October 16, 2013: Sawtooth. That was hard...
If had to choose one word, I would have described the appliance repairman as… manic. As he fought trying to remove the broken, built-in stovetop from where it was nestled in the countertop, a steady tirade poured forth like a stream of consciousness… “Bah! This bloody thing is never going to come out, what, did they glue this damn thing in, wait, there it comes, aw hell, I can’t see nothin’, @#$%!, that screw is in the way, man, I can crank on this thing, but if it breaks it’s on you, not me, @#$%, the ratzin’, fratzin’ conduit is too short, the thing’s probably fried anyway, how old is it, you might as well buy new, dammit, it’s stuck again…” On and on. At the same time his phone rang constantly, and out of the blue he would appear to yell at random (though, really into a Bluetooth earpiece), (Riiiing!) “Ignore!”… (Riiing!) “Accept!”… “No, I’m in the middle of something! Later!”… (Riiing!)… “@#$% it… Ignore!!” It was like he had iPhone Tourette’s Syndrome. I stood there watching, viewing it with bemusement, and the tint on life one has after completing a 100 miler just a couple days previous – and all I could think was, “Man, Sawtooth would have killed this guy…”
Somewhere early on in these ultra-endeavors, I learned it doesn’t pay to get too worked up about anything. So I won’t be following this gentleman’s lead anytime soon. 100 milers especially, force you to relax, assess, and pull the ultra-Swiss Army knife out of the drawer – and if the blade breaks, you just switch over to that funky little saw blade and give it a go instead. Such it was at the 2013 Sawtooth 100 - would need that tiny metaphorical saw blade, and perhaps the corkscrew, and that fold-away spoon wouldn’t hurt, either…
The trail from the start at Gooseberry Falls to Beaver Bay (20 miles) is a nice mix of runnable course, some good up and down work along the rivers, and a few sections of decent sized rocks. It’s challenging and enjoyable, rolls well and forms a good warm up for what’s to come. But early on, I was already sweating like Sarah Palin on “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” The air was thick with humidity, and it was slowly getting warmer. (Wait, what’s that deal again about the frog sitting in the pot of water?) So spunky we all were, but that would change… I usually don’t mind hot, sticky weather - but this year Duluth didn’t exactly serve up much decent heat training. (I suppose it’s partly due to the 31,000 square mile refrigerator sitting right next door.) At least I understood that breathing liquid air had the potential to be my Kryptonite, and given the Gnarly stakes, it seemed prudent to play it close to the vest – watch the hydration, stay fed, and keep the pace conservative. I was thankful for the tag-team crew of Lisa Messerer (Wild Knits) and her husband, Mr. Wild Knits, who monitored the systems like NASA engineers as I passed through each aid station.
Silver Bay marked the quarter pole and the gateway to the trip up over Bear and Bean Lakes, and Mt. Trudee. As much as the Superior Hiking Trail offers fantastic views of Lake Superior, the complimentary views to inland are equally impressive. Looking down on the blue-green of those sister lakes from high above and taking in the spectacle of the Mt. Trudee overlook is definitely worth the price of admission. But though the sightseeing was spectacular, it was still important to stay diligent. Even after having left Silver Bay for this 10 mile stretch with a brimming hydro-pack, I ran out of water - with over 2 miles yet to go to the Tettegouche AS. Apparently, I was drinking like a sailor on a three-day pass. Rightfully so, I suppose – but would have to keep a closer eye on things.
In my opinion, the 8+ mile section from Tettegouche to Co. Rd. 6 (mile 43) provides some of the toughest miles on the course. Sure, there are rougher stretches in terms of total vertical, or rocky / rooty terrain. But those stretches have the benefit of being run at night, or near the end of the race when the motivational scent of the finish line is in one’s nostrils. The alternating ascents and descents of this section can be demanding. After a plunge down to the Baptism River, one works his way upward in sawtooth fashion until the culminating climb up and over the venerable Sawmill Dome. Somewhere midway I recall passing a weary-looking gentleman who asked, “How far is it to County Road 6?” I offered up, “Oh, I think we just need to get over this ridge here, then it’s just a quick trip over Sawmill and down…” I accompanied that with a “but don’t quote me on that” and a standard set of caveats. A number of miles later, not yet even approaching Sawmill Dome, I was wondering if any of my caveats would hold up in a court of law. Suspecting not, I decided I’d better stay well ahead of my erstwhile inquisitor.
