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: 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, May 21, 2016

Location: Lutsen, MN

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

 

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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Photo Credit: Jeff Miller

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

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

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

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Photo Credit: Jim Ward

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

Garmin Data

Results

Race Stats:

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

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

Race Day: Saturday, April 9, 2016 – 12:01am

50 miles is a lot of ground to cover. 2016 is the year for long backpacking trips, hiking, walking, slow-walking, and so on. However, I love racing and just can’t give it up. With a few forays into ultramarathons, I realized that they’re really fun and challenging, and I’m pretty good at them. For better or worse, I think that based on my physiology and genetic abilities, trail ultras suit me best compared to other types of endurance racing like bike racing and tris and road running. The real test is to register for a really competitive trail ultra like Superior Spring 50k and Voyager 50 mile and see where I place…

Anyways, I figured that throwing a few trail ultramarathons in the mix for the year would be great training, a lot of fun, and a perfect compliment to backpacking. I registered for Zumbro 50 mile and Superior Spring 50k simultaneously, actually, but Zumbro is the one that I was thinking about every single day a month prior. I was having thoughts of fear, nervousness, dread, excitement.

Training leading up to Zumbro was interesting. I’d been running very, very consistently at about 60-70 miles per week from into February and all of March. This is pretty big miles for me, but I think the big key was running every day, doing a lot of doubles, and back-to-back longer runs on the weekends. I was staying free from injury (maybe riding the line of frinjury… but that’s where you wanna be!), and running was feeling VERY easy. An hour run, for instance, would feel as taxing as a lunch break walk around downtown Duluth. My hamstrings get more sore watching an hour of TV on the couch. This is a good sign. However, 90% of my running was roads. February was really warm, and once the snow starts to melt, it’s game over for the trails until it either snows more and is consistently cold, or it all melts and the trails completely dry out. And in Duluth, that’s usually mid-May. This year is no exception, and the daily highs were above freezing in the day and below freezing at night. Rain, snow, mix, sleet, and all of the above at the same time… yeah it’s not meteorologically possible but I’m pretty sure it happened. So roads it is. 7:30 pace was feeling EASY to maintain, breathing through my nose or carrying on an intellectual conversation even for two hours. I was feeling very confident in my running, especially for, say, a road marathon. If I keep this up, I’m a shoe-in for a PR at Grandma’s! But a technical, challenging trail ultramarathon is what I was actually training for…

Two weeks prior to Zumbro, I started getting really nervous. First it was about training. Roads are different than trails. Will that fitness translate or am I going to break both my ankles on mile 1? Also, I hadn’t done any really long runs. I anticipated doing some 4 hour runs, but push comes to shove and my biggest weekend was 2 hours for 17 miles a Friday morning and then 3 hours for 21 miles the next morning. Both on roads, 3 hours felt so easy, and this was maybe 5 weeks out. Then, a few days before the race… when do I sleep? How do I eat? Naps? Two dinners? How do I pace this thing? Am I going to fall apart on the third lap? Is this like a 50k or is it a different beast? Pretty standard pre-race nerves, but maybe a little amplified because of the scope of the race itself.

Zumbro is made up of three races along a 16.7 mile loop in bluff country near Winona, MN. The 100 mile is six loops and starts Friday morning. The 50 is three loops and starts at midnight Friday night/Saturday morning. The 16.7 mile (17 miles for all intents and purposes) starts Saturday morning at 9. The cutoff for every race is Saturday at 6pm. So my plan was to take work off on Friday, drive to Maple Grove and then drive to the race site on Friday evening to catch packet pickup at 10pm. As far as race plans, my goal was to go under 9 hours. To achieve this, I figured I could pace off 10 minute miles. If I keep a 10 minute pace right off the bat, I don’t think I’d overexert myself but that leaves a 40 minute buffer for the inevitable slowdown. If I can hit 10 minutes for every mile, it puts me at 8:20. Lastly, I want to win. I mean, really, what’s the point of racing besides to beat people and stroke one’s own ego? Otherwise, it’s just a timed training run with a bunch of other weirdos…

So I relaxed, ate and slept as much as I could on Friday. I started driving south and arrived at the race site right after 10pm. Nick’s advice to me was to be full at the start line. I got my packet, rushed back to the warm car, and hung out for an hour. I ate half a Subway sandwich and was munching on trail mix and Combos and candy and various other munchies. I set my alarm for 38 minutes and tried to get some quick shut-eye. I definitely wasn’t tired but figured it’d benefit me. I didn’t really sleep. And when my alarm rang, I gathered some food and a backup headlamp and socks into my little drop bag and set out to the start line.

