Hike date: Saturday, December 6 – Sunday, December 7, 2014
Location: Superior Hiking Trail (Normanna Road Parking Lot to Fox Farm Pond Campsite)
Distance: 8.5 miles out and back

“As I sit in my sleeping bag with 5 shirts on, Diamond shivers behind me where my head will ultimately lay for the night.” – trail journal.

Ever since I first became suddenly enamored with backpacking, hiking and camping late summer 2013, I’ve wanted to try camping in the winter. It just seems like the hearty Minnesotan thing to do. Obviously, one cannot just pack up and hike out. This winter, I finally amassed the necessary gear to safely make a winter excursion. Keeping a keen eye on the forecast, December 6th was looking like the perfect weekend to dip my toes in the winter backpacking game.

I knew I had to work Saturday morning until noon or so, and the rest of the weekend would be wide open. The forecast was calling for sunshine in the mid- to high-20’s and nights in the teens. With a 20-degree sleeping bag plus a warm bag liner, that temperature range was perfect. Any warmer and the snow gets sloppy and everything’s wet. Initially, my biggest concern was daylight, since the sun sets at around 4:20pm in early December in the northern reaches of Minnesota. That limits my hike time substantially compared to September, where I could hike until 7pm and still have plenty of light to set up camp.

I hit the road around noon and got to the Normanna Road Parking Lot, which is on the outskirts of Duluth due north, around 12:30pm. I had a thirty pound pack, snowshoes and trekking poles. Most of my clothes were packed away because it was pretty warm and I didn’t want to get all sweaty hiking out. Latched to my waist was Diamond, who was carrying a 5 point pack with her sleeping pad and food.

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I figured that the third campsite northbound from the trailhead was between 7 and 9 miles away, and we could make it before it gets too late to gather enough wood and set up camp in the light. The hike in was truly beautiful–I caught myself bellowing to Diamond, “BEAUTIFUL! JUST BEAUTIFUL!”. As well, the hike was pretty easy going, not too much up and down. We were going through forests, across recently forested land and along the scenic Sucker River. I probably switch this opinion with every change of the season, but I think winter is my favorite time of year to be out in the woods.

I thought the first campsite was around 1.5 miles in, and we reached it after 30 minutes. I was pleased with 3 miles per hour and we kept trucking. There was about 4 inches of snow on the ground, so the snowshoes weren’t necessary to float on the powder and I would have been pleasantly snow-free without them. They were very clutch, however, on the uphills and downhills when I could really utilize the crampons. So I was happy about having those babies strapped on my feet, but the trekking poles were a different story. I had never tried using trekking poles, and I doubt I really will use them again except perhaps during a long multi-day trip where my legs could potentially give out. The poles got in the way and were cumbersome, but handy for poking Diamond in the butt from time to time.

In the trees behind a small bluff, it appeared as if the sun was setting at 2:20pm. I got a little anxious to get to the site at this point, maybe two hours in, especially because we hadn’t been to the second campsite (the Sucker River campsite, which I had stayed at before). I knew our campsite was right past a spur trail to the Sucker River Trailhead, which was a half hour or so past the Sucker River campsite. After passing the spur trail, my spirit was lifted and we were excited to arrive at our destination. Well, I guess I can’t speak for Diamond because she is always excited when we’re on the trail!

Almost immediately after the spur trail intersection, there was a big sign describing the strategic logging operations in the area (cutting down old, decrepit trees to make way for a young, healthy forest) that overlooked a vast, frozen beaver pond. Our campsite was called Fox Farm Pond campsite, so I kept a sharp eye out and figured we were very close. We circled the beaver the campsite trailpost was on the opposite side.

It was a short hike off of the main trail to get to the fire pit and tent pads, which were pretty close to a landing onto the beaver pond. It was 3:30pm–the hike in took almost exactly three hours. After plotting the route ‘ex post facto’, our hike was 8.5 miles, which comes to 2.83 miles per hour. Not a bad pace.

Below is a picture looking back onto our campsite’s spur to the main trail.

