I got a call from my friend Dave. "Bummer about the busted ankle. I got into the Chiwaupee and need a pacer. Are you in?" Now, I thought that this race was just a legend. There's no way any race could be as tough as they say this one is. And there was no way I could run it on my bad ankle.
"Sure. I'm game."
The race is held on a weekday, just to be annoying. It's official name is the Chiwaupee Gentleman's Club Invitational Fun Run and Cotillion. No one knows how long the course is, because GPS units don't work in the ravines and no one will ever wheel it, but the record for the run is 3 hours and they think it's a 10K. Think about it. 30 minutes per mile is the record. And they use pacers.
Dave picked me up in his beat-up Jeep and we started driving west, listening to Wilco, Cracker and Neil Young, the only music we could agree on. It was getting warm, so I grabbed a bottle of water, already opened - swapping spit with Dave was the least of my worries. A spit take later, I asked, "What is this, moonshine?"
"No, ya virgin, it's poteen. Moonshine's corn, this is barley. And stop drinking my profit margin. If you need to take the edge off, there's a joint in the glove box."
Between Redwood Falls and New Ulm on the Minnesota River, somewhere downstream of the reservation and upstream of the fort, there's a dirt road leading to the water's edge. It was here that we met up with the other masochists. Sven Nygaard, the race director, a guy who looks like Gabby Hayes on steroids, gave us the instructions. We ran ranger style; no one was allowed to abandon his partner for any reason - it just wasn't safe. There was no medical aid, so if someone got seriously hurt, another team would have to help carry him to the finish. There was only one spot of potable water on the course, to be used only in emergency.
I forget the rest of the rules. There were several. He did ask if everyone had brought the entry fee. The four invited runners each showed that they had brought a prom dress or bridesmaid's gown. I guessed the Barkley Marathons had an influence.
The 9 of us got into a boat and headed for the start. The race is on private land (the ownership is disputed) and is often flooded, so the race date is never decided until the last minute. There's a spot along the limestone bluffs that is covered by trees. If one looks closely, one can see that a small stream enters the river here and this where we had to get out, climb through the trees with our gear and get into canoes stationed on the other side. These we took up the stream (they called it the Floyd B. Olson tributary, though I don't know why) to what passed for a landing.
As soon as we were all out, Sven said "Get outta here," which was the start. We ran through a section of saw grass, which was slicing up my legs. Then rip grass. Then switch grass. Then scourge grass. Then something I couldn't identify, 6-8 feet high and barbed. Dave shouted to me, "Watch your step! Someone's set traps in here!" I stopped dead in my tracks. Sure enough, there was a muskrat in a trap. This was like running in a mine field. You never knew whether your next step would be the last.
We got out of the grass and saw the Down Escalator. Most of the bluffs are made of limestone, but here there was loose shale, making a route up to the top, though a route that, if you paused, caused you to slide back to the bottom. And the edges of the rocks were sharp, so falling was not an option. I saw guys run part way and then surf back down. I saw that my sprinter's speed gave me an advantage and I pushed for all I was worth. As I got close to the top, the slope was almost vertical and I was trying to use my hands, but the loose rocks gave no hand holds. I was the first to reach the top and was able to rest as I waited for Dave to make the climb. Oh, sweet rest.
From the top of the bluff, there was maybe a 50 yard run (the course was marked by occasional pink flags with skull and cross-bones) before we headed downhill. This was the easiest part of the course, an old miner's sluice. The wood had been rotting for a century and brambles grew at each of the intersections, but this was almost runnable and almost fun.
Then we had another steep uphill, called Fishtail, Jr. The top appeared to be what mountain climbers would call technical, but we had no ropes or carabiners. I just prayed there was no Fishtail Sr.
Then a precipitous downhill through raspberry and elderberry bushes. At the bottom was a sign saying "Make a Hiking Staff." I chose to ignore it, Dave did not.
Then another climb up the bluff line. Near the top, I discovered that the staff was not meant for the climb itself. There was an unmistakable sound. Rattler. Make that rattlers. I'd heard there were some along the Minnesota River, but I'd never seen one. I was more than content to leave them alone, but one was blocking the only way. Dave caught up to me and, like he'd been doing it all his life, hooked the offender and placed him out of the way.
I ran the next few yards faster than I'd ever run in my life.
The rest of the course was more of the same. I'd run out of water early and wanted to use pond water with an iodine tablet, but Dave said the water had chemicals in it. There was a spot ahead, he said. A horrible smell greeted us as we approached the spring; sulfur. No iodine was needed, because nothing could live in it. I scooped it up in my bottle and tried to take a swig. Several minutes of vomiting later, I decided my idea of emergency water was not Sven's.
Four hours after starting, we reached the finish. We were first! We sat around waiting for the others, swatting deer flies and dipping into Dave's mason jars of liquid refreshment. After everyone arrived safely and more or less in one piece, Sven announced, "Now the cotillion!"
They had a dance. The pacers had to wear the dresses the racers brought as entry. They're still laughing about how mad I was that Dave thought I was a size 12.