Race Day: Saturday, October 15, 2016 – 8am

I neglected writing about this race for a long time. It was a bad race. I’ve never fallen apart as badly as Wild Duluth 2016. I was undertrained and figured I could wing it. If you don’t put in the miles and race-specific intensity, you cannot wing it.

I did one two-hour run a week before the race, which was my tune-up. I’d been running pretty consistently, but low volume, since the big thru-hike. Three miles per day and one two-hour run. The only reason I signed up is because I thought I could potentially squeak out a win. I mean, I had extreme volume on my legs from a month prior with hiking 50k per day nine days in a row, but that is slow walking, and I was hoping to run over twice as fast for this race. I scoped out the start list and my game plan was to start really easy, hopefully be in the front pack at least, and then race my own race and hold on.

Race morning went off without a hitch. Mountain Dew, check. Cereal, check. Deuce deuce, check. The day was shaping up to be pretty warm. Overcast but in the 60’s. I was feeling good and ready to rip. Talking to other competitors that I recognized, it seemed like everyone was questionable about what sort of shape they were in. But that’s what everyone always says…

I moseyed around and then the hoard started to congregate towards the start line at Fond du Lac park on the outskirts of Duluth. A few words and “GO!”, we were off. I took off absurdly fast for some reason, and my buddy David Dickey stuck right on my shoulder. That’d be a great race, if we could feed off of each other’s energy and push the pace up front. There were a few guys up front with us, but I was in the lead in the very runnable mountain bike trail through Mission Creek. An older guy zipped in front of us about two miles in, apologizing and citing he though he had to go to the bathroom.

I was feeling good through my first five-mile split in the 45-minute range. Right on track… David fell back after the first aid station and I was by myself. A familiar competitor, Ryan Braun, was back behind me somewhere. I saw him on a few switchbacks, and knew that he was pretty fit. He finished shortly behind me at Voyageur 50 Mile and had finished second at Wild Duluth 50k several times. Perhaps this was his year. By the way, I wondered where that other guy was? Maybe we passed him squatting in the woods.

I felt like I was racing well–not too aggressive but not falling behind–until Braun passed me like I was standing still. I considered chasing him but he was out of sight in no time. Dang. I was passed another time, now in fourth place, coming through the second aid station and heading towards Ely’s Peak. Not where I want to be, but I just told myself to race my own race and it will sort itself out.

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Photo credit: Julie Ward

I pounded it up through Ely’s, and started passing 100k’ers going the other way. That is always a good boost, and I felt good. It was definitely getting warm, though, in a muggy and sticky way. Otherwise, I felt pretty decent coming into mile 10. My next 5-mile split was almost exactly 10 minutes slower. But it’s harder running. I told myself to stick that pace.

I held my own through Spirit Mountain, and once I passed the last 100k stragglers, I felt lonesome out by myself. Nobody else near me, just hanging out in fourth place. Climbing out of Spirit, I felt the urge to walk. I dismissed the thought and just shuffled my way up the hill. The early onset of fatigue and low-volume training was starting to surface. By the time I got to Cody Street, it was really tough to maintain a reasonable pace. My split from mile 15-20 was just shy of one hour. To win, I knew I’d need under 4:45, and that equates to less than 50 minutes per 5 miles for sure. An hour was way too slow and I did not foresee a second wind. I wasn’t walking a whole ton, but my running pace was noticeably slowing. From here, the derailment was swift, but the remainder of the race was long. Very long, painful and drawn out.

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

Like a ton of bricks, my motivation and energy levels plummeted and I was dead meat. I got passed a few times through Brewer Park after the Highland Getchell aid station. I was really going slow by now, and knew my next split would be over an hour. A slow and painful death, but now was the time that I realized what was happening and my mental state came into play. I knew I wasn’t trained to run fast enough, I was dead meat. Piece of crap. Whatever, it’s still fun, I thought. Just jog it out.

Through the tunnel under Haines Road, I could barely run. I wasn’t that sore, it’s just the terrible feeling of not being able to turn my legs over fast enough. Slowwww. I was passed a few more times into Piedmont, once by a woman who was holding her hand cockeyed. She mentioned how she fell a bunch and thinks she tweaked a nerve or something. Ouch. Then she fell again right in front of me. I couldn’t even hang on to this woman… I got chicked. She got back up and ran past me with the speed of a track star–out of sight in no time. I didn’t even know what place I was in at this point, but was nearing five hours through Lincoln Park. After the last aid station, it’s all easy, I thought.

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

I took my time at the Duluth Running Co. aid station, and expressed my woes to the familiar faces handing out drinks and snacks. I took off jogging across Piedmont Avenue at a comically slow trot, but picked it up. I told myself to finish somewhat strong… the pain will all be over soon enough. I didn’t feel too beat up, but just had no step, like a car stuck in first gear. It took forever to get to Enger Tower, and I got passed there too. Worse than getting passed repeatedly is that I couldn’t hang on to anyone. They’d pass me with ease and run out of sight in a flash. Am I really going that slow?

I finally got to Enger and then just leaned forward for the straight downhill bomb towards Bayfront Park and the finish line. This was the easy part, finally. Just don’t get passed anymore, I thought. I had nice form coming across I-35, and peeked behind my shoulder just to make sure I didn’t have to bring the pain on some fools behind me. Nobody there, luckily. A short jaunt and I was within striking distance of that stinking finish line after a long, long morning.

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Photo Credit: Mike Wheeler

My watch was well past 5 hours, and it looked like I’d be just about an hour slower than my winning time from 2014. Piece of crap, but what do I expect? I finished and sat right down on the ground.

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Photo Credit: Mike Wheeler

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Photo Credit: Mike Wheeler

Garmin Data

Results

Race stats:

Place: 8/145
Time: 5:30:00
Pace: 11:00

Shoes: Mizuno Hayate size 11

Race Day: Saturday, August 7, 2016 – 8:30am

I went in to Brewhouse Tri with big expectations. I had the expectation to win. It’s easy to say you have no expectations, but this was not the case. It’s easy to say you have no expectations when there is no reason that you should have them, such as not swimming and signing up for a triathlon, which involves swimming. Or letting my tri bike literally get dusty from no use, when the race involves riding a tri bike. Nevertheless, I went out to Brewhouse with the goal to win. Time was irrelevant.

This was my sixth time racing the Brewhouse Sprint, and I was competing for my fifth win. The caveat was my severe lack of specific training. This seems to be a common theme lately, but seemed to play out OK with Voyageur just one week prior. I hadn’t swam a stroke or sat on my tri bike, for all intents and purposes, for nearly 11 months. I knew I had good run fitness, and I knew I had decent biking fitness from biking to work every day. Is 6 miles a day enough? I rarely push it… my commute is at a very leisurely pace. How far back on the swim will I be? I had some major questions on how the day would pan out.

The morning drive to beautiful Island Lake outside of Duluth confirmed my notions that the day would be ideal for a triathlon. I got to the transition area and saw plenty of familiar faces to who I had to explain being off the grid and spending my time hiking. It was good to be back schmoozing with the awesome triathlon community in Duluth.

The bike warmup was on point, and I didn’t spend too much time running. I had a pre-race Mountain Dew and was ready to rock. My transition area seemed so much more compact and easy than I remember. A testament to the backpacker ‘less is more’ mentality? Perhaps. I suited up in my wetsuit and did a few strokes. They felt fine, but even a minute was enough to feel the tension and soreness in my shoulders. Not good.

I found myself antsy for the race to begin. Before long, Matt Evans came out of nowhere to instruct us on what buoys to turn at and to come back to. In a flash, the goggles went on and the 10-second countdown began. “GO!” and the hectic start commenced. Nothing like a triathlon start… Hands, feet, faces, bodies everywhere.

I felt fine right away, but definitely noticed my lack of swim fitness. I was used to pulling away from people at the drop of a hat, er, swim cap, and now people were swimming away from me. I tried to get on someone’s feet, but it was only for a short while. The first buoy wasn’t too terribly far off, and I felt good rounding the first and second markers. My shoulders were burning and they felt like wet noodles dragging through the water, but I was halfway done and still swimming as strong as a non-training fool like me could go. I took it all the way in until my fingers scraped on the bottom of the lake floor.

I knew I had some ground to make up while I was in T2. Not to belittle my fellow athletes, but I was not used to being down off the swim. My transition was hasty, it took me a bit to get my shoes set, but then I took off hard on the bicycle.

The Brewhouse bike course is fast. I cranked right out of the gate and got up to speed quickly, passing a few people in the process. I was gaining on others quickly and passed them like they were stopped with a kickstand up. I peeked at my watch to get a reading of 30MPH, and I knew I was on the right track. I figured that I could hold a decent run pace regardless of how hard I push on the bike. At that moment, I knew to achieve my goal, I’d have to put it all on the line on the bike. And so I cranked away. Every person I passed, I looked ahead to hopefully catch the lead motorcycle. The legs were feeling fine, but I was breathing really heavily. No time to catch my breath, I thought. A few more people, and I saw the leaders near the one turn on the course. He was just a few minutes ahead of me, so I made the 180-degree turn and had my sights focused to that motorcycle like a track dog to the fake rabbit.

The next few people were slower to pass. It took a while to reel them in, and it was a slow pass. I was happy to get past my tri buddy Lee Brown, because I knew he’d be a contender. He’s had a few second-place finishes at the race and I knew he was hungry for a local win with his new tri bike. A minute later, I caught the leader, with time to pad until T2. I made an effort to put more time on my fellow competitors, and hopped off my bike in a hurry, sprinting for my running shoes.

The second transition was speedy, and I was off. I wondered how my legs would feel without doing a single brick workout on the year, and they felt like jelly. The feeling of running in a triathlon is pretty terrible. It’s like you have a parachute on, or ankle weights. You just can’t get that speedy pickup. I was breathing heavy out of the gate, and took a peek behind my shoulder to gauge how this guy was running. He was close. I figured I’d be able to pick up a little speed once my legs get used to the switch-up, but three miles isn’t much real estate. In that case, I tried to focus on my cadence.

By the turnaround, I couldn’t see anyone. By the time I had a clear view behind me, back on County Road 4, there was nobody in sight and I knew I had it. I picked up my pace for good measure, and just because I could, and my notions were confirmed as the athletes going the other way told me it was mine. They popped us into the woods, and I was cruising on by on a wooden bridge. Sweet. The last half mile was on a trail, and you could just smell the Northwoods pines. The sound of the crushed gravel underfoot made it a treat for the senses.

I held up my five fingers on the finishing chute, and brought it in a few seconds past an hour, far off of the course record. To my surprise, Lee Brown came waltzing in before I could bat an eye. I somehow held him off with a big bike, giving me five wins for this race. The Brewhouse Sprint Tri is a spectacular event.

Garmin Data

Results

Race Stats:

Place: 1/204
Time: 1:00:34
Swim: 13:36
Pace: 1:40/100 yd
Bike: 28:13
Speed: 26.4mph
Run: 17:21
Pace: 5:36

Shoes: Mizuno Hitogami size 11
Bike: Specialized Transition
Wheels: Profile Design 78
Food: Water

Race Day: July 30, 2016 6am

I had a whole host of questions and doubts in my mind going into the revered Minnesota Voyageur 50 Mile. A race with such history and such talent every year, coupled with my severe lack of focused training, made me question and doubt my ability to hold together a good race. I looked at my stats, and I’d ran triple the mileage in March compared to July (150 miles versus 50 miles), but had a big increase in steps logged (295,000 in March versus over 450,000 in July), for what it’s worth. I knew the course was really runable, but I had the fitness to walk endlessly. 50 miles slows you down, sure, but I should run the whole thing, and believe it or not, running is always the best training for a running race. Imagine that!

I had no expectations going into the race, with the goal simply to have fun and enjoy myself. I can’t not have a time in mind, and I was thinking 8 hours is realistic. Under 10 is a slam dunk, even if I crash and burn, so to speak. I did some math and aimed to stick 6 miles per hour, or 10 minute miles right out of the gate. I was feeling good and ready to race the night before, and set my alarm nice an early for the next day.

I woke up at 4:45 on Saturday, in the dark, awaiting the sun to shine on what was forecasted to be a perfect day. I drove myself to Carlton High School to get my packet, I was lucky enough to get some sunscreen from Jarrow of Austin-Jarrow, despite his competitor’s jersey on my back! I saw some friendly faces, and there was some great positive energy in the wee morning hours.

We congregated in the street, there were a few words said, then GO! And we were off. I had to laugh immediately as Michael Borst and Dusty Olson set off in a dead sprint to take the lead ten seconds into the race. I was recommended to jockey for a decent spot while the course was really wide, soon to shrink to technical single track, as not to get caught behind slowskis. I did have a good spot as we turned right into the woods for a long day on the trails.

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

I was with Jakob Wartman right off the bat. I raced against him at Wild Duluth last fall, and he seemed unsure of his abilities at this race, too. He said he was in 15:40 5k shape, which is insane fast, but hadn’t been doing much long stuff. We chatted on some really rooty and uneven trail, talked strategy and about the course.

In a flash, we were crossing the iconic St. Louis River bridge and already at the first aid station.

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

We started running on ski trails and Jakob tried to pee while running. It didn’t work. The morning was beautiful, although extremely humid, the temperature was low and almost chilly in scant clothing. I took some more caffeine via Coca Cola at the second aid station. Jakob seemed worried about our pace and told me about his last Voyageur race where he went through the halfway at 3:15 or 3:30 or something, and really struggled the last half. I thought we were running pretty conservatively and it felt so easy. Jakob sped up…

We bumped out to the paved Munger Trail and I’d caught back up to Jakob after he stopped to pee. Another guy was right there, too, and we chatted with him. Garrett was from Madison, WI, and studying post-grad physical therapy or exercise science or something. I joked how he knows the exact tendons and muscles that are getting sore throughout the race. I stopped at the Duluth Running Co. aid station on the Munger Trail, and it was nice to know there were friendly faces at the station. Here, I drank a cup of Coke mixed with ginger ale, and a shot of pickle juice. Running away, I had major regrets as I felt the fluids mix together inside my belly like a witch’s brew.

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

We spread out in the trails nearby Mission Creek. Jakob was way out front, I wouldn’t see him for a long time. Garrett and I switched positions a few times. I was more or less running by myself. The aid stations were spread out really nicely, and I could chug my water and spray it on myself right before the next one. I was still feeling good just clicking off the sections: Mission Creek, Skyline, Magney Park. When we got to the Magney trails, I ran with Garrett a bit more and we considered our energy levels. We were both getting a bit tired, but feeling good. It was swampy on this section, but nice and shaded.

Through Skyline once more into Spirit Mountain, I went ahead of Garrett because he noticed I was going faster on the downhills. Soon after, it hit me and I started scanning the side of the trail. It’s an unmistakable feeling in any life situation and I knew then and there–I had to take an emergency dump. No, no, no. I wondered if this would happen, and sure enough, it’s coming. And quickly! I know I can’t fight it, so just hopped right into the woods and wished Garrett farewell. As I squatted, I saw the first place runner Michael Borst sprint past in the other direction. I also saw, like 4 people pass me. What?! I didn’t realize it was that tight. So I made it as brief as possible and hopped back onto the trail. Runners were exposed in the sun at the top of Spirit Mountain. I had fun seeing how the top was panning out. A minute back was Jake Hegge, 45 seconds behind that was Erik Elmstrand, who I jog with from time to time, right in the mix. Not a minute back was ageless wonder Kurt Keiser, who smoked the Zumbro 50 Mile course record earlier this year, where I came in second. It was shaping up to be a tight race!

We then turn down into the woods and it’s down, down, down to the zoo. I was surprised to see Jakob sprinting up the hill like it was a 5k workout. And that after the talks of starting out too fast!? But he looked fresh. High intensity paying off, I guess. I didn’t dawdle at the aid station, and was able to pass a few people, like Garrett as he changed his socks.

The grind back up to Spirit Mountain was hard. It took a lot out of me as I strongly considered walking. I decided I had to run up it, despite the high possibility of dipping too deep into the tank. A little overexertion, spread out for many hours, and mean a terrible last few hours of walking/hobbling. It was a great feeling to get back to the top of Spirit, and I was actually feeling OK after all. I knew that was the biggest uphill, really, and all just backwards from here. Garrett had passed me again on the uphill, and we were right together once again. He took off, and I wouldn’t see him for a long time.

