My heart wasn’t in this from the start. I signed up for the Superior Trail 100 Mile race in March because I thought I needed to commit to something this year. The only other race I’d planned to do was the Grand Blue Mile associated with the Drake Relays.
So I’d committed to a 1-mile race and a 100-mile race for 2014. So much for finding a middle ground.
For a couple of weeks leading up to the race I fixated on shoe problems. I bought new ones (a new brand too – Inov-8) from a new local store because they are located near my wife’s business. I was generally happy with the shoes with two exceptions: they were too big (the insole kept sliding up my heel) and I didn’t think they’d have enough cushion for 100 miles. But I kept them. I then bought a different pair of New Balance from my old standard running store. But these offered too much spring and cushion. I returned them and landed back on a new pair NB RC1400. The same shoes I’d been beating up for 6 months – just a different color.
Of course the shoes didn’t matter in the end.
I was lucky to have my parents for a support crew this year. And I truly thought that going into the weekend and coming out of the weekend. As an adult with children, you rarely get to spend time with your parents alone. So I was excited to spend the weekend with them. Especially on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
They were nice enough to spend frequent flyer miles and $11.50 to fly me from Des Moines to St. Paul. I coordinated all the lodging and remaining logistics. I booked Thursday night outside of Two Harbors at the Grand Superior Lodge (2 miles from the race start). And I booked Friday and Saturday at Lutsen Resort – only one of those nights I’d be staying there.
We drove up to Duluth on Thursday and made sure to stop by Tobies to get race fuel – donuts. We bought every peanut long john in the store (along with quite a few other donuts).
We ate in Duluth and walked along the shore. We left Duluth and arrived past Two Harbors around 3:30 P.M. Time to try to relax.
The time leading up to a race is always stressful and nerve wracking. At this point, I’m not sure being with my parents helped me. When you aren’t fully present in a relationship it can be hard to feel relaxed. Time to explore the water a bit and have a beer.
My mom and I grabbed a beer in the bar. Our server, a transplant from Corpus Christi, Texas, was gregarious as she shared stories of how she doesn’t like the ice of northern Minnesota but is ok with the snow and the cold. She seemed like she wanted to engage so we talked to her quite a bit.
After the beer, I started to feel much better. We then drove to the race registration to pick up my number and check in. I left my 3 drop bags with my number. This time making sure I had a bag with extra clothes in it for mile 85 where I got rained on last time. I also correctly labeled my bag with my light in it so I wouldn’t forget again. Of course the mistakes you made yesterday are not the mistakes you’ll make tomorrow.
There’s a mandatory meeting as part of the registration. But I went to that meeting two years ago and hated it. I decided mandatory didn’t apply to me. We left for the hotel and had dinner. Sleeping in bed by 10 P.M.
I woke around 5:30 AM. The race started at 8 A.M. so it was a leisurely morning by my standards. I warmed my Dunn Bros. coffee in the hotel microwave. The microwave was so underpowered it took 5 minutes to get the coffee hot. Drank coffee. Ate donuts. Went to the bathroom. Took a shower (when you are about to stay up for 41 hours – a shower before the race is valuable). Got my stuff on and we were out the door by 7:30 A.M.
I checked in again at the race start. Drank more coffee. And before I knew it we were off.
The start of the race was crowded. More so than I remember. And the trail was very wet in many places. This was just the beginning of lots of ground wetness I would experience during this race.
Before I knew it we arrived at the Split Rock aid station. Boy was it crowded. Like road-marathon crowded. I wanted to just get in and out quickly. I run ultras to avoid the crowd. I drank my requisite single Coke and two glasses of water and was back out there on the trail.
It was rather warm that morning. Sunny and 60s. I lost a lot of water through sweat. I’m a minimalist, so I only carry an 8-oz hand bottle of water. I fill it at streams along the trail. But sometimes I run out before the next stream. I probably lost too much fluid that morning.
Wearing Down Already
I was strong into Silver Bay (mile 24.9) when I met my parents and my cousin, Andy. My cousin had agreed to join me for the overnight portion from Crosby Manitou to Cramer Road. He was excited but nervous about what he’d gotten himself into. I was hot at that point and actually took the shirt off my cousin’s back. My long sleeve shirt was too warm for the day and I didn’t have other options. I was mostly on plan at this point coming into Silver Bay in the early afternoon. I ate a little and drank my required fluids. And took some Swedish Fish – my candy of choice this race.
And I remembered my light when leaving Silver Bay.
My family met me again Tettegouche (mile 34.8). But at this point I was spent. I was actually considering dropping out. I had run out of water in the last 2 miles before Tettegouche. As a consequence, I got a cramp in my hamstring right before “The Drainpipe” – a 150-foot technical descent which has to be done with hands and feet. Needless to say, heading down that thing with a cramped hamstring sucked.
