25 Oct 2019
Wild Duluth 100k Race Day: Saturday, October 19 – 6am
Terribly Tough 10k Race Day: Sunday, October 20 – 9:30am
I had a pit in my stomach in the dark, headlamp shining, as I stood with 80 other runners at the start line of the Wild Duluth 100k. Sure, I was a bit nervous. 100 kilometers is a long way. What about the next day? I had expectations of myself and didn’t want to fail. But the pit in my stomach wasn’t as much from nerves as it was from just an upset stomach. Great…
The concept of going back to Wild Duluth was hatched during my experience pacing my pal Joe Calaguire at the Superior 100 Mile. During a reconnaissance run up the North Shore in August, I realized my flat abilities and low fitness levels and probably griped to he and his friend Gretchen about needing a race to register for the whole run. Gretchen highly recommended the Wild Duluth 100k, her favorite race, and both she and Joe then regaled about finishing the year prior. Dang… I told them about how I loved the 50k race, having finished in 2014, 2015, and 2016. After that long 34 miler in August, I definitely had Wild Duluth 100k on my radar. Or maybe the 50k… something for sure. Maybe for sure… that’s a lot of running. My body wasn’t in prime shape. I had ankle and foot issues, fears of injury. I felt really terrible after Brewhouse Tri though, the terrible feeling of being out of shape. I had to put together a training regiment but do it smartly and simultaneously cure my injuries and ailments. Is that even possible? I started to run regularly after that up north run with Joe. After all, I was gassed after 34 miles and he expected me to run 50 miles with him through the night at Superior. I hoped I could do it but didn’t even really expect it of myself. But I it would feel great to be able to run all 50. I started running daily, my mileage increased and I started designating one day per week as a long run. The next big run, of course, was Superior 100 itself in early September. My pacing duties were a shock to the system for sure. Despite going 17 minutes per mile on average, I had to bow out after… 34 miles. I had extra fitness, the pace was slower than our training run in August, but I was so tired and mentally unable to proceed after going the exact distance in our training run a month earlier. Joe had another pacer Ryan on deck and he took over. I took a nap, ate some food and had coffee and was lucky enough to join in for the last 7 miles. Ryan and I pushed Joe hard to the finish and it was super inspiring to watch and be a part of. He finished his first 100 mile run with nothing left in the tank, passing 3 people in that last section. I was jacked and even more excited to compete, train and finish Wild Duluth 100k. I had to go long. Plus Superior 100 2020… everything. I’d race everything in 2020! Yeah!
My excitement settled after Superior 100 weekend. Next up for me is NorthShore Inline Marathon, of which I am the race director, and which requires an extreme amount of time leading up to and on race weekend. I told myself I’d wait until after NorthShore to register for Wild Duluth but I couldn’t resist. I just had to. I signed up for the 100k, if nothing else just to get a 100k finish on the running resume and somehow jumpstart my training with 8 weeks or so to go. I noticed the new Wildman challenge. Either you run the 100k Saturday and 10k Sunday or the 50k Saturday and half marathon Sunday to complete the Ultimate Wildman or Wildman, respectively. So I signed up for the 10k too. Oh well, I could hike the 10k if push comes to shove.
My training then catapulted forward majorly. With the exception of NorthShore Inline Marathon race week, I’d averaged about 40 miles per week for over 5 weeks. I drew up a training plan for the remaining 5 weeks to Wild Duluth. A quick turnaround, but I was hearing local runner Jess Koski in my head. He was an interview subject for the Duluth Rundown podcast, and talked about high mileage training, specifically getting to the 100 mile week threshold. He claimed any runner can reach 95% of their potential by getting to 100 miles per week by any means necessary, and hold it for three weeks or so. “Hundred, hundred, hundred”. He also claimed he would jump from 20 miles per week to 100. It was unbelievable, reckless, but intriguing. After a long, droning and meticulous build cycle of over 20 weeks in the first months of 2019, I was excited to try something different. Also, I had no choice but to adopt some of Jess’s methodologies. Once NorthShore came and went I only had 5 weeks until Wild Duluth.
My plan was to bump up from and average of 40 miles per week to 60, then 70, then 80. NMTC Fall Trail series was in full swing, and I would do at least one long run per week. A big double on the weekend would be even better. But the key was to not get injured. I adopted a three prong approach with chiropractor, physical therapy, and massage. PT made a difference. I visited Malcolm Macauley, who is also the inventor of the Lightspeed Lift body weight reduction treadmill. I decided to put my eggs in that basket by getting some PT work and utilizing the Lightspeed Lift once per week to get my mileage. Week one was a success and I felt pretty good. On to week two and I bumped it up. All systems go. The body was holding up great. PT made a difference but I was also being diligent about foam rolling and taping my sore plantar facia band. The third week I bumped up to over 80 miles. My key workout for the week was a speedier 15 mile run on gravel in drenching rain (to build mental fortitude), then a 5 hour run (2.5 hours out and back on the Wild Duluth course) for 25 miles the very next day. I crushed them both, but was a little nervous about my pace for the 5 hour run. I found it difficult to hold 12 minutes per mile. It was a struggle to feel like I was running with a conservation mindset and getting consistent sub-12 minute mile splits on the technical and challenging race course. I could lock in right above that pace though… and 12:15-12:30 pace felt like the normal. I knew that wouldn’t be enough to win, though. After that final simulation run, I felt very confident about a 13 hour finish but wondered if I could pull off 12 hours or less. To win, I knew I’d need 11:30 or faster.
