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, January 4, 2020 – 9:30am

After very challenging conditions one year prior, I was certain by race week that the trail surface at this year’s Northwoods would be prime. All it takes is one day to totally destroy or totally repair the trails in winter but the forecast looked prime and things shaped up perfectly.

I got my packet the night before at the Trailrunning Film Festival and cool films were great to get me jacked up to race and to run. Running consistency had been good but mileage stagnant and no speed work or long runs. My daily routine in the late fall and early winter kind of fell into place with running to and from work mostly. One week before, I had a reality shock when I realized that 26.2 miles is a long way, and went out for about a two hour/12 mile trail run. Just one week out and the conditions were very terrible and challenging to run… but what a week can do!

I thought Wynn Davis would win with ease, which he was certainly poised to do last year before he got lost. I hadn’t seen him for a year, since he ran off on the Amity snowmobile trail on loop one. And I didn’t see him on the start line. I wanted to complete this race smartly by running the first loop easily and then seeing what I had left for loop two, knowing I didn’t have a ton of run mileage in my legs in the previous month, and hopefully I’d be in the mix of the race. I get to the start line, however, and just have to be in the mix no matter what, right off the line. So when I heard “GO!”, I just shot off sprinting towards the hill up to the trails. Not sticking to the plan…

Oh yeah! The snowmobile trail was running fast. Fast and hard-packed. I realized right away that being too cold was not going to be an issue. Down to the bottom of Lester Park and some of the half marathoners went ahead and sprinted out of sight. Then I was leading a pack of all marathoners. We were chatting. Ryan Soule was right behind me, I’ve run with him before and knew he had a lot of races on deck. He did well at Icebox not two months prior, and was training for a 100k in February. He’s in shape. Was I in shape? I was feeling smooth going uphill and we were certainly moving. The mountain bike trail was in pretty dang good shape just for shoes. The time went by quickly but it was a grind getting up to Amity. We dropped one guy and it was down to three. I was excited to be in the race… this was going to be fun. I had to push a little once we got onto the snowmobile trail. I wanted to shake those guys. Why? Dumb! I was already pushing it way harder than I should be to stick to my initial plan. I think I had a form of “race brain” where I wasn’t thinking straight. So I sprinted off onto Amity Trail and dropped those guys. It was fast conditions, after all! Good footing. I ate a gel. I couldn’t eat and run and the two guys caught back up to me right away. Then passed me. Then I stopped to pee in the woods. They ran out of sight. I jogged in to the aid station and was brief. Dave and Sonja were there with several others. I barely even looked at faces, though bundled, and barely looked at the food, but grabbed as much as I could, ran off and tried to eat on the go. The road was very icy. I couldn’t see anyone up ahead. I had pretzels, pb and j, and an oreo or two. I was pretty warm with my headband around my wrist, gloves off, sleeves rolled up, shirt unzipped to ventilate. And that was perfect. Beautiful day.

I got a little frustrated running into the Hawk Ridge section. This is around mile 8, and the trail just seemed difficult. Soft, rutted, sugary, up and down, no traction. I couldn’t see anyone around me. Just keep those legs churning. I had no relief on Hawk Ridge proper. That COGGS trail has excellent views but is just challenging. I don’t care what season, it’s hard to run! How easy would it be to run on the road just 10 feet over through the woods… I kept those leggies churning, despite feeling the fatigue. Well, here is where things fall apart, I thought. Here is where I pay for walking into a marathon without any long runs. How long does that volume stay in the legs? Wild Duluth was only… 2 months and a few weeks ago. Yep, that is long enough to lose it.

The switchbacks near the end of Hawks Ridge were welcomed, and I enjoyed darting through the trees to get to the Amity West trails. I knew this section kind of went on and on and on, it’s very twisty and turny, and you can see the finish line way before the actual finish line. I went down and down and could open up a bit. The surface was great through Amity West despite a lot of ruts and ankle-busters. This was like real trail running, I thought. I saw Ryan on one of the switchbacks. Ooo! But then realized that that point in the trail could be pretty far away. I tried to estimate how many minutes passed until I got there. I estimated one minute. Sweet. Across Seven Bridges Road and I still hadn’t passed anyone. I felt that the half was near. I knew that we ran to the finish line then right back out. I took stock of my water. Would I have enough to make it to the aid station? Yes. But probably barely enough. Do I need food? No. I ate another gel. I passed the other guy, I think his name was Ryan too. He was peeing by a tree. He muttered “I’m getting tired” and I passed him. In an instant, there was the finish line. I saw Ryan Soule walking out of the aid station area, and made the half-way check-in by stopping in my tracks just past the finish line and sprinting right back out there. I passed Ryan, who was walking up the steep hill up and out of the finish area. Oof, yep I was getting sore. I took off on the snowmobile trail, which seemed to be in similarly good shape as the first loop. Maybe slightly less firm footing. Ryan was right behind me. I eventually remembered to look at my watch for my half split, roughly 1:45. The course also appeared to be slightly short, which I recalled from the year before.

I wondered if he was going to make me suffer. I wondered if I’d make him suffer. I thought about asking him if we were going to make each other suffer. Down to Lester and on to the uphill grind. I was pushing it decently hard. I felt the pressure of Ryan right behind me. This is where it gets gritty, I said to myself. So far so good. Nutrition, good. Water, good. Legs, hurting. Was the first loop too fast? Just keep those legs churning. That is what I did. I didn’t stop to walk, I kept that running motion going like a steam engine.

Up and up. Ryan was further back. Then I looked again and he was back a bit more. A few twists and turns and I could see him slip ever so slightly further back from me. That excited me, I got a little adrenaline boost and pushed it a bit. Ok, this is mile 15 or so… if I’m pushing it is that asking for a terrible disastrous end to the race? Remember self, no long runs recently!! I just kept chugging.

On top of Amity and I opened up a little. Not like the first loop, though. I was anxiously looking back and no Ryan. Could I hold first place? Oh yeah. The feeling of running scared is as good a motivator as any. One has the incentive to race smartly up front. One also should push it to keep the lead intact, though. A nice steady effort would be the best policy. Amity went quickly. It was a beautiful day. I tried to remember a good trick… practice gratitude. It just works well! If anything it’s something to fixate on. Maybe remembering to fixate on stuff that makes you terribly angry would do the same to make the task at hand less miserable. Oh well, gratitude works well so I’ll stick with that. I told myself how incredibly lucky I was to be out here. Where else would I rather be than in the perfect winter conditions that we were experiencing? Nowhere.

I was even more brief at the aid station the second time around. My eyes shifted behind me and I saw nobody approaching. Dave and Sonja were the only two that remained at the aid station and I barely muffled two words in between shoving my face with pretzels. I took an oreo to go and remembered to run on the right side of the road to avoid the huge ice floe. Into the Hawk Ridge section, I became frustrated with the sugary snow once again. I couldn’t really tell if the snow conditions had changed or my fatigue was inevitably making running harder. I kept ’em churning though. Hawk Ridge proper didn’t seem so bad the second time around. Maybe it was because I knew the end was getting near. It was getting quite warm, I ate another gel. I was getting excited to get off the Hawk Ridge escarpment because the Amity West trails were great on the first loop. Once I got there, though, it was a slog. I figured I had the win and would just need to somewhat maintain. Then my watch beeped in the high 13’s for a mile split. Whaaaat. I wasn’t going that slow, was I? I tried to find another gear. Ugh. Nope. It was a slog. Please don’t let this go, I begged myself. I was surprised I had maintained this well for this long. I recalled a few longer days within the previous handful of weeks out testing out these new Altai Hok fat skis. It wasn’t running, but I justified those backcountry ski miles as enough to keep me moving well this late in the race. Good training. Five hours working through deep snow has to be worth something, after all.

I reached the sliding hill overlooking the chalet and finish line, and there were plenty of people sledding and the trails were busier than ever. I figured I was three miles away to finish and well past an even split for the day. Oh well. The upcoming twists and turns and switchbacks would give me last chance look to see if it’d be a dog fight or I could run it in comfortably. As if I had any gear besides one, anyways. I leaned into that gear, muttering one last time my mantra for the day: “keep those leggies churning”. Any positivity was long gone and my brain had one distinct focus of finishing the damn race. Across Seven Bridges and I knew it was a matter of mere minutes before the pain and agony was over. I experienced a few frustrating stumbles and missteps. On the final stretch I thought race volunteer Mark was giving me a high five but he was pointing to the direction of the trail. Crap! I went the wrong way for a botched high-five and had to backtrack slightly. But just one tiny piece of trail and I was home. I sprinted in to the finish in first place. Sweet. Then I fell to my knees. Ouch.

Northwoods went surprisingly great. I had somewhat low expectations, I totally ignored my race plans from the first step, and raced kind of stupidly but it all seemed to work out perfectly. My body was wrecked though. I could just feel it immediately. Total destruction. That is the price to pay. I knew it’d heal, though. I think there is much to be said about the daily grind, in and out, rolling those miles. Either way: fun, painful, rewarding or tedious, it was a beautiful day, an impeccable day, out on the trails. That is the best part of it all.

Garmin Data

Results

Place: 1/20
Time: 3:46:46
Pace: 8:39

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

Race day: Saturday, January 5, 2019-9:30am

I was so excited to race, it was the best feeling to jump off the start line and be with the big pack of runners. The first minute was by far the easiest part of the day. Leading up to the Northwoods Winter Trail Marathon, training had been pretty much on point except two weekends prior where I did not accomplish the every-four-weeks “long trip” of 55 miles that was scheduled. The conditions in and around Jay Cooke State Park were icy that day. I started falling behind my pace and pulled the plug with  14 miles and 4 hours logged in the woods. But the training program went on, and the frustration of failure turned into the excitement to compete!

With recent heavy snow in Duluth, and kind of weird winter conditions up to January, it was really a crapshoot how the trails would allow fast running. I know that sometimes, running on those fat bike trails on packed snow is real nice and real fast! There were two rounds of snow within the race week, the first being really wet and heavy and the second being pretty powdery. It got warm later in the week and race day was in the mid- to upper-30’s. I was contemplating what to wear and decided a long sleeve and my mikeward.cool jersey would work. I had four screws in each shoe and ready to rock.

I was carrying my handheld water bottle with a couple of gels and would make an exchange at the half-way loop. I lined up directly under the arch and the countdown began, then GO! And the crowd ran off. I got to the front very quickly and up onto the snowmobile trail at Lester Park, headed down towards the lake. The first mile was pretty good running on that snowmobile trail, and I noticed a sub-8 minute mile right away. Hmm! Probably should slow down, I thought.

Some of the half guys went out in front, and who I believed was Wynn Davis according to Eric’s pre-race chatter, stuck right behind me. He barely edged me out and took the lead for the marathon until missing a turn that was literally off into the woods–no preexisting trail. I noticed the pink paint on the snow and hollered out, then I was in the lead. We popped right onto bike trails and I lead us on a long stretch, all the way to the top of Lester.

Wynn and I started chatting and the miles started clicking off. He told me he was indeed Wynn. It was a grind up the Lester River but I kept the legs churning. The trail was a little soft. Not too bad and we were making decent time. After a climb of several miles, we jutted out to an intersection atop Seven Bridges Road at Skyline Boulevard, and ran back onto snowmobile trails. It was not long before he went around me. I stopped for a pee break and let Wynn run away. Boy, he took off! He was out of sight in no time.

Photo credit: Tony Stensland

I was already feeling a bit fatigued from the snowy conditions and probably going a bit too hard on the climb. Hey, I hadn’t walked yet! I was getting into a rhythm on the snomo trail but it did feel slow and I was looking forward to the aid station. The aid station stop was real quick as I grabbed a pancake and some chips and jetted off. I was right on time for my goal of 4 hours, so sprinted up the hill out of the aid station, finally on the solid ground of a paved dirt road for once.

It was so demoralizing to get back onto the bike trail. The planks of the bridge were uneven and just so clumsy. The trail didn’t get less demoralizing from there, with the slippy and slidey and steep section to the backside of Hawk Ridge across Skyline. There, the views were sweet, sweeping across the deep grey Lake Superior. I wondered if I was going to see Wynn at all. I was moving good through Hawk Ridge. I didn’t see anyone.

Photo Credit: Tony Stensland

The way down Amity Creek took forever because you could see the start and finish area from high above the ridge and you run so far to finally get back there. A quick check of my watch and I was happy to see that I would certainly make a 2:00 split at the half point. I had eaten my gels, was right on track with water and feeling pretty good stomach-wise and general energy-wise. I could feel the fatigue and was noticing a few specific muscles getting worked hard with all the sliding around and lateral movement. My hamstrings seemed worked as well as my right hip flexor. My ankles were starting to get mad from all the sideways motion.

The half-way point was wonderful, just to have that mental checkpoint, but I did not spend much time and was back across the start/finish line after switching my gel wrappers for fresh ones and trying to eat as much Twix bar as I could in 15 seconds. I saw some half finishers and a couple behind me coming in. No other full marathoners in sight. My watch was at around 1:55 and just bit above 12 miles. Right away, getting back to the early snowmobile miles, I felt so flat. It was like I left my energy stores at the finish line. No! I didn’t do the half marathon! I had to remind my body of that. Or maybe it was because the trail was chewed up. Was I just fresh and springy the first time around? Or did the hundred or so people behind me scramble the not-quite packed snow up? But once I got to the very bottom of Lester and headed back on the long climb, it was really tough going.

The snow was so slippery and no footstrike was solid. Each step was a strain on my ankle ligaments, twisting every time to try and get traction. It seemed so much steeper than the first time. I was swearing, yelling, grunting. I wanted to give up but that is way more frustrating so I just kept the ole leggies churning. I said a mantra to myself: “I like the pain”. It worked! But only temporarily. At Amity Creek trail and Skyline, I didn’t get much reprieve from the sliding snow on the snowmobile trail, but seemed to get in a flow. I was certain it was all uphill, though. Ugh. As I got closer to the aid station, I figured I was 20 minutes down on my second loop compared to the first. I took a little longer at the food table the second time around, filled up my nearly empty water, and took two mouthfuls of food. On the brief road section, I did NOT feel fast, which assured that my tired state was not just attributable to the loose loop-two footing.

By the time I got to Hawk Ridge and crossed Skyline, it was a relief nearly of the magnitude of the race being over. Relief that the worst was behind me and just five gritty miles to go. I was way off my goal of four hours, figured that Wynn was way ahead or finished already or something, and hoping that nobody would come up behind me. I could never know so wasn’t really even concerned. Plus too tired to be concerned.

Atop Hawk Ridge, on the mountain bike trail below the bird observation area and overlook, I passed a snowshoer with trekking poles. He was in for a long day at that point! At a switchback, I noticed him running down the hill above me, and like a flash, another runner behind him. I stretched my neck to catch a glimpse at his bib color, but quickly diverted my eyes back to the ground as I slid around in every direction. Gahhhhh. The slow going was almost comical, and I used that humor to keep my morale up as I got passed. The guy was quick and did not waste time running out of sight. I wondered how many more times I’d be passed, and so tried to push on the downhills below Hawk Ridge and on the lower Amity Creek trails. It seemed like my dead legs and sore ligaments were just blindly succumbing to the overwhelming signals from my brain telling them to keep churning, my brain fueled by the feeling of going fast on the downhill Amity section. Unfortunately, my watch said differently and I was going slow, struggling to get above 11 minutes per mile.

I saw a few more glimpses of the person who passed me, passed a few slower, presumably half marathon people, and then saw the same people a few minutes later. Jeez, those trails twist and turn on themselves all over the place. I crossed over Seven Bridges Road and trudged the final mile. What a relief to finish! I instantly realized that it was fun and not really terrible, and soon after also realized that I got second place, the guy in front of me won, and Wynn took a wrong turn, cut a big section of course and was DQ’ed. That is unfortunate. The final realization was that the now winner was Jon Balabuck from Thunder Bay, a guy I thought I’d raced several times in the past at triathlon races.

I came in just under 4:20, and was totally beat afterwards. I was awarded a mason jar full of peanut M&M’s and joked that I won my lunch.

Garmin Data

Place: 2/14
Time: 4:18:59
Pace: 9:52

Shoes: Brooks Cascadia size 11.5

Food: 3 gels, a couple shot blocks, a Twix bar, and some chips, one small pancake

Race Day: Saturday, June 9, 2018 – 10am

At the start line, nobody seemed to know exactly what they were getting into from here on out. The Last Runner Standing in Duluth was a new race just launched in early 2018 and on June 9, 66 runners set out on lap one.

I heard about the race and figured it’d be a good event to set my sights on. After Superior, I had no premonitions, no huge drive and nothing on the radar in terms of racing. That’s a freaky feeling… maybe I’m getting old? Maybe I’m becoming domesticated? Either way, it’s kind of funny not knowing how long, time or distance- wise, you should train for. I think my training suffered knowing that I only had to go 4.1 miles to finish.

Here is some background on the Last Runner Standing event in the best way that I can describe it. It took place at Spirit Mountain in Duluth and the race course is a 4.1666667 mile loop. That loop’s first mile is decently flat on a gravel road, essentially. The next two miles are on Superior Hiking Trail singletrack, with a decent climb, a brutal stair downhill section, but pretty runable overall, with several stretches that are perfect singletrack trail running–slightly downhill or flat. That stuff is the best. The final mile is mostly on ATV/ski hill access roads. In that final mile, the first quarter mile is downhill. The second quarter mile is flat, and the last half mile of the loop is downhill. That whole mile is about 500 feet of descent, and the last half mile is about 400 feet of pure drop. I think that translates to about a 15% grade, and don’t have a great comparison, but the downhill got to be brutal after a while. So given that loop, the Last Runner Standing race is over once everyone quits besides one last runner who can complete the loop solo. The first race started at 10am, the second at 11am, and every other race at the top of the hour, every hour, until the winner is determined. The overall pace is dictated at 14:24 minutes per mile, but the faster you run, the longer you get in the chair (or at the aid station, whatever you need to recover before the next top of the hour).

I trained for this race hoping to feel like I was in shape for 100 miles, and with that number in my mind. 100 miles would translate to 24 loops, 24 hours, or running one last loop at 9am on Sunday morning. Training went OK but I didn’t feel like I was in shape I was for Superior 9 months prior.

