12 Jan 2020
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.
12 Jan 2020
Trip Plan: Ski pulk to Buzz Ryan Campsites in the Boulder Lake Management Area. Winter camp two nights in the hot tent and explore the area on fat skis.
Date: December 20-22, 2019
Day 1 – Friday, December 20, 2019
My dream had come true. How many hours had I yapped to Kris about winter camping dreams and actual trips I’d planned and executed, gear and wish list items? Kris always talked about getting me this hot tent rig to try. 6 months prior, she told me she got it from her ex-husband. She got it for me! WHAT!? So when winter finally came around in Duluth, with a force, I was very eager to try this setup out. Kris told me she’d come along and help me set it up and enjoy a winter’s night out in the woods. We figured out a date that worked. Luckily we have pretty similar weekend schedules as partners of a weekend-based race timing business!
I was so eager that I asked Kris if I could go out on Friday. She couldn’t go but said she’d find me the next day out at Boulder Lake. After working a half-day on Friday, I packed up as quick as possible, and Diamond and I drove to Kris’s to get the rig and ship up to Boulder Lake 20 minutes outside of town.
Kris gave me the rundown. The entire hot tent rig first consists of a large pulk sled. Very heavy but it obviously slides. The tent itself is canvas plus a wooden center pole. Then the wood stove has four pipe attachments, the stand and a little shelf extension all packed within the stove itself. The door was rusted shut. Skeeter rushed to grab some brand new metal lubricating anti-rust spray he’d just purchased for his bike. Kris quipped about how she’s glad she checked the door! Yep, that would be a challenge if I set up the entire tent, got wood, got my lighter out, and the door is closed tight. Even if it opens, a rusty door would make feeding the stove obviously difficult. So we lubed it up, I got some last minute setup tips, and we roughly coordinated on the meet-up tomorrow. By this point, it was 3pm, and we still had to drive out! The sense of urgency hit me. It would be dark soon.
Off to Boulder, and I wondered what the repercussions may be about parking my van on the side of County Road 4. I’d been thinking of this… to the point of trying to look up Minnesota and Saint Louis County laws and regulations! I couldn’t find anything. Must be legit then. We arrived in a snap, the feeling of darkness looming heavy. I struggled with attaching some last second gear and settled for a somewhat looseleaf configuration within the sled. I neglected to pull up the flap cover, which was a mistake. With the entirety of my gear strapped to the sled (Diamond carried some of her own load), it was extremely cumbersome at best to get the sled out of my van. Yeah, this wouldn’t be possible without a minivan with the seats out! I dragged it down with a thud, focusing on keeping Diamond out of the 60mph roadway, but only had 12 inches to work with on the narrow shoulder. I had driven into the snowbank slightly to create about one inch of clearance from the white line in the road. While tinkering around with the waistbelt I heard a rumble from far away. Moments later, I stood helpless as a massive lumber transporting truck zoomed past. I felt the displacement of air, seemingly wavering in place as the truck roared on. I second guessed my parking spot, but resolved to just folding my mirror in.
I finally got all strapped in: Diamond, pulk sled and all. I was wearing my Altai Hok fat skis and using much-too-short trekking poles. I felt unsteady. Then I realized that the bottom of the pulk sled had something on it. Like a sticky substance of some sort. Sheesh, how would I get this mystery material off? I can’t slide this sled like this? Maybe ice chunks on the bottom. No, none of that make sense!! The sled was just heavy. Unbelievably heavy. I was in denial that I couldn’t muster the strength to make the sled budge. I leaned obnoxiously forward and tried lurching in jerky spurts to get some semblance of momentum. First, barely a nudge, then some sliding, then I was able to keep my momentum up and actually got going!
