28 Oct 2021
Race Date: Saturday, October 16, 2021 – 6am
The start line was pretty emotional. I stood there in the dark, probably the only one without sleeves. Kris gave me her jacket and I wore it for a bit, but I really wasn’t any less cold. And she was for sure more cold! As the race director Andy gave pre race announcements, Kris told me to make sure to have fun out there. I was excited. I love nothing more than a long day in the woods. I was nervous. My running mileage on the year, and the past three months, was pretty low comparative to past years of running and racing. I was determined. I really wanted to win this race. There were going to be challengers. I was freezing, and thought I kind of had to poop.
After The Day Across Minnesota bike race, I knew I had a short turnaround. I had signed up for Wild Duluth Ultimate Wildman Challenge before the bike race, and essentially planned it all out with the thoughts that I could slog through Wild Duluth and still have fun. I gave myself a week, then started training right from there. I had a 33 mile week or so, with a long run at 100k goal pace. It was great. Then I built up two more weeks nice and steady to 40. Then I got a cold and a had a down week. I still got in a good effort on the SHT on the weekend. That down week was a little nerve-wracking, because I went right back to a 60 mile week the next, then up to 80+. The whole cycle was full of NMTC Fall Trail Series races, which are probably the best thing for fitness ever, except maybe the long run, especially when one is training for a particularly long race. The training went surprisingly perfect, the climax being back-to-back 20 and 30 miles runs at 4 and 6 hours a piece, respectively. There was a lot of time on technical trail at my 100k goal pace of 12 minutes per mile, which would put me about at 12 hours. The 30 miler in Silver Bay was about the best confidence builder I could ask for, nailing it and feeling good the whole time.
Back to the start line of Wild Duluth, just before 6am in 41 degrees, I remembered that training. I talked to Joe Calaguire a bit about his goals and mine. I asked if Gretchen would go under 12 hours. That was my goal, and she had the pedigree and the season to back up a crazy-fast time like that. He said she was going for the record. I didn’t know what that was. He wanted between 12 and 13. I has hoping for 11:59, and thought that it would be a stretch to get it. I kind of had a race plan in mind. But not a moment too soon, Andy announced he would do a three-second countdown, and proceeded to start the countdown immediately thereafter. With increasing intensity: “three, two, one, GO!”. I took off so fast… I don’t know why. It was fun. It is fun. Someone on the sidelines commented and I heard it all: “you start like I start!”. I knew the somewhat confusing start very well and took off way up front, just like 2019. I felt good. I felt like I was floating. Soak it up, I thought, because it will not feel like this one the way back. Well, maybe when I get back here, but only when I can literally see the finish line. So, up I went into the night towards Enger Tower.
I entered the woods across Superior Street alone. There was lots of dew reflecting off my headlamp’s light. It seemed humid, yet still cold. The air on my arms was definitely chilling me, but it also felt good. The homeless encampment right into the woods was as messy as I’ve seen it, with sleeping bags, clothes, and an industrial dumpster’s worth of trash, spread out all over the woods and literally the trail. You had to dodge the junk just like hopping over rocks and roots. Sheesh. I ran the hills up, feeling like I was keeping a pretty conservative pace. No need to bank time, but I felt so good and was so excited and it was so cold I couldn’t really slow down. I kind of shuffled up a few of the bigger hills. On one of the turns, I looked up to lock eyes with two glowing orbs, then saw the big antlers and couldn’t help yelling “WHOA!”. Then the big buck scurried off and I laughed. A voice behind me asked if I was OK. “Yeah!”.
Up and over Enger Tower and I rang the peace bell for good luck. Zipping around Enger, across Skyline, and down towards the 24th Ave aid station, I was having a lot of fun. I could feel that I’d have to pee soon. There was nobody around me. Nobody right behind me. Everyone behind me… but I had no headlamps or pressure from anyone. As I ran onto the bridge down to 24th Ave West in first place, three miles in and many to go, I thought about how this was panning out to be just like 2019 so far. Hey, not too bad because I won in 2019 and was the defending champion. So, if this is what it takes, I’ll do the race over exactly. And that was true, my training was indicating I was about in the same shape (based on NMTC times and long run performances), and really I figured that if I could roll another 12 hour finish, I would definitely have a shot at winning. But, I was going to race today for the win. Secondarily, I would race for a 12 hour finish. Thirdly, I would race to beat my time from 2019, which was a 11:57 or so. I would do it exactly the same as 2019 by stopping to pee right at Miller Creek. I mean, it’s a nice spot to stop. Surprisingly, there was someone right behind me when I crossed 24th Avenue West, and popped into the woods. I told them I had to pee. “Uh oh”. Then I peeled off to the left, and they told me the trail goes to the right. Then, “oh, nevermind”. They realized why I divulged my personal needs to them. I looked up into the dark night’s sky as I whizzed and wondered how many others would pass me. Hmm. Nobody. Just one this time. The start was uncannily similar. Hopefully not too similar. I remembered what happened on the Brewer Loop, as my stomach rumbled a little bit.
I knew it was 9 miles in to the Highland Getchell aid station, and I was cruising along nicely all on my own. The trail seemed so easy – wide and buffed out. No hills. All runnable. It was giving me everything I needed. Eventually I heard voices behind me, a woman’s timbre. That’s gotta be Gretchen. She is scary. I had done a bit of creeping online, and knew she was having an unbelievable year – two second-place finishes and two highly competitive trail 50-milers, plus some other goodies like FKTs. She was running really well. But maybe, she’s tired from the intense efforts of the year. Either way, she was chatting with someone close behind me. On a couple bends in the trail, I could see them gaining on me. That was probably Joe. I knew they were friends. We all shared a fun run in 2018 as Joe and Gretchen were prepping for Superior 100 Miler, and I was prepping to pace him. My stomach churned a few times and I wondered if I’d have to stop, or if I should, for a quick e-dump in the woods. I really didn’t want to. The sun was coming up, it was getting warmer and felt good, and the dew was burning off from the wooden boardwalks a bit. It was turning out to be a perfect day so far, and I was expecting great conditions for the whole race. I had just a couple more miles to Getchell and kept just chipping away, really eager to get there.
9 miles in and I was feeling really good. I saw Em at the aid station. She asked where I ditched my shirt. I said I didn’t start with hit, essentially threw my headlamp at her and just ran off. I picked a few small items from the aid station – pretzels and coke mainly, then ran right off the portable toilet. I didn’t think there was anyone in there, and knew that Gretchen and at least one other person would pass me up. Oh well. I did what I had to do, and in leaving the toilet I knew it was the right choice. I felt a hundred times better. When I got back onto the trail, I noticed a lot more action at the aid station with people running all over. I saw my new friend Ben Andres running the opposite way. Same deal, probably – pre race jitters and coffee and some early morning jostling of the stomach make for a predictable recipe. I yelled at Em on the way back down to the main trail. “BYE EM!”. She didn’t hear me. Louder: “BYYEE EMM!!!” A few people looked. Not Em. What the heck. Oh well. I wonder where the field was at now. For sure there was one mystery person who passed me over Miller Creek and I haven’t even seen a flash. That was surprising. I’m sure Gretchen and Joe were up ahead. Maybe another person or two, depending on how the pack was shaping up behind me. But, the race was very young, and even though I wanted to race to win, it wouldn’t matter where anyone was until Ely’s Peak on the way back. If someone was out of reach at that point, and I stuck to my 12 hour plan, well, then they are the real deal and I couldn’t beat them no matter what the racing strategy. I wonder if that’d be Gretchen in 30 more miles. Just stick to the plan, roll a bunch of 12 minute miles, I told myself. And that’s what I did.
The miles just clicked off down to the Munger Trail, then back up towards the freeway and Spirit Mountain. I had a bit of buffer and felt comfortable walking up some of the hills around Spirit. I ate a caffeinated gel and was eating really well. I felt way out alone by myself. I didn’t sense anyone behind me, and not really anyone up ahead either. That was fairly normal for a trail race… all the sudden BOOM there is someone 20 feet away. I was making really good time and feeling really good through the east side of Spirit Mountain. I ran on the gravel ski hill access road and knew I had a bit of a buffer on my 5 miles per hour game plan. That’s always nice. I saw Em and the dogs from afar. That made me initially nervous, because I’d be running downhill and she has two maniac dogs. How would she be able to tend to me?? I felt so good, and had a lot of fun bombing down towards the aid station. There were lots of people there, and I was asking questions about who’s who before my arrival. Em said that Gretchen was about 5 minutes up or so, and the guy way up from was looking good. Really good, she said. Hmm, well I told her there is lots of race left. She said he just cruised right up the hill. That was almost motivating to me. Unless this person was really the real deal… I mean we all feel good 15 miles into the race, and sprinting up Spirit Mountain is not always the best play, in my personal opinion. I heard everything I needed to hear, and got my water bottle refilled, drank a bit and ate a bit from the lovely array that Em had schlepped up for me, and took back off.