I packed up a ton of food: gels, gummies, fruit snacks, a lot of chips, ice cream, a few turkey wraps, cookies, fruit, gatorade, pop, and water. I brought a myriad of gear like handhelds, a waist belt, water bladders, hydration pack, hats, clothes, shoes and socks, rain gear, tents and chairs. There were serious doubts in my mind after my next door neighbor Pete and I ran the muddy course on Monday before the race and got a lay of the land. I figured it’d be very mentally strenuous to really make it far.

Pete was signed up and ready to rock as well, and he requested to share a big pop-up 10×10 tent that I procured. I showed up to the race before 9am to set up and was happy to get a great spot. I started setting up and organizing and putzing and pacing around nervously. By 9, the parking lot at the bottom of Spirit was filling up and Pete arrived. With plenty of time to spare, I sat around and the pre-race meeting began around 9:50am. No surprises here, it was just an explanation of the course and rules. If you don’t make it back before the hour is up, you are eliminated. If you don’t start the race at the top of the hour, you are eliminated. Simple.

We lined up at the start and finish line, and I was impressed by the amount of people. It was a hoard! Will this make it challenging?? Oh well, I figured that if I could make it a few laps with no mishaps people would start dropping out soon enough. I had my trekking poles right away at lap one, and didn’t know what else to bring so kept my water and food and toilet paper and supplies at the home base.

The race started with much excitement and at exactly 10am, we were off. I snuck my way to the front and wanted to bank a little bit of time right at the beginning, knowing that it was runable and not wanting to get caught behind anybody. Everyone was talking to each other and sharing strategies and thoughts. I hit the first mile in 7:30.

Photo credit: Amy Broadmoore

When we got to the singletrack, up it goes, and I walked. People clumped up behind me but nobody wanted to go around. Why would they?? The pace is dictated for us. I walked most of the singletrack, ran when I should, and walked the entire last downhill mile to get in around 46 minutes. It felt so easy and really no impact on the body.

Photo credit: Amy Broadmoore

Photo credit: Eve Graves

Photo credit: Dan LaPlante

At the finish line, I went straight to my chair and ate anything that struck me as tasty, just trying to get a couple calories in, and chugged some water. There were ample announcements when it was 5 minutes, then 4, 3 minutes, 2 minutes and one minute until the next race was to begin. I moseyed out of my chair with a minute to go, an 8 second walk from the chair to the start line, and was ready for race two.

My plan, which had been festering in my mind, was to rock 52-minute loops until 12 hours in, 50 miles, and hope to feel good. From there, let ‘er rip. See who’s left, get strategic and try to be the Last Runner Standing. I was a little fast on the first lap and wanted to slow down on the second loop. My first mile was slower, and tried to repeat my walking and running strategy. Walk the uphills, run when I should.

Photo Credit: Eve Graves

Photo credit: Amy Broadmoore

Photo credit: Amy Broadmoore

I rejoined my neighbor Pete at mile 3.5 and we descended the first hill together back to the finish line, talking strategy. Walking down the big hill is probably smart, we thought. I mentioned I was unfortunately going to have to stop at the bathrooms between laps. Er, I said I was actually going to have to stop immediately. So I ran off in the woods with an upset stomach. The vegetation was high and coated in dew. How unpleasant on lap two, to have to squat in the woods. As well, why does this keep happening to me?? Maybe it was the gel I ate that lap. I got a bit frustrated because I didn’t have TP on me. Leaves it is. I got up and ran the catwalk a quarter of a mile to the final downhill bomb, and into the finish line at around 11:50am. 50 minutes wan’t too bad given the emergency dump (e-dump). I kept running straight through the finish line to the porto-potties to clean up. I got back to my chair, ate a bit, drank and was ready to go for loop three.

Photo credit: Eve Stein

Photo credit: Dan Laplante

The next seven loops were straightforward. I became very familiar with the trail and was able to complete loops 4-9 in 52 minutes or very close to that minute-mark. Every hill or flat section, technical or runable stretch, was marked as either hike or run, and it almost seemed like I was taking the same footstep on every loop to get me exactly 52 minutes.

Photo credit: Eve Graves

Photo credit: Amy Broadmoore

Photo credit: Dan LaPlante

What was also consistent was an upset stomach. I was having major issues. I could eat just fine, but my stomach was not sitting right and I made frequent stops. That caused some irritation in certain parts of my body, which was compounded by the friction of running. I was locked on my pace and strategy, but suffering. My legs were fine, fatigue was in check. Just as soon as I thought my stomach was settled, I’d nearly poop my pants the next loop. Terrible. Emily offered me an Imodium tablet, which is an anti-diarrheal pill. I reluctantly took one. She told me to take two. I told her I didn’t want to. I was scared it’d mess me up worse or make me uncomfortable. She told me to take the other one. I took it.

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

Photo credit: Eve Graves

Photo credit: Amy Broadmoore

Given the struggles of my digestive system, it wasn’t all bad. The conversation was great. It was so fun to run with the same people, or different people, chatting away, talking strategy, and hearing about people’s stories. I ran with Ryan Wold, an ultra guy from Spicer. I did loops with my running buddy Dave Schuneman, who signed up on race week. I did laps with a local runner Marcus, and ran for hours and hours with my friend, next door neighbor, and tent-sharer Pete, totally unplanned and by chance. Funny how that works.

Photo credit: Eve Graves

Photo credit: Eve Graves

Photo credit: Eve Graves

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

I was chatting with a guy Mark from Iowa who has run an obscene amount of days in a row, and runs 11 miles a day, unquestionably. He was there to win, he said. He has what it takes because he runs 11 miles a day every day, and also said he’d rather die than lose. Umm, what. I was a little taken aback at that comment. I said out loud that the race will get gritty once it’s dark out. I kept telling people my prediction that past 10pm, people will start dropping quick. Would Mark be there? My other friends running with me?? On two consecutive laps, I found two pretty big agates. I was eating whatever food I wanted, fueling smartly and drinking plenty at the aid station. Then again, I barely carried water with me, and didn’t feel thirsty. I ran with poles for at least the first nine loops.

Agate photo credit: Amy Broadmoore

After lap nine, going onto my 50 mile benchmark, I told Emily that I wasn’t going to continue after this lap. I could do one more, but it was too hard, my loins were in pain, sick of my digestive system. I couldn’t even pee because I was too afraid that it would come out the back, too! The 40 miles were starting to get to me, I was tired. Yet I started and made the loop in 50 minutes or so… and could do another loop. Just one more loop, I could do just one more. The race director Andy said that at 9pm, loop 10, runners could have a “companion” during the night loops. I started pointing at my crew in the tent, Kyle jumped at the chance. He stripped off his hoodie and I changed my mind, telling him that he could come next loop.

I started loop 10 with no poles, just to try. I ran the first few steps and chatted with Michael Borst, who was running every loop fast and looking really fresh still. He said this was just a training run and he was going to drop out at the first sign of fatigue, maybe after this loop or by 100k. There were maybe 20 or 25 runners still left going onto 50 miles. Definitely not a soft field. I ran fast with Mike, and kept going fast for some reason. It just felt good, and was so happy to stop and take a pee on the course. While doing that, I spotted one more agate, the best one of the bunch. That jacked me up.

I came in around 46 minutes to complete 50 miles and picked up Kyle to run with me. At that point, I had my headlamp and it was officially dark. I didn’t really feel like talking so had Kyle tell me story. He didn’t really have any stories to tell, but we chatted away and the loop went quick. I told Kyle I didn’t need a pacer and I’m still not sure if he wanted to run more or not. He said he’d run 7 miles earlier that day… When we got back from loop 11, I was feeling good. I ate another slice of Pizza Luce pizza and was just grazing. Fizzy water was delicious and Emily was such a good crew person always making me drink. I wouldn’t have made it that far without her, no doubt.

In the night, people started noticeable dropping off every lap. The field shrunk, and I could really start to see who I was up against. There were some hearty looking runners, Ryan was still in, Seth looked like a machine, and the Iowan Mark was looking really, really bad. When he finished, even though he was very consistent at 51 minutes or so, he’d collapse into his crew’s arms and they’d ferry him to his tent. With a minute to go, they’d ferry him back out, one person on each side and blankets draped, and he’d start. That got some interesting looks from the race directors and medical staff. But he kept going.

I was feeling really good, and started finishing each loop first. At the next milestone, 100k after loop 15, a couple more dropped out. It was down to me, Mark (who looked in really rough shape), and two other guys I hadn’t met or talked to. I didn’t know how anyone was running except they were all coming in consistently in the 50’s and I was still running for some reason, and coming in at 45 or 47 minutes. I was running uphill and running downhill. There were only a few sections where I was hiking. The last downhill plunge (dubbed “The Plunge”), was becoming more and more dreadful.

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

The next loop, Mark came in with only one minute to spare. Emily and a few fans from Duluth Running Co. (Ian, Dayeton and Kyle) helped move the chair and food items to the fire because it was getting pretty cold in the early Sunday morning hours. We all four went out. Another fast loop. When I got back, I learned that Mark turned back. Down to three. I met Brandon one of the other runners still in the mix, and he and his dad Bruce had essentially set up camp around the campfire as well. Brandon was from Barnum. He’d requested fries from McDonalds and Bruce asked if I wanted anything. I told him that a double cheeseburger would be awesome. After the next loop, he had it. I ran that loop really fast, just feeling good. Perhaps it was the prospect of the burger. It tasted so good.

We all three lined up for loop 18 and when four 0’s showed, 18:00:00, we went off. I had my trekking poles and didn’t run out of the gate. I was too tired. A few more steps and Brandon and the other runner Nick escaped into the night. I thought it may be my time. I stopped. I looked down at my feet and balanced on my poles. All the sudden, done. It was a weird feeling, but my legs just felt shot. Well, how much more shot are they now then when they felt shot 8 hours ago? I realized it was totally a mind game. I didn’t have it in me to continue. Or did I? I sat down, then laid down. I looked at the stars. I was looking for an excuse to turn back, and my excuse is that I’d sat down and laid down and looked at the stars and burned too much time. I couldn’t get up to run the rest of the loop within the hour! In hindsight, that would have been a better option. Instead, I turned around and walked back two minutes to the finish line.

Andy ran up and asked if I was injured. I told him no, no, just too tired. The fire was so warm and welcoming, and I think Emily was a little relieved that I was done and she was done. I was relieved But I also know she was proud of my work, and I thought it was pretty cool that I made it 17 hours, over 70 miles, and to be one of the last three standing. Still, “third place” is the same as dropping after one loop, on paper, and it’s really nothing. Winning–to be the Last Runner Standing–is the one and only glory in this race.

I rested for a bit, thanked Bruce for the burger. He joked that the laxatives that he put in the burger must have worked. I told him I didn’t even need that, based on how the day had gone. Me and Emily embarked on the grueling task of tearing down our home base at 3:20am and after a long, long day. It was nice once everything was packed back up, and we sat by the fire, admired the far away glint of the sky starting to turn the purple hue that is morning. We had to at least see how this 18th loop would pan out.

Nick came in first, at about 3:51am. I told him it was down to two. He asked where Mike was. I said I was Mike. Brandon came in and looked as relieved as Emily and I, and I wished him luck as the local dude. It turned out that Brandon ran a couple minutes over an hour on loop 21. Nick started and finished loop 22 to become Last Runner Standing, clocking over 91 miles. They ran well into the sunlight of Sunday.

It was a crazy race. I think everyone except Nick thought about how if they did this or did that, they would have run further. Everyone had a reason why they couldn’t run one more loop. My reason was bad, I just couldn’t do it. Brandon is a true beast for running until he was too slow to complete the loop in an hour. That is a good reason. I think this is true for any distance and amount of time, but I found Last Runner Standing to be hard physically, but very much harder mentally.

Garmin Data

Place: 3/66
Number of laps: 17
Miles: 70.83

Shoes: Brooks Cascadia size 11.5

Gear: Too much to list. Mostly just trekking poles

Food and drink: Too much to list. Mostly Pizza Luce and fizzy water.

Race Day: Friday, September 8, 2017 – 8am

I feel like I had been building up to this race for 3 years. I remember hearing about Superior as a lowly triathlete and being kind of mystified by the thought of a 100 miler, learning about Western States and other ultramarathons and thinking I’d never do anything like that. After my first marathon, I signed up for a 50k. Trail running is fun. Fast forward a year or two and I’m in a 50 miler, hike the Superior Hiking Trail, and I’d be hard pressed not to step up to the big boy. The main reason I wanted to register for the Superior Fall Trail Race aka Superior 100, also known as Sawtooth, was my intense passion for the Superior Hiking Trail. Having hiked the whole trail, it seemed so fun to try a different challenge in a different format. Plus, what runner doesn’t want to have a 100 mile finish on their resume?

The background and history of Sawtooth is incredible. I don’t need to regurgitate, visit www.superiorfalltrailrace.com for all the information you need. One of the oldest 100 mile races is the country… founded in 1991 when there were around 10- 100 mile races… almost all singletrack trail and 100% on the Superior Hiking Trail. In my opinion, it is the most challenging 100 mile section of the SHT.

Registration is on January 1st for the race. I figured I’d make it through the lottery, but this year the 100 mile race did actually fill and people were allegedly turned away! (The Moose Mountain Marathon regularly fills and the 50-mile race filled as well). So I had 9 months of pondering, worrying, training, planning.

A 100 mile race is a bit different than any other race I’ve participated in. First off, the longest race I’d done was Ironman Wisconsin, which took over 10 hours. It’s be the longest distance-wise, too, at 140.6 miles. However, my target finish time was 24 hours. Even in January, that is what I thought I could maybe pull off. Months go by, and on race morning I still wanted to get under 24 hours as an outer goal. 24 hours is a lot different than 10 hours. Per the race rules, 100 mile runners can have a crew and pacers. There are 13 aid stations every 5-10 miles along the course. Crew can meet you at 11 of the aid stations with any gear, food, clothes, items, care and moral support they can offer. Pacers are able to run with the athletes essentially from the half way point on. The job of the pacer is less to actually keep pace but again offer moral support. Pacers cannot “mule” or carry items for the racer, though. Of course, every one of the 13 aid stations offer standard aid station fare like water, electrolyte drinks, food of various types.

The planning was pretty intense. My first objective was to get my crew together. Emily, my girlfriend, was selected as General Manager. I figured she’d be the best one to oversee everything. She’s good at planning, very detail oriented, and would inevitably be listening to me talk about the race endlessly for weeks and weeks and months. My dad was a natural choice for Chief Transportation Engineer. He’s followed me around for so many races and has an innate sense of where to be and when to catch me. I got my brother Matt on board as a “floater” and Numbers Guy/Equations Guy. I wanted him to be able to take my split times and spit out my pace, MPH average, expected time to next aid station, and to keep tabs on where I’m at in the race. Next were pacers. I got my training buddy and racing buddy Nick Nygaard on board. We’ve run together so many times over the years and he seemed like a natural fit given he’d done the race himself a couple years back. A last minute addition was Skeeter and Kris, who both had proclaimed that they hadn’t been running all summer and were out of shape. Well, on race week they started running again and assured me they would make an effort to do a section apiece through the night and if I drop them, I drop them. Oh well.

Training began promptly in January. I had a great, incredible, awesome, perfect build up to Zumbro in April. Looking back at this point, I’d never had a more consistent training block and have never been that fit before. A few months of relatively shaky running and I didn’t feel super confident going into the summer, but still set PRs in 5k, 5 mile, half marathon, and 50 mile. My volume was OK, but it was a couple of big weekend runs into August that made me a little more confident and allowed me to dial in my pace and expectations for the real race. 14 minutes per mile seemed like a pace that I could do a lot of walking and really hold consistently for a long time without becoming too fatigued. So I practiced 14 minute pace for hours and hours and started formulating.

The planning started two weeks before. Emily got a binder and printed all sorts of information, and scheduled a meeting with me to go over her questions and concerns. She’s very detailed. Perfect. She gave me a checklist after our meeting. I evenutally got together my lights, batteries, clothes, gear, water holders, food, drinks, and organized it all in bags, boxes, and a big cooler. Finally, race was week was upon us and I couldn’t sleep well. My mind was racing every night. I was so excited for Thursday morning. I was so happy to finally pack up and head to Two Harbors.

The pre-race meeting in Two Harbors was fun. I saw some familiar faces, chatted with a few strangers, had a few last-minute concerns to go over with Emily and Dad, and we listened to race director John Storkamp talk about the race. I looked longingly at the first place overall metal trophy. Boy, that would be cool. What would it take? I sat down for the pre race portrait and smiled in excitement. I’m not the type of person to take a hard-ass non-smiling portrait. This is all for fun, anyways. I’m no different than anyone else out there. Running 100 miles in one shot doesn’t make you a hard ass. A weirdo, maybe…

Photo credit: Ian Corless

After the spaghetti dinner, we went back to my dad’s campsite at Gooseberry State Park, which is conveniently where the race starts 12 hours later. We unloaded Emily’s car and started sorting things into Dad’s SUV. We talked about last minute timeframes and plans, then tucked in to bed. I didn’t seem too restless, but had to pee in the middle of the night so woke up for that. When I went outside, it hurt my eyes to look at the nearly full moon because it was so bright. So much for the aurora forecast…

I woke up feeling rested and excited to embark on a long, long day in the woods. It was a chilly, sunny morning. I had my pre-race cereal, took my pre-race dump, all systems go. Em and Dad were stirring and they were preparing for THEIR long day and night in the woods as well. I started to get anxious as it got close to 7:30 and they were still putzing around. I still have to check in!! We hopped in the car and drove to the visitor’s center and sure enough had plenty of time to check in and nervously pace around. I saw some other friends but didn’t really dilly dally around. I wanted to be at the front of the pack at the narrow start line so made my way away from the crowd at the coffee pot pretty early. Eventually John made an announcement and the rest of the 100 mile participants lined up. John followed as well, carrying a large speaker on his back. He and his staff and volunteers had a long day in the woods ahead, too.

There were a few announcements, I don’t remember what was said, but I know I didn’t want to be at the front of the pack anymore. Why am I in the absolute front row? Oh well, might as well build a big buffer in mile one, I thought to myself. It’s a daunting, scary race, but that doesn’t mean I can’t joke with myself.