The overnight low was supposed to be in the 20’s, even into the teens depending on the location. I definitely noticed that the river bottoms were cooler. I chose to wear a long sleeve tech tee and a thin running jacket, running tights, a buff and thin poly liner gloves. A voice came over the loudspeaker and we lined up in the pitch dark midnight. I got up the front row, and saw Bennett Isabella to my right. We raced against each other at Capitol City Tri, I noticed his USA Triathlon shirt and put two and two together. We were chatting a bit… he’s doing an ultramarathon year as well, just had a baby, and didn’t have a target time in mind at all. He said this is pure training, and didn’t really say much about my 9 hour goal.

Then “GO!” and we set off. I started slow and wanted to have some dudes in front of me to lead the way. I was really nervous to run in the dark and potentially get off course, so my initial plan was to latch onto a group going exactly 10 minute pace. High hopes… beggars can’t be choosers! Looking at the start list, I figured Kurt Keiser would win. I want to win, but Kurt set the course record for Zumbro 50 the previous year (8:10), and he’d won Surf the Murph 50 mile the past October, too. So, he’s got consistent 50 mile experience, a just fricken’ fast dude. Another guy who looked like a contender is Jeff Vander Kooi out of Michigan, who popped a 24 hour at Sawtooth 100 the previous fall. And Bennett is a beast triathlete, so you can never discount him. Plus, I’m not too versed in the who’s who in ultras, and unlike the MN triathlon scene, there are lot more ringers out there. Just super fast no-name dudes who decide to race an ultramarathon and kill it.

Within a quarter mile, we popped onto some singletrack. Up, up, up, and it got really technical really quick. Rocks, uneven ground, roots up this big hill. I quickly realized that the course was probably going to be really well marked… it was super easy to see the reflective taping, and it was obvious where to go for every turn. It didn’t take long for Kurt to take the lead and sprint up this hill that everyone else was walking up. Another guy went with Kurt and they were quickly out of sight. The nice part about the darkness is that you could see headlamps from a far ways away… and the two guys slipped into the darkness with 49 miles to go, never to be seen again.

Bennett and I were running together, and we latched on with another guy, who I realized after the race was Jeff. We did maybe 5 miles together, and were in second place at that point. There were four aid stations on the course, and the big one at the start/finish/lap area. After the second or third aid station, I lost Bennett and Jeff, never to be seen again. I was running by myself and feeling pretty good. I made a point to walk up hills that were really steep, half for energy conservation, half for efficiency. I mean, running up these scrambles was maybe slower because of the sheer steepness. Steep up, steep down, but also a lot of flat running on horse trails.

At another aid station, I departed with another guy. I wanted to latch right onto him, and once he sensed my light behind him, he jumped to the side and let me take the lead. And he latched right on to me! Eh, whatever, it’s nice to kind of zone out on someone’s heels, but this allowed me to go my own pace and I get some bonus light from the back. We ran a good few miles together without much conversation, and then bumped out to a nice flat road. He came on my side and we started chatting a bit. His name was Nate and he was from Bemidji. Two first time 50 milers, and we were probably in 3rd and 4th place. He didn’t really have a goal time, but mentioned his wife was running the 17 mile and his kids were at an aid station. We came through the fourth aid station on the course, I lost Nate, and few miles later I completed my first lap. My watch said 2:45 or so… really good time considering 10 minute pace for 16.7 miles comes out to 2:47. Literally right on track. Perfect! I had set the auto lap for 6 miles and was trying to catch my mileage on the hour… so at 1:00, I should be at 6 miles, 2:00 is 12 miles, 3:00 is 18 miles, etc… I fueled up, feeling good, feeling confident, and set off on the second lap.

