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: 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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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, 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: January 3, 2015 – 7am

“This is fun to me.”

After Wild Duluth 50k, I was pretty amped up on long running races and the whole ultramarathon scene. Tony, General Manager at Duluth Running Co., planted the seed in my mind after talking about this Tuscobia race in the middle of winter. The Tuscobia Winter Ultra takes in Park Falls, Wisconsin on the Tuscobia State Trail, which is a 75-mile snowmobile/multi-use trail. There are three distances: 35, 75, or 150 miles; and three modes of transportation that athletes can choose from: ski, bike, or on foot. The entire race is billed as “self-supported,” meaning no aid stations. If you have a leak in your water container, tough luck. If you forget to carry food, you’ll be hungry.

The more I did research, the more I became really excited to register. It would be fun to really embrace winter and get an idea what the whole winter racing thing is all about. The Arrowhead 135 is the big one, and Tuscobia would the perfect precursor to someday putting Arrowhead on my race resume. I registered for the 35-mile foot race in October.

Training didn’t really change from Wild Duluth. I kept my mileage up by trying to run daily and throw in a few 2, 3 and 4 hour runs in the mix. I had a pretty big setback in training while in Mexico over Christmas with the fam. I was nervous that my training would suffer in the crucial training time frame 2-3 weeks out, during which I would ideally have a really big mileage week and then taper off. In Mexico, I definitely didn’t put in big mileage with the exception of one 1:40 run, but the big setback was a separated AC joint in my shoulder after a bodysurfing accident. The AC joint is comprised of the clavicle, scapula (shoulder blade), and a ligament that holds it all together. I tore that ligament and will have a lifelong physical deformity where my clavicle is unattached and sticks up on the top of my shoulder.

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It was pretty painful while we were still in Mexico and traveling, and my running definitely suffered in the days after the ocean wave bashed me. That was just bad decision making on my part… I questioned whether I would be able to race, but the only thing I could do was to run as much as I could without pain and let it ride. Luckily, after a week, it felt much better and I was running pretty much pain-free, although putting on a shirt or backpack was terribly uncomfortable, which could be a major factor in an unsupported race where I need to carry supplies with me and in the winter where layering is key.

Race week brought nerves. I could only think of the different combinations of food, water, and clothes that I needed to carry. What if it’s below zero at the start? What if my food freezes? How much water will be enough? I split a lodge with Tony about 30 minutes out from the race HQ. His race (150 mile bike… crazy!!) started 25 hours before mine, so he was there on Thursday night and I drove down on Friday. The lodge was sweet, Tony left beer in the fridge and it was the perfect venue to calm down, visualize and prepare for the race the next morning.

My alarm went off at 4:10am and I was up and at ’em. I ate some Frosted Flakes and started sipping my pre-race good luck beverage, Mt. Dew. I loaded up my vehicle and made sure my pack was stocked up and ready to go, which it definitely was from the night before when I meticulously double checked the gear.

I arrived at the HQ at about 5am and checked in. I got lucky number 286 and boarded the bus that shipped us 35 miles out to the start in a small town called Ojibwe, WI. The bus ride was not fun. I had to pee, I was cold but my back felt sweaty and I desperately wanted to get running.

About an hour later, we got to the start. Everyone huddled into a brick shelter and the race director Helen went over some last minute details. Finally, we were herded to the start line where all of the 35-mile runners, bikers and skiers started together. The bikers went up front, I was right behind and the rest of the runners and skiers were towards the back. I was trying to scope down any potential competitors, but it’s impossible! In a long running race, anyone can win. In fact, the 150 run winner was a 51 year old woman. The overall winner. Of the 150-mile foot race.

The race started with a little loop-de-loop on spur trails from the Ojibwe parking lot start line to the Tuscobia State trail and back, which accounted for maybe a half mile or mile. The Tuscobia felt like concrete compared to the snowy spurs. I passed bikers, which immediately re-passed me on the hard packed Tuscobia, then passed them again in the powder, and then finally back on the Tuscobia the second time, they passed me for good. Chris, the other race director, was stationed at the turn-in point. The second time I saw him about 15 minutes into the race, I asked if I was the first runner out and he confirmed that I was. Perfect start!

I got into a pretty fast pace immediately. I felt like I was pushing hard, but I was jacked up being in first place and felt like I should establish a buffer on the other runners who may have been caught up in the traffic jam on the spur section. In the blink of an eye, 48 minutes had ticked on my watch. I saw the first non-35-mile athlete way up ahead and they were walking their bike. I hoped it wasn’t Tony, who I had been religiously tracking on the internet all night and morning, but heard “Mike!!!” and knew it was him. I stopped and we high-fived. I asked why he was walking and if it was a mechanical issue. He said he was just tired, and I looked in his eyes and realized that he looked TIRED. His eyes were red and I could only image the mental toil of walking a 40-pound bike after not sleeping for at least 26 hours. I continued on running without spending too much time and felt a little bad leaving T-Dawg in the dust.

