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
05 Jun 2016
Hike Date: May 28-30, 2016
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail
Trip Plan: 2 nights, not well planned at all. Park at Sugar Loaf Road lot and yo-yo with a long middle day Sunday.
Day 1 – Hike north from Sugar Loaf (~10 miles)
Day 2 – Hike south from a campsite, past the car, and continue south (~30 miles)
Day 3 – Hike north from a campsite to the car (10-25 miles)
- Total Miles: 46
- Total Time: 30:18
- Time Hiking: 14:51
- Time At Camp: 15:27
Gear and Food: 5-28-16
Day 1 – Saturday, May 28, 2016
As Diamond and I drove up Sugar Loaf Road into the fog and mist, I was happy it wasn’t raining, like the forecast suggested. Once we got out of the car, I realized that the parking lot was pretty muddy. It then dawned on me that the trail is probably quite muddy. In fact, I could see water on the trail 50 feet away!
Rewind 5 days, and everyone at the ol’ office was really excited for the long Memorial Day weekend. The forecast for rain was set in stone, so to speak, as Friday drew near. My initial plan for the weekend was to take Friday off of work, and try to roll big miles–120 by utilizing Thursday night and all the way through Monday. I realized far out that it was probably not my best use of time off, and so I figured I’d still have 3 full days of hiking, plus any mileage I could get on Friday after work. With rain for four days straight, I was rethinking my plan quickly. I ultimately decided on Thursday night that I would not go out until Saturday at the very least, if at all.
Luckily, by Friday, the meteorologists were predicting less rain and more of a dreary, foggy and cloudy weekend. That is OK! I made the plan to go out on Saturday at my convenience. No rush as to let the rain clear out. On Friday night, I became completely absorbed in a down top quilt DIY project (which is another blog post for another day), and I didn’t get in gear until the afternoon. With no plan in place, I figured Sugar Loaf Road would be a great place to park for a yo-yo- style hike. Up the first day, down past the car for the big second day, then back up to the car. I knew I wanted to try to rake up 30 miles on Sunday, so the other two days just have to add up to 30.
So we parked and got out, and I thought of the mud and water… a thought that hadn’t crossed my mind yet. Diamond and I set off, and what a good feeling to be on the trail! In 15 minutes, however, my socks were wet. Oh well, they won’t be getting much drier from here! We were heading north, and I figured we had at least 4 or 5 hours before it got too late to hike and set up camp and such. Given my 3 MPH target, that translates to 12 to 15 miles. Unfortunately, there were no campsites in that range. The last site that would be plausible to hit was North Cross River at ~11 miles. Beyond that, I’d have to hike up and over Carlton Peak, one of the biggest climbs on the SHT if I’m not mistaken, and another 5 miles or so. I was looking at 20 or so miles, and that wasn’t possible. Back to Cross River I guess! In the winter, that was an awesome campsite, but it seems ridiculous to camp at the same site twice with all of those option!
I saw one girl backpacking with her dog almost right away, and then didn’t see anyone else until another solo hiker along the Cross River. We’d done this whole section not 5 months previous, but in the wintertime (see link above), and it was just as stunning in the summertime.
The variety in terrain in just 8 miles is incredible, from following bubbling cricks to swampy pond areas, to large forests, to the powerful Cross River, you get a great mix. The trail got more and more saturated as we went, to the climax near Dyer’s Creek where the Superior Hiking Trail had a stream of water literally flowing right down the direct center. I think it was technically the west branch of Dyer’s Creek. After that, mud over my shoes. Dimey was truckin’ right through.
We were feeling good past Cook County Road 1 and into the woods. The Tower Overlook was really pretty boring because of the dense fog. Every overlook or break in the trees brought the same grey view. No bugs was nice, though.
The section beside Boney’s Meadow went quickly, and we crossed of Fredenburg Creek soon enough, and jetted right past the campsite there. Another few minutes and we were already at the Cross River. What a roaring, energetic river! Just hearing it and watching the water rush down towards Lake Superior was energizing to me.
The rocks and boardwalks were very slick, and I was happy to keep my feet below me. Just as I was expecting, we descended a rocky hill into the Cross River Campsites. In the interest of staying at a different campsite, I scoped out South Cross River, but opted to hike another 50 feet to the North Cross River. Diamond was not fatigued at all and was running around like a nut when I unleashed her. I set up camp quickly and had a nice meal of dehydrated refried beans and rice and cheese and chips. Before it was dark, we were huddled in the damp tent, everything damp. I had high hopes that my socks and shoes and pants would dry out completely by the morning.
Day 2 – Sunday, May 29, 2016
The day started off very early. What time, I do not know. It was light, and Diamond was looking for her food. I leashed her and we got the food from her pack in the tree. She ate in the tent and then both dozed off. When we woke up next, I actually checked the clock and it was 7:30 or so. Time to go! I let the beast out of the tent, and was sad to see that everything was still very wet. To top it off, there were slugs everywhere. Pretty simple to flick ’em into , but to see slugs dragging their slimy butts all over my stuff was nasty at 7am. We got packed up and ready to go quickly, and Diamond finally slowly walked over to me to I could slide on her soaking wet and muddy doggie pack. Sorry!
The night before, I’d done a bit of brainstorming, and thought I could do an out-and-back quick to Carlton Peak, past the car until Dime and I were tired. That way, it would be a nice and short walk to the car on Monday. The goal was 30 miles. The weather had not changed whatsoever, and it was still foggy, damp and dreary. We set off feeling good. I ate my breakfast bars quickly and before long, were on top of Temperance River, awaiting the long decent to that deep gorge. Diamond was keeping a good pace and was pulling my hips with every step.
Down the large hill–not looking forward to going back up that thing–and we were alongside Temperance River. The mud was out today! Maybe it was the time of year or the recent rain, but that river was raging! The waterfalls were incredible, and it was hard to keep walking with so many great overlooks to the deep gorge that the Temperance has carved. We started seeing people now that Diamond and I were in the state park.
We crossed the bridge, went up the opposite side of Temperance River, next stop Carlton Peak. I did some quick math and realized that we’d be at 12 miles or so when we get back to the Cross River, plus 11 miles back to the car, which meant that our Monday was going to be puny! I was kind of bummed that I didn’t plan it out better, but didn’t want to turn around or anything. I wanted to get up to Carlton, and really, the short day on Monday wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It would be very nice to get back into civilization at a reasonable hour.