Next thing I know, “GO!” and we’re off. I started my watch with no intention to stop it until I get to Lutsen, and took off. The jostling of my pack was funny… better get used to that quickly! There were a ton of spectators in the park, and we had to run on paved path for about 5 miles before hitting the singletrack for 98 more miles. Once we go out of the Gooseberry State Park Trails and paralleled Highway 61 on the Gitchi Gummi Trail, I pulled away with Neal Collick. He’d won Voyageur a month and half back, I had a great race in 6th place, and he definitely had a target on his back. I looked around my shoulder and there was nobody in sight. Hmm, we took off pretty quick then! He asked if we were being stupid. Eh, no. Well, I don’t know. We kept jogging, and chatted a little bit. He rode up with Mattias, another guy who had some ultramarathon accolades and was projected to be a potential race champion. I asked Neal what sort of time he’d like to do and he said under 24 hours would be great. Hmm, me too! He had to adjust his gaiters, even said he regretted wearing them, and I took the lead. Sweet, maybe I can hold this placement for the rest of the race.

Photo credit: Fresh Tracks Media

Photo credit: John Stewart

There were a few more spectators and a ton of cars, at the Split Rock River Wayside where the paved trail goes under the highway and up into the singletrack trail of the SHT. Neal had caught back up to me and sprinted up the hill from the parking lot. I chose to walk, and I’d never see him again. All trail from here…

My race plan was to hold 12 minute pace through mile 25, then drop to 14 minute pace through mile 85, then run it in with Nick pacing me. If I could average 10 minute miles from 85-100, I’d go under 22 hours, which is stellar and good enough to win. So that was my goal. But how would I feel at 85?? 10 minute pace is really, really cruising on that trail. So, mile 6 and I chose to walk, wanting to stick 12 minutes per mile early instead of letting adrenaline and excitement dictate my pace. Mattias caught up to me pretty quickly and commented on the mud. It was very, very muddy along the Split Rock River. He wondered how crazy it’d be if the whole trail was like this. I had to laugh in my mind, and said that actually, the whole trail WAS going to be like this. I’d done enough recon to know that no section was void of extreme mud at some point. He then asked about the trail up north, as he’d done some sections in Duluth, which was rugged. He asked if Duluth was the hardest part of the trail or what. I told him no. At the next hill, he ran up it and I walked. I had to shake my head… if his expectation was that this course was somehow easier than in Duluth and not muddy, he’d be in for a rude awakening. Not that the Duluth sections are easy, because they are not. But definitely not of the rugged nature out here. And the mud… The mud was almost laughable in Split Rock. How???

It was no time that I got to the infamous Split Rock River crossing. The bridge had recently gone out so it was a raw river crossing. There were photographers and volunteers leading the way and it was really pretty easy to rock hop the shallow crossing. I took my time, a bit too much tip-toeing, and noticed a huge pack of guys behind me before I reached the other side.

Photo credit: Cole Peyton

Photo credit: Cole Peyton

Photo credit: Cole Peyton

I was in third at this point and by the time I reached the other side of the river, I was leading a pack of 5 or 6 guys, by my premonition. I couldn’t afford the glance back as the mud and roots were extreme. I tried to hop around some mud spots and even got a comment from in back, along the lines of “just go through it man, you won’t be able to avoid the mud today”. I felt pressured and didn’t really like being in front! I gotta go slow! I noticed Adam Schwartz-Lowe directly behind me and he asked if it was muddy like this last year while thru-hiking. I told him no. Then I let him go in front of me, but the remainder of the pack did not change position. I could tell we were running fast. Too fast for my liking but I felt pressured. Soon enough, we were at the first aid station at mile 10. The volunteers said it was another 10 miles to the next aid station and to fill up on water. I did not, but did drink some Heed and browsed the food table. I took two cookies and grabbed some gummi worms and was off. I looked up the steps and noticed that that big pack had left me in the dust. How many guys was that?? In my mind, I’d gone from first place to third, and how to perhaps 10th place. Oh, well, at least I’m not pressured to run, I thought. That aid station was out-and-back on a small spur so I got a glimpse of who was behind me. I saw Dave Hyopponen and high-fived him. There wasn’t really anyone right on me and so at the top of the hill I got into my own groove. It was a beautiful day, and the views are incredible coming out of the Split Rock valley.

Photo credit: Ian Corless

Photo credit: Fresh Tracks Media

12 minute pace. Keep the running up but don’t hesitate to walk. Don’t burn any matches here. The race is early. I had plenty of pre-race mantras. Eventually another guy caught up to me and stuck on my back. I asked if he wanted to pass. Nope. Ok. His name was Tommy and I recognized his name from the pre-race speculative articles. He’d won a few hundreds and was a contender. He asked if I’d done this race before. Nope, first hundred, I said. He told me immediately to keep eating. “Keep eating, man.” Tommy had a southern accent and I learned he was from St. Louis, MO. He ran the Ozark Trail predominantly and had won the Ozarks 100 several times. In fact, he was going for his 19th 100 mile finish. So we ran together. He was right on my butt and I didn’t feel pressured to run or anything because he said he preferred to pace off me and have someone to talk to. He was reminding me to keep eating a bunch, and harked on me early about the importance of eating. If you don’t eat, you pay for it later. It’s impossible to catch up once you’re behind on calories. Always be eating. “You gotta keep eating, man. Are you eating? You should be eating some food right now, man. Don’t forget to drink your water.” It was funny… Ok, Ok, I’ll eat!! Cripes!

We got into some really runnable sections and it was nice to chat with Tommy for a while. We ran for perhaps an hour. We talked about our respective races and stuff, I talked about thru-hiking the trail. He gave me plenty of tips and what to expect with a hundred mile. Eating. Yeah, got the eating part!! Tommy said that if I’m running good at mile 60 I’d start picking people off. That stuck with me for the whole race. Looking back, Tommy was an instrumental part of the race for me. We walked up a small hill and were passed twice. He told me to keep eating and asked if I’d drank any water recently. To appease him I drank water. I ate more food. I told him about my food plan, looking for reassurance. I said I was going to eat lunch around lunch time, and pizza around dinnertime, and a lot of potato chips and trail mix and backpacker food. He said it sounded good… whatever works. I asked what his nutrition plan was. “Gels”, he said. I kind of laughed… gels and…?? Nope, just gels. That’s what works for Tommy. I asked how many gels he’d eat today and he said 30. WHAT?? No, 30 or more! Probably more, he said. Yeah, running 100 miles is a feat, but I personally think it’s more impressive or hard or difficult or strenuous to eat 30 gels in the course of 24 hours! Funny. Chatting helped the time go by.

After a few downhills where I could feel Tommy right on my heels, I asked once again if he wanted to pop in front of me and he accepted my offer. He ran off and out of sight. Alone again, probably in 13th place or so. I anxiously felt that I was falling off early. No, I thought, stick to the plan and if I’m running good at mile 60 I’d start picking off these fools.

Photo credit: Zach Pierce

I got to the beaver pond that John Storkamp warned us about the night before and waded through it, waist deep in water. I ate a Clif Bar as I walked through and hoped no beavers would nibble my ankles. It felt good to be knee deep in water but strange to run in soaking wet shoes and socks. It was just a few miles to the next aid station where I’d hope to see my crew and change my shoes and socks. I ran solo into Beaver Bay.

It was a funny feeling nearing the aid station. You could feel it. You could hear it. Or is that the wind? Then a volunteer banging a cowbell, then the road, then a huge mob of people. I looked around in a stupor. Holy crap, there was a lot of people since it was the first aid station that allowed crews. I spotted my dad and he pointed me towards Emily, who had a tiny foldable chair ready to go. AH! What do I need? First thing, socks. I realized I forgot to pack a towel in my gear bag. How do I forget that?? My feet were soaked. Luckily, there were plenty of people around and the lady behind us had all of these shop towels. I dried my feet and then a volunteer came back with paper towels and started cleaning my feet for me. I said “this is better service than the spa!” New socks, damp shoes back on, I took my handheld water bottle, ran back to get some food from the aid station and took off. The new socks felt awesome, though.

Photo credit: Fresh Tracks Media

Running down to the Beaver River, I could feel the adrenaline from the aid station. 20 miles in, 1/5 of the way done, and 5 miles to Silver Bay where I would pick up my hiking poles and lock into my 14 minute pace. At this point, I was over an hour ahead of my planned pace. Wow. 20 miles just zipped by. I was still alone and couldn’t determine if I’d passed anyone in the hoopla of the last aid station. I ran good along the Beaver River, but had to walk a bit climbing away from it. I started to feel the first signs of getting a little tired. I was happy that no part of my body seemed sore, yet a little concerned about my urge to walk. The sun was getting higher in the sky, it was about noon by now, and it was hot on the exposed cliffs overlooking Silver Bay. I remembered Tommy’s advice to keep eating and followed it. By now, I’d had a pack of energy gummis, a gel or two, a couple bags of chips, a Clif bar, a few handfuls of trail mix and candy. Plus a bit of something at the first two aid stations. I had requested Emily have my lunch ready at Silver Bay–a wrap and Mountain Dew.

Atop a cliff with less than a mile until the Silver Bay aid station, I wondered where everyone else was. Had Tommy run away to go for the win? Where was Adam and that pack of guys up front? They probably are running together and have hours on me. Where is Dave Hypo? Gaining ground so we can run together through the night? I heard the aid station and it wasn’t much longer until I arrived.

There were a lot less people at Silver Bay but it was still busy and kind of crazy to find my crew. Emily had the chair set up and everything out. My wrap was the first thing in my hands. I tried to eat it fast and my dad gave me five minutes instead of the regular two since it was lunch time. The Dew was great. I grabbed my trekking poles, set them nearby and ate a handful of chips. It was hard to chew fast. I saw Tina Nelson, Dave’s crew captain, and she said he was in 16th place and feeling really good. Dad and Emily were saying I was in 11th place or so. I saw Tommy, too, and he took off as I was eating. My five minutes were up so I took one last bite of wrap, almost finished it, a slug of Mountain Dew and took my chips and trekking poles with me. Now, to lock in.

I started up out of Silver Bay with the intention to walk a ways and digest the relatively big meal in my stomach. Eating a wrap is a bit different than a gel. I forgot about that intention a few times and the jogging felt fine. No jostling, no side ache, no extreme urge to poop (aka The Clench). But the terrain dictated my pace and I was back walking soon enough. It is rugged for many continuous miles, a lot of up and down from Silver Bay to Section 13 perhaps 20 miles down the trail, and this is why I planned to grab the trekking poles and lock in at a 14 minute per mile pace. I saw a few hikers before Bean and Bear Lakes and wondered if there was anyone behind me since I seemed to be going so slow. The overlooks on exposed rock faces were warm. I stopped to take a leak at one of them and took in the view. It was a perfect day. Perhaps a little hot but I remembered my old friend Tommy, somewhere ahead of me probably running strong, telling me to drink lots of water and so I kept sipping. I was doing good on food. The wrap was settling in as I got a few miles into the longer 10 mile section. I had plenty of food on me and nibbled on my bag of chips that I couldn’t finish at the last aid station.

It was exciting to crest the hill to Bean Lake. That has to be one of the most dramatic and gorgeous views on the Superior Hiking Trail, and today didn’t disappoint. The sun was shining and I saw a photographer with a ladder (a ladder??) taking pictures for the race. I think he missed me, unfortunately, as I look back to the camera reel. I was running pretty good and felt confident with the new pace that I was to hit for 60 miles in the meat of the race. Down and up to Bear Lake, I looked back to see if there was indeed anyone hunting me down. I saw a red shirt bobbing up and down at the top of Bean Lake and thought it may be Ryan Braun, who I’ve raced many times in the past. It kind of looked like him but too far away to tell. Whatever.

Photo credit: Zach Pierce

I walked on some of the flats below Bean and Bear Lake and had to remind myself to run when I could. This section has plenty of elevation gain that has to be walked and it takes a fair amount of running to hit 14 minutes per mile on average for the section. So I ran. I kept eating even though I wasn’t really hungry. This is the time to catch up on food even though it was right after lunch time. I was drinking a lot of water, which was good, but because it was hot out and I was sweating. Up to Mount Trudee was another grind, but I felt good in my movement. I could power hike really well up the hill and run at the top. That is the key, I thought, to just keep it consistent and take what the trail gives me. There was another photographer with an English accent at the top, instructing me to run around the edge of an overlook for a better shot and I obliged. I thought it was probably Ian Corless. What a great day for a great shot. All I could think of is how there really could not be much better conditions. Well, maybe 10 degrees cooler…

Photo credit: Ian Corless

It was easiest to break up the race in sections of sections of sections… I know the trail well enough to know what’s coming next, (or at least think I know what’s coming next), and that’s how I raced it. I thought to myself, it’s runnable down here, a little uphill, then the drainpipe, then easy running to the aid station. And so I’d break up each section to that small of scale, and take it as it came. Walk the uphills and really technical sections, walk when I felt like it, but mostly running. And by mostly, I meant 51% or more. I didn’t want to overdo it but felt calm and confident when walking that I wasn’t wasting time. A few speedy, runnable patches of trail and I was at the Drainpipe. It was nice to finally get to these landmarks that I knew, and the Drainpipe is kind of fun. To my surprise, there was a photographer at the bottom of the steep descent and I made my way down carefully but quickly, probing with my trekking poles. It was just a mile or less to the aid station, and I was out of water. It was hot and I was thirsty. I didn’t eat anything else because it would be too hard to wash it down.

Photo credit: Kelly Doyle

Photo credit: Kelly Doyle

Photo credit: Kelly Doyle

In a flash, I could hear bells rattling and the narrow and congested Tettegouche aid station was before me. I saw my mom first, then Dad and Emily, right in the front with the chair set up and gear bag laid out and organized for quick grabbing. My first utterance was “water, water, water” and my mom grabbed my pack off my back, which was perfect. I mentioned my toe, which was bothering me a little bit. My one black fourth toenail had bruised at Voyageur. Healed but black nonetheless, and it was rubbing and jamming again. Also, I kept hitting it on rocks and roots and was afraid that the toenail was hanging loose or something. I didn’t take action, however, just mentioned it. I did grab some extra food, emptied my waist pouch, and my mom came back with the pack, bladder mostly full of water, and she asked if she should add more water and went to fill it. In my haste, I told her it was a short section and swung the pack on my back. It was good to see her out of the blue, though, and I felt good running towards the Baptism River and High Falls. I noticed my old friend Tommy as I ran from the aid station, and so had just passed him! He saw his chance to hop on my back and set off right behind me, chugging down the smooth and wide State Park trails down to the river and onwards.

At this point, we were at 35 miles and 6:30 into the race. It was about 2:30pm in the afternoon and definitely warm. I looked down to see what my watch said and to my extreme frustration I had paused my watch putting on my pack. Shit! Oh well, time is off but whatever. I had my watch on the battery-efficient Ultratrac mode, which connects to the GPS satellites less often than regular GPS mode, but it was pretty useless because the pace and distance was definitely way off. I switched to the regular clock screen and did calculations off of that. I figured we’d want to be into County Road 6 aid station around 4:30pm. My dad, filling in as numbers guy, said I was right on track for my 14 minute pace on the last section to Tettegouche. With a big buffer already in place, that was perfect. It felt perfect and I was prepared to lock in on the next section. However, I hadn’t done Tettegouche to County Road 6 in a long time. I remembered it was very rugged. I mentioned this to Tommy as we ran across the bridge to High Falls. He was in front of me and I told him a fun fact, that High Falls was the largest waterfall completely in Minnesota. He stopped to take a glance at it or snap a picture or something.

Out of the Baptism River, Tommy latched on to my back and we chatted a bit. He said he was doing a little rough… he was excited for the night since it was getting hot for him during the day. I mentioned how I’d run out of water and he gave me some good encouragement and said that whatever I was doing, to keep doing that and I’m doing awesome. A very positive dude, this Tommy. I asked him how many gels he’d eaten and he said with a laugh, too many. He seemed like he was dragging ass a little bit but he stuck with me. I commented on how this section upcoming was pretty tough. A lot of uphills… one right away with steps. He didn’t seem to be fond of the uphills. Meanwhile, I had my trekking poles and could just jet right up with a strong power hike. Up a steep grade right by the spur trail to the County Road 1 parking lot and I lost him. Across the road, I saw Jarrow directing traffic and he made a joke about how I was still alive, and Tommy caught back up to me. It was definitely getting hot now, and I was slurping water down. I felt like I needed to actually conserve. I took out my cheat sheet of miles to aid stations and felt like an idiot. My mom didn’t get the bladder filled all the way, I thought it was a shorter section, but it was still 8.6 miles! That’s not much shorter at all!! If I ran out on the last bit I definitely will now, and got a little bit worried about that. Oh well, I can conserve now and camel some fluids at the next aid station. Boy, a Gatorade sounds good.. and I have a bunch with the crew.

Up, down, across a river, up, down, run on a boardwalk, up, up, way down. This section was relentless. On some uphill, I lost Tommy once again. Where were those stairs I remembered?? I didn’t see them. I thought Tommy was caught back up to me but it was actually Ryan Braun. Wow! He’s having a good race. We ran a little bit together at Zumbro earlier in the year. He stuck on my back for a while. At first, we were silent, but we eventually started chatting. He was being crewed by his father and seemed to be banking time up for the night. He looked good and seemed to be running really well. We flip-flopped positions a few times but stayed close.

Photo credit: Amy Broadmoore

After Wolf Ridge, we climbed up the stairs I remembered, there was one great overlook and I thought I saw Amy Broadmoore taking pictures (it was her), then back into the woods. Then, all the sudden, it seemed to get dark like the evening was upon us. Braun ran away from me and I was alone again, running my own race at my own pace. It was funny how quickly the heat of the day seemed to transition to the late afternoon and evening–in a flash. However, I was in the deep woods and the sun was no longer high above the trees so it just seemed darker. I was running good along the ridge, passed Sawmill Dome and ran out of water again. I knew I would, but felt pretty good. It was cooling off. It took forever to get to the aid station and I was especially excited to get there after a really challenging section. Finally, down some really steep and rocky descents, and you can just feel the aid station getting close. The trail widens out, then a clearing ahead, the road and volunteers. There it is. I ran it in to the aid station and saw Emily from afar. The groups of spectators and crews at the aid station had thinned dramatically compared to past stations, which made things less stressful. 50 feet away, I flagged Emily towards me so I could give instructions. When she ran over, I didn’t really have much to say, except “water, water, water”.

