Race Date: Saturday, October 16, 2021 – 6am

The start line was pretty emotional. I stood there in the dark, probably the only one without sleeves. Kris gave me her jacket and I wore it for a bit, but I really wasn’t any less cold. And she was for sure more cold! As the race director Andy gave pre race announcements, Kris told me to make sure to have fun out there. I was excited. I love nothing more than a long day in the woods. I was nervous. My running mileage on the year, and the past three months, was pretty low comparative to past years of running and racing. I was determined. I really wanted to win this race. There were going to be challengers. I was freezing, and thought I kind of had to poop.

After The Day Across Minnesota bike race, I knew I had a short turnaround. I had signed up for Wild Duluth Ultimate Wildman Challenge before the bike race, and essentially planned it all out with the thoughts that I could slog through Wild Duluth and still have fun. I gave myself a week, then started training right from there. I had a 33 mile week or so, with a long run at 100k goal pace. It was great. Then I built up two more weeks nice and steady to 40. Then I got a cold and a had a down week. I still got in a good effort on the SHT on the weekend. That down week was a little nerve-wracking, because I went right back to a 60 mile week the next, then up to 80+. The whole cycle was full of NMTC Fall Trail Series races, which are probably the best thing for fitness ever, except maybe the long run, especially when one is training for a particularly long race. The training went surprisingly perfect, the climax being back-to-back 20 and 30 miles runs at 4 and 6 hours a piece, respectively. There was a lot of time on technical trail at my 100k goal pace of 12 minutes per mile, which would put me about at 12 hours. The 30 miler in Silver Bay was about the best confidence builder I could ask for, nailing it and feeling good the whole time.

Back to the start line of Wild Duluth, just before 6am in 41 degrees, I remembered that training. I talked to Joe Calaguire a bit about his goals and mine. I asked if Gretchen would go under 12 hours. That was my goal, and she had the pedigree and the season to back up a crazy-fast time like that. He said she was going for the record. I didn’t know what that was. He wanted between 12 and 13. I has hoping for 11:59, and thought that it would be a stretch to get it. I kind of had a race plan in mind. But not a moment too soon, Andy announced he would do a three-second countdown, and proceeded to start the countdown immediately thereafter. With increasing intensity: “three, two, one, GO!”. I took off so fast… I don’t know why. It was fun. It is fun. Someone on the sidelines commented and I heard it all: “you start like I start!”. I knew the somewhat confusing start very well and took off way up front, just like 2019. I felt good. I felt like I was floating. Soak it up, I thought, because it will not feel like this one the way back. Well, maybe when I get back here, but only when I can literally see the finish line. So, up I went into the night towards Enger Tower.

I entered the woods across Superior Street alone. There was lots of dew reflecting off my headlamp’s light. It seemed humid, yet still cold. The air on my arms was definitely chilling me, but it also felt good. The homeless encampment right into the woods was as messy as I’ve seen it, with sleeping bags, clothes, and an industrial dumpster’s worth of trash, spread out all over the woods and literally the trail. You had to dodge the junk just like hopping over rocks and roots. Sheesh. I ran the hills up, feeling like I was keeping a pretty conservative pace. No need to bank time, but I felt so good and was so excited and it was so cold I couldn’t really slow down. I kind of shuffled up a few of the bigger hills. On one of the turns, I looked up to lock eyes with two glowing orbs, then saw the big antlers and couldn’t help yelling “WHOA!”. Then the big buck scurried off and I laughed. A voice behind me asked if I was OK. “Yeah!”.

Up and over Enger Tower and I rang the peace bell for good luck. Zipping around Enger, across Skyline, and down towards the 24th Ave aid station, I was having a lot of fun. I could feel that I’d have to pee soon. There was nobody around me. Nobody right behind me. Everyone behind me… but I had no headlamps or pressure from anyone. As I ran onto the bridge down to 24th Ave West in first place, three miles in and many to go, I thought about how this was panning out to be just like 2019 so far. Hey, not too bad because I won in 2019 and was the defending champion. So, if this is what it takes, I’ll do the race over exactly. And that was true, my training was indicating I was about in the same shape (based on NMTC times and long run performances), and really I figured that if I could roll another 12 hour finish, I would definitely have a shot at winning. But, I was going to race today for the win. Secondarily, I would race for a 12 hour finish. Thirdly, I would race to beat my time from 2019, which was a 11:57 or so. I would do it exactly the same as 2019 by stopping to pee right at Miller Creek. I mean, it’s a nice spot to stop. Surprisingly, there was someone right behind me when I crossed 24th Avenue West, and popped into the woods. I told them I had to pee. “Uh oh”. Then I peeled off to the left, and they told me the trail goes to the right. Then, “oh, nevermind”. They realized why I divulged my personal needs to them. I looked up into the dark night’s sky as I whizzed and wondered how many others would pass me. Hmm. Nobody. Just one this time. The start was uncannily similar. Hopefully not too similar. I remembered what happened on the Brewer Loop, as my stomach rumbled a little bit.

I knew it was 9 miles in to the Highland Getchell aid station, and I was cruising along nicely all on my own. The trail seemed so easy – wide and buffed out. No hills. All runnable. It was giving me everything I needed. Eventually I heard voices behind me, a woman’s timbre. That’s gotta be Gretchen. She is scary. I had done a bit of creeping online, and knew she was having an unbelievable year – two second-place finishes and two highly competitive trail 50-milers, plus some other goodies like FKTs. She was running really well. But maybe, she’s tired from the intense efforts of the year. Either way, she was chatting with someone close behind me. On a couple bends in the trail, I could see them gaining on me. That was probably Joe. I knew they were friends. We all shared a fun run in 2018 as Joe and Gretchen were prepping for Superior 100 Miler, and I was prepping to pace him. My stomach churned a few times and I wondered if I’d have to stop, or if I should, for a quick e-dump in the woods. I really didn’t want to. The sun was coming up, it was getting warmer and felt good, and the dew was burning off from the wooden boardwalks a bit. It was turning out to be a perfect day so far, and I was expecting great conditions for the whole race. I had just a couple more miles to Getchell and kept just chipping away, really eager to get there.

