20 Sep 2020
Trip Plan: Launch paddleboard at Sawbill Lake BWCA Entry, paddle in a loop. The loop looked to be about 27 miles, and I hoped to finish within a full day’s light.
Start Time: Monday, September 14, 2020 – 7:11am
GPS Data: Stand Up Paddleboard 29.9 miles
Total Time: 11:55:40
As most cool adventures go, I was thinking of a big paddleboard loop in the BWCA for a while. It was kind of on my summer checklist, but I’d never really put pen to paper, so to speak, until September rolled around and I realized my window for a trip was kind of closing rapidly. I noticed a warm day in the forecast and figured I should pull the trigger and just do it. Well, the warm day looked windy, so the day before was on on my target. It looked like 60s. Well, maybe 60. That’s warm enough… I thought.
I pulled out the maps I had and first thought about Kawishiwi Lake, because I knew there was a campground there and I could camp the night before then hit it bright and early. Well, I couldn’t figure a loop. I maybe had a 40 miler. Yikes, that is too long. I looked at other maps in my arsenal, and saw the Sawbill map, with a campground at the entry point, AND the campground was open! I started plotting, and found a pretty good-looking loop. I did some measurements, it looked like 25 or 30 miles, which was right on target for a really long day, but not impossible given the limited daylight. Perfect. It’s a go. Gotta go for it.
Sunday night rolled around and I just couldn’t get out in time. I decided I’d wake up around 4 and make the 2 hour drive the next morning, with hopes to arrive around 7am to start paddling. I woke up early and got there right at 7. Perfect timing. That was nice, because I slept in my own bed, and was able to enjoy oatmeal and coffee on the drive up. I saw the sunrise over Lake Superior heading north on Highway 61… beautiful. I burned my tongue on the coffee, though. That was not beautiful.
When I got to Sawbill, I knew there was an outfitter and rather large campsite, and I thought I remembered looking at a map or satellite image and seeing a launch and parking lot. Well, I saw the launch but no parking lot. I thought maybe there were several docks… maybe a public one with parking nearby. I drove around the campground area, which was interesting to see… and looked like a really fun place to camp… but felt anxious that I was burning daylight. I took a wrong turn–no public access beyond this point. Crap. I figured I’d just go back to the launch I saw and drop the board and park at the big parking lot next to the outfitters that I saw. If there is another option, I missed it and I don’t care because this will work.
So I pulled up to the landing, took out my board, my paddle, my lifejacket, my tote and dropped them nearby. In my tote bag was a gallon ziploc bag stuffed with various food items, and another gallon ziploc stuffed full with various survival items. I though it smart to bring an emergency blanket, headlamp and batteries, lighter, small screwdriver, a piece of foam for random flotation, fingerless gloves, water filter, microfiber towel, and a small safety kit, at least. I might be forgetting to tally some of the items… I just threw a bunch of random crap that I figured I may need, especially in the case of an emergency, in a gallon ziplock bag and it barely all fit.
I drove my car to the lot, which said PUBLIC PARKING, so I figured I was in a great place to leave my van. When I locked the vehicle, the honk echoed so loudly in the dead quiet morning. I noticed metal grating over the trash dumpsters, to discourage bears. On my back was a small pack with two water bottles on front, and my phone in a baggie in the back, plus the all-important map. In my hand was my dog leash and on the end of that was my dog. I grappled with bringing Diamond. Em and Jack told me that I by all means should not do it. Why? Why take her? It’s a huge risk to have her out there. What if she gets injured? Or what if I have an issue? It’s just a big risk to have her, not to mention the weight on the board, which would inevitably slow me down. I figured that it’d be fun. She’s so good on the paddleboard, and loves running through the woods on a trail so would probably love the portages. But 12 hours doing both over and over? Meh, who knows. But she likes being with me, too, so she’d probably enjoy it. And I could use the company. Just having her out there with me would be nice, to share the experience. I don’t know, it just felt like Diamond had to come, despite the obvious downsides. So as we headed away from the car towards Sawbill Lake, she was yankin’ away, excited to get on the water.
It was cold. My car thermometer dropped steadily as I drove away from Highway 61 and Lake Superior and I definitely saw frost on the way up. The last reading on my car’s thermometer was 31. It was a little precarious setting the board in the water, carefully placing the lifejacket and my crucial supplies under the bungees, and stepping on. Then to get Diamond to carefully hop on! With Diamond carefully aligned in the center and fog everywhere, we were off!
The lake was glassy calm, with low visibility due to the fog. I was wearing running shorts, socks and low profile trail shoes (Altra Superior), a tanktop and 3/4 zip running long sleeve, plus hat. I wasn’t cold, surprisingly and luckily. I knew I just had to paddle straight up Sawbill Lake for the first several miles, one of the longest unbroken paddles of the day. I was pretty scared to somehow fall in or get wet, or for Diamond to jump in in excitement, or to get any of the water surrounding me on all sides on me in any way. That could be devastating in this cold. We neared a land mass up ahead and I had to check my map, even though I knew I just needed to keep the land to my close right for a couple miles. I knew I’d eventually get a really good sense of the scale of the map and the shape of the land, but for now I was unsure what I was looking at.