Co. Rd. 6 is the transition to night running and a good place to pause, collect oneself and refuel, which I needed and set out to do. Unfortunately, a recurring theme of my Gnarly existence reared its ugly head. I tossed down some food stuffs, my stomach rebelled, and I lost my lunch. (This cycle would continue for about the next 40 miles.) There were a few expletives, but in the end all one can do is shrug it off and keep looking at any means of getting some type of food in. The thing that was saving me in these instances was the elixir of diluted gels I consume during races (a suggestion from Wild Knits). When the solids fail and straight gels are equally unpalatable, the gel-water concoctions serve as a kind of caloric IV drip. I use the GU Just Plain (no flavoring), diluting about 2 gels to 6 oz. of water. Tastes somewhat like soy milk, pretty low-key. Sipping regularly, it goes down easily and miraculously, stays there. It has saved my race more than once.
As I departed Co. Rd. 6, night fell. I had been desperately looking forward to it - cooler temperatures, care-free running… like Dudley Moore running toward Bo Derek on the beach in the movie “10”, perhaps? Uh, well, not so much… When nightfall came, it never got cooler. It merely got dark - like someone had simply closed the door on the oven. Needless to say, that was a bit of a buzz-kill.
It was at Finland, the 50 mile mark, where I was to have my first pacer join me. Apparently, I was giving Carolyn (Gunderson) some pause, as I looked a bit bleak. Carolyn’s concerns were certainly understandable, as the combination of heat, miles, hills and stomach had me feeling pretty miserable, and I didn’t doubt I looked the part. But I’d been here before – and, frankly, you would have had to take me off at the knees to keep me from heading down the trail. Wild Knits assured Carolyn that I generally look like crap at about this point in my races, perfectly normal. (Not sure how to take that…) So, we headed off, and it was fantastically peaceful out on the SHT at night.
Interestingly, as Carolyn and I made our way through the silent woods somewhere near Sonju Lake, a voice drifted out of the night… Pitch perfect, it floated through the air – a traditional Irish tune. “Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling… From glen to glen, and down the mountain side…” to the end of the verse, smooth as silk. Don’t know who it was, runner or pacer, but I have to say, it was a striking (and curiously welcome) thing to hear.
At Crosby-Manitou, a bit past 60 miles, Carolyn handed me off to Wild Knits, who would pace me for the duration. It was reset button time – take some time, get a full clothing change, try to get some solid food in – then head off for the next 10 mile stretch, which is a long, and tough trek through Crosby-Manitou with plenty of rocks and roots, and verticals (up and down) that test tired legs. Run in the dead of night, it tends to be one of the slowest sections of the race. Up there a couple miles short of Sugarloaf my stomach issues reached their zenith. (Warning... disgusting puke story ahead.) There I stood, hands on knees, staring down at a pile of black vomit, which as you might imagine struck me as a bit unusual. “What the f—k is that?”, I croaked. Lisa inspected the mess (if that ain’t true friendship, I don’t know what is…) with the eye of a nurse, which she is - and not seeing anything overtly alarming (kind of a relative term, really), she suggested we move on ahead.
Funny how the mind starts working at that point, as it played out as kind of a “Pacers are from Venus, Runners are from Mars” scenario. My sensible pacer’s strategy? Of course… consult with the medical staff at Sugarloaf, describe the situation, get a professional opinion and act accordingly. Ahem… my thoughts as we moved toward the Sugarloaf? “Identify the medical staff… avoid them at all costs… Can’t be getting pulled because disturbing things are spewing forth from my body…” OK, maybe “Pacers are from Earth, Runners are from f—kin’ Pluto” is more like it. In the end, the medical folks felt things were OK, as long as I was alert, moving well and otherwise appeared normal. Not sure how I passed that test at mile 70, but I went with it.
The trip from Sugarloaf to Temperance was fairly uneventful. It’s an enjoyable stretch, with some nice rolling trail that eventually sidles down along the beautiful Cross River, moves back up along a ridgeline and then plunges down a crazy descent into the Temperance aid station, this year manned by the Upper Midwest Trail Runners (UMTR). Suddenly, I was surrounded by a cadre of friends and folks I knew – responding like a pit crew at Daytona. “What can I get you?” “Fill your water?” “Need anything to eat?” “Would you like a mint? They’re wafer thin…” I swear they would have jacked me up and changed my shoes with a power wrench if I had let them. So, nice to see so many familiar, energetic faces. It was tempting to stay a while and join the party. But I could feel the pull of the finish line tugging like a magnet…
The trek up over Carlton Peak was arduous and hot. A beautiful hike most days, it can be a pain in the ass at mile 85. Finally scrambling over the formidable rocks at the top, that peak marked the true start of the home stretch. Having run the trail from there to the finish line so many times, I could picture every inch. This was getting real. At the Sawbill aid station I ran into Carolyn again, and it was very nice to see her. She and her husband Jim had moved on up the trail and were volunteering at the aid station. She didn’t have a look of extreme trepidation when she saw me this time, which I took as a positive, and Jim dowsed my head with a pitcher of cold water, which felt fantastic!
