THERE was the challenge I needed! My interest piqued, I poured myself into preparing to finish the 50K under the cut-off of 8 hours. The Spanish Inquisition could've learned from the tortures I put myself through for those days.
I awoke at 1:28 AM, having set my alarm for 1:30, my inexplicable inner clock working well. As I got out of bed, I stepped on a carpet tack - pulling it out, I wondered how it got where it was and whether this was a sign of how the whole day would go or if this was the worst that would happen. I hobbled to the bathroom and disinfected the wound, then got dressed for the race. I made myself a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal and tried to use the bathroom before heading out, but my body was insisting 2 AM is not morning. The 4 hour drive was uneventful and I stopped in two Harbors to buy gas, stretch my legs, try unsuccessfully to use the restroom and bought more coffee. I turned the radio to the local classic rock station (something I only do on race days) and chuckled as I sang along to Molly Hatchet and Dr. Hook. Just before arriving at Lutsen, they played REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" and I cranked the volume to standing-next-to-the-stage-amp level. My ears rang for about an hour.
There was a line at the restroom at the start and I still wasn't ready, so I knew I'd be making a stop at the facilities at the Sawbill aid station. I hadn't had this problem since last year's Trail Mix. Fortunately, my legs felt good - I could run, I just didn't know how far. Deciding what to wear was a problem; those up front were in shirts and shorts, those in back were in tights and jackets and I decided to wear a heavy long-sleeved technical tee over a short-sleeve and toss it at the first aid station (also relieving myself of the one shirt I had from a race I didn't run in the process).
And so it begins
The strategy was to start easy and save something for the end. The course is not amenable to that, as there are two monster hills at the start, but I backed off as much as I could, thinking of it as the start of a very long training run. I was behind a guy who kept stumbling on rocks on the way up Mystery Mountain and laughing to himself, as he said, "I'm from the Cities. We don't have anything like this there." I knew how he felt; I was in exactly the same place as him two years ago. I tried to reassure him that there was at least some runnable sections. On the first long downhill, I found myself unable to run as I wanted, there being too many people in the way that far back in the pack, and I had to keep braking rather than running free - that would turn out to be important later.When we reached bottom, I pointed out some marsh marigolds to another runner and also pointed out that, whenever you see them, you're about to go up a steep hill, as they only grow in the water that collects in the bottoms. On the climb up Moose Mountain I intentionally power-walked the steep sections, still keeping pace with those who were running, but saving energy - perhaps the one thing I've learned in trail running in the past year. One runner wondered aloud how many hills there were and I told him there were only 5 bad ones. He said, "This IS one of the bad ones, isn't it?" I had to laugh. Yes, Moose Mountain is not a negligible hill.
I knew there was a sharp turn at the bottom just before Rollins Creek that I'd missed both previous years, so I looked for it... and followed the runners ahead of me the wrong way yet again!... but it's only a mistake of seconds in a race of hours. The miles cranked out smoothly, comfortably, my heart rate averaging 159 thus far (I wanted about 153 for the whole race, but those first hills took their toll; if I had started with the heart rate I'd planned, I would've had to walk the first 5 miles. The average for the whole race ended up being 150).
About Leveaux, I had to make an emergency pit stop; I couldn't wait any longer. About 5 people passed and I was about to start up again when I had to go again. Another 3-4 people went by and I got back to running. For about 100 yards. Then another potty break. And another. In my mind rang the words "so this is how the day's going to go..." Eventually I felt empty enough (but not empty) to run again and thought it was about the time I'd usually be in the bathroom in the morning. Stupid internal clock... I'd lost time, but perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, as that rest might be a needed help later. That's as optimistic as I could get.
I ran with a couple for maybe two miles and we did the typical runner intros, when the guy said, "You're Steve Quick? Oh no, that means I went out too fast!" I laughed and told him that he probably hadn't (I did retire from racing, after all). I lost them when I had to make one more break for nature's call (I'm running out of euphemisms).
There's a long "runnable" section before the Sawbill aid station, very muddy after the past week's rains and I thought about how much worse it would be on the way back. I also thought about how it wouldn't matter; the last hours of an ultra are like the last hours at a bar - your thoughts of what's acceptable become more relaxed. I knew where I'd seen Chris Lundstrom on his way back last year, so I started looking for runners returning at that point. I saw Alicia Hudleson cheering for the runners - ya gotta love anyone who'll watch an ultra - and then saw Chris Gardner leading the pack. From that point it was possible to distract myself from my own race by watching for various runners on their return. After Sawbill, I was surprised to see the order of the women and checked my watch when Helen Lavin passed (2:31, so she was well under 5:00 pace... and I was most definitely not, though I was certainly closer than I thought I'd be that morning).