While shuffling around on my knees to get my phone and map out, my paddle dipped into the water, and I got water on my hands, and they got really cold. I was breathing trying to get them to warm up, it didn’t work. I pleaded with the sun to rise higher and burn off some of the lake fog and warm up the air. In between a narrow strip of water between and island a loon popped up. Diamond was locked in… she would have jumped in. I held her back, then made her sit down and tried to paddle away quickly. It was cool to see a loon super close up, though.
I cranked away further and further down from the Sawbill entry point and was amazed by the beautiful lake in the morning mist. I finally made a turn and got into a bit wider area dotted with islands. Looking at the map, I thought I knew where to get to, but I second guessed myself every 100 feet. The sun was burning off the fog, as I’d hoped just a quick hour before, and it was becoming a beautiful day.
I neared the final bay of Sawbill Lake before our first portage to Ada Creek and Ada Lake. I saw a campsite with people at it, stirring about and enjoying the perfect morning. I paddled by and neared the portage, finding it with ease. I took a moment to relax and let Diamond wander, then contemplated my strategy for portages. I left my lifejacket strapped on the board and grabbed the tote and paddle, then took off with the board down the 80 rod portage. The board was hard to keep level. We made it through to Ada Creek in no time, and put back in to paddle down the narrow waterway leading to the more open Ada Lake.
After another portage, I made it to the beautiful Ada Lake. The sun was out and shining bright, it was warming up and I took my long sleeve shirt off. I saw something to my right swimming along. As I wondered if it was a beaver, it slapped its tail and swam under the water. Cool! Luckily Diamond didn’t see it, but we were far enough anyways, where she probably wouldn’t try to chase it. The third portage was hard to find. It was getting narrow and swampy. The map said a one rod portage and a 12 yard portage with a swamp in between. I was paddling where I could, which was a narrow river-like stretch of water. It was really shallow. I had to get out after getting stuck on logs. The big fin on my paddleboard made it tough to glide over obstructions in the 6-inch water.
I got to Skoop Lake easy enough, and knew that I had a pretty long portage then a questionable paddle down Cherokee Creek. If Cherokee was as shallow as going through Ada, it would be a long, long stretch. I knew that there were two route options at Cherokee Lake, which is at the end of Cherokee Creek, and told myself that if I got to the lake after noon, I would take the shortcut. It was still really early, though.
The long portage to Cherokee Creek wasn’t terribly difficult, although pretty overgrown. I made it without too much trouble and was excited to check out the creek. It was nice and deep! Great! I stood up, and me and Diamond enjoyed the narrow waterway with a different vibe from the lakes. There was one beaver dam that was challenging to get around. Lots of mucky mud. A few more bends in the river and there was Cherokee. I was there way before noon, so we paddled right out into the lake, and stayed left to take the long loop. Cherokee Lake had a lot of islands, lots of bays, lots of campsites so I had to check the map frequently. I saw several campers right away. The wind was increasing a little bit, there were a bit of choppy waves on the big Cherokee Lake. It was good paddling, though. I was generally going with the wind, so we made good time. I was cranking.
There were a couple of paddlers on the lake, too, and those were the first people I’d seen on the water all day. When I got past an island I knew it was the last one and I was close to the portage. The lake narrowed then opened to the final bay before my portage to Town Lake. I couldn’t see the portage, but paddled right towards shore. I pushed Diamond off so she could swim in to shore a little bit and wash off some of the mud from the beaver dam back on Cherokee Creek, and paddled closer into shore but couldn’t find the portage! I circled around a bit, getting frustrated. I figured I could just go straight in then bushwhack. It’s a 10 rod portage… but decided not to bushwhack and quickly found my portage shrouded in shrubbery, then schlepped my board and dog right through. I was getting hungry, and decided to stop for a bite to eat after that portage, on the banks of Town Lake. I hadn’t eaten anything, and barely drank any water all day. It was tasty to eat some potato chips, hazelnut uncrustables, gummi frogs, some candy. Diamond was looking around and sniffing and exploring. I was enjoying the sunshine. But not for too long, and we set off onto the beautiful Town Lake after just 15 minutes. Town Lake was short, and we got to the next 90 rod portage quickly, then a series of short lakes and long portages. The portage to Vesper Lake was brutal. Lots of rocks, terrible footing.
My hand was getting a little sore from carrying the board, and I noticed that my forearms were burning after getting to Vesper Lake. It was all worth it, though, because that lake was incredibly beautiful, with cool exposed rocky slopes with trees precariously hanging on the hill, no soil to be seen.
