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)

Race Day: October 18, 2014 — 8am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Results

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


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