It was slow going up to Carlton, but worth it for the sweet view. At this elevation, we were slightly above the fog, and could see it crawling between peaks and valleys in every direction. The big Lake was completely obscured, but I saw the slightest break in the clouds to the north, and hoped it would clear out so we could dry everything out at camp. But that was another good 24 miles away. For now, we eat. My shirt was soaked in the back.
The climb down from Carlton Peak was worse. Everything was slippery. Then it started raining. I judged when I should put on my rain jacket by how wet my shirt looked. In the sprinkles, there was no indication that water was falling. By now, I could see the raindrops. It sounded like the rain was coming down harder up above the trees, so I put on the sweltering rain jacket. What a relief, though, as the rain did indeed get worse. I had the hood up, and before long, Diamond was soaking wet and trying to shake off every 15 minutes to no avail. My pants were soaked besides behind my knees. There were day hikers here and there, and everyone was in the same boat… wet.
By the time we started climbing back towards the Cross River, it was still rainy. The climb wasn’t as bad as I’d expected after the grueling Carlton Peak, and I started counting worms. There were worms all over the trail, and Dime would step on ’em and they’d squirm and shrivel up. I got to 38 or so and figured that counting worms was a stupid game. It was hard to think of hiking for many, many more miles when we got back to Cross at around noon, but kept hiking anyways. The day was still dreary as ever, and we stopped for lunch at the Ledge campsite on the Cross River. I let Dime off for a bit and she was doing circles in the dirt. You’re not tired?!?!? I yelled at her.
Before long, we’d done 8 more miles and was back at the Dyer’s Creek mud pit. By now, the day had completely changed and it was sunny. It was short lived, however, and the sky would turn grey quickly and sprinkle a bit, then clear out. This happened a few times during the afternoon. I had the idea of dropping out heavy on my mind. I figured that if my pants were completely dry by the car, I’d keep going. If not, we’re done. When we got to the car, I didn’t stop, didn’t think of anything except to keep walking. We barely looked at that ol’ rusty Subaru!
There was a campsite atop Horseshoe Ridge, and the sign near my car said Horseshoe was 6.1 miles away. That seemed like the ticket, as Dime had dropped back and wouldn’t hike in front of me, and I was becoming very tired. The site beyond that was perhaps another five miles. Another hour or two… nah. Right past the car, we entered into a pine forest. I told the forest that I liked pine forests. I was in good spirits despite the fatigue. Just to push past the car and NOT drop out was plenty to be happy about.
Through the pine forest, we came to a great section traversing the hills high above the big Lake Superior. Everything had cleared out, and it was really nice to have some scenery to break things up. We were walking through some nice and easy meadows, and seemingly out of the mud. The Caribou River came and went pretty quickly, and I saw some signs of other hikers on the trail for once. The map said it’s a huge climb for about 3 miles up, up, up to Horseshoe Ridge and our campsite for the night. Up and up, then mud. It was slow going, and this part of the trail did not seem very well maintained. Trees were encroaching on the trail, and mud.
We climbed up a steep hill to be rewarded by a fantastic view from Horseshoe Ridge. It must be close. I saw a through hiker who was taking a break, passed a crick, and there we were! I noticed we were sharing a campsite with another group, but nobody was in sight. I saw a tent and trekking poles. We took our backpacks off, and Diamond ran right to the tent and jumped! She must have seen its inhabitants and was spooked. Crap, now I have to make sure that she doesn’t terrorize these people. She’s taken my shoes off into the woods and I can forgive her, but that would be terribly embarrassing to have to go find someone’s old muddy boot that Diamond is swinging around in circles. Why she wasn’t tired, I don’t understand.
I took off the boots, set everything up, and walked barefoot back to that crick for water. Bad move, as it was really rocky. I made the freeze dried lasagna and it was delicious. By 8pm or so, we were in the tent with bugs surrounding the entire exterior. I opted for no rain fly, and we slept under the starts. The DIY down quilt I’d made just a few days ago was very warm and seemed perfectly dry. Before long, it was dark, and we were out. A muddy dude and a really muddy dog crammed into a tent.
Day 3 – Monday, May 30, 2016
Diamond woke up early in the morning as we both heard rustling from our neighbors. I remembered to bring her food into the tent this time and she ate it in seconds flat. We laid back down to bed, and woke up an untold number of minutes later. A beautiful morning with the sun shining, I flicked a few slugs off my stuff and packed up quickly. Knowing that it was either downhill, or nice scenic hiking, and that we only had 6 miles to go, morale was high. I shrieked “MORNIN’!!” out upon Horseshoe Ridge. It was a blur before we hit Caribou River, and we really enjoyed the final section to the car.
Unlike the last few days, it was hot, even early in the morning. The sun really makes a difference. By the time we got to the car, Diamond was panting and drank a lot water. I switched out my clothes and we set off. It was a nice short hike on the last day, for better or worse, but overall a great weekend. The inclement weather really did not play too much of a part. We slept great, and it was nice to have the cool, bug-free hiking weather, even if that meant fog and drizzle. There really isn’t much to say about mud and wetness, as that is just part of summertime on the trail. When is the next trip?!?
07 May 2016
Hike Date: April 29-30, 2016
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail
Trip Plan: 2 nights, 40 miles. Park at Rossini Road and hike home.
Day 1 – Hike south from Rossini Road to Big Bend Campsite (3 miles)
Day 2 – Hike south from Big Bend Campsite to Bald Eagle Campsite (24 miles)
Day 3 – Hike south from Bald Eagle Campsite to Home (near Hartley Park)(11 miles)
Day 1 – Friday, April 29, 2016
The journey to hike the entire Superior Hiking trail officially starts here. I’ve planned out ten backpacking trips, of varying distances and time, to prepare me for the long haul. The very first one is now. The plan was to start off relatively easily—I’d get the whole weekend to hike just 40 miles. It seems ridiculous, because the Superior Hiking Trail guidebook and maps recommend planning 1-2 miles per hour, and 40 miles is a long way to walk in a weekend! However, based on the time off of work and the time I’m willing to spend in the woods to complete the entire SHT, 35 miles per day is the least amount I can do. That sounds pretty grim for a hike of nearly 320 miles!
