18 Feb 2019

Duluth Loops

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

Trip Synopsis:

Day 1:

Garmin Data:

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.

Day 2:

Garmin Data:

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.

Hike Date: November 24-25, 2018

Trail: Superior Hiking Trail

Trip Plan: Travel 50 miles at goal pace of 4 miles per hour. Go out and back two days in a row on the trail section from Duluth to Two Harbors.

Day 1 – Park at Fox Farm Road campsite, go out northbound for 3 hours and back. 23.8 miles total.

Day 2 – Park at Normanna Road campsite, go out northbound for 13.1 miles and back. 26.2 miles total. 

Trip Synopsis:

Day 1 – Saturday, November 24, 2018

Garmin Data: 

It was about 32 degrees and a mixture of snow, sleet, and rain falling as I drove towards the eastern end of Duluth to get out of town and onto a unique section of SHT trail that connects Duluth and the Southern Terminus to the iconic North Shore ridgeline on which the Superior Hiking Trail travels to Canada. I was worried about the conditions of the trail and figured my feet would be getting wet. I dawdled getting out to the trail and was hoping to get to the trailhead by 11am.

I chose to drive to the Fox Farm Road trailhead, which is conveniently about a 20 minute drive from my house. This is such a wonderful section of trail and I was excited to see a big chunk of it over the weekend. My plan today was to head north. I parked and got my things together, including my trekking poles and pack. As I reached for the pack, I looked in horror at the two 600mL bottles that I forgot to fill. They were empty. I figured I’d need extra water today, going so far, and packed an extra 500mL water bottle. So that was all I had now. That could be an issue. As I set off, I crossed a wetland and little creek immediately and pondered the risks of filling my empty bottles at a creek without filtering. That would really suck to get sick. I’d poured 250mL into each of my pack’s bottles, and decided snow was a safer alternative. I scooped a bit of snow into each bottle early on in the run and hoped it would dissolve to water. 

Within .1 miles, there were two downed trees. The running surface was a bit tacky and definitely not icy, but a bit slushy in some areas and there were certainly “wet spots” that weren’t completely frozen over and covered with snow and slush. I stepped in a couple of those early on, while I followed a branch of the Knife River into the woods. After a couple of miles, I seemed to lock into my goal pace of 15 minutes per mile. Trail conditions turned out to be great. There was some slippage going on but generally solid footing and that made me happy. The temperature must had lowered slightly, perhaps in the higher elevations away from the lake, because there were definite snowflakes falling onto my face. I was very happy to only see the two downed trees right away and not many other obstructions. Time seemed to go by pretty quick and I tended to eat snow instead of trying for my slush mixture in the bottles I was carrying.

I noticed I was following footsteps. They seemed fresh but it was hard to know. I wondered if I’d see anyone else on the trail on this wet and overcast Saturday. I smelled the undeniable scent of barbecue sauce and wondered if the turkey and cheese wrap I’d packed along was getting too jostled to stay contained in its foil wrapper. At that moment, I saw the guys up ahead I’d been following for some time now. I hollered once I got close enough and they both jumped off of the trail. I commented that I seemed to have scared them and they agreed because they didn’t hear me coming. I told them I’d been following for quite some time… 

After passing those two guys, I figured that 1pm was a good time to eat, so I grabbed the tattered foil wrapping with my lunch underneath. I picked off aluminum foil and wolfed it down. It was pretty dang tasty. I washed it down with slush. The snow I’d gathered hadn’t melted in the little bit of water that was in each bottle. Oh well, snow works fine. Two hours in and I was right on track, things were going good and the woods were truly beautiful while dusted with snow. The next hour wouldn’t go so good, however.

