Hike Date: February 16-17, 2019
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail, Duluth Traverse Mountain Bike Trail
Trip Plan: Simulate a supported thru-hike effort but solo, by operating out of my house. Hike and run 65 miles over two days at 4 miles per hour.
Day 1: Run 40 miles with several stops at home by utilizing local trail loops.
Day 2: Run around 12 miles out and 12 miles back on the SHT westward from home.
Running miles: 65 miles
I started this trip in my running gear plus my jacket, headphones in, plus a mug of coffee. I just started walking down the street. I knew I just had to start walking.
Rewind the last three months and my training plan for thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail has going half perfect and half totally falling apart. As it was written, every four weeks was supposed to be a “long trip” that is a thru-hike simulation, five in total. The first one was dead on. The second one was dead on. The third long trip was a bust. It was very icy. Very, very icy. I tried to take the SHT north from Jay Cooke State Park, way south on the trail, and it was impossibly icy and I pulled the plug when I was supposed to be loading up on pizza at my van. I just ate the pizza and drove off after racking 14 miles in 4 hours. The fourth long trip was just a complete bust. I just didn’t do it! Zero miles. Too hard, too cold, too snowy, I don’t know. It just didn’t materialize in the slightest bit and it kind of crushed me. I questioned the whole training program. Before this last long trip, I was two for four on arguably the most crucial component of this thru-hike training program.
Then again, the rest of my training plan was well above 50% execution rate. Other components were spot on with remarkable consistency. Daily runs were very consistent and so was strength work. Going into week 20 of 22 I felt so good that I questioned if I should have put on more miles. I mean, I was doing 55 miles per week or so, with plans to peak mileage volume at week 22. 55 miles is nothing extraordinary. Then again, sniffing 20 hours a week with strength, walking and running. My body and mind were stretched pretty far. I ultimately argue that the most crucial component of this whole plan is long runs, and I was 100% on those with a really nice progression. The only other shortcoming was with speed work, where I’d skipped most. Speed workouts seemed to set off my hamstrings and every week I was too nervous to proceed, opting for another easy jog. All in all, training to go fast on the Superior Hiking Trail and excel at ultramarathons was going very excellent. However, rounding off training season with a perfectly executed “long trip” and final two week peak would be a major boost of confidence and strength and power going into race season.
So that is what I was thinking about while walking around my neighborhood with a coffee in my hand, watch counting tenths of a mile until it gets to 40.0. Rewinding again from that moment, just 10 minutes, I was stirring oatmeal. I had food sprawled everywhere, gear crowding my back door, and the clock glared 7:31 in my eye. I was so anxious to go, knowing that I was going to relentlessly pursue running 40 miles in 10 hours. The anxiety was stemmed in the feeling that I was dawdling. So I left right then and there! I had a glimpse of a plan.
So as I walked, I hashed it out: I would finish this cup of coffee, circle back to the house, grab my oatmeal and pull the ole eat-and-walk, then just crank ass from there. BOOM. It took no time at all to empty my coffee cup and get back home to eat my oatmeal. I’d gotten cold so grabbed wind pants. I was listening to podcasts: Joe Rogan Podcast with 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang. I ate my oatmeal on the go but couldn’t fit my coffee in my other hand, so made another really quick loop to grab a coffee refill to wash it down. The dogs in their kennels looked at me like I was trying torture them. I apologized for not taking them along but said I would in, like, 6 hours. I made a long loop around UMD, my alma mater, while listening to a riveting conversation, drinking a coffee, bundled up and very comfortable. This is very relaxing, I thought! I was broken from my euphoric state as I noticed a text message from my friend and business partner Kris. She was asking about my run today. I responded in my head, “funny you should ask, I’m running literally all day today!” But actually called her right away in excitement, to get some conversation and a running buddy into my life.
Kris answered and I pleaded my case, how that I was out for a long training day and aiming for 15 minutes per mile pace but already down on my pace so wanted to run any distance and when to swing by her house. So I planned to bring my coffee mug back home and load up for a longer loop, and altered my trajectory accordingly.