It was around noon once I got up and over the next challenging portage from Vesper Lake to Gasket Lake. Gasket was a tiny lake, but with huge rocky cliffs jutting up from the shores. Then another tough portage to Cam Lake. These portages were frequent and tough, but also getting the board in and out of the water was tough. At the shore of Cam Lake, there were no rocks, no sandy beach, just a shallow landing. I put the fin-end in first, but the board wouldn’t budge. I figured that my shoes were pretty much wet as could be anyways, I’d just put my feet in and push off. I jumped in and sunk into the mud up over my knees! Oh MAN!! I hoped I wouldn’t lose a shoe, but the sucking muck let me free and I coaxed Diamond on the board just after I clamored on. I was getting frustrated with Diamond because she wasn’t as prompt as I’d hoped, and when we did get all on and all ready to hit the lake, legs coated in black specks of mud, I had to paddle really hard because the wind was blowing straight onto us. It was a tough go, and seemed so, so windy all of the sudden. I was really looking forward to getting to the end of Cam Lake where the land would block the wind. When I got closer, a less risky area for the wind to blow me around, I took off my wet shoes and dunked my legs into the frigid water to wash them off. That answered my question about if I’d want to jump into a lake. Nope. Luckily I’d taken my socks off hours and hours ago. Also, I luckily wasn’t cold. Perfect temperature, in fact. When I got to the opposite shore of Cam Lake, I was a little frustrated. Oh man, how am I way out here? I’m not going to get back until after dark, I thought. I miscalculated. I’m going so slow, it seems like the wind is blowing directly from the south, and I have to travel many miles practically straight south! This will be an arduous journey to complete. Nuts. Dang wind. I finally turned a corner to go south, then this. A south wind right in my face.
My arms were getting really tired. Mostly my hands and forearms. Luckily paddling wasn’t too difficult yet, besides having to rely on my hands to grip the paddle. I think the paddling and portaging were having a dual impact on my hands more than anything. I thought about grabbing my fingerless bike gloves to lessen the impact, but skipped it. I psyched myself up for the long 100 yard portage to big Brule Lake. I was excited that I’d be paddling west for a while once I got out into Brule, given that the wind seemed to be coming straight from the south. I made the portage with no incident, but was so frustrated once again with an extremely shallow and difficult launch into Brule Lake. Diamond had to go way around, and I shimmied for 100 feet to get out of the swampy shallows. The blowing wind did not help at all, and I was yelling and swearing at it. There was more wind now than ever. Just more time lost.
When I finally got Diamond on the board, I had to look at my map. Even 30 seconds was enough for the wind to push me backwards, sideways a little bit. It is so much easier to move with no wind, or downwind. This was terrible. Luckily the waves weren’t bad, just seemingly the wind itself. I tried to kneel, but that didn’t strike me as a good method right away so I stood back up. Oh well, what can ya do? I just utilized my legs and hips to try and stroke as powerfully as I could, making my way little by little, excited to see a campsite on my left which meant I could turn westward. It seemed like forever, but I got a big view of the Brule Lake to my left, an island with a campsite, so then I could turn in between these wonderful blocking islands and head towards a small portage onto South Temperance Lake. That was a relief, and I immediately felt better turning from the south to the west, especially because the wind seemed to be not just a cross-wind, but actually pushing me towards my destination. I decided to try and make up some time and really crank. It was easy navigation, just aim for the back edge of the lake with a small island nearby. I definitely made good time, thanks to the wind that I’d just been cursing. I was nervous about after Temperance Lake, because it’s really all south from there. Maybe the wind would change direction, or die down…
I saw a paddler from afar, then when I got closer and closer to the portage I noticed packs on shore. I saw a person, but before I landed on the big slab of rock to start the next 10 rod portage they were gone, schlepping another load of gear. I coaxed Diamond off and quickly grabbed my things to sneak past this party. When I turned the corner, it was by far the shortest portage of the day. 10 rods? Yeah right! I asked if this was it, just this little portage, in a friendly tone, and he angrily said yes. He had Diamond by the collar and said that he’s grabbing her because they have fish in a bag back there and he doesn’t want this dog getting in there. Whoops! I apologized profusely and said we’d be out of here in a flash. He let her go, they left to get their fish and packs, and Diamond and I were out of sight onto the South Temperance Lake before they rounded the short corner again. Yikes. Oh well, no harm done.
Getting into the fair sized South Temperance Lake first meant navigating a meandering river-like waterway. It was great! It seemed to be flowing in our favor, or at least the wind was pushing us in the right direction. Hmm, I thought, maybe it’s more of an east wind than a south wind. The river opened up to the lake, and I saw several paddlers fishing. One canoe was filming me, and we got close enough where the guy hollered about Diamond being such a nice doggy on the board. Yep! Yahoo!! I saw one other group, plus campers at a site, and a canoe right by the mouth of the Temperance River itself. Cool! I saw a bald eagle hovering high in the air, and made it to the portage in no time. I stopped for a while here, and contemplated my biggest portage of the day of 240 rods. I, for once, unfolded my map fully and looked at where I was in the grand scheme of things. I figured that I was at least 2/3 done with the route. The next few lakes would be the crux, for sure. After Kelly Lake, it’s a pretty straightforward route back home. 3 portages, 3 lakes. Boom. They seemed to be right in my favor, wind-wise, as well. So if I could make it down Weird Lake, Jack Lake, and Kelly Lake in good time, I’d be home soon. That is still a lot of paddling…. I also filtered some water. I was feeling parched, and realized that it was probably a deficit from earlier in the day and that I should actually focus on drinking water. The water was crystal clear out of my filter. Tasty and cool. Mmm. I ate a few bites of food, too. Then on to the portage. Diamond was chasing around a small critter, a chipmunk or squirrel. But when I was ready to go, she bounded in the woods ahead of me on the nice buffed out trail alongside Temperance River. What a relief, to have a trail that wasn’t completely strewn with rocks.