Once I got past Rossini Road, I wondered how far I’d get into the Lake County Demonstration Forest. After doing some calculations, I figured I could at least get to the intersection of the long Demo Forest trailhead spur and SHT main trail. I was going slow as I passed Fergeson Campsite and losing time on my goal of covering four miles every hour. Minutes slowed down as I approached my turnaround spot. I know for sure that I’d want to make the U-turn at no particular mileage, but at 3 hours regardless of what happens. I had a small fear that I’d not be able to even-split the run and would be in the dark for quite some time. This time of year, it is quite dark by 5pm. From memory and recognition, I knew I was kind of close to the official start of the Lake County Demo Forest section after crossing a road and some climbing. That afforded some great views of of the landscape, although it was cloudy, foggy, and very grey.

I didn’t get that much further until I saw the 50’s in the minute column and 2 changed to 3. At 3 hours in, on the dot, I turned right around in my tracks and started to head all the way back to the car. I was nearly at 12 miles when I made the turn, still not feeling super great. I think the pain or toughness was not rooted in physical wear, but more a boredom of frustration of being out here alone and having to go all the way back. My legs were feeling good, actually. I was able to run pretty well but just felt a little flat. My feet and socks had definitely been wet from within the first hour out there, so that was causing a little discomfort. Nothing serious, luckily, but just that having wet feet isn’t the most pleasant feeling in the world. My clothing choices were on point, though, and I was perhaps just slightly warm while running. I wouldn’t want to be with less clothes, and there were long stretches where rolling up my sleeves was a perfect way to vent and cool a bit. 

It seems to be a mental change to make that turn on be “on the way back” and I felt that for sure. Time started moving faster and I did too. I caught back up to my goal pace and was in auto-pilot. I knew that the temperature was dropping with the sun because I sensed a more pronounced crunch under my feet as the slushy wet snow solidified. I know pondered what tomorrow would be like, since I was headed right back out in the morning. Would it be super crusty? Icy? The same or better conditions? Yep, all in all, it had been really good the whole way northbound. With a frozen ground and less than two inches of snow, you can’t get much better early winter conditions.

I luckily didn’t feel thirsty and I shoveled almonds into my mouth, and decided I could take the rest of my water at any time and just rely on snow. So I drank all my water with an hour or so left, and enjoyed scooping snow and letting it melt in my mouth. When I passed Big Bend campsite, I remembered that it took me almost exactly one hour to get there from the car, so that was my gauge. Criss-crossing the West Branch Knife River is a little technical and I realized that the first and last mile of the trek was probably the worst conditions with water and puddles under a small frozen layer of ice and snow. Despite having wet feet already, it was really not nice to get a full dunk of my foot into a puddle. I tried to push off finding my headlamp, and just as darkness set in, I hopped over a couple mangled trees and knew I was right at my car. I looked at my watch and had to do laps around the parking lot. I was so close to 23.8 and had to get there. Why? Well, to get my 50 miles on the weekend, if I stopped at 23.8 today, I’d simply need an even marathon of 26.2 for the next day.

I peeled my nasty wet socks off and drove home barefoot. The max heat setting in my car was very useful. My body seemed to be holding up fine with no major issues. A perfect setup for the next day.

Day 1 – Sunday, November 25, 2018

Garmin Data: 

I woke up on Sunday morning with the intention to hit it early. I was very creaky getting out of bed. Ooof. The last thing on my mind was going back to the trail, putting the vest back on and going out and back 3+ hours one way, again. I knew I needed to go, though, so I just drug my feet around the house, sluggishly collecting my items. Water filled… CHECK! Food, trekking poles, put on my gear, nice fresh socks that will be soaked in a few hours, coffee. I ate breakfast and looked at my trusty SHT guidebook. The day before, I covered from Fox Farm Road to the intersection of the Lake County Demonstration Forest trailhead spur trail and the main trail. I looked at the Normanna trailhead page and was suprised to see that I could get really close to my goal mileage by heading north from there to Fox Farm Road. I’d likely need to make up some mileage somewhere… I thought maybe that’d be on the Sucker River trailhead spur. A little out and back from there would be perfect. Food in the system, and I got out early enough despite feeling apprehension and fatigue.