I don’t have much exciting to tell about the last sections through Oberg and on toward Lutsen. There was a bit of good (food was staying down now), and some bad (painful blisters had formed on the balls of both feet). Quite frankly, Sawtooth had beaten me up a bit. It was hard to recall a decent stretch where I truly felt comfortable, the challenges originating both internal and external. But none of that mattered anymore. I had made it home…
Back in my kitchen, the repairman took a step back, we reassessed, then both went at the stove one more time, gaining some leverage, giving it a slight turn and pulling it free from the counter. That did end the delightful comic opera that had been going on in my kitchen, which was unfortunate. But, ah, a little perseverance… it tends to pay off. Sometimes it gets you 100 miles, other times it saves you $85 an hour. At that point, I was pretty satisfied with both.
August 28, 2013: The Ups and Downs of the Black Hills 100
In May of 1970, the Soviet Union began boring a hole into the Earth, ostensibly to penetrate through the Earth's crust and eventually reach the mantle beneath. It was known as the Kola Borehole, and when they finally quit drilling in 1989 they had reached a depth of 12,345 meters (about 32 Empire State Buildings) – which, interestingly enough, is only a few meters short of the descent down into the Silver City aid station at the Black Hills 100 Mile. But Cold War Era scientific projects were not on my mind as my quads took the beating down that precipitous slope. As I made my way toward the turn-around of the out-and-back course, I was instead thinking, "Man, is my pacer going to hate me for this..."
Things had begun well that morning as a spirited crew of 50-mile, 100K and 100-mile runners headed out from Sturgis, SD like a bunch of revved up Harleys (sorry, couldn't help myself), onto the Centennial Trail – known locally as the ol' 89 (its trail number). The first 5 miles to Alkali Creek aid station was a great way to open the day, as the course rolled a bit and offered up nice views across the sunny, open prairies that lay eastward. Cattle grazed off in the distance, unimpressed at the passage of a line of runners following each other dutifully like, well, a herd of cattle. All of this was just the prelude, however, as once through Alkali things would get decidedly more challenging; we'd hit the Black Hills in a more real sense – and the climbs would start in earnest.
And so it was, as the lot of us, beginning to string out, passed under I-90 and up into the Hills. After some moderate rolls we hit the Bulldog aid station 10 miles in and began a climb (the namesake of the aid station, and aptly named at that) that was long and relentless. On the plus side, what goes up must come down. The Black Hills 100 course had a certain pattern to it in that it resembled an EKG – OK, maybe with a slight arrhythmia. Quad-taxing ascents were followed by a bit of ridge running. Then, when a long, sustained shin-splinting descent occurred, it generally signaled one was heading down toward an aid station. Way down toward an aid station. Like, "Hey! You over there with the pitchfork, you got any gel packets?" down toward an aid station. Thus the miles passed, up Everest, down into Shangri La (wait, that doesn't quite fit with the previous metaphor), through aid stations at Bulldog, Elk Creek, Crooked Tree (shortly after which the 50-milers turned around and headed for home), and Dalton Lake (whereabouts the 100K folks took their leave as well). For the first 30-odd miles, the ol' 89 dished out a slow motion roller coaster ride, most all on beautiful single track. Life was good.
At Dalton Lake the track switched to a wider, multi-use / ATV trail that would cover the next 13 miles through the Nemo aid station and on into Pilot Knob. I had been largely moving on autopilot to this point, and as I moved across the ridge I started wandering, or rather my head did. It seemed I was having a bit of a Big Lebowski moment. If the soundtrack were playing, the First Edition would have drifted into a chorus of, "Just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in..." and the Dude would have been floating lazily through the air. (Big Lebowski? Anyone? Really? You kids need to get in touch with the classics.) Perhaps it was the current stretch of trail (which wasn't thrilling me, I'll admit), a long season of miles, or knowing the punch lines to all the jokes I told myself. Hard to say. But at the moment, I kind of felt... bored. Strange, I know. But it ain't always sunshine and lollipops out there.