It was a long portage. My hands and arms were getting really sore, and I banged my paddeleboard on several rocks because my grip was slipping. My fingers hurt so bad, and I was constantly scanning the ground for a nice spot to set down my board, and had to rest every couple of minutes. I would count the number of steps before I could stop, or pick a spot up ahead, like over a hill or past a rock garden. I tried to grip with the tips of my fingers but that hurt, so I’d dry to curl my fingers under my board but that hurt my palm and the board would slip around. Gah. I would hoist the board up and try to tuck it under my armpit and against my hip, but my shoulder would burn so I’d drop it down and let my arm be fully extended, and my forearm would burn. I switched hands half way through, but needed several breaks. The whole time, I could see the Temperance River to my left. It was cool to see this iconic river so far inland, in such a remote place. To think it flows all the way from up here down to the visitor-strewn state park was pretty neat.
I was happy to see an opening, and I launched my board as the river opened up into a marshy area filled with lilly pads. The map showed a short, sweeping bend and then another 80 portage. Ugh. I made it through, then more carrying of my paddleboard, then on to Weird Lake, which was full of lilly pads and vegetation. There almost was no open water at all. I saw people at a campsite at the end of Weird Lake as the lake narrowed. I wondered where the next portage was, and figured I should hop over a beaver dam instead of trying to carry my board even further. I saw open water ahead. It was an easy carry-over on top of the dam, and I was glad to be still paddling and not walking. The next brief portage led to Jack Lake, which was super shallow for a long long ways. I had to get off of my board, and luckily found hard ground below my feet, in a foot or less of water, instead of sinking muck. I lifted Diamond and my board so the front could float and the back fin was out of the water, hopped back on, then had to do it again 100 feet down before the water appeared to deepen. Luckily I didn’t have to do that again, and luckily my feet weren’t too cold and seemed to dry out OK.
Jack Lake was full of vegetation. It was this angel hair-like weed, with clumps of tangled strands of vegetation floating on top of the water every now and then. The wind was a light steady headwind, and I was going so slow. Just keep paddling, I told myself. I was pretty sore, my hands and forearms the worst off, but I still had a lot of energy to paddle, which was good. I had to just belt out this Jack Lake, and the narrow and snaking Kelly Lake, and I’d be pretty much home free. But it was a major struggle right now. There were beaver dens left and right, and I wondered if I’d see one. Whyyyyy am I going so slow? I yelled out. I looked behind me and a huge mass of weeds caught my eye, I was dragging an armful of vegetation that was trapped on my fin. Ugh, that’s worse than a parachute. No wonder I was slowing down so much. It was actually relieving, that I had a reason why I felt like I was going so slow. I leaned over the back of my board and tried to reach under my board to shake off the weeds. It worked and I kept going. Then, I was really sensitive to what I was paddling over, and spent too much energy trying to avoid weeds. They were unavoidable in Jack Lake. The narrow lake narrowed further, which meant that the next 65 yard portage was next. It was nice to have a little break from portaging, despite generally hating Jack Lake, and I was ready attack the big, long Kelly Lake head on to the waning wind. There were rocks everywhere, I scraped the bottom of my board on a few. I slowed way down trying to navigate the boulder field, and again hit shallow water and had to get off my board to shimmy over. Then Jack Lake opened up a bit more before the actual portage. I stopped there and ate a bit of food because my stomach was rumbling. Then on to the portage to Kelly Lake.
The portage went well enough, but they were becoming by far the hardest part of my life. I was losing time by having to stop, and my arms and forearms just killed. I still had the second longest portage of my trip upcoming, plus a 90 rod and 100 rod portage to finish it off. Not easy. But before that is Kelly Lake, a long, narrow seemingly endless paddle. I was hoping that the roughly southwest travel would help with the wind. I got to the other side of the portage and just started hammering on Kelly. There was still a lot of vegetation, and it was getting caught on my board. That was frustrating. The sun was starting to get lower and lower, and there seemed to be a haze in the sky, perhaps from widespread fires in the western US states. I was getting cold out there. My long sleeve was wet, being at the bottom of my tote bag all day. I tied it around my waist in hopes it’d dry a bit.