When I stopped at home, I ditched the jacket and wind pants, switched from road to trail shoes, ate some quick snacks and grabbed a block of gummis. I said “hi” to the dogs but was ashamed to look them in the eyes. I slugged some water, grabbed my trekking poles and headed out back to Chester Park. I told her I’d be on the east side of the creek, and she was texting me questions as I headed out the door, so wasn’t too sure that I’d find her with ease. I found Kris and Skeeter both right below Skyline in Chester, with ease. I was about 9 miles in and 2.5 hours had gone by. That means I was about 1 mile down on my goal pace.
It was a major relief to get to share some miles with my great friends Skeeter and Kris. Right away, Skeeter kind of fell back and Kris shrugged it off, saying he’ll just catch right back up and that’s just the way he is. I made Kris lead because I wanted her to select the pace, and she begrudgingly did so. We made our way on a beautiful tour of Duluth, out of Chester Park back onto the UMD campus to Bagley Nature Area, right through to Hartley Park and we stopped at the Hartley Nature Center. I was able to swig a bit of water from the drinking fountain there. We got back going and got stuck in some deep untracked snow. Skeeter went above onto the road. Kris lost her traction device in the snowbank and it took a second to get back reformulated. Through the cemetery towards Vermillion Road we ran. This was a similar route to countless long runs I’d done over the years and Duluth is truly blessed to have a network of interconnecting trail systems throughout the entire city.
We made the outer end of the loop near Hawk Ridge and Skyline Boulevard, but turned onto the snowmobile trail to head back. I could tell Skeeter was getting gassed and both he and Kris were sweating profusely. I was lucky to be the perfect temperature. I had eaten all of my gummis, was not too thirsty, and I felt really pretty good. We were chugging along at a good clip, though, and I could tell it was a different effort than the leisurely coffee walk that morning. But UMD’s manicured concrete sidewalks and a mug in hand are not good representations of thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail. Snowmobile trails and mountain bike trails were. Once we crossed back Jean Duluth Road, Skeeter had seen enough snowmobile trail and said he was peeling off. Kris said she wanted to continue onto the trail and I did too, so on we went, aimed towards where we initially met up hours prior.
I my mind, I was formulating the second half of my trip. I announced the point in time that I hit 20 miles on the day. A minute later, I hit 5 hours on the day, which meant I was exactly half way through and right on pace. I dropped Kris off near her house and continued to Chester by making a bee line to the trail. That gave me enough time to plan out exactly what I’d do at home to be as time efficient as possible. A couple minutes later, I carried out those plans.
When I opened my back door, I first let the poor dogs out to roam. They thought they were going to do something cool, but only one was. I ate my prepared lunch of a plant-based wrap and lemon fizzy water, and it went down very easily. I also shoveled down a lot of dried fruit and a couple pieces of chocolate candy. I changed my socks as the dogs clamored back in from the yard. I’d already decided to take Chally first. By using food as bait, I coaxed the other two dogs into their cages. I switched out of my soaking shoes into my old backup trail shoes. I switched my gloves, ditched the balaclava and dashed out the door. Chally and I walked out of the alley and cruised a loop of Chester, which is about five miles. I figured that would take 1:15 if I did it perfectly. I did it perfectly, or a bit fast. Chally was a nice partner and spiced things up a bit. Meanwhile, it was becoming a beautiful, sunny and crisp winter afternoon.
In no time, I was back at home and made the dog switch. Tilly was next and I saved Diamond for last. For reference, Chally is Emily’s dog and we were babysitting Tilly for the week. Chal and Diamond get a lot of running training and that was not the case for Til Bil. She wanted to sniff all 200 dog pee marks in Chester. So we were out for a half loop and I was happy to pick up Diamond, a purebred runner. I planned to take Diamond on a full loop of Hartley, likely to round out the day. After Tilly’s loop, I loaded up my food for a longer effort, changed my socks once more, and put my other, slightly dryer trail shoes back on. The newer shoes felt like pillows and I was excited to finish this baby off with Diamond in tow. The timer read around 7:45 and I was just over 30 miles on the day. Therefore, I was more than a mile ahead of my goal pace, and I could take the last 10 mile loop pretty easy.
