Race Date: Saturday, January 4, 2020 – 9:30am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garmin Data

Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Tony Stensland

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

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

Photo Credit: Tony Stensland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garmin Data

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

Shoes: Brooks Cascadia size 11.5

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


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