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

I stopped running and Emily directed me to the folding tripod chair. I noticed now that it was a little more of a grunt to sit down. My bothersome toe had had enough and I requested to change shoes and socks. I also grabbed my night gear–two headlamps and batteries. I chugged nearly a full bottle of Gatorade, which was great. When I took off my shoes, my mom started untying my peculiar knots and I swatted her hand away. “No!” I noticed I couldn’t make my words out very well and would just mutter different foods: “chips… gummis over there… gah… feeling good though… snacks, trail mix….”. I probably sounded like a crazy person. Not too far off I guess. I got another bag of chips, restocked a gel and small baggie of trail mix and set off without further ado. My dad told me me I was right on track for 14 minute pace. I felt right on. The next section has a lot of good running and I was excited to get up and over Section 13, so I set off.

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

I left the County Road 6 aid station in front of Ryan Braun. I was feeling pretty good. The next aid station, Finland about 8 miles away, was the half way point and I was surprised how the body was holding up. I was hiking good and feeling good. That last section was brutal but I knew that it would be pretty good, runnable terrain for almost 20 miles. By the time I hit the uphill grind to Section 13 campsite just a mile in, Braun had caught me and stuck on my back. I started chatting with him, much more so than the previous section where we were pretty silent towards each other and moreso slingshotting back and forth. We went up and down Section 13 together and I was happy to have my poles to propel me uphill and aid in braking downhill. I went a bit in front of Braun and was alone across the boardwalk along Sawmill Bog. I passed the place where I’d broken my pinkie a year before on my thru-hike adventure, and it still gives me shudders. Those boardwalks are deadly. Today, though, I made it through without incident. Braun caught up with me and I invited the company. We jogged really well mile after mile and started talking about the impending darkness. His father would pace him through the night. He said he wanted to bank time now because he knew he’d slow down at night, and probably just walk. Just walk?? Hey, it is a valid strategy though. I initially scoffed but wondered if Ryan was more realistic than I, and I’d be reduced to walking anyhow. Then again, I was feeling good. I remembered my old friend Tommy, running somewhere behind us, hopefully intact after what seemed to be a tough go through Tettegouche to County Road 6, saying that if I was running good through mile 60 I’d start picking people off. I believed it to be true. I ate some chips and thought about my pizza waiting for me at Finland aid station. It did not sound appetizing at all, but would be important to eat it. We were running good, but at the slightest uphill, I’d slow to a power hike, using my poles requisitely. Walking up a hill, Ryan was stuck behind me but didn’t seem very apt to jump ahead.

The miles seemed to click off leading up to Finland. We heard a rustle and were passed quickly and forcefully by a girl who was just cruising. Braun and I both commented “nice job” or something along those lines, and she barely acknowledged us. She was running hard, out of sight into the woods in a flash. We knew we were getting close to the Finland aid station and it was still light out, about 5:30pm by now, 50 miles in and a race time of 9:30.

Evening was definitely upon us, but when I took the spur to the Finland Rec Center trailhead and left the woods to the open field, there was clearly a lot of daylight left. I felt food in my stomach after the whole day of eating potato chips and other junk food and thought about stopping at the toilet. I saw Emily waiting for me all alone, ready to run across the field with me to the aid station. She was very chipper and excited and I wasn’t feeling entirely great, but happy to get to the halfway point for a little mental checkpoint and see my crew. I told Em that I’d eat pizza now. It was harder and slower yet to lumber down to the little stool and sit down. It felt really good, though, once I was down! My feet were feeling really good with the new socks and shoes from the County Road 6 aid station. I got a refill on my water bladder as I ate leftover pizza and Mountain Dew. I saw Tommy run in to the aid station and grab a drop bag. I yelled at him, asked him where he came from. He must have been right behind me! Ryan was taking his time at the aid station. I ate as much soggy, cold pizza as I could, nibbled on a quesadilla, and felt like I was wasting time… going slow. It was hard to consider standing up but soon enough popped up and started off. I looked at the toilets and decided to skip for now. I don’t know if I could go anyways! Oh well.

I used my trekking poles to aid me in forward propulsion out of the spur trail and back to the main Superior Hiking Trail, onwards to Sonju Lake Road, an aid station with no crew access. The next time I’d see my crew was over 10 miles away, and would surely be in the night. This is the crux of the race… at Crosby Manitou, it was mile 63 and I remembered Tommy’s words once again, like a mantra in my mind, that if I was still running strong at mile 60, I’d start picking people off. On the gravel road, then onto the singletrack into dusk, Tommy and I reconnected. I’d left Braun at the aid station. Tommy commented how good I was doing and that was nice to hear. I started to feel pretty good running with him, and we stayed together. He made sure I was eating and I said I just had pizza for dinner. I joked about his gels again, saying he’s had too many today. I chuckled but he was dead serious and seemed to be angry at gels. Tommy said his race was going good now, and he felt much better that it was getting cooler, and that he went through some rough patches through Country Road 6 in the heat and big, steep climbs. I said I was doing good and he was so positive, telling me that whatever I’m doing, keep doing that.

A mile or two went by and I started to fully regret not stopping at the relatively comfortable porta-potty at Finland. The pizza was jostling in my stomach. I walked a bit in hopes I’d digest, and Tommy ran ahead. Walking felt arduous. It was harder than running… my legs hurt, feet hurt, back hurt, felt fatigued while walking. However, I didn’t need to stop. I could walk forever, endlessly, with the aid of poles. I drank more water and was starting to feel a little distraught. The trail became runnable moving towards Egge Lake and I had to jog. I caught up to Tommy again but it wasn’t long as I had to stop to poop. It was non-negotiable. I knew an Egge Lake campsite was upcoming very shortly and I wondered if I’d be able to make it to the latrine. I told Tommy I had to go to the bathroom and forewarned him of the campsite up ahead. He was in front of me, and told him to let me know if he sees the sign for the campsite and the latrine. I, out loud, hoped and wished that the latrine was on the opposite side of the trail and I wouldn’t have to go down the slope and into the campsite to poop. Not a minute later, he said he saw the sign, and I stopped at the latrine, so happy it was on the right side of the trail, and wished him good luck. It was a very short jaunt to the hole in the ground and was an essential stop. As I sat there, trying to be hasty, I wondered if I’d see Tommy again. He’s done this before, and figured HE’D start picking people off if his mantra holds true. It was getting close to mile 60 and he sure was running good. Meanwhile, Braun ran past the john, his red shirt distinguishable through the trees. I started to look for suitable trees with broad leaves, stood up, foraged for my toilet paper, and was off and running quickly. A little more… well, quite a bit more unpleasant than the porta-potty but the deed is done.

I caught up to Braun pretty quickly and we were running together once again. I told him that I had to stop to poop, explaining why I was all the sudden behind him. I thought I’d be feeling good, but I was feeling bad. My stomach felt unsettled, but really I had the feeling that I might yak. It was a very mild feeling, but not what I want at this point in the race. It was definitely getting darker, towards dusk, but we were moving pretty well and my legs and feet felt great. I let Braun run ahead a little bit and thought that walking the hills would make me feel better. It was a runnable section between Egge and Sonju Lakes, so the hills were scarce. I kept running. The pit in my gut did not subside. I drank water, and was pretty silent with Braun right ahead of me. At this point, what to do? I thought that perhaps my old standby of the day so far, potato chips, may do the trick. I reached into my pack and grabbed the bag of Sour Cream and Onion chips, and shoveled a few handfuls into my mouth. They went down easily, it was tasty actually. How could this be, I wondered, but felt immediately better. I passed Braun, bombed the hill down to the Sonju Lake campsite, and left him in the dust. Er, left him in the dusk.

I invited my eyes to adjust, and wondered if I would be able to get to Sonju before whipping out the headlamp. Well, there are a lot of roots in this section and that may be a disaster! I kept trucking through the cedar roots and thought that I was close. Strangely, I saw a headlamp shine through the woods and one turn later, my old friend Tommy running towards me! What? Tommy! I was in disbelief and so was he. I told him he’s going the wrong way, passed him in his confused state, and he started swearing. Shit! He said he thought he was on the right track. He accidentally took a deer trail or something along those lines, quickly realized he was not on the main trail, turned around but went the wrong way. It was getting really dark really fast, and perhaps his eyes played tricks on him in the new darkness upon us. I assured him that we were going the right way and he was a little skeptical. Wait, were we going the right way, I thought? How could I have been turned around? We passed the spot where Tommy got turned around. I told him of one of my mantras on the Superior Hiking Trail: when in doubt, go straight. There is no reason to take a random unmarked left hand turn, but definitely an honest mistake and one I’ve made a hundred times. I had to grab my headlamp, despite being almost certain that the Sonju Lake aid station was right up there. So close. I told Tommy that we were so close. With every footstep and no implication that the aid station was near, he became more distressed. It stressed me out a bit, but I tried to stay positive and assured he and myself that we were still on the right track. Soon enough, the lights appeared. Great Christmas rope lights of all colors, adorning the railings of a bridge that took us across a creek and towards the Sonju Lake trailhead. Tommy was so happy, and we jogged in. He went right, I stayed straight. I quickly considered the amount of water I had, and figured I’d be good as long as if I drank some fluids. I took Heed and a few snacks. I didn’t know what to eat… a few swedish fish and some pretzels seemed like a good bet. Not a minute later, I was gone.

Back on the main trail, just a few short miles to Crosby Manitou, and I was feeling really good. My legs were in decent shape, my stomach felt so much better and I was energized. Tommy was nowhere in sight, I hadn’t seen Ryan in some time, and it was officially dark. I was running good, and happy to report (to myself) that the new headlamp, never tested before today, felt really comfortable and was bright. I remembered the packaging, ripped apart just days ago, saying that the high beam setting was good for three hours of light. Hmmm, I had about 12 hours of use left so would have to plan that out a little bit. I saw a headlamp bobbing in front of me and got hungry. Not physically hungry, but wanted to start passing people. I can run at night. Tommy was right, I’ll start picking people off. I figured I was around 10th place at this point. I was running good, and sped up to make a pass on an athlete and pacer. My speed didn’t last long, however, as a hill presented itself soon after the pass. I stopped and poled myself up the hill while the racer behind me caught back up, right on my back. I didn’t want to slingshot back and forth with these two so took off hard, pushing a little bit too hard for a few minutes. I was breathing heavy the next hill I saw, stopped to power hike up and looked back, happy to see only darkness. There were no headlamps and I knew I officially made the pass. The roots were no problem through this section, and although there were a few small elevation rises, I seemed to make it through really quickly. I was super happy to be running at night, and had to stop and pee, flicked my headlamp off and looked up towards the night sky. Beautiful. The temperatures dropped and I was in my zone. Hell yeah, this is what I live for, I muttered to myself. Time to crank…

I thought I heard the aid station from a long ways out, but it was several minutes before I finally got to the long gravel entrance to Crosby Manitou State Park, where a Superior Hiking Trail trailhead and race aid station was. My crew was to meet me there, and this is really where the race starts. I was so excited to take the next section on because in my opinion, it’s the hardest on the whole course. The descent and following ascent in and out of the Manitou River is brutal. Horseshoe Ridge is a beast, and the trail gets pretty narrow, overgrown, rooty and muddy through here. On a training run a few weeks prior, I came across a mud pit waist deep below Horseshoe Ridge. If I can get through this section in a decent time, and feeling good, I’ll be so much better mentally. After Crosby Manitou, I have pacers set up for the whole rest of the race. Nearly to the aid station, but it was a lonely run down the pitch dark entry to the state park. I knew it was over a half mile, but it seemed so long. My light didn’t have as much to reflect off of so it felt darker. It was great to see and hear the activity ahead. Besides the volunteers, there were not many other crews or spectators. What a stark different to the circus at Beaver Bay about 12 hours earlier.

The lights came from nowhere and I easily spotted the crew. I saw my brother Matt had joined the crew, which was nice. I told him it was nice to see him. Daisy the dog was wrapped like a burrito in a blanket and everyone was pretty snuggled up. I was pretty warm, still in my jersey. My crew was happy to tell me that they found coffee and they were all in good spirits. I emptied out my garbage, packed away some new rations, and requested that Matt change my headlamp batteries. Perhaps premature, but better than being caught in the scary, long (9.4 miles) and hard section. It took a little bit of time to get going at this juncture, again slower to sit down and stand up, but before long I had my pack full of water, full of food, batteries charged, and off I go. Emily walked me out, and I stopped at the bathroom once again. I felt the need to go, and figured I should take my chance to use actual toilet paper. The clock was ticking but it was worth the time. Emily stayed outside of the door for moral support and I told her I was actually feeling really good. I gave her a kiss as I left into the deep, dark wilderness, and it was a giant boost to feel her soft lips against my dirty, sweaty self.

Alone, I hiked down the technical singletrack towards the bridge over the Manitou River. I was freezing right away, and considered running back the few hundred feet to grab my long sleeve shirt. Nah, I was so hot coming in… the chill would subside. I could see a huge light in the distance and wondered if it was the moon. Deep orange, reddish and I figured it was some outpost or lighthouse or something. My attention was becoming diverted, I looked up at a myriad of criss-crossing trails around me, and got a little scared. It was so dark in here… there were trails everywhere and no signs. I arched my neck up to shine light on the trees, looking for the solace of the blue blaze. None to be seen. I kept walking, using the poles as if my legs were broken and it was the only way to move forward, and scanned for a race marker, which have been plentiful in addition to the standard blue blazes to mark the SHT. But in here, nothing. Crap, crap, I should turn around, I thought. No, that is a waste. As long as I make it to the bridge, I’ll be good. It’s straightforward out of the Manitou River, and I recall this section being windy and full of other State Park Trails. In fact, I had been lost through here before. It was very steep as I descended towards the roaring river, but couldn’t see any proof of the river because of the darkness. I saw a reflective marker and was relieved. I saw a blue blaze and was relieved. I finally crossed the Manitou River and was relieved, but a little nervous about the huge climb out. I grasped my trekking poles and prepared to power hike. I got into a zone, almost like a steam engine, chugging uphill to a predictable cadence. It was no problem to make it to the top, and I ran as the elevation tapered off. Boom. I had to pee and stopped atop a huge outlook nearing Horseshoe Ridge, flicked my light off, and observed a massive moon towards Lake Superior. Just stunning. I felt so comfortable, still in my tanktop, cool air surrounding me, and was right on track. Yes, my pace was very slow but given the terrain, I was moving good. I took a sip of water, ate a caffeine gel, and kept on my way.

The technical trail on the outskirts of Crosby Manitou State Park went by in a flash. I’ve had problems with this section in the past, having ran and hiked through here several times. I think it’s harder going southbound, I thought out loud. I jetted past the Horseshoe Ridge campsite, then up a large hill to the sweeping overlook known as Horseshoe Ridge. I saw a headlamp ahead, which made me giddy. I had a sudden jolt of energy and power hiked up past the girl, whose name is Gretchen according to Emily, as she gave me encouragement. It was a different tone than the last time I saw her! I kept strong past her and her pacer as I wanted to make a statement. Was it acknowledged? Probably not, but I ran at the top of the hill and eventually looked back to confirm that there was no headlamp trailing me. I knew the big decent down from Horseshoe should go relatively fast, because it’s all downhill. It was too steep to run, though, and I had to stop and admire the stunning reflection of the moon over the Big Lake. So awesome. I felt confident running at night, and navigated the very rooty trail, littered with logs and crumbling boardwalks. My poles were crucial here, especially when I identified the large mud pit and was able to swing across it. I knew I was slow going, but fast enough to feel good through the truly tough parts of not only this section, but the whole race. I was super happy to make it down to the buffed out trails near the Caribou River, leaving the overgrown, narrow, and technical trails of Horseshoe Ridge behind me for good. Across the bridge, along the noisy Caribou, and up out of the River gorge. Luckily, the climb out of Caribou is relatively tame and easy. I was able to run on the wide trails, and on a straight section saw another headlamp in the distance.

Running felt so good. Walking was much more arduous. My body felt weird… I knew that I could keep running and walking, which was a great feeling. There was no soreness. Or only soreness. So much soreness. I couldn’t tell. When I got close enough to the next runner and pacer to pass, I picked it up big time and blasted past them in full on running form. They gave me words of encouragement and I responded the same. I wondered if I was in the minority for running alone through Crosby Manitou since I’d passed three people since Sonju Lake, all of which had pacers.

My energy boost from passing another runner carried me through one of my favorite sections of the whole Superior Hiking Trail, along a birch forest with panoramic vistas of Lake Superior. This trail is carved right into a gentle hillside, and features rolling hills that were actually well received for me. Just enough variation to switch it up, not too much up and down to break my rhythm. Across Crystal Creek, up the stairs and nearly to the big powerline cut, and I saw yet another headlamp. As I ran past, strongly to make him feel my presence, I noticed that his guy had his hood on his jacket up and was walking slowly. He was hunched over. I said something, “nice work” or whatever, to no response. Not having a good time, I guess! Ouch. I couldn’t have been happier about passing three people now on the hardest section, past 100k in the race, and nearing mile 72. At his point, it was about 11pm and I was 15 hours into the race. I was able to run it in to the Sugarloaf aid station, feeling really good. I heard the commotion before I saw the lights, and was very excited to meet my pacers.

When I got to the aid station, there was a huge group for me. It was awesome. Emily and Dad, following me from the first step, had been joined by Matt and also now by Skeeter and Kris, my next two pacers. Skeeter and Kris were both relatively late additions to the crew and nobody was really sure about their abilities to run in the night, on tough trails, for a few hours. They both said their training was very lacking, but I knew I’d be going pretty slow. The fastest I wanted to go was 14 minutes per mile. At the aid station, my dad said I was pretty well on track, actually. Perfect. I got more water, drank some Red Bull and took a half of a hamburger with me. We were very brief at the Sugarloaf aid station, and Skeeter was nearly jumping up and down in excitement to get going. So we were off. I requested to walk across the boardwalk and bridge from the aid station so I could eat my hamburger. It was so dry and I was chewing and chewing and chewing without being able to actually swallow the burger! It’s just a half of a burger!! Cmon… but it went down eventually. Skeeter was talking up a storm, asking how it was going, I said good, that I felt good. He commented how excited Emily was and how she was the best General Manager and she was so into this whole thing and taking the role on full force and so energetic. Awesome… the last thing I’d want would be a frustrated crew. How do you not get a little frustrated staying up all night? Mostly a waiting game, it has GOT to wear on them being together for 20+ hours straight.

