Having spent the year trying to get people to volunteer at races, I decided to actually do it myself. Of course, I had an ulterior motive, but it meant that I'd get to do something I wanted to do that isn't high on most people's to-do list: visit small industrial towns in Wisconsin; it reminded me of my planning a European vacation ("Duisberg? The Cleveland of Germany? Why would anyone go there?"). Past trips through Wisconsin involved the Circus Museum in Baraboo and the Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb ("The Troll Capital"), so I'm not a typical tourist. The fact that I was travelling with a trapped squirrel - I released him pretty early - just accentuates the fact.
I promised to be at the aid station by noon, so unexpectedly awake at 4 AM, I packed everything I could conceivably need, except, as it turns out, a chair, drank a pot of coffee and was on the road by 5:15. As I spent twice as much time on the road as at the race, this is a travelogue. I hit Chippewa Falls in the dark, recalling the last time I was there, in the late April blizzard; it was already 65 degrees, so the runners were in for a heatwave.
Highway 29 between Chippewa Falls and Wausau is a spectacularly beautiful road, though in the dark on the way home, it was just another highway. The trees were at their peak: vibrant yellow birch and aspen, scarlet maples, brick-red oaks, accented with deep green pines. Hitting it at sunrise was amazing. Add to it patches of fog to make it look otherworldly. I pulled off the highway somewhere between Boyd and Owen to get a look at the neighborhood, wondering what could possibly make it more picturesque. Then I saw an Amish family in a buggy headed to church. I almost wept, it was so beautiful. These people ARE closer to heaven than most of us; it's right outside their doors.
Wausau has a couple of high hills coming out of nowhere, like a Grand Tetons starter kit and they were covered with beautiful trees. And cell phone towers. I'd never been to Wausau, so I did a quick drive through, then headed south to Oshkosh.
I toured Oshkosh too. It's Main Street, highway 45, is in sorry shape, but has some interesting points, from the cemetery (it's a grand one), to Andy and Ed's Root Beer Shack. The road south goes along Lake Okoboji, which has Japanese ornamental grasses crowding out the cattails. It's pretty in it's way, but looks like Japan, not Wisconsin. I did find a very small patch of what I think is rare Buffalo Grass, twelve feet high - if you're going to drink a pot of coffee, you're going to make a pit stop or two; might as well fertilize a treasure!
Not much to say about Fond du Lac, except that, leaving town, I couldn't remember proper etiquette when tractors are on the road. We city boys don't need that very often.
Got to Greenbush and met the world's least-dressed race director. Maybe, just maybe, there's a race director in a Speedo, but I don't want to think about it. It was a hot, hot day. I got directions to my post and found county road A is one of those where you're almost bowled over with how gorgeous it is and then suddenly it isn't, then it is, then no. Turns out that that describes the trail as well; there are places worth the 6 hour drive, then a powerline or a highway ruins it, then you're back on a trail that forces you to look around and marvel.
Most - nearly all - of the runners that day were covered with dirt and scrapes from falls. They were all in need of ice and water. We ran out of ice, but I had brought some with me (I also had wool blankets for the opposite weather) and we ran out of that just as Tom Bunk brought us more; Tom, ultrarunning legend, usually marks the course, but is recovering from knee trouble.
Then we ran out of cups and ice, just as another aid station had shut down and brought us theirs. They seemed miraculous, so I called them the "cups and ice fairies." Then, "The eskimos have a word for them... weirdos."
Speaking of weirdos, there are now some Wisconsinites who think I'm representative of Minnesota. Everyone who reads this now has to go down there to prove I'm just an oddball.
We were inundated with Japnese ladybugs, thousands of them, on everything. Then flies. Then bees and hornets. Then gnats. We couldn't put out any food or drinks without them having bees instantly, so getting people what they needed was challenging. I think we did a good job.
Jim, Julie, Pierre, Maria... all did just fine. When it got close to the cut-off for the 50 Mile, I ran back along the course to find someone who might need help getting to the aid station in time. There was only one and I ran with him, pushing him to make sure he got there in time; I pushed him a little too hard, it turns out, but he made it and was, I believe, the last finisher.
There weren't many people left to talk to at the finish line when I got there, but introduced myself to Norman Yarger and his daughter Kathleen (who was on her back with her legs in the air - only at ultras!).
A cup of chili and a can of Pepsi later, I was back behind the wheel. I'd need to buy gas and knew it got cheaper as one went (It's 40 cents more expensive in Fond du Lac than here), so I thought I'd visit Neenah and Appleton on the way back and buy there. The famed Neenah foundry was not what I expected, but more modern. In Appleton, I discovered that I couldn't go the way I wanted to and was starting to get lost.
I pulled over to the side of a road just after a highway exit to look at my map, when a car pulled ahead of me and stopped. A teenage girl got out and asked if I was lost and offered to help. She was soon on her cell phone, asking her dad. "I'm only two blocks from church. So he turns around, gets back on the highway and just takes the exit at 10? [To me: that's by the mall.]" I told her that that had been my plan, I just was making bad decisions, because I hadn't eaten all day. She insisted I have a sandwich she had in her car.
Sunday night, on her way to church. "I was hungry and you fed me. I was a stranger and you helped me," I said. "Matthew, chapter 25," she replied. "I think I'd like to see this church." So I took in evening worship in Appleton.
This, too, is my life.
6 hours ago