Come race day, I felt great. Every week at NMTC, I’d chipped away at my placements. They felt easier. I knew I was getting fit. I certainly put in the time on my feet with race simulations… One 20 miler on the race course at goal pace of 12 minutes per mile, a 38 miler on the SHT at goal pace, and my capstone workout of 25 miles at just slower than goal pace out and back on the toughest part of the race course. After a two week taper down, my body was feeling really sturdy. I knew I had some vulnerabilities but was fully aware of them and thought I knew how to mitigate any problem spots and early destruction. The 100k was my goal. Sunday 10k, afterthought. The competition was looking pretty stout, and primed for a great race. There were proven ultramarathon runners, past WD 1ook champions, but no superstar runners who would undoubtedly win. But there can always be that dark horse in the race…
I woke up very early on race morning with a 6am start. My stomach was feeling pretty crappy at home but I had to make sure I was full of food and ready to rock. The weather looked great and I was comfy at the start line in my shorts and singlet. “Ready, set, GO!” and the group of headlamp-donning ultramarathoners took off into the early morning darkness. The race director Andy ran with us to make sure we took the right route. I went off really fast with the intention of seeing who was out there. Who would follow? Who would pass me? If I got out to the front I’d know who else was out there. So I sprinted off, knowing (or simply hoping) that one fast mile on flat pavement wouldn’t have any impact on the remaining 61 miles. That first mile was well under 8 minutes, and I was in the front of a conga line of people, leading the race up to Enger Tower. I was passed on the trail by a guy who I swear was telling Andy at mile .2 he’d run over a marathon distance like 6 times but never done a marathon or longer race. I was pretty sure he said his name was Tyler. Atop Enger Tower I pressed my hand on the post to ring the giant peace bell. Then I saw Tyler standing there, not running, facing me. He’d been turned around already. Jeez, who is this guy!! I took the lead again, zipping on by to the first aid station. I didn’t really need anything but filled two tiny sips worth of water and ate one oreo. I saw the chase group in my peripheral vision bypass the aid station completely and run into the darkness of Lincoln Park. I already had to pee, and stopped in the woods shortly after the aid station. As I turned around I saw another group of people pass me. Sheesh, where am I at now? It doesn’t matter, RUN YOUR OWN RACE MIKE. That was to be my mantra for the day.
10 days prior at the NMTC Pine Valley fall trail series run, I had a lot of confidence and went out to race. Well, I got smoked. I was with a pack for a mile and fell off. They passed me mercilessly and it crushed me. The next race, Bull Run, was a challenging, hilly and longer one in Jay Cooke State Park. I told myself to race my own race. The effort was day and night better. I moved up from 11th that Wednesday to 4th place at Bull Run. I felt good the whole time and finished strong. It was confidence booster and mental focus that I needed. Race Your Own Race. So when the hoards of people passed me, I told myself that it was OK, and reminded myself of the magic pace of 12 minutes per mile, 5 miles per hour, that I was to hold for 50 miles straight, then crank it down or do whatever I needed to do for the remaining race to finish under 12 hours.
So I kept on moving forward. My next miles were right on target. Some slightly faster than 12 minutes, some slightly slower than 12. I’d see something like 11:47 flash on my watch for a mile split and say “yes, good” under my breath. I didn’t see or sense anyone behind me, and was surprised to not see anyone ahead of me. I mean, I was moving pretty good on the trail and it seemed like a lot of people passed me during that first aid station stop and pee break. After 5 miles, I was way ahead of my one hour target, thanks to the first three miles being very speedy. So I had a buffer. Time to lock in, and lock in I did. I continued to click off miles, under the bridge of Haines Road, and up to Brewer. Light came and I took off the headlamp. I ate a gel. My stomach hadn’t felt better from the early morning. In fact worse. Way worse. I almost had stomach cramps. I had a bit of the “clench” going on, and knew I wouldn’t make it to the toilet at the Highland Getchell aid station 3 miles away. I had to take an emergency dump, so pulled off of the trail to a cliffside, held on to a tree and popped a squat. I was sure glad to have brought toilet paper in a baggie in my small handheld water bottle. It was a quick ordeal and not too unpleasant. I then ran off, like a rocket shot off. I felt like $1,000 bucks and no longer in discomfort physically or mentally. The feeling of knowing you have to poop can drag on you. Smooth, I said to myself. Keep it smooth.
The miles kept clicking off and it seemed like no time that I was at the Highland Getchell aid station about 9 miles in. I still had a buffer, and still hadn’t seen anyone ahead or behind me. I realized I forgot a cup and it was cupless event. Of course, I had my water bottles (handheld and vest with two bottles), but nothing for pop at the aid stations. I wanted coke! I instructed my all-star crew of Emily and my mom to fill up my bottle with water. I was brief and frenzied. I left them to run into the parking lot to the portable toilet. It was just to clean up and use the hand sanitizer. Mission accomplished. Back to normal. Luckily my friend and aid station attendant Mae lent me a cup. I drank coke, had some pretzels and shoved gummi bears in my mouth as I headed down the trail. I finally saw someone approach from behind just as I darted onto the trail. Down, down, rocks, roots, up, up. I’d lost the guy behind me. Back to no man’s land. My watched beeped for 10 miles and I was still well ahead of my target 2 hours for the distance. I was locking in at my goal pace, though. Where is everyone else? I wondered why I wasn’t passing anyone. I mean, I’m running good, running consistent miles. It seemed like there were so many people in front of me. RACE YOUR OWN RACE MIKE. The miles continued to click off during the overcast and fair morning. I was kind of warm already. The handheld was a great choice, though, and I felt like I had plenty of water and room for food while traveling as lightly as possible.
The next section was going good but also was frustrating. I kept rolling my ankles. Both of them slipped many times, and every time I’d yell and swear. Luckily I was in no man’s land and nobody was around to hear me. Nothing was lasting, but I knew each slip of the ankle caused damage. My ankles, feet or lower legs were probably going to go first, so I had to protect them. Whoop, ankle roll, “FAAAA!!!”