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What an awesome site for winter camping! I let Diamond off the leash and we explored a bit looking for firewood. It was intriguing to walk across the frozen pond to the beaver den, on which Diamond was climbing and digging her nose into and investigating like a caged beast let loose. I gathered some prime pieces of firewood by snapping off dead, barren trees from their icy foundation in the middle of the beaver pond; prime firewood inaccessible during any other season.

After gathering enough wood to last for at least 3 hours, I set up camp. Below, I snapped a picture while facing the beaver pond. Note the dead, barren trees sticking out of the pond’s icy surface.

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I started with a fire. I had a lighter and used a punky piece of bark as a base. I found some dry, peeling birch bark and used a ploofed-out cattail for tinder. I carefully sorted my kindling in order to capitalize on a hot flame from the quick-burning birch bark. The cattail nearly exploded! I had a roaring fire in no time. With the tent set up and my snacks on hand, I felt a little overwhelmed with how the sun was nearly below the horizon. Night was certainly setting in.

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I put a garbage bag over Diamond’s small square of foam sleeping pad and settled next to the fire. My shoes and socks started steaming like a huge pot of vigorously boiling water. I took my shoes off and realized that my merino wool socks were soaking wet. I changed to a dry pair and put my shoes back on only to find out that my soaking wet shoes left me with another pair of soaking wet socks. An ember landed on my technical wind layer, burning a small hole into it and I noticed it was pitch black. Diamond was barking at me and I started to question my life’s choices. Why was I out here? My basement is dry and warm and I can sit on a couch.

After eating a bunch of snacks, and attempting, with no avail, to dry some of my wet items and melt snow for the dog, I figured we could go into the tent. She was shivering and trying to move snow out of the way to curl up in the leaves. I gathered some of my items and retired to the tent for the night. Once in the tent, Diamond went straight for my sleeping bag. I guess a 2×2′ foam pad isn’t as attractive as a big puffy sleeping bag. I put my stove an arm’s reach outside of the tent’s zipper and boiled two cups of water for my freeze-dried chili. I started to write in my trail journal as the food was cooking and began to feel pretty cramped and claustrophobic with Diamond hogging my sleeping bag. I couldn’t organize all of my crap. Having a lot of gear is nice, but sometimes is overwhelming! More benefit for going minimalist, I guess.

Once I scarfed down the chili, I wrapped up my journal entry and laid down to sleep. That is easier than trying to get comfy enough to read and write. I turned my lamp off at 8pm. It seemed like I didn’t even sleep, although I think it was more like sleep for an hour, wake up, go back to sleep for two hours, and repeat until 7am the next morning.

I let Diamond out of the tent in the morning to go pee and of course, she wants to play or run around like a nut or something. She was wining as I was rolling up my pad and bag. I stuck my head out and saw her with my shoe, frozen solid, swinging it around in a circle like a bucking bronco. Nice.

I quickly packed up and we hit the trail. I felt good despite the crappy sleep and rock hard ice shoes. I told Diamond that we should really try and push it and hike out fast. It was a beautiful morning, but perhaps a bit colder and windier. Either way, the hike out was equally stunning with Diamond and I completely immersed in the white, quiet and solitary landscape. On a small overlap section with the North Shore State Trail (a snowmobile trail that intersects the Superior Hiking Trail countless times), I came across a couple of fat bikers eating breakfast. They looked like they were on a bike overnighter. We arrived back at the car, 100 feet after passing a girl and her dog who asked about hunters. She was the only person I saw on the Superior Hiking Trail the whole weekend! No hunters, no nobody, except those bikers. We made it back after almost exactly three hours again.

For next time, we need to find out a comfortable sleeping arrangement. I may experiment with making a light and packable dog bed, or just purchase a cheap sleeping bag that I can cut in half and sew back together. Also, I need to figure out how to melt snow. My melted snow tasted like a burnt stick. Either way, the two-day excursion was extremely enjoyable and I’m looking forward to the next one!

