07 Jan 2019
Race day: Saturday, January 5, 2019-9:30am
I was so excited to race, it was the best feeling to jump off the start line and be with the big pack of runners. The first minute was by far the easiest part of the day. Leading up to the Northwoods Winter Trail Marathon, training had been pretty much on point except two weekends prior where I did not accomplish the every-four-weeks “long trip” of 55 miles that was scheduled. The conditions in and around Jay Cooke State Park were icy that day. I started falling behind my pace and pulled the plug with 14 miles and 4 hours logged in the woods. But the training program went on, and the frustration of failure turned into the excitement to compete!
With recent heavy snow in Duluth, and kind of weird winter conditions up to January, it was really a crapshoot how the trails would allow fast running. I know that sometimes, running on those fat bike trails on packed snow is real nice and real fast! There were two rounds of snow within the race week, the first being really wet and heavy and the second being pretty powdery. It got warm later in the week and race day was in the mid- to upper-30’s. I was contemplating what to wear and decided a long sleeve and my mikeward.cool jersey would work. I had four screws in each shoe and ready to rock.
I was carrying my handheld water bottle with a couple of gels and would make an exchange at the half-way loop. I lined up directly under the arch and the countdown began, then GO! And the crowd ran off. I got to the front very quickly and up onto the snowmobile trail at Lester Park, headed down towards the lake. The first mile was pretty good running on that snowmobile trail, and I noticed a sub-8 minute mile right away. Hmm! Probably should slow down, I thought.
Some of the half guys went out in front, and who I believed was Wynn Davis according to Eric’s pre-race chatter, stuck right behind me. He barely edged me out and took the lead for the marathon until missing a turn that was literally off into the woods–no preexisting trail. I noticed the pink paint on the snow and hollered out, then I was in the lead. We popped right onto bike trails and I lead us on a long stretch, all the way to the top of Lester.
Wynn and I started chatting and the miles started clicking off. He told me he was indeed Wynn. It was a grind up the Lester River but I kept the legs churning. The trail was a little soft. Not too bad and we were making decent time. After a climb of several miles, we jutted out to an intersection atop Seven Bridges Road at Skyline Boulevard, and ran back onto snowmobile trails. It was not long before he went around me. I stopped for a pee break and let Wynn run away. Boy, he took off! He was out of sight in no time.
I was already feeling a bit fatigued from the snowy conditions and probably going a bit too hard on the climb. Hey, I hadn’t walked yet! I was getting into a rhythm on the snomo trail but it did feel slow and I was looking forward to the aid station. The aid station stop was real quick as I grabbed a pancake and some chips and jetted off. I was right on time for my goal of 4 hours, so sprinted up the hill out of the aid station, finally on the solid ground of a paved dirt road for once.
It was so demoralizing to get back onto the bike trail. The planks of the bridge were uneven and just so clumsy. The trail didn’t get less demoralizing from there, with the slippy and slidey and steep section to the backside of Hawk Ridge across Skyline. There, the views were sweet, sweeping across the deep grey Lake Superior. I wondered if I was going to see Wynn at all. I was moving good through Hawk Ridge. I didn’t see anyone.
The way down Amity Creek took forever because you could see the start and finish area from high above the ridge and you run so far to finally get back there. A quick check of my watch and I was happy to see that I would certainly make a 2:00 split at the half point. I had eaten my gels, was right on track with water and feeling pretty good stomach-wise and general energy-wise. I could feel the fatigue and was noticing a few specific muscles getting worked hard with all the sliding around and lateral movement. My hamstrings seemed worked as well as my right hip flexor. My ankles were starting to get mad from all the sideways motion.
The half-way point was wonderful, just to have that mental checkpoint, but I did not spend much time and was back across the start/finish line after switching my gel wrappers for fresh ones and trying to eat as much Twix bar as I could in 15 seconds. I saw some half finishers and a couple behind me coming in. No other full marathoners in sight. My watch was at around 1:55 and just bit above 12 miles. Right away, getting back to the early snowmobile miles, I felt so flat. It was like I left my energy stores at the finish line. No! I didn’t do the half marathon! I had to remind my body of that. Or maybe it was because the trail was chewed up. Was I just fresh and springy the first time around? Or did the hundred or so people behind me scramble the not-quite packed snow up? But once I got to the very bottom of Lester and headed back on the long climb, it was really tough going.