It was slow going, but I was on a mission. Eventually the Kelly Lake opened up and I was happy to turn ever further westward and go with the wind a little bit. I stuck to the right-hand shore, aiming for a point up ahead. I thought maybe the portage was before the point, but it was not. I rounded a corner and saw a canoe and a couple of guys looking at a map. I got closer and closer and then hollered, wondering if I’d spook them. I didn’t. They told me to sneak on in. I chatted with them a little bit. They said I had a long way to go, as they came from Sawbill earlier in the day. I kind of knew well enough where I was… and had been through so much. So I took their comment of being really far away with a little grain of salt. I told them that if I got to Smoke Lake in an hour, then I could make it back to the dock in another hour. It was 5:30pm at the time. I was just talking to myself at that point. So, I blitzed onto the portage, the second longest of the day at 230 rods. It was fairly buffed out, and I made good time. I had to stop several times, and switched arms halfway through. It was grueling, but I made it, feeling super excited to just have two lakes to paddle until Sawbill, and I’d be paddling northwest, seemingly perfectly aligned with with wind.
I had a straight shot across Burnt Lake. The water was a weird green color. I wondered if that was from the burning of Burnt Lake. Probably not… I was going right with the wind and it felt so good. I crossed really close to a campsite, then into a back bay. I was in autodrive mode, and just hopped off the board, Diamond and I trucked through to the next lake, and right back onto the water.
Smoke Lake was another easy paddle, with simple navigation. I just had to follow the left hand shoreline. I saw several loons ducking in and out of the water. The very end of the back bay, near the portage somewhere, was marshy. Right in the middle of the bay I nearly stopped dead after smashing into a rock under the surface. I fell onto Diamond, thankful that neither of us went in. Yikes. I spotted a channel in the tall weeds and cattails, turned into it and saw a dock-like structure, which was interesting and unique. It made for a really nice landing. I was nervous Diamond would go off of the wooden dock because there were a few shoes on one of the planks, presumably sucked off my the extreme mud just off the dock. One more portage then I was home free! I made it through, but with many stops to relieve my arms and hands.
The other side of Sawbill Lake was very rocky, and I was on my last straw with Diamond because she wouldn’t climb over the rocks to get on my board. Since when were rocks an issue for you!?!? I screamed at her, and she finally lumbered on board.
The sun had definitely set, which was a bummer. I was looking forward to a great sunset. Clouds had rolled in, or maybe I missed the sunset. Or maybe I saw it. I was glad I had my long sleeve shirt on, it was getting chilly. I still had a pretty long paddle on Sawbill, but was really excited to be done with portages and to be back on Sawbill. What a day! I had the chance to reminisce a little bit, and told Diamond to take it all in. I thought to myself how it wasn’t fun at all. All the lakes looked the same. I could have had a more enjoyable experience with six hours, or four, instead of 12 hours out here. I could have woken up later, and already been back home in my comfortable home. Oh well, it’s done now. Well, not done actually. I looked at my map. I had a long way to go. I just kept smashing my paddle into the water. I started seeing more people, and signs of the campground. One lady hollered at me, asked if I had been paddling all day. I said yep. She said she saw me in the morning. Cool!
I thought I was at the last dock, but it looked different and I didn’t see the road. It was the wrong dock! How did I not find this one in the morning? One more corner and I saw THE dock. I paddled straight to it. My watch was really close to 30 miles and really close to 12 hours. I thought about paddling in a circle to get to both checkpoints. Nah, I just paddled straight in. I nodded to an angler on the end of the dock. I stopped my watch, plopped Diamond onto the dock, lifted my stuff out, and lifted the board out. Then I walked back up to my car, drove down and retrieved my board. While lifting my board into my car, I had to shift it around to align it onto my car seat, and my poor, weak hands slipped and the board slammed on the ground. Oh well, one last bash of the board. You want to smash up your paddleboard real good, take a trip to the Boundary Waters!
The next day, I wrote up a trip report in the BWCA Forum, somehow got to researching on new, faster paddleboards and different touring models and stuff, and dreaming up a new trip, maybe an overnighter. Maybe the trip wasn’t so miserable after all… maybe that was sweet. I think an overnight trip is definitely next. Maybe not so many miles, but c’mon it is so fun to push the limits! I’ll be back.
12 Apr 2020
Trip Plan: Bike the Grandma’s Marathon course in reverse, from the finish line to the start line. Drop the bike, change to running gear and run the Grandma’s Marathon course back.
Start Time: Saturday, April 11, 2020 – 6:09am
- Bike: 1:12:55
- Transition: 0:03:00
- Run: 3:29:46
- Total Time: 4:45:41
In the months leading up to this day, I had been training hard for the Zumbro Midnight 50. I was in really good shape to try and beat my other two times running Zumbro, in 2016 and 2017. With the novel coronavirus sweeping the world, Zumbro was canceled along with thousands, if not millions, of other events worldwide. I knew I wanted to do something on this day, not to mention continue training for the thing. As expected, trail conditions in Duluth had been deteriorating and the annual blanket trail closure in city limits was imposed in early April, leaving any training grounds and adventure route options to road or pavement only.
