"I'm cheering for Steve, more than anyone else." - John Storkamp (race director)
"I want you to finish more than I want to finish." - runner whose name I didn't catch
Where this really started: July 2011
My Achilles heels were like walking on broken glass every step. Half-way through the Afton 50K, the pain became so unbearable that I quit. I didn't want anyone to see how much pain I was in, but when I got home, I couldn't walk. I crawled into my house on my hands and knees.
My running days were over.
Five years of thrice-daily physical rehab had me thinking I could not only run thirty minutes in extreme pain, but maybe do something audacious, startling, nearly inconceivable. There was one un-checked box on my running rèsumé... the Superior 100, which had nearly killed me in 2008 when I was healthy. Beside the heel problem, there was: the dead quad problem, the heat problem, the cold problem, the chafing problem, the swelling problem, the knee problem, the GI problem, the vision problem, the back problem and the scatterbrain problem. And now I'm a decade older.
"I'm not sure training increases your odds of finishing Superior." - Matt Patten
I started running hills. Lots of hills. Up to 10000 feet of climb - first 101 times up the Stillwater Main Street stairs, then 30X the Afton Campground Hill. My best week:
T 6 miles, with 4 at marathon pace
W 15 miles with 3000 feet climb (18x Ohio Street "Snake" hill)
Th 8 miles
Sa 31 miles with 4500 feet climb (Afton 50K course)
S 20 miles
I needed to work on balance, flexibility, core strength and posture, so I took an exercise class for ballet (let's never speak of this again). I gradually built up my tolerance for my heel pain to two hours, then four. Then a disastrous first race back, the Chippewa 50K in just over 7 hours. I cut more than an hour off that by the Afton 50K and was optimistic.
Next up was the Voyageur 50 Mile, a good test, 11-12 hours of suffering. My heels hurt from the first step and after the powerlines, it was like 2011 at Afton all over again. Then, sliding in the mud, I grabbed a tree for support, which snapped and fell on me. I dropped at 19 miles. Something had to change.
To finish Superior, I had to be a different man, internally as well as externally. I have a nearly infinite capacity for suffering, which is good for 1500 meters, because, when self-preservation kicks in, it's the one who's willing to lose most who wins, the one who has nothing left to lose - no family, no career - whose blacking out from anoxia at the finish line is a reward. It's not healthy, but it's what I know.
"I don't enjoy the races and I don't enjoy them for a long time." - me, 2010.
People talk about how painful trail 100 milers can be, especially if they go wrong, but it's different. The mantra is "stay as comfortable as possible as long as possible." Entrants talk about it being an all-night buffet and hanging out in the woods with friends. For a former balls-to-the-wall competitor, this is a challenge of its own.
And damn if they aren't a cheerful bunch of lunatics! Ed Sandor (Sr.) told me to smile so often it seemed like a prank of some sort. Then Joel Button told me to smile. I may smile rarely, but it's genuine. But I get it: optimism is important, as is enjoying the pleasures of the moment between the rough patches.
|Ian Corless photo.|
I'd packed my drop bags and was headed to the pre-race meeting when it seemed cold, so I took my famous blue raincoat out of one bag to wear. At the meeting, I didn't see some people I expected, like Allan Holtz and Jason Husveth, but I said hi to a lot of people who were happy to see me. We were told that there's be a river crossing because a bridge was out, but the real problem was a new beaver dam creating a deep water passage. "It's pretty typical for a wet year." - John Storkamp. It was too loud and crowded for me, so I left early.
My reservation had been lost, so I was spending the night in my car. I never really slept, which is typical before races. At 3 AM, I was freezing (it was 40 degrees) and needed a toilet, so I drove to the wayside rest between Lutsen and Grand Marais. I decided to do all my pre-race stuff then, rather than in the morning and hoped to get some rest.
I shared the bus ride to the start with Matt Lutz and we had the usual pre-race banter - well, usual for me, anyway. (paraphrasing) "Half your age plus seven?" "Just under." I was surprised to find at the start that I had to fill my hydration bladder at the one drinking fountain and I spent a lot of time waiting in line for a restroom, which is expected.
