Race Day: Saturday, January 17, 2015 — 9am

This weekend was shaping up to be a pretty good test of endurance. The lineup was Freeze Yer Gizzard 5k, then the 10k an hour later, a 10k snowshoe race the next day, and capping it off with a Beer Mile. Four races in two days, and this was coming off of a terrible night’s sleep in the woods on Thursday. The Freeze Yer Gizzard Run is in International Falls, MN, and is known for brutally cold racing conditions. The 5k and 10k are spaced about an hour apart and a lot of racers do the double.

I felt very frantic on Friday. When, Nick, Diamond and I got back into civilization after a quick overnight adventure in the woods, I hurriedly splayed my camping gear around the house to dry, threw some clothes and running gear into a backpack and set off to work. The plan was to leave for International Falls directly from the Running Co., and so I was anxious that in my rushed state I didn’t forget any crucial items.

Nick, Kyle and I set out directly from Duluth Running Co. just as planned, stopped at Jimmy Johns and picked Stacie up. Nick was clearly not excited about International Falls all day, mostly from the exhaustion of working all day after a crappy night of sleep on frozen ground. I was feeling very similarly, but I knew that if I backed out that I would regret it. On our way out of town, Nick realized that we were actually on our way out of town, and finally pulled the plug. Kyle dropped Nick off at a isolated gas station in Twig, MN, and Nick’s girlfriend Bridget picked him up. So we left Nick in the cold and continued on to the hotel.

As Kyle drove, we figured we would get to our hotel room at 9pm or so. It was pretty dark driving on Highway 53 straight north, and I was very, very thankful for Kyle volunteering to drive my tired ass.

Once we got to the hotel, we met up with a few other fellow Duluthians who were racing and sharing the same hotel with us. Tina, Nate, Joslynn, Allison and few other running buddies were drinking some beers in the room, and we joined in for a bit. Kyle and I practiced for the Beer Mile a bit, and all I can say is that he was looking like a VERY formidable opponent. His chugging skills were on point, very fast and he didn’t seem completely shaken afterwards like I was. When I finally got the last sip down, one dough boy finger-press to my stomach would have made me hurl. Meanwhile, Kyle is high stepping in the hallway. How is that for foreshadowing…

After a markedly better sleep, despite sharing a bed with lanky Kyle, we woke up around 7:30am and were ready to race. A quick stop at continental breakfast and we were on the way to the Rainy Lakes Community College, the site of the race.

All three of us registered for both races, even Stacie, who had raced a hard marathon in Orlando, FL not one week prior. I made a game-time decision to race in shorts. I think this was more for show anyways… the temperatures were a balmy 30 degrees or so. Perhaps a little less. After a few warm ups outside, I confirmed that my choice was comfortable, but I still didn’t want to just stand there.

Toeing the line to the 5k, I sized up the competition. I thought I had a good shot at winning, and my plan was to really race the 5k hard and just get a nice 10k effort in. I thought I was fit to run a sub-17 5k and wanted to really try to push it. However, I could tell that the conditions were not conducive for fast running.

I got a few weird looks as the race was about to begin. And BANG! The race started with a literal gunshot. I sprinted off the front to get a good line in front of the kids and others.

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The driveway out of the start and in to the finish was pretty bad condition, but when we got the main road, it was solid, albeit sloppy and wet. Upon the first turn, I had the lead by thirty seconds or so. I tried to really push it. When I felt I was in a comfortable pace, I surged ahead. I came through the first mile at 5:30, right on pace for my sub 16. The rest of the course was decent, and my mile two, I knew I had it in the bag unless there was a ringer back there just waiting to pull a 4:30 last mile. Unlikely…

My second mile split was 11:30. A little slower, but I just wanted to hold on at this point. I had a few thoughts of slowing down and saving my reserves for the 10k. NO! Keep pushing, I thought. My breathing was labored as I made the last turn and saw the police cars signaling the driveway to the finish. I looked around my shoulder, and with nobody in sight, I made the sprint finish. My watch time said 18:40. Very slow for a grippy course, but a win is a win! The second place competitor was quite a ways behind me, bolstering my confidence on a snowy and slick race course.

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I wanted to wait around a bit for my friends, and after a few came in, I rushed inside. I was scared to sit down too much, but it sure felt good. I raced hard and was a little leery of going back outside. I didn’t change at all, despite socks that may have been a little damp. I didn’t get sweaty at all, luckily, so kept all my gear on just how it was. A little re-hydration and I was back out on the start line.

I saw a guy I had timed a few times, Kyle Smith, who was warming up in shorts and a singlet, no gloves and no hat. His shorts were shorter than mine. I knew he was really fast AND his shorts were shorter than mine. Especially with a pretty hard 5k in my legs, I knew I wouldn’t win. Kyle also informed me of his very fast St. Scholastica XC teammate Chris who was in the race. Kyle said he had to take it easy, however, and was going out for a nice tempo pace.

The 10k started, and I was immediately behind a pack of guys, unlike the 5k start where I led out of the gate. Of course, Smith was going for the win and he surged ahead very quickly. I focused on quick leg turnover once we got out into the main road, and I was in fifth place. Smith was way out front, Chris was right on his tail, and another guy in white was between the fourth place guy and me. I made a quick move to overtake this guy and sat in fourth place. I kept the legs churning and dropped him. Now, I thought, if I can slowly chip away on this guy in white, I’d be real happy. He was still between Smith and Chris, who were way up front.

On the contrary, the guy in white kept getting farther and farther out of sight, until he took a turn way up ahead, never to be seen again. When I got to the turn, I looked around to corner to see the tiny fifth place dude way back. Just me all by my lonesome. I settled into a nice rhythm. Around two miles in, I thought about how the 5k in my legs is killing me. I tried to relax a bit and get into a half-marathon-esque pace–a pace where I can endure running a long time, yet on the fringe of being uncomfortable. That was the perfect mindset, and I the miles ticked by as I ran through scenic International Falls. The course went through the city, and the different shops and storefronts kept me mentally stimulated.

Next thing I know, I was on the familiar main road to the college with the blinking cop cars in the distance. I looked at my watch–35:00 or so. I thought I could go under 37. I tried to get a last little push on the sloppy but grippy road. When I turned onto the driveway to the finish, 100 yards to go, my watch was 36:45 or so. Close! Push it! I cringed a little bit when I saw the race clock tick to 37:00, then 37:01, then 37:02. My watch said 37:08. Still a PR! Although an hour would have been a PR because that was my first open 10k.

I changed into sweatpants and we all waited for awards. Our group took home some serious hardware. Another Duluthian, Molly, won the 5k and 10k, so the awards were a jolly occasion.

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We went back to the hotel for a little potluck, then drove home in some slick snow straight back on Highway 53 to Duluth. Kyle is the man for driving us. Stacie and I sleeping the way back probably made for a boring drive for him!

5k Results

10k Results

Race Stats:

Shoes: Brooks PureFlow3

5k time: 18:37
Pace: 6:00
Place: 1/172

10k time: 37:04
Pace: 5:58
Place: 4/94

Photo credits: International Falls Journal and Joslynn Lee.

Race Day: January 3, 2015 – 7am

“This is fun to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results

Race Stats:

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


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