Skeeter was awesome. He told me about one of his old hockey coaches who had them stand against the wall and breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth. Deeeeeep inhale through the nose. He said that we all tend to have short, sharp breaths and instructed me to take a deep, controlled breath through my nose. It felt great. I smiled. We were running, and it was pretty nice to have Skeeter behind me pointing a light in front of me. I had to stop and pee, he went ahead, and I shut my light off to whiz. We kept going, and I slowed to hike to make it over a hill. Skeeter prodded me to keep running, to keep the pace up, but I told him that I have got to walk the uphills. Perhaps it didn’t look steep enough to Skeeter to warrant hiking…

It was a little muddy in parts, and Skeeter seemed surprised by my poling technique, with the ability to jump across and over stumps, over muddy sections and rocks and roots. That is the product of a lot of practice, I thought to myself. We were running good, running fast, and it felt awesome. There was no pain, no soreness. I asked Skeeter to grab my chips out of my bag and I munched. He was breathing really heavy but kept right on my back. This section breezed by and in a blink we were at the extreme downhill right by Dyer’s Creek, along the creek and to Dyer’s Lake Road. I knew we were close and we ran it in to Cramer Road in seemingly no time. When we got to the rest of the crew, Skeeter seemed relieved that his shift was over, but I could tell that Kris had a different temperament as she was quiet and appeared super nervous to enter the woods. Meanwhile, Skeeter was yelping. I plopped down on my chair, feeling energized and ready to rock. I knew that this section was really runnable and excited to get to Nick. I had told him over and over that it was his job to run me in. One last section at 14 minute pace and then we’d crush it from there. Skeeter took me a bit faster than that 14 minute pace, but hey, I’m on track and feeling really good. Matt changed my batteries, I traded wrappers for food, and set off with Kris. It was a little bit of a struggle to stand up, but we were off and running in no time.

Kris told me I was doing really good. Good. I knew it, but it doesn’t hurt to hear positive comments. She asked how Skeeter did and I said that he was breathing super heavy the whole time, but kept up with ease and was a major positive mental booster. Kris said that she was very impressed with Emily and that she was doing so good and just so engaged and into the whole thing. Yeah yeah, I told here that was exactly what Skeeter said! The bike light that Skeeter had been shining in front of me, now in Kris’s hand, was flickering on and off. It must have run out batteries, Kris commented, but was in disbelief a little bit. She wondered aloud how it could be out of batteries already. We made it down and up through the forest, across the Tower Overlook where in the light, you can see a cell phone tower or something in the distance. We were doing good, Kris seemed to be in great shape for running in the dark. We cruised to Fredenberg Creek campsite and Kris asked if I wanted to play the alphabet game where we say what we’re thankful for. Kris and Skeeter had played that game years ago when they finished the Ice Age 50 mile trail run together. So I started. Kris said “A” and I replied “ummmm…. apples?” Ok, B. Wait, am I really thankful for apples or is that just the first item that came to mind that starts with A? Well, I like apples and I’m thankful that they exist. Yeah, this game would prove to be a fantastic time waster. We played the game until I reached Z and was thankful for zen. I told her I didn’t even really know what zen was but I was thankful for it. Then I told her what letter we were on and she replied. Her responses were much more personal. For instance, she said brother for B, and people’s names for their respective letter. Like Skeeter for S. She had scoffed at me for not being thankful for my mom when she called out M… “oh yeah, mom. That’s right”. Sometimes, the response would illicit a long conversation and we’d forget what letter was next. We were doing pretty well, but I could tell that this distraction had an effect on my pace. Skeeter was a motivator, Kris was going for the diversion tactic. For better or worse, I noticed we were slowing. It became tough when we made it to the Cross River, one of my favorite sections along the energetic flowing water. Running became slower, walking became more frequent and labored, and I told her so. It helped to pass yet another runner and pacer right before the Cross River bridge, who I identified as Doug Kleemeier. He was walking, and we were able to run past him, across the Cross River bridge, and I peed before the huge steps right past the bridge and Kris went on. I scrambled up the steps and ran to catch up to Kris further up the trail past the spur trail entrance. It was just a mile or so, then down and down and down to the Temperance River aid station to pick up Nick and run ‘er in. This little piece of trail took forever, though, and I was unable to run it. I ate food, drank some water, and decided that I’d drop my hiking poles, change my shoes and socks and get amped up enough to run with Nick. Kris and I made good time down to Temperance. We were getting close, and I was getting tired. I finally was feeling some fatigue that I could tell was permanent, impossible to overcome, and was slowing me down. We were at mile 85, 2:30am and 18:30 into the race. I wanted to do the last 15 miles of the race in 3 hours. That is a blistering pace, though, faster than 10 minutes per mile. That is tough. That would take some sort of superhuman power.

It was a relief to get to Temperance, to see the lights, and my growing crew consisting of Emily and Dad, Matt, Skeeter, Nick and his fiancé Elizabeth. It was difficult to sit down, but I made it to the tripod bench. I wanted to change my shoes and socks one last time and held my lamp towards my feet to make the change. Then Matt changed my headlamp batteries once again and I somehow had a plate of pancakes and bacon in my hands. I spilled syrup all over my leg. I tried to wipe up the syrup but in reality, I was a big mess. Sweat over dried sweat, food bits, mud, forest vegetation and whatever else was on me… what is a little syrup? I shoved the food in my mouth and took off hurriedly. It was go time.

Nick and I sprinted across Temperance River Road away from the aid station and away from my cheering crew. They all seemed amped up for me, and it was a big boost to feel the energy in the middle of the night. Once we got back into the singletrack trail alongside the Temperance River, headed downstream, Nick commented how surprised he was. He said repeatedly that I was doing well. I did some quick math and realized that we were still about an hour ahead of my goal pace. We could do 22 hours, I told him! That is fast, though, and he said I was doing well, almost in disbelief. Well, here we were, 85 miles into the race and I felt good! I dropped my poles and we were running. Running strong. I felt empowered to run fast and push it a bit. In my mind, I wanted to blurt out to Nick how I was still running. Check that out! I eventually chewed and swallowed my breakfast food and my stomach felt great. I needed to still eat and had picked up some caffeine chews and some other goodies. We cruised down Temperance, across the bridge and back up. Nick asked me about the race, low points, high points, and I filled him in on the day. My biggest comment was how the weather had been perfect. He didn’t think there was anyone really up ahead, but I was in sixth place and moved up a bunch since nightfall.

We made it to Carlton Peak in no time, and my hands were on my knees climbing up the steep ascent. Things were looking good. I had a sense of urgency. Push, push, push up the hill. Up and over was nothing. We made it downhill pretty well, too, and the section flew by in no time. On the boardwalk planks toward Sawbill, we saw another headlamp up ahead. We passed a guy by himself, which was a huge motivator. He was walking, we were running, and we sprinted past him.

Across Sawbill Trail and we came into the empty aid station. It was such a big parking log and the tent and tables seemed so small with just my crew there. I didn’t see this other guy’s crew, but Emily said that they had been talking to some Mick guy’s parents from Utah and so I must have passed Mick. Sweet, but we gotta go! I wanted to get out of the aid station before Mick came in. It hurt to sit down in the little camp chair. I requested my poles again, but they were in the car. Matt sprinted to the car to get them. I think I had a bit of soup (my memory isn’t very sharp from this time of night), a slug of Red Bull and switched my handheld for my backpack. I had some sore spots on my back and shoulders but the long sleeve helped. Standing up was really rough, and it was impossible to take off running into the night. We started slow, but picked it up enough when we saw Mick’s headlamp bobbing in the distance. Nick and I took into the woods, me poling once again and feeling pretty rough. All the sudden, the excitement of having Nick take me home was overshadowed by fatigue. My legs didn’t hurt, feet didn’t hurt, back didn’t hurt, nothing was really bugging me but there was a general fatigue that made it hard to get running. I’d pole off to get some momentum and it seemed to work, but soon enough, we’d hit a slight, slight uphill or mud spot or something to halt the progress. I grunted “Argh. I can’t…” and would have to stop to walk. Nick was still behind me and we would go a few minutes without talking as the struggle ensued. We started chatting about random stuff… he was getting married in a month so we talked about that, I asked him some questions, and it took the focus off of running. It was not a lot of running through the second to last section of the race. Almost all walking. I had to pee over and over for some reason, the water was going right through me. I wasn’t hungry but could still eat and munched on some potato chips, the old standby. My earlier race mantras were gone… I’d forgotten about Tommy, Ryan was long gone, nobody out here but Nick and I. Perhaps there were some people making up time behind me. Maybe Mick would make a surge. But there was definitely nobody in front of me. They were way up. I was in fifth place. The only thing on my mind, given the circumstances, was to keep walking. I tried running, would get going slowly, like a steam engine that needs to get the coal burning hot before the pistons get up to speed, but would be halted, in defeat, so quickly when another tiny hill would present itself. It was muddy through here, and technical, and hillier than I remember. The hills were tiny, but enough to stop any momentum or rhythm. This section was shorter, less than 6 miles, but it was taking forever. I looked around to see if it was getting light yet. My clock read 5am and I became frustrated as the minutes clicked by and the hope to finish under 22 hours slipped away. I can’t. I….. can’t. Can’t what, I couldn’t say aloud. Can’t run? I was getting frustrated but probably not showing it outwardly. Nick and I just kept walking slowly, poling away over the mud and roots and tiny hills. No relief. I thought we were close as we crossed the Onion River bridge and onto a confusing section on really soft dirt. Perhaps this was a reroute. But we weren’t close. Another 15 minutes passed, and the grind continued. I was tired, my eyes were tired. My brain was awake. I wasn’t sleepy, but very tired. My body was giving up.

We came into the final aid station at Oberg around 5:20am, 96 miles and 21:20 into the race. The crew was all there. They huddled around me as I plopped into the chair and didn’t move. I didn’t and couldn’t talk. Emily took charge once again and started to get me water, asked me if I wanted this or that, and I think had some chicken noodle soup. Nick and Elizabeth ran off to get Nick his items. He’d been running (and walking) for a few hours and 10 miles or so, so we both prepared for the final 7.5 miles as not to crash too hard on the final stretch. Nick could push through with ease, but I was not doing well. I just sat there, my legs refusing to get up and go. Matt changed my batteries one last time and my dad told me to go. 3 minutes are up, he pleaded. 3 minutes?? I asked myself, why?? But decided to get up and go, with Nick at my side. It was dark out, and everyone was pretty quiet but still encouraging. I felt like I was a spectacle. A dirty, tired museum exhibit, my crew observing my every move in fascination. I felt like, “don’t look at me!”

It was a major struggle to get up and get going. I tried to run and actually thought to myself it’d be funny to my crew to see the pace that we’d been moving the last 6 miles , and jokingly set off with this half-run, half-hobble across the parking lot and gravel road to the singletrack trail towards the formidable Moose Mountain. I don’t think anyone laughed. I didn’t laugh. Nick didn’t laugh. We just kept trucking. Unfortunately, trucking meant stopping running to walk. No, I had to go. This is do or die, and should be runnable besides up Moose Mountain and Mystery Mountain. Running at mile 95 is not expected for anyone, though.

Besides the extreme urge to not run, and nearly the inability to do so, I was feeling good. My feet were a bit sore… almost numb or tingly. I could feel my big toe getting a sore tendon where it flexes, but any pain I felt was pretty easy to ignore. Nick and I kept it up at the regular pace—run when we can, and walk when we need to. I had no mantra and don’t really recall what we were talking about besides time. 22 hours was impossible, obviously, but what about 23 hours? We made it to the base of Moose Mountain relatively quickly, actually. I felt like my legs were getting the idea…. we weren’t stopping yet. With the help of the hiking poles, we hit it hard up the extremely steep climb. You can’t even see the top… just up and up and then a turn then up and up. Then stairs, then the top. Wait, no, that’s not the top, climb and climb and then the top. Once we got to the top, Nick congratulated me and said we crushed it. He started getting really motivating… saying it’s gonna happen and we’re going to run it and I’m going to finish and we’re bringing it in. We ran. I looked at my watch and asked if we’d go under 23. We have to go under 23. He didn’t seem super apt on that, but was doing math for me. We were still over two miles out. At the top of Moose Mountain, all the sudden it seemed to be light out. I wondered if I needed my lamp still, as it was definitely getting brighter in the forest. It happened so quickly, from darkness to dusk to an incredible red glow straight ahead. We were on the ridge of Moose Mountain and Nick commented on the incredible sunrise. I couldn’t look up with fear of falling. It was still rocky and rooty and in the light I didn’t feel very confident with my eyesight and coordination after staying up all night. I finally flicked my headlamp off.

Photo credit: Nick Nygaard

Photo credit: Nick Nygaard

Photo credit: Nick Nygaard

We were running, and running pretty hard. I could surge. Nick was still behind me and I felt a few times that I was ahead of him quite a bit. Nope, he could catch up and pass me and outrun me at the drop of a hat. I was on the brink of completely crumbling but somehow holding on to this 23 hour benchmark. Perhaps the terrain was more runnable, but we were definitely moving. My legs felt OK on the descent from Moose Mountain… I relied on my poles and we made it down pretty smoothly. At the bottom, we ran. There was the winding trail in the valley, and I knew the rest of the course thanks to hours of visualizing the final miles. I peeked at my watch. It was getting close to 7am. Nick said if I run two consecutive 10-minute miles, we’d get under 23 hours.

Photo credit: Nick Nygaard

Photo credit: Nick Nygaard

Photo credit: Nick Nygaard

Photo credit: Nick Nygaard

I was still poling very strategically, gracefully, and hopping over logs and mud spots and roots in stride with running. The magnificent red glow of the sunrise was washed out by the full sun and it was officially light out. Nick and I were charging ahead, and my eyes were fuzzy. They didn’t seem to adjust to the light and the change from the complete lack of peripheral vision besides darkness and the narrow spotlight from my head to a full spectrum of vision was overwhelming or something. I couldn’t focus my eyes but could see well enough to tell what was ahead and avoid twisting my ankle or falling. I recall my vision being kind of pixilated… definitely fuzzy. I mean, I’d had by eyes open and focusing pretty intently for nearly 24 straight hours.

Photo credit: Nick Nygaard

I had a major boost of adrenaline with the light and in the final miles of the very long race. The adrenaline gave me enough energy to run up Mystery Mountain. I recall having to walk up the twisty switchbacks 18 months earlier at the Superior Spring 50k, and this time, with 70 more miles in legs, I was running up! It wasn’t any speed records, and I was using my poles, but we were running uphill and going to get in less than 23 hours. I could sense the Mystery Mountain campsite ahead and the end of the uphills, so pushed harder. Past the campsite, it’s all downhill from here. Some singletrack, then onto an ATV trail and we were cruising. The running felt good, and we were moving with ease. Nick was jacking me up, he was so excited. I couldn’t help but smile, and relished the last miles running strong. Some trail markers, a beautiful left hand turn and we ran across the Poplar River bridge hooting and hollering. I took another peek at my watch and knew we had a little bit of flux time. Oh well, no sense slowing now! Onto the pavement, I asked Nick to run off, grab Emily and have her run it in with me. He went off, not putting a ton of time onto me, and I realized I was cruising pretty well. He stayed left, I went right, onto the grass, a tiny bump in the ground slowed me slightly, but saw the pool and the finish line. Sweet. I ran it in, stopped my watch, and saw 22’s on the time clock. My whole crew was behind a row of chairs, I received a medal around my neck, a belt buckle, and was led to a chair. It’s over.

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

Photo credit: Nick Nygaard

To sit down was nice. Nobody really spoke right away. Maybe a few questions: “need anything? Can I grab your backpack?” but I didn’t respond. I closed my eyes. They were bothersome. Definitely dry and itchy but still fuzzy and out of focus. It was really weird. I mentioned that. Emily, the great race manager that she is, realized that I wouldn’t actually state anything I wanted or needed, so she brought to me some various food and drinks. “Milk? Water? Gatorade? Pretzels?” and I grabbed the chocolate milk. It was delicious. I sat down for a bit longer, and everyone filtered out. I said “we did it”. They said I did it. NO, we did it as a team effort, and I was certain of that. And so one by one, Skeeter and Kris left, Nick and Elizabeth left, Dad and Matt left and it was just Emily and I. What a crew. They made the race happen. It took some careful planning but it went off without a hitch.

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

Photo credit: Mike Wheeler

The Superior 100 was an incredible experience, one of the most enjoyable races I’ve done. My immediate thoughts were that it was much easier than I thought it would be. The prospect of 100 miles on that trail is hard to fathom, and you have to expect highs and lows, frustration and pain. In general, it was easier than I thought. Perhaps that was training, I know my crew helped that out, and a well executed race. Running with Tommy in the early miles set me up for success. I was super happy to watch him finish, after Emily and I ate breakfast and bummed around the finish for a while.

The Superior Hiking Trail will draw me back for something. Right now, I don’t know for what.

Garmin Fenix 3 GPS (UltraTrac Mode) Data

Results

Race Tracking Link

Time: 22:57:25
Pace: 13:46
Place: 5/169

Shoes: Brooks Cascadia 12, size 11.5; Adidas Trail Response, size 11
Hydration: North Face 4L pack, Nathan 19oz handheld
Poles: Big Agnes Helinox Ridgline

Race Day: Saturday, July 29, 2017 – 6am

With a race that has so much history and a legendary course, it’s hard not to derive some enjoyment out of the Voyageur Trail Ultra, even though it requires 50 grueling miles of running in the heat of the summer. On race week, all I could do was dread that heat.

I was feeling pretty fit leading up the Voyageur, despite having spotty running mileage through Grandma’s half. In fact, I hadn’t been able to get into a solid build up of mileage since after Zumbro. Either way, it was paying off with PR’s in every race I entered: 5k, 5 Mile, half marathon, 50 mile at Zumbro and aspirations to set another PR on Saturday. Tester runs had positive results, I thought I knew what to do, and so it all came down to getting into a good race day mindset.

An old tri buddy Bennett Isabella bunked at my house, coming up from the Twin Cities to race Voyageur. We went for pizza beforehand and I had a nice relaxing beer along with Emily and her sister. I ate a lot of pizza, despite a burrito debacle Grandma’s weekend… But being overly full plays a positive role in a 50 mile, as opposed to a major hindrance when trying to run under 6 minute pace!