I climbed Carlton Peak, thinking how much easier it was without running Ice Age the week prior as I had the previous two years (Zach Pierce will probably concur, having done both this year). I said hello to Chuck Hubbard, standing guard as usual at the turn-around, but forgot to check my watch for my split - probably 2:40-2:45. Much faster than I expected, but I was feeling as I expected. This...was...just a training run - I had to convince myself of that.
The beginning of the return trip was, as expected, a bit slower, even though it seemed easy enough. I was starting to run through the mud rather than try to run around it, which I knew would be impossible when we reached the parts the 25K runners had run. Mud + many runners = MUD! I can run well in mud, but I had to wonder if the technicality of the course would change that, just as "I run very well downhill" became ludicrously untrue when I started running trails.
I was just ahead of Ron from North Woods and behind another guy in a green shirt, who walked the hills and the puddles but pounded the downhills and never seemed to get closer. A familiar voice from behind - Dick Bjork, who I ran with in high school 30 years ago. We ran as a loose pack for a while, but I could tell the lack of training was starting to take a toll and when we reached one of the two "sticking points" of the course for me - there's a spur trail for an overlook and a wooden sign that I swear says Cascade Creek, even though there's no creek there, nor a creek by that name anywhere nearby - I stopped to remove rocks from my shoes and let them go. It...was...just...a TRAINING run; no need to try to race them.
I guess I "hit the wall" there, at about the marathon mark, maybe 4 1/2 hours. Perhaps if I'd walked the hills at the start, I wouldn't have to walk them here. Perhaps if I'd done at least one long run, finished one race, had monkeys fly out of my... The race is what it is; take it at face value and forget all the "what if's."
I caught the guy in the green shirt going up Moose Mountain. He said, "That mud just sucked all the energy out of my legs." I told him all but the first few runners have to walk that hill. Then I hiked it as fast as I could, just to make a point (though whether to him or to me is debatable). I myself was passed by a couple, who I told that they looked like they were having an easy time of it (he was, at any rate, judging by the non-stop chatter).
There's a spot I was looking for on the downside of Moose Mountain, a spot where I've nearly wiped out each time I've run there. I recognized it when I got there and thought it didn't look too bad, just another slope. Then I was grabbing for a fallen tree as if my life depended on it. Mid-air pirouette, slueing around, trying to stay vertical. I had to extend my left leg fully, toes pointed and landing on tiptoe... the very manouever I could not do two days before the race and which seemed a silly complaint. I did it, but could feel a severe strain in my groin. I stopped for a second and checked that I hadn't seriously hurt myself, then continued.
I'd reached that point where my muscles were depleted. The braking on the downhills had taken a toll on my quads (or perhaps it was all that squatting). The diarrhea had been dehydrating, as was the surprise warmth of the day and the wearing of too much clothing at the start; I'd been draining my water bottle miles before aid stations. I started stumbling over rocks, once crashing through the woods on Mystery Mountain like a moose, causing a woman running the 25K about 200 yards ahead of me to turn around and look - that must've been loud!
Kami Holtz passed me on Mystery, saying she hoped to break 6 hours. I checked my watch and told her it would be close; she might have to kick at the end. Then I cursed inwardly; she's always so damned cheerful - if she ran harder, she wouldn't have that much energy at the end (my usual wrong-headed gripe at race end). I passed a number of 25K runners and tried to speed up just a little on the downhill. When I heard the roar of the Poplar River, I looked at my watch and knew I could break 6 hours if I pushed very hard.
So the last 3/4 of a mile became a race. I passed Nancy Griffiths just past the bridge and started to race for the first time. I didn't want to look at my watch to see how close it was going to be, so I just kept going faster and faster on that last gravel road downhill (according to my Garmin, the last mile was 7:55). I hit the finish in 5:56:16 (49th place overall, 12th man over 40), an hour slower than I planned in February, more than an hour faster than last year.
I feel the love
Thanks to all the people who wished me well in cyberspace and to all I met at the race, including the Fargo crew and Lindsey, who I now get to put in my blog roll and Joe Jameson, who extends the UMTR members into Michigan (and who's tearing up the 50 year-old age class!). I really felt people were behind me on this one and it made a difference.
And for one special person who reads this blog: I carried your picture on me during the race. So you were there, too.
[Best photo of me in race]
[Rachel's report, with video and elevation chart]
[Best anecdote from race: Guy dropped out after losing shoe]
[Lindsey's 25K report]