I can't find my laminated split chart, which is worrisome.
Gooseberry falls to Split Rock
The gun goes off and I start both my GPS watch and regular stopwatch, with a 30 minute repeat alarm to remind me to take in calories. I was planning to keep my effort under control by heart rate monitor, but it had been balky and wasn't working, so I just planned to stay relaxed and hike all the hills comfortably. The first miles are on paved trail, which gives everyone space and is a nice warm-up. When we hit trail, it's immediately muddy and people are trying to keep their shoes as dry as possible, which will later seem pointless. The initial river crossing is uneventful and cut about 0.7 miles off the course, so I wasn't surprised to come into the first aid station early, but I was well ahead of where I expected to be. I was stung by a bee one hour into the race in my armpit, which seemed a bad place and an hour after that under my vest, where it rubbed with every step. I left the station at 2:00 (planned 2:15-2:20)
Split Rock to Beaver Bay
This is generally one of the less-remarkable sections, but it had the new beaver dam. The water was thigh deep, with small submerged boulders and roots to navigate. Stepping over one rock, I went into a hole with water up to my crotch and had to work to keep my balance. Coming out of the water, race legend Susan Donnelly stopped to snap some photos. My heels suddenly hurt - that was my real concern. Fortunately, the problem self-corrected rather quickly and I was still on time. 4:36 (planned 4:28-4:37)
|Marcus Taintor photo|
Beaver Bay to Silver Bay
I stopped four times to removes rocks and twigs from my shoes. I should've worn gaiters, though the caked mud and swelling later served that end. Each stop cost a few minutes and I'd be with different people. I was spending no time in aid stations, so I was leap-frogging with a lot of people. When Susan passed me again, I thought that I might be being too hasty at the stations. Then I had an empty hydration bladder and I knew I had been. Finished at 5:50 (planned 5:46-6:01)
Silver Bay to Tettegouche
This is one of the tougher sections, with climbs to the Bean and Bear Lakes lookout and to Mt. Trudee, but I was feeling good. I hadn't peed in a long time, and when I did it was dark, so I made sure to drink as much as possible. Soon I was peeing almost clear and too frequently, making me wish I'd salt caplets on me to restore electrolyte balance. I was moving well and having fun (yes, you read that right). The infamous "Drainpipe" was child's play compared to 2008. Arrived 9:01 (planned 8:35-9:05), which was the last split I could remember from my plan.
|Photos by Zach Pierce|
This was already my longest run since 2010 and I was only one-third done.
Tettegouche to Co. Rd 6
I had a bad patch in this section, where my brain went fuzzy and my fingers swelled. A little extra food helped, but flavor fatigue had set in (and Raspberry Hammer Gel tastes like burnt motor oil - still better than their banana, though). Being the heat of the day (maybe 65-70 degrees), it was good to be out of the open. The sun went down and I pulled out a headlamp.
"Two lights is one light. One light is no light." - ultrarunning adage.
Headlamps have improved dramatically since I last ran 100 miles. I had a 300 lumen lamp and decided to switch out my old back-up with another, which I'd just put in the batteries it came with. The batteries were old... a rookie mistake. I figured I'd use the bad lamp until the next aid station, where I'd switch headlamps and see if I could switch out the batteries on the bad one in case I needed it.
I was going too slowly here. I'd hiked through the night at both Kettle and Zumbro, so I figured I'd do it again. I needed to run where I could, or at least hike faster, as I was getting caught by a stream of runners. Eventually, the faint light caused me to feel I was going much too slowly and I switched out early; I got help from another runner, maybe Steve Sjolund, who'd looked iffy when I saw him 25 miles earlier. This had me wondering just how slowly I was going. I pulled into the station at 12:29, behind my scheduled 11:25-12:15, but I did not know this, not having my splits, nor crew.
