10 Feb 2020
Race Date: Saturday, February 8, 2020 – 10:00am
I felt somehow calm at the start line, despite the fact that it was really crazy… I was about to begin a really long ski, a ski race in fact, with many others around me, after less than a month of learning and training!? What else but to go for it? One minute at a time… just don’t fall right away. Don’t make a fool out of yourself, Mike. I talked to myself a bit while the anthem was being sung. Immediately after the national anthem, “BANG”, the gun went off and everyone lurched forward.
Looking back a month, I still can’t believe I have classic skis! A bunch of friendly pressures, little pokes, and the fact that this winter was perfect for it, and next thing I know I had some sweet skis and was headed up the shore towards Grand Marais. Kris helped me break in the skis at Sugarbush ski trails, very nearby Oberg Mountain, and the site of some naps and some sleep-deprived running a few months prior while pacing at Superior Fall 100 Mile. Kris gave me some crucial tips right away, and it was a truly exhilarating little jaunt through some beautiful woods as the sun was setting behind trees and faraway ridges. I was so eager to get back out, and that I did! I was able to roll many km’s on my new skis, mostly with Kaelyn. Time on the skis was the best method to learn, perhaps paired with watching and trying to analyze classic ski technique of Olypmic 50k championship competitors on Youtube. After two or three outings of about 10k, I stopped getting really sore, but was still very nervous about lining up at Vasa until gutting through 30k at Boulder Lake with Kaelyn. That one hurt bad, so I was expecting the gauntlet going 42k in Mora.
When the gun went off on a sunny and cold day in Mora, Minnesota, and everyone lurched forward, there wasn’t much I felt I could control except push forward. There was no way to get into a track so I just kind of double poled with the crowd on the flats. Before even crossing the start line, there was a spare set of skis directly ahead and I was able to open my legs to let them pass between. Phew, OK, that was the first obstacle of the day passed with no issue. Bring it on baby! The next obstacle: a 90-degree left turn. Oof, turning hasn’t been my strong suit in skiing. Neither has going down hills, moving in and out of the tracks, staying upright when the tracks end, or anything requiring technical ability. All I had was fitness. Left turn, done. Nice. Kaelyn was right in front of me, then she was 2 people in front of me. I wondered if I should get into a track. Nope, another turn ahead. Kaelyn was gone. Just like that! We had talked on the ride up about how long we’d ski together as if we could even plan it anyways, and nearly immediately she was way ahead of me, almost out of sight in the crowd of people. I eventually got into some tracks, and felt like I lost time just managing the pack. I was sucking wind though, definitely working hard. Perhaps that was just adrenaline. Maybe I’d catch back up to Kaelyn, I thought.
The first few kilometers were equally stressful as the first minute. I didn’t know if I should be in the tracks, and once I got into the tracks they’d end or the trail would turn sharply and the tracks deteriorate. Then I’d almost fall and lose my rhythm and potentially block people. Out of the track, I felt slower, and could only double pole. If I tried to kick, I’d nearly topple over. I definitely fell one or two times within the first half hour or hour. I got right back up… it was mentally relieving to see other people falling all over the place. I told myself it was bound to happen, and to just get back up and keep motoring.
There was a decent amount of uphill and downhill, but no crazy downhills. The trail had a lot of twists and turns, but also some nice open and straight sections. Really, the course was great and had a perfect variation of terrain for me. The sun was shining, and I was feeling good pushing pretty hard. I felt strong, but limited by my technical ability and lack of comfort being on skis and having poles attached to my hands. I knew this was a fact as other skiers around me would spread out from me on tight curves and downhills. My watch said 9 miles after what seemed like no time at all, and I figured I’d be at the loop point before long. Nice. Feeling pretty good. I was going back and forth with a couple people that I started to recognize. Then I’d fall down, get all tangled up, not be able to get back up, step on my pole, get super frustrated. Then I’d get passed by a guy I passed long before. Then I’d get stuck behind that guy in the tracks, not knowing if I should pass. After a minute, I’d get sick of sitting back and jumped out of the track, fall back a bit, only to double pole like mad to barely catch up to the person and not even make a pass. Ugh. That scenario replayed itself several times.
I had one gel and a few sips of gatorade on that first loop. Hot gatorade, that was something new! Mmm, very delicious. I finally got to the turnaround. Time to keep trucking. I was definitely in race mode… kind of just “go go go”. I couldn’t exactly monitor my energy stores to see where I was at. I felt pretty good. I also felt like I was getting sore. My right thumb was the most sore of anything. My pole was rubbing weird, or I was gripping weird or something. I didn’t give much time to remedy the situation. I wasn’t really actually sore anywhere else. Maybe abs and back, but I was double poling and feeling good. Kind of a general soreness, but that’s expected after an hour or two of hard exercise. Across the first lake, and I felt fastest by striding. The double pole kick was OK, double poling felt slowest and least efficient, actually, and striding just felt good and sustainable.