The first backpack trip should be pretty easy, then, since I had all Saturday and Sunday to hike, plus I could get a few miles in on Friday. I made a plan to hike home. I’d drive out to the Rossini Road trailhead on the SHT and hike south around 40 miles straight back to my house. When I split off from the hiking trail in Hartley Park, it’s a bit less than two miles back home. It would be a bad omen to bail on the very first trip, so I figured it would be slightly easier to complete the full 40 miles without an easy option to pull the plug and walk back to the car.
I was trying a few new things on this trip. One was a new backpack I’d bought: the Granite Gear Lutsen 35. I hadn’t really given the inline water filter a shot, so I set up my 2 liter Camelback bladder with a Sawyer Mini water filter in between the hose. Fill ‘er up with water, and just suck it through the filter to purify. I brought a coffee filter along in the case of some skuzzy water. Finally, over the long, lonely winter, I sewed up some hammock gear. I had a custom-designed, DIY underquilt, top quilt, and tarp. Based on the ratings on the Climashield synthetic insulation, I thought I’d be plenty warm in the mid-30’s low temperatures that were forecasted for the weekend. In fact, I skipped the sleeping bag liner. I set the entire hammock up, tarp and all, in the backyard a few times and knew it was pretty simple to put it together.
Without my dog Diamond, packing was a bit easier. I tried to be diligent with my gear, but there are always the things you think you need, probably won’t need, but definitely want to have in a time of distress or emergency. I took the new backpack, and everything was fitting in easily. I planned to leave on Friday right after work to get to the trailhead around 7pm. The hike in is from Rossini Road south to the Big Bend Campsite on the West Branch Knife River. The next day is a long haul to the Bald Eagle Campsite, the most southerly official SHT campsite, good for around 24 miles. The last day, Sunday, is a leisurely trek home expected to be around 11 miles. I packed enough food for two days, banking on the fact that I can eat dinner after work on Friday, and lunch and dinner at home on Sunday. I didn’t really pack a ‘lunch’ for Saturday, either, but had plenty of food (7,750 calories worth according to my calculations).
Jack agreed to come along for Friday night and peel off at the Sucker River trailhead. We dropped his car off on the way to Rossini, and he was in for an 8-mile hike on Saturday. I knew 8 of 24 miles will be nice to have some company.
With everything ready and prepared on Thursday, we loaded up the car on Friday and set off. It always takes so long to get the hell out of the house… and the solemn nature of hiking itself is in stark contrast to the stress and rushed feeling of packing up the car to go. I ate cold pizza on the ride out, and it was a great ride out as the sun sank lower in the sparsely clouded Duluth spring evening sky.
We got to Rossini Road and locked the car, time to go! I started my watch and we set off. Within a mile is 12-Mile View, a lookout towards Lake Superior 12 miles away. My timeless joke is that ¼-mile view is much more scenic. 12-Mile View boasts a tiny sliver of Lake Superior that you can barely see through the trees. The novelty of it much more impressive than the lookout itself.
I asked Jack to see the map. It was on the top of the car. Oh, well, ought to run back, I thought. I set down my pack and went back to my old rusty Subaru one last time for the weekend.
It was a beautiful night on the trail. The sinking sun was making the clouds turn pink, orange, and indigo. We passed some signs of beavers with ponds and downed trees, heard frogs croaking, and saw pile after pile of moose scat.
Jack and I presumed that a moose momma and child likely tromped down this same trail in the wintertime, and the melting snow left a lot of poop piles. We couldn’t think of what else it could be besides moose… these were no deer pellets!
After a fast hour, we saw smoke, signs of people, and a barking dog. The dog ran out from the trail to make sure we were friendly. Around the bend, Jack and I saw two other tents, and then two fellow hikers sitting around a smoldering fire. We asked if we could stay for the night, and looked for a good spot to set up. Jack set his tent right onto the trail itself, and I hung my hammock nearby. It went up quick, but Jack’s tent went up faster.
Starting dry, I brought my new water contraption down to the Knife River. The spring melt meant the crick was rushing pretty good, and as I kneeled towards the river bank, fiddled with the coffee filter to let it sit over the opening. I tried to hold the bladder and coffee filter in place as the rushing water fought to take it downstream, when the cap of my bladder came off. Time seemed to slow down as it bobbed in the water, then caught the current. I grasped for it, but the cap was in for a ride. Immediately realizing the scope of the situation. I dropped everything to run for the cap. With a brambly bush up ahead, I had ten feet to reach for it. At the last possible minute, I dropped to my knees and lunged for the cap. I’ll take a wet sleeve over dehydration any day. To lose the bladder cap would be detrimental. I didn’t really have a backup plan.
I got back to the fire pit, and Jack had his whole gig set up. I told my new friends of the bladder cap debacle and took a large sip of water. The filter worked perfectly. The rest of the night, we stoked the first and engaged in general chit chat. Emily was likely in her 20s, and worked at a church in Duluth. Randy had adopted two campsites on the SHT (Big Bend being one of them), and was up to clear brush from Waterloo, Iowa. At 10:30, we all decided to hit the hay.
Day 2 – Saturday, August 30, 2016
It was a cold night. Uncomfortably cold, thanks to the a underquilt. I wondered if I actually slept at all. But then, next thing ‘ya know the sun was up. I had an hour until my alarm was to ring, so I figured I’d try to adjust my very drafty underquilt. That was the ticket, and I could feel my body warmth collecting under me immediately. I closed my eyes a bit more, and decided to get up a half hour late, at 7:30am. I’d told Jack on a few occasions of my plans to leave before 8:01am under any circumstances. If I have to pack my bag while walking, so be it! Well, he woke up around 6am to make eggs and coffee, and we still couldn’t hit the trail until 8:10! The extra shut-eye was nice, but my breakfast consisted only of a few Lara bars while walking.