I came into Tettegouche and couldn’t hold a conversation. Usually I love aid stations and chatting with people. But I was dehydrated and close to dropping out. My mom said I needed to eat more. She was right, but eating too much doesn’t always help. I had lots of water. I ate some potato chips and a slice of a vegetable quesadilla that I wish I hadn’t had.
I knew I couldn’t drop. I had committed to my cousin that he would help me. My decision to rope him in to the night committed me to him probably more than he was to me. I’d hate to drop and have him miss out on the crazy opportunity to run in the middle of the north woods at night.
I run ultras for myself. I hate to involve others. I don’t want to burden anyone with my crazy endeavor. But I often forget that other people enjoy getting involved in crazy things. It took me a while to come to that realization.
Coming Out of It
It took me about 25 minutes of slogging out of Tettegouche before I felt like I was present again. This game is about showing up, being present, and keeping going. You have to focus your mind on keeping going or distract it with other things. If you let poisonous thoughts in, they slow you down and eventually cause you to stop. I was happy to feel normal again. I returned to signing “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift. Which seemed to be my anthem for this race.
I was really solid coming into County Road 6 (mile 43.4) and ate 6 grilled cheeses when I arrived. That might have been 5 too many. I was close to on time based on my desired 32 hour schedule.
I met my parents again at Finland (mile 51.1). I was running about an hour behind my optimum pace (which was 18 minute average miles). But I was doing ok with my backup plan. I had chicken noodle soup, some curried rice, potato chips and, of course, more swedish fish.
I was excited to get to Sonju Lake Road – my favorite aid station. Most aid station’s are crowded affairs. Every runner has a crew of 3-4 people showing up at aid stations. Plus the volunteers helping out. All of this can make for aid stations that are a bit load and chaotic. Don’t get me wrong, I love the people at the aid stations. And I love all the aid stations. But at some point you want a calm break in the woods. That’s Sonju Lake Road. It’s an oasis of calm. There’s no crew access, no drop bags, no visitors. Just a set of colorful twinkle lights, a campfire and volunteers serving food. If wasn’t set to meet my cousin Crosby-Manitou I’d have stayed the night at Sonju Lake Road. But I was behind schedule and it was 7.5 dark miles to get to Crosby-Manitou.
That 7.5 miles took a long time.
I arrived at Crosby-Manitou around 2:15 A.M. That’s about 2 hours slower than my goal but still on pace for my backup goal. There I met my very nervous but excited cousin. Last time around I ran with my dad and worried that I’d kill him by pushing too hard in the middle of the night. I had no such worry with my cousin. He’s a top-notch soccer player in great shape. He could probably run me into the ground, albeit not at the distances we were planning. I ate some pizza but realized that heartburn had settled in. I had overate earlier and now was dealing with the consequences. Nobody told me you could get heartburn running an ultramarathon. It was hard to get food down even though I was hungry.
Luckily I had a partner and perfect weather (around 50F). We left Crosby-Manitou around 2:50 A.M. heading to Sugarloaf which was a long way off.
The route out of Crosby-Manitou is some of the least runnable terrain even in the daylight. First you drop about 300 vertical feet to the Caribou River. Then you have to climb that back out to the ridges that arrive at Sugarloaf Road. In the dark we were only able to maintain a quick hike pace. I’m sure my cousin wanted to run faster. The good news about heading out from Crosby-Manitou at close to 3 A.M. is that we were only about 2 hours away from morning twilight. And the last couple miles heading into Sugarloaf are really smooth. We picked up the pace and passed a guy from Fargo who was an experienced ultra-runner but said the trails were killing his feet. He wasn’t used to all the ups and downs and rocks and roots. I can imagine he’s used to very flat land. We had a good pace and made it to Sugarloaf by 6:30 A.M. That probably was an hour faster than my last time through that section.
My cousin Andy was super hungry at Sugarloaf. He grabbed some food. And then some more food. And finally grabbed an extra handful for the trail. We had about 5 1/2 miles to get to the next aid station – Andy’s stopping point.
We arrived there to the best breakfast on the trail. Scrambled eggs and sausage, biscuits and gravy (of which Andy had two servings), coffee, and bacon. I saw the race director, Jon Storkamp, eating his breakfast. I thanked him for coming to cheer me on. He said he only came for the breakfast (and the marathon started there about 30 minutes earlier).
Unfortunately, I could barely swallow anything due to my heartburn.
The connection between your stomach and your head is complex. Often when your stomach is not working your thinking isn’t very clear. And when you have too much stress you often get a stomachache. Your head is the most important part of running 100 miles. If you don’t have your head in it you won’t finish. And the heartburn was troubling my stomach and ultimately taking my head out of the race.
Remembering a Near Miss
I had lost it all heading into Temperance during the 2012 race. The rain came. I was cold. Luckily I got help from a stranger and finished. So I was nervous about the next section heading into Temperance. But like I wrote earlier, yesterday’s problems aren’t today’s problems. So I was confident that I wouldn’t encounter rain or cold or a desire to quit in the next section.
I came in solidly to Temperance and saw my parents again. The only thing that looked good to eat was the watermelon – which was covered in wasps. But it was at least something I could get down my throat.