Around the bend, over the lake and I remembered to look at my watch for a rough split. It read 1:33. NICE. I was jacked up. If I held this pace, which I felt I totally could, I’d be at sub-3 hours. That’d be crazy! I was thinking 3 hours, or more realistically 3 and a half hours as a finish time. Nice… keep pushin’ Mike. I talked myself up and was feeling really good as I could now envision the finish line. I knew the whole course now, and it wasn’t so bad. There wasn’t really any concerning spots. A few tricky corners, a few little hills, but not too bad. Let’s go baby.
The second lap was immediately kind of different. I felt like I was in no man’s land. This happens to me at every race! There were plenty of skate skiers around, but it was just me and the tracks and all of the classic race seemed to be spread out. That was kind of nice. At least I didn’t have to navigate other skiers. I came across a few people here and there and seemed to be able to get around them with ease. One by one I tried to pick people off. I was super motivated by going under 3 hours and wanted to do so by leaving it all on the race course. Then, each classic skier that I saw ahead was a new goal, a new person to rein in. I ate an exercise waffle I brought, and planned to eat my last gel for a final boost with 10 or 15k to go. The waffle was frustrating to eat as well… dealing with the wrappers was impossible. I need to figure out something else with food. I drank another sip of gatorade at the next station and zoomed on. I fell a couple more times, the last of which being so frustrating as I was feeling in the zone! I felt a sense of urgency, like every second counted. And I couldn’t untangle myself from my self. My legs got all crossed, arms crossed, then I started swearing and getting frustrated. I popped back up and pushed hard to get back in the track. I was pretty much equally double poling, kick double pole and striding. Push and push and push. I skipped the last two aid stations, and kept picking classic skiers off. I felt like I was making really good time, and that jacked me up.
When I zipped through the last aid station, and knew I had about 8k to go. That would go by like nothing, and I knew now was my last chance to try and shave time. No way I would let things slip now! But there were a few moments when I felt completely drained. Like my arms and legs were giving out. It was mental stamina that allowed me to keep pushing. My friend Eric was racing the 50k skate, and before the race as I expressed my fears and concerns, he told me that I knew how to suffer, which was a big component of ski racing.
Striding was definitely the only way to go, and I felt it to be the fastest. Especially on the lake coming in to the finish, all I could do was stride out. I tried to pole a little bit just to see, but just felt so much slower, and it was much more strenuous. I just keep moving forward as well as I could. Kick kick kick. Go go go. I had pretty much been at a threshold effort for nearly three hours. I was ready to be done.
A few skaters came up beside me as I struggled to ascend the last hill. I chose to stride out on the finish stretch into town, way to the left in the tracks. I even told a skate skier next to me that I was done striding, for life. I got a laugh out of him. Oof, yes I was tired out. But I pushed hard after the last turn into the finish line, exactly where we’d started hours ago, hopping out of the tracks and resorting to double poling into the finish. It was brutal. I saw my mom right before the finish, and also saw coolers of drink beyond the finish line. My sights were set. I crossed the line and stopped moving. I was totally beat. Oof is right. I kind of slinked to the ground as my mom caught up me and started talking to me from the sidelines. I couldn’t really hear, I just had to unclip my skiw. My body was almost tremoring from the difficult and sustained effort. That was a shock to the system. I eventually stood up, took my ski poles off and tried to collect my skis and stuff. I felt like my biceps were about to cramp. But I was alive and well! The post-finish endorphins were for sure hitting hard.
My mom had retrieved my dog Diamond, who I’d left in the cold car. I was afraid she’d freeze solid despite my coat and her dog bed, so it was a relief to see her as well. But my mom also took Kaelyn’s keys out of the car. Oh crap! I was worried Kaelyn would want to access her car or need her car keys. Luckily, I found Kaelyn right away, we all convened and I went straight to the drink coolers. Mmm. I was depleted of calories for sure, and drank some blueberry soup, hot gatorade, ate a bunch of oreo cookies, and had a couple cups of hot cocoa. Oh yeah, that hit the spot. I was dead. What fun. I will definitely be back ski racing. I have a lot to learn, and I can really recoup some free time lost just from bumbling around out there. But on that day, I gave it all I got. And that is what racing is all about!