With energy and feeling smooth, I made it down Spirit Mountain with ease. Those were some smooth downhill miles, but I couldn’t help but think ahead with dread on how uncomfortable the climb back up would be, because it seemed like a full 2 miles downhill to get to the unmanned water station at the Spirit Mountain lower chalet. I prepared to refill my water and was surprised to see Emily and my mom. Hmm, I thought I told them to skip this aid station and go to Magney… I didn’t say anything, just drank some gatorade and grabbed a gel. It was a quick in-and-out. I did ask out loud about my placement and the field ahead, and the HAM radio operator chimed in to say I was in 8th place. Hmm! Interesting. The top guys were must be making time on me, and I believe the report was that a few guys were running together about 20 minutes up. Nothing crazy…
The climb up the other side of Spirit was tough, but I made it through smoothly with no damage done. Keepin’ it smooth. When I got to Magney, I ate some pretzels at the aid station while a volunteer filled up my handheld water bottle. They asked what they could do for me, and I replied that my crew wasn’t here yet. I asked them to tell my crew that I left already. They asked who my crew was. I said Emily and my mom. Then I saw Emily drive by at the exact moment I ran off. I told the aid station volunteers that that was my crew. I hoped they’d make it to the Munger Trail aid station in time. I kind of worried about that, but knew I had some time before I’d make it there myself.
Down, down, down, puddle jumping some creeks and through the woods I ran. Up to Bardon’s Peak, I wondered when I’d see 50k runners and was excited to see how that race would be panning out. I still hadn’t seen a 100k runner since the one guy at Highland Getchell. Nobody in front of me. No man’s land! Race your own race. I was completely impressed by the lack of water and mud on the trail. The trail was dry and tacky. Boardwalks were bone dry. I did experience a few mud pits that were pretty raunchy, but they were surprisingly few and far between given the amount of rain Duluth had received in September and October. I saw two 50k runners while traversing the rocky outcroppings near Ely’s peak. They were neck and neck in the front. I didn’t recognize either of them. About a minute back was my running pal Kyle Severson, who I’d shared many running miles with this summer. I saw Chase Edgerton, a guy with a really cool name who I met at many of the NMTC fall race series races. He and I duked it out several times. He was in the mix. I saw Anna Lahti right up there, Kaelyn Williams right behind her, who I’d pegged to win. Pat Davison gave me a high five on the trail as he passed. I saw Kyle Schmidt right up there, too. The top 15 runners in the 50k were all within 10 minutes of each other. It’d be a dog fight out there. Cool. Dave Schaeffer yelled at me as we passed. It was fun to see friends. I passed the top 20 people before the Munger/Beck’s Road/Ely’s aid station. Once on the Munger Trail, I ran it in to the my crew feeling really good. I was frenzied at the aid station stop but Emily knows exactly what to do. She’s been through this before, and probably knows what to do better than I do. Mom was taking pics with my sister’s dog Rose in tow. I told them I wanted pizza back here. Emily said Hugo’s didn’t open until 11. I said I meant on the way back and ran off into the woods.
I was 20 miles in and right on pace. I hadn’t hit 4 hours quite yet. I tried to pinpoint my exact mileage at 4:00. 20.9. That puts me about 1 mile up on my goal pace, a buffer of almost 12 minutes. Let’s call it 10 minutes up. That’s a good little buffer. My body was getting sore, sure, but I was feeling really good. Really controlled, mentally stable, positive. I told myself that I should feel super lucky to be out here in the woods. I am so lucky that my training went so well and I’m out here and really doing it. The passing 50k’ers offered encouragement, and personal contact brings one out of one’s own mind temporarily. Before long, I caught up to a 100k runner, local guy Alex. I chatted with him a little bit, he seemed to be in good spirits. He let me pass and I made the move and wished him well. A few more miles, getting closer to Jay Cooke, and I passed another. Matt was his name and it was his birthday. Cool! I wished him a happy birthday as I made the pass and left him out of sight. I KNEW I’d start picking people off. My strategy was paying off. So I started thinking… Ok now I’m in 6th place. I’d see every single competitor in the 100k because of the out-and-back format. When would I see the front runners? How far up would they be? What would they look like? Are they killing each other up there in a game? I am just back here racing my own race. I figured past champion Ryan Braun would be up there, if not hanging in first place. I also figured beast ultra runner Brandon Johnson would be up there. He is super strong. I passed one more runner in the deep technical woods outside of Jay Cooke. Then across a ridgeline and down a huge hill towards the Saint Louis River.
I was in and out of the Grand Portage aid station, which is prohibited to crews. I asked how the field was stacking up. They said I was maybe 4th place and the two guys up front were way up there, probably 20 minutes up. I knew I was 5th place, so took a mouthful of delicious Coke flavored gummi bears and ran off. I took advantage of the easy running through Jay Cooke towards the turnaround. Besides a few monster climbs and descents, the trails were wide, flat, rockless and rootless. Thus, completely runnable. I made some really good time and knew I was close to the turnaround and the next chance to see my crew. I was really looking forward to it. Still feeling pretty good, I tried to capitalize on the best running terrain that I’d have the whole race. I noticed some much faster running splits but was OK with that. I saw the first place guy come through at about 5:35 race time. I was curious at what exact mileage the turnaround would be at. 31? 30? My goal going into Wild Duluth was to go under 12 hours. For better or worse, the exact mileage would have a big factor on whether I could hit that benchmark. I saw the second place guy, for sure it was Tyler and he looked really good, just a few minutes back. Then I saw Brandon maybe 5 minutes down from the leader, and Braun a minute or so behind him. A minute later, I got to the aid station. The front was decently clumped up, and there I was in 5th place. I couldn’t imagine there was anyone in the chase. I was running so consistently.