As dusk settled in, Diamond and I made our way to the Buzz Ryan campsites. I knew it was just less than 2 miles in. The dog and the sled were frustrating. Too much shit attached to myself. I’d get the sled into a rut, Diamond into a tangle. If I lost my momentum it was like an critical failure. Keep the sled sliding under any circumstances! We trucked along and made it to the very first campsite available, the same one that we had been to about 4 weeks earlier. Every new moment seemed to be noticeably darker. It was that point where your eyes kind of change over from light to dark. I could still see, but not many minutes could pass before I’d need to find my lamp. Ok… let’s see how this thing sets up. I figured the wooden pole was for the direct center. I neglected to bring a shovel, which proved to be a huge mistake for the setup phase of the hot tent lifestyle. I tried to pack down snow with my skis, to make a platform. Diamond trounced all over it and ruffled up the snow. Ugh! I swore at her, my booming voice echoing off the shoreline opposite. Hehe, that’s kind of fun. I shook the tent free from its bag. I found the center pole hole and also the door. I felt it a useless endeavor to try and lay out the tent. I’d move one corner and the other side would furl onto itself. I’d stomp over to the other side to unfurl, the back would pull up from its spot. Terrible. I decided to go for the center pole first. Then I found corners. Luckily, they had cord tied to the grommets. There were many, many more untied grommets. But having the four corners tied gave me an idea of the tent’s dimensions. When I got the center piece in I started tying down the corners. It was similar to stringing up my upside-down trekking pole rain tarp. Frustrating but once you get two sides it comes up. It was a challenge to tie down onto far-away trees and shrubberies. I tied one side to a log and buried it in the snow. Then the tent popped right up! I went around and tightened up each corner, readjusted the center and all the sudden I had myself a sturdy shelter. At this point, I had to get my headlamp. I put my brand new tarp down as a floor, brought the wood stove in, and shoved everything else from the shed right in. Immediately, I knew there was too much snow in there. Crap. I started using my arm to move snow from inside to out. The floor soon became bare to the forest floor. That is good, less to melt and turn into water, I thought. With all the snow on my arms I started getting cold. It was not too long before I had my area pretty well set up, though. It seemed like a rushed setup. I can optimize later. Firewood is the next big concern.
In just as much of a rush as the rest of the evening thus far, I got burnable lumber as quick and easily as possible. It was a few armfuls of twigs and sticks, plus a bundle of birch bark. I got a fire going real quick. I had to stoke the fire with new twigs, to the brim, every 20 minutes. My initial wood pile was enough to warm up dinner and keep me warm while I ate. Then I needed to get more wood. I got a similar pile of sticks and twigs, enough to last me until bedtime. Then I’d let the fire go out. I was prepared for the forecasted mid-20’s overnight. It was an ecstatic evening. So this is it! The hot tent setup was so cool. I couldn’t believe I was out here. So awesome. I had ample entertainment just stoking the fire, taking in this new shelter space, and day dreaming up where I could take it. Diamond seemed happy and snug in her new DIY lightweight winter doggy bed.
Day 2 – Saturday, December 21, 2019 (Winter Solstice)
How goofy is it to spend the entire day outside on the winter solstice? The shortest day of the year? In northern Minnesota that day’s not very long! When I finally got up at 7:30 or so it was dawn, kind of similar to when I arrived here last night… no sun, not dark, but light enough to see pretty well. I spotted a crescent moon framed nicely in between some very tall pines. Beautiful! I took a deep breath through my nostrils, my brain flooded with serotonin and knew today would be a great day. Breakfast, then ski all day. The snow conditions were deep, fluffy, beautiful. Even the snowmobile-tracked Buzz Ryan Road back to the van would be nice to scoot along on the fat skis. But before breakfast, me and Dimey took to the lake to get a lay of the land. The first slush reports came back positive. It seemed like rock hard ice underneath a fluffy snowpack. The lake seemed a bit windblown, but still decent snow on top. We made a loop, then back for breakfast. Oatmeal and coffee was delicious. I was excited to go off even further. So I ate quickly, geared up for a longer tour, we zipped up the tent door and started off! Diamond was completely in her element running free in the woods in the snow. I felt a little stiff from the sleep on the ground but loosened up quickly as sunshine and blue sky spread across the landscape. Looking high to the treetops was picturesque. The day was shaping up to be truly incredible with great temperatures and snow conditions. I couldn’t help but smile, even laugh out loud, even hooting and hollering! Where else would we rather be, I shouted to Diamond. She didn’t take the time to respond. Too many sniffs.