Such things happen from time to time in a long race. Adversity keeps you busy - identifying problems, finding solutions. But what do you do when things are entirely uneventful, and you're experiencing the running equivalent of driving across North Dakota (albeit a bit hillier)? Having someone ride shotgun doesn't hurt, and at the Nemo aid station I mentioned to Lisa Messerer (aka Wild Knits, my intrepid pacer) that she may wish to be ready to start pacing at Silver City (mile 50, instead of the previously agreed mile 62) if only to keep the men in white coats from hauling me away in a stylish jacket. She agreed. (Foolish woman.) But there were still 12 miles before she could join the party. Fortunately, Brian Woods, an ultra-colleague of mine, hit Nemo about the same time I did, and we accompanied each other through much of the next section. Arriving at Pilot Knob I was back in touch with reality, buoyed by the expected return of the single track – and the fact that the mid-day sun had started to ebb.
From there it was a rolling 7 miles, punctuated by a sharp climb to the course's high point, then the long downhill into the Silver City borehole. About half-way down, I was wondering if a few Dude-like hallucinations were still in the mix, as I came across a fella who was pushing his mountain bike up the ridiculous grade. As I passed him I said good-naturedly, "Man… I hope the trip back down is worth it." He was of rather mixed opinion, being on a point-to-point ride he said he had no choice but to scale the bugger. I thought him a bit crazy for a moment, then recalled just what it was I happened to be doing that day...
Though I was tired at the turn-around, things still felt pretty reasonable overall – and with a reset of clothes and decent food, I set off for the return trip, my pacer in tow – up the climb that wasn't part of the original pacing plan. Wild Knits took the ascent up K2 in stride, so my concerns over a possible pacer-divorce were unfounded. Which is good, those things can get ugly. You have to eat at opposite ends of the aid station table... (I'm sure I'd get stuck on the end with nothing but cold potatoes.) There's the fight over who gets to keep what flavor of gels... And the custody battle over fellow training partners... (I get Marcus and Sam every other weekend and no holidays? Wait a minute?!) It's just never pretty. So, it's a good thing Wild Knits is amazingly unflappable. We moved steadily through Pilot Knob and Nemo, on toward Dalton Lake, back up onto that same mysterious ridge into the Twilight Zone... where I lost my pacer.
I turned around, looking through the darkness and pondered. Now, where did she go? Maybe I had been wrong and this was a trial separation I wasn’t informed of. A few moments passed - then, I saw a light bob around the corner a ways back. For all I knew it could have been a well-fed mountain lion, holding Lisa's flashlight in its mouth – but I assumed all was good and trooped on ahead. And she disappeared again. Peculiar. In the meantime, I had been working my way down the endless switchbacks that led to the Crooked Tree aid station. I wound down... and down... and... "@#$%! I don't remember climbing up this bastard hill on the way out!"... and down... and... "Where the @#%& is that aid station?! Hey! Maybe they moved it!" I remember thinking. As I paused to contemplate this odd development, a light came weaving back and forth down the switchbacks. Well, that solved the mystery of the missing pacer – and I took the opportunity to mention the theory of the nomadic aid station. To Wild Knits' credit, I recall her response as being very diplomatic - though translated into ultra-speak, it would have roughly come out as, "Don’t be a dumbass, they don’t move aid stations." So, off we went, continuing downward – eventually running into the elusive Crooked Tree aid station. And somewhere out there, I'm sure the First Edition was cranking up the band again. But despite my brief spate of delirium and my pacer's having sleep-run her way across a rocky ridge (multi-tasking 100-miler crewing and pacing all day leads to its own level of sleep deprivation), momentum was picking up.
Morning broke, and I was able to see the beauty of Elk Creek Canyon in all its splendor - a sight to behold as the sun rose. The Centennial Trail traced the ridge above, offering views of steep granite on the opposite side and the creek down below. Eventually, the trail wound its way to the bottom where we crossed the creek 5 times before working up and along the ridge on the opposite side. The dense, green hillsides mixed with granite and the sunlight reflecting off the cliff faces. I found it to be the most beautiful spot on the course, truly remarkable. The 17 mile trip in from Elk Creek trended downhill, allowing for what felt like a solid homestretch pace. Runners would appear up ahead and have to be reeled in, of course. And other than a few short, steep ups and downs in the last 5 miles that made the shins bark, all ended well as I entered Woodle Stadium back in Sturgis. Gnarly Bandit race #3 was in the books.