9 miles in and I was feeling really good. I saw Em at the aid station. She asked where I ditched my shirt. I said I didn’t start with hit, essentially threw my headlamp at her and just ran off. I picked a few small items from the aid station – pretzels and coke mainly, then ran right off the portable toilet. I didn’t think there was anyone in there, and knew that Gretchen and at least one other person would pass me up. Oh well. I did what I had to do, and in leaving the toilet I knew it was the right choice. I felt a hundred times better. When I got back onto the trail, I noticed a lot more action at the aid station with people running all over. I saw my new friend Ben Andres running the opposite way. Same deal, probably – pre race jitters and coffee and some early morning jostling of the stomach make for a predictable recipe. I yelled at Em on the way back down to the main trail. “BYE EM!”. She didn’t hear me. Louder: “BYYEE EMM!!!” A few people looked. Not Em. What the heck. Oh well. I wonder where the field was at now. For sure there was one mystery person who passed me over Miller Creek and I haven’t even seen a flash. That was surprising. I’m sure Gretchen and Joe were up ahead. Maybe another person or two, depending on how the pack was shaping up behind me. But, the race was very young, and even though I wanted to race to win, it wouldn’t matter where anyone was until Ely’s Peak on the way back. If someone was out of reach at that point, and I stuck to my 12 hour plan, well, then they are the real deal and I couldn’t beat them no matter what the racing strategy. I wonder if that’d be Gretchen in 30 more miles. Just stick to the plan, roll a bunch of 12 minute miles, I told myself. And that’s what I did.

The miles just clicked off down to the Munger Trail, then back up towards the freeway and Spirit Mountain. I had a bit of buffer and felt comfortable walking up some of the hills around Spirit. I ate a caffeinated gel and was eating really well. I felt way out alone by myself. I didn’t sense anyone behind me, and not really anyone up ahead either. That was fairly normal for a trail race… all the sudden BOOM there is someone 20 feet away. I was making really good time and feeling really good through the east side of Spirit Mountain. I ran on the gravel ski hill access road and knew I had a bit of a buffer on my 5 miles per hour game plan. That’s always nice. I saw Em and the dogs from afar. That made me initially nervous, because I’d be running downhill and she has two maniac dogs. How would she be able to tend to me?? I felt so good, and had a lot of fun bombing down towards the aid station. There were lots of people there, and I was asking questions about who’s who before my arrival. Em said that Gretchen was about 5 minutes up or so, and the guy way up from was looking good. Really good, she said. Hmm, well I told her there is lots of race left. She said he just cruised right up the hill. That was almost motivating to me. Unless this person was really the real deal… I mean we all feel good 15 miles into the race, and sprinting up Spirit Mountain is not always the best play, in my personal opinion. I heard everything I needed to hear, and got my water bottle refilled, drank a bit and ate a bit from the lovely array that Em had schlepped up for me, and took back off.

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

The miles continued to click off and feel easy up Spirit. I caught and passed a guy, presumably the person running with Gretchen back by Highland Getchell because he mentioned something about her by name. His name was Tony, and I passed him rather quickly near a strange rock and tree formation just up from Skyline Parkway outside of Spirit Mountain. The trail was giving me some easy hills, and good running. I knew the elevation was severe through here, but I continued to bank up lots of time. I zipped into the Magney aid station and saw Adam Schwartz-Lowe and Lisa Byrne. Adam said he heard I started the race fast. Huh, word travels quick I guess. I didn’t think that was that noteworthy… I tried to take some licorice but it was all clumped. The aid station helper helped me, but gave me like 5 pieces. I was hoping for one, but took them all anyways. Plus some coke and pretzels – the magic mixture – and set back off. I was excited to start seeing some 50k runners, and tried to just run conservative. I was feeling good – better than 15 miles in during any of my training long runs. Most of those were around 20 miles. I would have been almost done by now! I didn’t even feel sore or tired. Legs good, everything good. I told myself that it was OK to walk up hills and get closer to 12 minute miles. I was doing mid- and high-11 minute miles, so felt pretty content with that. But, those extra seconds were adding up, and by the time I started seeing 50k runners I was 20 minutes up on my time goal. Sweet!

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Jamison Swift

I saw a fast-looking dude with arm warmers way up, then a couple more sprinkled in while coming down Ely’s Peak. I saw Ryan Soule. I jogged along the Munger Trail feeling a little beat up for the first time of the day really, but generally great. I was looking forward to seeing Em again, and setting off on the crux of the course, the 20 mile middle section. When I got to the station it was kind of buzzing. There were lots of people. Some people came sprinting in like mad, and I recognized all three of them: Chase, Ethan and Bryan. They looked like they were having fun. The intensity on their faces was fun to see. Em told me she was getting VIP Pizza for the next time I was here. Sweet! I ran off after eating a bit, refilling my bottles, and grabbing some extra food for the trip to the turnaround. She asked me what type, and I yelled “Chicken Rueben!!” while running off into the woods.