John Horns, Part 1
John made me his pet project at the aid station. I've known him since we had classes together more than 30 years earlier and he's won this particular race - after age 50! - so it made sense to listen to him as he questioned me about hydration and food intake. I'd finished both Zumbro and Kettle 100's on just liquids, as my body seems to say "blood for muscles or blood for intestines, not both" and it just sluices through me. That's not possible at Superior, as the electrolyte drink they have is HEED, which contains xylitol, which is a laxative for some people - such as me. It had taken me two years to tolerate gels. Now I was about to find out whether, if I went slowly enough, solid food would be tolerated. John had calculated that the gels I was taking was the absolute minimum, but he also had exerted 50% more calories per hour in breaking 24 hours, so I wasn't so sure.
More pressing was that I didn't have a drop bag here, the temperature was plummeting (it got down to about 40 degrees) and I was underdressed. I was wrapped in a mylar blanket and had a rain poncho in my pack, which I figured could get me to my famous blue raincoat at Finland.
Remember the pre-race meeting? I took the jacket out of the drop bag. It was sitting in my car. I had some shirts at Finland, but not what I needed. I'd have to make do.
Co Rd 6 to Finland
Only meters onto the course, I was asked about my clothing choices.
2017: the Year of Wendi
Though we had a bunch of running friends in common, I first introduced myself to Wendi on a training run at Afton. We ended up running the Powerlines at Voyageur together while I pretended my heels weren't killing me and before everything fell apart for me. UltraSignup had predicted we'd finish together here in 36 1/2 hours.
Wendi said that she had an extra nylon shell back at the aid station and was willing to go back . She dug it out and John Horns helped me take off my pack, put on the shell and then put the pack back on. Then he made sure I had food in my pockets.
Jason Mullenbach is a great dad
I spent much of this section with Jason, who I'd run with a bit earlier. I had done all of my training runs alone - not by choice - and wanted the quiet of a night on my own in the woods, but we talked a bit about how I knew his hometown of Owatonna. There was a lull in the conversation and, though I wanted quiet, I could tell he wanted the distraction of talking, so I asked about his kids.
He mentioned his three boys from youngest to oldest, which seemed odd until he mentioned his 17 year-old, who has Down Syndrome. He'd been an advocate for his son and mainstreaming him in school despite some deficits, learning the bureaucracy and jargon and helping him pursue his dreams, sometimes at a heavy cost.
My own father didn't talk to me until I was 14, though we lived together; still, his own father was much worse. Over the years, I'd told myself that it was probably just as well that I never had kids, as I had no example for fatherhood. Then I had to take care of my mother when she had Alzheimer's and one goes through all the same steps, but in reverse order, ending with diapers and spoon-feeding and never getting sleep. I'd actually have made a pretty good dad, but not as provider, as my father had seen his role. Too late now - though I'm about the same age my father was when I was born. And I've taken an interest in a younger woman who seems a bit "broody" and whose "clock is ticking."
It was the time of the night when people hallucinate. Birch bark looks like discarded paper. One group of leaves looked like a box of mints. I saw grouse and amphibians, but nothing unreal.
Instead, I was thinking of a woman. She has broad shoulders for a girl and I have narrow shoulders for a guy. She has a strong chin and I have a weak one. Is that really what interests me - compensating flaws? I remembered a photo of her taken in innocence that left very little to the imagination, a pose that would be unflattering to anyone else, but... I really need to think about the race.
Finland to Sonju
John Horns, Part 2
John got my drop bag (an ice cream bucket) and helped me off with my pack and shell, put on a long-sleeved shirt which is always tight, but especially hard to put on over puffy hands - and John insisted on turning the shirt right-side out - then putting the shell and pack back on. I had him look for replacement batteries for my headlamp (in case I hit sundown #2), since they were in aid station supplies the times I ran an aid station and it took forever - I shouldn't have bothered. I had spare socks and used a pair as mittens. I ate two quesadillas and put another 4 in my pockets for later. I was also wearing a buff for headgear (I think this was since Co Rd 6 - it was in my pack). John filled my pockets with gels and I was off.