Diamond and I headed toward the van parked on the road to try and find some logging road or snowmobile trail or cut in the woods… whatever it is, I’d scoped out many trails totally untracked in this Buzz Ryan area of the Boulder Lake Management Area. And exploring those through feet of snow is a perfect job for the fat skis! We found one after another, all leading in a dead end, but all enjoyable to just take the trail wherever it may lead, enjoy the nearby trees, the sunshine, blue sky and clouds, the soft snow blanketing everything in sight. Wonderful. I checked on the van, not smashed, good. Then we headed back to the tent. I wanted to call Kris to ask when she’d be there, where to meet her, etc… My phone was at 1% battery. CRAP! So I called Kris quick and blurted out my question. She said she’d park around 1pm. OK BYE!! Then I wrapped my phone in my jacket to try and keep it warm and from dying. And we went back out. A few hours of exploring every nook and cranny of Buzz Ryan and we headed back towards the County Road to meet Kris. When we arrived at around 12:45pm, no Kris. No sense waiting around, I thought, she’ll find us eventually. I had to start getting firewood. So we trekked back.
Tonight’s fire pile would be different. I wasn’t messing around this time. No more twigs and sticks. I harnessed into the empty pulk sled and Diamond and I skied out to an area that I’d spotted a lot of leaning dead trees. When we got there, I saw so many valid pieces of quality lumber I couldn’t wait to get to work. Diamond sauntered off into the deep woods and I started pushing, pulling, shaking and tossing tree limbs from the dense woods onto the trail by the sled. Ooo, this was going to be a haul! I paused the collections process to start breaking them into manageable pieces, then into the sled. Eventually I noticed a blonde dog trouncing down the trail. Lacie! Then Skeeter then Kris. They came right to me! Look at that! It was good timing as I had nearly filled up the sled. So I packaged it up and we all headed to the tent. I was embarrassed about my half-assed string-up job in dusk the night before, but it wasn’t so bad after all. Kris was ready to sleep in the woods, but didn’t make a rock solid commitment. And then I showed my friends the area.
We went out onto the lake, then to the furthest west campsite of 5 Buzz Ryan campsites. We tracked the campsite’s trails in entirety, then back to my lumber yard for another haul. It was nice to have helpers, and I filled that sled up to the brim with choice burnables in no time. Back to the tent, I started stacking and Kris seemed more than eager to whip out the saw and start cutting the bigger logs. When Skeeter decided he should probably head out, and Kris had to make a decision, she decided to stay. Easier decision when the wood pile is heaping! Lacie, that barker, left as well. In no time, it was dark again.
The rest of the night was relaxing, enjoyable, and warm. That lumber made the difference, and that tent got HOT! It was so hot, and the hot air kind of clumped towards the top of the tent, that you tried to get as low as possible to avoid the dizzying heat. It had to have been 80 degrees in there! I eventually dozed off, and Kris stoked the fire every hour until morning. I woke up a few times during the refueling process and drearily asked “fire still going?” or something meaningless like that. It was warm overnight.
Day 3 – Sunday, December 22, 2019
Kris and Diamond and I started to stir and pretty much got right to making oatmeal and coffee. I think we both were pretty keen on getting out of the woods without too much dilly-dallying. Diamond seemed to be feeling the whopping 15 mile ski the day before. I was too. I could go another day, but ooof, I was also ready to go home and unpack and take a shower. Drying, cleaning and storing this gear would certainly be a long and difficult process in and of itself. Much more so after another long ski, not to mention the 2 mile pulk out.
We did take another little spin across the lake. The clouds were very low lying… a fog, really. Regardless, it seemed kind of hazy out, kind of humid, mostly cloudy… kind of an interesting morning. Diamond didn’t have her usual peppy puppy energy levels, and I felt a little sluggish for sure. Skiing was more of a chore today than it was a blissful glide yesterday. So before long Kris and I reconvened, packed up our heaping mounds of gear, and tracked back to the cars. The sled pull was much better this time around with the experience and knowledge to utilize the sled cover and pack nicely. We were back to the cars in no time.
What a trip. Close to home, yes. Nothing extreme, no. But the nature was stunning and incredible. The hot tent setup was so cool. Such a game-changer. The skis and snow conditions, being outside all day, moving through nature, fellowship of my faithful dog Diamond and friends Kris and Skeeter gave me the feeling of having my best day ever. I think that Saturday was the best day of my life so far! Ya can’t get better than that.