I was pretty chilly still walking, but it was a perfect day to be on the trail. With abundant sunshine, and light breeze, and the awakening of the entire northern Minnesota woods in early spring, there was no better place to be, and I felt very energized because of it. I must’ve slept last night, I thought…
We agreed to stop for lunch, and after a couple hours, we sat down on a few stumps to eat. Jack and I both were feeling really good, fatigue-wise. We spent a solid 10 minutes or so basking in the sunshine and taking down some tasty calories. I was gearing to go, knowing that I had a pretty big day ahead of me, and soon enough, we were back on track. I was spitballin’ with Jack about my plans, and briefly thought about hiking the whole way back today. After a cold night, thinking about a good night’s sleep in my own bed seemed to outweigh the arduous 36-mile hike. That is a long way. I told Jack I’d be back at night, in the case I walk the rest of the way in one day. Soon enough, we passed Fox Farm Pond, and the spur trail to Jack’s car was right ahead. He wished me good luck, and offered me a good luck slice of toilet paper. So long, friend!
The heat of the day was upon me as I kept hiking, and I definitely cranked down my pace once Jack peeled off. I decided I’d stop again at the Sucker River campsite, eat lunch and fill up the water bladder. It was a quick hour, and I stopped and sat down on the banks of the Sucker River around 10am. At this point, I was feeling pretty good. Five hours in the hike, and I started to do some calculations. I told Jack that I’d probably just take it all the way home if I got to the Bald Eagle campsite before 4pm. That way, I’d be able to get those last 10 or 12 miles in by 8pm. That sounded like a good plan, barring extreme exhaustion. To stay on track, I’d have to get to the Normanna trailhead by noon. With a plan in mind, I stashed some food in my pockets and set back out.
Things were going good between Sucker River and Normanna. I didn’t feel the need to stop and rest and could manage my pace really well. My spirits were high, and it was a perfect day to walking in the woods! An hour passed and I felt like I was on the home stretch into Normanna with maybe a half hour until the trailhead. Another hour passed and it was in the afternoon. I didn’t really recognize where I was at, but knew that I’d pass the Heron Pond campsite about a mile before getting to Normanna. No campsite. The miles started showing their effect on my body and I got a little tired, and little frustrated, and a little concerned that I’d missed my noon target. I couldn’t remember how far it was from Normanna to Sucker… was it 3 miles? No, pretty sure it was 5.6 miles. Or 6.5? No… 5.63?? It doesn’t really matter, anyways, I walk and I get there. But why did I think noon was a reasonable estimate to arrive? ‘Just get to Normanna’ was my mantra.
A clearing in the woods, and I saw a large pond off to my right. I saw a familiar bluff with some tree cover and recognized the area. In a few minutes, I passed the Heron Pond campsite and contemplated stopping. Well, I just didn’t stop. I couldn’t think fast enough to make a decision to rest at the campsite and it just passed me by! 20 minutes later, and I saw a large rock in the sun where the SHT conjoins with the North Shore State Trail. I took my pack off, took my shoes off, took my socks off and ate as much food as I could. Boy, the Havarti cheese was good. My socks hadn’t even gotten wet, and I was blister-free! Sitting was a great reprieve from walking, but 5 minutes was all it took to munch and get going again. Onto to the wide open state trail.
The CJ Ramstad/North Shore State Trail is a MN DNR-maintained snowmobile trail in the winter, and a multi-use trail in the other months. The SHT conjoins with the NSST quite a bit, especially in the sections just north of Duluth. I’d walked through this section before, and knew it was a lot of state trail. This is good and bad. The good is that it’s just something different. It’s generally easier walking… no big rocks and roots, and not technical. However, it’s wet and swampy, and pretty boring. There are plenty of times where you see the bend in the trail to take, only to then see a very, very long and straight stretch ahead. I figured I could make a good pace on these sections, so set off pretty hard.
I was playing games. I tried to estimate how many steps it would take to get to a sign ahead of me. The first one, I figured it was 600 steps. Nope, 300. Way off. I saw an overhanging branch up a small hill and guessed 550 steps. 551. Better! Then, I saw a large pine tree way off, and guessed 880 steps. I got to 880 and stopped counting. When I got closer to the tree, it was indiscernible which tree I was looking at 880 steps previous, and I decided that this is a stupid game. I found a tick on my butt. Luckily, it was the only one that stuck onto me.
The 6.9 mile section from Normanna south to Lismore Road went by really fast. I could feel my legs getting heavy, and I could feel a few twinges in my knees and hips and feet. Also, the bottoms of my feet were getting sore. I thought I may have a blister forming on my left long toe, but nothing was too serious. The final half-mile road walk into the Lismore parking lot was tough because I knew I was close, and hadn’t stopped at all since Normanna a few hours earlier. Once I got to the Lismore trailhead, though, I took off my shoes, soaked through with water and mud, and peeled my socks off like the skin of a banana. I hoped the wicking tech socks would be able to dry on the rock by the time it’d take me to eat as much as my body would allow. That wasn’t the case. This time, the salty trail mix and chunks of Snickers really hit the spot. No blisters, and my feet were looking OK, despite being white and wrinkly from the swamp water. When I put my socks back on, not 10 minutes later, it didn’t feel good. Standing up felt worse.
Heading south from Lismore Road, I knew I had around 3 miles to the Bald Eagle campsite, or around 15 miles all the way back home. Based on my mileage and pace so far, I was looking at either one hour, or five additional hours. It was around 4pm at the time, so I definitely missed my 4 o’clock cutoff to continue on from the Bald Eagle Campsite, but the idea of hiking all the way home had been building in my solemn mind for hours since Jack left me. I ultimately pondered, out loud to myself, the pros and cons of hiking home today. The pros were that I could be home tonight, sleep in my bed, and wake up tomorrow with the whole day to recover, eat, naps, do whatever. Also, there is a benefit of hiking big miles. If I can do it all, nearly 35 miles in one day, that is a big boost of confidence knowing that I may be capable of 50+ miles for consecutive days later in the summer. The downside was regarding my body. What if I push too hard? What my legs are busted after this one? For months?? How terrible would those additional 12 miles be? The con is going against the plan. Also, camping is fun! It’s nice to wake up to the birds chirping and get back on the trail. However, the sides were stacked resoundingly in favor of going home tonight.
South of Lismore enters some singletrack trail, which is a nice change from the state trail, but it was the muddiest section of trail I’d been on! Well, my shoes and socks didn’t dry out at all, so there really wasn’t any point to pussyfoot around the mud. I was walking fast at this point, but definitely noticed some soreness and pain increasing as I hit 20 miles on the day. I got to the Lester River and Lone Pine campsite very quickly and kept on truckin’. I passed another hiker… I scared him. He said he saw a person at the Bald Eagle site.