The snow was so slippery and no footstrike was solid. Each step was a strain on my ankle ligaments, twisting every time to try and get traction. It seemed so much steeper than the first time. I was swearing, yelling, grunting. I wanted to give up but that is way more frustrating so I just kept the ole leggies churning. I said a mantra to myself: “I like the pain”. It worked! But only temporarily. At Amity Creek trail and Skyline, I didn’t get much reprieve from the sliding snow on the snowmobile trail, but seemed to get in a flow. I was certain it was all uphill, though. Ugh. As I got closer to the aid station, I figured I was 20 minutes down on my second loop compared to the first. I took a little longer at the food table the second time around, filled up my nearly empty water, and took two mouthfuls of food. On the brief road section, I did NOT feel fast, which assured that my tired state was not just attributable to the loose loop-two footing.
By the time I got to Hawk Ridge and crossed Skyline, it was a relief nearly of the magnitude of the race being over. Relief that the worst was behind me and just five gritty miles to go. I was way off my goal of four hours, figured that Wynn was way ahead or finished already or something, and hoping that nobody would come up behind me. I could never know so wasn’t really even concerned. Plus too tired to be concerned.
Atop Hawk Ridge, on the mountain bike trail below the bird observation area and overlook, I passed a snowshoer with trekking poles. He was in for a long day at that point! At a switchback, I noticed him running down the hill above me, and like a flash, another runner behind him. I stretched my neck to catch a glimpse at his bib color, but quickly diverted my eyes back to the ground as I slid around in every direction. Gahhhhh. The slow going was almost comical, and I used that humor to keep my morale up as I got passed. The guy was quick and did not waste time running out of sight. I wondered how many more times I’d be passed, and so tried to push on the downhills below Hawk Ridge and on the lower Amity Creek trails. It seemed like my dead legs and sore ligaments were just blindly succumbing to the overwhelming signals from my brain telling them to keep churning, my brain fueled by the feeling of going fast on the downhill Amity section. Unfortunately, my watch said differently and I was going slow, struggling to get above 11 minutes per mile.
I saw a few more glimpses of the person who passed me, passed a few slower, presumably half marathon people, and then saw the same people a few minutes later. Jeez, those trails twist and turn on themselves all over the place. I crossed over Seven Bridges Road and trudged the final mile. What a relief to finish! I instantly realized that it was fun and not really terrible, and soon after also realized that I got second place, the guy in front of me won, and Wynn took a wrong turn, cut a big section of course and was DQ’ed. That is unfortunate. The final realization was that the now winner was Jon Balabuck from Thunder Bay, a guy I thought I’d raced several times in the past at triathlon races.
I came in just under 4:20, and was totally beat afterwards. I was awarded a mason jar full of peanut M&M’s and joked that I won my lunch.
Shoes: Brooks Cascadia size 11.5
Food: 3 gels, a couple shot blocks, a Twix bar, and some chips, one small pancake
18 Jul 2018
Race Day: Saturday, June 9, 2018 – 10am
At the start line, nobody seemed to know exactly what they were getting into from here on out. The Last Runner Standing in Duluth was a new race just launched in early 2018 and on June 9, 66 runners set out on lap one.
I heard about the race and figured it’d be a good event to set my sights on. After Superior, I had no premonitions, no huge drive and nothing on the radar in terms of racing. That’s a freaky feeling… maybe I’m getting old? Maybe I’m becoming domesticated? Either way, it’s kind of funny not knowing how long, time or distance- wise, you should train for. I think my training suffered knowing that I only had to go 4.1 miles to finish.
