My bedroom is warm and dry and the air is filled with the sounds of songbirds and the scent of blooming lilacs, yet I chose to wake at 1:30 AM and drive north for hours, to run for more hours in mud during a snowstorm. It's these "bad" decisions that define our characters, that make us individuals, rather than one more person who slept. I was out the door and behind the wheel in 10 minutes, too soon to change my mind or my clothes.
I turned on the radio to be greeted with "Road Runner" by the Modern Lovers, my all-time favorite song for running, though it's about driving at night with the radio cranked. So, I cranked the radio. I pounded the first Red Bull of the drive and roared into the night. Three hours and three more Red Bulls later, I was careering through small towns on the North Shore, jittery and anxious to the point of paranoia of getting caught speeding. I arrived two hours early.
Oh, and I saw a wolf. The trip already had its reward.
I made the rounds of greeting friends, well-wishers, admirers of this blog and a few men who actually came to race, then it was time to begin. My plan was to start much more slowly than last year and hope the accumulation of 250 miles of races in the past six weeks wouldn't force me to walk before the last few climbs. The race has two four hundred foot climbs right at the start, Mystery and Moose Mountains, so pacing, even by heart rate, is entirely subjective. I found myself running with a couple (with interesting accents I couldn't place); she was running her first ultra and, though punishing her quads by braking too much on the downhills, would go on to take second place through attrition; one of the first women disappeared and must've quit and another got lost.
Keith Krone, in his VFFs (minimalist footwear with separated toes), passed me, leaving footprints that looked like a giant deformed raccoon was on the trail. He said he knew he'd gone out too fast since he was up with me - actually, I was back with him - and he skimmed over the roots and rocks as if it were second nature, reminiscent of some of the best in the sport.
Zach Pierce and I ran together for a while, he in shorts (too little clothing for the windy mountain tops) and me in plastic windpants (too much for the rest of the course). He joked, "So this is what it takes for me to catch you," mentioning the five ultras in six weeks. I couldn't help adding that I also drove up and was wearing a complete track suit. Then I reminded him that he'd beaten me at the Zumbro 100. "Well," he said, "We all just checked the box on that one." There may be a lot of reports of this race where people mention beating me and then mention that I wasn't at the top of my game. It reminds me that I still tell people that I beat Barney Klecker in a race, though it was the week after he set the world record for 50 miles and I beat Dick Beardsley in a race when he arrived too late to take off his sweatpants. It still counts.
There was still patchy snow at the base of LeVeaux Mountain, but no snowman this year. Although spring is in full stride in the Twin Cities, the trees hadn't leafed out here, so the wind roared over the bluffs. And then the first snowflakes fell; later there'd be horizontal snow pellets - nothing stuck - making the already soggy course a quagmire in the low spots. Early in the day, some of the numerous boardwalks were slippery; one comes to recognize different types of these: beside corduroy, there are old ones that shift on their supports, long ones that bend at the joins and thick hewn logs which roll. That makes three axes of rotation with which to contend.
Kevin Martin joined me for a while and i was surprised to find out he's not the expert at this that I expected; this was his first time on the Superior Hiking Trail. He seemed to catch his size 14 shoes on every rock and didn't even try to squeeze under the fallen trees, saying, "I'm not built for this sport." I have to mention that, had volunteers not spent hundreds of man-hours clearing ice storm-damaged trees, the course would've been impassible.
It was then that Chris Lundstrom passed us on his way back. Chris is simply the best runner I've ever met. Not only is he phenomenally talented, he has a deep understanding of the sport of running. He's the only person I can think of that I'd accept as a coach. He made 2nd place finisher Andy Holak, who was having a great day, look slow.
Between LeVeaux Mountain and Britton Peak are two peaks I always forget, as they are to me unnamed. This is the region that people are always saying is runnable and, I guess, by comparison to much of the trail, it is. I did note the variety of wildflowers, so my attention wasn't glued to the trail and that must be the difference.
I was being passed regularly between Britton and the turn-around on Carlton Peak. I tried to convince myself that I was saving something for that next climb. It's a long way to the top and the trail gets ever more steep, narrow and technical. The trail turns enough here that Lake Superior seems to be on the wrong side. Chuck Hubbard was stationed at the turn-around; his long-standing course record would last less than an hour as I got there in 3:05.
On the way down the peak, I saw Julie Berg, who I hadn't seen at the start. I'd told her a week ago that she'd beat me by an hour. When she passed me 5 hours into the race, she pointed out that she wouldn't beat me by an hour. It was to be about half an hour. I had to ask her about her blog; when I started ultras two years ago, everyone knew who she was and now everyone knows me and she'd prefer more anonymity. She has 87 followers to my 7. Not that I'm competing, mind you.
I had a nice chat with Carl gammon as he passed me; I can't wait to see what he says about that. Maria Barton and I stopped for Pepsi at the same time at the last aid station. She only wanted 1/3 of a cup. I asked for more, saying, "I'm bigger." That's what passed for humor at that point.
People kept telling me I looked good. I told one guy, "Thanks for lying," and he responded, "You might feel like crap, but you really do look good." At five hours - about when Julie and Carl passed me - my right Achilles tendon started to hurt like it was getting hit by a cattle prod. Forty minutes later, the left one joined it. At 6 1/2 hours, my left hamstring cramped. I also had a pain in the bottom of my right heel. You don't go through ordeals unscathed, you just learn what's tolerable and what's serious and this was kid's stuff.
Pierre Ostor passed me going up the last rise, Mystery Mountain. We talked about Kettle Moraine, as both of us are doing it in three weeks. I was worried about the 30 hour cut-off and he said it's the only race he's never finished. "Just don't go out too fast." Oh, like that could ever happen! [For the sarcasm-impaired, I was in the lead in the Zumbro 100, only to finish dead last.]
As I got onto the asphalt at the very end, I checked my watch. 6:57. If I kicked it, I could break 7 hours... but who would care? I looked back, and true to Satchel Page, someone was gaining on me, so I picked up the pace considerably. Finished in 7:01, one hour slower than in 2008.
I have climbed highest mountains
I have run through the fields
I have run. I have crawled.
Well, yes, I'm still running.
-U2, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
Going up the country
1 day ago