Passing two massive beaver ponds was cool. I knew I was getting into town, but it still feels like the middle of nowhere. I looked at my watch and saw 5pm. I’d been hiking for just about 9 hours, nearly straight, and saw the trail to the last campsite on the SHT. I passed the Bald Eagle site without even thinking twice.
Once I passed the Bald Eagle, fatigue set in. Yes, I was feeling some sore spots during miles previous, and it is arduous, but I finally felt the sun and the mud and endless walking and poor night’s sleep really catch up to me. I just felt tired. I thought it out, and figured I’d be back by 8pm. Only three more hours of walking. Three hours is so much walking. I exited the woods and was back on the state trail. The rest of the trip consists of state trail, then singletrack trails, then some roads in Duluth, then into Hartley. Hartley is the final stretch, where I peel off onto a spur trail and beeline it home.
I had to stop on the state trail. My shoulders and back were getting so sore, and I couldn’t find a comfortable position at all. The best way was to hitch it down, right on top of the worst friction areas, and just forget about it. My feet were not feeling happy, and my right foot hurt to flex. I worried about plantar fasciitis. I was talking to myself, taking stock of my situation.
“Ok, legs feel ok. Hm. Shoulders hurt. Mind is still good. Well, except I’m talking to myself…”
I took my pack off, which felt incredible. I knew I was about 6 miles out. I sat on the ground, ate some food, and tried to forget about my pace or time. This is supposed to be fun, after all, I thought. I ate any food that sounded good, and started to think of what I’d gorge on once I got home. It took a few minutes to get back up and going, but I knew I was getting into town. I’d run these snowmobile trails plenty.
I did more calculations, and confirmed my initial 8pm estimate. The last of the NSST sections were over soon enough, I crossed Martin Road, and started towards Hartley Park. From the Martin Road trailhead into the official Duluth sections of the SHT, it is about 3.1 miles south to Hartley Park. My estimates were around 1.5 or 2 miles from there back home. When I got back into the singletrack, I was feeling good. A runner passed me, and I thought about how I’d look to my own self as I passed by, running at a smooth 8 miles per hour.
Into Duluth, the SHT is sandwiched between Vermillion Road and Amity Creek. The trail is very rugged with irregularly shaped boulders and rocks jutting out at all angles, just inviting one’s foot to get stuck and twisted. I took it slow and easy, though, and the trail soon bounced me right onto the gravel Vermillion Road. I tried to shorten my steps as to ease my busted joints and tendons. I could sense the sun lowering in the sky. The road turned to pavement, the graveyards on either side changed to a neighborhood, and here I was, a scraggly backpacker walking through peoples’ neighborhoods as they play with their kids on the swing set. I wanted to let them know I was from here, but didn’t say anything at all, just kept on a-walkin’ and a-hikin’.
Hartley was a welcome sight. The park was eerily empty, but that is generally the case in the wet and muddy spring. I didn’t stop to take in the beautiful sun peeking from behind a few clouds over Hartley Pond, as I had my sights set on the driveway. After 35 miles, I left the Superior Hiking Trail main trail for a spur up to Rock Knob, my favorite place in the world. It is one of my favorite past times to run up to Rock Knob and yell “MORNIN’” to the great city of Duluth. It took me three times as long to get up to the bald rock face, and given the time of day, I opted to yell “EVENIN’!!!!”
I jumped down the steep gorge on the other side of Rock Knob and knew that I had just a small little bit of trail left, and one that I’ve been on hundreds of time before. Luckily, COGGS (Cyclists of Gitchee Gummi Shores, the local mountain bike source) had been working on some new bridges and it was mentally stimulating to see a different trail than I was used to! In fact, it was probably my first time through Hartley since the winter. I popped out of Hartley onto the street, and it is a quarter mile to the driveway from there. The excitement started building.
I was all smiles, and probably looked like a crazy person to my neighbors. I got to the very end of the driveway and just said “YEAH” loudly, and clapped my hands once. I took off my shoes and socks, released the backpack from my tender back and shoulders, and knew I was done for the rest of the day. I arrived just before 8pm, finishing nearly 37 miles in about 12 hours total.
After sitting a while, my legs were really sore. Parts of my knees and hamstrings and all sorts of tendons were inflamed and tight. Parts of my body that I didn’t notice as being stressed were sore now, and I was movin’ slow. A few days is all it took to recover fully, and I was pleased to complete the hike in one day after all.
For the next hike, I need to get the weight of my pack down. At over 15 pounds, I felt each gram more and more as my mileage increased. That is a sure fire way to make things easier. The next trip will involve some bigger mileage for multiple days, and I’m already excited for that next chance to walk through the woods!
10 Jan 2016
Hike Date: January 1st – 3rd, 2016
Trail: Superior Hiking Trail
Trip Plan: 3 nights, ~50 miles, park at Lake County Demonstration Forest
Day 1 – Hike North to Silver Creek campsite (15 miles)
Day 2 – Hike South past Demo Forest parking lot spur to Big Bend Campsite (25 miles)
Day 3 – Hike North to Lake County Demonstration Forest
|1/1/16||Grams||Ounces||Pounds||Total OZ||Total LBS|
|First Aid Kit||316||11.15||0.70|
|3/4 full hand sani (2 oz)|
|6 band aids|
|2 large gauze pads|
|small roll athletic tape|
|Iodine taste tabs|
|4 AA batteries|
|In a quart baggie|
|Full size Bic|
|Book of Matches|
|In a quart baggie|
|Energizer lamp light combo||261||9.21||0.58|
|Red fuel canister||9.5||0.59|
|Dark Blue Wool Sweater||315||11.11||0.69|
|TNF Thermoball jacket|
|Composition Book w/ pen||278||9.81||0.61|
|Triple pad: al ccf, 2/3 ccf, Gander self inflator||1173||41.38||2.59|
|TNF Cat's Meow and compression sack||45.2||2.82|
|Fly Creek UL 1 tent||998||35.20||2.20|
Day One – January 1st, 2016:
A new year is here, and what better way to spend the first three days than backpacking? The more I think about a Superior Hiking Trail through-hike, the more amped up I get. Therefore, I’m pretty dedicated on training myself as best possible to hike big miles day after day. Yeah, triathlons are very fun. Also, to be able to run really fast is great. However, I’m putting everything on the wayside (including, largely, my social life!) to best prepare myself for long distance backpacking. Long and slow, baby! I think it’s kind of funny talking to my running buddies… “nope, I’m going for the slow and long training approach this year. Really slow, like walking.”