It was pretty tough getting back to Magney. The uphill, running across Spirit was OK, and I started feeling pretty run down on Skyline. I ate a gel and kept plugging away. It was nice to see the high-density of runners going the other way. I had a second wind in Magney in the shade and the swampy conditions. It didn’t seem so bad this time around. I caught up to another guy in cutoff jorts, but passed him with ease.

Out of Magney ski trails, I knew it was a nice downhill on the road, but I didn’t think it would thrash my quads. I tried to be economical with running downhill, but I was just bashing my quads with every step. The jorts guy caught back up to me, and he told me we used to train together. I got a look at the guy’s face, and realized it was Marc Malinoski, a tri bro from right when I started in the triathlon game. He was training for Ironman in 2012 or 2013 or so, and I was such a newbie back then. So it was kind of cool to catch up and talk as a way to distract from the arduous task of running. I stopped only briefly at the aid station at Becks, and left Marc. It didn’t take long for him to catch up, but then I felt the familiar feeling of my stomach turning over.

Twice in a race… terrible. I wasn’t timing my stops or anything, but knew that if I didn’t pull off into the woods I’d pay for it. Marc said he saw me stop at Spirit, too… sorry bro. And so I pulled off once more. With a handful of the plentiful and large-leafed thimbleberry leaves I let ‘er rip. Just so unpleasant, taking a dump in the woods. I think the thimbleberry leaves were a bad choice, and realized my butt has been babied by Charmin for years.

Back onto the trail, I ran by myself through the steeps through Mission Creek. On the ropes section, I saw my long lost friend Garrett. I think he was doing pretty rough, because I passed him, and quickly out of sight. I went through the Mission Creek/Fond du Lac aid station and started slowing big time. My legs were heavy, and I couldn’t run up even the smallest incline. I foresaw the downward spiral in my mind’s eye, but somehow pulled through to get to the wider piece of trail, just as Garrett found his second wind and passed me just as easily. Out of sight, I didn’t think I’d see him again. I wondered where Marc went. I was all by myself and didn’t want to think about who else was behind me. The wheels were falling off.

I got to the DRC aid station once again, and Tina Nelson had a huge dollop of Vaseline on her hands asking me where I’m chafing. Do you count leaf-related abrasions as chafing? I told her nowhere… my filter kicking in as I almost blurted “taint”. I stopped for a good moment at this aid station and loaded up on tasty blue Powerade. I didn’t think… couldn’t think of food. I wasn’t hungry and wondered if I’d pay for that later. I told everyone the wheels are falling off. They told me to keep them on.

Into the powerlines, I had my third wind. It was perfect timing, and getting a chance to walk up some steeps reenergized me big time. It was painful to slog down the other side, but it was enough of a difference with the muscles you use, in this very steep up-and-down section, compared to trying to run 8 minute miles on flat, tame trails. I saw Marc once again, and he wasn’t doing so hot, no pun intended, in the summer heat of the exposed powerlines. I was luckily feeling just fine, but definitely spraying water on my face more and more. I soaked it up on Purgatory, the last section of the steep up-and-downs of the powerlines, and knew that it was a jog of 10 miles or so to the finish. I was pretty much right on my 8 hour goal, and maybe 12 place or so. I wondered who else I could pass, and so thought of my long lost friend Garrett. Into the woods and down a big hill to a creek bottom, then back up the other side and I saw him once again.

Garrett was walking up the hill and seemed to be in pain. Sure enough, he said he wasn’t doing well as his quadriceps were cramping. That sounds like the worst pain. But the constant pounding of downhill running is enough to do it to ‘ya! I passed him, wondering if we were in 10th and 11th place. I used it as motivation–whatever I could scrape up mentally at this stage in the race–to run. We got to the ski trails in Jay Cooke State Park, where the miles were just clicking away 6 hours prior. I realized this was the part of the race where mantras are the only thing to pull me through. My mantra was “keep the wheels on, Mike”. Keep the wheels on, keep the wheels on, and I kept working. This was probably my favorite part of the race. I don’t know what is so gratifying about being so tired that your mind tells you to stop. The signals from every muscle and tendon are saying they’re done, but you just keep working ’em. It’s all mental. I was feeling surprisingly well, and could feel my speed pick up to a nice consistent rate on these flat and runable trails. Even a small hill was enough to nearly derail my efforts, though.

I eagerly anticipated the next aid station, and was checking my watch’s mileage counter way too often. By the time I got to Forbay Lake, I figured I was decently ahead of both Garrett and Marc, both struggling the last time I’d seen them. I asked the volunteers at Forbay Lake what place I was in, and they said 11th. I joked how I wanted to get top 10, and then was promptly notified that 10th place was 10 minutes ahead. A few 5 minute miles, I muttered… Joke of the year…

I kept chugging along, craning my neck when I could to scope for any quickly closing runner behind me. Nothing. I sprinted across the crowded swinging bridge, and figured my adrenaline would carry me through the last really technical section of this long, long race. My legs were killing me, so hot and tired, and I hadn’t been eating. I wasn’t hungry, but knew I was in quite the calorie deficit. I saw some tourists on the trail, stepping carefully over rocks and roots, as I notified I was right behind them, and then cruised over the technical trail with relative ease. I seemed to surprise the couple, who yelled “I’m impressed!!”, but I really surprised myself and felt pretty cool. THIS would be the section to bend my ankle in half. Then again, my tendons were that of an overstretched rubber band. They’re probably bending in half every step as it was.

I started swearing at the roots. It was tough going through here, and I couldn’t help but yell bad words when I’d get to a precarious jumble of sharp rocks and oddly shaped roots. The adrenaline kicked in, especially when I started to calculate the last few miles of the race. If my GPS mileage held true, I’d be VERY close to going under 8 hours. Now, that is my motivator.

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

I was overly excited to see the bridge across to the Munger Trail. 2 minutes to 8 hours. How far do we run on the Munger? I saw Carlton, and recognized the turn-off as my watch clicked to the 59’s. I saw the finish line from afar, looked down to see 7:59:15. I gritted my teeth and picked it up hard. I was not going to jog in in for an 8:00:15. The all out sprint was terribly painful, and in hindsight, embarrassing as the spectators looked at the sheer pain plastered on my squinched face. The clock confirmed I had a few seconds to spare as I crossed the line and stopped my watch at 7:59:45.

“Sub 8”, I muttered as I hobbled to the grass, climbed onto my hands and knees and panted like a dog. Nobody said anything, but I noticed my friends Jakob, Erik and Chris Rubesch relaxing in the shade. I felt like crying as I realized the scope of the accomplishment. I somehow kept my wheels on to bring in a stellar time of under 8 hours, definitely smashing my expectations. The deep field was really crazy, as four people, including Jakob, who had a truly incredible race, went under 7 hours. My time would have yielded a top 10 or even a top 5 finish in any other year’s race.

Looking back, the Voyageur was an awesome race. I definitely achieved my goal of having fun and enjoying myself, and I’m afraid that I like the 50 mile distance too much. ‘More miles, more fun’ seems to be the theme. I ought to look at a 100k or 100 miler in that case!

Results

Garmin Data

Race Stats:

Place: 11/271
Time: 7:59:45
Pace: 9:45

Shoes: Mizuno Hayate size 11
Food: Too much to name

Race Day: Saturday, June 18, 2016 – 7:45am

I counted up the years and found that this was my eighth time in a row competing in a Grandma’s Marathon event. This is where it all began, and I love the race. I love the atmosphere in Duluth over the weekend, too, and look forward to it every single year. I signed up for the Garry Bjorkland Half Marathon 8 years ago, having never done a real running race, and the rest is history!

This year, I had very little by way of goals or aspirations for this race. Since April, my running volume had kind of tapered off, and I actually was focusing more on walking. It seems bizarre, and what really suffered here were long runs. If I’m backpacking every weekend, it makes it very difficult to get those few hours of running in. Eyes on the prize, though, and backpacking is first priority! Unfortunately, as I’d find out at Grandma’s Marathon, hiking doesn’t play in too well to marathon running. It’s probably better than watching TV, but definitely doesn’t translate exactly.

I was really looking forward to the weekend of Grandma’s, because 2016 was the first year in four that I wasn’t going to be working long hours at the race expo. After work on Friday, I’m off scott free! I got my packet on Thursday right as packet pickup opened, and was looking forward to have plenty of friends in town for the big weekend. I wanted to think of a race plan, and decided it might be a good idea just to take it easy and feel like I finished strong instead of the too-familiar slow crumble. I saw my friend Savannah at the expo and she was looking for a pacer for a sub 3:05 or even better: under 3 hours. That’s a respectable time for sure, but would be my slowest marathon of three, and this is coming off good 50 mile and 50k races just a few months prior. I wondered if it’d be possible to instead push hard and go for a marathon PR and pace for a 2:45 or so. If I built up for a fast marathon from April, it’d probably be no problem, but my training had shrunk since April and I had no workouts, longs runs, or races to use as a gauge to what I’m capable of. So I told Savannah we’d meet up at the start line and rock out some 7 minute miles.

Work was dreadfully slow on Friday, but it was great to get back for the weekend and see some friends. We had a pasta dinner potluck and everyone was in good spirits. I felt no pressure, but kept wondering if running slow would be a mistake. Why pass up the chance to have a great race? Then again, who cares? A 3:30 marathon would be fun and easy given my fitness! It is hard to even consider limiting one’s self in the context of a race. It’s hard enough when I’m trying to do a track workout!!

The weather was looking OK for race day. There was a chance for thunderstorms, which really can mean anything. Low winds, the temperature was bound to be higher than I’d like, but I didn’t think it’d be too extreme. As I went to sleep nice and early, I regretted promising to run quite a bit slower than PR pace with Savannah, but figured I’d stick with it and can always kick it up a notch at mile 15 for a sweet negative split.

I arose at 5:15am and saw house guest Carlie leisurely filling up her water bottle at the sink. Her and her husband Grant, as well as my roommate Matt, were all running the half marathon. I became a little confused with my morning sleepiness, but then quickly realized that they were probably running late. Matt came upstairs and I asked him if he was late or what. Nah, he said they have time. I told him the buses were shipping out of the University of Minnesota – Duluth, at 4:45-5:15am! They all three started scurrying around to get their things and got out the door at around 5:25 or so. How stressful! I can’t handle that on race morning! I wondered if they’d make it to the bus…

Meanwhile, my pre-race routine was right on point, and Kyle and Stacie picked me up just like last year. We made the buses with plenty of time to spare, hopped on, next stop Two Harbors. The weather was nice and the sun was out. It was shaping up to be a beautiful morning. The pre-race excitement on the school bus is always so fun. We got out and started walking towards the massive crowd near the starting corrals. The sun was already beating down, even at 7am. I dropped my clothes bag off and headed out to get in line for the porta-potties to complete the pre-race routine. I found Savannah almost immediately and we reviewed the pre-race plans. She said she doesn’t look at splits and told me not to yell them out. Fine! We’d just pace at a manageable speed, although I knew I wanted to hit 7 minute miles for the first five miles to start.

The hour before the race start was spent in porta-potty lines. I luckily got a big squirt of sunscreen and lathered it on my face and shoulders. It was going to be hot unless the clouds really come out in full force. With five minutes to spare, we ran towards the start line, got a nice comfortable spot near the 3:05 pace group. Without much ado, “ERRRRRRRRRRRR” and the start horn sounded. I promptly started my watch, but didn’t move my legs for 15 seconds until the crowd lurched forward. And we’re off.

It was nice to be up front and not have to run around all those people. My legs were feeling great, nice and refreshed, and I was excited to be on the way back to Duluth. Mile one was right on target. At around mile two, Savannah had to  make a bathroom stop. I was confused because we were at the porta-potties not 20 minutes prior! But if ya gotta go, ya gotta go. She said she’d catch up and I never saw her again. On my own! I vowed to keep a 7 minute pace until at least mile five. I got to mile five, saw my boss Dennis, and was right on track.

At this point, I didn’t know what strategy to take. I realized that 7 minute pace felt like a good marathon pace and I wasn’t too confident that I’d be able to go much faster anyways. I tried to ignore the pace and just run at a very easy effort. My new race plan was to kick it down at mile 18, do a few miles, then really give it all up at mile 20 when the real race begins. A marathon is a 10k with a 20 mile warm-up. Each split up to the half marathon mark was pretty well under 7 minutes. 6:33, 6:54, 6:39, and I was feeling good. The sun was definitely coming out, but I hadn’t yet resorted to dumping water on myself. My nutrition plan was right on point, gels on the hours, and I made a point to sip Powerade at every aid station.

I felt the fatigue set it at mile 15 or 16, near Brighton Beach. Luckily, it was a brief wave of tiredness that quickly passed. We bumped out from the Scenic Highway 61 to London Road and I was feeling good and in control once again. I realized I wouldn’t get close to my PR. I would be happy to beat 3 hours at this point, as my pace was feeling pretty automatic but would not be reasonable if I cranked it down at all. We’ll see at mile 20, I thought to myself.

I noticed the heat on London Road, and the sun was definitely coming out. I noticed it in my fellow competitors, as well, as more and more people were walking or hunched over, or spending a long time at aid stations grabbing ice and sponges and water. I was happy to feel like I was managing the heat well, however, and surprised the race was going without a hitch. No stomach issues, legs were feeling decent, really nothing to write home about!

Nearing the end of the Lakeside neighborhood, I felt a wave of fatigue once again. I battled it, and felt faster and better going by the Glensheen Mansion that I ever have in past years. I could see Lemon Drop Hill and was passing people. What a great feeling. I ran up Lemon Drop and knew it was all downhill from here. This is where it gets gritty. Sure enough, I realized I wouldn’t get a break from the pain and suffering of running a marathon despite my relatively conservative pace. Down London Road through the business district, the wheels fell off. It was a quick demise, and I really felt my pace slow down. It was a struggle to hold on, but I knew that this was the part of the race where you gather as much energy as possible from the crowd and from adrenaline and let ‘er rip. Also, I knew I’d get a boost from friends at Super One a mile down and the Duluth Running Co. a half mile past that.

I got passed a few times on the open and exposed London Road business district. I could feel my legs getting really heavy, the pace was slowing, slowing, and the pain. I missed the 3 hour cut and was looking at a Boston Marathon qualifier time 3:05 if I could hold it together. My tank top was pasted to my skin with the water and the sweat and I was taking every opportunity to dump water on myself. Super One was indeed a good boost of energy as I high-fived my friends. Then we turned up 12th Avenue East, the last tiny uphill, and it was the hardest part of the race. I had no energy and told my friend Kris it was really hard. It is once we get back up to Superior Street when the crowds come out. It seems like such a long couple miles to the finish whereas the early miles had just clicked off one by one a few hours prior. Duluth Running Co. was great energy and my pace sped up. Keep it up, I thought to myself. Unfortunately, I wilted very soon after. I was struggling to hang on to my 7 minute pace goal, and my watch was confirming the grim notion that I was running slow. There was a wide array of energy levels in my fellow runners as some people were passing me and others were stopped completely because of the heat and the exhaustion and the pain.

As we passed Fitger’s, I gritted my teeth. It was slow going into Downtown Duluth, and I tried to get a mantra in my head. I told myself it was easy, this was nothing compared to the 50k just a month ago. I had to run 10 miles in worse heat and with worse pain, and now I just have 2 miles left on the easy, flat roads. Easy! Lake Avenue is my favorite part of the course, and I tried to use some of the loud energy to my favor. I knew I’d be able to hold on at this point and just tried to push it as well as I could. My splits had still been decent since Lemon Drop Hill, but things really started going south once we turned onto 5th Avenue West for the final mile. It was rough. The sun was so hot and I was just toast. I could feel the weight of the day on certain painful muscle groups but tried to push it out of my mind. Under the bridge, around the hotel, and that finish line was great to see. I could finally let loose, and can always somehow find a little extra energy on the finish stretch on Canal Park Drive. I made it through the finish right in the meat of 3:04.

I kept running very slowly, a volunteer may have thought I was delirious as she told me I can stop running. I told her that I actually cannot stop because I’d cramp up! I saw Grant and Carlie immediately, extremely happy to see medals around their necks given the frantic morning start. It was nice to sit down, I saw some fellow Duluthian marathoners, dunked my legs in the Big Lake, and drank some chocolate milk.