I woke up early on Saturday, with the race start a harsh 6am. Breakfast was cereal and Mountain Dew. Standard. I took a bagel on the road to abide by the “full when you start” strategy. When I parked, I got greased up with sunscreen, since it was forecasted to be a day with abundant sunshine. There were a lot of familiar faces in the start line. Before long it was 6am and Kris instructed the mass of people to line up. I wiggled my way to the front and “GO!” – we’re off.

Phot credit: Nick Nygaard (but probably Elizabeth or Rhonda??)

I took two steps and heard a very peculiar sound. It sounded exactly like a gel pack sliding across the ground. I felt my right pocket and noticed that it was empty, although 8 seconds earlier it held a gel. I checked my left pocket and noticed that its only contents were a baggie with emergency toilet paper, although 8 seconds earlier it also held a gel. I looked down and behind me and only saw a stampede of 300+ feet. Oh well, what can you do! 2 gels gone. I figured the TP was a higher value anyways, since every aid station would surely have gels. I had four more on me, anyways. The front runners took off and I wanted to get into some sort of secondary chase pack. There was a lotta testosterone up there, though.

Onto the Munger Trail, things started to take shape. About 6 guys took off out of sight, and there a couple more spread out in front of me when we hit the woods into Jay Cooke, the hardest and most technical singletrack on the course. Matt was right in front of me and I knew he wanted to try to pace together in the early miles. A mile later and I noticed Matt and I were leading a long train of runners along the great Saint Louis River. The morning sun’s angle made some rocks and roots difficult to see.

We cruised through the first aid station. I didn’t stop or look behind me to see if anyone else did. Onto Jay Cooke Park’s horse trails and our chase group narrowed. Matt was still leading, right in front of me, and we had Ray and Jacob, all chattin’ away. Ray was Nick’s old UMD cross country buddy, and Jacob was a first time ultramarathoner going to post-secondary college in the Cities. A Canadian runner Steven even latched onto the pack. We rolled quite a few miles together and just clicked off the aid stations until we hit the some singletrack a bit after an hour. I was having the indistinguishable swishing feeling inside my stomach and unfortunately had to stop off the trail. We had lost Jacob and so saw him run by me. I pulled up my shorts and caught him shortly. We ran a mile or two together and I dropped him on the second round of powerlines.

I wondered where the pack of three, the chase pack, was in front of me. Were they far? Steven had a few good finishes at past Voyageurs, who knows what Ray can do, and Matt had won the Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon a few weeks prior and so the course was fresh in his mind. They could be putting big time on me. I wanted to speed up, but tried to hold back. It didn’t work and I knew I was pushing too hard out in no-man’s land. Although, I wanted to be running my own pace and own race at some point, and here I was. Time and miles went by quickly early on in the race.

Photo credit: Shane Olson

After a few more aid stations, and nearly after the loop, I passed pre-race favorite Mike Borst while he was going quite slow. He said it wasn’t his day. I got to the Beck’s aid station about 18.5 miles in, on track for a pretty fast race and feeling good. I was being smart with nutrition and drinking a lot–a lot of Powerade, water and trying to eat at least something at each station while my bottle was being filled by helpful volunteers. Nothing to say at this point in the race. So far, so good, like a jog in the woods.

As I ran up Skyline, I noticed the heat. It was getting a bit warmer out, and perhaps my legs were feeling the first twinges of soreness, but nothing too much. Nothing out of the ordinary. I saw a runner in red shorts and tried to track him down, although I definitely didn’t seem to be making up any ground. Onto the Magney ski trails and I caught him, Adam Doe, and slowly moved past him. He was running well, but I had some pre-race intel that he was nursing a sore Achilles and I wondered if I’d see him again. It was a long day yet. I started feeling a little beat down… you get the sensation of exhaustion, like its impossible to pick it up even a tiny bit. But, that feeling would wash away quickly and I was making pretty good time back up to Skyline, to the Magney aid station and road to Spirit Mountain.

By the time I reached the end of traversing Spirit, the sun was high in the sky, beaming down and hot. The temperature was rising every second. I saw Jakob Wartman on the way down, he was pushing a stroller up Spirit, and he said very seriously and dad-like to be VERY careful because it’s hot. Very careful. My nipples had started to pain me more than anything else, which was very unfortunate, and I asked Emily to track down bandaids from the last time I’d seen her.

At the turnaround, I had a 10-minute buffer to go under 7 hours, so well on pace to hit my goal time of 7:20. My watch was at 3:22 or so. I had to stop completely and assess the food table for a second. I drank powerade and spent time looking for salt. Chips will do. I took watermelon cubes. Emily ran up and looked confused when I said I need band-aids. I had eaten my watermelon and was good to go, so essentially just ran off mid-conversation, without allowing her to respond or react. I felt bad for my rude and abrupt behavior, especially because that was the last I’d see her– her preliminary plan was to hit a few aid stations and turn back for Duluth while she’d be the closest at the Zoo turnaround. Oh well, no time to lament because the race was really about to begin.

Up front, Nick was in the lead, which was great to see. I counted 7 other guys in front of me before the turnaround, putting me in 8th place. Not bad. I don’t know when I passed Ray, but saw him behind me. There wasn’t too much going on back there. It was impossible to say who could make a push, but definitely nobody breathing down my neck by the time I started back up to Spirit Mountain, which made it easier to walk. Now is not the time to burn out, I said to myself, and figured I’d have much more juice on the runable sections ahead if I take a hit on time and power hike up. Nobody passed me, so that was good.

 

Back on Skyline, it’s nice to pass the whole rest of the field. I was pretty encouraging right away, then just started saying “thanks” or an inarticulate mumble as the heat of the day became increasingly challenging.  Others’ words were helpful, though.

In the direct sun, my ears would feel so hot that a splash of water on each side would provide just a few glorious seconds of cool relief. When I got onto the ski trails and into the shade, I felt more in a rhythm. My legs were starting to feel sluggish, but I could still push. It was hard to pick up the pace… just a overall clamp on that springy feeling while running easy miles early in the day. I overtook Steven through the woods and he looked like he was struggling. I made my way through the heaviest pack of people and bombed down Skyline back to Becks Road feeling pretty good. At the aid station, I drank a lot of water, poured some on my head, drank powerade, and ate some chips. It was a longer stop, but necessary.

Photo credit: Ryan Saline

While passing the last racers, it was a grind. I was running, which was good, but my pace had slowed. There was no getting around that fact. By the time I got to Mission Creek, at mile 34, it was a death march. Every step was tedious. The heat was unbearable and the only relief was water on my head. My legs didn’t feel overheated, or my chest, or arms, or anything but my head. My ears were burning, face on fire, head so hot that if I had to wear a stocking cap for one moment, it would push me over the edge and I’d die. I saw Emily and the dogs at the Fond du Lac aid station and it was a wonderful feeling. I figured she’d be long gone by that point, and her smiling face gave me a huge boost. I told her and dogs each it was good to see them, but did not dawdle. I ate a few pieces of fruit, some chips and pop, and poured water on my face on my way out.

The next couple miles to the powerlines were very tough. Just a death march. It was a constant battle to convince my body to run with a higher cadence and longer stride, and felt like it took a quarter mile to even get up to running speed of 10 minutes per mile. The heat was a reminder to use water carefully. Drinking was as important as dousing my head and it seemed like every splash evaporated in a minute. I told the helpers at 7 Bridges that the wheels were falling off. I felt like the wheels did fall off in the brutal heat of the powerlines.

In 2016, the powerlines were kind of my savior. Then, I remember it was enough of a switch-up of running that I was able to stretch my back out a little and set me up for the last 10 miles of pretty flat and runnable terrain into Jay Cooke State Park. This year, I felt as if each hill, exposed to the hottest, muggiest death ball that is the Sun, was sucking my energy to near depletion. I was passed by a guy whose name I did not catch, but he was in all black. I looked at my white singlet and wondered how he was not overheated. He crushed me on a hill, and before long was a black dot in the distance. The powerlines seem vast. But they were over soon enough, and I looked forward to running on the flats.

It seemed like forever before I reached the horse trails in the State Park and to the Petersons aid station. I realized then that I wasn’t coming back… this race was one of slow dying. There will be no recovery, no second wind, only to hold on for whatever I can muster. The tent was a sight for sore eyes as I refueled and relished the stop at Petersons. Emily was at there, too, and I was lucky enough to sneak a kiss from her. Poor Emily, as Diamond saw her chance to jump on another nearby dog on a leash and Emily was yanked violently. Nice, Diamond… I shook my head at her and sped off.

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

The only way to make it through was to micromanage the race, and I made it a goal to run the whole way to Forbay. There was no trick or method, just a stubborn attitude and refusing to accept a slower pace. It didn’t always work, and I found myself in a few moments of funk while running just so slow. My GPS watch confirmed this. Any tiny hill seemed to break my rhythm, but every now and again I’d build back up to a strong form. On the Munger Trail, my second to last split alarm sounded to alert me that the previous seven miles were in 1:20, an 11:30 average mile pace. Not good. That was a big hit on my time. I brought it in hard to Forbay and was delighted to see Emily once more. It sounded like there was a few people in front of me who were not doing so well, but I felt like I was on the fringe of complete exhaustion myself. I did what I could to refuel with some salty chips, coke and fruit. My sweat and however many cups worth of water was making my skin nasty and slimy, and the feeling of fresh and cool water on my forehead was incredible. It only took a few miles for the water in my handheld to warm up, so I could notice the difference after each fresh fill-up at aid stations.

Photo credit: Emily Andrews

I saw a local trail runner Amy spectating past Forbays, and she was very encouraging by telling me that the three guys in front of me were having a really hard time and that I was looking good. Oh man, that got me going. The adrenaline kicked in and I could feel it. The end was in sight… just one more aid station and it was all runnable. Downhill even. All downhill!! I tried to lie to myself and it worked. My pace picked up, but my rate of acceleration was hilarious. I had no power, but somehow my legs would churn just incrementally faster. Bit by bit, until I was a running a blazing 9 minute pace. I was hasty and smart at the last aid station, quickly refilling and drinking coke for any last minute boost of high fructose corn syrup and caffeine.

Across the swinging bridge, I felt so speedy just zinging by the tourists on the bridge, clamoring to the side to allow me to pass. The first few steps onto the singletrack, however, were defeating. I had no energy, no stamina, no power, no nothing. Done. It took some grunting and wincing to get up the hills and to stay speedy afterwards. Perhaps it was the extreme focus it takes to navigate the puzzling rocks and roots, but I eventually got into a rhythm and was chugging away. I even passed someone who I’d seen so long ago cruising back up Spirit, who was now really struggling. That was a source of energy and I felt faster. The sun hid behind clouds and that was a source of energy and I felt faster. When I could sense the end, and envisioned crossing the bridge onto the Munger, I sped up on the coattails of adrenaline. When that last curve in the trail occurred, I saw Nick in front of me. That was a source of energy but I couldn’t go any faster. It would be funny to pass him in a dead sprint on the street, in a way, but that would be HIGHLY improbable as I dug deep to push across the bridge. Once onto the Munger, the sun came back out and I tried to focus as much as I could on my form and cadence. Nick looked back a few times and wasn’t going to give an inch. He must’ve had a really tough 25 miles since I’d last seen him in the lead…

I looked at my watch and figured I could sneak in in the 7:20’s. My goal was 7:20 flat but I was several minutes ahead of that at the moment. One last turn, the clock in sight, and I knew I’d finish under 7:30. Nick crossed the line and I cruised in right behind him. I immediately felt a bit overwhelmed. The relief to finish was coupled by pain and fatigue. Nick and I both gravitated towards two folding chairs conveniently side by side. I asked about his race but he didn’t want to talk to me. I didn’t really want to talk either. Our respective support crews were asking questions but neither of us had the gumption or energy to respond assuredly. I took my shoes and socks off in the grass, which felt good, but really no position allowed my body comfort. Laying on the grass felt much better than running would, though.

I got a mug with “6th Place” etched in the side. I wanted to finish in the top-10 in a stacked field and was happy to do so handily. My time was off from what I thought I could do on the very top end, but given the day, given the heat and humidity, I thought it was an excellent result. 7:20 could have happened with 60 degrees and cloudy. Next is Sawtooth.

Garmin Fenix 3 Data

Results

Time: 7:28:05
Pace: 8:57
Place: 6/289

Shoes: Brooks Ghost size 11.5

Hydration: 19oz Nathan insulated handheld

Race Day: Friday, April 7, 2017 – 11:59pm

Never in my life have I had such a perfect training block leading up to a race. I guess that is a bold statement to make, but I feel like there is always some sort of question or apprehension, some little nagging injury or training fall-out that makes you question the pending performance. This year, this race, and with race week taper in full force, I was so content with every single mile I had put in and the output of fitness it produced. I was running faster and stronger than ever.

With a second-place finish last year at Zumbro, and no Kurt Keiser (2016 winner and course record holder), no definite slam dunk winner on the start list, I had one thing on my mind. One goal, one mission, a singular reason to toe the line. I wanted to win. Bad. It’s a tough thought to have, and an impossible one to wash out of your mind once it creeps in. As fit as you are, you can’t control who else is on that start line and what sort of shape they are in. Well, if you’re Tonya Harding you have that control, but I don’t own a baton. Either way, I was racing for the top spot.

12 months prior, I ran 8:32 while pacing for 9 hours. I hit just under my goal of 8 hours at Voyageur 50 with less-than-ideal training, and so I figured that 8 hours would be a good benchmark or time to pace off of. Then again, Zumbro is a hard course. The midnight start adds a different level of complexity, but 2:40 each 16.7-mile loop works out so nicely! My plan was to try to hit a tad under 10 minute pace for two loops and then let ‘er rip.

The weather was looking simply perfect for the run. Low 40s and dry for the whole night. I drove from Duluth Friday morning after getting a solid 11 hours of sleep, plus took a nap. It’s such a weird day just milling about, waiting for midnight. I left from Minneapolis around 8:30pm for bluffs country and got there in a breeze, but didn’t have much time to take a nap. I got my packet and hung out around the bustling start/finish/lap area and drank Mountain Dew until the start.

I saw a few friendly faces from last year, Jeff Vander Kooi and Bennett Isabella, and before long the countdown began. Watch on, headlamp on, “GO!”, start watch, start running.

I got swallowed up by a pack of guys, which was perfect. It’s a little freaky starting out the run in the pitch dark and not knowing exactly where the trail goes. This is race is so incredibly marked with reflective ribbons and a clear trail that’d truly be difficult to get lost on, but you don’t remember that in the anxiety-provoking first minute of the race! So we started towards the woods. It is not long before the trail turns onto some technical singletrack that goes up, up, up. It is comical how the first mile or two of the race is so incredibly challenging!

We were trucking pretty well, everyone was on the same page of walking up hills, and we were making good time. Jeff and I were up front and chatting away, which was nice. Bennett chimed in, and I talked to fellow Duluth resident Ryan Braun a bit. With the first aid station in sight, someone sprinted out from the group into the night. We looked around to each other and Jeff even asked, “who was that??”, almost offended that he’d run away like that this early in the race. I was offended because I wanted to win. It is way, way, way too early in a race like this to go after him. So either this guy is the real deal or he’s a clown and will blow up. It’s not like we were going slow, but this guy blasted way out in front and sprinted out of sight.

I made a point to eat something at the first aid station, as was my goal and plan for every aid station. The pretzels were not appetizing whatsoever, and I was the only one in the group to stop. I had to pee so bad, and lost my spot up front after the stops. There was a group of perhaps eight guys in one big pack, and I weeded my way back up. I didn’t recognize half of them, but started talking to TJ Jeannette, who chimed in when he mentioned he was from Duluth. I recognized his name from ‘Superior’, a book I read about the 100 mile race with the same title. We were all chatting away and running well–nice and fast but manageable–so the miles clicked away in the night. I peed at least twice before the third aid station.

For some reason, I felt like I had to break from the pack. I was good on water, and certainly not hungry, so deviated from my plan and skipped the third aid station of four per lap. Jeff was the first one out of the aid station and could have hung with me, but probably saw what I was doing and let me go. I was pushing the pace at that moment anyways, and kind of felt the time for chit chat was over. We hadn’t reeled the other mystery dude in at all, and it was time to focus.

After that third aid station, it’s relatively easy running until the next lap. I was getting a little carried away all alone, running fast and breathing hard. My watch didn’t seem to be splitting every three miles like I set it to, or I couldn’t hear it and was missing it. I was frustrated about that. Either way, my pace was on point for a 2:40 loop and I felt pretty decent. My fueling was going good. Perfect, really. I got some varied feedback from 100 milers and volunteers from the fourth aid station, and the guy in front of me was probably 5-10 minutes ahead. A lot of race left to run, I thought.

The moon was great, the temperature ideal, and trail in pristine condition. I sprinted across the finish line, grabbed some goodies from the finish aid station, got a fresh couple of gels from my stash, and ran out onto my second lap exactly at 2:40. I even said “two more of those and I’ll be all smiles”. I forgot to put my extra batteries in my waterbottle pouch. Do I turn around? No.

It was a bit harder to pace the start of the second lap without the big group to pace. I tried to hit an intensity that was mild but deliberate, especially on the uphills. You don’t want to really run or push it too hard, because that is where you blow up. There are plenty of hills that will destroy you at Zumbro. I had fun running in the night going into the first aid station on lap two, and was feeling spry and energetic. I altered my gel-and-hour plan, which pretty much threw my whole nutrition plan out the window after I’d skipped one aid station already. Oh, well, it’s better than trying to stick to a stupid plan just because, and throwing up or pooping my pants or getting terrible stomach pains.

Across the Zumbro River bridge, left into the flats, and I started to feel the first signs of fatigue. 20 miles in and that’s expected! I was pretty baffled that I was almost half way through already. Then, I felt bummed. Dang, it’s so fun running out here. Just me and the trail, the beautiful night. The conditions were so ripe that I wanted to keep going. Well, still not at the half way mark yet…

Between the first and third aid stations is hard. The sand couloir section was really terrible, and I got a little frustrated with that and the unrelenting hills. My legs were definitely starting to feel it, and time slowed down. 21 miles. 22 miles. 22.5 miles. 22.6 miles. Gah, just get to half way!! Things could be much, much worse, though, and I was still running well. I figured that I was breathing too heavy on the second part of that first lap and paying for it now.