12 Jan 2020
Race Date: Saturday, January 4, 2020 – 9:30am
After very challenging conditions one year prior, I was certain by race week that the trail surface at this year’s Northwoods would be prime. All it takes is one day to totally destroy or totally repair the trails in winter but the forecast looked prime and things shaped up perfectly.
I got my packet the night before at the Trailrunning Film Festival and cool films were great to get me jacked up to race and to run. Running consistency had been good but mileage stagnant and no speed work or long runs. My daily routine in the late fall and early winter kind of fell into place with running to and from work mostly. One week before, I had a reality shock when I realized that 26.2 miles is a long way, and went out for about a two hour/12 mile trail run. Just one week out and the conditions were very terrible and challenging to run… but what a week can do!
I thought Wynn Davis would win with ease, which he was certainly poised to do last year before he got lost. I hadn’t seen him for a year, since he ran off on the Amity snowmobile trail on loop one. And I didn’t see him on the start line. I wanted to complete this race smartly by running the first loop easily and then seeing what I had left for loop two, knowing I didn’t have a ton of run mileage in my legs in the previous month, and hopefully I’d be in the mix of the race. I get to the start line, however, and just have to be in the mix no matter what, right off the line. So when I heard “GO!”, I just shot off sprinting towards the hill up to the trails. Not sticking to the plan…
Oh yeah! The snowmobile trail was running fast. Fast and hard-packed. I realized right away that being too cold was not going to be an issue. Down to the bottom of Lester Park and some of the half marathoners went ahead and sprinted out of sight. Then I was leading a pack of all marathoners. We were chatting. Ryan Soule was right behind me, I’ve run with him before and knew he had a lot of races on deck. He did well at Icebox not two months prior, and was training for a 100k in February. He’s in shape. Was I in shape? I was feeling smooth going uphill and we were certainly moving. The mountain bike trail was in pretty dang good shape just for shoes. The time went by quickly but it was a grind getting up to Amity. We dropped one guy and it was down to three. I was excited to be in the race… this was going to be fun. I had to push a little once we got onto the snowmobile trail. I wanted to shake those guys. Why? Dumb! I was already pushing it way harder than I should be to stick to my initial plan. I think I had a form of “race brain” where I wasn’t thinking straight. So I sprinted off onto Amity Trail and dropped those guys. It was fast conditions, after all! Good footing. I ate a gel. I couldn’t eat and run and the two guys caught back up to me right away. Then passed me. Then I stopped to pee in the woods. They ran out of sight. I jogged in to the aid station and was brief. Dave and Sonja were there with several others. I barely even looked at faces, though bundled, and barely looked at the food, but grabbed as much as I could, ran off and tried to eat on the go. The road was very icy. I couldn’t see anyone up ahead. I had pretzels, pb and j, and an oreo or two. I was pretty warm with my headband around my wrist, gloves off, sleeves rolled up, shirt unzipped to ventilate. And that was perfect. Beautiful day.
I got a little frustrated running into the Hawk Ridge section. This is around mile 8, and the trail just seemed difficult. Soft, rutted, sugary, up and down, no traction. I couldn’t see anyone around me. Just keep those legs churning. I had no relief on Hawk Ridge proper. That COGGS trail has excellent views but is just challenging. I don’t care what season, it’s hard to run! How easy would it be to run on the road just 10 feet over through the woods… I kept those leggies churning, despite feeling the fatigue. Well, here is where things fall apart, I thought. Here is where I pay for walking into a marathon without any long runs. How long does that volume stay in the legs? Wild Duluth was only… 2 months and a few weeks ago. Yep, that is long enough to lose it.
The switchbacks near the end of Hawks Ridge were welcomed, and I enjoyed darting through the trees to get to the Amity West trails. I knew this section kind of went on and on and on, it’s very twisty and turny, and you can see the finish line way before the actual finish line. I went down and down and could open up a bit. The surface was great through Amity West despite a lot of ruts and ankle-busters. This was like real trail running, I thought. I saw Ryan on one of the switchbacks. Ooo! But then realized that that point in the trail could be pretty far away. I tried to estimate how many minutes passed until I got there. I estimated one minute. Sweet. Across Seven Bridges Road and I still hadn’t passed anyone. I felt that the half was near. I knew that we ran to the finish line then right back out. I took stock of my water. Would I have enough to make it to the aid station? Yes. But probably barely enough. Do I need food? No. I ate another gel. I passed the other guy, I think his name was Ryan too. He was peeing by a tree. He muttered “I’m getting tired” and I passed him. In an instant, there was the finish line. I saw Ryan Soule walking out of the aid station area, and made the half-way check-in by stopping in my tracks just past the finish line and sprinting right back out there. I passed Ryan, who was walking up the steep hill up and out of the finish area. Oof, yep I was getting sore. I took off on the snowmobile trail, which seemed to be in similarly good shape as the first loop. Maybe slightly less firm footing. Ryan was right behind me. I eventually remembered to look at my watch for my half split, roughly 1:45. The course also appeared to be slightly short, which I recalled from the year before.