All in all, the 2016 Grandma’s Marathon was great! It was fun to run a steady race and I felt great in the days after the race. It wasn’t my fastest race, in fact it was my slowest marathon out of three, but the entire weekend was so enjoyable and I was very pleased with my time regardless of what it could have been given a different race strategy. By mile 22 or so, I was giving it all I got anyways, so I’m led to believe that cranking down the pace earlier would have made for a more extreme implosion, especially with the heat! Not to many PR’s were set that day. And with that one done, there are no other races on the docket!

Results

Garmin Data

Race Stats:

Place: 195/7,525
Chip Time: 3:04:14
Pace: 7:02

Shoes: Mizuno Wave Rider size 11
Food: Strawberry Kiwi Honey Stinger Gel, Salted Caramel Gu

Race Day: Saturday, May 21, 2016

Location: Lutsen, MN

The few days before race day were accepting that the Superior Spring 50k was going to be a hard race. The weeks prior were not ideal training conditions: traveling, vacation, business traveling, rock and roll festivals, heavy drinking, a bad cold, more or less in that order. I was feeling fit as ever, but had nothing to validate it because my running had been pretty sporadic and without any sort of structure. Definitely no four-hour SHT training runs like Wild Duluth a few seasons prior, which seemed to help that race tremendously. But even that was still a hard race.

With mom doing the 25k, I stayed Friday night right in between the start and finish lines at Caribou Highlands Lodge in Lutsen. That was clutch. The plan was to drive up with Jack after work, drop Jack off at a nearby campsite of his choosing, then go to Lutsen, sleep, do the 50k, then meet back up with Jack and fish for a couple days. So that’s what we did! Driving up Highway 61 from Duluth on Friday, it was shaping up to be a perfect weekend.

Competition for the race was looking pretty steep, so my plan was to let ‘er rip, see how the first few miles pan out, but try to race my own race and see where I shake out. The course was an out-and-back southbound on the Superior Hiking Trail from Lutsen to Carlton Peak and back. I’d never been on that section of trail so was excited about that. Times looked pretty fast for the course, which seems crazy given the rugged nature of the Sawtooth Mountains, but I figured I’d pace off of 4 hours flat to finish and see where it gets me. If all goes according to plan, that would get me a solid third place.

As promised by my phone app, Saturday morning was prime weather. Cool, crisp, sunny with scattered clouds, and the green was starting to pop. There was definitely a lot of snow left on Lutsen, but very patchy. I ate a nice buffet breakfast, had some coffee, some Mountain Dew, a few caffeine jelly beans, and a very accessible hotel room bathroom for the morning bid’ness. On the start line feeling good, I was anxious to get the race started. Race director John Storkamp made a funny joke about “coffeine” at some guy’s expense, a few other words and “GO!”, we were off. The videographer on the lead vehicle fell out of the trunk, which was not expected 3 seconds into the race, and pre-race top contender Michael Borst took off right away.

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

The race starts and ends on a half mile of road, and I took the lead of small group as Michael bolted out of sight. We got onto a bit wider of a trail, climbed and climbed, and then entered the signature Superior Hiking Trail singletrack. I was pretty much running by myself already, with Mike way out front and the rest of the racers somewhere behind me. I didn’t turn around and look. 15 minutes in, I saw Michael up front again. I figured I might as well surge to catch him and hang on. Eventually, I was right on his tail. We chatted a bit, and definitely took note of the perfect morning for running. It turns out that the other pre-race contender, who had won this race multiple times, was not racing. Chris Lundstrom is his name, and he allegedly had sick kids according to Michael’s intel. I joked with Mike that it was good for us, but I don’t think he found it very funny!

I remember thinking how it is nice when the weather conditions have no factor in the outcome of the race. We went down Mystery Mountain, up to a sweet lookout, and then down a really steep hill to the flats. My watch flashed 32 minutes for my first 4-mile split. Perfect. It wasn’t much longer, though, before I let Mikey go. I have got to race my own race, I said to myself, and could definitely feel the speed early in the race. It’s hard to know when you’re pushing to hard in a race like a trail 50k, and just very slightly too hard for two hours is enough to make the following two hours very tough.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

I got to the first aid station at 56 minutes or so. Way ahead of schedule, WOW! I was makin’ some good time! Feelin’ good, I filled up my water bottle and took a cup full of gummi bears, and shoved them all in my mouth as I ran out of the aid station. My dad said I was three minutes down. Hm, not bad. Then again, he was with me just 30 minutes ago… It took me a while to chew all of the gummis. There was nobody behind me that I could sense, and I was right where I wanted to be.

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

The next few miles went by pretty fast. It was a runnable section to the next aid station just over five miles away. They clicked by, and I was completely alone besides a few groups of hikers and perhaps a photographer or two. I was right on track at the second aid station, and I ate some pretzels and drank a bit of Coke, and asked for salt pills. There were no salt pills, so I took off. My plan was to eat a gel at 1.5 hours and 3 hours, I’d eaten my first gel not too long ago, so I left the aid station filled up. It was a quick two miles or so up to Carlton Peak, and then turn around and run all the way back to Lutsen. Exiting the aid station, I asked my dad to time how far back the rest of the race was, and he said I was around four minutes down from Mike. I realized running away that I’d see everyone after the turnaround with my own two eyes…

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

The climb up Carlton was rough. I kept thinking that it was nothing compared to Ant Hill at Zumbro, but it was starting to get hot, I was starting to get tired, and was scared to be walking. I saw Mike barreling down the hill and noted the time. The views at Carlton Peak were dramatic, but there was no time to regale in the beauty. I reached the top and confusedly asked what to do… if I just touch the turnaround sign or what. Yep! Ok, off to the bottom.

I looked at my watch again and saw 2:01. A one minute negative split is definitely not out of the question! I wanted to remember 2:01 to see how far back the rest of the pack was. Bombing back down was much easier than climbing up Carlton Peak, and I saw a pack of three guys running together about three minutes back. I had no wiggle room if I wanted to stay in second place. I tried to think of what I should do at the next aid station, and I started to feel the day wearing on me. Too soon! No!

At the far aid station, I refilled my bottle and drank some Heed. Borst was five minutes up, and my dad confirmed that the second pack was three minutes back. I hurried on to the final aid station. This is the meat of the race. The key is to not slow down, or at least slow down as little as possible. I was still running at a decent clip, but holding off the inevitable break-down is my true measure of fitness and mental ‘stremph’.

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

 

It was hot and tough running through the rest of the 50k field towards the first/last aid station. Hills were becoming pretty hard to run up. It must’ve been an easy time running down these, I thought! I tried to remember the intricacies of the trail to recall what elevation challenge was next. It was past the last aid station to the steep hill where Michael left me in the dust. Running was becoming tough to sustain through the smallest uphill bump, and I knew my split was slowing simply from the excessive walking. The heat was searing in the unshaded sun.

My focus had become solely to not get caught. It was terribly nerve-wracking to ponder how close the pack was behind me. They were running together at Carlton Peak, so they’re coming for me. How disheartening would it be to be passed while walking slowly? I finally neared the last aid station and had my bottle filled with the tastiest ice water. I took ice on my head and ate a few pretzels. I made a grave mistake by not drinking as much water, coke and Heed as I could. In a disheveled state, I was in-and-out. My dad gave me the update: I can’t catch Borst. I didn’t really expect to once he ran away from me three hours ago…

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

It was almost 8 miles back to the finish without an aid station. It took me 56 minutes to run this stretch the first time around, and I had a massive hill to look forward to on the return trip. However, I recall climbing much of the first 15 minutes of the race, so it should be a relief to run almost exclusively downhill on the final home stretch. I was slamming my ice water. It was so tasty. I was half gone with my bottle before a mile had passed from the aid station. Poor form. I realized my mistake and longed to be back at the aid station with unlimited drinks. Foolish. But I kept running. I wasn’t necessarily sore, just fatigued. The heat of the day was taking it’s toll on everyone, though, and I was walking past 25k runners on uphills, and blasting past them on the flats and downhills. The rest of the race was a slow degradation of my pace. And of my wellbeing, for that matter!

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

I expected the large hill up Moose Mountain at any time, and before long, there it was. I walked up the whole thing, and it was actually a welcome relief. I saw my friend Melissa who was stopped. I coaxed her on to walk with me, and she did, but wasn’t doing so hot! She said she might yak. “Don’t yak” was my revolutionary advice as I walked past. Running was rough once I got to the top. I expected of myself to run once we got to the flats… it should be smooth sailing from here. Another downhill, some flats, a grinding uphill with switchbacks up Mystery Mountain, and that’s it! But I was not smooth sailing.

Once I got to the bottom of Mystery, perhaps 3 miles to the finish, I really did not feel good. Running was a monumental task. Running fast was not in the cards. Thinking back to the easy feeling of zinging 8 minute miles through the morning mist seemed ridiculous at this point. How? I looked back when I could and made a promise that when I get to the top of Mystery, I’d drink the rest of my water and run the whole rest of the way to the finish without walking. I kept that in mind during the rough walk all the way up Mystery. It was a struggle, but more so mentally as I accepted that I’d get passed in the last mile. There’s no way I’ve held anyone off with my 25 minute pace. I finally got to the top of the hill and realized my water was completely gone anyways. Nice, so much for the last sip. It probably evaporated. The heat was brutal. It was probably 72 degrees, but living next to Lake Superior does nothing for my heat tolerance. I had to fulfill my promise to myself to run the whole way home. Luckily, the downhills were doable. I was probably bashing my legs with poor, fatigued running form on the rocky and rugged slopes, but did not care at all. I yelled. The 25k runners looked back. Just a grunt of pain here, nothing to see! I was VERY eager to get off of the SHT and on to the ATV trail. Just a quick lil’ jaunt and it’s the home stretch onto the pavement. Over the Poplar River, and I could see cars.

I had to walk on the road. Only for a moment. I kept running. I felt like I was going to faint. I was really lightheaded and knew I was pretty well dehydrated. I wondered what would happen when I finish. As long as I don’t faint or poop my pants, I’m fine. The finish stretch was a glorious sight, and I gritted my teeth to bring it home. I heard someone yell “how about a smile?”, and cracked a small grin. I came into the finish and felt like hell. No celebration, just straight to a folding chair. My watch read 4:23, which means I ran over 20 minutes slower on the second half. I drank a couple of cups of water, and several cups of iced tea, several lemonades, and several Arnold Palmers. Iced tea and lemonade at the finish… genius. I was able to hold off my adversaries, and they probably were having a rough second half as well. Meanwhile, I think Michael Borst sped up the second half, and had a fantastic finish a few minutes under 4 hours.

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

What a great race. It wasn’t well executed, my training was not on par with what I’d like, but the race itself was fantastic. Out and back has its own character from a point-to-point, and that section of the Superior Hiking Trail made for a great race. How does one climb Carlton Peak and run back to Lutsen, but after 85 miles of running, as in Superior Fall? That is beyond me…

Second place was a good feeling, and I got an award for the Open category. Meanwhile, mom won the Grandmasters division in the 25k. Bringin’ home the hardware!

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

After more iced tea, a shower and burger and beer, I met back up with Jack and we stayed overnight at the Superior National Forest campsite way up on the Poplar River. We went fishing and I got one small fish, presumably a brook trout, thanks to some kid who found worms at his family’s adjacent campsite. What a fantastic weekend up north.

Garmin Data

Results

Race Stats:

Shoes: Mizuno Hayate size 11
Handheld: Nathan insulated 18oz
Food: Gu Salted Carmel gel, Honey Stinger Ginsting gel, 1 pack Honey Stinger Cherry Coke chews. Aid station: gummi bears, pretzels, two salt pills, Coke, Heed, water

Time: 4:23:06
Pace: 8:29
Place: 2/177

Race Day: Saturday, April 9, 2016 – 12:01am

50 miles is a lot of ground to cover. 2016 is the year for long backpacking trips, hiking, walking, slow-walking, and so on. However, I love racing and just can’t give it up. With a few forays into ultramarathons, I realized that they’re really fun and challenging, and I’m pretty good at them. For better or worse, I think that based on my physiology and genetic abilities, trail ultras suit me best compared to other types of endurance racing like bike racing and tris and road running. The real test is to register for a really competitive trail ultra like Superior Spring 50k and Voyager 50 mile and see where I place…

Anyways, I figured that throwing a few trail ultramarathons in the mix for the year would be great training, a lot of fun, and a perfect compliment to backpacking. I registered for Zumbro 50 mile and Superior Spring 50k simultaneously, actually, but Zumbro is the one that I was thinking about every single day a month prior. I was having thoughts of fear, nervousness, dread, excitement.

Training leading up to Zumbro was interesting. I’d been running very, very consistently at about 60-70 miles per week from into February and all of March. This is pretty big miles for me, but I think the big key was running every day, doing a lot of doubles, and back-to-back longer runs on the weekends. I was staying free from injury (maybe riding the line of frinjury… but that’s where you wanna be!), and running was feeling VERY easy. An hour run, for instance, would feel as taxing as a lunch break walk around downtown Duluth. My hamstrings get more sore watching an hour of TV on the couch. This is a good sign. However, 90% of my running was roads. February was really warm, and once the snow starts to melt, it’s game over for the trails until it either snows more and is consistently cold, or it all melts and the trails completely dry out. And in Duluth, that’s usually mid-May. This year is no exception, and the daily highs were above freezing in the day and below freezing at night. Rain, snow, mix, sleet, and all of the above at the same time… yeah it’s not meteorologically possible but I’m pretty sure it happened. So roads it is. 7:30 pace was feeling EASY to maintain, breathing through my nose or carrying on an intellectual conversation even for two hours. I was feeling very confident in my running, especially for, say, a road marathon. If I keep this up, I’m a shoe-in for a PR at Grandma’s! But a technical, challenging trail ultramarathon is what I was actually training for…

Two weeks prior to Zumbro, I started getting really nervous. First it was about training. Roads are different than trails. Will that fitness translate or am I going to break both my ankles on mile 1? Also, I hadn’t done any really long runs. I anticipated doing some 4 hour runs, but push comes to shove and my biggest weekend was 2 hours for 17 miles a Friday morning and then 3 hours for 21 miles the next morning. Both on roads, 3 hours felt so easy, and this was maybe 5 weeks out. Then, a few days before the race… when do I sleep? How do I eat? Naps? Two dinners? How do I pace this thing? Am I going to fall apart on the third lap? Is this like a 50k or is it a different beast? Pretty standard pre-race nerves, but maybe a little amplified because of the scope of the race itself.

Zumbro is made up of three races along a 16.7 mile loop in bluff country near Winona, MN. The 100 mile is six loops and starts Friday morning. The 50 is three loops and starts at midnight Friday night/Saturday morning. The 16.7 mile (17 miles for all intents and purposes) starts Saturday morning at 9. The cutoff for every race is Saturday at 6pm. So my plan was to take work off on Friday, drive to Maple Grove and then drive to the race site on Friday evening to catch packet pickup at 10pm. As far as race plans, my goal was to go under 9 hours. To achieve this, I figured I could pace off 10 minute miles. If I keep a 10 minute pace right off the bat, I don’t think I’d overexert myself but that leaves a 40 minute buffer for the inevitable slowdown. If I can hit 10 minutes for every mile, it puts me at 8:20. Lastly, I want to win. I mean, really, what’s the point of racing besides to beat people and stroke one’s own ego? Otherwise, it’s just a timed training run with a bunch of other weirdos…

So I relaxed, ate and slept as much as I could on Friday. I started driving south and arrived at the race site right after 10pm. Nick’s advice to me was to be full at the start line. I got my packet, rushed back to the warm car, and hung out for an hour. I ate half a Subway sandwich and was munching on trail mix and Combos and candy and various other munchies. I set my alarm for 38 minutes and tried to get some quick shut-eye. I definitely wasn’t tired but figured it’d benefit me. I didn’t really sleep. And when my alarm rang, I gathered some food and a backup headlamp and socks into my little drop bag and set out to the start line.

The overnight low was supposed to be in the 20’s, even into the teens depending on the location. I definitely noticed that the river bottoms were cooler. I chose to wear a long sleeve tech tee and a thin running jacket, running tights, a buff and thin poly liner gloves. A voice came over the loudspeaker and we lined up in the pitch dark midnight. I got up the front row, and saw Bennett Isabella to my right. We raced against each other at Capitol City Tri, I noticed his USA Triathlon shirt and put two and two together. We were chatting a bit… he’s doing an ultramarathon year as well, just had a baby, and didn’t have a target time in mind at all. He said this is pure training, and didn’t really say much about my 9 hour goal.