Anyways, I knew I had a three-day weekend for the New Year, and started planning routes a bit out. I wanted to do a yo-yo style where I could just park in one spot and sandwich a big day between two shorter ones. Also, I wasn’t really getting any takers to come with for the whole trip, except my roommate Jack wanted to get out there for a night. Truth be told, a winter multi-day trip is pretty intimidating. I wanted to do one last year and didn’t get to it, and was super excited to face a whole different set of challenges. So without the ability to go point-to-point, I planned a 30-mile trip from the Demo Forest outside of Two Harbors, MN. Then, I started thinking…. I can do more. 25 miles in a day is possible, but it would take all day, sun up to sundown. I have to go out on a limb here, I have to put myself through the same rigors of Ironman training but for backpacking. I mentally prepared for some big miles, and decided that this is definitely the way to go.
Looking at my gear, I decided that the best bet for water would be a mid-layer water bladder carrier worn backwards on my chest. I used that for the Heck of the North bike race and it worked great. I can fill up using an empty 1-gallon jug and iodine purification tablets. Melting snow is slow and uses a lot of fuel and can result in nasty tasting water. Not that iodine is delicious… because it’s not, but I figured I can melt snow if push comes to shove, too. I got food that would probably not freeze, and the real mystery was pb&j sandwiches for lunch. As long as they’re not rock hard, they’d be edible. My last real concern was Diamond. Would she be able to haul ass for 8+hours a day? How much abuse can her teats sustain before they freeze off?? I’d just picked up a really nice dog jacket, though, and thought that would really increase her comfort levels at camp.
So on Friday, New Year’s Day, I loaded up the car and got ready to head out. I told Jack “I’d be there” in regards to meeting up on Saturday night at the Big Bend campsite. We were kind of slow getting going, and we left maybe an hour later than I was shooting for. It was no issue, though, and I was simply hoping to get to the first camp at Silver Creek before 4. If we can hike 3 MPH, that would be easy.
I thought I was going to get stuck at the hardly-plowed Demo Forest parking lot. I found a spot without getting stuck, but pondered the terrible situation of hiking 50 miles, then not being able to leave the lot, stuck in a rut all by myself!
We set off walking at around 10am and headed north out of the 1.2-mile spur trail from the lot. I decided to use snowshoes, cloth gaiters and lightweight trail runners. With the multiple pairs of socks, I knew I’d be able to have dry socks at night and to start the day, but I also knew that there’s probably no way around stone-cold frozen shoes in the mornings. The snowshoes were pretty clutch because there was a decent amount of powder on the ground, I’d say 8-12 inches, and I was breaking trail right off the spur trail.
I quickly noticed that the heavy snow had bent any weak limb in towards the ground with the aid of gravity. In sections of bramble or tight tree-lined corridors, the trail would be nearly entirely blocked. I could shake away the snow and the trees would spring back to their vertical stature, but to be shaking snow off and lifting trees many times each mile made for slow going and cold hands. And when the wind blew, or if I slightly nudged a branch, or perhaps an earth tremor occurred, I’d be at the risk of a cold dump of snow down the back of my neck. On the flip side, Diamond was having a blast.
I was making my way along and actually feeling pretty cold. Diamond’s sleeping bag and mat didn’t stay on her pack for one second, so I was carrying it in my hands as a warmer. I could already feel my feet soaking wet, but luckily not cold at all. I got to a section where it looked like a cross country skier made their way through. That must have been rough… all of the sticks and bramble were tough enough for my little running snowshoes. I couldn’t imaging getting through that thick with long, cumbersome skis on.
I was thinking about when I could stop for lunch and put on a layer. I knew there were a few campsites before the next trail head on Reeves Road and County Road 2 near Two Harbors. That would be a good spot perhaps halfway through the first day. I figured I was 4 or 5 miles in when I got lost. It had happened once or twice already, where Diamond and I got off track in the homogenous landscape–brown trees blanketed in white as far as the eye could see–to feel lost in it was dizzying. So we turned around and found the last blue blaze, then looked ahead. Never mind, we were on the right track after all! We kept trucking. Except it wasn’t the right way… there is no way that was the trail. So we stopped and looked around. I was squinting for a blue blaze on any tree. None! So we backtracked once again. I tried to coax Diamond into leading us to the correct bearing using her trail instincts. Once again, we were bushwhacking. I thought there was huge tree blocking the real trail, we hiked around it, but no nothing! Lost! I felt really panicked for a second. My feet were freezing, hands freezing, this is stupid! What am I doing? Ok, get back on track here. What can we do? There were a few options in my mind: hike back to that last blaze AGAIN and try something different, or keep going forward from here with no compass and no idea where on the map we actually are, or scrap this whole dumb trip. We’d already wasted at least a half hour just walking in circles in this small area in the woods in the middle of nowhere. Yep, we’re going back. I anger-walked back to that stupid last hash. I took one more glance around to see if I could come up with any other ideas on where to go. A straight-shot trajectory puts us right into a pine branch. Maybe that’s the right way, but today it is not. We’re going back. So I continued with the anger-walking and we backtracked. My chronograph said 2:15 or so.
The walking was much, much easier back through my own tracks. We were making pretty good time given the knowledge that in a few miles we’d be back in the car with the heat blasting. While hiking back to the car, defeated, I thought about staying overnight at a shelter near the Demonstration Forest parking lot. We could still meet Jack. Nah… this is over, we need to recoup. Plus it’s cold out. I figured Jack and I could come up with a totally new route for the next night.
We got back to the car in a flash, perhaps an hour and half or so. Luckily, the Subaru started up with no issue and we got out lickety split. We hungrily stopped at Culver’s in Two Harbors and then Diamond and I embarrassingly headed back to Duluth. It wasn’t very nice to explain to my roommates that I bailed after, like, 1/10th of the journey, and I also posted a valiant exclamation on Facebook about this trip. But alas, we were back. I figured we trekked between 6-10 miles all said and done, which is still 3 hours and 40 minutes of great practice!