I wondered if he was going to make me suffer. I wondered if I’d make him suffer. I thought about asking him if we were going to make each other suffer. Down to Lester and on to the uphill grind. I was pushing it decently hard. I felt the pressure of Ryan right behind me. This is where it gets gritty, I said to myself. So far so good. Nutrition, good. Water, good. Legs, hurting. Was the first loop too fast? Just keep those legs churning. That is what I did. I didn’t stop to walk, I kept that running motion going like a steam engine.
Up and up. Ryan was further back. Then I looked again and he was back a bit more. A few twists and turns and I could see him slip ever so slightly further back from me. That excited me, I got a little adrenaline boost and pushed it a bit. Ok, this is mile 15 or so… if I’m pushing it is that asking for a terrible disastrous end to the race? Remember self, no long runs recently!! I just kept chugging.
On top of Amity and I opened up a little. Not like the first loop, though. I was anxiously looking back and no Ryan. Could I hold first place? Oh yeah. The feeling of running scared is as good a motivator as any. One has the incentive to race smartly up front. One also should push it to keep the lead intact, though. A nice steady effort would be the best policy. Amity went quickly. It was a beautiful day. I tried to remember a good trick… practice gratitude. It just works well! If anything it’s something to fixate on. Maybe remembering to fixate on stuff that makes you terribly angry would do the same to make the task at hand less miserable. Oh well, gratitude works well so I’ll stick with that. I told myself how incredibly lucky I was to be out here. Where else would I rather be than in the perfect winter conditions that we were experiencing? Nowhere.
I was even more brief at the aid station the second time around. My eyes shifted behind me and I saw nobody approaching. Dave and Sonja were the only two that remained at the aid station and I barely muffled two words in between shoving my face with pretzels. I took an oreo to go and remembered to run on the right side of the road to avoid the huge ice floe. Into the Hawk Ridge section, I became frustrated with the sugary snow once again. I couldn’t really tell if the snow conditions had changed or my fatigue was inevitably making running harder. I kept ’em churning though. Hawk Ridge proper didn’t seem so bad the second time around. Maybe it was because I knew the end was getting near. It was getting quite warm, I ate another gel. I was getting excited to get off the Hawk Ridge escarpment because the Amity West trails were great on the first loop. Once I got there, though, it was a slog. I figured I had the win and would just need to somewhat maintain. Then my watch beeped in the high 13’s for a mile split. Whaaaat. I wasn’t going that slow, was I? I tried to find another gear. Ugh. Nope. It was a slog. Please don’t let this go, I begged myself. I was surprised I had maintained this well for this long. I recalled a few longer days within the previous handful of weeks out testing out these new Altai Hok fat skis. It wasn’t running, but I justified those backcountry ski miles as enough to keep me moving well this late in the race. Good training. Five hours working through deep snow has to be worth something, after all.
I reached the sliding hill overlooking the chalet and finish line, and there were plenty of people sledding and the trails were busier than ever. I figured I was three miles away to finish and well past an even split for the day. Oh well. The upcoming twists and turns and switchbacks would give me last chance look to see if it’d be a dog fight or I could run it in comfortably. As if I had any gear besides one, anyways. I leaned into that gear, muttering one last time my mantra for the day: “keep those leggies churning”. Any positivity was long gone and my brain had one distinct focus of finishing the damn race. Across Seven Bridges and I knew it was a matter of mere minutes before the pain and agony was over. I experienced a few frustrating stumbles and missteps. On the final stretch I thought race volunteer Mark was giving me a high five but he was pointing to the direction of the trail. Crap! I went the wrong way for a botched high-five and had to backtrack slightly. But just one tiny piece of trail and I was home. I sprinted in to the finish in first place. Sweet. Then I fell to my knees. Ouch.
Northwoods went surprisingly great. I had somewhat low expectations, I totally ignored my race plans from the first step, and raced kind of stupidly but it all seemed to work out perfectly. My body was wrecked though. I could just feel it immediately. Total destruction. That is the price to pay. I knew it’d heal, though. I think there is much to be said about the daily grind, in and out, rolling those miles. Either way: fun, painful, rewarding or tedious, it was a beautiful day, an impeccable day, out on the trails. That is the best part of it all.