Then “GO!” and we set off. I started slow and wanted to have some dudes in front of me to lead the way. I was really nervous to run in the dark and potentially get off course, so my initial plan was to latch onto a group going exactly 10 minute pace. High hopes… beggars can’t be choosers! Looking at the start list, I figured Kurt Keiser would win. I want to win, but Kurt set the course record for Zumbro 50 the previous year (8:10), and he’d won Surf the Murph 50 mile the past October, too. So, he’s got consistent 50 mile experience, a just fricken’ fast dude. Another guy who looked like a contender is Jeff Vander Kooi out of Michigan, who popped a 24 hour at Sawtooth 100 the previous fall. And Bennett is a beast triathlete, so you can never discount him. Plus, I’m not too versed in the who’s who in ultras, and unlike the MN triathlon scene, there are lot more ringers out there. Just super fast no-name dudes who decide to race an ultramarathon and kill it.

Within a quarter mile, we popped onto some singletrack. Up, up, up, and it got really technical really quick. Rocks, uneven ground, roots up this big hill. I quickly realized that the course was probably going to be really well marked… it was super easy to see the reflective taping, and it was obvious where to go for every turn. It didn’t take long for Kurt to take the lead and sprint up this hill that everyone else was walking up. Another guy went with Kurt and they were quickly out of sight. The nice part about the darkness is that you could see headlamps from a far ways away… and the two guys slipped into the darkness with 49 miles to go, never to be seen again.

Bennett and I were running together, and we latched on with another guy, who I realized after the race was Jeff. We did maybe 5 miles together, and were in second place at that point. There were four aid stations on the course, and the big one at the start/finish/lap area. After the second or third aid station, I lost Bennett and Jeff, never to be seen again. I was running by myself and feeling pretty good. I made a point to walk up hills that were really steep, half for energy conservation, half for efficiency. I mean, running up these scrambles was maybe slower because of the sheer steepness. Steep up, steep down, but also a lot of flat running on horse trails.

At another aid station, I departed with another guy. I wanted to latch right onto him, and once he sensed my light behind him, he jumped to the side and let me take the lead. And he latched right on to me! Eh, whatever, it’s nice to kind of zone out on someone’s heels, but this allowed me to go my own pace and I get some bonus light from the back. We ran a good few miles together without much conversation, and then bumped out to a nice flat road. He came on my side and we started chatting a bit. His name was Nate and he was from Bemidji. Two first time 50 milers, and we were probably in 3rd and 4th place. He didn’t really have a goal time, but mentioned his wife was running the 17 mile and his kids were at an aid station. We came through the fourth aid station on the course, I lost Nate, and few miles later I completed my first lap. My watch said 2:45 or so… really good time considering 10 minute pace for 16.7 miles comes out to 2:47. Literally right on track. Perfect! I had set the auto lap for 6 miles and was trying to catch my mileage on the hour… so at 1:00, I should be at 6 miles, 2:00 is 12 miles, 3:00 is 18 miles, etc… I fueled up, feeling good, feeling confident, and set off on the second lap.

At this point, I was by myself. I was feeling pretty sore and tight. Nothing really in particular, but I could feel my legs were fatigued for sure. I wasn’t really mentally tired, like “I need sleep”, but physical exhaustion was definitely setting in. I thought it was too early for that and got kind of nervous. Oh, well, I thought to keep running smart, hit this 10 minute pace, and if I can do another 2:45, I have a 40 minute buffer to slow down on the last lap to hit sub-9 hours. I climbed the first big hill out of the River Bottoms start/finish/lap area, looked down and saw the lights from the mini village I’d just departed way down there. “See ya later,” I thought to myself, and started down into the dark wilderness alone.

I was passing a lot of 100 milers, who were going on 21 hours of continuous forward progress with no sleep. Most had pacers, and it was a 50/50 split of good spirits and bad spirits. I tried to be energetic and positive towards all of them that I passed, and half were with it, half didn’t respond! Who knows what’s going in their minds. Not just at that moment but in general…

At the second aid station, I ran up to get drink a little Coke and heard my name. It was Dan, my cousin-in-law! That was great to see him… he started as a triathlete but morphed into an ultramarathon enthusaist. He’d done pretty well at Zumbro 100 a few years back, and said that he’s been volunteering at the aid station the past few years. He thought I was in second place… sweet!! I didn’t really believe him, though. Maybe Kurt was way, way up there and the other guy that went with Kurt off the bat was who Dan thought was leading the race. Oh, well, I left the aid station in a great mindset and feeling good.

The whole second lap, I felt more and more tired; more and more sore. Also, I wasn’t hungry and was forcing a gel every now and again when I felt like I needed to. Nasty, but I knew the race hinged on staying on top of food intake. I was super gassy, and either burping or farting every step. Probably the Chubway sandwich. The second lap felt much more flat than the first. Yes, the hills were extreme, but the course, for whatever reason, seemed to be mostly flat and runnable terrain the second time around. Maybe it was because I was by myself.

Halfway through the second loop, I came back upon Nate. He was going really slow down a super steep section, and again jumped out of the way to let me pass, then latched onto me. I wasn’t really cookin’ at the time, and maybe Nate was going through a little rough patch, but I made some time on him, and his headlamp became more and more dim until it was unseen in the early morning darkness. “Old man can’t hang,” I thought. My stomach was feeling a little off… I was eating ShotBloks intermittently and a gel every 1.5 hours or so. At the aid stations, I definitely went for Coke, but it was freezing! So I’d melt the icy slush in my mouth. I suppose the stuff that doesn’t freeze is like Coke concentrate. Just gimme the sugar and the caffeine! I knew I should be eating food with substance… savory items like grilled cheese and soup and pb&j and stuff, but all that looked appetizing was candy, pretzels and maybe some trail mix. I wondered if this would sustain me?

Running by myself in a sandy river bottom that had been gorged out by thousands of years of water flow, it hit me. The gels and the Scrubway, and nature calls. I had to poop, BAD. I tried to walk it off (cue the Unk song), looking behind me for Nate to pass me in my time of peril, but it was getting worse. I stopped dead in my tracks, half by necessity as not to poop my tights, half in hopes it would subside. “C’mon body, I’m sure you can use some of this!” I thought. “Recycle it for energy!!” I don’t think it works like that and I knew I had one choice, to poop in the woods and keep running. So I trudged off, handful of brown and crunchy leaves, a few feet off the trail. Squat, hope it doesn’t hit my shoes, and get this over with. Sure enough, I looked up and saw a headlamp bobbing in the distance. As not to expose myself to my new buddy Nate (that is not something one can erase from one’s memory), I turned off my headlamp. Ok, now I’m just being creepy, I thought. He can obviously hear me rustling… so I yelled out.

“Yo, Nate! Is that you?”

I saw his headlamp swivel.

“Um, yeah.”

“It’s Mike. I had to take an emergency dump over here.”

“Ummmmm. Ok. Uh, the trail’s over here when you’re done.”

“Yeah thanks,” I replied, as he ran off into the darkness. What an unpleasant experience. Not the Nate conversation, but just the whole situation with the crunchy leaves, and, well, I’ll spare the comprehensive details. Let’s just say…. I had leaves in my butt. On the flip side, it would have been a long 8 miles turtle-walking to the next porta-pottie.

So I was back on track here, feeling much better from an internal organ standpoint anyways. I caught back up to Nate pretty quickly, and we got to the third aid station shortly thereafter. I didn’t need food or slushy coke, but I asked a volunteer if there was a porta-pottie there. “Uh, no,” he replied. Whatever, I just ran off. I thought it was kind of a snarky response, but then realized that this volunteer had probably been out here pooping in the woods for almost 24 hours. How are they going to get a porta-pottie into this remote location?? We were literally in the middle of a million acre tract of state forest. Duh!!

I left in front of Nate and he quickly drifted back, never to be seen again. I ran the flat road by myself this time, and before long, I was done with lap two. It was a tough lap. With the poop debacle, feeling sore, feeling tired, and I’d slowed down quite substantially. I had song stuck in my head for hours, and I was timing my running cadence to the guitar line of REM “Everybody Hurts”.

At my little drop bag, I switched out some garbage for another round of gels and a new pack of orange ShotBloks (with caffeine!). I stopped at the porta-pottie there to take care of some unfinished business, and my watch read 5:50 or so. Eh… a solid 3 hours for the second lap, but I still had a buffer of about 3 hours and 15 minutes to get under 9. That’s a pretty even slowdown, and to be expected. On one hand, I have 33.3 miles in my legs and every single mile after 35 is a new record for the longest I’ve ever ran. It is expected that I get more and more exhausted, and the harder and harder it will be to maintain a pace of 10 minutes per mile. On the other hand, I could see it was getting bright out. The sunshine will surely be a source of energy and positivity. Before I left for lap three, I yelled out and asked what place I was in. Third.

So I set off by myself, a deep violet hue on one horizon… what a beautiful sign of things to come. On the other horizon was pitch darkness. I figured that since I was in third, when I’d seen Dan and he said I was in second place, my Bemidji pal Nate was in front of me and that’s who Dan thought was in first place at the time. Well, I’d passed Nate and it was probably Kurt and this other guy crankin’ out in front. I wondered if they were together and how far up. Who is this other guy? Is he the real deal? I know Kurt is the real deal and maybe this guy is exploding himself by going with Kurt from mile 1 on. Oh, well, my focus was to stick 3 hours. If I can run an even lap, I’d finish right before 9am and get my sub-9 hour race. My watch read 6 hours as I crested the top of the first big ridge right out of the start/finish area. It had become really light really fast, and I finally got a lay of the land. Straight up bluff country. The start/finish area definitely looked like a village now, and I saw hundreds of cars parked. I couldn’t help but yell “MORNIN’!!!!” at the top of my lungs.

“Mornin’ cars! Mornin’ rocks! Mornin’ trail! Mornin’ birds! Mornin’ leaves! Mornin’ wood!”

I had a second wind and knew I had to leave it all out here. My body was becoming really fatigued. The urge to stop was almost overwhelming, but unlike many other races I’ve done, I could actually keep my pace up. But the pain was imminent. It was becoming a mental game here.

I was passing a few 100 milers, and it was easy to give some positive notes of encouragement regarding the dawn of their second day. The light was well received by everyone. I noticed that I was running fast. I was hauling ass. The third lap seemed even more flat and runnable in the light. However, I would become fatigued very easily. For instance, I could stick a 9 minute pace for a mile on the relatively flat horse trails, and would be so happy to get to an uphill where I had to hike up, just when I thought I couldn’t run another step I’d get relief from the hill. It worked different muscles. By the top of the hill, I would be using my hands to scramble, breath heaving, and so thankful to run again. When the downhill came, it felt so nice to rest the calf muscles and let my quads do the work. By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, by toes were so jammed up, knees in pain and would be extremely happy to get back into a groove at 9 minute pace on the flats. The variability in terrain was a huge advantage at this point in the race where all of my muscles were pretty much toast, but I could switch up what muscle groups I was using every other half hour.

I was passing 100 milers power hiking up the unrelentingly steep bluffs, and on the flats, running past them like they were standing still. Well, most of them were standing still! I broke up the loop in my mind… keep it together for the first half, run a solid pace. Keep on the nutrition and eat ShotBloks. Don’t slow down, and power up the hills with a purpose! Once I’m at the biggest uphill section, it’s go-time. After that, a mile along the ridge, then the most challenging downhill part. This last big downhill was a boulder-strewn section right after we run adjacent to a farm. There’s no good path to take. But after that is the flat road for about a mile. Then, it’s 3 miles of relatively flat, relatively easy trails, the final aid station and other mile or so to the finish. Once I get to the flat road, it’s time to crank and bring it home.

The least taxing was the downhills, but I could feel the toll they were taking on my body. First off, my big toe on my right foot was completely jamming the end of my shoe. I figured I’d lose that whole toenail. And my knees were really gettin’ it. Old man status. But I was making really good time. I made it down the last big downhill, past skull-sized boulders everywhere, without twisting either ankle or blowing out my knees, and it’s on. I was running as fast as possible on the flat road, and dipped into the 6’s. Well, 6:55 pace for a minute or two anyways. I was feeling good, only because my brain was emitting chemicals that made me feel so. In reality, I was falling apart big time. My body was toast, hips, feet, knees especially, my shoulders and triceps… just general exhaustion.

I made it to the final aid station and ran right through. I looked at my watch and it read 8:07. Holy crap! I can make 8:20! I really kicked it down on this last bit of trail section in hopes I’d get a sub 10 minute pace. 100 milers were saying I was in second place. 8:20 came and went and it was just a matter of leaving it all on the course. At this point, the mantras kicked in. I was talking to myself, audibly grunting in pain, gritting my teeth, and saying to myself “leave it all out here, leave it all out here”. The urge to stop running was overwhelming.

Finally, the trail curved downwards, then bumped out onto the last little road into the campsite. I sprinted past some 100 milers, past the gate where some spectators were cheering, and saw the cars and the campfires, and the big group of 17 milers congregating for the start of their race. I ran through the finish and hit my watch at 8:32.

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

I did the celebration I’d been thinking of for five hours. “YEAH DOGGIE!”, I yelled, and then did a whip-crack motion. A volunteer jokingly told me that I was being too excited.

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

My mom was right there, which was nice, and she gave me a big hug. She then bombarded me with what I need. Water? PB and J? Chips? What do I need? She grabbed her phone for a pic with me and my finishers medallion.

“I don’t want anything, no pictures, no pictures, I fucked up my legs,” I mumbled in a disgruntled and disheveled blur.

I plowed past her and sat on a table to take my jacket off. I was really warm, and put my head in my shirt and closed my eyes for a second. A race coordinator came up with a picture frame with ‘First Place Male Open’. Neat! I asked him the scoop… I’d just come in second place and of course, Kurt won in record time. We took a picture and I mustered a big-ass smile.

I talked to mom a bit, but all I could really say that it was really fun but my legs hurt bad and I was in big pain. Throbbing pain in every muscle below the waist where you get no relief if you stand or sit or walk or just decide to blast your legs clean off. I changed clothes, chugged some water, refueled, and spent the rest of the morning around the campfire and watching other racers come in. I did talk to Kurt, he’s probably the most modest dude in the world… and he said that the other guy that went with him got too cold on the second lap and either dropped out or fell way off or something. Wait, HE got cold? Kurt, meanwhile, completed the race in short shorts and a singlet. Coca-Cola was freezing in the 2 liter bottle and Kurt was running with no sleeves??!? And his buddy from Mankato got too cold?

Zumbro was quite the experience. Pure fun, pure enjoyment and adventure. I think it was the best executed race I’ve ever done. In terms of going in with a plan of what is the limit of my abilities and sticking to the plan, it was the best I’d ever done and it paid off. The 50 mile format is certainly fun, and I’d be a fool to skip Voyager 50 mile this summer!

Garmin data

Results

Race Stats:

Shoes: Nike Terra Kiger 3 size 11
Handheld: Nathan insulated 18oz
Food: 4 or 5 gels of various flavors (all caffienated!), nearly 2 packages of ShotBloks, one Honey Stinger Waffle, many handfuls of pretzels, trail mix, gummi candy, and M&Ms, one small slice of potato covered in salt (nasty), and maybe three electrolyte capsules, a few cups of Coke.
Approximate Loop Splits: 2:46, 3:06, 2:40

Time: 8:32:31
Pace: 10:15
Place: 2/128

Race Day: Saturday, January 16, 2016 – 9:30am

What a weird race! This was a fun way to ring in the 2016 race season. Time to knock the dust off… I felt like I hadn’t close to fast for months and months and I was very curious to whether I’d have any fast fitness. Actually, I started getting nervous! I recently read an article of an older guy named Ned Overend who was tearing up the cycling scene at 60+ years old. His secret was high intensity and cutting out the excessive volume. Crap! I’m doing the opposite! And at 26 years old, not getting any younger.

The excitement was for the frigid cold. I did the 5k and 10k last year, but the temperatures were in the 30s and I wore shorts. Forecasts were for a -7 high, below -15 for the overnight Friday to Saturday low, and that’s air temperature! Wind chill estimates were in the -35 range. Yeah, baby! The FYGBR tagline is “Only The Bold Run The Cold,” and I was excited for some actual cold air for once.