Key Gear:

  • The North Face Cat’s Meow 20-degree synthetic sleeping bag
  • Eureka! 2-person tent
  • The North Face Banchee 65 backpack
  • MSR Pocket Rocket stove
  • Dion Snowshoes
  • Hand-knit merino wool hat
  • Mizuno Wave Kazan trail runners
  • Gander Mountain self-inflating sleeping pad
  • Closed-cell foam sleeping pad

Race Day: October 18, 2014 — 8am

Wild Duluth is the perfect 50k course. Saturday was the perfect day and I had a perfect race. I registered for the Wild Duluth 50k many months ago and knew I wanted to race it well. Therefore, I trained very specifically and with a high priority for this long trail race.

I’ve been pretty fit and fast all summer, and once September started, I really started to focus on Wild Duluth. It helps so much to have a big base of running fitness, because I think it worked really well to do a month and half of such specific training. I probably could have focused on a road 5k and done really well with that… have that base of fitness leaves the door open without having to work up mileage.

My plan was to run a long four-hour run each weekend leading up to WD. That left me with around 5 long runs, which would be great. The only question was whether my body could all the sudden handle big sessions on the weekends. I’d keep running consistently throughout the week and never skip a day, perhaps with some longer trail runs during the week as well.

I ended up doing three 4+ hour runs, two of which were two-hour out-and-back runs, both on really rugged Superior Hiking Trail terrain like I would be racing on (one of which on the actual course). On both of those runs, however, I averaged over 10 minutes per mile and ended up walking a lot. It’s kind of hard to push through that urge to walk or just stop when it’s a training run. I just thought that time on the feet is the best training as not to injure myself or get burnt out. The final long run was in Hartley, which is much less rugged and much less elevation change. I ran the Hartley trails the whole time, about 1:40 total, then ran to a Wednesday night trail race for another hour, raced the 6k course, and ran home for another hour. I ended up clocking 4:15 and felt really good with 10 days left until race day. I managed to stay healthy and really consistent with training, which is always a good feeling when you toe the line.

So with training focused on simply racing well, racing fast, and being able to feel strong through the entire 31 miles, I began to prospect on how I would stack up against the field. I thought I could do around 5 hours. Based on the pace that I was hitting in training and past results, that seemed attainable. With keeping an eye on the registrant list, I started to think I could win the whole thing! On race week, I decided I would race for the win regardless of time. Either way, I thought 4:40 would get the win, which is just about 9 minute per mile pace. My race plan was to try and hit 9 minute pace going through each aid station, but race for the win.

I didn’t sleep much on Friday night and was really anxious. I rode the bus to the start line and shared a seat with seasoned ultrarunner Rick Bothwell, who I knew from timing the Moose Run in Moose Lake. He had some really good advice. He told me that whenever you have negative thoughts in your mind, it means that you are low on calories and you have to eat. Simple! Rick’s general demeanor on the bus ride definitely calmed me down.

I tried to pick out my competition at the start line. I figured that two guys had a shot to win and it was going to be a footrace. The other guys were Donny Sazama and Ryan Braun, both of which had run the race in the past and put up respectable results ~5 hours. I had never met either, but knew Donny was a local guy and ended up putting the face to the name before the race started. I heard through the grapevine that Donny likes to start out really hot and sure enough, when the gun went off at 8:02am, he was off like a rocket.

The first five miles was on winding singletrack mountain bike trails with a ton of switchbacks. This was great, because I could see Donny way ahead of me and also two other guys behind me. I was in the middle, and nobody else was really in sight. I really tried to just hold and easy, easy pace here. I knew that if I went too hard the first hour, the other 3+ hours would be really tough. We turned onto an old ATV trail or vehicle path and I lost sight of everybody. There were all sorts of weird trail intersections here so I had to focus on the flagging. All of the sudden, I see Donny running towards me! He swore and said he got turned around, then popped in front of me. We chatted for a bit and realized we knew each other from the running circuit. Then, his shoe came untied (I feel your pain, brother!), and his lead was obliterated. So it looks like I’m in the lead! We turned down into the powerlines, which is a really steep trail section near Jay Cooke State Park that is renowned for being all but unrunnable. I had never been here, and it wasn’t that bad…

I got through the first aid station way, way faster than my pre-planned 9 minute pace said. 47 minutes was my goal, and I think I was in the high 30’s at that point. Oh man! Talk about a buffer… I ditched my long sleeve and turned onto the Superior Hiking Trail. SHT all the way back. That gave me a major mental boost, because I felt really confident following the blue blazes of the SHT, I was in first moving fast and felt really strong.