Here is some background on the Last Runner Standing event in the best way that I can describe it. It took place at Spirit Mountain in Duluth and the race course is a 4.1666667 mile loop. That loop’s first mile is decently flat on a gravel road, essentially. The next two miles are on Superior Hiking Trail singletrack, with a decent climb, a brutal stair downhill section, but pretty runable overall, with several stretches that are perfect singletrack trail running–slightly downhill or flat. That stuff is the best. The final mile is mostly on ATV/ski hill access roads. In that final mile, the first quarter mile is downhill. The second quarter mile is flat, and the last half mile of the loop is downhill. That whole mile is about 500 feet of descent, and the last half mile is about 400 feet of pure drop. I think that translates to about a 15% grade, and don’t have a great comparison, but the downhill got to be brutal after a while. So given that loop, the Last Runner Standing race is over once everyone quits besides one last runner who can complete the loop solo. The first race started at 10am, the second at 11am, and every other race at the top of the hour, every hour, until the winner is determined. The overall pace is dictated at 14:24 minutes per mile, but the faster you run, the longer you get in the chair (or at the aid station, whatever you need to recover before the next top of the hour).
I trained for this race hoping to feel like I was in shape for 100 miles, and with that number in my mind. 100 miles would translate to 24 loops, 24 hours, or running one last loop at 9am on Sunday morning. Training went OK but I didn’t feel like I was in shape I was for Superior 9 months prior.
I packed up a ton of food: gels, gummies, fruit snacks, a lot of chips, ice cream, a few turkey wraps, cookies, fruit, gatorade, pop, and water. I brought a myriad of gear like handhelds, a waist belt, water bladders, hydration pack, hats, clothes, shoes and socks, rain gear, tents and chairs. There were serious doubts in my mind after my next door neighbor Pete and I ran the muddy course on Monday before the race and got a lay of the land. I figured it’d be very mentally strenuous to really make it far.
Pete was signed up and ready to rock as well, and he requested to share a big pop-up 10×10 tent that I procured. I showed up to the race before 9am to set up and was happy to get a great spot. I started setting up and organizing and putzing and pacing around nervously. By 9, the parking lot at the bottom of Spirit was filling up and Pete arrived. With plenty of time to spare, I sat around and the pre-race meeting began around 9:50am. No surprises here, it was just an explanation of the course and rules. If you don’t make it back before the hour is up, you are eliminated. If you don’t start the race at the top of the hour, you are eliminated. Simple.
We lined up at the start and finish line, and I was impressed by the amount of people. It was a hoard! Will this make it challenging?? Oh well, I figured that if I could make it a few laps with no mishaps people would start dropping out soon enough. I had my trekking poles right away at lap one, and didn’t know what else to bring so kept my water and food and toilet paper and supplies at the home base.
The race started with much excitement and at exactly 10am, we were off. I snuck my way to the front and wanted to bank a little bit of time right at the beginning, knowing that it was runable and not wanting to get caught behind anybody. Everyone was talking to each other and sharing strategies and thoughts. I hit the first mile in 7:30.
When we got to the singletrack, up it goes, and I walked. People clumped up behind me but nobody wanted to go around. Why would they?? The pace is dictated for us. I walked most of the singletrack, ran when I should, and walked the entire last downhill mile to get in around 46 minutes. It felt so easy and really no impact on the body.
At the finish line, I went straight to my chair and ate anything that struck me as tasty, just trying to get a couple calories in, and chugged some water. There were ample announcements when it was 5 minutes, then 4, 3 minutes, 2 minutes and one minute until the next race was to begin. I moseyed out of my chair with a minute to go, an 8 second walk from the chair to the start line, and was ready for race two.
My plan, which had been festering in my mind, was to rock 52-minute loops until 12 hours in, 50 miles, and hope to feel good. From there, let ‘er rip. See who’s left, get strategic and try to be the Last Runner Standing. I was a little fast on the first lap and wanted to slow down on the second loop. My first mile was slower, and tried to repeat my walking and running strategy. Walk the uphills, run when I should.
I rejoined my neighbor Pete at mile 3.5 and we descended the first hill together back to the finish line, talking strategy. Walking down the big hill is probably smart, we thought. I mentioned I was unfortunately going to have to stop at the bathrooms between laps. Er, I said I was actually going to have to stop immediately. So I ran off in the woods with an upset stomach. The vegetation was high and coated in dew. How unpleasant on lap two, to have to squat in the woods. As well, why does this keep happening to me?? Maybe it was the gel I ate that lap. I got a bit frustrated because I didn’t have TP on me. Leaves it is. I got up and ran the catwalk a quarter of a mile to the final downhill bomb, and into the finish line at around 11:50am. 50 minutes wan’t too bad given the emergency dump (e-dump). I kept running straight through the finish line to the porto-potties to clean up. I got back to my chair, ate a bit, drank and was ready to go for loop three.