As my passion project website www.duluthadventures.com was taking off very slowly, I was eager to think of another multisport adventure loop to do, if nothing else to pad the website. Then, as I brainstormed a loop that could be done in early April (when trails are closed; my favorite inline skating route, Munger Trail, was mostly covered in snow; water not open, too cold, and/and too dangerous to paddle), a Grandma’s Marathon course blitz was the idea that stuck in my head more and more often. It seemed like such a raw challenge… 26.2 miles on the time trial bike, the speed machine, max aero. Then, run the marathon course that so many people have run in 3 hours or 2:48 (my PR from 2015) or 2:09 on. I became excited about the route, and even posted my thoughts on social media, pondering if 4 hours for the bike-run combination was outrageous. Yep! Outrageous, and the response was more of: “you can do it Mike!”. Yeah right! I felt in great shape for Zumbro, yes, but the speed and fitness that it takes to run a fast marathon is not an easy thing to develop. That takes serious time and dedication. Was I there? Maybe… but what about the bike portion? How much fitness does that take? I thought that 4:30 would not be out of the question, under 4 hours would be extraordinary. Either way, I thought that this loop could be widely attempted, especially once news broke of Grandma’s Marathon 2020 being canceled due to the pandemic. Who would try this feat?
I set the date. Zumbro day, of course. What other day would it be? Then I happened to talk to a news reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He, I think, wanted a story about Duluth Timing and Events and how the business was affected by races being canceled, and what the deal is with all of these races being canceled. Well, I kind of steered the topic to Duluth Adventures. Hey, any way to get the word out and more submissions to the site is my main angle! But he seemed to be interested, especially when I mentioned this Saturday being my day to do the next Duluth Adventure. He seemed to be so interested, in fact, that he requested what time I was planning to start the whole deal so he could send a photographer down! Cool! However, it presented a unique twist in the whole setup of this trip, because just like a race, there now had to be a specific time to start. I had a scheduled meeting for Saturday at noon. So, as that Saturday drew near, I looked at the weather forecast for guidance. Sunday looked bad all around. Saturday morning looked to have a better wind direction for going fast on the bike. The wind was predicted to shift by the afternoon. So either start at 2pm and finish around 6 or 7pm, or starting brutally early (relative to my month-long routine of sleeping until 8 or 9am) and finishing with enough time to get home, eat and recover for the virtual meeting at noon. I chose 6am.
I wouldn’t say I trained specifically for the fast bike-run, but I would say I was in great shape leading into April. I toyed with another aggressive run mileage build-up, which worked in my favor 6 months prior. I dreamt about a 60-70-80-90 four week peak. On the third week, I stalled at 75 miles, then decided to take a down week instead of 90 or 100 miles. Then I totally scrapped the plan and started from scratch. Either way, it was an aggressive build and I made it out unscathed. After that run-up in mid- to late-March, I decided to focus on running faster and cross-training with a myriad of sports. I figured this would help me with any multisport adventure I wanted to try. And I felt confident for a 4:30 outing on the revered Grandma’s course.
The night before, I barely squeezed my shoes into my small hydration vest. My running shorts and second water bottle made the pack bulge. The first bottle would go with me on the bike. I was very paranoid to lock my triathlon bike to a tree near Two Harbors when I wouldn’t be back to retrieve it for several hours, and not willing to leave my expensive aerodynamic race wheels out of sight for any reason! I got stuck on the unsupported style of this excursion, and recruiting my roommate Jack to pick up my bike kind of blurred the lines. I decided the line was that I had to bring everything I needed, so no pick-up from Jack, but I could essentially drop anything I wanted at the Grandma’s start line, my turn-around point, for Jack to take back home. Meh, I figured it was unsupported enough to be called unsupported. At least self-supported.
When I woke up, I almost called it off. Ugh, too early. It was 4:57am, and dark. The photographer had mentioned the sunrise in the email, and I didn’t even consider that I’d be starting in the dark at 6am! But the familiar race day excitement roused me and the doubts and regret washed away quickly to be replaced by excitement and nervous dread. The good nervous dread, though.
I was down to Canal Park pretty much right at 6am, and started to get ready. I saw the News vehicle far away from the start line and didn’t take action. The photographer Tyler texted me, then I saw her run up and introduce herself. She snapped a few pics of me getting ready and pumping my tires up. I was kind of muttering to her… “I guess I’m almost ready here, what else do I need? That’s it I think”, but it was really just muttering to myself, really. It was kind of awkward… do I acknowledge her at all or just act like I am alone like normal? Whatever, time to rip. I put on my aero helmet, locked my car and put the key in the pack, put the pack on, bike shoes on, and rode up to the start line. Watch at zero, I almost went. Wait! I took a look at the time before setting off: 6:09 and maybe 30 seconds. I hit the start button and started cranking in the dawn light of Canal Park towards the photographer kneeling in the empty street. Nobody else in sight.
It was cold. My fingers became uncomfortably cold within minutes. It was fun to zing around Duluth, but I knew I was losing time by dodging gaping potholes, sand and gravel on the roadway, and navigating the several turns until getting out of town. The sunrise at Brighton Beach was incredible, but I whipped my head around the other way when something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Oh! The photographer girl. Gah, don’t look right at the camera Mike!! So I put my head back down and cranked towards the Scenic Highway 61.
