date.
I spent so much of that section talking myself into dropping that it would be hard to talk me out of it. Nothing like spending 3 hours convincing yourself of the rightness of the choice you are about to make. I shoulda been more skeptical.
As I came into Finland, I was reasonably buoyed by the energy of the aid station. The entrance to the aid station is a bit confusing since you have to cross a ball field with fences around it. You have to navigate the openings in the dark and after 50 miles. Rocks and roots are easy to see with a headlamp. Chainlink fences less so.
I came to the last fence opening before the food and there was a woman and young girl directing people through the fence opening.
“This way and to the left. Then straight again,” they kept repeating.
As I approached them, I got close to their faces and said, “You know me!”
(It’s hard to recognize anyone when they have a 170-lumen light on their forehead blinding you as you look at them)
It was my mom and daughter, Nora.
Nora exclaimed, “Daddy!”
I moved past them to see my wife and son. I wasn’t expecting them until Saturday. But they high-tailed it north to arrive Friday night.
I got close to my wife and said quietly, “I’m going to drop here.”
She didn’t quite hear me.
I slowed down and pulled her nearer to me, “I’m going to drop. Please don’t tell anyone.”
Coming down from the mountain
We quietly drove down the mountain back towards Lake Superior to catch Hwy 61. Once we were rolling on Hwy. 61, I began to cry. I was happy to be heading to a bed at 12:30am. I wasn’t sure what I had done.
The rest of the weekend
There was quite storm that rolled into Lutsen around 3:30 a.m. I remember waking up to the thunder and lightening and thinking, “I’m glad I’m in my bed.” The truth is, I needed to know what that thunderstorm would feel like in the woods. But I avoided it.
The rest of the vacation was enjoyable. Or maybe it wasn’t.
I’m gifted at staying in the present moment. The confusing part of this gift is that when things are good, as they are when you are in a place you find spiritually fulfilling, you are happy. But when you aren’t in that place, you might not be happy. As long as we were exploring the shores of Lake Superior, I’d be happy.
@namedpipe And that’s what ultra running is about, finding out what you need. Kudos man!
— Rachel U. (@WhileWinter) September 10, 2016
Towards an understanding
What I didn’t realize was how much I’d regret the decision to drop out. I’ve always prided myself as someone who completes things. Almost to a fault. Dropping out removed that from my identity. It left a gap in who I understand myself to be. Navigating that gap over the past week has not been easy.
In fact, incredibly hard. Ending my life has definitely crossed my mind — daily. Paradoxically, I’ve also spent time trying to find another ultra to run this fall. That would provide me an element of success for the year. Anything to wipe away the pain of my failure.
My old friend Peter Wolf once said ‘the strangest thing you can do on stage is think about what you’re doing.” This is true. To observe oneself from afar while struggling to bring the moment to life is an unpleasant experience. I’ve had it more than once. It’s an existential problem. Unfortunately, right in my wheel house. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bad show. It may be a great one. It just means it might take time, something we don’t have much of tonight. When that happens, I do anything to break it. Tear up the set list, call an audible, make a mistake, anything to get “IN.” That’s what you get paid for, TO BE HERE NOW!
My perspective is clearing. I’ve also returned to daily running. My desire to finish early on Saturday prevented me from being wholly present in the race. I was so clearly focused on hitting the target time for each section that I forgot to enjoy it. Last time I wrote about this race I said this, “This game is about showing up, being present, and keeping going.”
I don’t like backwards looking analysis of events. The knowledge you have today is a strong filter. The facts of the past aren’t seen clearly through that filter. And what’s the point. You aren’t going to change what happened. When I examine the past, it usually leads to blame and guilt more than insight.
I studied to be a physicist. Any analysis of past events is only as good as its ability to predict the future. Science. Predicting what happens next time usually fails when it comes to human events. Just too many variables.
The dark fog is lifting. I know I’ll return to the race. But the wound is deep. I felt joy again this weekend on Saturday. That was nice. It didn’t erase the unease I have with myself. I’ll keep going.