At the turnaround, I sat down to take a load off. Emily replenished my handheld water bottle with water and gels in the pocket. I’d kind of slowed down on eating on the trail. My gel intake was OK but I wasn’t making much progress with the gummis or more solid food like Clif bars. As I sat I ate handfuls of Old Dutch chips, which were immensely delicious. My watch read 30.6 miles or so. Without much more ado, I stood up gingerly. Oof. All the sudden my legs felt so heavy. I asked my mom and Emily about pizza and they said they’d have it and would see me at Munger Trail aid station. I grazed the aid station for munchies, filled my mouth and my hand with various snacks, and set back off across Highway 210 and into the woods. Back to Bayfront. My watch read 5:49. So I figured I was about… 13 minutes back from the leader. Wait, double that because it’s out and back and I’m 26 minutes back? Oof. Race your own race, Mike! Next on the chopping block is Ryan. Then Brandon. No… race your own race, race your own race. Either way, I was doubtful I’d be able to do anything because my legs felt terrible. How did this happen??
Running was a drag. Luckily, I was able to keep up a good clip and hit some fast miles on the first hour of the return trip. I felt a need to make a pit stop and at Forbay Lake saw a portable toilet. Might as well stop… so I did and it was a good idea. I hobbled back into the woods and some cheery horse riders congratulated me and told me they were counting and I was in fifth place. I barely mustered “thanks” with a deep sigh. A glance at my watch was timely as I saw 6 hours come and go. My mileage was relieving, almost 31.5 miles in, and I was proud that despite feeling like shit I was able to run good. At this point, I figured I had a buffer of 20 minutes on my goal of 12 hours. Excellent. So I tried mental tricks such as gratitude. I told myself how lucky I was to be out here. How lucky could I be to be able to do this? How lucky am I to have had such a great training regiment. I nailed those workouts to get me here. As long as I could run smoothly, I’d be in good shape. The pain is fake. Smoooooooth. Smooth running on these nice runnable trails. Ugh a hill…
I saw 100k’ers heading to the turnaround and my notions of an absent chase pack were confirmed. I was pretty well set in 5th place and I figured at the very least I could hold this effort or slow down within my 20 minute buffer to get 12 hours flat and hold my place of 5th. It was nice to see all the other 100k participants, but I felt bad by not offering much encouragement. I just didn’t have the energy to respond with anything more than “thanks” or “nice work” or just “nice” or a mumbled “mehhh” as they passed.
The whole way to Grand Portage was pretty rough. I just didn’t feel good. I knew I had to run and was luckily running good, but it was not fun. I saw Bob and Lindsay at Grand Portage as I took some pretzels, coke and gummi bears. Luckily they had cups there. The coke was delicious. I ran off quickly, barely noticing Lindsay holding their newborn baby! As I entered the solemn woods once again I felt bad about not stopping or barely acknowledging them and their new baby. Gah, I just got my head down… Oh well, down to business here.
The big climb out of Grand Portage was actually very welcome. The change in pace, literally, felt nice. I wasn’t power hiking very fast but making my way up good enough, and the change-up of terrain made running at the top just a bit easier. I ate a gel and had a bit of a second wind. The sun was coming out after being pretty cloudy all day. Not that that was necessarily good… I had been sweating all day. I squirted myself with my water bottle and it felt great. Up ahead, I saw Braun. Ooo! There we go. After some tough miles after the turnaround I was in survival mode. I had a pretty big buffer on my time goal, so let’s get it. I slowly reeled Ryan in and when he sensed me nearby he immediately pulled to the side and let me pass. I thought that was strange. I chit chatted a little bit, and he said he was pretty drained after getting a cold earlier in the week. Dang. What a bummer. Ryan had done a 11:32 and an 11:31 in the past two years at Wild Duluth 100k for 1st and 2nd place, respectively. He knew how to race this thing and was frankly my biggest concern competition-wise before race morning. It’s a bummer he wasn’t able to compete at the same level he was accustomed to at this race, but that is how life goes. I made the pass and after a few minutes, looked back to see nothing and nobody. That provided me with a little jolt and I was back. I was back! Keep it up, Mike. You are doing great. You are fuckin’ doing awesome Mike. I was talking myself up. It kind of fell on deaf ears and I couldn’t help but feel tired, depleted, sore and ready to be done. But I knew I still had juice in my legs and they kept churning. It was turning out to be a completely beautiful day, the sun shining through the fall leaves. Colors were amplified at the vast overviews atop Saint Louis River bluffs. With a series of switchbacks and a climb ahead, I heard my name. “GO MIKE!” I responded “Brandon?” I knew it was him. I saw him walking with his trekking poles. I jogged up steps carved into the hillside to catch up, and chatted with him a bit. He seemed eager to talk. He said he was dragging a little bit but still well on target for his 13 hour finish. I said he’d be on track for 12. He said he wasn’t but for sure under 13. OK. I wished him well and continued on ahead of him, running out in front. He kept talking and I felt kind of bad leaving him in the dust. It’s a race baby, and the pass gave me another little jolt. No time to chat, I had to exploit that boost of energy. Now where are these other two guys, I wondered. Brandon was now out of sight, and I tried to do some quick math. Was I still on track? Oh yeah, for sure. Is Brandon just factoring in some major slow down to get under 13 or am thinking wrong? I figured if I held 12 minutes per mile from here on out I’d get to mile 60 at like 11:40. That’s a super respectable finish time.