Once onto the highway, I finally felt like I was going fast and could get comfortable in the aero bars. My stupid aero helmet with the long tail in the back was not conducive with my bulging pack. The helmet was hitting the pack, and to see just a few feet in front of me required my eyes to be looking up as far as I could. That wasn’t a great view, and I was most comfortable by looking down at my front wheel, which was darting back and forth on the white lane line. I had to look up, for the sake of safety, and that pack was definitely a source of frustration the entire ride. However, the miles clicked off fast.
My fingers actually warmed up enough once I got going, but my feet had become very cold. It wasn’t really that uncomfortable, but I could feel the numbness creep in. Otherwise, I was actually a pretty nice temperature. When I took a swig of water, it felt like ice water in my mouth. I though there was actually ice forming at one point. I didn’t want to spend the time to eat or drink, though, and became focused on staying aero and cranking away. I tried to maintain a steady effort, but nothing too crazy. In hindsight, I didn’t push hard enough, and I didn’t have the bike mileage in my legs (or really, in my head), to accurately gauge how much effort I was putting forth. Also, it was too cold to check my 5 mile splits, which I’d hoped were in the 12 minute range. It was too cold and I was too focused on maintaining a good speed, to do anything besides sit in the aero bars and crank away.
My photographer Tyler was taking a ton of pictures. She seemed to meet me at the next sweet view every five miles or so. Oh man, I thought, these photos will be gold on my blog site. What a treat. I didn’t see her after Knife River, and I certainly starting noticing the Grandma’s Marathon mile markers with more anticipation, counting down from five to four to three. Couple more minutes here… I spent excess energy looking up in hopes to see the big clearing of Sonju in the distance, or two cars parked on the side of the road. In what seemed like a very short ride, there it was! I saw the two cars, and it was a relief. I had been a little anxious about what to do if Jack wasn’t there, for whatever reason. I wasn’t spending the time to drink water, let alone try to call or text him on the ride. A few peeks of my watch and I was super jacked about my time. I thought I’d averaged 24 mph or faster on the ride, based on my quick math after a quick glance. WOW.
When I got to Jack and Tyler, I first noticed how numb my feet were. I mean, numb. Can’t feel them. Yikes. I forewarned them both that I was going to get naked now. I tried to strip off my tights and bike shorts, which was reminiscent of a triathlon’s T1, struggling with a wetsuit. My shorts went on quick, then my shoes. It was definitely uncomfortable to deal with my frozen feet! Jack luckily just grabbed my bike and tossed it in his vehicle, so I could readjust my pack setup and prepare to run. I was working with a sense of urgency, and after tossing my additional drop-off items in Jack’s car, lined up at the Grandma’s Marathon start line like an elite runner ready to compete. No starting gun, though, just my own preference on the exact moment when to start. My watch is the starting gun, so when I hit the start button, I jumped off the line.
Oof, my first few strides were the classic jelly legs of transitioning from bike to run. The frozen feet added another element. Gah, that was a weird feeling. Jack sped by and honked his horn. Tyler drove by next, soon out of sight. The frozen feet had transitioned to pins and needles, ouch. However, the sun was rising higher in the sky and I could feel its rays. The rest of my body was the perfect temperature. And it was very quick for the jelly legs feeling to vanish and the feeling of strength to replace. Oooo yeah. Let’s get it.
After only a mile my feet warmed up and I was really the perfect temperature. It was probably 34 degrees… a tough temperature to plan for. I saw Tyler down the road a bit and focused on running as if she wasn’t there as I heard her camera click away. Another mile and I felt a slight jostling in my stomach. Darn. I saw a portable toilet at the Mocha Moose and figured it’d be a good insurance policy to stop. I did, and felt better despite a mid-9 minute mile split. Time to settle in at 7:30, I told myself. And that’s what I did. The miles started to click off. I saw my personal photographer about every mile, it seemed. It was kind of fun to see where my watch was at when I crossed each mile marker. I wasn’t running the tangent of the road, that’s for sure. Tyler jumped out of her car and ran to my side of the road for when I crossed the Mile 4 marker. When I hit mile 6 I thought about how this is kind of like halfway to halfway. 13.1. Wait, that’s like 6.5 miles. When I got to the Mile 7 marker, which was 7.08 on my watch, I said I was halfway to halfway. Nice. My splits were good and I was feeling great. I figured this pace would give me a 1:40 half split, which is a 3:20 marathon. I thought my bike was around 1:10… how long was that transition? I was kind of fumbling around… maybe 5 minutes? I remembered 6:09am. I tried to do math. I figured a 3:20 marathon would be damn close to 4 and a half hours for the whole trip. I can do it.
The miles kept clicking off, and I got tired. Oof, this is going to a long, long day, I told myself. With a handful of miles until halfway still, I remembered the first miles. Those were the golden miles, I told myself. I felt good back then… But I kept trucking along in a great rhythm and fairly consistent mile splits in the 7:30 range. I hadn’t seen Tyler in a long time. That was probably the end of her assignment. Darn. Just me and the road out here. I tried to run the tangents when it looked like a big curve in the road, which was not the least dangerous thing I could have done. The curves always end up being pretty tame, anyways. I was just looking longingly ahead, always. It kind of felt like running the actual marathon, except the water stops are definitely a highlight of each mile. There is energy at each water stop. No extra energy on this day, except the other solo exercises, the animals and nature, and the traffic. Traffic may be an energy suck, actually.