I was excited for the next stretches because I’d get to see so many people. That’s always fun. But, it’s arguably the hardest section of the race. I really struggled on a 25 mile training run through this exact section just weeks prior. I was dreading the big hills. I knew I had to take it slow and easy and not worry about whomever was ahead of me or behind me. This is where either I make good decisions and set myself up well, or bad decisions and suffer greatly for many hours, or worse. The worst case scenario would be that I couldn’t respond to opportunities or threats later on in the race.

It was a steady stream of people from Ely’s Peak to Grand Portage, practically. It was fun and the time flew by. I still felt very in-control and was running some pretty dang good splits. Maybe too good. I knew, however, no matter how hard I was running, if I could get back to Ely’s feeling halfway decent, I would be in really good shape for the rest of the race. I’ve raced enough to know that I don’t typically blow up spectacularly, and can generally hang on to a decent pace unless I’ve made some really dumb decisions. Then again, going just a minute too fast per mile for 25 miles really adds up! I felt content with that I seemed to be stuck at 20 minutes above my goal pace of 5 miles per hour. I saw my mom, kept plugging along, and then the field started thinning out a bit. I fell down a couple times trying to run around people, but nothing too serious. One was a little dramatic as I stepped off the trail, ran a few strides in the brush and tripped on a branch right onto my hands and knees as a conga line of people passed me. Then, you see the people in high top hiking boots, big backpacks, people literally on their cell phones, people in heavy jackets or jeans. Nobody running anymore. Then, back to being alone. I wondered where Gretchen and this other person was. At Ely’s it sounded like they were both about 10 minutes up and both running strong. Gretchen must have made ground. She was scary. I figured that if she wins overall, and I can re-pass whoever is up front, I’d still get first place in the Men’s division. This is what I thought about as I bombed down the huge hill, on a historic voyageur’s portage route, to the Grand Portage aid station. I got a sip of coke, an orange and some pretzels, and kept on. My feet felt swift on the flat section along the might St. Louis River. They never have felt good running this stretch, despite being pretty flat. So, I kept them moving. Then, I knew it was a massive hill, then some flat running to the aid station. That would be great, to have enough energy to make some time up before the turnaround, and then I could stop there for a more extended time period and feel good about, and maybe have some juice for the flats on the way back, too. So, I justified a nice calm pace up from Grand Portage.

Up the hill… you know you’re at the top of a hill when you see a bench. I was happy to crank away at a few miles on the wide open horse trails in Jay Cooke State Park. I kind of forgot the undulations within the State Park as the race course went down Gill Creek Trail, way down to the bottom, then all the way back up on switchbacks. Oof. It was starting to get a bit warmer out, but still just a perfect day. I tried to remember to keep eating my exercise food and was feeling pretty good stomach-wise. I knew I was at the top again when we got back to the wide open horse trails. Weaving in and out of the Munger Trail, I was excited to see someone. I knew there were two ahead, when would I see them? I ran faster in anticipation. Too fast… but I was excited. I wanted to close the gap up, and put the hurt on my competitors. I ran some really fast miles, but it was doable. Flat, wide open and straight. I crossed over the dam at Forbay Lake, down a little hill, and ran fast towards Olderberg Point. I knew it was close. I saw Gretchen and tried to keep in mind the time. In a split second, I was at the aid station. Em’s nephew Aiden was in a chair next to an open one, presumably for me. I didn’t care who it was for, I plopped into it and immediately started shoving food in my face. Potato chips, Mountain Dew mystery flavor, and emptied my trash and replenished my stocks. I wanted to sit for a while, but they told me that the guy Even was still at the aid station. Oh great! I didn’t want Gretchen to get too far, so cut it pretty short despite telling myself I could take more time there. Em said she got Sammy’s Pizza after all. I told hear that was great, and that I looked forward to seeing her at Ely’s, and took off. I didn’t see Even and so figured I passed him while he was sitting at the aid station. I did some math and figured I was 8 minutes down from Gretchen. Smooth, even, calm. I just needed to chip away at Gretchen bit by bit until Spirit Mountain. Then, the race really begins.

I was pretty excited, and really put down some fast miles right off from the aid station. Yes, it’s the most runnable parts of the course, but they were maybe a bit too fast. I’d have to take it easy on the large hills from here to Ely’s. I remembered at least three big climbs. The biggest of which just past the Grand Portage aid station, right over the road crossing at 210. I saw Joe next, in third place, but many minutes behind. He was probably not a big threat, but ya never know. Plenty of race left. Then, the 100k’ers trickled in from there, steadily all the way to the climb back up to Beck’s Road. I asked Joe if it was just Gretchen in front of me. He stumbled his words a bit as we passed each other: “oh, erm, ah yeah”. Hmm, I must have passed Even at the aid station then! How far back is he??

I continued to feel really good down Gill’s Creek Trail, and down to the river. I saw someone running up ahead. Is that a guy in the 50k who started really really late? I got closer, and made the pass. They said they wondered when they’d see me. I realized it was Even. I was pretty frustrated, actually, and pushed hard to make a decisive pass. This dude cheating?? Joe said he only saw Gretchen. It would be pretty simple to just take 210 all the way back down from Oldenburg to Grand Portage. What the heck? Well, at least ya know, I told myself. He’s right there. Also right there was the Grand Portage aid station. I was really brief there. I did ask how far up Gretchen was. The gal pouring water said she’s right there. I snapped my neck to the left and focused my gaze down the trail. I didn’t see her, but took off in that direction, excited. I ran down the culvert quickly, hopped up onto Highway 210, and across to the big climb up away from the river. I saw Gretchen walking, hands on knees. I quickly caught up, shuffling up the hill. I relegated to walking as well. I told her she was having a great season. She didn’t really say much on that. I passed her and we wished each other well. I wanted to beat her. I wanted to get first place. I ran ahead at the very top of the hill, hard. Now, just like that I was back in the position of 1. Plus, due to several sub-10 minute miles in the miles near the turnaround, I had added to the buffer on my goal time, and was over 40 minutes up. I had made up some really good ground. Was it a poor move? Up and over the historic voyageur’s route then some easy running and I was starting to feel a little tired. I noticed the desire to walk up hills stronger than ever, and my pace when trudging up was slower than ever. I didn’t have the little spark or jump to make it up hills quickly. I had a rash of slow miles, my slowest of the day, and several more over 12 minutes. Oof. Cmon Mike, keep it up, let’s go. I tried to rally myself a bit. I knew this section was hard, though, and would just have to wait it out for some good running.