The miles continued to click off and feel easy up Spirit. I caught and passed a guy, presumably the person running with Gretchen back by Highland Getchell because he mentioned something about her by name. His name was Tony, and I passed him rather quickly near a strange rock and tree formation just up from Skyline Parkway outside of Spirit Mountain. The trail was giving me some easy hills, and good running. I knew the elevation was severe through here, but I continued to bank up lots of time. I zipped into the Magney aid station and saw Adam Schwartz-Lowe and Lisa Byrne. Adam said he heard I started the race fast. Huh, word travels quick I guess. I didn’t think that was that noteworthy… I tried to take some licorice but it was all clumped. The aid station helper helped me, but gave me like 5 pieces. I was hoping for one, but took them all anyways. Plus some coke and pretzels – the magic mixture – and set back off. I was excited to start seeing some 50k runners, and tried to just run conservative. I was feeling good – better than 15 miles in during any of my training long runs. Most of those were around 20 miles. I would have been almost done by now! I didn’t even feel sore or tired. Legs good, everything good. I told myself that it was OK to walk up hills and get closer to 12 minute miles. I was doing mid- and high-11 minute miles, so felt pretty content with that. But, those extra seconds were adding up, and by the time I started seeing 50k runners I was 20 minutes up on my time goal. Sweet!
I saw a fast-looking dude with arm warmers way up, then a couple more sprinkled in while coming down Ely’s Peak. I saw Ryan Soule. I jogged along the Munger Trail feeling a little beat up for the first time of the day really, but generally great. I was looking forward to seeing Em again, and setting off on the crux of the course, the 20 mile middle section. When I got to the station it was kind of buzzing. There were lots of people. Some people came sprinting in like mad, and I recognized all three of them: Chase, Ethan and Bryan. They looked like they were having fun. The intensity on their faces was fun to see. Em told me she was getting VIP Pizza for the next time I was here. Sweet! I ran off after eating a bit, refilling my bottles, and grabbing some extra food for the trip to the turnaround. She asked me what type, and I yelled “Chicken Rueben!!” while running off into the woods.
I was excited for the next stretches because I’d get to see so many people. That’s always fun. But, it’s arguably the hardest section of the race. I really struggled on a 25 mile training run through this exact section just weeks prior. I was dreading the big hills. I knew I had to take it slow and easy and not worry about whomever was ahead of me or behind me. This is where either I make good decisions and set myself up well, or bad decisions and suffer greatly for many hours, or worse. The worst case scenario would be that I couldn’t respond to opportunities or threats later on in the race.
It was a steady stream of people from Ely’s Peak to Grand Portage, practically. It was fun and the time flew by. I still felt very in-control and was running some pretty dang good splits. Maybe too good. I knew, however, no matter how hard I was running, if I could get back to Ely’s feeling halfway decent, I would be in really good shape for the rest of the race. I’ve raced enough to know that I don’t typically blow up spectacularly, and can generally hang on to a decent pace unless I’ve made some really dumb decisions. Then again, going just a minute too fast per mile for 25 miles really adds up! I felt content with that I seemed to be stuck at 20 minutes above my goal pace of 5 miles per hour. I saw my mom, kept plugging along, and then the field started thinning out a bit. I fell down a couple times trying to run around people, but nothing too serious. One was a little dramatic as I stepped off the trail, ran a few strides in the brush and tripped on a branch right onto my hands and knees as a conga line of people passed me. Then, you see the people in high top hiking boots, big backpacks, people literally on their cell phones, people in heavy jackets or jeans. Nobody running anymore. Then, back to being alone. I wondered where Gretchen and this other person was. At Ely’s it sounded like they were both about 10 minutes up and both running strong. Gretchen must have made ground. She was scary. I figured that if she wins overall, and I can re-pass whoever is up front, I’d still get first place in the Men’s division. This is what I thought about as I bombed down the huge hill, on a historic voyageur’s portage route, to the Grand Portage aid station. I got a sip of coke, an orange and some pretzels, and kept on. My feet felt swift on the flat section along the might St. Louis River. They never have felt good running this stretch, despite being pretty flat. So, I kept them moving. Then, I knew it was a massive hill, then some flat running to the aid station. That would be great, to have enough energy to make some time up before the turnaround, and then I could stop there for a more extended time period and feel good about, and maybe have some juice for the flats on the way back, too. So, I justified a nice calm pace up from Grand Portage.
Up the hill… you know you’re at the top of a hill when you see a bench. I was happy to crank away at a few miles on the wide open horse trails in Jay Cooke State Park. I kind of forgot the undulations within the State Park as the race course went down Gill Creek Trail, way down to the bottom, then all the way back up on switchbacks. Oof. It was starting to get a bit warmer out, but still just a perfect day. I tried to remember to keep eating my exercise food and was feeling pretty good stomach-wise. I knew I was at the top again when we got back to the wide open horse trails. Weaving in and out of the Munger Trail, I was excited to see someone. I knew there were two ahead, when would I see them? I ran faster in anticipation. Too fast… but I was excited. I wanted to close the gap up, and put the hurt on my competitors. I ran some really fast miles, but it was doable. Flat, wide open and straight. I crossed over the dam at Forbay Lake, down a little hill, and ran fast towards Olderberg Point. I knew it was close. I saw Gretchen and tried to keep in mind the time. In a split second, I was at the aid station. Em’s nephew Aiden was in a chair next to an open one, presumably for me. I didn’t care who it was for, I plopped into it and immediately started shoving food in my face. Potato chips, Mountain Dew mystery flavor, and emptied my trash and replenished my stocks. I wanted to sit for a while, but they told me that the guy Even was still at the aid station. Oh great! I didn’t want Gretchen to get too far, so cut it pretty short despite telling myself I could take more time there. Em said she got Sammy’s Pizza after all. I told hear that was great, and that I looked forward to seeing her at Ely’s, and took off. I didn’t see Even and so figured I passed him while he was sitting at the aid station. I did some math and figured I was 8 minutes down from Gretchen. Smooth, even, calm. I just needed to chip away at Gretchen bit by bit until Spirit Mountain. Then, the race really begins.
I was pretty excited, and really put down some fast miles right off from the aid station. Yes, it’s the most runnable parts of the course, but they were maybe a bit too fast. I’d have to take it easy on the large hills from here to Ely’s. I remembered at least three big climbs. The biggest of which just past the Grand Portage aid station, right over the road crossing at 210. I saw Joe next, in third place, but many minutes behind. He was probably not a big threat, but ya never know. Plenty of race left. Then, the 100k’ers trickled in from there, steadily all the way to the climb back up to Beck’s Road. I asked Joe if it was just Gretchen in front of me. He stumbled his words a bit as we passed each other: “oh, erm, ah yeah”. Hmm, I must have passed Even at the aid station then! How far back is he??
I continued to feel really good down Gill’s Creek Trail, and down to the river. I saw someone running up ahead. Is that a guy in the 50k who started really really late? I got closer, and made the pass. They said they wondered when they’d see me. I realized it was Even. I was pretty frustrated, actually, and pushed hard to make a decisive pass. This dude cheating?? Joe said he only saw Gretchen. It would be pretty simple to just take 210 all the way back down from Oldenburg to Grand Portage. What the heck? Well, at least ya know, I told myself. He’s right there. Also right there was the Grand Portage aid station. I was really brief there. I did ask how far up Gretchen was. The gal pouring water said she’s right there. I snapped my neck to the left and focused my gaze down the trail. I didn’t see her, but took off in that direction, excited. I ran down the culvert quickly, hopped up onto Highway 210, and across to the big climb up away from the river. I saw Gretchen walking, hands on knees. I quickly caught up, shuffling up the hill. I relegated to walking as well. I told her she was having a great season. She didn’t really say much on that. I passed her and we wished each other well. I wanted to beat her. I wanted to get first place. I ran ahead at the very top of the hill, hard. Now, just like that I was back in the position of 1. Plus, due to several sub-10 minute miles in the miles near the turnaround, I had added to the buffer on my goal time, and was over 40 minutes up. I had made up some really good ground. Was it a poor move? Up and over the historic voyageur’s route then some easy running and I was starting to feel a little tired. I noticed the desire to walk up hills stronger than ever, and my pace when trudging up was slower than ever. I didn’t have the little spark or jump to make it up hills quickly. I had a rash of slow miles, my slowest of the day, and several more over 12 minutes. Oof. Cmon Mike, keep it up, let’s go. I tried to rally myself a bit. I knew this section was hard, though, and would just have to wait it out for some good running.
I knew I was getting close to the hill up across Beck’s Road to the base of Ely’s, where my faithful crew would be waiting with pizza and other goodies. I had mainly passed everyone else from the race. Literally, everyone else from both the 50k and 100k race had passed me. From the lead 50kers through the very back of the pack, from the leaders of the 100k at the time, and the entire 100k pack at the turnaround, to the leaders again, and the very last walkers of the 100k hours and hours from the turnaround. I figured that I put time on the field after moving into 1st place. But I was also struggling. That section – the middle 20 miles – is very difficult. I went pretty hard in excitement to pass Even and Gretchen. I was ready to sit down for a second.