At the second and perhaps third aid station (as they are the same physical aid station), I talked to my cousin-in-law Dan, who was volunteering once again. He said that the guy in front of me was at least 17 minutes up, and how he sprinted up the steep hill out of aid station two, and how he’s twice my age. Well, CRAP! So the win is unreachable. No way, no how. I did some quick math, but didn’t have to do any calculations to know that either I’d have to speed up quite a bit, or he’d have to slow down a lot, for me to have a chance at this stage in the race. But second place is still great. That’s better than third, and I can still race the clock for the sub-8, which had only been done once in race history, last year when Kurt said the course record at 7:49.

After the third station, I put the crank on. I wanted to get another perfect 2:40 lap, and for that I’d have to run really consistent down Ant Hill and back to the finish. I was breathing really pretty heavy, and blasted through the fourth aid station in a hurry. My legs were pretty weary running the winding singletrack and fast horse trail into the finish line and start of the third lap. My stomach was feeling good, and it was nice to see Ryan Saline at the start of the third lap with my drop bag held open for me to grab away. I quickly snatched the last gels I’d need, kept my half-open bag of caffeinated chews with me, and sprinted off with about 5:21 on the clock. A 2:41 lap is not bad at all! Just one more of those…

I made a point to let ‘er rip right out of the gate. I was pushing up the big first hill and passed a few hundreds and even some 50 milers. There is still plenty of race left to completely explode, I reminded myself, but felt good cresting the peak and looking down at the mini-village of the start/finish area still in the dark of night. I was running hard.

I put the lap on quite a few 50 milers, and we were all exchanging nice words of encouragement. I noticed in the warmth (compared to 2016), the 100 milers were in much better spirits. My pace was really good and I wasn’t giving up a second. However, the pain was nearly overwhelming and I couldn’t help but grunt, especially bombing down the technical descents. I was dreading the stupid sand cooler (as I called it in my mind), but knew once I hit daylight and that third aid station, it was time to really push it.

I saw Dan again when I was coming through the second aid station, and he said it’s a lost cause. This old guy in the lead was still far up–15 minutes or so. I said to him that it’s no matter, and asked that he at least time the person behind me and let me know how comfortable I should be in second when I come back through. I pushed and pushed, daylight came and it was wonderful. That in itself made my pace increase even more. I wanted to just run, and felt my fitness in that. Every hill I’d have to stop and walk, then start running at the top. My hamstrings throbbed on those first few running strides over every hill. Then, my brain told them that this is how it’s gonna be and the pain subsided. Weird how that is…

When I got back to the aid station, they told me Dan left. Well, crap!! I didn’t stick around to chit chat, or eat food or drink, and just ran off. I didn’t care about much except the clock. I wanted to win but that’s out. I wanted under 8 and that’s totally feasible. I had timed out from the fourth aid station to the finish to be around 20 minutes if I’m running well. So that was my goal, to hit that fourth station by at least 7:40. I did not feel good down Ant Hill, but was cruising well on the road below. This is where time is made up, I thought, and was passing other racers like they were standing still. I was breathing really heavy and making strange noises. I saw a photographer ahead and tried to look smooth and strong despite the discomfort.

Photo Credit: Zach Pierce

I hit the last aid station at 7:35 and skipped it. Two in a row! That is risky, but I wasn’t hungry, wasn’t thirsty, and had some water. I knew I needed to eat a bit, so had a couple of chews to blast me off. It worked, and I was really moving on the trail section before the final road stretch. It was a lot longer than I’d remembered on the previous two loops. Finally, the trail snaked down to the gravel road and I knew I was close.

With minutes to spare, I caught a glimpse of the gate, then campers and cars, and then the finish line. I ran up, feeling pretty well. My time was well under my goal of 8, but it was hard not to be bummed about second place once again. It was a hell of a race, though, and truly perfectly executed. What can you say when you believe there is no way to run even a minute faster? It was even harder, though, to see the results and know that Jason won by barely over two minutes. HOW?? He came up to me and congratulated me, but I was in a daze and didn’t get much time to pick his brain.

Photo credit: Julie Ward

Despite a few fleeting thoughts during the race of how running is terrible, immediately after finishing I acknowledged how fun the night run was and my excitement to do it all over again. Weird how that is.

Results

Garmin Data

Race Stats:

Place: 2/148
Time: 7:54:57
Pace: 9:30

Lap 1: 2:38:21
Lap 2: 2:42:27
Lap 3: 2:34:09

Shoes: Brooks Cascadia 11 Gore-Tex size 11
Food: Too much to count/remember

Race Day: Saturday, October 15, 2016 – 8am

I neglected writing about this race for a long time. It was a bad race. I’ve never fallen apart as badly as Wild Duluth 2016. I was undertrained and figured I could wing it. If you don’t put in the miles and race-specific intensity, you cannot wing it.

I did one two-hour run a week before the race, which was my tune-up. I’d been running pretty consistently, but low volume, since the big thru-hike. Three miles per day and one two-hour run. The only reason I signed up is because I thought I could potentially squeak out a win. I mean, I had extreme volume on my legs from a month prior with hiking 50k per day nine days in a row, but that is slow walking, and I was hoping to run over twice as fast for this race. I scoped out the start list and my game plan was to start really easy, hopefully be in the front pack at least, and then race my own race and hold on.

Race morning went off without a hitch. Mountain Dew, check. Cereal, check. Deuce deuce, check. The day was shaping up to be pretty warm. Overcast but in the 60’s. I was feeling good and ready to rip. Talking to other competitors that I recognized, it seemed like everyone was questionable about what sort of shape they were in. But that’s what everyone always says…

I moseyed around and then the hoard started to congregate towards the start line at Fond du Lac park on the outskirts of Duluth. A few words and “GO!”, we were off. I took off absurdly fast for some reason, and my buddy David Dickey stuck right on my shoulder. That’d be a great race, if we could feed off of each other’s energy and push the pace up front. There were a few guys up front with us, but I was in the lead in the very runnable mountain bike trail through Mission Creek. An older guy zipped in front of us about two miles in, apologizing and citing he though he had to go to the bathroom.

I was feeling good through my first five-mile split in the 45-minute range. Right on track… David fell back after the first aid station and I was by myself. A familiar competitor, Ryan Braun, was back behind me somewhere. I saw him on a few switchbacks, and knew that he was pretty fit. He finished shortly behind me at Voyageur 50 Mile and had finished second at Wild Duluth 50k several times. Perhaps this was his year. By the way, I wondered where that other guy was? Maybe we passed him squatting in the woods.

I felt like I was racing well–not too aggressive but not falling behind–until Braun passed me like I was standing still. I considered chasing him but he was out of sight in no time. Dang. I was passed another time, now in fourth place, coming through the second aid station and heading towards Ely’s Peak. Not where I want to be, but I just told myself to race my own race and it will sort itself out.

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Photo credit: Julie Ward

I pounded it up through Ely’s, and started passing 100k’ers going the other way. That is always a good boost, and I felt good. It was definitely getting warm, though, in a muggy and sticky way. Otherwise, I felt pretty decent coming into mile 10. My next 5-mile split was almost exactly 10 minutes slower. But it’s harder running. I told myself to stick that pace.

I held my own through Spirit Mountain, and once I passed the last 100k stragglers, I felt lonesome out by myself. Nobody else near me, just hanging out in fourth place. Climbing out of Spirit, I felt the urge to walk. I dismissed the thought and just shuffled my way up the hill. The early onset of fatigue and low-volume training was starting to surface. By the time I got to Cody Street, it was really tough to maintain a reasonable pace. My split from mile 15-20 was just shy of one hour. To win, I knew I’d need under 4:45, and that equates to less than 50 minutes per 5 miles for sure. An hour was way too slow and I did not foresee a second wind. I wasn’t walking a whole ton, but my running pace was noticeably slowing. From here, the derailment was swift, but the remainder of the race was long. Very long, painful and drawn out.

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

Like a ton of bricks, my motivation and energy levels plummeted and I was dead meat. I got passed a few times through Brewer Park after the Highland Getchell aid station. I was really going slow by now, and knew my next split would be over an hour. A slow and painful death, but now was the time that I realized what was happening and my mental state came into play. I knew I wasn’t trained to run fast enough, I was dead meat. Piece of crap. Whatever, it’s still fun, I thought. Just jog it out.

Through the tunnel under Haines Road, I could barely run. I wasn’t that sore, it’s just the terrible feeling of not being able to turn my legs over fast enough. Slowwww. I was passed a few more times into Piedmont, once by a woman who was holding her hand cockeyed. She mentioned how she fell a bunch and thinks she tweaked a nerve or something. Ouch. Then she fell again right in front of me. I couldn’t even hang on to this woman… I got chicked. She got back up and ran past me with the speed of a track star–out of sight in no time. I didn’t even know what place I was in at this point, but was nearing five hours through Lincoln Park. After the last aid station, it’s all easy, I thought.

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

I took my time at the Duluth Running Co. aid station, and expressed my woes to the familiar faces handing out drinks and snacks. I took off jogging across Piedmont Avenue at a comically slow trot, but picked it up. I told myself to finish somewhat strong… the pain will all be over soon enough. I didn’t feel too beat up, but just had no step, like a car stuck in first gear. It took forever to get to Enger Tower, and I got passed there too. Worse than getting passed repeatedly is that I couldn’t hang on to anyone. They’d pass me with ease and run out of sight in a flash. Am I really going that slow?

I finally got to Enger and then just leaned forward for the straight downhill bomb towards Bayfront Park and the finish line. This was the easy part, finally. Just don’t get passed anymore, I thought. I had nice form coming across I-35, and peeked behind my shoulder just to make sure I didn’t have to bring the pain on some fools behind me. Nobody there, luckily. A short jaunt and I was within striking distance of that stinking finish line after a long, long morning.

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Photo Credit: Mike Wheeler

My watch was well past 5 hours, and it looked like I’d be just about an hour slower than my winning time from 2014. Piece of crap, but what do I expect? I finished and sat right down on the ground.

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Photo Credit: Mike Wheeler

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Photo Credit: Mike Wheeler

Garmin Data

Results

Race stats:

Place: 8/145
Time: 5:30:00
Pace: 11:00

Shoes: Mizuno Hayate size 11

Race Day: July 30, 2016 6am

I had a whole host of questions and doubts in my mind going into the revered Minnesota Voyageur 50 Mile. A race with such history and such talent every year, coupled with my severe lack of focused training, made me question and doubt my ability to hold together a good race. I looked at my stats, and I’d ran triple the mileage in March compared to July (150 miles versus 50 miles), but had a big increase in steps logged (295,000 in March versus over 450,000 in July), for what it’s worth. I knew the course was really runable, but I had the fitness to walk endlessly. 50 miles slows you down, sure, but I should run the whole thing, and believe it or not, running is always the best training for a running race. Imagine that!

I had no expectations going into the race, with the goal simply to have fun and enjoy myself. I can’t not have a time in mind, and I was thinking 8 hours is realistic. Under 10 is a slam dunk, even if I crash and burn, so to speak. I did some math and aimed to stick 6 miles per hour, or 10 minute miles right out of the gate. I was feeling good and ready to race the night before, and set my alarm nice an early for the next day.

I woke up at 4:45 on Saturday, in the dark, awaiting the sun to shine on what was forecasted to be a perfect day. I drove myself to Carlton High School to get my packet, I was lucky enough to get some sunscreen from Jarrow of Austin-Jarrow, despite his competitor’s jersey on my back! I saw some friendly faces, and there was some great positive energy in the wee morning hours.

We congregated in the street, there were a few words said, then GO! And we were off. I had to laugh immediately as Michael Borst and Dusty Olson set off in a dead sprint to take the lead ten seconds into the race. I was recommended to jockey for a decent spot while the course was really wide, soon to shrink to technical single track, as not to get caught behind slowskis. I did have a good spot as we turned right into the woods for a long day on the trails.

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

I was with Jakob Wartman right off the bat. I raced against him at Wild Duluth last fall, and he seemed unsure of his abilities at this race, too. He said he was in 15:40 5k shape, which is insane fast, but hadn’t been doing much long stuff. We chatted on some really rooty and uneven trail, talked strategy and about the course.

In a flash, we were crossing the iconic St. Louis River bridge and already at the first aid station.

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

We started running on ski trails and Jakob tried to pee while running. It didn’t work. The morning was beautiful, although extremely humid, the temperature was low and almost chilly in scant clothing. I took some more caffeine via Coca Cola at the second aid station. Jakob seemed worried about our pace and told me about his last Voyageur race where he went through the halfway at 3:15 or 3:30 or something, and really struggled the last half. I thought we were running pretty conservatively and it felt so easy. Jakob sped up…

We bumped out to the paved Munger Trail and I’d caught back up to Jakob after he stopped to pee. Another guy was right there, too, and we chatted with him. Garrett was from Madison, WI, and studying post-grad physical therapy or exercise science or something. I joked how he knows the exact tendons and muscles that are getting sore throughout the race. I stopped at the Duluth Running Co. aid station on the Munger Trail, and it was nice to know there were friendly faces at the station. Here, I drank a cup of Coke mixed with ginger ale, and a shot of pickle juice. Running away, I had major regrets as I felt the fluids mix together inside my belly like a witch’s brew.

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

We spread out in the trails nearby Mission Creek. Jakob was way out front, I wouldn’t see him for a long time. Garrett and I switched positions a few times. I was more or less running by myself. The aid stations were spread out really nicely, and I could chug my water and spray it on myself right before the next one. I was still feeling good just clicking off the sections: Mission Creek, Skyline, Magney Park. When we got to the Magney trails, I ran with Garrett a bit more and we considered our energy levels. We were both getting a bit tired, but feeling good. It was swampy on this section, but nice and shaded.

Through Skyline once more into Spirit Mountain, I went ahead of Garrett because he noticed I was going faster on the downhills. Soon after, it hit me and I started scanning the side of the trail. It’s an unmistakable feeling in any life situation and I knew then and there–I had to take an emergency dump. No, no, no. I wondered if this would happen, and sure enough, it’s coming. And quickly! I know I can’t fight it, so just hopped right into the woods and wished Garrett farewell. As I squatted, I saw the first place runner Michael Borst sprint past in the other direction. I also saw, like 4 people pass me. What?! I didn’t realize it was that tight. So I made it as brief as possible and hopped back onto the trail. Runners were exposed in the sun at the top of Spirit Mountain. I had fun seeing how the top was panning out. A minute back was Jake Hegge, 45 seconds behind that was Erik Elmstrand, who I jog with from time to time, right in the mix. Not a minute back was ageless wonder Kurt Keiser, who smoked the Zumbro 50 Mile course record earlier this year, where I came in second. It was shaping up to be a tight race!

We then turn down into the woods and it’s down, down, down to the zoo. I was surprised to see Jakob sprinting up the hill like it was a 5k workout. And that after the talks of starting out too fast!? But he looked fresh. High intensity paying off, I guess. I didn’t dawdle at the aid station, and was able to pass a few people, like Garrett as he changed his socks.

The grind back up to Spirit Mountain was hard. It took a lot out of me as I strongly considered walking. I decided I had to run up it, despite the high possibility of dipping too deep into the tank. A little overexertion, spread out for many hours, and mean a terrible last few hours of walking/hobbling. It was a great feeling to get back to the top of Spirit, and I was actually feeling OK after all. I knew that was the biggest uphill, really, and all just backwards from here. Garrett had passed me again on the uphill, and we were right together once again. He took off, and I wouldn’t see him for a long time.

It was pretty tough getting back to Magney. The uphill, running across Spirit was OK, and I started feeling pretty run down on Skyline. I ate a gel and kept plugging away. It was nice to see the high-density of runners going the other way. I had a second wind in Magney in the shade and the swampy conditions. It didn’t seem so bad this time around. I caught up to another guy in cutoff jorts, but passed him with ease.

Out of Magney ski trails, I knew it was a nice downhill on the road, but I didn’t think it would thrash my quads. I tried to be economical with running downhill, but I was just bashing my quads with every step. The jorts guy caught back up to me, and he told me we used to train together. I got a look at the guy’s face, and realized it was Marc Malinoski, a tri bro from right when I started in the triathlon game. He was training for Ironman in 2012 or 2013 or so, and I was such a newbie back then. So it was kind of cool to catch up and talk as a way to distract from the arduous task of running. I stopped only briefly at the aid station at Becks, and left Marc. It didn’t take long for him to catch up, but then I felt the familiar feeling of my stomach turning over.

Twice in a race… terrible. I wasn’t timing my stops or anything, but knew that if I didn’t pull off into the woods I’d pay for it. Marc said he saw me stop at Spirit, too… sorry bro. And so I pulled off once more. With a handful of the plentiful and large-leafed thimbleberry leaves I let ‘er rip. Just so unpleasant, taking a dump in the woods. I think the thimbleberry leaves were a bad choice, and realized my butt has been babied by Charmin for years.

Back onto the trail, I ran by myself through the steeps through Mission Creek. On the ropes section, I saw my long lost friend Garrett. I think he was doing pretty rough, because I passed him, and quickly out of sight. I went through the Mission Creek/Fond du Lac aid station and started slowing big time. My legs were heavy, and I couldn’t run up even the smallest incline. I foresaw the downward spiral in my mind’s eye, but somehow pulled through to get to the wider piece of trail, just as Garrett found his second wind and passed me just as easily. Out of sight, I didn’t think I’d see him again. I wondered where Marc went. I was all by myself and didn’t want to think about who else was behind me. The wheels were falling off.

I got to the DRC aid station once again, and Tina Nelson had a huge dollop of Vaseline on her hands asking me where I’m chafing. Do you count leaf-related abrasions as chafing? I told her nowhere… my filter kicking in as I almost blurted “taint”. I stopped for a good moment at this aid station and loaded up on tasty blue Powerade. I didn’t think… couldn’t think of food. I wasn’t hungry and wondered if I’d pay for that later. I told everyone the wheels are falling off. They told me to keep them on.