It was a cooler morning and I wondered if the previous day’s slush would be frozen, hard and slippery. I got out to the trail and started almost by 10am. The sun was shining and the cool air felt really great. Within a few steps, my sluggish nature seemed to disappear and I was once again very happy to be out in the woods racking up some miles.

The first few miles out of Normanna were a little icy. Not too bad but certainly hard-packed. It didn’t seem like the slush from the day before had seriously hardened, though. In my mind, I rehearsed my game plan: go out a half marathon, then turn around. Pretty simple! I wanted to stick to my 4 mph goal as well, but there is kind of a different mindset when going for time versus distance. Also, an out-and-back has a different mindset. I kind of like the out-and-back trips for some reason. It’s a little funny to just flip a 180 degree turn in the middle of nowhere just because my watch flashes 3 hours or 13.1 miles. I think each direction has its own character, too, and I like knowing the trail like the back of my hand.

The early miles clicked back with ease. I passed Heron Pond campsite right away, crossed the little creek near the dogsledding road intersection, and I was bombing the big hill down to the Sucker River valley in no time. The day was perfect. The conditions were ideal, temperature right in the sweet spot of 25 degrees, and sun shining. Mmm, a little vitamin D energized me after full clouds 24 hours ago. 

When I got to Sucker River, about 1:20 and a bit over 5.5 miles for the day, I smelled a familiar smell. That smell is my wrap cover becoming uncovered in my pack and barbecue sauce seeping out. It was barely 10:30am but I ate the whole thing anyways. Gah, I had probably 5 more hours out here and I was chowing down the majority of my calories. I’d just eaten a big meal perhaps two hours before that wasn’t hungry really at all. Oh well, I ate it all, and only for the sake of not making a mess in my little pack. At least I had about 1.6 liters of water to wash it down. I hiked along the Sucker River, eating simultaneously, and feeling good that I was right on track. 

Things were pretty uneventful from there to the turnaround. Spectacular conditions, very few people on the trail, and I was right on track. After passing Fox Farm Pond campsite, I decided that I’d stop there on the way back for a nice afternoon break. I made a guesstimate that it’d be around .1 miles down the spur trail to the campsite, so I’d want to turn around at about 13.0 miles. When I popped out to the empty parking lot that held my car the day before, my watch said not even 12.5 miles. Back to the Fox Farm section… I fondly remembered the huge trees down right away. Climbed over those. I also fondly remembered the postholes I’d made yesterday nearby the West Branch Knife River in a likely swampy area in the other three seasons. I was able to dodge around those and get to my special 13.0 mark. I promptly turned around and headed all the way back, feeling pretty great and under pace with 3:08 on the clock. My 4 mph time for 13.0 miles should have been 3:15, so almost a half mile ahead. 

I was surprised in the course of 1 mile how someone would arrive at the trailhead and set off, but sure enough, I popped back out to Fox Farm Road trailhead and an old Subaru had clearly just arrived. I inspected the tracks… a person and a dog. Maybe a wolf chasing a person. Probably not. I chased the tracks, noting my own facing the opposite direction.

While in my own mind, I had to laugh to myself how crappy I felt in the morning and how great I was feeling now. I remembered the day before getting to the turnaround and dragging. It was hard to keep pace for a few hours there, but today I was really cruising with ease. Perhaps the conditions were better… my shoes weren’t deluged. Perhaps my mental condition was better… three more hours and I was to be done for the day! Then, in the morning, how I felt like anything would be better than heading to the trail, but I made it out and made it this far and was going to make it home. YES!

I finally caught up to the car owner and her dog and passed them up. I was still sticking to my 15 minute pace, which is a healthy combination of hiking and running, really. So it was kind of a weird pass because her dog wanted to hang and I felt their presence for a long time right behind me. I didn’t want to stop and pee because I knew they’d be right there behind me. Oh well, before long I’d left ’em for good. 