I ran into the Ely’s aid station, into the sun, with perfect posture and strong, springy legs to look comfortable and in control. I immediately spotted the chair and ran straight to it, while yelling “200!”, my race number, to the HAM radio volunteers. I slumped in the chair, looked at the pizza and didn’t want anything to do with it, and immediately barked to Em to get my waterbottle filled. My right foot was starting to develop a slight twinge on some of the turns. I didn’t think much of it, but requested she bring the hiking poles, pack and backup shoes to the Spirit aid station. One slice of delicious hawaiian pizza from Sammy’s (not so delicious at the time), a refill of random gels and gummis and junk food and I was conceivably ready to split. A chug of a caffienated fizzy beverage, and Even ran right out of the woods, looking springy and fresh and strong and immediately over to his crew over yonder. Yep, time to go, I thought. I sprang out of the chair and tried to go hard onto the Munger Trail.
Every step was a heavy, dull thud across the blacktop and railroad bridge to the base of Ely’s. It would be more painful up the scramble coming soon, I knew. The few hops onto tall rock outcropings right off the paved trail stopped my momentum like a wall. Ugh, it was a continuous mental battle to lift my legs and heaving carcass up the climb. I figured Even was right behind me, but he’ll struggle too, and Gretchen, and if I just make it up Ely’s a little bit faster and with a little more juice at the top, I would have an even bigger advantage. It was slow, but I made it to the top and kept running, able to catch my breath in between hopping over rocks on the way to Bardon’s Peak.
It was definitely race mode, laser focused on getting to Spirit Mountain in first place still. I was telling myself the whole day that if I got to Spirit in first, I’d be able to power hike up the side, run down to Mile 50 and be able to hold on for the last sixth of the race. Now was my chance to prove it. The miles clicked off right where they needed to be. I’d lost a bit of time but was still 30 minutes up from my goal pace for a 12 hour finish. I didn’t delay at the Magney aid station, take a small cup of coke as fast as possible, and a 5-second decision on food from the station table, shoved into my mouth as I shuffled along trying not to spill the sugary drink everywhere. Right down the hatch as fast as possible and the relentless forward motion continued. I knew it was a nice downhill to Spirit and it would be wise to capitalize and get there as soon as possible. But running was hard. My gait was tight and choppy and the pace suffered, but I was able to endlessly remind myself to push a little extra. Go, let’s go, let’s go let’s go Mike.
I did make good time into Spirit and was joined by Em in a much less popular aid station environment from the first time many hours prior. I was happy to see new shoes. The Altras had done me good, but they were for sure hurting my feet. I was excited for my old standby, the Brooks Cascadia, to envelop my feet. They might aggravate my sore big toe, but it will be worth it for a little more rigidity on the sides. My tendons were shot. The hiking poles will help, too, I thought out loud. I shoved a few cake flavored oreos in my vest and took potato chips. I asked Em if she’d wait for the next runner to come in and time it to tell me at Highland Getchell. At that point, I’ll be over 50 miles in, with some pretty easy running to bring it home. I just had to get there. I knew the climb out of Spirit would be a slog, but a slog for everyone. I knew what to expect, I knew how to attack it to bring it in strong. I thought.
Off into the trees again and I was actually excited to power hike for a while. Up and up, along the lovely Knowlton Creek, I didn’t get much walking relief as the gravel road presented itself a must-run opportunity. I used my new hiking poles to launch into a run and shuffled along. Up and up, I had a couple slow miles. 16’s. Slowest of the day, really. With the aid station stop, I had now dented my nice buffer. I just put my head down to the bridge over Knowlton and ran. I ran down the access road to the new switchback re-route of the infamous 168 Steps section of the SHT. I don’t know how many steps it was, but I ran up the switchbacks, poling in stride. I ran at the top, through the beautiful open maple forest in the appealing light of mid- to late-afternoon. I used up my slow miles and had to make it up now. I struggled to get barely below 12 minutes on my next split. I hit mile 50 across Cody Street, on a sad shuffle up some very firm pavement I told myself that I could make way towards a fast mile across the ATV trail by the big power line, before arguably the last real rigorous climb up to the second-to-last aid station at Highland Getchell. I was so curious the time that Emily clocked if she did happen to wait for my chasers at Spirit. I was not making up any ground, but I figured I was at least 20 minutes up on my 12 hour time goal by the time I climbed my way to the energetic Highland aid station, where beautiful Em and the beautiful chair were waiting for me. Em said Even was 4 or 5 minutes down from me. My aunt and uncle Maureen and Tom were there, and they immediately started talking about how they were hiking the same section the day before and they didn’t see my mom. I essentially ignored them, probably looking like a deranged person as I shoveled potato chips in my mouth and messily guzzled various pops from the cooler. I kept my backpack on, probably squishing its contents against the chair, and hurried up, continuing on with my poles. 4 or 5 minutes. That wasn’t enough time. I couldn’t have one slow mile. That would be it! It was to be all 12 or less from here on. Even this mile… it was a short stop and I was off.
I had to hike up out away from Keene Creek right after the aid station, over Skyline Parkway, and into the woods. I used the poles to run. The boardwalks were hazards, but I was able to get into a rhythm and crank. I wasn’t hungry at all. My energy stores seemed good enough. I was mainly running off adrenaline. It felt like extra food could mess the whole thing up, and I could be violently ill. I felt ill in general. Just generally fucked up. But I was able to run. My creaky joints lurched forward every stride, and it was a cohesive unit of churning legs and rotating arms driving the trekking poles in each cycle. I day dreamed about the finish line. If I won, I thought, I’m gonna yell. For sure yell, then run right into Em’s arms and give her a big smooch. She helped me here, she made this possible. She supported me through the training and followed me with everything I need and more at every station. WITH the dogs. She had told me the sad story of Chally having eaten nearly the whole Sammy’s pizza from the back when she arrived back from the Spirit aid station stop. I could only imagine the long and arduous day of crewing while I’m out playing in the woods. I thought of how powerful it is, when the struggle is on, to use gratitude as a strategy to find extra stores of energy. I thought about how grateful I was, and how lucky I could possibly be, to be able to do this. To run all day in the woods, to complete and compete in a 100k trail run. To win Wild Duluth again, and finish the Ultimate Wildman Challenge with two wins, two days in a row. Ooof, how would I run tomorrow? I was absolutely trashing my body. I pushed a little harder, though, because I knew Even was behind me and coming hard for me. He wanted to win. He thought he could win. Gretchen? Who knows. I was less scared of her simply because even if she charged past me, which was not farfetched in my mind, I would still beat Even out for first man. I wanted a new water bottle. The thought of both of them charging me made me run just a little harder over the rock outcropping and past some lingering 50k finishers in the back of the pack, and onto the flat clearing across 27th Avenue West. I was making good time. One last climb to 24th and I could drop the pack, then a climb to Enger, then all downhill. Let’s GO!!
I got the jitters coming into 24th. There were volunteers at the roadway, and I prepared my backpack for a fast unloading. I didn’t even want a waterbottle. I’d be able to shred back home on fumes. I ran across 24th Avenue West and saw my neighbor Clarence holding chips and a gatorade as high as he could over his head, about 3 feet up. I ran towards him, grabbed a face full of chips, took a huge swig, and essentially threw my backpack and trekking poles at Em and ran off, so excited to get back. She had said he was 4 minutes back still. She yelled to get me to take the water but I was already off. I had a smile on my face. But, 4 minutes? I’d have to move.
I shuffled up Skyline over Piedmont, and continued to shuffle up and up towards Enger Tower. I didn’t stop the legs churning, which was kind of the theme of the day, and just was able to get more momentum downhill than up, and the uphills were pretty demanding, and slow. I tried to judge if I was indeed going faster trotting than power hiking, even with poles. Hmm? I figured yes, I was going faster. 4 minutes back only, I thought to myself. I passed some more 50k runners, my second time seeing them all. After crossing over Skyline once again, and entering Enger Park, I heard the Japanese peace bell get run, likely due to much more people in the park compared to when I was last there at 6:10 am. I was so excited to ring it myself. When I got there, I was happy that nobody’s hand was on the peace bell and I was able to weirdly run right up to it and ring it quick, goofy smile on my face, and run off into the horizon.
I sprinted across the edge of the park area to the steep downhill bomb, practically down a couple miles right to the finish. I was so excited that the extreme pounding didn’t phase me. I leaned further forward. With finally nothing in my hands, nothing on my back, nothing left but to lean in and fall into the finish line, I cranked ass. The footwork was immaculate, not a second was wasted and I became increasingly excited with each vertical foot that the elevation I was at decreased. Down, down across 3rd Street, onto an avenue across 1st Street and onto the really messy homeless encampment area, which 50k runners slowly trotting in and residents milling about, probably wondering why there was so much traffic through there this day. Or maybe not. It was a big mess down there. I ran through faster. I sprinted across Superior Street, a very fast mile split flashing across my watch. Second fastest of the day, besides the first mile. A vision flashed across my mind’s eye of me finishing and running straight into Em’s arms and giving her a huge hug. I wanted it now. I looked behind me. Nobody. I ran faster. I couldn’t run any faster. I just relaxed and held my posture high upright and ran it in. I smiled. Into Bayfront, onto the sidewalk and onto the path to the finishing stretch, and it was so fun to see my neighbors and my mom and Em and the dogs along the side of the finish. I crossed, stopped my watch and yelled, just like I had planned out for hours. I ran under some tiedowns under the arch right to Em’s arms like I planned. It was awkward because everyone was looking at me, I felt, and I nearly tripped and took down the blow-up arch. I was so happy. I sat in the chair and told myself that I was NOT going to be able to run the race tomorrow. I wouldn’t be able to make the distance!