Later that night, I talked with Jack and we decided it could work to park one car at Reeves Road and County Road 2, the other car back at the Demo Forest, and do the 11-mile section from the opposite way I was going the day before, camping at the Stewart River campsite right in the middle. This would be great because we would come to where got lost from the other direction, which would be nice to at least know where I went wrong! Jack and I didn’t make a solid commitment until right before bed, and aimed to get on the road by 9:45, stop at the gear shop to get Jack a closed cell foam sleeping pad, and be off by around 10:02 AM.
Day Two – January 2, 2016:
The next morning, we were a little slow to get off. Jack and I drove in separate cars to the Minnesota Surplus in downtown Duluth. When I parked and walked in, Jack was already hurriedly walking out, pad in hand, and said he forgot to go into work! He had to do a few simple work duties, and it would only take 15 minutes or so. We ended up caravaning up north by 10:40 or so.
The plan was to leave Jack’s car at the Demo Forest, drive up with my car to Reeves Road, and hike back to Jack’s car. Jack got terribly stuck in the Demo Forest parking lot and we both got pretty wet and worked up and frustrated getting the car out. Eventually we did, though, and were off in the Subaru. The Reeves Road lot was not plowed and we uneasily parked my car right on the side of County Road 2. Neither of us knew the laws on that and figured that I bike to work anyways! It’s not a huge deal if my car gets towed away. Jack smashed two sandwiches while we were getting ready, we saddled up, locked up, and set off.
We hiked a quarter mile of snowmobile trail right off the bat, then got into the woods. I recalled my experience with the droopy, snowy trees, and we both got big dumps of snow down our backs pretty quick into the trip. The day was beautiful, however, and it was hard to be in bad spirits! It was great to be back on the trail, warm and ready to get to camp!
I made a few substitutions to my pack over the night at home. I took out a bunch of the snacks, my two pb&j’s and threw Diamond’s sleeping bag into my pack. I may have made a few switch-a-roos with clothes and such, and I packed on two beers, too. A fitting brew for the journey is Bent Paddles Harness Winter IPA. Also, I ditched the snowshoes and trail runners for waterproof hiking boots. I was curious to see what would work better.
It was tough going, and we realized we were walking pretty slow about an hour in. We passed the first campsite and hiked through some hilly country, up and up and then alongside creek ravines. It reminded me of the mountains out west. The sun was shining and we were doing good. I was surprised Jack was hauling ass with me since he had a 52 pound pack and I had only about 28 pounds on me.
Jack soon realized his inner legs were chafing pretty bad. He was wearing running tights–nothing else. I was wearing bamboo boxers, running tights, and rain pants over it everything and was getting warm. Also, I threw on a running windbreaker this time, and it made all the difference. Warm legs, yes, but I could regulate easily and for all intents and purposes, perfectly comfortable.
Neither of us brought a map this time. The hike out was 5.9 miles, and we through we’d be doing 3 MPH. At 2 hours in, we definitely weren’t going that fast. Also, both of us were feeling ready to get to camp and relax for a second. It was a textbook trudge through the snow. We made a bunch of wrong turns, but would quickly realize and get back on track. It was so clutch to have someone else besides Diamond to consult with, because again, we were breaking the trail and it wasn’t a very clear path.
Evenutally, I broke away from Jack. Not intentially, but I got into a rhythm, looked back to see nothing, and just kept going. At least he could see my tracks! I didn’t think we’d get separated or go the wrong way or anything. Every now and again, I would hear a shriek. I’d stop, and notice the complete silence of the windless winter day. Stopped, all I could hear was the white noise of my brain’s electrical circuitry. I yelled back, “WHAT?!??”, and nothing. So I kept going, and it happened three other times! At this point, I was just excited to get to camp, so Diamond and I were trucking.
Finally, I saw the Stewart River. There was a big bridge and the river was not the crick I’d envisioned. It was open in some spots, and the ice formations were cool. I knew the campsite was right over the bridge, and we hooked a right off the bridge to find it. My spirits got a boost, I yelled out that we were at the Stewart River but with no reply. I couldn’t find the campsite, though! I was trudging around, and went back to the bridge. I saw the hash to the left, and had to blast past a huge brambly bush covered in snow to get to the trail. There were so many sticks in the way, but a few footsteps away was the campsite. Nice! My watch chronograph said 3:08 or so. I started clearing away and packing down snow and looking for what I needed to find first, a good place to set up my tent and some easy firewood.
My plan was to cook some lunch right away. Since breakfast, I’d just been munching on chocolate and snacks. I boiled some water and tried out my zip-lock cheese noodles and mashed potatoes. It was an experimental recipe. Jack trudged in just a few minutes after me.
Getting camp set up was a low point. Jack immediately went into survival mode because he was chafed, cold and wet. I tried to do my own thing while he frustratingly set up the tent in his hiking garb. It went up and I got a fire lit somehow. He took forever to change in his tent, and I was checking on my food and the fire and trying to set up my tent. Meanwhile, Diamond was terrorizing me by running around like a maniac through camp and barking really loudly. I yelled, “aren’t you tired?!??” I got frustrated when a gust of wind threatened to lift my tent back to St. Louis County, which is when the fire went out. CRAP! This is stupid… there is now way I would be able to hike 25 miles and then set up camp in the dark. I would have been a frozen stiff!
Jack walked out of his tent with a huge parka and a smile back on his grill. He looked like an arctic explorer and very warm and comfortable for once. It sounded like his loins were pretty chafed up from the repeated friction, but I’m sure it was nice to simply get that huge pack off. I got my tent pitched decently well, and then focused my entire world on warming my hands back up! I looked at the small indent in the snow where the tiny twig fire burned out, and check on my noodles. They were freezing cold and crunchy hard. Ok, I guess snow as an insulator doesn’t work in this situation!
I munched on a few handfuls of nuts, and we decided to really go hard on getting some firewood before anything else. The sun was starting to fall behind the ridge line of our gully campsite and we’d definitely need a lot of quality firewood if we wanted to be comfortable outside of our sleeping bags.
