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.

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

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!

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Jamison Swift

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.

Photo credit: Jamison Swift

Photo credit: Jamison Swift

Photo credit: Jamison Swift

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.

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

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!

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

GPS Data

Race Results

Time: 11:25:48
Place: 1/61
Pace: 11:03

Shoes: Altra Lone Peak size 12.5, Brooks Cascadia 13 size 12.5

Race Day: Saturday, May 21, 2016

Location: Lutsen, MN

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

 

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

Garmin Data

Results

Race Stats:

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

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


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