Shoes: Altra Lone Peak size 12.5, Brooks Cascadia 13 size 12.5
25 Oct 2019
Wild Duluth 100k Race Day: Saturday, October 19 – 6am
Terribly Tough 10k Race Day: Sunday, October 20 – 9:30am
I had a pit in my stomach in the dark, headlamp shining, as I stood with 80 other runners at the start line of the Wild Duluth 100k. Sure, I was a bit nervous. 100 kilometers is a long way. What about the next day? I had expectations of myself and didn’t want to fail. But the pit in my stomach wasn’t as much from nerves as it was from just an upset stomach. Great…
The concept of going back to Wild Duluth was hatched during my experience pacing my pal Joe Calaguire at the Superior 100 Mile. During a reconnaissance run up the North Shore in August, I realized my flat abilities and low fitness levels and probably griped to he and his friend Gretchen about needing a race to register for the whole run. Gretchen highly recommended the Wild Duluth 100k, her favorite race, and both she and Joe then regaled about finishing the year prior. Dang… I told them about how I loved the 50k race, having finished in 2014, 2015, and 2016. After that long 34 miler in August, I definitely had Wild Duluth 100k on my radar. Or maybe the 50k… something for sure. Maybe for sure… that’s a lot of running. My body wasn’t in prime shape. I had ankle and foot issues, fears of injury. I felt really terrible after Brewhouse Tri though, the terrible feeling of being out of shape. I had to put together a training regiment but do it smartly and simultaneously cure my injuries and ailments. Is that even possible? I started to run regularly after that up north run with Joe. After all, I was gassed after 34 miles and he expected me to run 50 miles with him through the night at Superior. I hoped I could do it but didn’t even really expect it of myself. But I it would feel great to be able to run all 50. I started running daily, my mileage increased and I started designating one day per week as a long run. The next big run, of course, was Superior 100 itself in early September. My pacing duties were a shock to the system for sure. Despite going 17 minutes per mile on average, I had to bow out after… 34 miles. I had extra fitness, the pace was slower than our training run in August, but I was so tired and mentally unable to proceed after going the exact distance in our training run a month earlier. Joe had another pacer Ryan on deck and he took over. I took a nap, ate some food and had coffee and was lucky enough to join in for the last 7 miles. Ryan and I pushed Joe hard to the finish and it was super inspiring to watch and be a part of. He finished his first 100 mile run with nothing left in the tank, passing 3 people in that last section. I was jacked and even more excited to compete, train and finish Wild Duluth 100k. I had to go long. Plus Superior 100 2020… everything. I’d race everything in 2020! Yeah!
My excitement settled after Superior 100 weekend. Next up for me is NorthShore Inline Marathon, of which I am the race director, and which requires an extreme amount of time leading up to and on race weekend. I told myself I’d wait until after NorthShore to register for Wild Duluth but I couldn’t resist. I just had to. I signed up for the 100k, if nothing else just to get a 100k finish on the running resume and somehow jumpstart my training with 8 weeks or so to go. I noticed the new Wildman challenge. Either you run the 100k Saturday and 10k Sunday or the 50k Saturday and half marathon Sunday to complete the Ultimate Wildman or Wildman, respectively. So I signed up for the 10k too. Oh well, I could hike the 10k if push comes to shove.
My training then catapulted forward majorly. With the exception of NorthShore Inline Marathon race week, I’d averaged about 40 miles per week for over 5 weeks. I drew up a training plan for the remaining 5 weeks to Wild Duluth. A quick turnaround, but I was hearing local runner Jess Koski in my head. He was an interview subject for the Duluth Rundown podcast, and talked about high mileage training, specifically getting to the 100 mile week threshold. He claimed any runner can reach 95% of their potential by getting to 100 miles per week by any means necessary, and hold it for three weeks or so. “Hundred, hundred, hundred”. He also claimed he would jump from 20 miles per week to 100. It was unbelievable, reckless, but intriguing. After a long, droning and meticulous build cycle of over 20 weeks in the first months of 2019, I was excited to try something different. Also, I had no choice but to adopt some of Jess’s methodologies. Once NorthShore came and went I only had 5 weeks until Wild Duluth.
My plan was to bump up from and average of 40 miles per week to 60, then 70, then 80. NMTC Fall Trail series was in full swing, and I would do at least one long run per week. A big double on the weekend would be even better. But the key was to not get injured. I adopted a three prong approach with chiropractor, physical therapy, and massage. PT made a difference. I visited Malcolm Macauley, who is also the inventor of the Lightspeed Lift body weight reduction treadmill. I decided to put my eggs in that basket by getting some PT work and utilizing the Lightspeed Lift once per week to get my mileage. Week one was a success and I felt pretty good. On to week two and I bumped it up. All systems go. The body was holding up great. PT made a difference but I was also being diligent about foam rolling and taping my sore plantar facia band. The third week I bumped up to over 80 miles. My key workout for the week was a speedier 15 mile run on gravel in drenching rain (to build mental fortitude), then a 5 hour run (2.5 hours out and back on the Wild Duluth course) for 25 miles the very next day. I crushed them both, but was a little nervous about my pace for the 5 hour run. I found it difficult to hold 12 minutes per mile. It was a struggle to feel like I was running with a conservation mindset and getting consistent sub-12 minute mile splits on the technical and challenging race course. I could lock in right above that pace though… and 12:15-12:30 pace felt like the normal. I knew that wouldn’t be enough to win, though. After that final simulation run, I felt very confident about a 13 hour finish but wondered if I could pull off 12 hours or less. To win, I knew I’d need 11:30 or faster.
Come race day, I felt great. Every week at NMTC, I’d chipped away at my placements. They felt easier. I knew I was getting fit. I certainly put in the time on my feet with race simulations… One 20 miler on the race course at goal pace of 12 minutes per mile, a 38 miler on the SHT at goal pace, and my capstone workout of 25 miles at just slower than goal pace out and back on the toughest part of the race course. After a two week taper down, my body was feeling really sturdy. I knew I had some vulnerabilities but was fully aware of them and thought I knew how to mitigate any problem spots and early destruction. The 100k was my goal. Sunday 10k, afterthought. The competition was looking pretty stout, and primed for a great race. There were proven ultramarathon runners, past WD 1ook champions, but no superstar runners who would undoubtedly win. But there can always be that dark horse in the race…
I woke up very early on race morning with a 6am start. My stomach was feeling pretty crappy at home but I had to make sure I was full of food and ready to rock. The weather looked great and I was comfy at the start line in my shorts and singlet. “Ready, set, GO!” and the group of headlamp-donning ultramarathoners took off into the early morning darkness. The race director Andy ran with us to make sure we took the right route. I went off really fast with the intention of seeing who was out there. Who would follow? Who would pass me? If I got out to the front I’d know who else was out there. So I sprinted off, knowing (or simply hoping) that one fast mile on flat pavement wouldn’t have any impact on the remaining 61 miles. That first mile was well under 8 minutes, and I was in the front of a conga line of people, leading the race up to Enger Tower. I was passed on the trail by a guy who I swear was telling Andy at mile .2 he’d run over a marathon distance like 6 times but never done a marathon or longer race. I was pretty sure he said his name was Tyler. Atop Enger Tower I pressed my hand on the post to ring the giant peace bell. Then I saw Tyler standing there, not running, facing me. He’d been turned around already. Jeez, who is this guy!! I took the lead again, zipping on by to the first aid station. I didn’t really need anything but filled two tiny sips worth of water and ate one oreo. I saw the chase group in my peripheral vision bypass the aid station completely and run into the darkness of Lincoln Park. I already had to pee, and stopped in the woods shortly after the aid station. As I turned around I saw another group of people pass me. Sheesh, where am I at now? It doesn’t matter, RUN YOUR OWN RACE MIKE. That was to be my mantra for the day.
10 days prior at the NMTC Pine Valley fall trail series run, I had a lot of confidence and went out to race. Well, I got smoked. I was with a pack for a mile and fell off. They passed me mercilessly and it crushed me. The next race, Bull Run, was a challenging, hilly and longer one in Jay Cooke State Park. I told myself to race my own race. The effort was day and night better. I moved up from 11th that Wednesday to 4th place at Bull Run. I felt good the whole time and finished strong. It was confidence booster and mental focus that I needed. Race Your Own Race. So when the hoards of people passed me, I told myself that it was OK, and reminded myself of the magic pace of 12 minutes per mile, 5 miles per hour, that I was to hold for 50 miles straight, then crank it down or do whatever I needed to do for the remaining race to finish under 12 hours.
