Northwoods Winter Marathon
Race Date: Saturday, January 4, 2020 – 9:30am
After very challenging conditions one year prior, I was certain by race week that the trail surface at this year’s Northwoods would be prime. All it takes is one day to totally destroy or totally repair the trails in winter but the forecast looked prime and things shaped up perfectly.
I got my packet the night before at the Trailrunning Film Festival and cool films were great to get me jacked up to race and to run. Running consistency had been good but mileage stagnant and no speed work or long runs. My daily routine in the late fall and early winter kind of fell into place with running to and from work mostly. One week before, I had a reality shock when I realized that 26.2 miles is a long way, and went out for about a two hour/12 mile trail run. Just one week out and the conditions were very terrible and challenging to run… but what a week can do!
I thought Wynn Davis would win with ease, which he was certainly poised to do last year before he got lost. I hadn’t seen him for a year, since he ran off on the Amity snowmobile trail on loop one. And I didn’t see him on the start line. I wanted to complete this race smartly by running the first loop easily and then seeing what I had left for loop two, knowing I didn’t have a ton of run mileage in my legs in the previous month, and hopefully I’d be in the mix of the race. I get to the start line, however, and just have to be in the mix no matter what, right off the line. So when I heard “GO!”, I just shot off sprinting towards the hill up to the trails. Not sticking to the plan…
Oh yeah! The snowmobile trail was running fast. Fast and hard-packed. I realized right away that being too cold was not going to be an issue. Down to the bottom of Lester Park and some of the half marathoners went ahead and sprinted out of sight. Then I was leading a pack of all marathoners. We were chatting. Ryan Soule was right behind me, I’ve run with him before and knew he had a lot of races on deck. He did well at Icebox not two months prior, and was training for a 100k in February. He’s in shape. Was I in shape? I was feeling smooth going uphill and we were certainly moving. The mountain bike trail was in pretty dang good shape just for shoes. The time went by quickly but it was a grind getting up to Amity. We dropped one guy and it was down to three. I was excited to be in the race… this was going to be fun. I had to push a little once we got onto the snowmobile trail. I wanted to shake those guys. Why? Dumb! I was already pushing it way harder than I should be to stick to my initial plan. I think I had a form of “race brain” where I wasn’t thinking straight. So I sprinted off onto Amity Trail and dropped those guys. It was fast conditions, after all! Good footing. I ate a gel. I couldn’t eat and run and the two guys caught back up to me right away. Then passed me. Then I stopped to pee in the woods. They ran out of sight. I jogged in to the aid station and was brief. Dave and Sonja were there with several others. I barely even looked at faces, though bundled, and barely looked at the food, but grabbed as much as I could, ran off and tried to eat on the go. The road was very icy. I couldn’t see anyone up ahead. I had pretzels, pb and j, and an oreo or two. I was pretty warm with my headband around my wrist, gloves off, sleeves rolled up, shirt unzipped to ventilate. And that was perfect. Beautiful day.
I got a little frustrated running into the Hawk Ridge section. This is around mile 8, and the trail just seemed difficult. Soft, rutted, sugary, up and down, no traction. I couldn’t see anyone around me. Just keep those legs churning. I had no relief on Hawk Ridge proper. That COGGS trail has excellent views but is just challenging. I don’t care what season, it’s hard to run! How easy would it be to run on the road just 10 feet over through the woods… I kept those leggies churning, despite feeling the fatigue. Well, here is where things fall apart, I thought. Here is where I pay for walking into a marathon without any long runs. How long does that volume stay in the legs? Wild Duluth was only… 2 months and a few weeks ago. Yep, that is long enough to lose it.
The switchbacks near the end of Hawks Ridge were welcomed, and I enjoyed darting through the trees to get to the Amity West trails. I knew this section kind of went on and on and on, it’s very twisty and turny, and you can see the finish line way before the actual finish line. I went down and down and could open up a bit. The surface was great through Amity West despite a lot of ruts and ankle-busters. This was like real trail running, I thought. I saw Ryan on one of the switchbacks. Ooo! But then realized that that point in the trail could be pretty far away. I tried to estimate how many minutes passed until I got there. I estimated one minute. Sweet. Across Seven Bridges Road and I still hadn’t passed anyone. I felt that the half was near. I knew that we ran to the finish line then right back out. I took stock of my water. Would I have enough to make it to the aid station? Yes. But probably barely enough. Do I need food? No. I ate another gel. I passed the other guy, I think his name was Ryan too. He was peeing by a tree. He muttered “I’m getting tired” and I passed him. In an instant, there was the finish line. I saw Ryan Soule walking out of the aid station area, and made the half-way check-in by stopping in my tracks just past the finish line and sprinting right back out there. I passed Ryan, who was walking up the steep hill up and out of the finish area. Oof, yep I was getting sore. I took off on the snowmobile trail, which seemed to be in similarly good shape as the first loop. Maybe slightly less firm footing. Ryan was right behind me. I eventually remembered to look at my watch for my half split, roughly 1:45. The course also appeared to be slightly short, which I recalled from the year before.