Photo credit: Jamison Swift

Photo credit: Jamison Swift

Photo credit: Jamison Swift

I knew I was getting close to the hill up across Beck’s Road to the base of Ely’s, where my faithful crew would be waiting with pizza and other goodies. I had mainly passed everyone else from the race. Literally, everyone else from both the 50k and 100k race had passed me. From the lead 50kers through the very back of the pack, from the leaders of the 100k at the time, and the entire 100k pack at the turnaround, to the leaders again, and the very last walkers of the 100k hours and hours from the turnaround. I figured that I put time on the field after moving into 1st place. But I was also struggling. That section – the middle 20 miles – is very difficult. I went pretty hard in excitement to pass Even and Gretchen. I was ready to sit down for a second.

I ran into the Ely’s aid station, into the sun, with perfect posture and strong, springy legs to look comfortable and in control. I immediately spotted the chair and ran straight to it, while yelling “200!”, my race number, to the HAM radio volunteers. I slumped in the chair, looked at the pizza and didn’t want anything to do with it, and immediately barked to Em to get my waterbottle filled. My right foot was starting to develop a slight twinge on some of the turns. I didn’t think much of it, but requested she bring the hiking poles, pack and backup shoes to the Spirit aid station. One slice of delicious hawaiian pizza from Sammy’s (not so delicious at the time), a refill of random gels and gummis and junk food and I was conceivably ready to split. A chug of a caffienated fizzy beverage, and Even ran right out of the woods, looking springy and fresh and strong and immediately over to his crew over yonder. Yep, time to go, I thought. I sprang out of the chair and tried to go hard onto the Munger Trail.

Every step was a heavy, dull thud across the blacktop and railroad bridge to the base of Ely’s. It would be more painful up the scramble coming soon, I knew. The few hops onto tall rock outcropings right off the paved trail stopped my momentum like a wall. Ugh, it was a continuous mental battle to lift my legs and heaving carcass up the climb. I figured Even was right behind me, but he’ll struggle too, and Gretchen, and if I just make it up Ely’s a little bit faster and with a little more juice at the top, I would have an even bigger advantage. It was slow, but I made it to the top and kept running, able to catch my breath in between hopping over rocks on the way to Bardon’s Peak.

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

Photo credit: Cary Johnson

It was definitely race mode, laser focused on getting to Spirit Mountain in first place still. I was telling myself the whole day that if I got to Spirit in first, I’d be able to power hike up the side, run down to Mile 50 and be able to hold on for the last sixth of the race. Now was my chance to prove it. The miles clicked off right where they needed to be. I’d lost a bit of time but was still 30 minutes up from my goal pace for a 12 hour finish. I didn’t delay at the Magney aid station, take a small cup of coke as fast as possible, and a 5-second decision on food from the station table, shoved into my mouth as I shuffled along trying not to spill the sugary drink everywhere. Right down the hatch as fast as possible and the relentless forward motion continued. I knew it was a nice downhill to Spirit and it would be wise to capitalize and get there as soon as possible. But running was hard. My gait was tight and choppy and the pace suffered, but I was able to endlessly remind myself to push a little extra. Go, let’s go, let’s go let’s go Mike.

I did make good time into Spirit and was joined by Em in a much less popular aid station environment from the first time many hours prior. I was happy to see new shoes. The Altras had done me good, but they were for sure hurting my feet. I was excited for my old standby, the Brooks Cascadia, to envelop my feet. They might aggravate my sore big toe, but it will be worth it for a little more rigidity on the sides. My tendons were shot. The hiking poles will help, too, I thought out loud. I shoved a few cake flavored oreos in my vest and took potato chips. I asked Em if she’d wait for the next runner to come in and time it to tell me at Highland Getchell. At that point, I’ll be over 50 miles in, with some pretty easy running to bring it home. I just had to get there. I knew the climb out of Spirit would be a slog, but a slog for everyone. I knew what to expect, I knew how to attack it to bring it in strong. I thought.