So I kept on moving forward. My next miles were right on target. Some slightly faster than 12 minutes, some slightly slower than 12. I’d see something like 11:47 flash on my watch for a mile split and say “yes, good” under my breath. I didn’t see or sense anyone behind me, and was surprised to not see anyone ahead of me. I mean, I was moving pretty good on the trail and it seemed like a lot of people passed me during that first aid station stop and pee break. After 5 miles, I was way ahead of my one hour target, thanks to the first three miles being very speedy. So I had a buffer. Time to lock in, and lock in I did. I continued to click off miles, under the bridge of Haines Road, and up to Brewer. Light came and I took off the headlamp. I ate a gel. My stomach hadn’t felt better from the early morning. In fact worse. Way worse. I almost had stomach cramps. I had a bit of the “clench” going on, and knew I wouldn’t make it to the toilet at the Highland Getchell aid station 3 miles away. I had to take an emergency dump, so pulled off of the trail to a cliffside, held on to a tree and popped a squat. I was sure glad to have brought toilet paper in a baggie in my small handheld water bottle. It was a quick ordeal and not too unpleasant. I then ran off, like a rocket shot off. I felt like $1,000 bucks and no longer in discomfort physically or mentally. The feeling of knowing you have to poop can drag on you. Smooth, I said to myself. Keep it smooth.
The miles kept clicking off and it seemed like no time that I was at the Highland Getchell aid station about 9 miles in. I still had a buffer, and still hadn’t seen anyone ahead or behind me. I realized I forgot a cup and it was cupless event. Of course, I had my water bottles (handheld and vest with two bottles), but nothing for pop at the aid stations. I wanted coke! I instructed my all-star crew of Emily and my mom to fill up my bottle with water. I was brief and frenzied. I left them to run into the parking lot to the portable toilet. It was just to clean up and use the hand sanitizer. Mission accomplished. Back to normal. Luckily my friend and aid station attendant Mae lent me a cup. I drank coke, had some pretzels and shoved gummi bears in my mouth as I headed down the trail. I finally saw someone approach from behind just as I darted onto the trail. Down, down, rocks, roots, up, up. I’d lost the guy behind me. Back to no man’s land. My watched beeped for 10 miles and I was still well ahead of my target 2 hours for the distance. I was locking in at my goal pace, though. Where is everyone else? I wondered why I wasn’t passing anyone. I mean, I’m running good, running consistent miles. It seemed like there were so many people in front of me. RACE YOUR OWN RACE MIKE. The miles continued to click off during the overcast and fair morning. I was kind of warm already. The handheld was a great choice, though, and I felt like I had plenty of water and room for food while traveling as lightly as possible.
The next section was going good but also was frustrating. I kept rolling my ankles. Both of them slipped many times, and every time I’d yell and swear. Luckily I was in no man’s land and nobody was around to hear me. Nothing was lasting, but I knew each slip of the ankle caused damage. My ankles, feet or lower legs were probably going to go first, so I had to protect them. Whoop, ankle roll, “FAAAA!!!”
With energy and feeling smooth, I made it down Spirit Mountain with ease. Those were some smooth downhill miles, but I couldn’t help but think ahead with dread on how uncomfortable the climb back up would be, because it seemed like a full 2 miles downhill to get to the unmanned water station at the Spirit Mountain lower chalet. I prepared to refill my water and was surprised to see Emily and my mom. Hmm, I thought I told them to skip this aid station and go to Magney… I didn’t say anything, just drank some gatorade and grabbed a gel. It was a quick in-and-out. I did ask out loud about my placement and the field ahead, and the HAM radio operator chimed in to say I was in 8th place. Hmm! Interesting. The top guys were must be making time on me, and I believe the report was that a few guys were running together about 20 minutes up. Nothing crazy…
The climb up the other side of Spirit was tough, but I made it through smoothly with no damage done. Keepin’ it smooth. When I got to Magney, I ate some pretzels at the aid station while a volunteer filled up my handheld water bottle. They asked what they could do for me, and I replied that my crew wasn’t here yet. I asked them to tell my crew that I left already. They asked who my crew was. I said Emily and my mom. Then I saw Emily drive by at the exact moment I ran off. I told the aid station volunteers that that was my crew. I hoped they’d make it to the Munger Trail aid station in time. I kind of worried about that, but knew I had some time before I’d make it there myself.
Down, down, down, puddle jumping some creeks and through the woods I ran. Up to Bardon’s Peak, I wondered when I’d see 50k runners and was excited to see how that race would be panning out. I still hadn’t seen a 100k runner since the one guy at Highland Getchell. Nobody in front of me. No man’s land! Race your own race. I was completely impressed by the lack of water and mud on the trail. The trail was dry and tacky. Boardwalks were bone dry. I did experience a few mud pits that were pretty raunchy, but they were surprisingly few and far between given the amount of rain Duluth had received in September and October. I saw two 50k runners while traversing the rocky outcroppings near Ely’s peak. They were neck and neck in the front. I didn’t recognize either of them. About a minute back was my running pal Kyle Severson, who I’d shared many running miles with this summer. I saw Chase Edgerton, a guy with a really cool name who I met at many of the NMTC fall race series races. He and I duked it out several times. He was in the mix. I saw Anna Lahti right up there, Kaelyn Williams right behind her, who I’d pegged to win. Pat Davison gave me a high five on the trail as he passed. I saw Kyle Schmidt right up there, too. The top 15 runners in the 50k were all within 10 minutes of each other. It’d be a dog fight out there. Cool. Dave Schaeffer yelled at me as we passed. It was fun to see friends. I passed the top 20 people before the Munger/Beck’s Road/Ely’s aid station. Once on the Munger Trail, I ran it in to the my crew feeling really good. I was frenzied at the aid station stop but Emily knows exactly what to do. She’s been through this before, and probably knows what to do better than I do. Mom was taking pics with my sister’s dog Rose in tow. I told them I wanted pizza back here. Emily said Hugo’s didn’t open until 11. I said I meant on the way back and ran off into the woods.
I was 20 miles in and right on pace. I hadn’t hit 4 hours quite yet. I tried to pinpoint my exact mileage at 4:00. 20.9. That puts me about 1 mile up on my goal pace, a buffer of almost 12 minutes. Let’s call it 10 minutes up. That’s a good little buffer. My body was getting sore, sure, but I was feeling really good. Really controlled, mentally stable, positive. I told myself that I should feel super lucky to be out here in the woods. I am so lucky that my training went so well and I’m out here and really doing it. The passing 50k’ers offered encouragement, and personal contact brings one out of one’s own mind temporarily. Before long, I caught up to a 100k runner, local guy Alex. I chatted with him a little bit, he seemed to be in good spirits. He let me pass and I made the move and wished him well. A few more miles, getting closer to Jay Cooke, and I passed another. Matt was his name and it was his birthday. Cool! I wished him a happy birthday as I made the pass and left him out of sight. I KNEW I’d start picking people off. My strategy was paying off. So I started thinking… Ok now I’m in 6th place. I’d see every single competitor in the 100k because of the out-and-back format. When would I see the front runners? How far up would they be? What would they look like? Are they killing each other up there in a game? I am just back here racing my own race. I figured past champion Ryan Braun would be up there, if not hanging in first place. I also figured beast ultra runner Brandon Johnson would be up there. He is super strong. I passed one more runner in the deep technical woods outside of Jay Cooke. Then across a ridgeline and down a huge hill towards the Saint Louis River.
I was in and out of the Grand Portage aid station, which is prohibited to crews. I asked how the field was stacking up. They said I was maybe 4th place and the two guys up front were way up there, probably 20 minutes up. I knew I was 5th place, so took a mouthful of delicious Coke flavored gummi bears and ran off. I took advantage of the easy running through Jay Cooke towards the turnaround. Besides a few monster climbs and descents, the trails were wide, flat, rockless and rootless. Thus, completely runnable. I made some really good time and knew I was close to the turnaround and the next chance to see my crew. I was really looking forward to it. Still feeling pretty good, I tried to capitalize on the best running terrain that I’d have the whole race. I noticed some much faster running splits but was OK with that. I saw the first place guy come through at about 5:35 race time. I was curious at what exact mileage the turnaround would be at. 31? 30? My goal going into Wild Duluth was to go under 12 hours. For better or worse, the exact mileage would have a big factor on whether I could hit that benchmark. I saw the second place guy, for sure it was Tyler and he looked really good, just a few minutes back. Then I saw Brandon maybe 5 minutes down from the leader, and Braun a minute or so behind him. A minute later, I got to the aid station. The front was decently clumped up, and there I was in 5th place. I couldn’t imagine there was anyone in the chase. I was running so consistently.
At the turnaround, I sat down to take a load off. Emily replenished my handheld water bottle with water and gels in the pocket. I’d kind of slowed down on eating on the trail. My gel intake was OK but I wasn’t making much progress with the gummis or more solid food like Clif bars. As I sat I ate handfuls of Old Dutch chips, which were immensely delicious. My watch read 30.6 miles or so. Without much more ado, I stood up gingerly. Oof. All the sudden my legs felt so heavy. I asked my mom and Emily about pizza and they said they’d have it and would see me at Munger Trail aid station. I grazed the aid station for munchies, filled my mouth and my hand with various snacks, and set back off across Highway 210 and into the woods. Back to Bayfront. My watch read 5:49. So I figured I was about… 13 minutes back from the leader. Wait, double that because it’s out and back and I’m 26 minutes back? Oof. Race your own race, Mike! Next on the chopping block is Ryan. Then Brandon. No… race your own race, race your own race. Either way, I was doubtful I’d be able to do anything because my legs felt terrible. How did this happen??