The next seven loops were straightforward. I became very familiar with the trail and was able to complete loops 4-9 in 52 minutes or very close to that minute-mark. Every hill or flat section, technical or runable stretch, was marked as either hike or run, and it almost seemed like I was taking the same footstep on every loop to get me exactly 52 minutes.
What was also consistent was an upset stomach. I was having major issues. I could eat just fine, but my stomach was not sitting right and I made frequent stops. That caused some irritation in certain parts of my body, which was compounded by the friction of running. I was locked on my pace and strategy, but suffering. My legs were fine, fatigue was in check. Just as soon as I thought my stomach was settled, I’d nearly poop my pants the next loop. Terrible. Emily offered me an Imodium tablet, which is an anti-diarrheal pill. I reluctantly took one. She told me to take two. I told her I didn’t want to. I was scared it’d mess me up worse or make me uncomfortable. She told me to take the other one. I took it.
Given the struggles of my digestive system, it wasn’t all bad. The conversation was great. It was so fun to run with the same people, or different people, chatting away, talking strategy, and hearing about people’s stories. I ran with Ryan Wold, an ultra guy from Spicer. I did loops with my running buddy Dave Schuneman, who signed up on race week. I did laps with a local runner Marcus, and ran for hours and hours with my friend, next door neighbor, and tent-sharer Pete, totally unplanned and by chance. Funny how that works.
I was chatting with a guy Mark from Iowa who has run an obscene amount of days in a row, and runs 11 miles a day, unquestionably. He was there to win, he said. He has what it takes because he runs 11 miles a day every day, and also said he’d rather die than lose. Umm, what. I was a little taken aback at that comment. I said out loud that the race will get gritty once it’s dark out. I kept telling people my prediction that past 10pm, people will start dropping quick. Would Mark be there? My other friends running with me?? On two consecutive laps, I found two pretty big agates. I was eating whatever food I wanted, fueling smartly and drinking plenty at the aid station. Then again, I barely carried water with me, and didn’t feel thirsty. I ran with poles for at least the first nine loops.
After lap nine, going onto my 50 mile benchmark, I told Emily that I wasn’t going to continue after this lap. I could do one more, but it was too hard, my loins were in pain, sick of my digestive system. I couldn’t even pee because I was too afraid that it would come out the back, too! The 40 miles were starting to get to me, I was tired. Yet I started and made the loop in 50 minutes or so… and could do another loop. Just one more loop, I could do just one more. The race director Andy said that at 9pm, loop 10, runners could have a “companion” during the night loops. I started pointing at my crew in the tent, Kyle jumped at the chance. He stripped off his hoodie and I changed my mind, telling him that he could come next loop.
I started loop 10 with no poles, just to try. I ran the first few steps and chatted with Michael Borst, who was running every loop fast and looking really fresh still. He said this was just a training run and he was going to drop out at the first sign of fatigue, maybe after this loop or by 100k. There were maybe 20 or 25 runners still left going onto 50 miles. Definitely not a soft field. I ran fast with Mike, and kept going fast for some reason. It just felt good, and was so happy to stop and take a pee on the course. While doing that, I spotted one more agate, the best one of the bunch. That jacked me up.
I came in around 46 minutes to complete 50 miles and picked up Kyle to run with me. At that point, I had my headlamp and it was officially dark. I didn’t really feel like talking so had Kyle tell me story. He didn’t really have any stories to tell, but we chatted away and the loop went quick. I told Kyle I didn’t need a pacer and I’m still not sure if he wanted to run more or not. He said he’d run 7 miles earlier that day… When we got back from loop 11, I was feeling good. I ate another slice of Pizza Luce pizza and was just grazing. Fizzy water was delicious and Emily was such a good crew person always making me drink. I wouldn’t have made it that far without her, no doubt.