I felt pretty good and was happy about the terrain through Mission Creek. It was just variable enough to get a good mix of power hiking and running. Both felt decent, neither felt great. I nibbled on some gummis. I ate a salted carmel Gu and it was delicious. I wondered if I’d be hungry for pizza in an hour. I wasn’t hungry at all. Taking down a gel is one thing, slamming pizza is a totally different deal. It was good to be in a good mood. I thought about grabbing my trekking poles for the climb up Ely’s Peak. That means I’d need my vest. That may be a good switch-up. I didn’t mention anything to Emily, though, so they probably wouldn’t be prepared. Hmm. I’ll ask anyways. I knew I was close to the aid station, and very excited to see my crew, when I crossed over Beck’s Road. John Storkamp was the volunteer crossing guard, and in a brief pause for a vehicle to pass I asked how the field was looking. He said they were way up, maybe 20 minutes. Hmm. Ok.
I saw my mom in the woods before popping out to the aid station. She was yelling like crazy, very excited. I guess it was exciting… I’d passed two more people to scrape my way into third place. I yelled at her to get my poles from the car. She said they were there. When I sat down and started nibbling on a piece of pizza, I mentioned how I was really happy with my time so far and knew I could hold this pace and really happy with being in third place. My neighbors Pete and Susan and Clarence were there cheering me on. It was an energetic atmosphere. I was happy to see my poles and vest on the ground. Nice. Crew knows best! I instructed Emily to fill my two vest water bottles. An aid station volunteer took them from here right away and filled them up. Nice. I spent longer at this stop, taking time to drink fizzy water, mountain dew and gatorade. I was parched, as my handheld bottle had been emptied in the last section. The volunteer pushed me back out. “Ok it’s time you get back out there man!” Better not argue…
I went off, poles in hand. Oof, that’s was a rough transition. I felt like I could barely run, but eventually the wheels started rolling, I got momentum and ran it out on the Munger Trail towards Ely’s Peak. Light like a feather. During the toughest climb of the race course up Ely’s, I was breathing heavily. I felt OK, was thankful to have my poles, but when I got to the top and was able to run I couldn’t get the discomfort of the vest out of my mind. I had used this on all three of my long training runs, plus the two 34-milers with Joe. It didn’t bug me then! Were the straps off? I tried to fiddle with the straps a bit. It made no difference. Ugh, whatever. My underarms were already chafing from the singlet rubbing and I’d forgotten time and time again to apply some ointment to those trouble spots. My nipples were getting quite painful but not to the point where I could remember to address it at an aid station. So what’s a little rubbing from this pack on my shoulders? I just kept hammering up and over Ely’s.
The next mile split was well over 12 minutes. More like 15:00. Bad. Oh well, that’s why I had the buffer on my time. I knew the next 10 miles would be the most difficult on the whole course. That’s an objective statement… they’re just the hardest miles. Not to mention I was at mile 42 or so. 20 to go. If I could get to mile 50 feeling OK I knew I could hammer out the last bit faster than this bit. But I already didn’t feel OK. Although, I had experienced a little bit of a renaissance between Grand Portage and Ely’s Peak. My positivity waned with each mile towards the Magney aid station as every single split was over 12 minutes. I got close to 12 a couple times… maybe a 12:45 minute mile here or there. But those were met with some 15 minute miles. That won’t do it. I saw my buffer fade into oblivion with each mile. And each beep of the watch, I’d do math. 20 minutes up on my time. 15 minutes up on my time. 10 minutes up on my time. 9 minutes up on my time. It was still a buffer, but my trajectory was not looking good. I wondered if I’d see my crew at Magney. They had plenty of time to get from Ely’s to Magney, but from Magney to the bottom of Spirit Mountain is only two miles for me, and a difficult route for Emily and my mom in the car. With much more water on my back instead of in my hand, I ran through the Magney trailhead without stopping. I wasn’t hungry anyways. I saw Bruce, Brandon’s dad, with a familiar bag of Old Dutch dill pickle chips in his hand. He said Emily gave it to him for me. I declined his offer and ran off. It was a rough looking run though. Only two miles, all downhill, to Spirit. Make it Mike. Make up some time baby. Let’s do it. You’re doing great. You’re doing it. Keep it up. I’m so lucky to be out here. This is great. Fuck this. I hate this. I’m dead. My legs are fucked.
I ate another gel and snacked on a gummi or two, then strategized a bit. It was a big uphill climb out of Spirit Mountain. I should keep the poles, despite my slow going with them and the pack. This stupid pack was rubbing so bad but I didn’t even care. It wasn’t painful. It would have been, and should have been, but any and all pain was being compressed and shoved away. Eat some food at Spirit. Climb up and out of Spirit and you can make up time on the way to Highland Getchell. From Highland, it’s pretty runnable. If I can feel good at Highland I can run it in for the most part. What do I need to do to get there? Eat food.
I sat at Spirit and ate a waffle. I shoved another gel in my pack, then drank mountain dew and some big slugs of gatorade. Emily said that the two guys up front were duking it out. She thought one guy passed the other, and the one guy had asked her exasperatingly how much farther. Psh, a long way bro! So someone was hurting… I left quickly, but not without mentioning I’d drop the pack and poles at Highland Getchell. The climb up Spirit was brutal and with a lot of walking. I hiked up and up. I knew it’d be slow. I remembered it from the way down. It was slow. My mile splits were not encouraging. My buffer further minimized. I made OK time on the back side of Spirit, though. Just keep moving. Where is that guy?