Running was a drag. Luckily, I was able to keep up a good clip and hit some fast miles on the first hour of the return trip. I felt a need to make a pit stop and at Forbay Lake saw a portable toilet. Might as well stop… so I did and it was a good idea. I hobbled back into the woods and some cheery horse riders congratulated me and told me they were counting and I was in fifth place. I barely mustered “thanks” with a deep sigh. A glance at my watch was timely as I saw 6 hours come and go. My mileage was relieving, almost 31.5 miles in, and I was proud that despite feeling like shit I was able to run good. At this point, I figured I had a buffer of 20 minutes on my goal of 12 hours. Excellent. So I tried mental tricks such as gratitude. I told myself how lucky I was to be out here. How lucky could I be to be able to do this? How lucky am I to have had such a great training regiment. I nailed those workouts to get me here. As long as I could run smoothly, I’d be in good shape. The pain is fake. Smoooooooth. Smooth running on these nice runnable trails. Ugh a hill…
I saw 100k’ers heading to the turnaround and my notions of an absent chase pack were confirmed. I was pretty well set in 5th place and I figured at the very least I could hold this effort or slow down within my 20 minute buffer to get 12 hours flat and hold my place of 5th. It was nice to see all the other 100k participants, but I felt bad by not offering much encouragement. I just didn’t have the energy to respond with anything more than “thanks” or “nice work” or just “nice” or a mumbled “mehhh” as they passed.
The whole way to Grand Portage was pretty rough. I just didn’t feel good. I knew I had to run and was luckily running good, but it was not fun. I saw Bob and Lindsay at Grand Portage as I took some pretzels, coke and gummi bears. Luckily they had cups there. The coke was delicious. I ran off quickly, barely noticing Lindsay holding their newborn baby! As I entered the solemn woods once again I felt bad about not stopping or barely acknowledging them and their new baby. Gah, I just got my head down… Oh well, down to business here.
The big climb out of Grand Portage was actually very welcome. The change in pace, literally, felt nice. I wasn’t power hiking very fast but making my way up good enough, and the change-up of terrain made running at the top just a bit easier. I ate a gel and had a bit of a second wind. The sun was coming out after being pretty cloudy all day. Not that that was necessarily good… I had been sweating all day. I squirted myself with my water bottle and it felt great. Up ahead, I saw Braun. Ooo! There we go. After some tough miles after the turnaround I was in survival mode. I had a pretty big buffer on my time goal, so let’s get it. I slowly reeled Ryan in and when he sensed me nearby he immediately pulled to the side and let me pass. I thought that was strange. I chit chatted a little bit, and he said he was pretty drained after getting a cold earlier in the week. Dang. What a bummer. Ryan had done a 11:32 and an 11:31 in the past two years at Wild Duluth 100k for 1st and 2nd place, respectively. He knew how to race this thing and was frankly my biggest concern competition-wise before race morning. It’s a bummer he wasn’t able to compete at the same level he was accustomed to at this race, but that is how life goes. I made the pass and after a few minutes, looked back to see nothing and nobody. That provided me with a little jolt and I was back. I was back! Keep it up, Mike. You are doing great. You are fuckin’ doing awesome Mike. I was talking myself up. It kind of fell on deaf ears and I couldn’t help but feel tired, depleted, sore and ready to be done. But I knew I still had juice in my legs and they kept churning. It was turning out to be a completely beautiful day, the sun shining through the fall leaves. Colors were amplified at the vast overviews atop Saint Louis River bluffs. With a series of switchbacks and a climb ahead, I heard my name. “GO MIKE!” I responded “Brandon?” I knew it was him. I saw him walking with his trekking poles. I jogged up steps carved into the hillside to catch up, and chatted with him a bit. He seemed eager to talk. He said he was dragging a little bit but still well on target for his 13 hour finish. I said he’d be on track for 12. He said he wasn’t but for sure under 13. OK. I wished him well and continued on ahead of him, running out in front. He kept talking and I felt kind of bad leaving him in the dust. It’s a race baby, and the pass gave me another little jolt. No time to chat, I had to exploit that boost of energy. Now where are these other two guys, I wondered. Brandon was now out of sight, and I tried to do some quick math. Was I still on track? Oh yeah, for sure. Is Brandon just factoring in some major slow down to get under 13 or am thinking wrong? I figured if I held 12 minutes per mile from here on out I’d get to mile 60 at like 11:40. That’s a super respectable finish time.
I felt pretty good and was happy about the terrain through Mission Creek. It was just variable enough to get a good mix of power hiking and running. Both felt decent, neither felt great. I nibbled on some gummis. I ate a salted carmel Gu and it was delicious. I wondered if I’d be hungry for pizza in an hour. I wasn’t hungry at all. Taking down a gel is one thing, slamming pizza is a totally different deal. It was good to be in a good mood. I thought about grabbing my trekking poles for the climb up Ely’s Peak. That means I’d need my vest. That may be a good switch-up. I didn’t mention anything to Emily, though, so they probably wouldn’t be prepared. Hmm. I’ll ask anyways. I knew I was close to the aid station, and very excited to see my crew, when I crossed over Beck’s Road. John Storkamp was the volunteer crossing guard, and in a brief pause for a vehicle to pass I asked how the field was looking. He said they were way up, maybe 20 minutes. Hmm. Ok.
I saw my mom in the woods before popping out to the aid station. She was yelling like crazy, very excited. I guess it was exciting… I’d passed two more people to scrape my way into third place. I yelled at her to get my poles from the car. She said they were there. When I sat down and started nibbling on a piece of pizza, I mentioned how I was really happy with my time so far and knew I could hold this pace and really happy with being in third place. My neighbors Pete and Susan and Clarence were there cheering me on. It was an energetic atmosphere. I was happy to see my poles and vest on the ground. Nice. Crew knows best! I instructed Emily to fill my two vest water bottles. An aid station volunteer took them from here right away and filled them up. Nice. I spent longer at this stop, taking time to drink fizzy water, mountain dew and gatorade. I was parched, as my handheld bottle had been emptied in the last section. The volunteer pushed me back out. “Ok it’s time you get back out there man!” Better not argue…
I went off, poles in hand. Oof, that’s was a rough transition. I felt like I could barely run, but eventually the wheels started rolling, I got momentum and ran it out on the Munger Trail towards Ely’s Peak. Light like a feather. During the toughest climb of the race course up Ely’s, I was breathing heavily. I felt OK, was thankful to have my poles, but when I got to the top and was able to run I couldn’t get the discomfort of the vest out of my mind. I had used this on all three of my long training runs, plus the two 34-milers with Joe. It didn’t bug me then! Were the straps off? I tried to fiddle with the straps a bit. It made no difference. Ugh, whatever. My underarms were already chafing from the singlet rubbing and I’d forgotten time and time again to apply some ointment to those trouble spots. My nipples were getting quite painful but not to the point where I could remember to address it at an aid station. So what’s a little rubbing from this pack on my shoulders? I just kept hammering up and over Ely’s.
The next mile split was well over 12 minutes. More like 15:00. Bad. Oh well, that’s why I had the buffer on my time. I knew the next 10 miles would be the most difficult on the whole course. That’s an objective statement… they’re just the hardest miles. Not to mention I was at mile 42 or so. 20 to go. If I could get to mile 50 feeling OK I knew I could hammer out the last bit faster than this bit. But I already didn’t feel OK. Although, I had experienced a little bit of a renaissance between Grand Portage and Ely’s Peak. My positivity waned with each mile towards the Magney aid station as every single split was over 12 minutes. I got close to 12 a couple times… maybe a 12:45 minute mile here or there. But those were met with some 15 minute miles. That won’t do it. I saw my buffer fade into oblivion with each mile. And each beep of the watch, I’d do math. 20 minutes up on my time. 15 minutes up on my time. 10 minutes up on my time. 9 minutes up on my time. It was still a buffer, but my trajectory was not looking good. I wondered if I’d see my crew at Magney. They had plenty of time to get from Ely’s to Magney, but from Magney to the bottom of Spirit Mountain is only two miles for me, and a difficult route for Emily and my mom in the car. With much more water on my back instead of in my hand, I ran through the Magney trailhead without stopping. I wasn’t hungry anyways. I saw Bruce, Brandon’s dad, with a familiar bag of Old Dutch dill pickle chips in his hand. He said Emily gave it to him for me. I declined his offer and ran off. It was a rough looking run though. Only two miles, all downhill, to Spirit. Make it Mike. Make up some time baby. Let’s do it. You’re doing great. You’re doing it. Keep it up. I’m so lucky to be out here. This is great. Fuck this. I hate this. I’m dead. My legs are fucked.