Off into the trees again and I was actually excited to power hike for a while. Up and up, along the lovely Knowlton Creek, I didn’t get much walking relief as the gravel road presented itself a must-run opportunity. I used my new hiking poles to launch into a run and shuffled along. Up and up, I had a couple slow miles. 16’s. Slowest of the day, really. With the aid station stop, I had now dented my nice buffer. I just put my head down to the bridge over Knowlton and ran. I ran down the access road to the new switchback re-route of the infamous 168 Steps section of the SHT. I don’t know how many steps it was, but I ran up the switchbacks, poling in stride. I ran at the top, through the beautiful open maple forest in the appealing light of mid- to late-afternoon. I used up my slow miles and had to make it up now. I struggled to get barely below 12 minutes on my next split. I hit mile 50 across Cody Street, on a sad shuffle up some very firm pavement I told myself that I could make way towards a fast mile across the ATV trail by the big power line, before arguably the last real rigorous climb up to the second-to-last aid station at Highland Getchell. I was so curious the time that Emily clocked if she did happen to wait for my chasers at Spirit. I was not making up any ground, but I figured I was at least 20 minutes up on my 12 hour time goal by the time I climbed my way to the energetic Highland aid station, where beautiful Em and the beautiful chair were waiting for me. Em said Even was 4 or 5 minutes down from me. My aunt and uncle Maureen and Tom were there, and they immediately started talking about how they were hiking the same section the day before and they didn’t see my mom. I essentially ignored them, probably looking like a deranged person as I shoveled potato chips in my mouth and messily guzzled various pops from the cooler. I kept my backpack on, probably squishing its contents against the chair, and hurried up, continuing on with my poles. 4 or 5 minutes. That wasn’t enough time. I couldn’t have one slow mile. That would be it! It was to be all 12 or less from here on. Even this mile… it was a short stop and I was off.

I had to hike up out away from Keene Creek right after the aid station, over Skyline Parkway, and into the woods. I used the poles to run. The boardwalks were hazards, but I was able to get into a rhythm and crank. I wasn’t hungry at all. My energy stores seemed good enough. I was mainly running off adrenaline. It felt like extra food could mess the whole thing up, and I could be violently ill. I felt ill in general. Just generally fucked up. But I was able to run. My creaky joints lurched forward every stride, and it was a cohesive unit of churning legs and rotating arms driving the trekking poles in each cycle. I day dreamed about the finish line. If I won, I thought, I’m gonna yell. For sure yell, then run right into Em’s arms and give her a big smooch. She helped me here, she made this possible. She supported me through the training and followed me with everything I need and more at every station. WITH the dogs. She had told me the sad story of Chally having eaten nearly the whole Sammy’s pizza from the back when she arrived back from the Spirit aid station stop. I could only imagine the long and arduous day of crewing while I’m out playing in the woods. I thought of how powerful it is, when the struggle is on, to use gratitude as a strategy to find extra stores of energy. I thought about how grateful I was, and how lucky I could possibly be, to be able to do this. To run all day in the woods, to complete and compete in a 100k trail run. To win Wild Duluth again, and finish the Ultimate Wildman Challenge with two wins, two days in a row. Ooof, how would I run tomorrow? I was absolutely trashing my body. I pushed a little harder, though, because I knew Even was behind me and coming hard for me. He wanted to win. He thought he could win. Gretchen? Who knows. I was less scared of her simply because even if she charged past me, which was not farfetched in my mind, I would still beat Even out for first man. I wanted a new water bottle. The thought of both of them charging me made me run just a little harder over the rock outcropping and past some lingering 50k finishers in the back of the pack, and onto the flat clearing across 27th Avenue West. I was making good time. One last climb to 24th and I could drop the pack, then a climb to Enger, then all downhill. Let’s GO!!

I got the jitters coming into 24th. There were volunteers at the roadway, and I prepared my backpack for a fast unloading. I didn’t even want a waterbottle. I’d be able to shred back home on fumes. I ran across 24th Avenue West and saw my neighbor Clarence holding chips and a gatorade as high as he could over his head, about 3 feet up. I ran towards him, grabbed a face full of chips, took a huge swig, and essentially threw my backpack and trekking poles at Em and ran off, so excited to get back. She had said he was 4 minutes back still. She yelled to get me to take the water but I was already off. I had a smile on my face. But, 4 minutes? I’d have to move.

I shuffled up Skyline over Piedmont, and continued to shuffle up and up towards Enger Tower. I didn’t stop the legs churning, which was kind of the theme of the day, and just was able to get more momentum downhill than up, and the uphills were pretty demanding, and slow. I tried to judge if I was indeed going faster trotting than power hiking, even with poles. Hmm? I figured yes, I was going faster. 4 minutes back only, I thought to myself. I passed some more 50k runners, my second time seeing them all. After crossing over Skyline once again, and entering Enger Park, I heard the Japanese peace bell get run, likely due to much more people in the park compared to when I was last there at 6:10 am. I was so excited to ring it myself. When I got there, I was happy that nobody’s hand was on the peace bell and I was able to weirdly run right up to it and ring it quick, goofy smile on my face, and run off into the horizon.

I sprinted across the edge of the park area to the steep downhill bomb, practically down a couple miles right to the finish. I was so excited that the extreme pounding didn’t phase me. I leaned further forward. With finally nothing in my hands, nothing on my back, nothing left but to lean in and fall into the finish line, I cranked ass. The footwork was immaculate, not a second was wasted and I became increasingly excited with each vertical foot that the elevation I was at decreased. Down, down across 3rd Street, onto an avenue across 1st Street and onto the really messy homeless encampment area, which 50k runners slowly trotting in and residents milling about, probably wondering why there was so much traffic through there this day. Or maybe not. It was a big mess down there. I ran through faster. I sprinted across Superior Street, a very fast mile split flashing across my watch. Second fastest of the day, besides the first mile. A vision flashed across my mind’s eye of me finishing and running straight into Em’s arms and giving her a huge hug. I wanted it now. I looked behind me. Nobody. I ran faster. I couldn’t run any faster. I just relaxed and held my posture high upright and ran it in. I smiled. Into Bayfront, onto the sidewalk and onto the path to the finishing stretch, and it was so fun to see my neighbors and my mom and Em and the dogs along the side of the finish. I crossed, stopped my watch and yelled, just like I had planned out for hours. I ran under some tiedowns under the arch right to Em’s arms like I planned. It was awkward because everyone was looking at me, I felt, and I nearly tripped and took down the blow-up arch. I was so happy. I sat in the chair and told myself that I was NOT going to be able to run the race tomorrow. I wouldn’t be able to make the distance!