I tried to recall the specific point when my watched beeped 10 miles. It was a specific point… oh yes, Cody Street! That was my benchmark. I could do that last stretch in two hours for sure. Where was I? Close. I kept checking my watch over and over as I thought I got closer to the Munger Trail. The 10 hour mark got closer and closer and I knew I was getting closer and closer to Cody Street. Then from the Munger Trail, under the I-35 freeway, it was maybe 5 or 10 minutes to Cody Street. I popped at onto the Munger at 10 hours flat. I was just over 50 miles. My buffer had minimized from 20 minutes at mile 40 at Ely’s Peak to 4 minutes. I tried to run faster to get to Cody Street at a good time. I saw a runner up ahead. I’ve been pacing this whole thing for 12 minutes per mile, 5 miles per hour, which equates to 12 hours for 60 miles. But wait, this is a 100k race. That’s supposed to be 62 miles. My GPS was indicating that it’d be closer to just over 61 miles. That means my 12 hours estimate has been wrong this whole time. Oh no. It was completely demoralizing. Not only have I lost 15 minutes in the last 10 miles, but I desperately needed that 15 minutes to get under 12 hours. At this point, I’m not 4 minutes up on that magic 12 hour finish time, I’m over 10 minutes down if I keep doing 12 minutes per mile. Crap. I started thinking about how I’d frame this… I’d post on Facebook how I didn’t meet my primary goal, how I didn’t meet my secondary goal of a sub-12 hour finish, but had a great race and did as well as I could. I put it all out there. I can’t go any faster right now, so… that’s the story. I was happy to know that I was about a mile out from the next aid station, where I’d get to see my crew again. And I’d get to drop this god damn pack and poles. They suck. So keep on running. You’re doing great Mike. How awesome is this that you’re doing so well. I tried to force my brain to be positive. My legs did keep churning forward, so maybe the mental positivity did work. But it was kind of fake, because I would just as quickly revert to negativity and dread, an overwhelming desire to stop.
As I strongly anticipated the upcoming aid station, I saw a shadow up ahead. I actually sniffed, as in smelling blood in the water. There he is. Time to crank. I sprinted ahead, a major jolt of energy out of nowhere. The guy who was leading at the turnaround was walking, and I ran up the hill, blazing past him in a blur. It felt great, so strong and forceful. He’s not passing me again. Nobody is. I’m up here in second place now. The excitement was still with me as I ran into the Highland Getchell aid station. I was so excited to get the vest off of my back, and I dropped them with my poles, took my handheld water bottle back, now stuffed with enough food to bring me to the finish. Emily told me the guy in first place was way up and looking really good. He was 17 minutes ahead of me. Oof, that’s a big gap. She said “sorry hun”. I waved my hand at her. Oh well, I figured that sort of time would win the race. This guy put together a good race. Good for him. I was pretty sure it was Tyler, who had never run a ultramarathon race before. It’s gotta be him. Nice work guy. I made a brief stop at the food table to grab some gummi bears. I ran off, excited to be in second place and close this race out. I knew it was relatively easier running from here on out and I would be able to hold a decent pace. I still had some juice in my legs, but the uphills would sap me. It was really hard to get back running once I’d stopped. I felt a pre-cramp feeling on the insides of both of my upper thighs, especially when I was power hiking. Would my inner thighs actually cramp? That would be bad. At a boardwalk, I hopped up and my calf almost cramped. It was that pre-cramp feeling. Yikes. That’s a close call. My calf felt like it was on the absolute fringe of an all out cramp. I told myself “relaxed”. “Smooth and relaxed. Run smoooooth and relaxed.” So that’s what I did. But any small hill would stop me nearly dead in my tracks. My hike was slow. But once I got going, especially on a slight downhill, I could roll.
I was at about 10:20 race time out of Highland Getchell. 17 minutes is impossible to close, Emily said it all with the solemn “sorry hun”. But now it was a race of the clock. 9 miles in 1:40 is… hard. I tried to calculate based off of my magic goal pace of 12 minutes per mile. 9 miles takes 1:48. So I need to shave off… about one minute per mile. Let’s get it. I went into overdrive mode. I had told myself all day that once I get to mile 50 I can let ‘er rip and just go. Well, here I am in second place, having moved steadily through the field with my “Race Your Own Race” strategy, on the cusp of going under 12 hours. It was going to be extremely close regardless. I tried to make good on the runnable sections of trail, but would get stymied by any little hill. My power hiking was slow, and it would take precious time and effort to get back going again. Come on, keep pushing keep pushing keep running, run run run. Run Mike. Run right here. I’d push off of a tree to get some forward momentum. My mile splits were OK, but not good enough. High 11’s. Some low 11’s. I was clicking them off. I got a little turned around atop Brewer Park with the zig zagging mountain bike trails and a reroute. I got back on course and tried to sprint down Brewer. I made good time, but was once again stymied under the Haines Road bridge. I just couldn’t run up the hill! Crap, I’m losing time. Each mile was enough to keep the dream alive, but not enough to be comfortable at all. Let’s get it, Mike. Come on, you can get 12 hours. I really didn’t want to not meet either of my goals. To have the goal to win is stupid because you can’t control who signs up and what sort of shape they are in. But the goal to go under 12 hours is all me. Regardless, they were both goals for this race and I was close to meeting at least one of them. Come ON Mike, let’s GO! I pushed hard. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty. I didn’t feel depleted, full, or anything besides tired. But I was fortunate enough to be able to run on any slight downhill. So when I saw them, I took advantage.