I ate another gel and snacked on a gummi or two, then strategized a bit. It was a big uphill climb out of Spirit Mountain. I should keep the poles, despite my slow going with them and the pack. This stupid pack was rubbing so bad but I didn’t even care. It wasn’t painful. It would have been, and should have been, but any and all pain was being compressed and shoved away. Eat some food at Spirit. Climb up and out of Spirit and you can make up time on the way to Highland Getchell. From Highland, it’s pretty runnable. If I can feel good at Highland I can run it in for the most part. What do I need to do to get there? Eat food.
I sat at Spirit and ate a waffle. I shoved another gel in my pack, then drank mountain dew and some big slugs of gatorade. Emily said that the two guys up front were duking it out. She thought one guy passed the other, and the one guy had asked her exasperatingly how much farther. Psh, a long way bro! So someone was hurting… I left quickly, but not without mentioning I’d drop the pack and poles at Highland Getchell. The climb up Spirit was brutal and with a lot of walking. I hiked up and up. I knew it’d be slow. I remembered it from the way down. It was slow. My mile splits were not encouraging. My buffer further minimized. I made OK time on the back side of Spirit, though. Just keep moving. Where is that guy?
I tried to recall the specific point when my watched beeped 10 miles. It was a specific point… oh yes, Cody Street! That was my benchmark. I could do that last stretch in two hours for sure. Where was I? Close. I kept checking my watch over and over as I thought I got closer to the Munger Trail. The 10 hour mark got closer and closer and I knew I was getting closer and closer to Cody Street. Then from the Munger Trail, under the I-35 freeway, it was maybe 5 or 10 minutes to Cody Street. I popped at onto the Munger at 10 hours flat. I was just over 50 miles. My buffer had minimized from 20 minutes at mile 40 at Ely’s Peak to 4 minutes. I tried to run faster to get to Cody Street at a good time. I saw a runner up ahead. I’ve been pacing this whole thing for 12 minutes per mile, 5 miles per hour, which equates to 12 hours for 60 miles. But wait, this is a 100k race. That’s supposed to be 62 miles. My GPS was indicating that it’d be closer to just over 61 miles. That means my 12 hours estimate has been wrong this whole time. Oh no. It was completely demoralizing. Not only have I lost 15 minutes in the last 10 miles, but I desperately needed that 15 minutes to get under 12 hours. At this point, I’m not 4 minutes up on that magic 12 hour finish time, I’m over 10 minutes down if I keep doing 12 minutes per mile. Crap. I started thinking about how I’d frame this… I’d post on Facebook how I didn’t meet my primary goal, how I didn’t meet my secondary goal of a sub-12 hour finish, but had a great race and did as well as I could. I put it all out there. I can’t go any faster right now, so… that’s the story. I was happy to know that I was about a mile out from the next aid station, where I’d get to see my crew again. And I’d get to drop this god damn pack and poles. They suck. So keep on running. You’re doing great Mike. How awesome is this that you’re doing so well. I tried to force my brain to be positive. My legs did keep churning forward, so maybe the mental positivity did work. But it was kind of fake, because I would just as quickly revert to negativity and dread, an overwhelming desire to stop.
As I strongly anticipated the upcoming aid station, I saw a shadow up ahead. I actually sniffed, as in smelling blood in the water. There he is. Time to crank. I sprinted ahead, a major jolt of energy out of nowhere. The guy who was leading at the turnaround was walking, and I ran up the hill, blazing past him in a blur. It felt great, so strong and forceful. He’s not passing me again. Nobody is. I’m up here in second place now. The excitement was still with me as I ran into the Highland Getchell aid station. I was so excited to get the vest off of my back, and I dropped them with my poles, took my handheld water bottle back, now stuffed with enough food to bring me to the finish. Emily told me the guy in first place was way up and looking really good. He was 17 minutes ahead of me. Oof, that’s a big gap. She said “sorry hun”. I waved my hand at her. Oh well, I figured that sort of time would win the race. This guy put together a good race. Good for him. I was pretty sure it was Tyler, who had never run a ultramarathon race before. It’s gotta be him. Nice work guy. I made a brief stop at the food table to grab some gummi bears. I ran off, excited to be in second place and close this race out. I knew it was relatively easier running from here on out and I would be able to hold a decent pace. I still had some juice in my legs, but the uphills would sap me. It was really hard to get back running once I’d stopped. I felt a pre-cramp feeling on the insides of both of my upper thighs, especially when I was power hiking. Would my inner thighs actually cramp? That would be bad. At a boardwalk, I hopped up and my calf almost cramped. It was that pre-cramp feeling. Yikes. That’s a close call. My calf felt like it was on the absolute fringe of an all out cramp. I told myself “relaxed”. “Smooth and relaxed. Run smoooooth and relaxed.” So that’s what I did. But any small hill would stop me nearly dead in my tracks. My hike was slow. But once I got going, especially on a slight downhill, I could roll.
I was at about 10:20 race time out of Highland Getchell. 17 minutes is impossible to close, Emily said it all with the solemn “sorry hun”. But now it was a race of the clock. 9 miles in 1:40 is… hard. I tried to calculate based off of my magic goal pace of 12 minutes per mile. 9 miles takes 1:48. So I need to shave off… about one minute per mile. Let’s get it. I went into overdrive mode. I had told myself all day that once I get to mile 50 I can let ‘er rip and just go. Well, here I am in second place, having moved steadily through the field with my “Race Your Own Race” strategy, on the cusp of going under 12 hours. It was going to be extremely close regardless. I tried to make good on the runnable sections of trail, but would get stymied by any little hill. My power hiking was slow, and it would take precious time and effort to get back going again. Come on, keep pushing keep pushing keep running, run run run. Run Mike. Run right here. I’d push off of a tree to get some forward momentum. My mile splits were OK, but not good enough. High 11’s. Some low 11’s. I was clicking them off. I got a little turned around atop Brewer Park with the zig zagging mountain bike trails and a reroute. I got back on course and tried to sprint down Brewer. I made good time, but was once again stymied under the Haines Road bridge. I just couldn’t run up the hill! Crap, I’m losing time. Each mile was enough to keep the dream alive, but not enough to be comfortable at all. Let’s get it, Mike. Come on, you can get 12 hours. I really didn’t want to not meet either of my goals. To have the goal to win is stupid because you can’t control who signs up and what sort of shape they are in. But the goal to go under 12 hours is all me. Regardless, they were both goals for this race and I was close to meeting at least one of them. Come ON Mike, let’s GO! I pushed hard. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty. I didn’t feel depleted, full, or anything besides tired. But I was fortunate enough to be able to run on any slight downhill. So when I saw them, I took advantage.
Piedmont came and went, check that off. I sprinted down the steep decline, jolted across Skyline, then down down down across some boardwalks. This section was mostly downhill so I anticipated making up some good time, but there were no incredible mile splits here. A few more in the 11 minute range. Good enough, but not great. I really looked forward to the flat section and brief road run getting into Lincoln Park. I thought I was close, just around the corner. Nope. Right over this hill right? Nope. When I get there it’s like a mile to the aid station. Get there Mike. Boom, there it is. I ran it out, passing a 50k’er or two in the process. I sensed the final aid station was close so expended some extra effort, all adrenaline at this point, to get there. I ran up the hill away from Miller Creek. If I could get to the aid station at 11:30 race time, I could make three 10 minute miles. I can do that to close it out. I can do it! I popped out at 24th Avenue West, crossed the road to the aid station. I planned on dropping my water bottle to go extra light. All I need is some gatorade and I’m off. No time to spare. I heard Emily yelling frantically and literally jumping up and down with her hands in the air. “GO GO GO!!! Mike, keep running, come on you can’t stop here!!!” Ok, that’s what I was planning on doing I guess… but when I got closer to her she yelled at me: “he’s right there! He’s walking, go get him! You got first place!” WHAAT? I was in utter disbelief. How did I make up 17 minutes? I thought he was in good shape at Highland Getchell? That was 6 miles ago, how can he fall apart that bad this close to the end? But it doesn’t matter… there he was. He was moving really, really slow. I chased him down. Wait, that’s a 50k runner. I passed the 50k runner. There Tyler is. I recognized his white jersey. He had a pacer. They were walking. I was running. Running hard, actually.
I’d been here before. In 2015, I was in 2nd place in no man’s land from mile 15 to mile 28 in the 50k race. I somehow caught up to the first place guy, saw him at the final aid station, but he ran away from me and I couldn’t respond. I wasn’t going to let this happen this time. I want it too bad. I got juice left in the tank. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My head buzzed a bit. The adrenaline rush was intense. So I picked up the pace even more as his pacer glanced behind him. I made a decisive pass. Tyler congratulated me. I didn’t say anything. I heard his mom, presumably, driving on Skyline Road within shouting distance. She yelled at Tyler “he’s in the 100k!!” I was completely within earshot, just 10 feet ahead of Tyler and his pacer. He yelled back “I don’t care.” Well, if that how he feels… and I sprinted into the woods as hard as I possibly could.