Once we got into Hartley Park, the sun seemed to be lower and my energy level dipped to match. My socks were soaking wet once again and I was really tired of that trench foot feeling. Diamond tugged me along and it was again nice to have a companion of any type to add a different element than just me versus the trail.
My form was becoming sloppy and I was kind of just slogging along in a very gritty fashion. Overall, though, the day was pretty simple. I was impressed with the controlled effort and eventless execution. From the bizarre coffee-toting start, to rolling miles with Kris and Skeeter and the dogs, time seemed to just flow by, the miles clicked off, and my body was taking the punishment like an inert object designed to take punishment. Of course I’d be draggin’ ass a little bit by 50+ kilometers, but feeling strong was a testament to my training. I was going to pull this out and continue on to set an FKT on the Superior Hiking Trail that would be untouchable. I was hyping myself up a bit, but just as quick as those thoughts popped in my mind, I’d be overwhelmed by fatigue and tell Diamond that I couldn’t. Couldn’t what? Couldn’t run, I guess. Gah. I felt the feeling of exasperation. I felt the feeling where hiking was so uncomfortable and labored but I could really hike forever, and the feeling where running is like floating but it kills ya.
Time seemed to slow a bit on the back end of Hartley and I started to wonder where I’d be on the day. I figured if I took the same lollipop loop home, through Bagley and Chester, I’d actually be way over 40 miles. As it turns out, I’d misjudged my mileage in Hartley. Darn. Oh well, at least 41 miles today would mean just 24 and an even six hours tomorrow. I decided to pop out at Kenwood Avenue and Diamond and I took some frustrating roads back to College Street. We popped into Chester from there and took the most direct route home. The downhill bomb was great because I knew the end was near. Therefore, my muscles numbed. By the time we hit the alley, I was over 41 miles. Inside, Emily was home and my stinky crap was sprawled out everywhere. I collapsed onto the floor with a huge grin on my face.
I left the door on Sunday a bit after 9am with full supplies for 6 hours in the woods. I also knew I needed to get about 23.5 miles in on the day to make it a planned 65 miles for my long trip goal to be completed. By sticking to exactly 15 minutes per mile, that distance would take a tad under 6 hours to do, and 9am was not quite the time I was hoping to leave by, but I was dawdling, dragging my feet, putzing, and more. I finally got out the door with headphones on.
I started off back into Chester, and it was another perfect day based on temperature and snow conditions. Chester and Hartley Parks, for the most part, were about as good winter trail running as you can get. Because I was working with a buffer seemingly most of the day yesterday, and started that day off coffee-walking in the alley, I figured I could ease into things and walk up and out of Chester. From there, the plan was to travel the Duluth Traverse to Enger Tower, link with the Superior Hiking Trail, and west to the West Duluth McDonalds and eat lunch. Then head back.
Just outside of Chester Park on the Duluth Traverse, it was deep, drifted snow at many various depths. I immediately backed out and went up the road to where the DT continued. The trail was decent right away and in some spots, but there were also plenty of drifted-over areas that were really deep in snow. Drifts became more frequent deeper into the woods between Rice Lake Road, and by the time I got through there to Central High School I was just over an hour, and just over 3.5 miles in, already a bit down on time.
I ran on Central Entrance to nearby apartments and kind of forgot where the Duluth Traverse met back up again. I thought it was on roads for a bit into the antennae farm but couldn’t remember. Roads weren’t bad and I was jogging a bit while I could. It was a nice jog on the gravel roads in the middle of Duluth, but I still wasn’t really in the best of moods. I became frustrated thinking about the long day and the long one just before. How was I going to do this today, plus the miles from yesterday, plus five more, all in one day, then have 6 hours in between runs instead of 15, THEN run 70 more miles the next day? The mechanics of my thru-hiking ideas were boggling. This long trip was supposed to replicate a supported thru-hike as much as possible. But how? Doing a 70 miler and another run back to back in training is either too hard to make time for, or counterproductive, or both. Or maybe neither but it’s too risky to find out.