I hit halfway right a tad slower than 1 hour and 40 minutes in. I’d have to dig deep to finish this thing out in a negative split. But I was feeling good. It was kind of the feeling in a 50 miler, like I’d been training for. My body seemed to be self limiting to a pace that was sustainable. I felt tired, yes. My legs were starting to get a little sore, perhaps. But I knew at halfway that I was on track to finish strong. However, my time was not exactly a motivating factor. I seemed to be slipping from 7:30 pace, and to be a little slower than 1:40 for the half was slightly discouraging. Then, upon a second calculation, I would need a 3:10 marathon or so to hit 4:30! I must have been wrong about my bike split and transition… it was hard to find a definite calculation to know how long my bike and transition were, but I could tell that it’d take a big negative split to hit my goal. Oh well… finish ‘er out Mike!
My next target was Brighton Beach. Getting off this stinkin’ highway would be a nice change of scenery. Any change of scenery… and the Lakeside section of the Grandma’s course just makes you feel like you’re into town finally. Thinking back to the ride, the portion getting out of Duluth and onto the Scenic went by in a blip! Plus, mile 20 is always a good milestone to hit in the marathon. So I looked forward to Brighton Beach in an attempt to help time fly by a little bit faster. The miles continued to click off, and I felt another swash of the stomach. Darn. It wasn’t an emergency situation, but the swash was enough of a discomfort to notice my mile splits. I pondered the likelihood of a portable restroom at Brighton Beach, or at one of the rest stops between here and there. Eh, probably not. And then the slightly uneasy swash because an emergency real quick. I felt “the clench”. So I ran off into the woods. Actually, the break was nice on the ole churning leggies. There are only probably 2,500 more portable toilets on this route during a certain weekend in June. Today, one. And no matter how unpleasant the e-dump in the woods was, I ran off feeling much springier and more fresh. In no time, I ran across Lester River and into the Lakeside neighborhood. I was feeling pretty good. Strong, speedy again (well, speedy enough), and in control. Usually during Grandma’s Marathon, or even the Garry Bjorklund Half, Lakeside is a death march. Usually I am hanging on by a thread, having gone out way too hard for the first bunch of miles. That being said, each step through Lakeside today was still tedious.
The next milestone was Glensheen Mansion. Glensheen has always been the toughest part of the course. Maybe it’s simply a landmark to remember the suffering. This time, I was moving well. My mile splits continued to be consistent. Consistent enough, at least, to not feel like I was falling apart. I was excited to run past Glensheen and try Lemon Drop Hill. The hill did reduce me to a shuffle, but I was up and over and on to London Road. I was getting real close, and getting excited. I knew that 4:30 was out of reach, so just focused on finishing strong. Each mental Grandma’s Marathon milestone clicked by: the turn up 12th Ave; crossing DRC, where I remembered all those years passing with many high-fives and a jolt of adrenaline; Fitger’s with the massive crowds at the Mile 24 water station. Today, just another day and I was running on the sidewalk. I probably looked like a maniac, some haggard dude running hard with a backpack and making audible grunts of pain. Oh well. I ran around a car pulling out and down to Michigan. Mile 25 came and went, and it was on to the final push. I was looking at my marathon time now. It’d be close, but a sure lock for 3:30. Around the DECC, past the Blue Bridge and the Irvin, and I could sniff the finish. Yes. However, all the sudden 3:30 was coming up real quick and I knew that I absolutely could not let up. Around by the hotels, across the marker for Mile 26, and my hair stood up on the back of my neck. There it was! That little hit of excitement, that little rush that you get near the finish line of a race… I got it.
Amidst the pain of the finishing stretch, I found it kind of funny that I was running down the middle of Canal Park Drive just like any other marathon day. Nobody was out, no cars, no businesses open… nothing. 11am on a Saturday and just me pushing as hard as I can. This coronavirus is bizarre shit!
I crossed the finish line with 3:29:XX on my watch, and yelled out right away. ARGHH! It was the same yell as one makes directly after finishing a speedy interval on the track, for instance. A smile came onto my face, and I laid down right next to the Grandma’s Marathon Finish Line plaque impressed into the nearby sidewalk.
It was without a doubt a fun trip. I found it incredibly interesting how little I could dip into the pain cave without a bib on. The next day, my legs felt pretty good, similar to any other long training day. The day after a Grandma’s Marathon, I am dead!! That takes many days to walk kind of normal again. It felt like I was pushing to my abilities during this solo effort, but I don’t think it was comparable to a race effort, in hindsight. Perhaps one is simply more risk averse in a non-race, unsupported situation.
My hope is that somebody else tries this route. I would love to hear the story about how they suffered greatly, as I did. Yet, it was all worth it.