I saw a few more hikers near my break spot of Fox Farm Pond campsite. I had fond recollections of staying there four years ago almost to the day. The break was fine but I got cold and it kind of interrupted my flow. But once I got back moving again I realized that it was nice to have the break. I continued on with a renewed mindset. It was kind of hard to get my hands warm, though, and I seemed to have so many little things to do with my fingers like rearrange my pack or fiddle with my water bottles. I dumped a half liter bottle of water into my main containers and spilled a bit of water on my hands. Dang, they were freezing! Well, I kept moving, because that was the best way to warm them up.

The portion of trail between the Sucker River trailhead spur and Sucker River campsite took forever. It was a little mentally strenuous and I was ready to be done. What was good, though, was my body holding up really well. I thought of other times in my life where I set out on long trips like this, and became very proud of my commitment to the training program I was using and how it was really paying off. That positivity carried me to the Sucker River campsite, where I zinged right through, still ahead of pace. At this reference point, I looked at my watch and saw 5 hours. My mileage was at 20.5 or so, still about a half mile ahead of where I need for even 15 minute per mile splits. 

As the sun sank lower in the sky, I spotted Heron Pond campsite on its little hill, trucked right past it and onto the hard-packed last mile. I really noticed the traffic of this area compared to the softer, grittier, almost tackier miles that made up 24 miles of my day. I didn’t bring a headlamp, and wouldn’t need one, but the sun was setting fast. When I got within eyesight of the van, I did a double check. There was no way I’d stop my watch without 26.2 miles or more. I was unfortunately short, but not by much. I headed south on the trail, instead of onto the spur trail. I almost made it to the bridge over the French River, just a stone’s toss away, but turned around with palpable excitement, almost jittery, to get back to my van and drive home and be done.

My watch clicked to 26.2 miles and I stopped my run, poles in hand. After banking some time early, I’d kept my quick pace up all day, for better or worse. My body felt better after 50 miles than after 23.8, somehow. But how encouraging is that! A bit discouraging was that there were no days off… the next day, my “daily” jog increases by five minutes to 40 minutes and another four week training block was in front of me. But I was already kind of looking forward to that next long trip.

04 Nov 2018

Fault Line

Hike Date: October 27-29, 2018

Trail: Superior Hiking Trail

Trip Plan: Backpack in to Fault Line Creek campsite, set up for two nights. Then trail run/hike 45 miles at 4 miles per hour.

Day 1 – Backpack in ~4 miles from County Road 4/Beaver Bay trailhead to Fault Line Creek campsite. Set up my tent, and run south for 16 miles/2 hours out and back.

Day 2 – Run north for 3 hours out and back, 6 hours total for hopefully 24 miles.

Day 3 – Backpack back out to the trailhead.

Backpack miles: 7.5 miles, Running miles: 38.5 miles

Trip Synopsis:

Day 1 – Saturday, October 27, 2018:

Garmin Data (hike in):

I started the day a bit late due to a race timing gig earlier in the day. Emily and I went for breakfast and I loaded up on calories, but didn’t make it onto Highway 61 until well after noon. I parked at Lax Lake Road right outside of Beaver Bay, solo and in a cloud of mist. It looked like it could rain at any moment. I heaved the huge backpack onto my shoulders, grabbed a bag of beer in one hand and a gallon of water in my other hand.

Oof, my shoulders were instantly pained. I was used to walking between 15 and 20 minutes per mile with the dogs in training and the first mile was a struggle and over 20 minutes. I was anxious to get to camp quickly because I knew I wanted to get as close to 20 miles in as possible with the fast pack right after setting up my tent. I did some quick math–I could do two hours out and back and if I stick 4 miles per hour that makes 16 miles. Then I can do 24 miles tomorrow, plus the 4 miles that I was hiking at the moment almost adds up to my goal mileage of 45. It was around 2:30pm at this point, if I could get the fast pack on and get out to the trail by 3:30pm, I’d be back to camp for the night by 7:30pm. It started getting dark at around 6pm… I’d be running in the dark for sure.

