I was looking forward to running the course again, but with some trepidation. I'd run it in 2003, finishing in 42:19, second to Eric Pierce, and remembered the course as wet and muddy, with lots of switchbacks. I also fondly recalled meeting a lot of people who later became good friends. I hadn't run a serious 10K since, um, 2005? and though once a 5K/10K specialist, sandwiching this race between 4 ultras in 6 weeks had me wondering whether I could still race the distance from muscle memory.
Various forecasts had predicted everything from 2 inches of snow to 50 mph winds. Milaca had two inches of rain the day before the race, which thankfully had ended hours before race time, but which left one of the wettest courses one could ever hope to run. There are old-timers who tell stories of an early edition of this race (in its 15th year) having flooded and requiring a swim, but this was more than enough.
Just before the race started, I discovered I was wearing two different-sized shoes and had been since before Trail Mix! A fast change of one (much cleaner) shoe and I was thinking this was a sign of something. But what? Looking around the crowd at the start, Andy Holak appeared and I had to ask if he'd turned 40 yet - not for 4 days yet [Happy Birthday, Andy!] - and then a dozen high school cross-country runners headed for the front line. Everyone was asking Keith about his footwear. Other than Bryan, who drove me up there that morning, I wasn't seeing many familiar faces; I didn't see Kel until after the race and I never did see Jean, though his name was announced for awards for both men AND women and for two different door prizes. I've read Keith's report (it's better than this one already) and look forward to others. Jeff Allen showed up just before the start and I had to scour my memory... over 40, I beat him by half an hour at Afton, he'd run respectable but not great times at Superior (50K and 50 mile) and the 1/2-Voyageur...
Road races are usually determined by a hill near the end, but trail races by the flat sections. The start of this 10K is on an old railroad bed, so one can see the runners ahead as they turn into the woods, where a very short but extremely steep hill covered in mud slows everyone to a crawl. I blew by a dozen teenagers just before the woods, knowing they'd probably have trouble repassing on the single-track and would wait for the old levee, where I'd have to speed up again. Then the switchbacks would be slow and I'd speed up again when I saw the Rum River. Before the race, Keith and I had gone over the very start and the very end of the course; I knew that I needed to have a point to kick from before the last flat section at the end.
Things didn't feel right from the start. I couldn't get my breathing comfortable and I regretted not having thoroughly stretched (which doesn't matter much in ultras). I was getting passed and didn't care. The sole guy between 19 and 39 years announced he was going to pass and I thought, "well, go ahead! You could drive a truck through here." He must have been new to trails or just hoped I'd step aside. [He don't know me well, do he?] The first mile is undulating and has a lot of rocks and a few sharp turns, which suddenly ends at the levee. I was trying to decide if I was loafing or if I'd gone out too hard.
The levee, as I expected, was where the youngsters wanted to make their move, so I sped up. Jeff Allen caught me just before the woods. I followed behind him, knowing the master's race was between the two of us and I had the better top-end speed. He slowed considerably as the race got wetter. And wetter. The water and mud was frequently ankle deep and occasionally pools of knee-deep and worse appeared. Jeff stayed in the middle of the course, I zig-zagged trying to cut distance on the dozens (hundreds?) of turns. He suggested that I pass him, but I thought I had an advantage by seeing where he stepped and knowing the longer we were together, the more likely I could outsprint him at the end. That was a mistake, as it happens.
There's a point called "Confusion Corner," which actually is the least confusing point - one just keeps to the left and they have someone posted to point the way - but there's a major water hazard. I went in the water to just below my hips by going too far to the right. On the way back, going through the same point, I remembered to stay left (which, being tired, I forgot was the same as right coming the other way) and went deep again. Waist deep.
The switchbacks aren't because of steep hills, but there is some terracing. After the race, Keith asked how there could be two inches of standing water on the side of a hill. It was that wet. There's signs posted on the course, but being brown wood with black lettering, you don't see them when racing; I'd forgotten the one at the base of what passes as the longest hill until I saw it again... it reminds you to smile. Jeff and I and whoever was behind me at the time startled a deer in this section. Because of the switchbacks, you get glimpses of runners at other points of the race (and wonder if any cheating goes on) and Andy called out from his lead, "It gets pretty bad up here." How much worse could it be, I wondered.
We stopped racing and started splashing and romping through the woods. There was no point pushing, when I knew I had a 50 miler in a week. It was kind of fun, when you got in the right frame of mind. That's why I remembered the race so fondly.
Most of the race was just getting from one muddy hole to the next and it all sort of runs together. I got to a point where I decided it was time to plan passing Jeff. The moment I thought that, I stopped thinking of where my feet were. I rolled an ankle, hard. The sole of my left shoe was pointing straight up as I stood on it. I hopped, then tested the ankle and could put weight on it - so it wasn't broken - and went on. I couldn't turn left! What do you do when you can't turn left?! I quickly found that, with all the mud, I could skid a left turn on my right foot (Runnin in the Ruff II: Tokyo Drift). This was going to be interesting.
I got to confusion corner, where there's a sharp left turn and I know the two people posted there had to be wondering at the guy going "Ow.Ow.Ow.Ow.Ow.Ow." as he listed leeward through the turn. Then I rolled the ankle again.
I actually started looking forward to the water holes, as the cold water felt good on the bad ankle. I waved a high schooler through as I negotiated a particularly long wet stretch. One more bad turn and it might be career-ending. Soon I was at the point I'd originally planned to make my move at the end; I could see the high-schooler 50 yards ahead and Jeff about that much more ahead of him. On another day...
They announced 45:18 at the finish, my watch said 45:24 and I think the official time was somewhere in between. Andy came over, already taking his dog for a walk as a cool-down(!) and seemed surprised I hadn't been up front with him. I didn't have a key to get into the car where my gear was, so I couldn't get to my pill stash, but Andy got some Advil for me out of his.
After the race, as we (Bryan, Keith and I) went to Lunch in the Milaca Pizza Hut, Andy was picking up his door prize free pizza and he found my wallet on the way in! There's something mystical about that guy, saving me twice in an hour - maybe I can get him to pace me at the Sawtooth 100 for luck!
It's been two days since the race and I'm mending fast.