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

Photo credit: Mom

GPS Data

Race Results

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

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

Race Date: Saturday, March 9, 2019 – 7am

Two days before race day I landed in Las Vegas with my mom, business partner Kris, and brother Andrew. We were all traveling to Page, Arizona for the Antelope Canyon Ultras, a trail race of varying distances through the desert and deep canyons of northern Arizona. This was to be my first real destination, vacation-type race, besides perhaps Ironman Wisconsin in Madison. That is not quite the most exotic travel destination, although Madison is a very cool city. So I was really excited to travel to a very scenic, warm, far away place to race. We drove from Vegas to our resort on Lake Powell across the dam from the race site in Page. The drive in was incredible–otherworldly. Sandstone features and deep gorges and reds and orange, deep green desert vegetation and Joshua trees. It was cool. We were all excited for a vacation.

The next day, we explored Horseshoe Bend and ventured off nearby though extreme wind, eventually joining the actual race course. We knew because of the pink flagging attached to rocks and shrubs. Then we drove to the race start. It was not clear where the start and finish lines were, where the course went, or anything. Volunteers and race staff were out setting things up. We got our race bibs next, then settled down for an early morning to race.

The 7am temperature was forecasted to be a brisk 36 degrees with a high around 60, and abundant sunshine all day. I ate instant oatmeal for breakfast, grabbed my handheld water bottle and pouch filled with gels, put on a few layers and we drove out early. We arrived with plenty of time to get a lay of the land. It was a calm race morning and by the time 6:55 rolled around, I was lined up for the start and ready to rock, feeling good. Cold, but good. Numb, but good. I had faith I’d warm up quickly, though. As I looked around at my fellow racers, I saw people in down jackets, people with barely any skin exposed, hats, everything. I felt very skimpy and exposed in a singlet and short shorts. At the last minute, I saw two others appear at the start line. They were the only other people in my peripheral vision me who looked like they were ready to rip.

Photo credit: Julie Ward

Once the announcer yelled “go”, our pacer Mike set off and I was right behind him, pushing the pace. I thought it was funny to go out hard, like I had to or something. Like I would win only if I went out really fast right away, way out in front. I commented on Mike’s great name, he left me at a road crossing, beckoning to the other side where the pink flags continued. He also mentioned that it was really windy the previous day and to relay the status of the course markers to the aid station volunteers, in case they needed to readjust for the rest of the runners. Because if I was still in front, I’d be the first runner to go through that area. Hmm ok.

The first couple miles were a bit up and down, through decently fast sand, but definitely loose footing. I made it to the first aid station before mile 2 in no time, and ran right through it. I peeked my head back and saw two runners, presumably the two who looked serious, a couple minutes behind me. Up a little mesa, views abound, then down I ran. Then more down. Down, down, down, along a fence to my left on a semi-packed sandy double-track trail. Woof, this is going to be a bear climbing back up, I thought to myself. I had studied the course map and knew the first miles are ones I’d run again hours later and beyond the second aid station was a large loop with some awesome landscapes. At that point I had no idea how awesome they actually were.

While running to the second aid station, about four miles and 30 minutes into the race, I realized I forgot to put on sunscreen. That would be a major issue. I recalled reading in the race guide that there would be sunscreen at the aid stations. I also had to take a leak, so prepared to do those two items plus eat food, per my race plan to eat at least something at every aid station from there on out. Once I arrived at the aid station, I ate first, filled up my water bottle, peed and yelled about for sunscreen. The volunteer was caught a little off guard because I was the first runner of the day, but eventually pointed me to the medical table where I found a bottle of spray sunscreen. Two sprays onto my two shoulders, then one onto my hand to wipe across my face, and I took off. As I turned my head around from the medical table, I saw my two competitors run right through the aid station. I thought that was pretty surprising, knowing that we were over four miles in, and it was nearly eight to the next aid station.

I took off after them, pushing to catch back up. I passed the gal first and said a brief, “hey”, getting an even more brief reply. I caught up to the guy and passed him, too. I took that chance to say “hey” and got about the same response as the gal. So I was out in front again, ready for a really awesome loop along the canyon rim of the great Colorado River. We were quick to get to Horseshoe Bend, then took a sharp left over a deep crevice in the sandstone around a fence into the desert.

This is a picture from Friday exploring Horseshoe Bend. Where I stood to snap the pic was at the very end of a fence and the spot we initially saw the pink flagging of the race course. Andrew is getting as close to the cliff as he can, with a 1,000 foot sheer drop only a step away!

Andrew, my mom, Kris and I had seen this section the day before, and there didn’t seem to be a trail at all, just markers every ten feet or so. As I ran further and further in, the trail never materialized. I was very glad that the guy behind me had stuck onto my back, and I started chatting. I asked what his name was and where he was from and what other races he was doing this year. Robert from Sacramento. He had an accent of some type. Sacramento accent? He said he ran a lot of trail races and was training for a 100k in a month. Every time I’d angle off course, Robert would correct me by spotting the next pink ribbon. I spotted a few first and redirected him. It was a useful partnership early on in the race having to wayfind.