The trail was slick, a lot of rocks were exposed in this section and it made for even slower walking. I thought about biffing it with the huge pack on… it must have weighed at least 50 pounds as I was planning on setting up camp for two nights and camping nicely. Luckily I did not go down. My hips hurt from the waist belt, my shoulders only got more pained and I started to feel like a wuss. Sheesh, I should practice backpacking more, I thought! That makes you real rugged and tough. Mentally, too. But today, I was practicing fast and light at 4mph on the dot.

The Fault Line Creek campsite was right around the corner, and I knew because of the ridiculously rocky section right alongside the beaver pond upon which my campsite was situated. I finally got there and was very relieved to take the pack off. I quickly set up camp and got everything organized in a way that would make my life in the dark easier. I pre-packed the fast pack and hit it as soon as possible.

Garmin data (run):

With trekking poles in hand, hydration pack on my back, I was ready to roll. I set out southbound from Fault Line Creek campsite towards the Split Rock River. I didn’t know exactly how far I’d make it, but knew there were several spur trails and loops and such in the Split Rock River section and could probably tack on some segments to get to two hours, then turn around. I found it hard to run right out of the gate. It was a bit muddy, really rocky, and all of the rocks were really slippery.

I’d purchased a new pack and was excited to try it out. It’s the Ultimate Direction Jurek FKT vest, aptly named for my purposes. I was excited to test a pack with front holders for water. My “old” fast pack/hydration pack has no pockets or anything on the front, which means everything is the back. I don’t mind having a hydration bladder in the back, but nixed that today in lieu of the two front water bottles that came with the vest. The first few miles with it felt awesome. I was cruising, right on pace despite the challenging conditions. But that is just the Superior Hiking Trail… it’s not easy no matter what. The weather was holding–no rain but definitely cloudy. I expected rain, especially overnight and early Sunday morning. Given the recent wet weather, the trail was in pretty dang good shape, actually. I had a bit of a time buffer and decided to power hike along the Merrill Grade to see if I could haul ass near 15 minutes per mile on a flat, non-rocky section.

Miles were clicking off but time seemed to be moving a little bit slow as I could sense dusk settling in. I was not looking forward to running in the dark. I climbed to a ridgeline with a great view of Split Rock Lighthouse and some cool rock formations near the mouth of the Split Rock River and figured I’d get pretty close to the Split Rock River itself. I decided I’d just take the regular SHT route to the bridge crossing, which was out at the moment. Maybe I could scope out the former bridge location… maybe I could cross it my rock-hopping, I thought. To try as hard as possible to get to exactly 8 miles at exactly 2 hours, I was cruising and running pretty hard once I entered the State Park. I got to exactly 2 hours in between the two East Split Rock River campsites, somewhere around 7.95 miles. Perfect.

My goal for the return trip was to perfectly even-split the trek and feel good. At this point, I was running up out of the river valley as darkness was beginning to wash over the entire landscape. I hadn’t seen anyone all afternoon at all. My body was holding up really well with a healthy combination of hiking and running. I was definitely frustrated about the slippery conditions but in reality there was really not too much to be frustrated about. I was out here in the woods, three days to explore and spend time on the trails, feeling good.

I ran Merrill Grade on the way back. Midway through, I ate some food and put my waist light and headlamp on. Darkness seems to come so quick… all the sudden BOOM! You can’t see a thing! In that time between dusk and total darkness, albeit a brief time, it seems like you need a headlamp but it almost does more bad than good for actually seeing the ground. 5 more minutes and it was dark.

I felt myself slow down in the dark but tried to keep moving. I didn’t want to slip on the steep downhill rock faces, that would really mess up my whole trip! It was kind of creepy in the dark. Halloween weekend, dreary and misty and cloudy, and the section leading into Fault Line Creek campsite was full of small black spruce and other coniferous trees and thousands of birch. Some of those birch trees can play tricks on your eyes and mind in the dark. They look like faces, like people, like monsters.