At this point, I was by myself. I was feeling pretty sore and tight. Nothing really in particular, but I could feel my legs were fatigued for sure. I wasn’t really mentally tired, like “I need sleep”, but physical exhaustion was definitely setting in. I thought it was too early for that and got kind of nervous. Oh, well, I thought to keep running smart, hit this 10 minute pace, and if I can do another 2:45, I have a 40 minute buffer to slow down on the last lap to hit sub-9 hours. I climbed the first big hill out of the River Bottoms start/finish/lap area, looked down and saw the lights from the mini village I’d just departed way down there. “See ya later,” I thought to myself, and started down into the dark wilderness alone.

I was passing a lot of 100 milers, who were going on 21 hours of continuous forward progress with no sleep. Most had pacers, and it was a 50/50 split of good spirits and bad spirits. I tried to be energetic and positive towards all of them that I passed, and half were with it, half didn’t respond! Who knows what’s going in their minds. Not just at that moment but in general…

At the second aid station, I ran up to get drink a little Coke and heard my name. It was Dan, my cousin-in-law! That was great to see him… he started as a triathlete but morphed into an ultramarathon enthusaist. He’d done pretty well at Zumbro 100 a few years back, and said that he’s been volunteering at the aid station the past few years. He thought I was in second place… sweet!! I didn’t really believe him, though. Maybe Kurt was way, way up there and the other guy that went with Kurt off the bat was who Dan thought was leading the race. Oh, well, I left the aid station in a great mindset and feeling good.

The whole second lap, I felt more and more tired; more and more sore. Also, I wasn’t hungry and was forcing a gel every now and again when I felt like I needed to. Nasty, but I knew the race hinged on staying on top of food intake. I was super gassy, and either burping or farting every step. Probably the Chubway sandwich. The second lap felt much more flat than the first. Yes, the hills were extreme, but the course, for whatever reason, seemed to be mostly flat and runnable terrain the second time around. Maybe it was because I was by myself.

Halfway through the second loop, I came back upon Nate. He was going really slow down a super steep section, and again jumped out of the way to let me pass, then latched onto me. I wasn’t really cookin’ at the time, and maybe Nate was going through a little rough patch, but I made some time on him, and his headlamp became more and more dim until it was unseen in the early morning darkness. “Old man can’t hang,” I thought. My stomach was feeling a little off… I was eating ShotBloks intermittently and a gel every 1.5 hours or so. At the aid stations, I definitely went for Coke, but it was freezing! So I’d melt the icy slush in my mouth. I suppose the stuff that doesn’t freeze is like Coke concentrate. Just gimme the sugar and the caffeine! I knew I should be eating food with substance… savory items like grilled cheese and soup and pb&j and stuff, but all that looked appetizing was candy, pretzels and maybe some trail mix. I wondered if this would sustain me?

Running by myself in a sandy river bottom that had been gorged out by thousands of years of water flow, it hit me. The gels and the Scrubway, and nature calls. I had to poop, BAD. I tried to walk it off (cue the Unk song), looking behind me for Nate to pass me in my time of peril, but it was getting worse. I stopped dead in my tracks, half by necessity as not to poop my tights, half in hopes it would subside. “C’mon body, I’m sure you can use some of this!” I thought. “Recycle it for energy!!” I don’t think it works like that and I knew I had one choice, to poop in the woods and keep running. So I trudged off, handful of brown and crunchy leaves, a few feet off the trail. Squat, hope it doesn’t hit my shoes, and get this over with. Sure enough, I looked up and saw a headlamp bobbing in the distance. As not to expose myself to my new buddy Nate (that is not something one can erase from one’s memory), I turned off my headlamp. Ok, now I’m just being creepy, I thought. He can obviously hear me rustling… so I yelled out.

“Yo, Nate! Is that you?”

I saw his headlamp swivel.

“Um, yeah.”

“It’s Mike. I had to take an emergency dump over here.”

“Ummmmm. Ok. Uh, the trail’s over here when you’re done.”

“Yeah thanks,” I replied, as he ran off into the darkness. What an unpleasant experience. Not the Nate conversation, but just the whole situation with the crunchy leaves, and, well, I’ll spare the comprehensive details. Let’s just say…. I had leaves in my butt. On the flip side, it would have been a long 8 miles turtle-walking to the next porta-pottie.