I found the actual DT trail after several miles of being on the road and it was bad. There was barely any track at all, and I don’t think I was on any trail regardless. It was one person’s footprints through deep drifted snow. I waded and waded and climbed to see Enger Tower and looped around on some high exposed areas, still in deep snow. Finally, I saw a packed down trail right before Enger. The doubts continued. Negative thoughts entered my mind and I told myself that it was stupid, and too hard, and too long, and I’d done enough. Across Twin Ponds to Enger, I got caught in another stupid snowdrift and got no relief on the climb to the actual park area. There were criss-crossed footprints in deep snow everywhere. I followed one set to the great peace bell and gave it a big ring. There was absolutely no track going back down Enger but I was just trucking through and not even noticing or giving mind to the deep snow. Chester was groomed to such a greater degree it is crazy! There are that many more walkers on the lower Chester trails and essentially zero at Enger Tower on the Superior Hiking Trail? Really? I met up with the SHT on the back side of Enger, just as I’d planned. I took a leak and ate some food into the woods a bit. My mind seemed slow to respond and non-receptive to emotions besides gloom. My body seemed surprisingly fresh, but the difficult conditions were taking their toll.
Continuing west, it was just completely drifted, deep, frustrating snow as far as the eye could see. No relief, why? When? Never? I slogged up a big berm, not even sure if it was any trail at all or if the owners of the three-feet deep footprints had been just bushwhacking. My mind wasn’t even processing the fact that it was such bad running conditions, such a bad representation of what the SHT could be like in late May. Atop the ridge, I saw another trail below. Perhaps it was the Duluth Traverse. It didn’t look any better. I had to stop. I ate a gel. I didn’t want to stop now, so early, but I did. I sat down in the snow and meditated for several minutes.
I was about two hours and 10 minutes in, not even to 7 miles, and should be closer to 9 miles to be on schedule for 4 miles per hour. I was essentially 1.25 miles down which is essentially a few minutes shy of 20 minutes behind where I should be. GAH! Stupid. I’d done enough, I decided I’d turn around and run the road back home. It’s like two miles, I can do that in 20 minutes. 2.5 hours on the day, oh well. Good enough. I did well over 40 miles the day before so that’s just fine. I punched through over-my-knees snow to Skyline Boulevard, and ran that baby back to Twin Ponds. On my way over, I was a bit scared for my life because of the low shoulder and blind corner. Ugh, running on the roads was really terrible. There wasn’t too much slop because the temperature high was forecasted to be 12 degrees or so, but winter road traffic is always a hazard.
Once I got back running, I surged, looked at my watch and was a little bummed to see over 8 minutes per mile pace. The legs were a little heavy I guess. I suddenly had a change of heart and a new idea came into mind. I would run through the woods between Central Entrance/Rice Lake Road and Kenwood, but peel up towards St. Scholastica’s campus and make my way to the local Arby’s for lunch. That is within striking distance of Hartley Park, which I knew from the previous day was in pretty good condition. Once I got to Hartley, I could make up all the time I need.
So I peeled off back into the antennae farm area, and got back onto the DT. Compared to the SHT west of Enger, where I turned around, the trail was loads better. At least runnable. It seemed like no time before I got to the apartment complex again and I seemed invigorated by the new plan. At least I wouldn’t be post-holing into the unknown.
Into a headwind and slight uphill, I utilized my trekking poles while on the sidewalk of Central Entrance. With cars whizzing past me, I felt a little exposed, perhaps a little embarrassed. I probably looked like a maniac out here with a pack on, water bottles, trekking poles flailing, speed walking mixed with jogging on the sidewalk. Oh well, gotta get my miles in. Across the busy road and onto the side street Pecan Avenue, it was not any better. In fact, way worse. There was literally no shoulder, and the snowbank took up over half of the actual driving lane at some spots. This road was sketchy. The cars saw me, luckily, but it was a hairy uphill grind where it seemed like a car could crest the hill and BOOM there I am running in literally the middle of the road. Hey, I was still as close to the snowbank as can be. I didn’t get smashed by a car, and was happy to get back into the woods. I remember this section not being too terrible, and it was actually pretty smooth running. I already had the mentality to make up time, and the running on roads and back through the DT saved me five minutes. That means 15 minutes down. At an intersection, I followed my internal compass and took a left, what seemed to be a different way than I had came. I saw a lady before the turn, then her four small dogs from behind a snowbank. They barked and jumped around me protectively, then one bit me! I was surprised, and definitely felt it on my calf! I yelled out “YOUR DOG BIT ME!!” But she seemed so nonchalant I wondered if I happened to be on her private property. A lot of neighborhood trails were in this area. After some huffing and puffing up a hill, I was happy to see that I definitely was not on a neighborhood trail and actually onto the St. Scholastica campus. I jetted through and starting looking forward to a lunch. I didn’t feel ravenously hungry, with a bunch of food on me and continuous eating. But I was looking forward to getting some hot delicious food at Arby’s. I’d passed it the day before at mile 35 or so, so remembered the captivating, dreamy images of current menu items pasted onto the windows. It was a mile or so of more uncomfortable road running and I was there.