The trail became notably more technical and challenging with one mile to go left to camp. I didn’t necessarily feel tired or hungry so gave up on my quest for an even 4 hour/16 mile trip and started looking for good firewood. I collected some birch bark and found a few sticks. After carrying those around a bit, I realized that it was kind of stupid… I might as well get back to camp and search from there. I’d left a trail of brittle birch bark along the trail just because I couldn’t carry it all and said to myself “forget it”, hurled it all into the woods along with my stick. I got to camp, stopped my watch, took off the pack and began to multitask.

I got my water boiling, gathered some fresh birch bark (which was everywhere) and some damp sticks. I was lucky enough to find some premium firewood, but everything was damp. I cooked my dinner, got a fire going, gathered some more wood, and soon enough was eating next to a roaring fire with a beer in hand. Nice.

Day 2:

Garmin Data:

I wanted to hit the trail at 8am sharp. Without setting an alarm, I was shocked to check my phone and see 7:35am. After a restless night of sleep and rain, I felt like I finally fell into a deep sleep in the dawn hours. I jolted up and started to prepare for a 6 hour day on the trail. I began to multitask–boil water, cordon off my breakfast of coffee and oatmeal from the rest of the junk strewn about my tent, wipe off the excess moisture seeping in from everywhere, put on my running shorts, shove essential items into my running pack, pour boiling water into my camp french press, begin cooking the oatmeal. I made a trip to the latrine, ate quickly and was off on the trail right after 8am. I was impressed by my efficiency, but felt rushed all the same. It had rained for hours the night before, seemed to have mostly stopped, yet was very misty. It seemed like regular raindrops had split into 1,000 tiny raindrops and didn’t have enough weight to completely fall to the ground and so were suspended in the air. Heading north today, I made it around the beaver pond and spotted my tent from a couple hundred feet away. I warned the beavers to not mess with my shit while I was away.

I got to the top of the fault line ridge and was glad I brought my camera along for pictures. Before long, I was back to my car. There was one other vehicle in the parking lot on this overcast, crummy day. I wondered if anyone else was on the trail… It was the last weekend before rifle hunting season for deer began, so perhaps there were others like me trying to get one last backpack trip in before the deep winter set in. That didn’t look like the case, though.

Along Beaver River, it was just me and the roaring river. There was a huge yellow plastic divider thing pinned against some rocks and trees that caught my eye. No people at the sites, no people on the trail. Mud was at a minimum and I made it into the Silver Bay area without incident. I was munching on a caffeine Clif Bar and noted how the time seemed to be flying by today in contrast to yesterday’s tough hike into the night. I discovered a nice trick with my new pack to put my arm in the opposite shoulder strap and swing it around to my front to access the back compartments that were full of food.

I was making good time though Silver Bay, although this section seemed especially difficult. With last night’s rain, it was even more slippery on certain rocks with a light layer of moss on top. And in the cliffs above Silver Bay, there is a lot of slick rocks with a light layer of moss on top. But that also means no mud… so when I got to a section of non-muddy dirt trail, it felt so awesome. My feet seemed to slip out from under me with each foot strike.

Across Penn Boulevard, I checked my watch, checked the trail sign with upcoming landmarks and mileage, and I figured I could make it really close to Bean and Bear Lake… perhaps to the far trail register. I was hoping to get 12 miles in before the turnaround but knew a couple hours in that that wouldn’t happen. I was falling behind in the tough, wet conditions. I was running when I could, but it was really hard to find runnable sections! It seems like there were so many rocks… much more than I remembered. It’s always rockier and rootier than one can recall. However, the trail heading up to Bean and Bear is one of the most popular of the entire 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail and just as I’d hoped, it was well worn and seemed like a superhighway compared to the tight, technical, and obscenely rocky pieces of trail south of Beaver Bay. On the flip side, there were a few really serious mud pits. Knowing that I only had one pair of shoes for the whole weekend, I tried my best to avoid the mud, which slowed me down a lot. The worst part is that you can’t avoid it and my feet got drenched, my socks inundated with mud and water, and mud splashed continually onto my calves and shins.