Piedmont came and went, check that off. I sprinted down the steep decline, jolted across Skyline, then down down down across some boardwalks. This section was mostly downhill so I anticipated making up some good time, but there were no incredible mile splits here. A few more in the 11 minute range. Good enough, but not great. I really looked forward to the flat section and brief road run getting into Lincoln Park. I thought I was close, just around the corner. Nope. Right over this hill right? Nope. When I get there it’s like a mile to the aid station. Get there Mike. Boom, there it is. I ran it out, passing a 50k’er or two in the process. I sensed the final aid station was close so expended some extra effort, all adrenaline at this point, to get there. I ran up the hill away from Miller Creek. If I could get to the aid station at 11:30 race time, I could make three 10 minute miles. I can do that to close it out. I can do it! I popped out at 24th Avenue West, crossed the road to the aid station. I planned on dropping my water bottle to go extra light. All I need is some gatorade and I’m off. No time to spare. I heard Emily yelling frantically and literally jumping up and down with her hands in the air. “GO GO GO!!! Mike, keep running, come on you can’t stop here!!!” Ok, that’s what I was planning on doing I guess… but when I got closer to her she yelled at me: “he’s right there! He’s walking, go get him! You got first place!” WHAAT? I was in utter disbelief. How did I make up 17 minutes? I thought he was in good shape at Highland Getchell? That was 6 miles ago, how can he fall apart that bad this close to the end? But it doesn’t matter… there he was. He was moving really, really slow. I chased him down. Wait, that’s a 50k runner. I passed the 50k runner. There Tyler is. I recognized his white jersey. He had a pacer. They were walking. I was running. Running hard, actually.
I’d been here before. In 2015, I was in 2nd place in no man’s land from mile 15 to mile 28 in the 50k race. I somehow caught up to the first place guy, saw him at the final aid station, but he ran away from me and I couldn’t respond. I wasn’t going to let this happen this time. I want it too bad. I got juice left in the tank. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. My head buzzed a bit. The adrenaline rush was intense. So I picked up the pace even more as his pacer glanced behind him. I made a decisive pass. Tyler congratulated me. I didn’t say anything. I heard his mom, presumably, driving on Skyline Road within shouting distance. She yelled at Tyler “he’s in the 100k!!” I was completely within earshot, just 10 feet ahead of Tyler and his pacer. He yelled back “I don’t care.” Well, if that how he feels… and I sprinted into the woods as hard as I possibly could.
I was in first place. Holy crap. How did that happen?? What an incredible racing experience to fall behind at mile 3, run alone in 8th place until mile 22 or so, then just move through the field one by one by one until mile 58. The adrenaline carried me up to Enger Tower. I didn’t walk, somehow summoning the energy to trot up the hill. There were kids at the peace bell but I just had to ring it. I asked them if I could but didn’t wait for them to respond. They moved aside as I jammed my hand against the pole. Then I set off on a dead sprint. It’s all down from here and I can roll three fast miles. I know I can. I have to. I’d crossed the 24th Ave West aid station at 11:30 flat. Three 10 minute miles is all it takes. I recited Drake lyrics in my mind: “I want it all, half was never part of the agreement.” I want both my goals. I spent the whole race thinking it wouldn’t happen and here it is, well within my grasp. I sprinted downhill further and further. Across 3rd Street, Across 1st Street. I was going almost too fast for my brain to process the rocks and roots. But that wasn’t because it was actually too fast, it was because I was actually too tired. I knew if I could get to Superior Street with 10 minutes to spare I could run it in. It’s flat pavement from there. Unless my calf cramps on the hard pavement. Yikes. It was so close to cramping, I could just feel it right there. But I popped out to Superior Street, sprinted across and over the freeway bridge with 10 minutes to spare. I was going to do it. I kept pushing down the path, across Railroad Street, onto the bike path that I ran with Andy and the whole rest of the 100k field 12 hours prior. A few turns into Bayfront, a glance at my watch and I knew I’d have the sub-12 hour finish. The adrenaline had never left and when I thought about that seemingly impossible finish time the hair on the back of my neck stood up, my head buzzed, and I knew I’d give a big yell at the finish line.
I had a cheering squad at the finish, and Andy was there to give me a hug. Then I yelled. My watch said 11:56, I was jacked up. I couldn’t believe the finish. Just unbelievable.
I waited for Tyler, Ryan and Brandon to finish. Tyler was a skier, new to the area and a Saint Scholastica student. I told him he had some serious potential. He was he wasn’t really trying to win or anything, just wanted to check out the trail community and try something new. He pacer said they walked the last 7 miles. Ouch.
I was painfully sore, and my mind went to the next day. I left absolutely nothing in the tank for the Terribly Tough 10k. My legs were shot. Luckily, there were no injuries that I could discern, just extreme full body soreness and pain, especially in my legs, obviously.
At home, I took a shower and finished it off by standing up, turning the water all the way cold and standing with the front of my legs and the back of my legs towards the water for about 5 minutes. Then back to warm. Then compression socks. Then food. I couldn’t really eat. I had an array of drinks but couldn’t seem to drink enough to replenish the dehydration. Like I was kept forgetting to drink. My head was so buzzed up from the win and the whole race day that I wasn’t tired even by 10pm. I had woken up well before 5am. Ugh. My alarm was to go off at 8:20am the next day. I tossed and turned all night.
The next morning, I woke up well before my alarm. Emily got up first and I rolled around a little bit. I was for sure sore. But it didn’t seem like anything would be of serious concern for the 10k race. I was curious if I could push or if the body would say no. I noticed some strange specific pains. My second smallest toe on my right side. Shoulders from pack rubbing. Underarms from jersey rubbing. Left back of heel. Calves. Hamstrings. Quads. Hips. Butt. I stood up and stretched a bit, went to the ole foam roller, and it actually felt good to press on my muscles a bit. The foam roller, as always, works out all kinks and I already felt way better than the previous night. Even after the cold shower I was so sore, but this morning I was loosening out really well. This may just happen. I’m gonna go for it, I thought to myself. I told Emily I thought I’d go for it. We agreed to get takeout coffee and bagels, I gathered my stuff together and we headed back to the Munger aid station, the Superior Hiking Trail trailhead at 123rd Avenue and Beck’s Road where the inaugural Terribly Tough was going to start. During the car ride, my legs stiffened up and I was pretty uncomfortable by the time we parked.