Along the Colorado River canyon, I noticed I was breathing hard. For some reason, I felt good pushing. I also felt it very difficult to reel back to a pace where it felt easy. Going into the race, I wanted the first ten miles to feel easy. If that happened, I wanted the second 10 or 15 miles to feel like a controlled burn… smooth. Then I’d let it really rip because I’d have gas left in the tank. The final 13 mile stretch was a loop around the Page Rim–flat, hard packed, runnable and fast according to the race guide. The pace Robert and I settled on didn’t feel easy to me. I was running fast and my watch confirmed that. I was breathing heavy. It was kind of tough terrain, a lot of very uneven sandstone formations. Not a ton of sand, which was nice, and meant that every foot strike was solid, but a lot of technicality given that there literally was no trail. I got a bit nervous because a few foot steps caused the sandstone layers to crumble beneath me. Whoops. But how much more careful could I be? There was no trail!

Robert got a bit of a lead on me as we came near the next aid station. I felt good coming in. I also felt a desire to catch back up to him. I didn’t want him to run off on me. How fun would it be if it was him and I on the Page Rim, duking it out on the fast trail? I just gotta get there with juice to run. I stopped pretty quickly at the aid station, ate a bit and filled my water bottle. I saw Robert drop into a gorge, and was excited to myself go down into the very steep descent into a slot canyon. I’d read about this feature and was greatly looking forward to actually running through it. It was a very dicey descent and I slid on my butt. I was getting a bit hot in the beating sun, but once I got to the bottom I could immediately feel a cooling rush and I sprinted off into the sand. Right away, I had to slow my pace because of the hairpin turns. It was like a maze, the curves of the canyon walls so abrupt and narrow that you had to sidestep and turn your shoulders to squeeze through to the next straightaway. The walls, just inches away on either side, were worn smooth by millennia of wind and water. It was incredible. The sand below my feet was deep and soft, and there were plenty of big steps up and down, a perfect distance from one another to make a good running flow impossible. Every now and again I’d see Robert down the hallway but I couldn’t catch him. I said one word to myself over and over: “smooth”. In my mind, I knew I should keep it smooth and controlled, but fast. I felt good, and felt like I had to push it. About a mile later, the canyon widened and we climbed a sandy dune up and out. I looked down back behind me to the slot canyon walls, trying to etch the wonderful memory into my mind permanently. And I was back into the sun. It was an intense sunshine, but luckily the temperature was very favorable, perhaps 50 degrees.

The course then merged onto a sand road, perhaps for the 4×4 machines that took tourists on slot canyon tours. It was slightly downhill, straight, and decent footing although all sand. I saw Robert just up the road. He hadn’t put too much time on me. So I took off to get back to him. I leaned in and let my legs churn. I slowly reeled him in. It was a speedy clip, which was then confirmed by my GPS watch, beeping at me to let me know that I’d just ran mile 14 in 6:52. I caught Robert. I didn’t say a thing, and neither did he. We ran a mile in 6:30. I knew it was a mistake, right then and there. I could immediately feel a suck of energy. Perhaps this was mental, and I let Robert eek past me once again. As slowly as I reeled him in, he put distance on me. A 6:52 mile later and we neared the next aid station. This was the same aid station as the second of the race, meaning we’d completed the first loop and now head back to the start and finish area to complete the second loop of the course, making a sort of figure-8 pattern. I stopped at the aid station and filled up my water bottle. There were other runners everywhere, presumably 50-milers. I wasn’t sweaty but felt a little warm. Perfectly comfortable, really. Some other runners were in long shirts, headbands, headlamps, running rights, jackets, and gloves. I set back off, now onto the uphill sandy grind. I remembered this section on the way down, thinking that it’d be rough to run back up. Perhaps mental, but it sure was really rough. I felt dead all of the sudden. Tired, beat down, slow.

As I struggled to churn my legs uphill, the voices of the other runners unfortunately did not help my cause. Sometimes you can suck energy from the encouragement of passing runners, but not today, not right now. Ugh. It was so hard to run uphill. I made it up and over, though, and was able to cruise through the sandy ups and downs back to the start/finish area. I couldn’t even seen Robert anymore. He had juice. Darn, there goes the epic race I’d thought about. I blew it running sub-7 minute pace. The course branched off from where the 50 milers were coming from at an aid station, which I ran right through. I stopped to pee in the bushes and looked back to see if anyone was around and would perhaps be offended by my public urination. I saw a runner coming up behind me. I finished the business and kept running, now running scared. My legs hurt, they were getting tired, and they felt heavy and slow. My watch beeped for 20 miles, an 8:30 mile, and not quite 3 hours in for the day. I was still on track, but really had to keep it together here. Well, if this gal behind will catch up to me, maybe that will be my epic race. Nope, I was unfortunately too tired. Shut up! Smooth. Smooth. The only mantra I could say was “smooth”. Just one word. Keep it smooth.

We ran towards the finish area, around the parking lot. It was a different feel to be in civilization instead of the remote desert and incredible landscape. The pavement seemed hot. It was perhaps 50 degrees but I felt challenged by the hot sun taking its toll on my energy levels. I was quickly passed by the same girl from the beginning of the race, and she looked strong. We went through more sand, really tough sand. I bombed the downhills with hoards of half marathoners headed the opposite way to their finish. The biggest uphill of the race presented itself, and I could see an aid station from below. The gal in front of me had her hands on her knees and was power hiking up. I did the same, trying to close the gap slightly. When I got to the aid station, I felt dead. It was hard not to stand around for a bit, but I forced myself to quickly eat a pretzel and fill up my water bottle. I wanted to wash it down with Coke but the volunteer wasn’t as speedy as my mind was. It took a while to pour a cup but I wanted to be courteous so I waited. I drank up, it was delicious. Then, took off onto the singletrack.