There was one guy there who seemed to be in a comatose state. I had seen him at other aid stations. Every time I saw him he seemed either sleeping or passed out. He’s one of those people you see and worry about. I thought, does he need medical attention?
I saw Lisa who I’d run with a little during the 2012 100 miler. She said to me, “Get out there! Quit being so lazy hanging around the aid station.”
So I was off.
The next couple of miles are so unbelievably easy that I’m still mad that I walked almost all of them. I basically strolled up and down the banks of the Temperance River for about an hour when I should’ve been running.
I was passed by the guy I thought was in a coma. I tried to run with him for bit. I said to him, “You revived yourself nicely!”
He said, “I’ve found that if I don’t take the requisite time to rest and revive at the aid stations I can’t keep going.”
I realized his approach may be smarter than mine. I was trying to move quick out of the aid stations but ultimately moved very slowly for the first 20-30 minutes on the trail. Perhaps he had the right idea to truly rest at each aid station.
The best part of the next section was climbing Carlton Peak. Doing some rockfall scrambling at mile 88 is really quite a nice change. You climb about 600 vertical feet in about 1/2 a mile. After I made it to the top of the peak I felt solid again and started to pick up the pace. At this point I was looking forward to finishing but I knew I had two legs left. Mentally I only had space for one.
I came into Sawbill hungry but still unable to really consume food. I had a few small snacks. My usual one glass of Coke and two glasses of water. And I wasn’t looking forward to the next section since I knew I had one more afterward. But I had a welcome surprise. My mom was going to run with me. She’s 64 and agreed to run 5.7 miles of trail to help get me to the last aid station. It was a gift. And it was wonderful time spent together in the woods together.
She got to experience my hallucinations first hand. I had been craving real music all race long. At some point we crossed a small creek and I looked down and said, “Look, someone dropped their transistor radio.”
She didn’t see it.
I bent down to see the radio only to realize it was a rock with oddly shaped shadows on it.
I’m glad my mom already knows I’m crazy otherwise she would’ve been worried.
As we were close to the next aid station we met up with a guy who was limping. He shared that he had sprained his ankle but had to keep going. He said he kept repeating to himself, “I don’t have feet. I don’t have legs.” But he was full of spunk. He said he’d been going slow because of the ankle and as such had tons of energy and heart left. I told him I’d trade my legs for his energy.
My mom and I made it through the muddy section of trail and arrived at the last aid station. Boy did I feel elated.
Once you make it to the last aid station there’s really nothing to stop you. I could break both legs as you leave for the last section and that wouldn’t stop me from crawling to the finish. I had covered the last section so many times that I had much of it memorized. Even the horrible “stairway to heaven” at mile 97 – where you’re climbing to back side of Moose Mountain.
I was almost in tears as I left the Oberg Mountain aid station. I knew I’d finish. Again.
Nonetheless, I was still slow through a lot of this. I got it in my head that my legs hurt a lot and that I couldn’t handle the downhill slopes very well. So I moved very carefully through any downgrade. I was finally passed by the guy with the sprained ankle and he was moving quick. I asked him how he was doing. He said, “Everything hurts. But everything is supposed to hurt. So go hard.”
That sprung me up from my own poor thinking. I reminded myself the same thing. It’s supposed to hurt going down hills. Embrace it. Stop being a wimp about the pain. I picked up the pace and was running nicely again.
I ran into the guy from Fargo. We ran together for a bit along with some other guys. The other guys mentioned the stretch of gravel road before the finish. The guy from Fargo seemed more interested in the flat, gravel road than the finish.
His eyes lit up, “Really? There’s a flat road to the finish?”
I was set on not going longer than the 35-hour mark. I knew I was close to 35 hours and thought I could make it in sub-35. My last cue was to listen for the roar of the Poplar River. There’s a giant set of falls you cross with about 3/4 of a mile to go. Once you hear the falls it get’s exciting. You know the finish is near. When I heard them I picked up the pace and passed the group I was with. I came out of the woods to the road and gave a really loud “Whoop!” I picked up the pace knowing that I was close. The flat road hurt but I ran hard the last 1/4 mile.
And I was completely addicted this time. I know for sure I’ll go back, which I didn’t know last time around.
Next time (of course there’ll be a next time), I’ll put together a better aid station management plan. What to eat at each aid station. How long to hang out. Etc. I build an elaborate running plan and visualize that plan over and over. But I mostly come into the aid stations laid back. I eat whatever looks good. I eat too much sometimes. I eat too little at other times. That has to change.
I never think I’m capable of anything in life. I started running and running far to demonstrate to myself that I alone am capable. I run and train alone to keep reminding myself that truth.
This race I had to learn that I might need a little help. I got help from my cousin. I got help from my mom. I got help from both my parents. Asking and receiving help is hard for me do. Part of not feeling capable is not feeling worthy. When you don’t feel worthy it’s hard to ask for help.
But you can always run.