I drove up pretty late on Friday night with Kris and Skeeter. We stayed with Grant and Nick, and Kris and Grant were on timing duty the next day. We were at this nice cottage on Rainy Lake in Ranier, MN, just outside of International Falls. Kris and Grant were up really early, and Nick, Skeeter and I were able to sleep in to the luxurious hour of 8am. We fumbled around and got on the road by 9am or so, and miraculously had plenty of time to get our packets, get dressed up and warm up.

Nick and I did a little warm up jog, and boy, it felt great to open up for once! I wouldn’t say my legs felt super snappy, but it was fun. I could tell my wool cap on my head was going to be too warm, so I took it off before the race started. Even the 15-minute warmup was enough to know that my base layer tee-shirt and thicker poly long-sleeve was going to be sweltering, even in -15 degrees!

We lined up for the 5k, and I saw a bunch of singlets for the Northstar Running group. I asked a guy, complemented him on his sweet Nike Terra Kigers, and he told me that they were a running club out of the Twin Cities. Hm! All these guys looked a bit older, and I figured that Nick and I would go 1-2. I was warm from the pre-jog, and just stood there as everyone else was jumping up and down to stay warm. Then, ka-POW! The guy pulled the gun trigger and we were off.

I started off fast… really fast, and was out front immediately. It wasn’t long before Nick passed me, and not long before he had 10 feet on me, then 50 feet on me, then 30 seconds on me. Just as I suspected… There was a short out-and-back at the one-mile mark, and I had a decent lead on the the 3rd place guy. Yep, just need to keep a sustainable pace. I was feeling nice and toasty, and even had pulled my facemask below my mouth. My lips were feeling a bit numb, but otherwise, good clothing choices so far.

My mile 3, nothing had really changed. Nick was too far up, and the 3rd place person was too far back. I was feeling pretty good about my running, and had a good sense of my exertion level. However, it could be a 6:30 pace for all I know! By now, I was getting too warm. Also, my eyelashes were freezing up and my vision was actually narrowing because of the ice buildup! The course bumped out into this driveway or trail, and we could see the finish line. There were a few people, and I saw Nick finish. When I got to the last little stretch, I could see Grant swing the clock around towards me. 17:30 or so… nice. I finished and high-fived Nick. Then, when I turned back around, I saw the 3rd place guy coming through and volunteers near the trail hurriedly setting up a barricade to block the entrance that I took to get to that last little stretch. The runner was taking a different route to come through the finish the opposite way! Nick and I looked on inquisitively as people started coming in the wrong way. Or, we came in the wrong way. We did cut off maybe 400 meters or so… but would have won and got 2nd regardless. We talked quietly about what would happen. Would we get DQ’ed? Would there be an asterisk next to our names forever? Who knows… we headed in to warm up a bit and prepare for the next race in 40 minutes.

I stripped down immediately once we got inside the community college to avoid getting sweaty. I stripped off the thick poly long sleeve, and traded it for a thin quarter-zip long sleeve tech shirt. Then, we hung out and questioned what would happen in the results. Eventually, Nick and I decided to go back out to get some blood flow to our legs. I lost him, and did a really short and slow jog around the parking lot. It seemed colder! The wind whipped up, and I felt the difference between those mid-layer shirts.

Lining up for the 10k, I was jumping around with the rest of ’em. Grant told me that Nick and I would be disqualified from the 5k. Bummer!! That’s a motivator to race hard for the 10k, I guess. Dang. Mid-jumping jack, the race started primed the gunman for the start, then ka-POW, another gunshot rang through the frigid January air.

Again, I started off fast… even faster this time! I could tell Nick was right behind me for a while, and eventually went in front of me. I felt good. I was running fast, I could tell, but my breathing was under control and it felt like a sustainable pace, even at mile .25. Before the first mile, I was passed by a kid in snowpants, road Aisics, a hoodie under a jacket and a stocking cap with a poof on top. I wondered where he came from. I could see his eyes fixated on Nick up there, and we were evenly spaced at 15 seconds apart before too long. Unless this kid is the real deal, there’s no way Nick would let him catch up. We hit the first mile and I was a solid 3rd place.

Nick was pulling away, but me and this kid stayed about 15 seconds apart. I noticed his apparel again, and really thought about it. A hoodie? Stocking cap?? This kid must be sweltering!! Yes, it’s -30 Fahrenheit with windchill, but we’re running hard, and I know I’m wearing way less clothes than this kid. That is the Achilles heel. If can keep this kid in sight, I have over 4 miles to reel him in as he bakes in the heavy layers.

Just like I planned, I kept the kid in sight, and was slowly making up ground on him. At mile 4, we took a turn, and back on the straights, he was right there. I surged to get right on his tail. Then, I stayed there. I could feel our pace slowed, but I stayed right on his shoulder. Very hypocritical, as I hate when people do that to me, but I was pretty much as close to this kid as possible without running into his legs. I could see ice forming on his stocking cap, tipping me off that he was perspiring from his head, the vapor was evaporating to the outer layer, then freezing. He’s GOT to be hot. And, besides my elbows, I was the ideal temperature! I started formulating a plan: I’d stick on his shoulder for 2 more miles, playing mental games, and then pass him with authority the last .2 for the 2nd place title. However, it only took .2 miles for him to drop back. I wasn’t going to stop my momentum, so I took the lead. Now, he was sticking on my shoulder! Regardless, I wanted to keep it manageable and have enough in the tank to outlast the last half mile if necessary. Luckily, before the last mile marker, I’d built a pretty big lead on the kid. Turning into the home stretch, he was at least 15 seconds out, which was enough of a buffer to feel confident in a 2nd place! I paid extra attention turning in the finish chute, and was assured that I finished correctly! My eyelids felt the weight of icicles on them, and I had to do a quick cool down shuffle.

After the race, I knew my legs were pretty beat up. The 10k was far enough, and given the 5k right before, to feel some muscle soreness. However, I was pretty excited about how the race went! I jogged inside to warm up, and congratulated Nick on his second first place of the day… but the only one that actually counts!

Afterwards, we stayed for awards. Nick won a sweet wooden carving, I got a picture frame age group award and happened to win a 5k entry to another International Falls race later in the summer. Cool! Local Duluth runner Savannah Kent took the female win in both the 5k and 10k, and a bunch of Duluthians regaled in icy stories of the races. We all went to the runner’s reception at the local community center, and it was a jolly time! I-falls puts on a fun event!

Race Results

Race Stats:

Shoes: Nike Terra Kiger 3, size 11

5k (unofficial)*:
Time: 17:28
Pace: 5:37
Place: 2nd place*

*Cut the course, DQ’ed from the race

10k:
Time: 37:40
Pace: 6:04
Place: 2/87

Race Day: Saturday, October 17, 2015 – 8am

Time for the pain. The Superior Hiking Trail brings the pain every time. It isn’t very runable, so why not try to run 31 miles as fast you can on it? I love this very fun race, though, and couldn’t resist registering for it to defend my title.

However, I knew the whole time that I wasn’t going to put in the necessary training to feel super confident. Leading up to race day, I was banking on pure “residual fitness” to put me up near the front of the race. Not only was I neglecting long runs, I did several four-hour runs on hard terrain to prepare for last year’s race, but my day-to-day running mileage dropped off after Ironman. Yeah, I was running fast for a 20 minute race, but I definitely didn’t have a ton of confidence to maintain a decent pace for 4+ hours running. Nevertheless, race week came and my strategy and mindset was to race to win.

Looking at the start list, I didn’t see any major contenders besides a local dude Jakob Wartman who is pretty fast. In fact, in my opinion, we are very evenly matched. I think it’s a toss up head-to-head for any given running race, and we’ve raced head-to-head a few times (mostly at NMTC trail races). My opinion was confirmed on race morning when we both laid out our respective goals to run between 4:30 and 4:40. I had some intel, though, regarding the fact that Jakob is a new dad, and that the large responsibility of a child is likely eating in to some quality training time! Regardless, I was really excited to duke it out. Nobody else would content with us all alone up front, and the one who races the smartest race will prevail. I forecasted some raw racing ahead.

Anyways, I picked up my packet on Friday and negotiated a clutch car ride to the start line on Saturday morning with my good friend Kris. I had some cereal and some coffee and Kris and I hit the road at 7am. It was super chilly that morning, which made it nice to sit in Kris’s toasty warm car until the last minute. Plus, it was nice to joke around and talk and stuff right before the race. I chugged the rest of my Mountain Dew, shed a bunch of clothes and made my way to the start.

I saw Jakob and looked around for anyone else who appeared fast. It’s pretty hard to tell with a long trail race… it’s not an easy equation like at a 5k, where the guy wearing running shorts with the shortest inseam will probably win. No leads today.

It was certainly cold on the start line, but the sun was out and it was surely going to be a fine day to run. Everyone lined up and GO! We were off. There was a quarter mile road run to the trail, then trail for 98% of the rest of the race, Superior Hiking Trail for 85% of it. I started out fast to get a nice position on the trail. Also, I wanted to send a message. I was way out front right off the bat. I could hear Jakob sprinting to get up to me and he got right on my side. He mentioned something about it being really cold. The open air rushing past my face was numbing. Next, we popped onto the trail and I stayed in front. The first five miles is on windy singletrack mountain bike trail, and right off the bat, we had a lot of separation from the rest of the group. On the switchbacks, I could see that there wasn’t anyone else back there. Just as I suspected. Ok, so there isn’t some no-name ringer pushing the pace. Just Jakob and I. Perfect.

Jakob took the lead for a while, and we split the time up front until the first aid station at mile 5 or so. We were definitely going pretty fast. I knew I was going to push it a little, and when I was in tow behind Jakob, I wasn’t going to give an inch for a second. At the first aid station, I ditched my headband, long sleeve, and gloves. I didn’t grab any food or water since I had my stocked handheld waterbottle, and I took a decent lead while Jakob was refueling. He was quite quick to catch back up, though.

I noticed that I was gaining some time on the uphills, but Jakob would catch right back up on downhills and flats. So I would jet up the hills pretty fast to try and break him. Stick with me, I was thinking, because I can endure! The next aid station was at mile 11 or so, and right after that is a rugged climb up Ely’s Peak. I formulated a plan to ditch Jakob on that tough uphill and run alone to the win. I’d do a super quick water fill at the second aid station for a small head start. Nobody will see me the whole rest of the race!

Meanwhile, as I was plotting to win the race, we were joined by another guy who I didn’t recognize. He didn’t make a move, just latched on the back, and I continued to lead the race. How did this guy come out of nowhere?! It was like the extra body behind was pushing me even faster, so I was really blasting through the technical woods above the Fond du Lac neighborhood and Mission Creek. Two fast runners were following my every step.

When we got to the second aid station, I was still in the lead and still had the two guys in tow. Just as I planned, I did a fast water fill and jetted. I was sprinting. There was a small gravel trail that wraps around the base of Ely’s Peak to get to the rocky uphill trail. I was pushing super hard to get to the climb out of sight. I saw John Storkamp going the other way in first place for the 100k. I couldn’t mutter much in terms of encouragement because I was breathing too hard. Then, I began the climb. I was already tired but told myself that this was my chance to make a big break, which would demoralize everyone behind me. The climb was tough. My breathing was labored and I was going hard. I didn’t feel like I was going much faster than if I knocked it down a notch, though, but I kept pushing. I saw the top of Ely’s, ran past it, and tried to keep pushing hard. Unfortunately, I was pretty spent and couldn’t go very fast on the flats. Plus, this section of the race is a lot of exposed rock and is tough to run really fast on. I could tell I was running a tiny bit softer than in the woods when we were in a pack.

Almost to Bardon Peak, my two competitors caught up to me. How could this happen, I thought? I blasted myself trying to make a gap, just to get caught in fifteen minutes! Did I slow down that much in five minutes since I got past Ely’s Peak? How frustrating… Nevertheless, I took the pull once again. We got into more runable woods, and I noticed again that I couldn’t find that spring in my step. It was mile 14 or so and I was getting a little tired. OK, that is normal, though. He who wins is the one who slows down the least. We were blasting through the woods back there and unless this other guy is the real deal, we’re bound to slow down a little over time. Or is Jakob super fit? He’s got a very fast road marathon time. Maybe I’m toast from the first half. I ate a gel to stave off these negative thoughts. It helped, temporarily, but all of the sudden Jakob darted past me and took off. I wasn’t willing to sprint. He can go ahead. I’ll race a steady race and catch him eventually. The guy behind me told me he was going after him. They quickly escaped from my sight. My race plan deteriorated.

I ran alone until the Magney-Snively aid station at mile 15.3. I was good for food so just ran right through, knowing the Spirit Mountain aid station was only two miles away. There’s a nice uphill from the bottom of Spirit Mountain, which means I’d get another chance to test my climbing skills. These fools ran their gas tanks down and won’t be able to hold me off. I’ll catch ’em before that, even. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling good. I was feeling bad. My legs hurt. I was tired. I ate food to quell these terrible thoughts. It didn’t work, I’m toast. No! He who wins is the one who slows down the least. I just need to keep chugging along and it will pay off.

Anxiously, I began to ask the slower 100k racers how far back I was. A few minutes back, they’d say. Two minutes is no cause for concern. By the time I got to the bottom of Spirit, I got an update from a local bike and ski enthusiast Nikolai that they were indeed together about two minutes up. I filled up at the Spirit Mountain aid station with water and a quarter of a PB&J and some M&M’s. That tasted good. Now up the hill. Unlike Ely’s Peak, climbing up Spirit is a pure grinder. Not super steep or rocky like Ely’s, but just relentless elevation gain. A few minutes later, I saw Nikolai again on his bike. He informed me that the two split up and one of them was suffering. Suffering, I thought! That gave me just enough incentive to power hike quickly (as opposed to slowly, which was my strong preference at that point), up a brutal set of wooden steps. I ran down the back side of a river, across a bridge and I saw Jakob standing there. He was next to some spectating running buddies (and newlyweds!) Chris and Andrea. I was confused and didn’t really say anything right off the bat, but kept running. They didn’t say anything right away, either, and I finally muttered out a question about how the guy up front was looking. He was five minutes or so up and running strong. Jakob had just dropped out.

I ran past. Ok, this is good, this is good. No Jakob… Second place. No, this is bad. This other dude broke Jakob down and he’s the real deal. I realized that my mind was getting the best of me and I needed to zone out for a second and just run. I was definitely getting slow at this point. I remember that this was where things fell apart last year. The trail gets close to the freeway and it’s kind of exposed. It feels so far out but it’s past half way. Last year, it was all pain from here on out. I tried to estimate how long until the next aid station because that would be a good way to micromanage the rest of the race. Just make it to the next aid station, but don’t slow down. That is easy.

Eventually, I crossed Cody Street for a quick quarter mile on roads to connect the trail. I saw a woman parked and clearly spectating so figured I’d get an update. She said the guy was up front by ten minutes but he had stopped and was walking for a little bit. Enough said, I thought, now is the time to pounce. I had a short-lived surge of pure running but quickly reverted back to a quick shuffle. I was getting progressively more sore and could feel different muscle groups sending out their pain signals.

Finally, I got to the next aid station.

12032903_10207760211065582_3846839841533801702_oPhoto Credit: Shane Olson

12045219_10207760211025581_489617833738560959_oPhoto Credit: Shane Olson

I was passing some of the slower half-marathoners, and some were giving me feedback on where I was at–still about five minutes back or so. I saw some friendly faces at the Highland-Getchell aid station and listed to some feedback while I ate pretzels and drank coke.

12140905_10207764887502490_4339358751197840013_oPhoto Credit: Shane Olson

This guy up ahead of me apparently had stopped for a while at the aid station and said he was sick of rocks and his feet hurt. Yes, I thought, he burnt up his matches. It’s not realistic to blast past him. I need to keep consistent and slowly reel him in. That is the way to win, because I’m sore and he’s sore. He will slow down more than me. Hearing that intel motivated me more than ever, and I picked up the pace for a good mile or so. I could catch him. I was asking every half marathoner that I passed where the guy in the blue was at. Much to my chagrin, I wasn’t making up time. I was losing time. I inevitably slowed down. I can’t let myself slow down. Resist the temptation to walk, I told myself.

But I was definitely power-hiking up bigger hills and even slowed to a walk on a few sections that were flat and runable. I was just too tired to run. Oh, well, I’ll settle for second. This guy is the real deal. I heard that he was fifteen minutes ahead of me and running really fast. Even if I was running at a good clip, he’d be in the lead. Too bad, but hey, you can’t control when someone who is on a different echelon of running fitness registers for the race. Second place is good, anyways.