Just like the race guide advertised, the Page Rim loop was fast. I could rip on it, but my legs were shot. They felt so heavy and slow. I had no spring. It was not smooth. I kept saying that mantra in my mind, though. As I got further onto the Page Rim trail, I could visualize the large mesa on which the city of Page was situated, and how the course ran counter-clockwise around the very edge of it. I looked up to see the gal running hard into the distance. Crap. She was way out. I pushed, my body rebelled. My watch beeped at me, and it was a 7:50 mile. At the next turn, I saw the gal way out, just a tiny object many turns beyond me. Double crap. My next mile was 8:20. It felt terrible. This isn’t fun. My next mile was 9:15. Dead. By now, the girl in front of me was beyond the curve of the mesa and I couldn’t even see her anymore. Robert was way out.

As the mid-morning sun rose higher in the sky, I relished the breeze that washed over me. I didn’t feel good in any regard. Food didn’t sound good, my legs were lifeless meat sticks, I was struggling to stay in the 10-minute mile range. I was solidly in third place, and desperately wanted to finish in that position. So my mission from here on out was to stay consistent and maybe cultivate a second wind of some sort. As the Page Rim trail circled the town, I did mental math to predict how long it would take to get to the opposite side of the loop, to the final aid station, to the finish line. It was a crushingly long time. Keep going, keep moving. My brain went fuzzy and I didn’t have any motivational mantras, just frustration and anger. It wasn’t fun, it was just hard. The views of blue Lake Powell against whitewashed walls were really sweet, but I couldn’t enjoy them. I tried my go-to mantra: “I like the pain”. This is what I live for! It didn’t work that well. It wasn’t a mental game anymore, and I was frustrated about my sub-7 minute mile escapades. I thought to myself in the solitude of the trail. If I’d reeled it back and stayed in my circle, so to speak, would I be able to run under 8 minutes per mile now? That’s a hard question. Too late, anyways, so I just kept pushing, looking behind my shoulder any time I thought I could see a far ways back. There was no sign of followers.

Around mile 29, I was well into hour four. I hit the second to last aid station and felt like if a piece of poop took a crap. I drank some Coke, ate some pretzels and filled my water bottle, which had been drained near empty. The next section ran adjacent to a golf course and was pretty residential. It was a far cry from the inspiring slot canyons and gorges from hours earlier. The trail was still solid, great footing, and relatively flat. I had locked into a 10-minute mile pace and felt that that was a sustainable running clip I could hold all the way in. I just hoped it was enough to stave off any other runners coming up from behind me.

As I made my way along the golf course, past the city library, across a couple busy roads, I started to think about finishing under 5 hours. That was a motivation, and I also sensed the finish line to be near. Well into 30 miles on the day, I could feel reserve energy becoming accessible. For some reason, I absorbed motivation and energy from the half marathon stragglers that I was passing. With each person I interacted with, I felt more and more positive, happy, excited. It was fantastic to get to the last aid station, and I splashed just a bit of water into my bottle and took off, sprinting down the steep sand dune down to the valley to the finish line. My watch read 4:47 and I wondered how long it would take to get to the finish. Was it less than two miles? I’d need to run under 6 minute pace! Gah. I picked it up, using any leg speed I could muster. “I like the pain.” I passed people going both ways, relishing the encouragement and trying to give it back, too. I ran scared–scared that I’d be just over 5 hours. I needed to go under 5 to salvage the race that I messed up so badly. I got to the bottom of a sand dune and felt the wonderful stability of sandstone rock. I sprinted. There was a volunteer in the distance yelling at me to come forth. She told me the finish was right there. My watch said 4:55. I ran up a metal runway, saw my mom and brother yelling, up and over and there was the finish line. Knowing I was safely under 5 hours, I ran it in with a smile on my face.

Photo credit: Julie Ward

At the finish line, I immediately dropped to my knees. Bad move, I told myself and the volunteers out loud. It took a while to get back up, and I hobbled around, hoping to get out of the sun. It was a long wait at the finish until Kris came through, in a similar fashion just 70 seconds under 8 hours. But the wait was fun. I changed my clothes, talked to strangers and talked to my mom and brother, hung out (literally) in a hammock, ate a truly delicious Navajo frybread taco, and enjoyed the desert sunshine. What a treat just to chill, the race behind me. I knew it was snowing and blowing and cold back home. That was sweet. I also came to terms with my race. On one hand, it was a dumb move to run so hard so early. I totally felt the shift in my race after three consecutive sub-7 minute miles. Legs instantly shot. I know I lost some time in the struggle around Page Rim. But it’s also kind of fun to know how hard you can push before the wheels fall off. Also, it is good to know how fast you can maintain once the wheels do fall off. On that trail on that day, I could still run 10 minutes per mile on and on and on. But I also wondered how I could train and race differently to keep up a fast clip for a long period of time. It’s a fine line. I later learned that Robert had won, like, 8- 50k trail races in 2018. I also learned that the gal who passed me with authority, named Allison, was a professional triathlete living in Page. Finally, I had put about 35 minutes between the runner behind me, who was also from Minnesota. Therefore, I felt pretty good about the race as a whole. To run under 9 minutes per mile on average, through the desert sand, is good. I am happy. And I believe that this race was indeed a great catapult to the Zumbro 100 Mile less than 5 short weeks away.

Photo credit: Julie Ward

Photo credit: Julie Ward

Garmin Data

Results

Time: 4:57:07
Pace: 8:42
Place: 3/295

Shoes: Saucony Peregrine size 12

Hydration: Nathan 19oz insulated handheld


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