When I got to Arby’s, I had a self-directed sense of urgency. Straight to the counter. I thought fast while the person behind me was ordering. Mmm yep turkey sandwich. Done. I got to the counter and spoke fast. The clerk seemed kind of odd, but no offense, most Arby’s clerks are kind of odd. After the transaction, I kind of had a reality check. I’m in this running gear, trekking poles in hand, backpack with water bottles, literally ran to the door. Just like on the busy road… I figured I looked like a complete maniac in that setting. Oh well. I got my sandwich, squirted some sauce on it, threw away the bag and headed right out the door. I immediately started eating on the go. Yep, look like a maniac for sure.
The sandwich went down like nothing and it sure felt good. My body started using that energy right away. I tossed the trash and was right into Hartley. Time to crank. I knew I probably went down some time waiting for the sandwich. A peek at my watch confirmed that I was down by about 20 minutes once again. I had logged not quite 13 miles in 3:30 as I entered into Hartley. That means about 10 miles to go. That means I’d have to go two minutes or three minutes fast for like… 6 miles? 6 hours? I couldn’t do the math, but knew I had to crank some fast miles. My body felt OK. I was running. I also felt pretty ragged. I certainly couldn’t push it. The miles clicked right off in Hartley and I was on drag mode. Just keep pushing. It was a mentality of run whenever I can. The previous day, working with a buffer of time, it was more a mentality of walk whenever I want.
I decided to just not look at my watch, do the whole outer guardrail loop, do the SHT loop, every inch of Hartley I could within a great loop, and see where I’m at. That may put me close to where I need to be. I ran some quick projections, home is maybe three miles away from Bagley, one mile from the Skyline bridge. It would be pretty close. That energized me. To run a great loop in Hartley was mentally feasible. I could see that happening. It was almost unbearably bleak hours ago below Enger Tower. I could finally really see the light on this long and arduous weekend. So I kept cruising. The conditions were fair. I observed some funny pole marks that I’d made the day before. Not really funny. Ok moving on…
It was mindless walk-running for a couple hours. That is perhaps the runners high. Thinking back, it seems like a trance state. Oh well, what else is there to do? Just zone out, get in the rhythm and crank out miles. The walk/run combination seemed so natural. Maybe by focusing instead of relying on “natural” instincts I could be more efficient. Fuck efficiency, just get the damn miles DONE. Run when I can, walk when I have to. Click, click, tick, tock, the miles went by and the watch progressed and I was finally on the back side of Hartley. In a flash, I was out. Through Bagley and back into Chester. It was a quick bomb out to touch all three parks. A classic long run combination. It was strange to convert what has typically been a trip up the shore to an effort right at home. It was going to work, though.
When I got into Chester, I knew I could just take it straight downhill home. Well, it would be close. Without incident, I flew down the best trail surface in the whole city, and was elated, yet exhausted, to be so close to home and close to done. I’d scraped myself back to goal pace and was pretty much right on time. With the downhill running, I even put a little time back into the positive category. My average pace would be faster than 15 minutes per mile. When I got to the last bridge before 4th Street, my turnoff, I knew I needed just a bit more mileage. I did a tiny loop down to 4th Street, and straight back home to definitively make 65 miles on the weekend. I walked the last half of the alley, the same speed as I started this long trip weekend, and was happy to be done. Relieved to be done. Infused with confidence now that I was done. And hungry.