I was getting close to the last aid station and had quit asking people about the race progress. I’m in a solid second. I doubt I’ll get passed. I’ve settled into a nice pace. I know I’m not making time on this guy ahead of me and if he’s going to die, he would have died already. He ran a smart race! All I can do now is chug along as not to get passed in the final five miles. I can stop and have a nice break at the last aid station where I know there are friends, and waltz it in for second place. I was really sore at this point, but feeling pretty good. I definitely was not feeling fast, though, but that is OK. After the last aid station, it’s a little jaunt up to Enger Tower, then all downhill from there.

I popped out of the woods and heard my name from the crowd of faithful volunteers at the aid station.

12006601_10207760210985580_5492358411568841816_oPhoto Credit: Shane Olson

I quickly realized the urgency of the situation and finally made out that the mystery kid in first place was currently still at the aid station! It took me a second to comprehend the situation, but all I needed to hear was “GO, GO, GO!!!” to pick up my step. Then, I saw the guy in blue with my own two eyes and it was on. I jetted through the aid station. He was standing still, but started moving immediately, and I was right on his tail. My initial thought was that I was going to win. There is no way that this guy has juice left if I’ve finally caught him. I’ve been chugging along for hours by myself. This guy lost a ton of time to me in the last few miles and he must be toast.

We were sprinting across the Skyline Boulevard bridge over Piedmont Avenue towards Enger Tower. He was running fast. I noticed his long, gangly legs and loping stride, and I felt like a kindergartner putting so much effort into running a 10 minute mile for the pace test in gym class. He was pulling away already. I couldn’t respond. No matter. His feet hurt and he was sick of rocks. If I can keep him in sight until Enger, the race is on. I could pass him on the rocky downhill. In the time it took my mind to process these strategy formulations, he was out of sight. I had nothing. I was pushing so hard but not going fast. I would slowly overtake half marathoners, and then they would stick with me for a while. And I was in the middle of the pack of the half marathon race… ladies with large hydration packs would stick with me as I slowly passed. No offense to ladies with large hydration packs on… but not good for my situation.

I put in a few surges, especially once I passed the large bell at Enger. I bolted downhill and nervously spared one brain cell of concentration at a time to peer ahead and look for blue. No blue, now look down. I would catch him on the road… no matter.

Once I exited the woods once and for all, I could see a ways down the race course. The last mile or so is all pavement–a bridge across I35, then paved path to the finish. No blue was in sight. No matter, he got lost in the woods I think! Wow, that is bad luck! I was staying surprisingly optimistic that I was to win the race despite my miserable status of pain and fatigue. I only saw half marathoners, who I roped in one-by-one on the last bike path section. Onto the finish chute, I ran it in, very excited to be done.

IMG_2576Photo Credit: Jack Krouse

Obviously, Ryan, the new champion, did not get lost. He won the race and gave it one hell of a go. I chatted with him a bit after the race, then ate some soup to recoup. My muscled were jacked up.

I think that if I ran a bit smarter in the first 13 miles, I would have had more energy during the meat of the race. Then again, you’re going to get tired over 50 kilometers regardless, so you might as well create a buffer right away when you’re fresh. Also, I was not about to let these guys blast past me right off the bat. I’ll never know how to race a 50k wisely, because I can’t limit myself at the beginning, and it’s a long freaking race. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had objected to walk all those times. What would have happened if I saved a few matches in the matchbook, using them up at Enger Tower versus Ely’s Peak? Would Ryan still run away from me at mile 28? As I left the race site, another Ryan, Braun, cruised into the finish line a mere two minutes after me. Well, I didn’t have second place wrapped up as tightly as I thought!

Upon finishing the Wild Duluth 50k, I quickly realized that this is the first time in a long time, perhaps years, that I’m not currently registered for any races. And that is a nice feeling.

Results

Race Stats:

Shoes: Nike Terra Kiger 3 size 11
Handheld: Nathan insulated 18oz
Food: Nearly 2 packs of Honey Stinger Chews (Cherry Cola and Orange Blossom), one Maple Bacon Gu gel

Race Day: Saturday, October 3, 2015 – 8am

A great way to quell the post-Ironman blues is to register for more races. I had this one in the books for a long time and was looking forward to do some casual training and participate in a fun-time, low key race. Little did I know, the Heck of the North Gravel Cycling Classic would be RAW racing. Pure grit. I didn’t predict that I’d be sucked in to the mix, only to be shot out the back and left alone to bike home with my thoughts and my useless, toasted quads…

The Heck of the North is a 100+ mile gravel bike race in the deep woods north of Duluth. The race starts and finishes a few miles out of town from Two Harbors, MN. The course is made up of mostly gravel roads, but also some pavement and some really gnarly and tough riding. I’m talking about rocky, rocky, bumpy logging access roads, ATV trails, soft snowmobile trails, and perhaps even a bit of singletrack mountain bike trail. The variability of terrain is what makes this race so cool, and also why everyone in Duluth needs a cyclocross bike. I had so much fun going on training rides because you can explore anything you want. Need to connect on the pavement? No sweat, you can haul ass at 24mph. Cut through on mountain bike trails? A little precarious, but it’s do-able. Then the gravel…. oh, the gravel. So fun.

Another super fun part of the race is that the course is a secret. Nobody knows the route until Friday night at packet pickup, when we received cue cards with turn-by-turn instructions. Some of the instructions were comical: turn left at the brown gate with the tall grass onto an unmarked gravel road. Then right onto an unmarked gravel road. Then right onto an unmarked gravel road. Then left onto an unmarked ATV trail.

Nick and his pops, Dave, were both registered to race, and Nick invited me to stay at their hotel in Two Harbors on Friday. Dave is usually the race photographer, so that duty was transferred to his wife Rhonda. We all went out to get pasta after packet pickup with Nick’s grandparents. Then to the hotel. I hadn’t really looked at my bike at all. In fact, it was still pretty dirty from a muddy ride the previous weekend. I had a knapsack full of spare tubes, tools, bike boxes, and sugary exercise food. Once we got to the hotel, I tried to sort everything and plan how I’d like to pack it all on. I seemed to get it all on… about 1,000 calories worth of maltodextrin, two spare tubes, a co2 cartridge and spare pump, plus one bottle of Gatorade. I affixed my number 182 to the front and was pretty much ready to rock for the next morning. The only challenge was water and the cue cards. I had won a weird vest water bladder thingy that was designed for skiing or snowboarding, almost as a midlayer to keep the water from freezing, but had been collecting dust unused. It definitely wouldn’t work for running, but was my primary hydration solution for this bike race. However, I was nervous get too hot or irritated with 2 liters of water on my back in this weird meshy vest. The alternative, carrying another 20oz water bottle on my frame, has its own challenges–running out of water and having to refill and the chance of ejecting the bottle on the inevitably bumpy ride. I attached my second bottle cage to my bicycle and decided to sleep on it. As far as the cue cards, I’d likely have to reference them, but I could also be in the pack the entire time and not need them at all. I figured I’d just throw them in my pants or something… I’d sleep on that, too.

We woke up the next morning at 6am or so. First things first, I went to get coffee and cereal. Lots of Raisin Bran. I had the vest bladder filled up from the night before and tested it out with my race kit. It felt fine, but the water was full of gross hotel tap water. But eh… this will work.

IMG_0060Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

I looked down at my cue cards and decided to mount them on the top of my handlebars. With a pen, I punctured each one and laced a twist tie through each top corner of the stack. They were surprisingly well affixed, and I could simply rip the cards away as I progress through the course. OK we have to go because we’re late!!!

Nick and I drove out, following the rest of the Nygaard clan. I got my bike out and rode it down a little rocky hill to a big fire and tent area where people were beginning to congregate. I felt the chill of the morning through my whole core. My fingers were already frozen. Maybe fingerless gloves weren’t the best glove choice… Nevertheless, I didn’t question my choices. It’s bound to warm up. I forgot my sunglasses, though, and had to run back to the van to grab those.

 

IMG_0082Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

After dawdling around for 20 minutes or so, someone started yelling and everyone moved towards the entrance road where the race was to begin. As the race director Jeremy was outlining some race details, a truck came roaring down the road and the bikes spread to the sides of the road like the Red Sea for Moses.

IMG_0094Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

Next thing I knew, we are starting off. I was kind of far back… perhaps the middle of the pack. I wanted to be in the mix for sure. I was biking faster than ever on the TT bike and I knew I was very aerobically fit and had the endurance to complete a 100 mile bike ride. Then again, I knew that some of the people up front were no joke. Arrowhead finishers, beasts on the mountain bike circuit, and former winners of this race. Pretty much, I’m a tri dweeb and a chump. But I heard a funny piece of advice about how to race the Heck: a local enduro mountain biker Dave Cizmas told me to go with the lead pack until you completely explode. Then, eat a lot of food and just have a fun rest of the day. I went into the race with this mentality. Maybe I could stick with them until the end!

The first 9 miles of the race was a loop back to the start/finish area. It was mostly gravel road. The pack was manageable. It was a little sketchy at times to be so close to so many other people. Especially on the gravel, sometimes you’d hit a rough spot or washerboards and there’s nothing you can do except ride it out. I stayed pretty far to the right side of the road right off the bat. When the gravel turned off into an ATV trail, I realized my hands were so cold I couldn’t feel them. Ouch. A guy behind me was yelling at me. He said that my spare tube that I shoved in between a strap on my flat kit was dragging. I looked down and it was flapping around in the wind. I scooped it up and held onto it. The same guy informed that if the tube got caught in my derailleur, it was be a very bad situation. Yes, that would be bad!!

We did that first loop and I was feeling pretty good. I don’t know where Nick was, but was happy I didn’t get straight up dropped.

IMG_0111Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

IMG_0115Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

I didn’t know what this race was going to be like, and things were looking smooth! I stopped to shove this dumb tube into my bike shorts, then got back to it. We crossed a main road, Hwy 2, and got onto a small access-type road. I think it was Alden Grade. Essentially, it was a two-track trail. It was hard to pass people, but everyone was cruising at a pretty good clip. We jetted onto a more standard gravel road and I got an idea of what the main pack was like. It was large. There was probably 50 people all jammed together. It felt like we were going so slow. Why wasn’t anyone making a break? Well, it’s not going to be me! I hung in the pack and was feeling good. Then, I saw Nick come up on my side. Yeah baby, we were in the mix!

After a few more miles, we turned into a really chunky road. The pack quickly split up. This road was clearly a logging access road. There were two divots on either side of the road for tire tracks, and the road was littered with large rocks. Signs of logging activity were all around us–forested land, large stacks of tree trunks, and equipment. Plus the sign that said “logging activity”.  The road was windy, up and down, and pretty technical. I was zinging by guys with flat tires. You’d hit a rock and bounce into the air. I was trying to crank as hard as I could and kept pedaling through the divots and bumps. It was this section that I noticed that my hands were hurting. The frozen fingers had vanished, but I was squeezing so hard on my handlebars. I couldn’t let up, though. A guy in front of me flipped over his handlebars and was down. We were zinging through muddy puddles. This technical section was taking its toll. When I thought that I couldn’t take it any longer, we popped out to another gravel road. This felt like biking on glass compared to the logging road. A pack of the five or so people around me formed and we were off. Quickly, we realized we were going the wrong direction as we passed two or three other cyclists going the other way who had made the same mistake. The group grew to 8 or so, and when we re-passed the logging road, finally on the right path, a group of 4 or 5 latched on as well. And there was Nick, back in the mix! A tandem bike was hauling us along and we were off on a pretty good clip. At this point, we were probably 3 hours in.

A few miles of gravel and we got into the first section of State Trail snowmobile trail. Our nice little pack broke up once again. I was excited about the State Trail sections because I loved training there. Trying to go fast is a different story. The soft grass just saps one’s energy stores. Nick jammed his nuts bad on a culvert. We were making our way along, though, and before long we turned back onto another gravel road. To my surprise, there was the main pack. Everyone was stopped. Some people had their bikes upside down, some were maybe peeing or eating. We rode up to them and this big main pack started up again. It was another 10 miles of gravel and pavement until the half way point.

I was trying to eat a lot of food while in the pack getting strung along. I was feeling pretty good except my hands. I shook my hands out and was doing everything I could to grip softly. All the sudden, it was hard to keep up. I was towards the back of the pack. Then on the back of the pack. Then, the pack dropped me. No, no, no. My worst fear was to be literally left in the dust. Ok, I’ll just keep them in sight and they’ll maybe slow a bit, I thought to myself. A solo guy behind me was gaining ground, and he caught me. He told me that we’d work together and catch the pack. We took turns surging ahead and sure enough, it worked. I burnt a few matches on that one, though. I stayed in the mix and recouped some energy stores. Then, I made a few moves and was up towards the front. Then, I took the lead. It was fun up there! We turned onto Lester River Rd, and it was just this pavement section and what sounded like a little bit of mountain bike trail until the halfway point.

We were cruising in a large pack down towards Lester Park. Then pandemonium. Yelling, people turning, stopping, skids, and I slammed on my brakes. They weren’t stopping me fast enough and I thought I was going to crash hard into a tree. The turn off of the road came up quicker than anyone thought or saw and it was a traffic jam. Luckily, I was towards the front and didn’t get to jammed up. More luckily, I somehow made it onto the trail quickly and without incident. I could hear the chaos from behind me and something told me to just go. I tried to jet through this woodsy singletrack as fast as possible. I’d have the upper hand going into the halfway up front. I could hear cheers ahead, rode down a hill and saw a table with goodies and Rhonda and the Nygaard clan.

IMG_0150Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

IMG_0152Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

I chatted to Rhonda for a second and turned around to see Nick coming in. I grabbed some Mountain Dew, threw away some garbage, and grabbed some food to shove in my bike bag. Rhonda took my second tube that had fallen out so long ago, too. Nick said that we’d have to dip out quickly after he filled his bottles. I had to pee, so went ahead to do that in the meantime. I peed in the trees and saw Nick bike away in my peripheral vision. I must have evacuated a liter of pee! It took forever and was a heavy stream.

I hopped back on my bike and started the ascent out of Lester Park. I was feeling tired. This was the first time I really felt fatigue in my legs. There were a few guys up ahead of me and I wanted to get in with them and then rejoin the main pack. Out of Lester and onto some gravel roads, I wasn’t making up any ground. In fact, I was losing ground. I didn’t want to blast myself trying to get up there, so I started just riding at a comfortable speed. It wasn’t fun being alone! The pack is so key.

I was by myself for a long time. The guys in front of me were long out of sight. After a good 45 or 60 minutes, I finally got in with a group. I heard my name “Mike Ward!!!” and was joined from behind by Ross, a Ski Hut mechanic, a coworker of his, Matt, and another guy. Ross had just won the Heck Epic, a two day gravel biking event a few months prior. I was in good company here, I thought to myself. Hopping on the back of their pack, it felt so good. So, so, so nice. I was able to let my legs rest a little bit. I got amped up and took the pull for a while. After a few minutes, I was spent and went to the back. We were together for another 45 minutes or so until another section of State Trail. We made it through just fine, but lost the last guy. Also, I lost a lot of food. Somehow, three Stinger Waffles and a gel were ejected from my bike box on the State Trail.

We didn’t wait for him and kept trucking along. After a few miles of gravel, we bumped onto Pequaywan Lakes Road, a paved road. Still trading pulls, we swallowed up another guy and he latched on. Another few miles and we entered Fox Farm Road, which is pure gravel. I glanced at my cue cards and saw that we’d be on Fox Farm for a good while. Then, it’s a quick 15 miles or so back to the finish. The end is in sight! I was feeling decent, but it didn’t take long to realize that I was falling apart. I’d pull for a minute or two and get spent. When I was on the back, it was so hard to stay on the wheel in front of me. I’d fall of ever so slightly, then have to dip into the hurt tank to get back. I’d fall further and further back and it would hurt more and more to get back with the guys. Then, I gave up. I stopped pedaling and watched the guys ride away. They realized I was off and actually turned around and yelled at me. I told them to go on without me. I was done. This is what Dave was talking about. When you blow up and get dropped, just eat a bunch of food and have a fun day. Except my food fell out. I ate my last few gummis and was completely out of calories. Ok, I could still have a fun day. Except my legs were totally shot and I was out here on damn Fox Farm Road alone. I looked both ways. Behind me was nobody. Ross, Matt, and the other guy rode out of sight. It was like a light switch. A marathon run is like slowly chipping away at your energy stores… falling apart slowly. Today, I hit a point where I was dead. Toast. I couldn’t pick it up at all and had no energy. One minute, OK, next minute, done. I don’t think it was a food thing or really bonking–my legs were simply out of energy. I burned too many matches and was out.