I'd packed several flavors of caffeinated gels in that drop bag and was looking forward to the buzz and the change in flavors. Unfortunately, John had given me the same ones the race handed out at every station. This is one more reason crew would've helped.
The trail to Sonju was largely unremarkable until the end. I'd expected that, with all the rain the previous week, the long beaver dam crossing would be under water like it was when I volunteered in 2006. It was fine. Toward the end of this section, before the real cedar root maze begins, there's a fairly steep decline of small boulders; I'd been down it twice before and slipped both times. I slipped this time too, banging my butt and the heels of my hands, but I can't call a 4" drop a "fall." The tree roots were just as tough as I remembered, but not hard to navigate. One could hear Maria Barton's aid station more than a mile away. She had it decorated in over-the-top fashion, most of which the darkness hid.
Kathy Jambor filled my water and gave me two mini hamburgers. I could've eaten 6 more, but thought better of it. I briefly warmed my hands at the bonfire, where several runners were seated and looked like death; I'd been there, having dropped here in 2008, but pressed on, making this my best run here.
Sonju to Crosby
This is the shortest section of the course and isn't bad, except for the roots (which is like saying Everest isn't bad except for the elevation). The last mile or so is very runnable, some even on a gravel road, but I was not running. The tops of my feet were very sore, perhaps from the constant pull of mud.
Then the sun came up. "Oh hell - I'm done." That everyone has to do Crosby in the dark is the one equalizer of the course, so I must've slowed far more than I thought (which was true) and would time out at Matt Patten's aid station (which was not true). Could they have eased the closing times of the stations that much? Still, the 38 hour cut-off at the end is firm.
I arrived at 22:50, three to four hours behind schedule, but still oblivious to the fact that I needed to make up time. I used the toilet (I handled solid food well!) and heard that Jason Husveth was doing well - where did he pass me, if he had? I remember his wife Amy's 1000 watt smile sometime in the daylight, so it must've been early. He always comes on strong at the end, so I'd been looking for him, but I must be way behind him by now.
That left Allan Holtz, who always pushes the time limits at the aid stations, but is relentless in hitting them. I told Matt and his son (#3, who I think is already taller than his dad!) that Al wouldn't pass me, "Because I will kill him." Everyone laughed at the dark humor; this was said as a coldblooded statement of homicidal intent, not hyperbole. Maybe you had to be there. The truth was, if Al passed me and wasn't having a spectacular day, I wasn't going to make cut-offs.
"Here comes Al!" Shit. I grabbed my gear and tried to make time.
Crosby to Sugarloaf
This is the longest section and, by every account, the hardest. There's an immediate steep descent to the river gorge, broken into two with a rise in between. It's treacherous, but I got to do it in daylight. The first 50 milers passed me here (I didn't recognize Jake Hegge as he went by, but I was staring at my footing). The other side of the bridge is a rise so steep it has to be done without a pause and one may use one's hands at points. It wasn't all that bad, except I got stung by another bee. Otherwise, I was feeling good! Now 50 milers were passing continuously. The rest of the section isn't technical - there was a lot of mud, still - it just never ended. I started leap-frogging with two 100 milers, including a woman who was making very good time with her pacer and trekking poles (poles may be worth investment), who I passed only when she needed a pit stop. There was a guy whose pacer was obviously just trying to get him to the next aid station to drop - I was doing great, compared to some. [I think I was unintentionally rude to that last guy; I'm sorry.] The section was endless. Distances telescoped. I finally arrived at Sugarloaf at 27:43.
At the Sugarloaf station, I stripped off clothes and stuck them in my pack. The young girl who refilled my water broke the hydration bladder - the hole was near the top, so I could still carry plenty of fluid. As it was, I sucked it down to a reasonable weight - I needed the fluid then anyway. I asked what the cut-off was at the next aid station. "1:45," I was told. It was 11:45. I can't do the math; 120 minutes, 5.4 miles, that's what, 22 minutes per mile? Is that right? If it was, I was fine, I just needed to run the downhills and what little flat sections there were.