Bean Lake was stunning as always, even in the dreary and cloudy conditions. I ran hard along the ridge, not taking a moment to dilly-dally to get as close to 12 miles as possible within my allotted 3 hours to head north before turning around. With one eye on my watch, I turned around a few paces before the far northern edge of Bear Lake right at 3:00:00. That was just over 11 miles. Not terrible…

On the way back, it was my goal to crush a few miles. Might as well push it, I thought. I really cruised through Bean Lake and down to Penn Creek and its campsite. I had seen a few people in this section, which wasn’t super surprising given its popularity. We were all lamenting over the mud, I’m sure. Time was moving quickly and before long I had made up some really good time back up along Silver Bay.

The rest of the trip was pretty low-key. I made good time and was focused. In a flash, I was back to my car. I stopped there, filled up my water bottles with water and picked up a banana. I made a plan to eat the banana at the “Fault Line Overlook”, which is a made up overlook with a distant view of Lake Superior and the end of the long beaver pond that my campsite was on.

It was slow going back to the overlook. I think the 11.3 mile section with Split Rock to the south and Beaver Bay to the north is perhaps overlooked as one of the toughest on the Superior Hiking Trail. It is just so rugged. The elevation isn’t super extreme but the rocks are. Soon enough, I made it to the overlook, less than a half mile back to camp. I’d lost some time on the last hour, but paused my watch and enjoyed the view of flat white. It’d really gotten foggy and I almost expected a downpour. You could feel the moisture in the air.

I ate my banana and started to get vertigo with the deep fog and haze. It was almost like a sensory deprivation or something… I didn’t spend a ton of time at the soggy and dank overlook and left right after my last bite of banana.

After getting back to camp, I tooled around a bit. I had recently adopted the campsite I was at, the Fault Line Creek campsite, and so wanted to do some maintenance. Well, there really wasn’t much to do and everything was wet anyways. My body felt great from the 20+ mile trek, which was very positive. I put on my rain gear and kept on the endless task of gathering firewood. Everything was damp, and I didn’t even need to lay a finger on a tree to know, I could see the drops of dew on every branch, leaf, and stick. Ugh.

Eventually, I gathered a bunch of quality firewood and stood it up next to the fire ring. I started looking for birch bark and was able to find some really good pieces deep in the woods. That stuff burns so well. After a few close calls of the fire burning out completely, I did get a good rager going. I enjoyed it for a while, and as I began preparing for dinner, a beautiful beam of sunshine hit the opposite side of the fault line’s bluff, illuminating a towering stand of bare birch trees. I looked up and was greeted to a small, small, tiny section of blue sky. It seemed that the soggy day was moving on.

The clouds washed away. When the sun sank below the horizon and the blue turned to indigo and then to black, I was treated with a stunning panoramic view of the Milky Way. It was a great end to a tough day of dealing with the moisture.

Day 3 – Monday, October 29, 2018:

Garmin Data:

I woke up late to bright sunshine. It was great and very refreshing to see the sun. Also, it made cleaning up camp much easier. I dug out the fire pit, destroyed an “illegal” pit on a different part of the campsite, and took my time to make breakfast and pack up my campsite. Also, I did my strength workout on my camp pad in the open air, and that was really nice. Nice, and nice to get it out of the way… I definitely don’t think I would have done it at home!

The hike out was really nice. I had a chance to reflect on the weekend. Monday brought perfect weather, and I took the other part of the Cove Point Loop trail that I hadn’t been on this trip, including a half mile that I had never been on. It was a nice section of trail, and mentally easier since I had gone on the ~4 mile regular SHT section from my car to the campsite 3 times already on the weekend. My back and shoulders didn’t hurt nearly as much on the way out, but I had eaten and drunken quite a bit of weight! I certainly took my time hiking out, with no regrets whatsoever. Success on my first long trip of this training cycle leading up to a thru-hike in May 2019.


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