So I was back on track here, feeling much better from an internal organ standpoint anyways. I caught back up to Nate pretty quickly, and we got to the third aid station shortly thereafter. I didn’t need food or slushy coke, but I asked a volunteer if there was a porta-pottie there. “Uh, no,” he replied. Whatever, I just ran off. I thought it was kind of a snarky response, but then realized that this volunteer had probably been out here pooping in the woods for almost 24 hours. How are they going to get a porta-pottie into this remote location?? We were literally in the middle of a million acre tract of state forest. Duh!!

I left in front of Nate and he quickly drifted back, never to be seen again. I ran the flat road by myself this time, and before long, I was done with lap two. It was a tough lap. With the poop debacle, feeling sore, feeling tired, and I’d slowed down quite substantially. I had song stuck in my head for hours, and I was timing my running cadence to the guitar line of REM “Everybody Hurts”.

At my little drop bag, I switched out some garbage for another round of gels and a new pack of orange ShotBloks (with caffeine!). I stopped at the porta-pottie there to take care of some unfinished business, and my watch read 5:50 or so. Eh… a solid 3 hours for the second lap, but I still had a buffer of about 3 hours and 15 minutes to get under 9. That’s a pretty even slowdown, and to be expected. On one hand, I have 33.3 miles in my legs and every single mile after 35 is a new record for the longest I’ve ever ran. It is expected that I get more and more exhausted, and the harder and harder it will be to maintain a pace of 10 minutes per mile. On the other hand, I could see it was getting bright out. The sunshine will surely be a source of energy and positivity. Before I left for lap three, I yelled out and asked what place I was in. Third.

So I set off by myself, a deep violet hue on one horizon… what a beautiful sign of things to come. On the other horizon was pitch darkness. I figured that since I was in third, when I’d seen Dan and he said I was in second place, my Bemidji pal Nate was in front of me and that’s who Dan thought was in first place at the time. Well, I’d passed Nate and it was probably Kurt and this other guy crankin’ out in front. I wondered if they were together and how far up. Who is this other guy? Is he the real deal? I know Kurt is the real deal and maybe this guy is exploding himself by going with Kurt from mile 1 on. Oh, well, my focus was to stick 3 hours. If I can run an even lap, I’d finish right before 9am and get my sub-9 hour race. My watch read 6 hours as I crested the top of the first big ridge right out of the start/finish area. It had become really light really fast, and I finally got a lay of the land. Straight up bluff country. The start/finish area definitely looked like a village now, and I saw hundreds of cars parked. I couldn’t help but yell “MORNIN’!!!!” at the top of my lungs.

“Mornin’ cars! Mornin’ rocks! Mornin’ trail! Mornin’ birds! Mornin’ leaves! Mornin’ wood!”

I had a second wind and knew I had to leave it all out here. My body was becoming really fatigued. The urge to stop was almost overwhelming, but unlike many other races I’ve done, I could actually keep my pace up. But the pain was imminent. It was becoming a mental game here.

I was passing a few 100 milers, and it was easy to give some positive notes of encouragement regarding the dawn of their second day. The light was well received by everyone. I noticed that I was running fast. I was hauling ass. The third lap seemed even more flat and runnable in the light. However, I would become fatigued very easily. For instance, I could stick a 9 minute pace for a mile on the relatively flat horse trails, and would be so happy to get to an uphill where I had to hike up, just when I thought I couldn’t run another step I’d get relief from the hill. It worked different muscles. By the top of the hill, I would be using my hands to scramble, breath heaving, and so thankful to run again. When the downhill came, it felt so nice to rest the calf muscles and let my quads do the work. By the time I got to the bottom of the hill, by toes were so jammed up, knees in pain and would be extremely happy to get back into a groove at 9 minute pace on the flats. The variability in terrain was a huge advantage at this point in the race where all of my muscles were pretty much toast, but I could switch up what muscle groups I was using every other half hour.

I was passing 100 milers power hiking up the unrelentingly steep bluffs, and on the flats, running past them like they were standing still. Well, most of them were standing still! I broke up the loop in my mind… keep it together for the first half, run a solid pace. Keep on the nutrition and eat ShotBloks. Don’t slow down, and power up the hills with a purpose! Once I’m at the biggest uphill section, it’s go-time. After that, a mile along the ridge, then the most challenging downhill part. This last big downhill was a boulder-strewn section right after we run adjacent to a farm. There’s no good path to take. But after that is the flat road for about a mile. Then, it’s 3 miles of relatively flat, relatively easy trails, the final aid station and other mile or so to the finish. Once I get to the flat road, it’s time to crank and bring it home.