The first of two checkpoints in the 35-mile race was at about 6 miles in. I got there in a bit under an hour. The volunteer seemed surprised and cheered me on, and I definitely felt like I was zooming past him.

An hour and a little bit into the race and I realized I should probably keep up with the calories I was expending. Around 1:40 in, I finished off my first package of Honey Stinger Chews (Cherry Cola with caffeine), and took down a double caffeine gel. Perhaps it was the caffeine buzz or a nice stretch of hard snow, but I was really cooking along. I felt like I could really push it here, I was breathing hard and going fast. I finally hit some slower snow and my pace dropped to a nice steady, comfortable effort. I was walking and eating, looked behind me and thought I saw another runner gaining on me and running strong. I quit walking and got into a solid zone. I started running scared, which definitely helped.

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The next two and a half hours went by without incident. In fact, I don’t really remember anything from this section. Just some steady running, a few snowmobilers, passing some bikers, getting passed by some bikers, eating and drinking, and a little bit of talking to myself. Every now and again, I’d look behind me and see nothing. The trail was so straight and flat that you could seemingly see for miles.

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I hit the second checkpoint, 25 miles in, at about 4 hours. I was walking more and more by this point, but could still keep a steady running pace for a while. It was this point that I remember that I started to feel pretty bad. My legs were sore, my feet hurt, my shoulders hurt (but not my bum shoulder, luckily!), and the snow was feeling more and more soft and powdery. Every step, I’d lose grip and the lack of traction became very frustrating.

I thought that the last home stretch of 10 miles would be easy to mentally manage, but then realized that 10 miles is a long way. At this pace, it would take me at least 1:30. That is no home stretch! This is when my mantra was really coming into play. I would say “This is fun to me,” and laugh and laugh. I kept thinking that life is too easy and doing something hard is good. There is pleasure in the pain. There is happiness in the un-fun. The struggle was an exciting challenge. This race is how I get my kicks and a great leisure-time activity. Life is way too easy.

I started seeing less and less bikers and more and more long-course people on foot. These people looked rough. Nobody was having fun. At that point, I’m sure, it was a major mental struggle to press on. I realized that 35 miles is child’s play. My race was nothing like the 75 or 150 mile races. Not even close to the same thing. Yet, I was still struggling. I felt a slight tinge in my left knee which gave me more and more pain the more I ran. I was walking a lot. I would run very, very slowly with my feet dragging on the snowy ground, then have a spurt of energy and start running, and then nearly collapse in pain and exhaustion, reduced to a walk once again. This was the program for the last 8 miles or so of the race. Miles were going slowly and the last hour seemed to go by as quickly as the first four. As mid-day broke, there were more and more snowmobiles chewing up the nice hard sections of trails. I would get frustrated and swear. I was sick of snow, sick of cold, sick of the stupid Tuscobia State Trail, sick of eating sugary exercise food and candy, and really sick of running!

Then, I saw a blue water tower and knew I was close. However, I could still see so far down the trail and I knew I wasn’t really that close. A couple more cycles of slow run, fast run, walk, and it was very relieving to see a sign that said “Tuscobia State Trail” and the end of the trail. Finally, no more damn snowmobile trail. A sign led me onto a road, which snaked about a half mile to the finish in Park Falls. I hadn’t seen another 35 mile runner since the first 50 feet of the race, and when I got to the finish tent in first place, I let out a guttural roar, laid down and closed my eyes.

After a beer and pizza, I realized Tony wasn’t going to come in for a few hours yet. I drove home with a cool first place award, $30 gift card and jar of syrup. I was certainly happy to be done, I felt accomplished and definitely satisfied with the win.

I made a few mistakes. One was with training. I definitely would have benefited with a few 6 hour runs and even more 4 hour runs. It was about 3 months in between Wild Duluth and Tuscobia, and I should have done two 6 hour runs and two 4 hour runs, instead of one 3 hour and one 4 hour. Easier said than done, I guess! My second mistake was not bringing more caffeine. Boy, what a boost! I definitely could have used that sort of boost five hours in.

Either way, I had fun. There were ups and downs, and I am really glad it is over, but definitely fun. Tuscobia is an awesome race, very well produced, and I was relatively satisfied with my performance and execution. Above all, I was happy to get a winter ultra in my belt and some experience to help build up to a “real” winter ultra.

Results

Race Stats:

Shoes: Nike Terra Kiger, size 11
Pack: North Face Torrent 4l (Plus 2l Camelback bladder)
Time: 5:59 (Watch said 5:58:59)
Pace: 10:15
Place: 1/21 (24 started)


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