Fox Farm took forever and it was tough. When I turned off onto Laine Road, I was at least in somewhat good spirits. I wanted to just enjoy being out here. It’s OK to pedal an easy gear really slow. I wasn’t going to win. My race was really over at the halfway point. Just finish and have fun, I thought. Soak it in. What else would I want to be doing right now!?! I was about 5 or 6 hours in and at mile 90 or so.

Eventually, the dude we lost on the last State Trail section came speeding up behind me. He was the first person I’d seen since Ross and Matt dropped me. He told me he fell on the State Trail and I could see his face was bloody. He told me that we could work together and get through the remaining miles easier. Yes, I thought, I need to work with this guy. Being alone is terrible. I took the draft for a while. It didn’t last long and it wasn’t very strong. He took his turn and dropped me almost instantly. I sped up, he slowed down and I caught his wheel. A few more minutes of struggling to keep up with him, and I gave up again. Nope. I told him to drop me. Alone again. I turned off onto the State Trail for the final snowmobile section. This was fun and I was in good spirits. I could stand up and just push through the soft and slow grass and it was a welcome relief from the relentless gravel. It was really muddy through there and I thought it was funny go get a fresh coat of mud. I was laughing at myself thinking that the mud was getting old and I needed some new mud. I felt positive because I knew I was close…

The final section was on a gravel road that turned into an ATV/ horse trail. We cross the Knife River with no bridge and it’s just a hop, skip and jump to the finish. I looked at my cue cards and realized it was just a few more miles of pain. I didn’t think those final miles would be so terrible. The terrain was impossible. It was flat but rocky. It jumbled up my already shredded hands. My finger tendons were screaming. My triceps were done holding my torso up over the handlebars, and my quads simply wouldn’t work right. I could get more power by pushing my knee down with my hand. I was mercilessly passed by a few people in this last bit. I was looking down and didn’t even acknowledge them.

It was going on forever. It was pretty mental at this point and I was getting hungry. Not that exercise food sounded good, but it probably would have been beneficial. I was strung along by the idea of going straight to Culvers with a “no limits” approach to ordering food. I daydreamed about what I’d get. Definitely a Butterburger. Definitely ice cream.

Meanwhile, this fricken path wouldn’t end. Did they get the miles wrong? I thought about sitting down on the side for a second, just to recoup. Maybe I’ll walk my bike for a minute, I thought. No! I biked it in. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fast. It surely wasn’t comfortable. But finally, I saw County Road 2. This was the road we passed way back in the morning after that initial 9 mile loop. I knew the finish was right there. So, I picked it up! I saw a volunteer and started smiling uncontrollably.

IMG_0228Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

I saw Rhonda and was so happy to finish. A left turn and I saw the finish line.

IMG_0230Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

IMG_0235Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

I was so happy to coast on in, but there was a car exiting blocking the way. Gah… I weaved around and crossed a line of tape in the gravel. A girl ran up to me to get my race number and I confusedly hopped off my bike and stood there. I felt so exhausted in every way. Nick came over the hill and had a very funny mud line from his glasses. I’m not sure how his entire face got caked with mud. Rhonda snapped a few more pictures and I loaded up my bike.

IMG_0246Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

I chatted with Nick for a second, but had to hit the road.

IMG_2563Photo credit: Rhonda Nygaard

I spent $17 at Culvers. On the drive back to Duluth, I nearly fell asleep repeatedly. I hit the rumble strips a few times. Just completely tired.

I was very quick to forget how terrible the race was. In fact, the next day, I was jacked up and I want to do another gravel race. There is something weird about endurance events. It’s definitely an addiction. I’m a compulsive biker and runner. An endurance freak. I am who I am.

Results

Race Stats:

Place: 21/145
Time: 7:05:40
Speed: 15.08mph

Bike: Diamondback Haanjo Comp

Food: 1 package of Trolli Britecrawlers, ~1 package of Honey Stinger Chews (Cherry Coke and Cherry Blossom), 1 Bearded Brothers Bar, 1 Honey Stinger Waffle (chocolate), 1 bottle blue Gatorade, ~2L water, some Mountain Dew, a quarter of a peanut butter and banana sandwich, a half a banana, 2 squares of caffeinated dark chocolate

 

Race Day: Sunday, September 13, 2015 – 7am

This is the big one. From when I registered for Ironman Wisconsin in early September 2014, this event and the training and the preparations have been on the forefront of my mind. It’s dominated my life in many ways… mentally, physically, time- and energy-wise. And to cross the finish line made it all worth it!

Training went good. That is a very broad generalization, but to describe at least 7 months of specific day-in, day-out training, “good” is the best way to sum it up! I found it miraculous that I was able to train like that. I can now only imagine the devastation of signing up for an event like this and be mentally in it, only to get injured and have to take a week off. To take a month or multiple months off would be tortuous! Races in 2015 blew my previous results out of the water. That just goes to show that if you put in the time and effort, you’ll see improvement. You can’t fake it, and a high-volume training program is a guaranteed way to get better at triathlons. That was the most fun part of the whole training experience–the early season hours and miles translate into some fast racing. I saw big time improvements.

August wasn’t great, though. I didn’t get any long efforts on the bike, besides one 60 miler and maybe a few two hour rides, which made me a bit worried. Running was consistent, luckily, but five weeks out would be the perfect time to get a few last big workouts in, recover, and then put everything together for race day. Not for me. Work commitments got in the way of training, my energy stores were sapped, and I couldn’t get it in. There is not much to do about that, however, and I made my best effort to train smart in the final weeks before the big show. On race week, I felt healthy, energetic, and lean. Perfect.

Nick, Ryan and I got to Madison on Friday for the race on Sunday. The whole Ironman experience is pretty cool. The bike has to be dropped off this day between these times and you pick up your packet materials between this time and drop your run special needs bag off here at that time and the bike special needs bag here, and so on… There are a lot of details and a few times I felt like a sheep being herded in the right direction, not knowing why or what the line I was standing in was even for. I suppose this sort of organization is necessary for an event of this complexity and size. Regardless, it was nice to get there with two days to kill before the race.

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Although we had these seemingly easy 1-2 hour obligations each day (Friday and Saturday), it felt like the chill time was at a minimum and we were constantly running around or prioritizing what to do next. We got it all done, though, and by Saturday night, we were incredibly excited and ready for what the next day had in store.

Race day began at 4:30am. I woke up and poured a coffee cup full of Raisin Bran and skim milk and ate it with a fork. No bowls or spoons. That is what I was working with. Nick grabbed me a coffee and we started getting ready. In 45 minutes, we were all set. It was nice to know that the majority of my equipment was stowed away ready to go and the only big items to carry with me to the start line were for the swim. It’s pretty easy to keep track of the wetsuit and goggles, really. And so we set off!

At Monona Terrace in the darkness, there were people everywhere. First things first, I got body marked. Then, to the bike rack. I put one bottle of water and one bottle of Gatorade on my bike and borrowed a pump from some guy. Then, I went to the bike gear bag transition room and stashed a few more calories with my helmet and socks and sunglasses. At this point, I had lost Ryan and Nick and was by myself. I wandered around looking for a calm bathroom facility with a short line. The porto-pottie did not fit the bill for that, and I found one inside the convention center. After the business was taken care of, I had 45 minutes to burn before the gun went off, so I moseyed to the swim start and mentally prepared for the day ahead. The morning was very calm and orderly, which was exactly what I needed.

At 6:45am, I suited up and got into the water. I did a few strokes and felt good. The water was perfect and I was very comfortable. I got back behind the start line and browsed for a sensible spot to start. The mass start of over 2,000 people is one long line perpendicular to the buoy line. If you start furthest away from the buoy line, you’d theoretically swim a few hundred more yards than someone who starts right next to it, but that is apparently a rough start with faster swimmers crowding the corner. I started in the middle of the start line near a water ski jump. With five minutes to go, I swam up to the front and easily slid into place in the front row. I don’t want to swim around people in this mess! The announcer said some words and before long BOOM! and the cannon shot.

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I started off hard. I wanted to get out in front a little bit. 2.4 miles is plenty of time to get in a good rhythm, I could afford to swim out of my element for two minutes. With my first sighting, there was nobody in front of me and nobody really around me. Nice! I got bashed a little bit, but the first ten minutes was really nice, actually. I quickly got into a rhythm.

The rectangular swim course has one really long stretch on the back side, the two shorter sides, plus the start and finish side. Coming up to the first buoy, known as a major hog-pile where you “moo” like cattle being smooshed through a gate or something, my swim was so far without incident. This is going better than any other race this year, I thought! What a good start! To my surprise, the rest of the swim went equally well–I had plenty of room to swim and could get into a nice stroke pattern for lengthy periods of time. I’d get onto somebody’s feet and then lose them, and jump right onto the next guy’s feet. On the final turn, I didn’t exactly know the fastest route back, and looking for the bee line, felt like I was swerving around a bit. When I exited the water, I hit 1:05 on my watch. That was pretty much right where I wanted to be and I was super pleased with the race so far. The swim didn’t feel too arduous. Long, yes, and I wanted it to be over when my eyes felt like they were bulging out of my sockets from the tight goggles, but I was good to go and excited to start the bike.

I rolled the wetsuit below my waist just in time to get to the wetsuit strippers. Two guys told me to lay down, and I yelled “PEEL ‘EM, BOYS!” In one picosecond, they yelled at me to get up, threw me the wetsuit and I was on my way. Slick. The run to T1 was up a parking ramp helix. It was a little congested and completely lined three-deep with spectators. I tried to cut a corner on the curb and slipped and fell. How embarrassing! I sensed the crowd hush as if I was down for good or something, but I popped back up with a tiny scratch on my hand and kept on my way.

The T1 was a little hectic, but I got my bike gear quickly and was off.

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I hopped on my speed machine and got one foot in the shoe and the other just mashing on top while circling down the helix on the other side of the parking ramp. The start of the bike was a little technical on bike paths and tight turns. I got set up and felt great. I knew it was going to be chilly in the morning with temps just above 50 degrees, but it felt really refreshing out of the swim. Once out onto the open road, I was cranking past people. It was hard to limit at first. The bike course consists of a 16 mile stem out into the country, then two 40 mile loops, then back onto the stem for 112 miles. I passed a lot of the fast swimmers who weren’t going to bike really fast and by mile 30 or so, I felt like I was in a good groove and staying on top of nutrition. My stomach was happy and I was energized.

The Ironman Wisconsin bike course is sweet. I had so much fun on the first loop. There are a ton of screamin’ downhills, and the uphills and plentiful turns keep you engaged. I got with a group of guys and was jarring back and forth. There were a few hills where spectators lined the street and were going crazy. The spectator support is pretty astounding, really! By 50 miles in, I had to pee and felt a little anxious to get to the halfway point. Once there, I grabbed my bike special needs bag, in which I stuffed some tasty goodies. I cracked open the gummi worms and ate a large handful as I was peeing in the porto-pottie. My legs felt decent, and the break was great to stretch my legs and get my muscles in a different position for a second. I stuffed my bike box with as much more snacks as I could fit and was off.

The second loop started off good. I was refueled, didn’t have to pee anymore, and knew what I had in store for the second go-around. I quickly found myself in no-man’s land. There weren’t many people around me, surprisingly, and I was just passing some of the slower people on their first lap. It was here, perhaps mile 60 or so, that I started feeling a little down. My quads were beginning to feel sore and I was definitely uncomfortable in aero position. The neck and back and the area that touches the saddle were all beginning to ache. It felt like the first part of the loop was so flat and without hills and turns, which would typically be great cycling terrain (and was definitely not the case!), but I wanted the hills and turns because then I could sit up and get out of aero. I told myself to soft pedal and take it easy. There is no sense in pushing through the fatigue with 40 miles and a marathon to go. I had to let the fatigue slow me down on the bike or else I’d pay for it big time on the run.

I kept it steady and focused on eating and drinking and staying aero and being efficient for the remainder of the loop. When I saw Dave (Nick’s pops) on the last big hill of the loop, I got a boost of energy. I suddenly felt fresh and smooth for the remaining 25 miles. This was the definition of a second wind–like my brain shut off certain pain sensors or something. I started back onto the 16 mile stem towards Madison and was feeling good physically and feeling good about the race in general. Yes, my legs were pretty sore and my neck was killing, but my time was pretty much right on track. I estimated 5:12 initially, and knew I wouldn’t hit that, but definitely on track for under 10 hours.

I remember distinctly questioning whether or not I’d be able to run. It was hard to visualize actually running. My legs were so burnt out, I really thought I’d walk it in for a 6 hour marathon. I remembered a mantra, “If it’s not positive, it’s negative. Everything has to be positive from here on out.” And so I took it home with that in mind. Of course I’d be able to run, I’ve trained all year for this. There were a few cyclists in the mix, and I simply assessed my stomach situation and tried to finish off my food and Gatorade stash and get to digestion while I was still on the bike.

It was relieving to see Monona Terrace in the distance. I rode up the helix to the top of the parking garage, which felt flat compared to some of the hills on the course. I slipped my feet out of my shoes and mashed them on top, then put one leg over the top tube. My dismount was quick, but felt so weird. First of all, the balls of my feet hurt. I think my bike shoes could use a new insert. Next, the legs were so jelly right away–by far more unstable and wobbly than ever. I had a weird gallop/hobble/run thing going on into the T2 room.

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It was nice to have a simple run bag. The volunteer got my shoes aligned, I slipped them on, grabbed the race number belt and was off. It seemed like the volunteer was surprised by how hasty I was, but c’mon, you need a sense of urgency in transition zone!

Right off the bat, I took a whiz in the plentiful porto-potties right outside of transition. Hue was good. I was worried that my pee would be super dark or something. Anyways, it was another 100 feet to the run start and I split my watch time. Once I got my shoes on, my feet felt fine, and a few strides is all it took to shake the jelly legs. It was almost overwhelming how happy I was to get running and feel normal. Burnt quads were no issue, neck was in a different position, and all of the bike pains were gone. My first mile was around 7 minutes flat and I was on my way with big smiles.

I kept telling myself that my pace should feel easy until mile 16. After mile 16, it can be hard work, but before that it is steady, steady, steady; easy, easy easy. I caught up to a fellow Minnesota triathlete Ross Weinzierl and he said “slow is steady, steady is fast.” Ross kept it steady. I passed him at mile 3 or so, and he ended up at around 10:25. That is steady.

I kept it steady, too, for a long time. The run is two laps, which makes it easy to break up. There are a lot of different views as the run darts all around Madison. That was really cool, and it kept my mind off the grueling task. I was in good spirits for 10 miles and people commented on my smile! I was smiling because it was fun. I felt good and I was so excited to take it home.

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At Mile 13, I saw a few familiar faces and hit the turnaround feeling good. With half to go, I calculated that I needed a 1:45 half marathon to get under 10 hours. My initial high-end predictions of 9:45 were out the window, but 1:45 was just keeping it steady plus a nice little time buffer. I saw Nick soon after that, and he was cruising. Definitely not the super scary 10k speed I’m used seeing chasing me down like at Buffalo Tri earlier this year, but I could tell he was moving along quickly. I had just looked at my watch at the turn and it read 8:15:XX. A quick calculation meant he was only a few minutes back and would be passing me soon. I still felt good, though, and just kept truckin’.

Seemingly all the sudden, I started shutting down. As I write this approximately 24 hours after the fact, I can’t remember exactly what was going on, but I remember being so hungry for real food like a sandwich and just not being able to run fast.

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I had this super slow trot going on and made the executive decision to walk through an aid station at mile 16 or so. This was the first time I had stopped running, and it felt nice to stop for a second. Real nice. It wasn’t necessarily the actual act of walking that felt nice, but the knowledge that I don’t have to start running again quite yet. I grabbed a cup full of pretzels and a cup full of coke. That combination was so good. Just so completely satisfying. I finished it off to the last drop and started running again. Still slow. Still pretty agonizing. I walked through the next three or four aid stations in the same fashion: eat a lot of pretzels and drink a cup of coke, then run again. It was easier to run and huge motivation to just know that if I could run to the next aid station, I’d be able to walk through it and mow down on food and drink tasty coke.