When the drilling stopped, the Kola Borehole was the deepest hole ever created by man. It was an incredible source of pride for the Soviet Union – on par with the space program. I imagine there were those that looked at the project at the time and said, "What is the point of all this?" The answers were probably many, scientific or otherwise. But I'd like to believe the engineers that took on the challenge had a little bit of the ultra-mentality to them.
"What's the point, you ask?"
"Why, to see if we can get to the other side, of course."
Indeed. See you at Sawtooth.
July 24, 2013: Kettle. That was easy...
Heading back toward the start area of the Kettle Moraine 100 mile, finishing the first out-and-back leg… The weasel lay on the trail – tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, dead as a doornail. If this had been a cartoon he would have had those little crosses over his eyes. I wondered how he ended up there, prostrate in the middle of a XC ski trail. Perhaps he forgot to look both ways early that morning when a few hundred ultra-runners came barreling off the start line like the bulls at Pamplona. Or maybe his steady diet of fatty field mice had finally caught up with him. If only he would have mixed in a salad bar every now and then. On the plus side, as tired as I was, at least I looked better than he did. OK, so perhaps looking better than a dead weasel is setting the bar pretty low. But hey, it was mile 58…
Leg 1 - The First 100K
Of the five races that make up the Gnarly Bandit Series, which forms the ultra-task list I am on this year, Kettle is often mentioned as the easy one. Which prompts a chuckle. The notion of an “easy 100 miler” is one of those entertaining oxymorons, like “military intelligence”, or “live recording”. But the race is a sneaky bastard. Winding along the Ice Age Trail through the hills and prairies of moraine country in SE Wisconsin, it tempts you… taunts you, “Oh, come on... you can go faster than that. Hey, put the hammer down… Everybody’s doing it.”
And it is tempting, right from the start at the Nordic Ski Center near La Grange, WI. Alongside you for the opening salvo of miles down a set of XC ski trails are those competing in the 100K, 100 mile relay, and 100 mile individual events. So, that guy whose pace is pulling you along at a spirited pace may not have as large an investment in the race course on this day. And if he happens to be a relay member, he’s going to be off enjoying pale ale and S’mores later on while you’re laboring out there choking down your 23rd GU gel with a chaser of tepid hydro-pack water somewhere north of midnight. One must choose his temporary pacing friends wisely.
So, I resisted temptation. The first 15 miles of a 100-miler is about settling in, really. Pick a comfortable pace, loosen up the legs, get on a drinking / eating schedule, and apply the nipple Band-Aids that were forgotten at the start. Yeah, that was as sexy as it sounds… I do it with a little Chippendales flair. Interestingly enough, it seems to make people nearby run faster - and I find it hard to catch them afterwards. Go figure.
Not much excitement early on, which is as it should be. After a quick stop at the Tamarack aid station 5 miles in to enjoy a little Danish Kringle, and a brief chat with my crew and pacing army-of-one, Lisa Messerer (Wild Knits), at Bluff aid station (mile 8), I headed off toward the Emma Carlin aid station on a trail that shifted to wooded single-track and rolled through hills, moving up and down in a rhythm that allows one to get into a very nice flow. As I neared the quarter pole of the first out-and-back leg, things were steady.
Emma Carlin aid station is the gateway to the prairie section of the course, where the trail gets pretty wide open. By summer standards, it was not particularly hot - but everything is relative. To us North Shore denizens who had just put away our parkas only a couple weeks previous, the sun began to wear even though it probably didn't even tick 80 degrees. I think the open nature of it makes it feel longer than its relatively conservative 7 miles. But all things pass, and eventually round 1 of the prairies was in the rearview mirror. I found myself on a mix of single track and ski trail that would work its way into the turn-around at Scuppernong. (I don't know what a Scuppernong is, but I could say that word all day. Scuppernong. Scuppernong! Scuuuuuuupper... nong!) I took a little time, tried to cool off a bit and take on decent food. 50K down, felt reasonably well.
After climbing back up out of Scuppernong (my next child gets that for a name, fortunately it's gender neutral) I made my way to the Highway 67 aid station, where one of the wheels flew off my wagon. I’ve determined there really should be a sign posted at ultra-marathon aid stations, warning spectators that they may see things that they may find disturbing. Uninhibited Vaseline application might fall into that category, as would the sight of a runner doubled over a fence losing his lunch on the gravel parking lot. I, unfortunately, was the latter. (Apologies to that nice group of women sitting in their lawn chairs nearby, whose chat session instantly fell to a somewhat uncomfortable silence.) The stomach had gone south (heavy sigh), a repeat of Zumbro. Nothing to do but force some food back in and make my way to the next aid station at Emma Carlin… where I offered up a repeat performance.