The least taxing was the downhills, but I could feel the toll they were taking on my body. First off, my big toe on my right foot was completely jamming the end of my shoe. I figured I’d lose that whole toenail. And my knees were really gettin’ it. Old man status. But I was making really good time. I made it down the last big downhill, past skull-sized boulders everywhere, without twisting either ankle or blowing out my knees, and it’s on. I was running as fast as possible on the flat road, and dipped into the 6’s. Well, 6:55 pace for a minute or two anyways. I was feeling good, only because my brain was emitting chemicals that made me feel so. In reality, I was falling apart big time. My body was toast, hips, feet, knees especially, my shoulders and triceps… just general exhaustion.

I made it to the final aid station and ran right through. I looked at my watch and it read 8:07. Holy crap! I can make 8:20! I really kicked it down on this last bit of trail section in hopes I’d get a sub 10 minute pace. 100 milers were saying I was in second place. 8:20 came and went and it was just a matter of leaving it all on the course. At this point, the mantras kicked in. I was talking to myself, audibly grunting in pain, gritting my teeth, and saying to myself “leave it all out here, leave it all out here”. The urge to stop running was overwhelming.

Finally, the trail curved downwards, then bumped out onto the last little road into the campsite. I sprinted past some 100 milers, past the gate where some spectators were cheering, and saw the cars and the campfires, and the big group of 17 milers congregating for the start of their race. I ran through the finish and hit my watch at 8:32.

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

I did the celebration I’d been thinking of for five hours. “YEAH DOGGIE!”, I yelled, and then did a whip-crack motion. A volunteer jokingly told me that I was being too excited.

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Photo Credit: Julie Ward

My mom was right there, which was nice, and she gave me a big hug. She then bombarded me with what I need. Water? PB and J? Chips? What do I need? She grabbed her phone for a pic with me and my finishers medallion.

“I don’t want anything, no pictures, no pictures, I fucked up my legs,” I mumbled in a disgruntled and disheveled blur.

I plowed past her and sat on a table to take my jacket off. I was really warm, and put my head in my shirt and closed my eyes for a second. A race coordinator came up with a picture frame with ‘First Place Male Open’. Neat! I asked him the scoop… I’d just come in second place and of course, Kurt won in record time. We took a picture and I mustered a big-ass smile.

I talked to mom a bit, but all I could really say that it was really fun but my legs hurt bad and I was in big pain. Throbbing pain in every muscle below the waist where you get no relief if you stand or sit or walk or just decide to blast your legs clean off. I changed clothes, chugged some water, refueled, and spent the rest of the morning around the campfire and watching other racers come in. I did talk to Kurt, he’s probably the most modest dude in the world… and he said that the other guy that went with him got too cold on the second lap and either dropped out or fell way off or something. Wait, HE got cold? Kurt, meanwhile, completed the race in short shorts and a singlet. Coca-Cola was freezing in the 2 liter bottle and Kurt was running with no sleeves??!? And his buddy from Mankato got too cold?

Zumbro was quite the experience. Pure fun, pure enjoyment and adventure. I think it was the best executed race I’ve ever done. In terms of going in with a plan of what is the limit of my abilities and sticking to the plan, it was the best I’d ever done and it paid off. The 50 mile format is certainly fun, and I’d be a fool to skip Voyager 50 mile this summer!

Garmin data

Results

Race Stats:

Shoes: Nike Terra Kiger 3 size 11
Handheld: Nathan insulated 18oz
Food: 4 or 5 gels of various flavors (all caffienated!), nearly 2 packages of ShotBloks, one Honey Stinger Waffle, many handfuls of pretzels, trail mix, gummi candy, and M&Ms, one small slice of potato covered in salt (nasty), and maybe three electrolyte capsules, a few cups of Coke.
Approximate Loop Splits: 2:46, 3:06, 2:40

Time: 8:32:31
Pace: 10:15
Place: 2/128

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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