I wondered if he was going to make me suffer. I wondered if I’d make him suffer. I thought about asking him if we were going to make each other suffer. Down to Lester and on to the uphill grind. I was pushing it decently hard. I felt the pressure of Ryan right behind me. This is where it gets gritty, I said to myself. So far so good. Nutrition, good. Water, good. Legs, hurting. Was the first loop too fast? Just keep those legs churning. That is what I did. I didn’t stop to walk, I kept that running motion going like a steam engine.
Up and up. Ryan was further back. Then I looked again and he was back a bit more. A few twists and turns and I could see him slip ever so slightly further back from me. That excited me, I got a little adrenaline boost and pushed it a bit. Ok, this is mile 15 or so… if I’m pushing it is that asking for a terrible disastrous end to the race? Remember self, no long runs recently!! I just kept chugging.
On top of Amity and I opened up a little. Not like the first loop, though. I was anxiously looking back and no Ryan. Could I hold first place? Oh yeah. The feeling of running scared is as good a motivator as any. One has the incentive to race smartly up front. One also should push it to keep the lead intact, though. A nice steady effort would be the best policy. Amity went quickly. It was a beautiful day. I tried to remember a good trick… practice gratitude. It just works well! If anything it’s something to fixate on. Maybe remembering to fixate on stuff that makes you terribly angry would do the same to make the task at hand less miserable. Oh well, gratitude works well so I’ll stick with that. I told myself how incredibly lucky I was to be out here. Where else would I rather be than in the perfect winter conditions that we were experiencing? Nowhere.
I was even more brief at the aid station the second time around. My eyes shifted behind me and I saw nobody approaching. Dave and Sonja were the only two that remained at the aid station and I barely muffled two words in between shoving my face with pretzels. I took an oreo to go and remembered to run on the right side of the road to avoid the huge ice floe. Into the Hawk Ridge section, I became frustrated with the sugary snow once again. I couldn’t really tell if the snow conditions had changed or my fatigue was inevitably making running harder. I kept ’em churning though. Hawk Ridge proper didn’t seem so bad the second time around. Maybe it was because I knew the end was getting near. It was getting quite warm, I ate another gel. I was getting excited to get off the Hawk Ridge escarpment because the Amity West trails were great on the first loop. Once I got there, though, it was a slog. I figured I had the win and would just need to somewhat maintain. Then my watch beeped in the high 13’s for a mile split. Whaaaat. I wasn’t going that slow, was I? I tried to find another gear. Ugh. Nope. It was a slog. Please don’t let this go, I begged myself. I was surprised I had maintained this well for this long. I recalled a few longer days within the previous handful of weeks out testing out these new Altai Hok fat skis. It wasn’t running, but I justified those backcountry ski miles as enough to keep me moving well this late in the race. Good training. Five hours working through deep snow has to be worth something, after all.
I reached the sliding hill overlooking the chalet and finish line, and there were plenty of people sledding and the trails were busier than ever. I figured I was three miles away to finish and well past an even split for the day. Oh well. The upcoming twists and turns and switchbacks would give me last chance look to see if it’d be a dog fight or I could run it in comfortably. As if I had any gear besides one, anyways. I leaned into that gear, muttering one last time my mantra for the day: “keep those leggies churning”. Any positivity was long gone and my brain had one distinct focus of finishing the damn race. Across Seven Bridges and I knew it was a matter of mere minutes before the pain and agony was over. I experienced a few frustrating stumbles and missteps. On the final stretch I thought race volunteer Mark was giving me a high five but he was pointing to the direction of the trail. Crap! I went the wrong way for a botched high-five and had to backtrack slightly. But just one tiny piece of trail and I was home. I sprinted in to the finish in first place. Sweet. Then I fell to my knees. Ouch.
Northwoods went surprisingly great. I had somewhat low expectations, I totally ignored my race plans from the first step, and raced kind of stupidly but it all seemed to work out perfectly. My body was wrecked though. I could just feel it immediately. Total destruction. That is the price to pay. I knew it’d heal, though. I think there is much to be said about the daily grind, in and out, rolling those miles. Either way: fun, painful, rewarding or tedious, it was a beautiful day, an impeccable day, out on the trails. That is the best part of it all.