Looking at the start list, I knew I could win on fresh legs. Racing the NMTC series prepares you extremely well for a 3-6 mile all-out effort on challenging and tough trails. But what about super trashed legs… I figured I would warm up a little bit and just see how things feel. I got out of the car, walked it off, checked in and used the restroom. I went back to Emily’s car to roll out my legs a bit more with the 1″ PVC pipe section I’d brought. That felt good, and I felt good. Good considering the circumstances.
Emily walked out with me, took my clothes and said she’d meet me at Spirit Mountain. Then she left. I was in a little bit of an unconventional race outfit. First of all, I couldn’t stand to turn my ankles anymore. I was deathly afraid of my ankle tendons being so inflamed that they couldn’t hold my foot in place and I’d roll my ankle even more often. I couldn’t take that! So I taped my feet like crazy. It initially hurt because of the tape pulling on my skin and leg hair but that was a non-factor once I started warming up. I put on compression socks, my “old” mikeward.cool jersey, and half tights, which I’d never really run in, let alone raced in. Finally, I had the same handheld at the previous day. It was a little damp. Gross. But nothing in it besides water in the bottle.
With 10 minutes or so to the start, I tried running. All systems go. I saw Brandon and his running partner Sam, who’d run the 50k the day before, on the Munger Trail and so we jogged a bit. Brandon was running good despite the 100k. Sam was too. They were both planning to complete the 10k with their wives at a slower pace than their speediest potential. We turned around right before the rocky entrance to Ely’s Peak. I really thought I could run this thing at a decent clip. Would I crash and burn majorly at mile 1? Who knows.
Lining up at the start, I saw Schuney and Greg Haapala right up front. Andy made some pre-race announcements and before long, he yelled “Ready, Set, GO!!” through the megaphone. We ran up the little gravel entrance to Munger Trail, took a right, and hit the pavement for a quarter mile. I sprinted out front right away. Why? I do not know. Why do I have to start hot every single time?? I just wanted to see. I glanced behind me at the railroad bridge and Schuney was right there with me. I might not be able to take the trails or any elevation… might as well bank some time on the flat pavement. A hard left onto the rocks and I just hopped on up and scrambled up and up and up. So far so good. No implosions. Feels normal. Weird! But oh, I was breathing heavy. Nothing like that the day before at all.
I made it atop Ely’s peak, past quite a few bystanders, feeling really good. I made the scramble pretty quickly and even though I was breathing super heavy and my heart rate was probably jacked, I still had juice to run on the flats. I hopped around the rocks on the top of Ely’s and it was really fun. Dang, how is this happening! I didn’t feel frustrated with the trails, the rocks weren’t bothering me. The excessive ankle taping seemed to holding up fine. I felt solid! My watch’s first mile beep confirmed that with a time under 10 minutes. I noticed Dave behind me. But eventually he was gone. Hmm! The rocky section on top of Ely’s came and went, now into the woods. On to Bardon’s Peak. The day was utterly perfect. Beautiful temperature in the morning, ample sunshine. The trail was dry, nicely stamped down from the day before. Low wind, it just seemed that the trail was more visible than the day before. I was zooming. It felt really fast and really fun. That gave me a jolt.
I could jump up rocks and do small technical scrambles just fine, and there are plenty of them, but had issues with the longer inclines. Those sapped me a few times. I just tried to churn my feet up any hills. I knew that was slow going, though. My second mile was further under 10 minutes. The miles were clicking off fast. Wow, almost half way! It’s like my mind was still on ultramarathon mode. I just kept pushing. Nobody was in sight. Keep going man. You got this. Still talking to myself…
I knew intimately that the last tough hill is up the spur trail to the Magney trailhead, the aid station from Wild Duluth. It was again set up as an aid station. I blitzed it and tried to open up on the gravel of Skyline Boulevard. Up a bit, then down. I sure opened up. It did feel good. I was in disbelief. This was an interesting test in the human capacity. How does the damage-repair cycle work? It makes me think about multi-day efforts like…… what else…… a Superior Hiking Trail thru-hike.
A drop right off of Skyline led me down, down and down all the way to Spirit Mountain. I figured I could go fast since it’s very much downhill, but the rocks, technicality and narrow, sharp turns were just impossible. That is just slow running terrain! My energy levels were pretty even. I was certain I could have been faster on fresh legs but I was running pretty good on super tired legs. Every mile was under 10 minutes so far, and every subsequent mile I had hoped to get under 9. Nope. Mile 5 was 9:55. Crap. I said “Crap” to myself out loud. But I was winning the race, all boardwalks from here on out. The time was flying by and the race was almost over. That was fine by me, although I was having great fun. The 100k was not all fun, that’s for sure.
Just like Andy promised, I saw the finish line well before getting there, and seemingly passed it. Mark was at the final turn and I sprinted down the gravel road down towards the lower chalet at Spirit Mountain. I saw my crew once again, Emily and my mom, but this time they didn’t see me on the course the whole time. They had no idea where I was at. I crossed the finish line, happy to be done.
I just stopped on a dime, got a hatchet, another champion bottle, and a mug. That’s a lot to hold. I set it all down to take off my jersey. It was really hurting my nipples and my underarms.
And just like that, the odyssey of running 110 kilomters in a weekend was over. Holy crap, the Ultimate Wildman Challenge can be done.
Wild Duluth 100k
Terribly Tough 10k
Shoes: Brooks Cascadia 13 size 12.5 (100k), Nike Wildhorse (10k)
Handheld: Nathan 19oz insulated
Vest: Ultimate Direction FKT Jurek
14 Mar 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shoes: Saucony Peregrine size 12
Hydration: Nathan 19oz insulated handheld