We found a tree that was definitely dead, and had a bunch of lodged logs stuck up there. We worked on pulling some down, and within no time had a really big pile of good dead wood. We got the fire back going again, and it was roaring soon enough. I put my noodles into my kettle and shoved that over the fire to heat up. Also, I added my bag of instant potatoes to soak up some of the water. Now things were starting to look up. Before long, we had a roaring fire, food on the stove, and we were finally warm and somewhat dry. And it was dark.
We ate, which was another warming agent. Despite the snow and the cold, it was sure good to be out in the wilderness. We both kind of questioned our sanity and whether we’d ever do this again. Probably not… The first had burned a big hole in the ground and it took a bit of blowing to get oxygen to the bottom where the coals lay. But we had a lot of dry sticks and could keep it bright and hot with a quick minute of fire maintenance. Just getting up and moving was a chore… once you found a nice dry spot where all your stuff was perfectly placed around you–flashlight, big gloves, food–it was a bummer to have to get up!
Diamond was anxiously barking and stealing my stuff to bring into the woods. Also, she would dig into the snow and circle around and try to lay down, but then realize that it’s all snow and nothing is warm. I tried to bring her into my arms or on the foam pad between my legs, but then have to get up and she’d run away. Eventually, I threw her in the tent, unraveled my sleeping bag and hers, and got everything set up. I wondered how we would be comfortable in the one-man ultralight tent. But she was certainly comfortable, because we didn’t hear a peep the rest of the night!
It was a great night. The campsite was really cool. We could hear a strong wind high up in the trees, but we were in a valley right next to the river and there was hardly a breeze at our surface level. The flowing river added another ambiance on top of a crackling winter fire. Yep, this is fun even despite my wet feet inside these boots that are beginning to freeze solid. It’s risky to get my nice gloves wet, but worth it to be enjoying natures bounties! Or this mentality is my brain’s way of convincing itself I made the right decision. Winter camping is a lesson in cognitive dissonance.
A few hours went by and I made my second dinner, freeze dried lasagna. Backpacking meals are so easy, it’s no wonder why they’re more expensive. Calorie for calorie, and considering ease of use, they’re probably equally expensive! Also, Jack boiled some water for me to fill up my water bladder. Getting water from the river was a bit sketchy. The hot water was really warm on my chest as I hadn’t taken off my reverse chest water pouch.
When every rock in the fire pit was eventually exposed and the fire waned to an orange glow of the embers, we went to bed. It was 9 PM or so. I hit the headlamp, shuffled some things between the tent and backpack and bench, careful to avoid dropping anything heavy! It would be a bummer to have to come out repeatedly in the spring to look for a tool lost in the snow.
Diamond was pretty sound asleep, which made it hard to scoot around and find a comfortable position for myself. She’s a lug. Also, she made a huge indent in the snow. I guess just stomping around and setting up my tent didn’t do much to compress the powder beneath. I started peeling off layers, and decided to keep my water bladder on, but pretty much took everything else off. I had my long underwear and socks nearby, but decided to go no socks and just boxers for now! My feet were wet and this would hopefully give them a chance to dry. It would be very hard to sleep with freezing wet feet, but they actually felt fine getting into the sleeping bag and liner. I wrote my thoughts for the night, and me and Dimey shuffled around to get into a good position to sleep in. The ultralight tent was surprisingly accommodating! It was going to be nice to get some shuteye.
I dozed off pretty quickly. Like any overnighter in the woods, I wonder if I really slept at all. Sure enough, the morning light was there in no time. The night was actually super comfortable. Diamond didn’t really peep, and seemed warm the whole time. I was even sweaty during the night, and woke up to take my legs out of the bag liner! I could feel a very wavy contour under my body where my hips protruded into the snow, but my divot actually felt nice! I was joking with Jack that sleeping on snow is like a memory foam mattress–it conforms to your body, but then freezes solid!
Day 3 – January 3, 2016
I fed Diamond from in the tent at around 6 AM. She ate from where she was sitting and we went back to bed until 8 or so.
When I got up, it was a beautiful morning with a dusting of fresh snow. I was kind of anxious and worried that I’d be so cold with no dry clothes left, but once I got situated and moving, it was just my feet in the frozen solid boots that were cold. Also, I couldn’t really use the gaiters as they were completely hardened frozen, so every wrong step packed more snow into those frozen boots. I boiled some water to make coffee, and started munching a bit to engage my digestive system and get some more blood flowing. Jack got up too, and we contemplated making a fire. I decided to take some pictures instead.
We thought we could be back on the trail in an hour or so, and started packing up shop. Half of my gear was frozen solid.
Jack lent me his gaiters, which I initially lent him from home, and he stuck with the plastic bags on his feet. Finally, we were ready to rock, a bit behind schedule. Diamond’s gear was very icy, and I felt bad putting it over hear face! Jack’s pack was huge… to see everything go back into it reminded me.
We both had the feeling that this was going to be a tough hike out, but it was reassuring to know that once we got to the point I bailed the day before, it would be pretty smooth sailing. Jack said his chafed legs were feeling pretty rough, but we suited up, gave our farewells to the campsite, and headed up the big hill out of the Stewart River valley towards Jack’s car 5.1 miles away at the Demonstration Forest parking lot.
The theme was just keep hiking, and we’ll be out soon enough. We motorboated through the first few miles, and it was nice to see my snowshoe prints about 55 minutes into our hike home.
We kept pushing, and seeing the spur trail to the Demo Forest was great. We stopped for a rest not too long after.
1.2 miles later, I saw a familiar rock, and we turned out of the narrow single track to the Demo Forest parking lot. Then, we saw Jack’s car. I got the moment on camera as we neared the car, and took our packs off for good.
We got to my car at Reeves Road, and it was doin’ fine! I still don’t know the laws for parking on a road like that… but no harm no foul. We were talking food and decided to go to Culver’s. When in Rome, as they say. The food was great, and we felt good about the trip being in civilization and certain safety.
There are a few tweaks I can make clothing-wise to cut down. Also, there are always creature comforts to make the camping better, but I am already excited to the next opportunity to go backpacking in the snow and the cold! Why it’s fun, I’m still not sure. Or maybe it’s not fun at all. I just don’t know. Regardless, we’ll be back.