I was in first place. Holy crap. How did that happen?? What an incredible racing experience to fall behind at mile 3, run alone in 8th place until mile 22 or so, then just move through the field one by one by one until mile 58. The adrenaline carried me up to Enger Tower. I didn’t walk, somehow summoning the energy to trot up the hill. There were kids at the peace bell but I just had to ring it. I asked them if I could but didn’t wait for them to respond. They moved aside as I jammed my hand against the pole. Then I set off on a dead sprint. It’s all down from here and I can roll three fast miles. I know I can. I have to. I’d crossed the 24th Ave West aid station at 11:30 flat. Three 10 minute miles is all it takes. I recited Drake lyrics in my mind: “I want it all, half was never part of the agreement.” I want both my goals. I spent the whole race thinking it wouldn’t happen and here it is, well within my grasp. I sprinted downhill further and further. Across 3rd Street, Across 1st Street. I was going almost too fast for my brain to process the rocks and roots. But that wasn’t because it was actually too fast, it was because I was actually too tired. I knew if I could get to Superior Street with 10 minutes to spare I could run it in. It’s flat pavement from there. Unless my calf cramps on the hard pavement. Yikes. It was so close to cramping, I could just feel it right there. But I popped out to Superior Street, sprinted across and over the freeway bridge with 10 minutes to spare. I was going to do it. I kept pushing down the path, across Railroad Street, onto the bike path that I ran with Andy and the whole rest of the 100k field 12 hours prior. A few turns into Bayfront, a glance at my watch and I knew I’d have the sub-12 hour finish. The adrenaline had never left and when I thought about that seemingly impossible finish time the hair on the back of my neck stood up, my head buzzed, and I knew I’d give a big yell at the finish line.
I had a cheering squad at the finish, and Andy was there to give me a hug. Then I yelled. My watch said 11:56, I was jacked up. I couldn’t believe the finish. Just unbelievable.
I waited for Tyler, Ryan and Brandon to finish. Tyler was a skier, new to the area and a Saint Scholastica student. I told him he had some serious potential. He was he wasn’t really trying to win or anything, just wanted to check out the trail community and try something new. He pacer said they walked the last 7 miles. Ouch.
I was painfully sore, and my mind went to the next day. I left absolutely nothing in the tank for the Terribly Tough 10k. My legs were shot. Luckily, there were no injuries that I could discern, just extreme full body soreness and pain, especially in my legs, obviously.
At home, I took a shower and finished it off by standing up, turning the water all the way cold and standing with the front of my legs and the back of my legs towards the water for about 5 minutes. Then back to warm. Then compression socks. Then food. I couldn’t really eat. I had an array of drinks but couldn’t seem to drink enough to replenish the dehydration. Like I was kept forgetting to drink. My head was so buzzed up from the win and the whole race day that I wasn’t tired even by 10pm. I had woken up well before 5am. Ugh. My alarm was to go off at 8:20am the next day. I tossed and turned all night.
The next morning, I woke up well before my alarm. Emily got up first and I rolled around a little bit. I was for sure sore. But it didn’t seem like anything would be of serious concern for the 10k race. I was curious if I could push or if the body would say no. I noticed some strange specific pains. My second smallest toe on my right side. Shoulders from pack rubbing. Underarms from jersey rubbing. Left back of heel. Calves. Hamstrings. Quads. Hips. Butt. I stood up and stretched a bit, went to the ole foam roller, and it actually felt good to press on my muscles a bit. The foam roller, as always, works out all kinks and I already felt way better than the previous night. Even after the cold shower I was so sore, but this morning I was loosening out really well. This may just happen. I’m gonna go for it, I thought to myself. I told Emily I thought I’d go for it. We agreed to get takeout coffee and bagels, I gathered my stuff together and we headed back to the Munger aid station, the Superior Hiking Trail trailhead at 123rd Avenue and Beck’s Road where the inaugural Terribly Tough was going to start. During the car ride, my legs stiffened up and I was pretty uncomfortable by the time we parked.
Looking at the start list, I knew I could win on fresh legs. Racing the NMTC series prepares you extremely well for a 3-6 mile all-out effort on challenging and tough trails. But what about super trashed legs… I figured I would warm up a little bit and just see how things feel. I got out of the car, walked it off, checked in and used the restroom. I went back to Emily’s car to roll out my legs a bit more with the 1″ PVC pipe section I’d brought. That felt good, and I felt good. Good considering the circumstances.
Emily walked out with me, took my clothes and said she’d meet me at Spirit Mountain. Then she left. I was in a little bit of an unconventional race outfit. First of all, I couldn’t stand to turn my ankles anymore. I was deathly afraid of my ankle tendons being so inflamed that they couldn’t hold my foot in place and I’d roll my ankle even more often. I couldn’t take that! So I taped my feet like crazy. It initially hurt because of the tape pulling on my skin and leg hair but that was a non-factor once I started warming up. I put on compression socks, my “old” mikeward.cool jersey, and half tights, which I’d never really run in, let alone raced in. Finally, I had the same handheld at the previous day. It was a little damp. Gross. But nothing in it besides water in the bottle.
With 10 minutes or so to the start, I tried running. All systems go. I saw Brandon and his running partner Sam, who’d run the 50k the day before, on the Munger Trail and so we jogged a bit. Brandon was running good despite the 100k. Sam was too. They were both planning to complete the 10k with their wives at a slower pace than their speediest potential. We turned around right before the rocky entrance to Ely’s Peak. I really thought I could run this thing at a decent clip. Would I crash and burn majorly at mile 1? Who knows.
Lining up at the start, I saw Schuney and Greg Haapala right up front. Andy made some pre-race announcements and before long, he yelled “Ready, Set, GO!!” through the megaphone. We ran up the little gravel entrance to Munger Trail, took a right, and hit the pavement for a quarter mile. I sprinted out front right away. Why? I do not know. Why do I have to start hot every single time?? I just wanted to see. I glanced behind me at the railroad bridge and Schuney was right there with me. I might not be able to take the trails or any elevation… might as well bank some time on the flat pavement. A hard left onto the rocks and I just hopped on up and scrambled up and up and up. So far so good. No implosions. Feels normal. Weird! But oh, I was breathing heavy. Nothing like that the day before at all.
I made it atop Ely’s peak, past quite a few bystanders, feeling really good. I made the scramble pretty quickly and even though I was breathing super heavy and my heart rate was probably jacked, I still had juice to run on the flats. I hopped around the rocks on the top of Ely’s and it was really fun. Dang, how is this happening! I didn’t feel frustrated with the trails, the rocks weren’t bothering me. The excessive ankle taping seemed to holding up fine. I felt solid! My watch’s first mile beep confirmed that with a time under 10 minutes. I noticed Dave behind me. But eventually he was gone. Hmm! The rocky section on top of Ely’s came and went, now into the woods. On to Bardon’s Peak. The day was utterly perfect. Beautiful temperature in the morning, ample sunshine. The trail was dry, nicely stamped down from the day before. Low wind, it just seemed that the trail was more visible than the day before. I was zooming. It felt really fast and really fun. That gave me a jolt.
I could jump up rocks and do small technical scrambles just fine, and there are plenty of them, but had issues with the longer inclines. Those sapped me a few times. I just tried to churn my feet up any hills. I knew that was slow going, though. My second mile was further under 10 minutes. The miles were clicking off fast. Wow, almost half way! It’s like my mind was still on ultramarathon mode. I just kept pushing. Nobody was in sight. Keep going man. You got this. Still talking to myself…
I knew intimately that the last tough hill is up the spur trail to the Magney trailhead, the aid station from Wild Duluth. It was again set up as an aid station. I blitzed it and tried to open up on the gravel of Skyline Boulevard. Up a bit, then down. I sure opened up. It did feel good. I was in disbelief. This was an interesting test in the human capacity. How does the damage-repair cycle work? It makes me think about multi-day efforts like…… what else…… a Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike.
A drop right off of Skyline led me down, down and down all the way to Spirit Mountain. I figured I could go fast since it’s very much downhill, but the rocks, technicality and narrow, sharp turns were just impossible. That is just slow running terrain! My energy levels were pretty even. I was certain I could have been faster on fresh legs but I was running pretty good on super tired legs. Every mile was under 10 minutes so far, and every subsequent mile I had hoped to get under 9. Nope. Mile 5 was 9:55. Crap. I said “Crap” to myself out loud. But I was winning the race, all boardwalks from here on out. The time was flying by and the race was almost over. That was fine by me, although I was having great fun. The 100k was not all fun, that’s for sure.
Just like Andy promised, I saw the finish line well before getting there, and seemingly passed it. Mark was at the final turn and I sprinted down the gravel road down towards the lower chalet at Spirit Mountain. I saw my crew once again, Emily and my mom, but this time they didn’t see me on the course the whole time. They had no idea where I was at. I crossed the finish line, happy to be done.
I just stopped on a dime, got a hatchet, another champion bottle, and a mug. That’s a lot to hold. I set it all down to take off my jersey. It was really hurting my nipples and my underarms.
And just like that, the odyssey of running 110 kilomters in a weekend was over. Holy crap, the Ultimate Wildman Challenge can be done.
Wild Duluth 100k
Terribly Tough 10k
Shoes: Brooks Cascadia 13 size 12.5 (100k), Nike Wildhorse (10k)
Handheld: Nathan 19oz insulated
Vest: Ultimate Direction FKT Jurek