In the night, people started noticeable dropping off every lap. The field shrunk, and I could really start to see who I was up against. There were some hearty looking runners, Ryan was still in, Seth looked like a machine, and the Iowan Mark was looking really, really bad. When he finished, even though he was very consistent at 51 minutes or so, he’d collapse into his crew’s arms and they’d ferry him to his tent. With a minute to go, they’d ferry him back out, one person on each side and blankets draped, and he’d start. That got some interesting looks from the race directors and medical staff. But he kept going.
I was feeling really good, and started finishing each loop first. At the next milestone, 100k after loop 15, a couple more dropped out. It was down to me, Mark (who looked in really rough shape), and two other guys I hadn’t met or talked to. I didn’t know how anyone was running except they were all coming in consistently in the 50’s and I was still running for some reason, and coming in at 45 or 47 minutes. I was running uphill and running downhill. There were only a few sections where I was hiking. The last downhill plunge (dubbed “The Plunge”), was becoming more and more dreadful.
The next loop, Mark came in with only one minute to spare. Emily and a few fans from Duluth Running Co. (Ian, Dayeton and Kyle) helped move the chair and food items to the fire because it was getting pretty cold in the early Sunday morning hours. We all four went out. Another fast loop. When I got back, I learned that Mark turned back. Down to three. I met Brandon one of the other runners still in the mix, and he and his dad Bruce had essentially set up camp around the campfire as well. Brandon was from Barnum. He’d requested fries from McDonalds and Bruce asked if I wanted anything. I told him that a double cheeseburger would be awesome. After the next loop, he had it. I ran that loop really fast, just feeling good. Perhaps it was the prospect of the burger. It tasted so good.
We all three lined up for loop 18 and when four 0’s showed, 18:00:00, we went off. I had my trekking poles and didn’t run out of the gate. I was too tired. A few more steps and Brandon and the other runner Nick escaped into the night. I thought it may be my time. I stopped. I looked down at my feet and balanced on my poles. All the sudden, done. It was a weird feeling, but my legs just felt shot. Well, how much more shot are they now then when they felt shot 8 hours ago? I realized it was totally a mind game. I didn’t have it in me to continue. Or did I? I sat down, then laid down. I looked at the stars. I was looking for an excuse to turn back, and my excuse is that I’d sat down and laid down and looked at the stars and burned too much time. I couldn’t get up to run the rest of the loop within the hour! In hindsight, that would have been a better option. Instead, I turned around and walked back two minutes to the finish line.
Andy ran up and asked if I was injured. I told him no, no, just too tired. The fire was so warm and welcoming, and I think Emily was a little relieved that I was done and she was done. I was relieved But I also know she was proud of my work, and I thought it was pretty cool that I made it 17 hours, over 70 miles, and to be one of the last three standing. Still, “third place” is the same as dropping after one loop, on paper, and it’s really nothing. Winning–to be the Last Runner Standing–is the one and only glory in this race.
I rested for a bit, thanked Bruce for the burger. He joked that the laxatives that he put in the burger must have worked. I told him I didn’t even need that, based on how the day had gone. Me and Emily embarked on the grueling task of tearing down our home base at 3:20am and after a long, long day. It was nice once everything was packed back up, and we sat by the fire, admired the far away glint of the sky starting to turn the purple hue that is morning. We had to at least see how this 18th loop would pan out.
Nick came in first, at about 3:51am. I told him it was down to two. He asked where Mike was. I said I was Mike. Brandon came in and looked as relieved as Emily and I, and I wished him luck as the local dude. It turned out that Brandon ran a couple minutes over an hour on loop 21. Nick started and finished loop 22 to become Last Runner Standing, clocking over 91 miles. They ran well into the sunlight of Sunday.
It was a crazy race. I think everyone except Nick thought about how if they did this or did that, they would have run further. Everyone had a reason why they couldn’t run one more loop. My reason was bad, I just couldn’t do it. Brandon is a true beast for running until he was too slow to complete the loop in an hour. That is a good reason. I think this is true for any distance and amount of time, but I found Last Runner Standing to be hard physically, but very much harder mentally.
Number of laps: 17
Shoes: Brooks Cascadia size 11.5
Gear: Too much to list. Mostly just trekking poles
Food and drink: Too much to list. Mostly Pizza Luce and fizzy water.