Sugarloaf to Cramer
I hear from behind me "You were hard to catch!" It was Al. "You're the only one who's thought that," I replied, thinking of the 100 plus who'd passed. I told him I couldn't do the math for the cut-offs. "30 miles, 9 1/2 hours, we have to do 19 minute miles." 19! I have to speed up several minutes per mile AND do it while going up Carlton and Moose Mountains?! I complain a bit about how the cut-offs get harder as you go, rather than easier or staying the same. Al says he's not sure he can make the next cut-off. "Gotta try," I say. I decide to go into marathon mode; I've done marathons without water on much hotter days and in a third of the time we have.
I leave Al and catch the girl who was fast-hiking the last section. It turns out she had been doing then what I was doing now (and should've been doing then) and she'd given up hope of making the next cut-off. I sped way up. I caught Lisa Messerer on an uphill - she really should be a larger part of this narrative, as we'd leapfrogged - and I knew that she had finished this race before, so I was probably still in it. I sped WAY up again. There was a mudhole in which I remember splashing mud up to my eyes. There's a downhill I think is worse than the Drainpipe, worse than the Crosby gorge and I lose some time on it. I'm sure the course opens onto a road where the aid station is - I've never run this bit before (though I'm having continuous deja vu) - and twice I mistake fallen birch trees for gravel road in the distance. It has to be soon. Then I see a road and hear vehicles and I really hammer. I get to the road... and no aid station. "Quarter mile to go!" a woman calls and directs me across the road, through a tunnel to a wide paved trail with nothing in either direction for at least a mile. "Which way?!" I call, seeing a flag to the right as I ask. "RIGHT" several voices call, so it must be close. I go on, to the right, another turn (and I swear by this time I've entered a different time zone), maybe yet another road, another turn, another trail with nothing on it, another turn and three quarters of a mile since I started kicking, I see the aid station. I make it with two minutes to spare. 29:58, but I've killed myself doing it.
If that section needed 22 minute miles and I barely did it, 19's were out of the question. I jettisoned everything from my pack (my drop bag here was meant to hold what I no longer needed) and I didn't even want the water topped off, to cut weight. I got less than a quarter mile when the overwhelming fatigue of having raced that last bit stopped me and I walked back to Cramer. I met Al on the way. How the f$%^ did he make the cut-off? I considered Al's dictum "never stop until they pull you off the course" and thought maybe he and I could push each other... but I was toast. I went back to Cramer and dropped. Later, it occurred to me that Cramer to Temperance is largely downhill, perhaps the easiest section; I should've probably tried.
Paul Hasse was laughing hard at my comments ("This section's longer than 5.4 miles" "There's no way in hell Al ran that just a minute slower than I did"). After stopping, my feet started to ache badly. Jim Wilson gave Lisa and me a ride back to Lutsen.
My feet had swollen so much that I had to cut my socks off. I had two small blisters and two blackened toenails that I won't lose. The swelling in my feet is still there a week later - it appears I damaged all the toe extensor tendons. The backache, made worse by the drive home, is slowly improving. There's no post-race depression.
My GPS watch shows I ran the last mile in 7:02! I went sub-6 at some points. My heart rate shot to my maximum of 180. That's why I couldn't go on.
How the eff did Al come in a minute behind me? Even if I were at the start of a minute and he was at the end of one, he had to run a 9 minute mile. I don't see it.
So.. no falls, no serious injuries, no bizarre accidents, no drama. Just a fun slow stroll in the park.
With better organization or with crew, I would've finished. I simply loafed when I should've been thinking of it as a race. I'd ignored the dictum I first heard from Al in 2007: "Run when you can, walk when you have to and when you can't walk... walk anyway." My heart rate monitor worked sporadically during the race. I figured I could average 120-122 bpm for the length of the race, but barely averaged 86, with long stretches in the 70's and 60's (and at night aid stations, 34, my resting pulse). I was way too conservative, taking "stay as comfortable as possible as long as possible" far too literally.
I was physically and mentally prepared. Though I didn't finish, I'm calling it a success. Considering where I started, "miracle" might be closer to the correct word.