The next section was through rolling hills over a few creeks and overlooking Jay Cooke State Park to the southwest. The sun was starting to get higher in the sky and it was a very enjoyable section of the race. Donny was behind me most of the time, which helped me maintain a strong pace. When we got to the next aid station, I filled up my water bottle and took a mini Twix bar. Through the second aid station, we run a half mile on the paved Munger Trail, then climb straight up to Ely’s Peak, which is probably the most rugged single climb of the race. I thought that if I could run up Ely’s, I’d surely lose Donny for good. Also that would be a huge buffer to work with at about halfway into the race.

I really jammed up Ely’s, which worked good, because although I was pretty winded, I was at the top really quickly. Hiking up, for instance, I’m still sucking wind but it takes a long time to get to the top! I started seeing a 100k-ers going the opposite way to the 50k start line, which was a nice boost. I knew this section of trail really well, too, so I could anticipate the terrain well.

Getting to the Magney Snively aid station was great. I was over Ely’s and about halfway done, and way ahead of schedule. I was right where I wanted to be, first place, and feeling really good. I saw my dad and training partner Diamond the dog, which was nice as well. I filled up water, ate a slice of PB and J and kept right on going.

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Going down to Spirit Mountain was nice. This section was mostly downhill and a really cool area. Once I got to the base of Spirit, I started to feel fatigued for pretty much the first time of the day. Of course, once you’re at the base of Spirit, you have to run back up… I zinged through the Spirit aid station because it was only two miles from the Magney aid station that I loaded up at. I knew the next aid station, Highland Getchell, would be tough to get to. I didn’t know this part super well, but knew there were some uphill grinds. Then again, after Highland Getchell, it was familiar trail and relatively easy running. That’s what was going through my mind, and I ate as much as I felt comfortable with! The negative thoughts were comin’ in.

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The climb to the Highland Getchell aid station was brutal. It is just one long, two mile grind to get to the aid station. Dad and Diamond were there, and that was nice. I was almost empty of water, so I loaded up and was on my way. At this point, I was pretty much dead on my 9 minute mile pace, which means I slowed down quite a bit in that last section. I knew I could run the next bit pretty well, though, and then it’s a three mile downhill to the finish.

From Highland Getchell to Piedmont, the last aid station, I was in auto pilot. I was running strong, but I could feel the pain setting in for sure. I started seeing half marathoners, which was kind of nice on the mental state, and I felt fast passing them. I thought getting to Piedmont was going to be the best part of the race. Home free, all downhill, and it is the “DRC” aid station, meaning that a lot of the racing team and staff would be there. In reality, it was the worst part of the race! I was dead. I filled up water, shoved some pretzels and M&M’s in my mouth and tried to get out of there as fast as possible. I was hurting. It was a little road run uphill to Enger Tower and then all downhill. I was just dying trying to get to Enger. I just wanted to get done at this point, and was so scared of getting caught. I though in my mind that if I got caught in the last three miles, I’d cry!

Enger Tower was sweet. There was a lot of people and a lot of half-marathoners, and I felt really fast and strong just zinging by them. Once you get past the Enger Tower park area, it’s back into the woods and literally all downhill. I still felt strong and nimble on the downhills, so I pounded it home. You eventually pop out near I-35, run across the freeway and a short road run to the finish line. Once I got to the pavement, I opened up. I could feel my hamstrings wanting to seize up and cramp, so I tried to keep a nice form. I tried to look back and definitely didn’t see anyone. Home free baby!

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The finish line was awesome. I cruised on in, did an awesome shotgun blast to the heavens celebration and yelped a few times. Then a bunch of friends and family ran over, which was awesome. Pure ecstasy! All the hard training paid off for the perfect race. It was a wonderfully organized event and I tip my hat to the Wild Duluth race directors and volunteers for an awesome event!

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Results

Race Stats:
Shoes: Nike Terra Kiger
Time: 4:34:25
Pace: 8:49
Place: 1/140


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