Into the powerlines, I had my third wind. It was perfect timing, and getting a chance to walk up some steeps reenergized me big time. It was painful to slog down the other side, but it was enough of a difference with the muscles you use, in this very steep up-and-down section, compared to trying to run 8 minute miles on flat, tame trails. I saw Marc once again, and he wasn’t doing so hot, no pun intended, in the summer heat of the exposed powerlines. I was luckily feeling just fine, but definitely spraying water on my face more and more. I soaked it up on Purgatory, the last section of the steep up-and-downs of the powerlines, and knew that it was a jog of 10 miles or so to the finish. I was pretty much right on my 8 hour goal, and maybe 12 place or so. I wondered who else I could pass, and so thought of my long lost friend Garrett. Into the woods and down a big hill to a creek bottom, then back up the other side and I saw him once again.

Garrett was walking up the hill and seemed to be in pain. Sure enough, he said he wasn’t doing well as his quadriceps were cramping. That sounds like the worst pain. But the constant pounding of downhill running is enough to do it to ‘ya! I passed him, wondering if we were in 10th and 11th place. I used it as motivation–whatever I could scrape up mentally at this stage in the race–to run. We got to the ski trails in Jay Cooke State Park, where the miles were just clicking away 6 hours prior. I realized this was the part of the race where mantras are the only thing to pull me through. My mantra was “keep the wheels on, Mike”. Keep the wheels on, keep the wheels on, and I kept working. This was probably my favorite part of the race. I don’t know what is so gratifying about being so tired that your mind tells you to stop. The signals from every muscle and tendon are saying they’re done, but you just keep working ’em. It’s all mental. I was feeling surprisingly well, and could feel my speed pick up to a nice consistent rate on these flat and runable trails. Even a small hill was enough to nearly derail my efforts, though.

I eagerly anticipated the next aid station, and was checking my watch’s mileage counter way too often. By the time I got to Forbay Lake, I figured I was decently ahead of both Garrett and Marc, both struggling the last time I’d seen them. I asked the volunteers at Forbay Lake what place I was in, and they said 11th. I joked how I wanted to get top 10, and then was promptly notified that 10th place was 10 minutes ahead. A few 5 minute miles, I muttered… Joke of the year…

I kept chugging along, craning my neck when I could to scope for any quickly closing runner behind me. Nothing. I sprinted across the crowded swinging bridge, and figured my adrenaline would carry me through the last really technical section of this long, long race. My legs were killing me, so hot and tired, and I hadn’t been eating. I wasn’t hungry, but knew I was in quite the calorie deficit. I saw some tourists on the trail, stepping carefully over rocks and roots, as I notified I was right behind them, and then cruised over the technical trail with relative ease. I seemed to surprise the couple, who yelled “I’m impressed!!”, but I really surprised myself and felt pretty cool. THIS would be the section to bend my ankle in half. Then again, my tendons were that of an overstretched rubber band. They’re probably bending in half every step as it was.

I started swearing at the roots. It was tough going through here, and I couldn’t help but yell bad words when I’d get to a precarious jumble of sharp rocks and oddly shaped roots. The adrenaline kicked in, especially when I started to calculate the last few miles of the race. If my GPS mileage held true, I’d be VERY close to going under 8 hours. Now, that is my motivator.

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

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Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

I was overly excited to see the bridge across to the Munger Trail. 2 minutes to 8 hours. How far do we run on the Munger? I saw Carlton, and recognized the turn-off as my watch clicked to the 59’s. I saw the finish line from afar, looked down to see 7:59:15. I gritted my teeth and picked it up hard. I was not going to jog in in for an 8:00:15. The all out sprint was terribly painful, and in hindsight, embarrassing as the spectators looked at the sheer pain plastered on my squinched face. The clock confirmed I had a few seconds to spare as I crossed the line and stopped my watch at 7:59:45.

“Sub 8”, I muttered as I hobbled to the grass, climbed onto my hands and knees and panted like a dog. Nobody said anything, but I noticed my friends Jakob, Erik and Chris Rubesch relaxing in the shade. I felt like crying as I realized the scope of the accomplishment. I somehow kept my wheels on to bring in a stellar time of under 8 hours, definitely smashing my expectations. The deep field was really crazy, as four people, including Jakob, who had a truly incredible race, went under 7 hours. My time would have yielded a top 10 or even a top 5 finish in any other year’s race.

Looking back, the Voyageur was an awesome race. I definitely achieved my goal of having fun and enjoying myself, and I’m afraid that I like the 50 mile distance too much. ‘More miles, more fun’ seems to be the theme. I ought to look at a 100k or 100 miler in that case!

Results

Garmin Data

Race Stats:

Place: 11/271
Time: 7:59:45
Pace: 9:45

Shoes: Mizuno Hayate size 11
Food: Too much to name

Race Day: Saturday, October 17, 2015 – 8am

Time for the pain. The Superior Hiking Trail brings the pain every time. It isn’t very runable, so why not try to run 31 miles as fast you can on it? I love this very fun race, though, and couldn’t resist registering for it to defend my title.

However, I knew the whole time that I wasn’t going to put in the necessary training to feel super confident. Leading up to race day, I was banking on pure “residual fitness” to put me up near the front of the race. Not only was I neglecting long runs, I did several four-hour runs on hard terrain to prepare for last year’s race, but my day-to-day running mileage dropped off after Ironman. Yeah, I was running fast for a 20 minute race, but I definitely didn’t have a ton of confidence to maintain a decent pace for 4+ hours running. Nevertheless, race week came and my strategy and mindset was to race to win.

Looking at the start list, I didn’t see any major contenders besides a local dude Jakob Wartman who is pretty fast. In fact, in my opinion, we are very evenly matched. I think it’s a toss up head-to-head for any given running race, and we’ve raced head-to-head a few times (mostly at NMTC trail races). My opinion was confirmed on race morning when we both laid out our respective goals to run between 4:30 and 4:40. I had some intel, though, regarding the fact that Jakob is a new dad, and that the large responsibility of a child is likely eating in to some quality training time! Regardless, I was really excited to duke it out. Nobody else would content with us all alone up front, and the one who races the smartest race will prevail. I forecasted some raw racing ahead.

Anyways, I picked up my packet on Friday and negotiated a clutch car ride to the start line on Saturday morning with my good friend Kris. I had some cereal and some coffee and Kris and I hit the road at 7am. It was super chilly that morning, which made it nice to sit in Kris’s toasty warm car until the last minute. Plus, it was nice to joke around and talk and stuff right before the race. I chugged the rest of my Mountain Dew, shed a bunch of clothes and made my way to the start.

I saw Jakob and looked around for anyone else who appeared fast. It’s pretty hard to tell with a long trail race… it’s not an easy equation like at a 5k, where the guy wearing running shorts with the shortest inseam will probably win. No leads today.

It was certainly cold on the start line, but the sun was out and it was surely going to be a fine day to run. Everyone lined up and GO! We were off. There was a quarter mile road run to the trail, then trail for 98% of the rest of the race, Superior Hiking Trail for 85% of it. I started out fast to get a nice position on the trail. Also, I wanted to send a message. I was way out front right off the bat. I could hear Jakob sprinting to get up to me and he got right on my side. He mentioned something about it being really cold. The open air rushing past my face was numbing. Next, we popped onto the trail and I stayed in front. The first five miles is on windy singletrack mountain bike trail, and right off the bat, we had a lot of separation from the rest of the group. On the switchbacks, I could see that there wasn’t anyone else back there. Just as I suspected. Ok, so there isn’t some no-name ringer pushing the pace. Just Jakob and I. Perfect.

Jakob took the lead for a while, and we split the time up front until the first aid station at mile 5 or so. We were definitely going pretty fast. I knew I was going to push it a little, and when I was in tow behind Jakob, I wasn’t going to give an inch for a second. At the first aid station, I ditched my headband, long sleeve, and gloves. I didn’t grab any food or water since I had my stocked handheld waterbottle, and I took a decent lead while Jakob was refueling. He was quite quick to catch back up, though.

I noticed that I was gaining some time on the uphills, but Jakob would catch right back up on downhills and flats. So I would jet up the hills pretty fast to try and break him. Stick with me, I was thinking, because I can endure! The next aid station was at mile 11 or so, and right after that is a rugged climb up Ely’s Peak. I formulated a plan to ditch Jakob on that tough uphill and run alone to the win. I’d do a super quick water fill at the second aid station for a small head start. Nobody will see me the whole rest of the race!

Meanwhile, as I was plotting to win the race, we were joined by another guy who I didn’t recognize. He didn’t make a move, just latched on the back, and I continued to lead the race. How did this guy come out of nowhere?! It was like the extra body behind was pushing me even faster, so I was really blasting through the technical woods above the Fond du Lac neighborhood and Mission Creek. Two fast runners were following my every step.

When we got to the second aid station, I was still in the lead and still had the two guys in tow. Just as I planned, I did a fast water fill and jetted. I was sprinting. There was a small gravel trail that wraps around the base of Ely’s Peak to get to the rocky uphill trail. I was pushing super hard to get to the climb out of sight. I saw John Storkamp going the other way in first place for the 100k. I couldn’t mutter much in terms of encouragement because I was breathing too hard. Then, I began the climb. I was already tired but told myself that this was my chance to make a big break, which would demoralize everyone behind me. The climb was tough. My breathing was labored and I was going hard. I didn’t feel like I was going much faster than if I knocked it down a notch, though, but I kept pushing. I saw the top of Ely’s, ran past it, and tried to keep pushing hard. Unfortunately, I was pretty spent and couldn’t go very fast on the flats. Plus, this section of the race is a lot of exposed rock and is tough to run really fast on. I could tell I was running a tiny bit softer than in the woods when we were in a pack.

Almost to Bardon Peak, my two competitors caught up to me. How could this happen, I thought? I blasted myself trying to make a gap, just to get caught in fifteen minutes! Did I slow down that much in five minutes since I got past Ely’s Peak? How frustrating… Nevertheless, I took the pull once again. We got into more runable woods, and I noticed again that I couldn’t find that spring in my step. It was mile 14 or so and I was getting a little tired. OK, that is normal, though. He who wins is the one who slows down the least. We were blasting through the woods back there and unless this other guy is the real deal, we’re bound to slow down a little over time. Or is Jakob super fit? He’s got a very fast road marathon time. Maybe I’m toast from the first half. I ate a gel to stave off these negative thoughts. It helped, temporarily, but all of the sudden Jakob darted past me and took off. I wasn’t willing to sprint. He can go ahead. I’ll race a steady race and catch him eventually. The guy behind me told me he was going after him. They quickly escaped from my sight. My race plan deteriorated.

I ran alone until the Magney-Snively aid station at mile 15.3. I was good for food so just ran right through, knowing the Spirit Mountain aid station was only two miles away. There’s a nice uphill from the bottom of Spirit Mountain, which means I’d get another chance to test my climbing skills. These fools ran their gas tanks down and won’t be able to hold me off. I’ll catch ’em before that, even. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling good. I was feeling bad. My legs hurt. I was tired. I ate food to quell these terrible thoughts. It didn’t work, I’m toast. No! He who wins is the one who slows down the least. I just need to keep chugging along and it will pay off.

Anxiously, I began to ask the slower 100k racers how far back I was. A few minutes back, they’d say. Two minutes is no cause for concern. By the time I got to the bottom of Spirit, I got an update from a local bike and ski enthusiast Nikolai that they were indeed together about two minutes up. I filled up at the Spirit Mountain aid station with water and a quarter of a PB&J and some M&M’s. That tasted good. Now up the hill. Unlike Ely’s Peak, climbing up Spirit is a pure grinder. Not super steep or rocky like Ely’s, but just relentless elevation gain. A few minutes later, I saw Nikolai again on his bike. He informed me that the two split up and one of them was suffering. Suffering, I thought! That gave me just enough incentive to power hike quickly (as opposed to slowly, which was my strong preference at that point), up a brutal set of wooden steps. I ran down the back side of a river, across a bridge and I saw Jakob standing there. He was next to some spectating running buddies (and newlyweds!) Chris and Andrea. I was confused and didn’t really say anything right off the bat, but kept running. They didn’t say anything right away, either, and I finally muttered out a question about how the guy up front was looking. He was five minutes or so up and running strong. Jakob had just dropped out.

I ran past. Ok, this is good, this is good. No Jakob… Second place. No, this is bad. This other dude broke Jakob down and he’s the real deal. I realized that my mind was getting the best of me and I needed to zone out for a second and just run. I was definitely getting slow at this point. I remember that this was where things fell apart last year. The trail gets close to the freeway and it’s kind of exposed. It feels so far out but it’s past half way. Last year, it was all pain from here on out. I tried to estimate how long until the next aid station because that would be a good way to micromanage the rest of the race. Just make it to the next aid station, but don’t slow down. That is easy.

Eventually, I crossed Cody Street for a quick quarter mile on roads to connect the trail. I saw a woman parked and clearly spectating so figured I’d get an update. She said the guy was up front by ten minutes but he had stopped and was walking for a little bit. Enough said, I thought, now is the time to pounce. I had a short-lived surge of pure running but quickly reverted back to a quick shuffle. I was getting progressively more sore and could feel different muscle groups sending out their pain signals.

Finally, I got to the next aid station.

12032903_10207760211065582_3846839841533801702_oPhoto Credit: Shane Olson

12045219_10207760211025581_489617833738560959_oPhoto Credit: Shane Olson

I was passing some of the slower half-marathoners, and some were giving me feedback on where I was at–still about five minutes back or so. I saw some friendly faces at the Highland-Getchell aid station and listed to some feedback while I ate pretzels and drank coke.

12140905_10207764887502490_4339358751197840013_oPhoto Credit: Shane Olson

This guy up ahead of me apparently had stopped for a while at the aid station and said he was sick of rocks and his feet hurt. Yes, I thought, he burnt up his matches. It’s not realistic to blast past him. I need to keep consistent and slowly reel him in. That is the way to win, because I’m sore and he’s sore. He will slow down more than me. Hearing that intel motivated me more than ever, and I picked up the pace for a good mile or so. I could catch him. I was asking every half marathoner that I passed where the guy in the blue was at. Much to my chagrin, I wasn’t making up time. I was losing time. I inevitably slowed down. I can’t let myself slow down. Resist the temptation to walk, I told myself.

But I was definitely power-hiking up bigger hills and even slowed to a walk on a few sections that were flat and runable. I was just too tired to run. Oh, well, I’ll settle for second. This guy is the real deal. I heard that he was fifteen minutes ahead of me and running really fast. Even if I was running at a good clip, he’d be in the lead. Too bad, but hey, you can’t control when someone who is on a different echelon of running fitness registers for the race. Second place is good, anyways.

I was getting close to the last aid station and had quit asking people about the race progress. I’m in a solid second. I doubt I’ll get passed. I’ve settled into a nice pace. I know I’m not making time on this guy ahead of me and if he’s going to die, he would have died already. He ran a smart race! All I can do now is chug along as not to get passed in the final five miles. I can stop and have a nice break at the last aid station where I know there are friends, and waltz it in for second place. I was really sore at this point, but feeling pretty good. I definitely was not feeling fast, though, but that is OK. After the last aid station, it’s a little jaunt up to Enger Tower, then all downhill from there.

I popped out of the woods and heard my name from the crowd of faithful volunteers at the aid station.

12006601_10207760210985580_5492358411568841816_oPhoto Credit: Shane Olson

I quickly realized the urgency of the situation and finally made out that the mystery kid in first place was currently still at the aid station! It took me a second to comprehend the situation, but all I needed to hear was “GO, GO, GO!!!” to pick up my step. Then, I saw the guy in blue with my own two eyes and it was on. I jetted through the aid station. He was standing still, but started moving immediately, and I was right on his tail. My initial thought was that I was going to win. There is no way that this guy has juice left if I’ve finally caught him. I’ve been chugging along for hours by myself. This guy lost a ton of time to me in the last few miles and he must be toast.

We were sprinting across the Skyline Boulevard bridge over Piedmont Avenue towards Enger Tower. He was running fast. I noticed his long, gangly legs and loping stride, and I felt like a kindergartner putting so much effort into running a 10 minute mile for the pace test in gym class. He was pulling away already. I couldn’t respond. No matter. His feet hurt and he was sick of rocks. If I can keep him in sight until Enger, the race is on. I could pass him on the rocky downhill. In the time it took my mind to process these strategy formulations, he was out of sight. I had nothing. I was pushing so hard but not going fast. I would slowly overtake half marathoners, and then they would stick with me for a while. And I was in the middle of the pack of the half marathon race… ladies with large hydration packs would stick with me as I slowly passed. No offense to ladies with large hydration packs on… but not good for my situation.

I put in a few surges, especially once I passed the large bell at Enger. I bolted downhill and nervously spared one brain cell of concentration at a time to peer ahead and look for blue. No blue, now look down. I would catch him on the road… no matter.

Once I exited the woods once and for all, I could see a ways down the race course. The last mile or so is all pavement–a bridge across I35, then paved path to the finish. No blue was in sight. No matter, he got lost in the woods I think! Wow, that is bad luck! I was staying surprisingly optimistic that I was to win the race despite my miserable status of pain and fatigue. I only saw half marathoners, who I roped in one-by-one on the last bike path section. Onto the finish chute, I ran it in, very excited to be done.

IMG_2576Photo Credit: Jack Krouse

Obviously, Ryan, the new champion, did not get lost. He won the race and gave it one hell of a go. I chatted with him a bit after the race, then ate some soup to recoup. My muscled were jacked up.

I think that if I ran a bit smarter in the first 13 miles, I would have had more energy during the meat of the race. Then again, you’re going to get tired over 50 kilometers regardless, so you might as well create a buffer right away when you’re fresh. Also, I was not about to let these guys blast past me right off the bat. I’ll never know how to race a 50k wisely, because I can’t limit myself at the beginning, and it’s a long freaking race. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had objected to walk all those times. What would have happened if I saved a few matches in the matchbook, using them up at Enger Tower versus Ely’s Peak? Would Ryan still run away from me at mile 28? As I left the race site, another Ryan, Braun, cruised into the finish line a mere two minutes after me. Well, I didn’t have second place wrapped up as tightly as I thought!

Upon finishing the Wild Duluth 50k, I quickly realized that this is the first time in a long time, perhaps years, that I’m not currently registered for any races. And that is a nice feeling.

Results

Race Stats:

Shoes: Nike Terra Kiger 3 size 11
Handheld: Nathan insulated 18oz
Food: Nearly 2 packs of Honey Stinger Chews (Cherry Cola and Orange Blossom), one Maple Bacon Gu gel

Race Day: October 18, 2014 — 8am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Results

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


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