By the time mile 22 came around, I had been passed frivolously by my fellow competitors. I ran through an aid station for once. My stomach felt good despite eating a lot of food that would probably make any runner’s gut churn! But I picked it up. I’m not sure if it was a boost of adrenaline or the conversion of food into energy, but my pace increased, my form improved, and I was back in the mix feeling good. It was as if my brain turned off certain pain sensors. This sensation was very, very similar to my bike experience–a second wind. So for the final 5 miles, I tried to hold it together and take it all in. I recall thinking that I was sure to faint or collapse at the finish line. I wondered what would indeed happen. I thought of all the videos on the internet about Ironman athletes collapsing with 400 meters left and crawling to the finish line, or the swarm of volunteers on deck ready to catch the completely exhausted racers as they leave their last calorie of energy on the course. Then I remembered my mantra and just tried to soak up the crowd and the whole experience and keep plugging along.

I don’t know why a kid cheering for their parent struck a chord with me, but I got pretty emotional at some point and thought about all of the training, the time spent and sacrifice for this dumb event. The emotions flashed through my mind state in the final few miles. Running down State Street towards the Capitol was great. To see the Capital was a sight for sore eyes. I was just outside of 10 hours, but time really didn’t matter at this point. I kicked it in and got some high-fives in the finishing chute.

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At the finish, I did the signature bow-and-arrow finish celebration the volunteers caught me. No, I didn’t collapse or anything, but I definitely put some weight on their shoulders as they shuttled me through the barricades.

To finish was pretty ecstatic. What a feeling. I saw Nick almost immediately. He was sitting on a chair and wolfing down pizza. Our parents were right there, and it felt really wonderful to sit down and relish in the moment of finishing Ironman Wisconsin. 12 months of dedication, 10 hours of pure exercise, and a beautiful 10 minutes of sitting in a chair to soak it all in.

The race went off without a hitch. I mean, things went really perfect. You can get punched in the face right away and caught with a group of flailing swimmers, have big time mechanical issues on the bike, or encounter a whole host of issues during the run. And the transitions are so hectic that you never know what could happen! To have everything go so smooth was incredible. I think that the race was perfectly executed, which is equally as incredible. I slowed down, I had low points, and I was 20 minutes off of my expectations, but I don’t think I could have raced it any differently to go any faster. Training modifications are a different story, and I know I have a sub-9:30 rattling around there somewhere. But it will take another $700, 40 weeks spent training for 20 hours, and fun weekend with the boys to find out! I’m super excited for that next one.

Results

Race Stats:

Place: 37/2387 (2,387 finishers)
Time: 10:07:43
Swim: 1:05:38
Pace: 1:41/100m
T1: 5:29
Bike: 5:18:58
Speed: 21.07mph
T2: 2:35
Run: 3:35:03
Pace: 8:12

Shoes: Saucony Kinvara 5, size 11.5
Bike: Specialized Transition
Wheels: Profile Design 78
Food: Too much to remember… ~5 gels, 2 packets of Honey Stinger Energy Chews, 1.5 Bearded Brothers Bars, 2 Honey Stinger Carmel Waffles, 2 handfuls of Trolli Brite Crawlers, a lot of pretzels, and more…

Race Day: Sunday, August 9, 2015 – 8am

The Green Lake Triathlon is a perennial classic. I love this race and I’ll keep coming back even though it is a trek from Duluth! The course is sweet. Green Lake is super nice and clean, the bike course is smooth, flat and fast, and the run is along the lake. Also, the transition and race site is awesome and there are always great amenities. Like pizza and beer.

Going into the race, I had a pretty weak week of training and was working a lot on Friday and Saturday. Add the 3.5 hour drive on Saturday night and it makes for a less than ideal lead up. Either way, I didn’t have too many expectations with my performance besides that I wanted to win. Bad. Real bad. Based on my fitness this season so far, I figured that I could likely pull it off depending on who showed up. The field of triathletes was spread thin for this particular weekend as Age Group National Championships were in Milwaukee and six other races were scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. Minnesota Tri News pretty much slated me to win, which was a boost of confidence for sure. On the flip side, it is always fun to race, and anybody will put up a better effort if placement is on the line. Reeling someone in or running scared is much more motivating than being way off the front by your self.

Anyways, race morning started off nicely. Mountain Dew, Sports Beans, a little coffee, deuce deuce and I’m ready to roll. I took my bike out for a spin and the mechanicals were working perfectly. Jogging around felt nice. I popped my wetsuit on and went for a few strokes in the lake. My arms definitely felt heavy, but the warmup helped. The lake was perfect temperature and calm. It was windless and in the low 70’s… ideal racing conditions. I peed in my wetsuit with hopes that the added saliency would add to the buoyancy of my wetsuit. I started in the first wave so I hopped back onto the beach and we were ready to rip.

I stood next to Tim Bode, who’s raced with me and Green Lake many times before. He is a beast swimmer and I thought that I could perhaps stick on his heels. I even revealed my plans to do so, and with characteristic Minnesota modesty, told me I’d be able to with no problem and that he’d probably be drafting me!

With a ten second countdown, the horn blared and we were off. The start was much nicer than Chisago and I got out towards the front immediately. I looked up and Tim was right there. I did two more strokes and looked up and he was approximately 50 meters in front of me. WHAT!? Just like that?? I was baffled, but kind of expected that and could only hope to be second out of the water and not too far behind Tim.

The remainder of the swim was nice. I was more or less by myself. I got pretty disoriented at the turnaround and had to completely stop swimming and look up to navigate correctly. I came to the last buoy with a large hoard of short course athletes and brought it home. I made the executive decision to take my wetsuit off in the water again, and I can’t decide whether or not that is faster or more efficient or not at all. I’m actually leaning toward faster, but it is embarrassing to be at the shore fiddling around with my wetsuit and thrashing about. Regardless, I got it off pretty quickly and my transition was very fast.

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With my trusty steed in hand, I ran toward the bike exit and mounted. There was another dude in a slick looking Shiv next to me and we started together. Once my feet were secured to my shoes, I stood up and jetted past him. My game plan was to smash the bike as hard as possible. It’s such a fast course and my biking has been on point lately, so I figured that there is no reason to mess with the formula. However, it is frustrating be seemingly limited by fatigue on the run.

I could feel that I was going really fast on the bike. Unlike the 56 mile ride at Chisago, where I wanted to have an even race and leave a lot for the run, I was mustering out all of the power I could. It was funny to get to the point where I’d go hard for a minute or two on a nice stretch and then be tired. At Chisago, and during training, biking is so constant and it’s rare to get that sort of “can quit right now please” feeling. I passed Bode a few miles in and was in the lead. On the flat sections, I was just tracking with the white line, head down, grinding HARD. I merged with the short course folks, and passing people on beach cruisers made me feel event faster.

I got into T2 feeling pretty beat up, but good nonetheless. My legs definitely felt heavy on the run, but that feeling passed surprisingly quickly. I was going at a pretty nice clip and pretty excited about being able to turn over quickly right out of the gate. At the short course turnaround at 1.5 miles, I was at 9:50 or so, which was 50 seconds slower than I was shooting for. That was frustrating, because I felt like I was going fast and I was definitely breathing hard. I kept pushing and felt really good until the long course turnaround at 3 miles. That split was around 20 minutes. I was hoping to get there a whopping 2 minutes earlier, which was again pretty frustrating. I decided to kick it up a notch for the last half. My turnover felt really good. Passing the other long course athletes was with positive encouragement, and again, I felt that much faster zipping by short course athletes past their turnaround.

I started to really pick it up with a mile to go. Although I was really far off of the course record of 1:41, I figured I’d salvage with under 1:50.

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That last minute surge paid off and I came in right under 1:50. It’s hard to stomach a relatively slow run because I was running faster last year and the year before, but my open run times are light years faster this year! It equalizes, I suppose, because I’ve never biked faster than this year.

As always, Green Lake was a blast. The weather was perfect, and not 45 minutes after I finished a massive thunderstorm rolled through. I hope to get one more race in before Ironman Wisconsin on September 13, but it’s not looking very hopeful with work. All I can really look for is a methodical training block.

Results

Race Stats:

Place: 1/35
Time: 1:49:47
Swim: 19:14
Pace: 1:28
T1: 0:39
Bike: 49:16
Speed: 26.8mph
T2: 0:38
Run: 40:03
Pace: 6:41
Shoes: Mizuno Hitogami size 11
Bike: Specialized Transition
Wheels: Profile Design 78
Food: 20oz red Gatorade

Race Day: Sunday, July 26, 2015 – 8am

The Chisago Lakes Triathlon had a name change this year and now it is called the Toughman Minnesota Triathlon. Now, this name is stupid and I won’t ever wear a shirt that says “Toughman” on the chest. Just dumb. Ironman at least has the history behind the name…

Anyways, I do Chisago every year and it is my annual long course triathlon. This year, however, I had big expectations with my time and performance. I wanted to do top 5, but that was a tall order after seeing the Minnesota Tri News preview. I thought that top 10 would be an awesome goal. I thought that under 4:20 would be a possibility and 4:15 would be the perfect day. Going into race week, I was feeling pretty good. My training has been on point and I was getting really good training in since the big string of races in June. The only glitch was the Park Point 5-miler. I was expecting to have a decent time, but my pace on the hot, hot race day was sluggish. This made me scared for the half marathon at Chisago.

The weather was looking nice and I got a perfect swim in the day before the race while we were picking up the packets. The lake was terribly warm and weedy, though, and that was pretty nasty without a wetsuit! I got to sleep super early and was feeling very fresh by the time I woke up on Sunday.

Chisago is always very competitive, and I was excited to be starting in the elite wave and to be racing with the big dogs up front. Last year, I placed 20th, for instance. My plan for the swim was to find a pair of feet and stick with them. When the gun went off, it was a frenzy. There were lots of arms flailing and legs kicking and I felt so uneasy. A front pack broke away and I was frustrated to be out of reach. There was no way to bridge that gap…

I settled in to a reasonable pace and got near the first turn buoy. I was with a few other dudes on the far stretch and noticed that fellow Duluth-area long course triathlete Jason Crisp was right next to me. Perfect, I thought. I knew he was a decent swimmer and was very consistent, therefore making an ideal candidate to draft off of. I tucked in behind him and stayed for the ride. However, by the second turn buoy onto the home stretch, I felt like I was expending a lot of energy trying to follow his bubbles. We broke off from each other and I just tried to kick it home. It was starting to get steamingly hot inside of my wetsuit and I thought to myself how getting out of my wetsuit in the water would be wise. I could get out of my wetsuit quicker because the water wouldn’t have drained out yet, I could splash some fresh water on myself, and then I wouldn’t have run up that terrible transition hill in my hot, black wetsuit.

When I finally got to shore, I ripped my arms out of the wetsuit and had a major struggle getting it off of my ankles. It was terribly embarrassing because people on the shore could see me flopping about and kicking and athletes on either side were blazing past on their way to the bike.

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After the wetsuit debacle, I had a hasty transition to my bicycle. It was nice to just throw my wetsuit down and grab my speed machine! Onto the bike, I started off aggressive. It’s a little technical on a bike path on the start and I was making some strong bike moves. Once onto the road, I was mixed with short course athletes. This was somewhat troublesome because I felt the need to overtake every person in front of me. It was hard to limit. I did calculations at 30 minutes into the ride and knew I was around mile 13. That puts me at 26mph early into the race. That is dangerous. I told myself to soft pedal and to go easy and to limit my efforts because the final 10 miles were bound to be hard.

The first 30 miles or so are so flat and fast. Every road is perfectly paved and there are no hills. There are quite a few directional changes, however, so if it’s windy it can be challenging. This day brought no wind, which meant that I was cranking. By mile 25, I was right around one hour. Yikes. I was feeling so good and was seemingly abiding by my strategy of having an even race, leaving some juice on the bike course, and going into the run with enough spring in my step to run fast. I got a tip that I was in 3rd place, and that made it hard to slow down. If I’m feeling good, why should I cognitively slow down to a speed that I think is more sustainable?

The course then descends quite a bit to the river valley. We pass the bottom of Wild Mountain and then climb all the way back up. I felt really good on the hill, and it seemed much smaller than before! I kept spinning wonderfully, and was tracking along at 25mph each time that I could make a calculation. At mile 50, my watch said 1:59. Smokin’. I figured that I should slow down a bit, or at least make certain that my legs will feel good onto the run, for the last bit of the course. My legs weren’t feeling terrible. In fact, they were feeling pretty good! The long and hard ride was taking a toll, and I was getting pretty uncomfortable. Just general discomfort. I’d been rolling in the aero position for a long time and my back and neck and taint were starting to feel it. Legs good, though.

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I hopped off the bike still in third place. The bike ride was lonely. I passed one person at mile 40 or 45 and that was the only person I saw after the short course split. Starting the run, I felt good.

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My legs were turning well and I was ready to lay it down. I knew I was in the money for my goal time of 4:19 as long as I could keep my half marathon under 1:30. Easy. That’s slow. I wanted 1:25. 6:15 pace. The first mile was 6:40 or so. The second was 6:15 and the third mile was 6:15. Perfect. Keep rolling.

At mile four, I started feeling pretty crappy. Just a wave of fatigue and I couldn’t push off of my feet. It was mental, though, and I pushed right through it. The meat of the race is right here. My pace was slowing, though. Slowly and surely, and I was struggling to stay under 7 minutes per mile. It was a constant mental game to push through these waves of fatigue. This didn’t feel like the marathon, where you inevitably slow down and feel worse and worse and more tired and stiff and sore. This was just like “body stop running you’re too tired” and then as much mental fortitude that I could muster in order to ignore those signals.

I was all alone. I saw the leader near the top of lollipop section of the run course and he was cruising. Way up there. Still in third, I became curious to where I was at. A guy on a bike said I was running second place down and that fourth was way back and that I was looking really good. Well, I wasn’t feeling good!

On the gravel lollipop section, I missed a water stop and took the gel down straight up. Luckily, a guy had freezing cold water in cups from his driveway, and that was a nice boost. Getting back to the lollipop stem, I was very curious to take stock on who was back there. I saw a few dudes, but nobody that looked to be running me down fast. Little did I know the fourth place runner was on the lollipop section and running me down big time.

By mile 8, I was not feeling good at all. Luckily, my pace was at a constant 7 minutes per mile or just a bit under. I kept chugging along. I felt like there was no way that I was going to catch the second place guy. I wasn’t making up much time. At this point, I just wanted to finish in third. Podium would be sweet! Each corner slowed me down so bad and I’d have to talk myself into getting back into a decent pace. How strenuous.

Then, I had a sense. I looked back and saw fellow Duluth-area long course triathlete Paul Rockwood. Paul is racing Ironman Wisconsin in my age group and has been racing really well this year. He gets faster at Madison every year and deserves to click his ticket to Kona. I think Paul will go under 9:45 or even 9:40. He is a beast runner and was certainly running me down. At mile 11, he caught up and started chatting. He crashed on the bike and was bleeding from his arm and leg. I couldn’t even talk. He then sped ahead out of sight. That’s how fast and strong he was running… he just dropped me like nothing. How many people are behind me? I questioned.

Two more miles and I was at least in fourth. Fourth is solid. I needed to stay in fourth. I can’t get passed twice after being in third place for 60 miles. I had another sense and sure enough, there is someone behind me. I picked it up with a quarter mile left with the great fear of getting passed on the final stretch. Thunder Bay, Ontario resident Jon Balabuck finished seconds behind me.

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I felt pretty good after finishing. Of course, the half ironman takes a toll on one’s body, and compression socks and sitting down felt pretty nice. I was totally jacked up about 4:19 and fourth place completely shattered my expectations. The frustration was with the run. It is frustrating to get off the bike, have a “slowest possible” time in my mind of 1:30, and then run 1:29 and a lot of seconds. Regardless, I thought I could run 4:19 and that’s what I ran.

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Chisago was a perfect tune up for Madison, but I don’t think the hard bike strategy will fly with the full distance triathlon.

Results

Race Stats:

Place: 4/478
Time: 4:19:58
Swim: 31:30
Pace: 1:30
T1: 0:42
Bike: 2:16:53
Speed: 24.4
T2: 0:56
Run: 1:29:54
Pace: 6:55
Shoes: Saucony Kinvara size 11.5
Bike: Specialized Transition
Wheels: Profile Design 78
Food: Bike: Cherry Coke Honey Stingers, 2 gels, ~40oz Gatorade, ~20oz water; Run: 2 gels


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