I’d rather not dwell on losing my lunch, really (you would probably concur), and that is the point. Nausea is not uncommon in an ultra-marathon. There are a number of triggers, but it does not have to be a race-ender. In a 100 miler, though, the calories have to keep going in regardless. I adjusted a bit, being more deliberate with my food intake - taking more time eating smaller bites, but looking to get good volume in overall. It can be frustrating because it costs time at aid stations and breaks rhythm - but I viewed it as an investment in the short term, for a larger payoff later. Keep moving forward and putting in food. The stomach will give in to your fortitude, momentum will pick back up, and eventually… you will feel better than a dead weasel. Which may not be saying much, but at least the race is still on.
Leg 2 - The Overnight
The Kettle Moraine 100 Mile offers an interesting option at the 100K mark, back at the Nordic start / finish area. A runner can, if he or she desires, end the race there and take a 100K finish. With 62+ miles on weary legs, the Siren song can be as tempting as it was for Ulysses, and many opt for it. But for a Gnarly competitor, it’s 100 miles or nothing. So instead, I hit the reset button - clothing change, fresh socks and shoes, good food, plenty to drink, lights on – and as I and pacer Wild Knits headed out for the 38 mile overnight leg, the 100K sailors lay dashed on the rocks, but the needle on my energy meter twitched, rose off the “E” and started to creep upwards.
Out past the Bluff aid station the trail splits off on a new out-and-back leg, offering another section with great flow. Here, the competitive juices kicked in. Headlights would appear up ahead, and I would reflexively pick up the pace to reel them in, then look for the next one - a little motivational game to get through the night. It felt good to be moving well, and before we knew it Lisa and I were greeted by the Christmas lights out at the Rice Lake aid station, the turn-around point. 18-odd miles to go, the home stretch.
The only drama to tell about the final miles of Kettle came right at the end, as Lisa looked over her shoulder at the last quarter mile to note two runners coming up behind. “You’re not going to let them catch you!”, she said as she prompted me to a full on sprint. We held them off… only to find out that they were actually running the 38 mile fun run, yet another Kettle event. Which prompts another chuckle, as only in ultra-running is a 38 mile event called a “fun run”. He he.
So, I titled this blog “Kettle. That was easy…”, at the suggestion of good friend and running colleague, Aaron Buffington, who thought it would be apt in comparison to the Trials of Job that was the Zumbro 100 Mile. True, all ended well - but even the supposed layups can rattle around the rim a bit before going in. So I want to make it perfectly clear the title was entirely tongue-in-cheek, lest the Running Gods read this and think I am exhibiting a little too much swagger. I don’t need them tipping my Karma meter to the negative. There’s still a lot of miles yet to cover this year, and they only get Gnarlier...
April 28, 2013: The Ruuummble in the Zuuummbro!
Announcer: Laaadies and Gennntlemen! This fight will be 6 rounds. In this corner, the challenger! Hailing from Esko, Minnesota and weighing in at one hundred and sixty eight pounds... Suuugar... Rooonnn... Hennnnnndricksonnn!
Frank: I gotta tell ya', Howard... Sugar Ron looks ready to go today. He's been putting in the time - and for good reason, the champ doesn't give up his belt buckle easily. Look, here he comes!
Announcer: And in this corner, weighing in at a solid 100 miles... The reigning champion! A local boy from Theilman, Minnesota! Zuuummmbro Biiiiiig Bottommmmms!
Howard: The champ does look poised and confident, Frank. Solid as some kind of geological formation. Bottoms is a bit of an unorthodox fighter. He'll throw anything at you. Hendrickson is certainly going to have his work cut out for him.
Frank: That he will, Howard, that he will. Look at them stare each other down at center ring. Neither one giving an inch. This is going to be a brawl. Well, here we go...
Round 1 (Ding! Ding!)
Frank: Impressive! Right out of the gate, the champ is sticking and moving. Appears to want to set the tone early. So slippery he is... He's going to be hard to get a bead on.
The Zumbro 100 Mile course is 6 laps over a 16.7 mile loop of non-stop activity. The running joke is, "Don't worry... All the hills at Zumbro are in the first 17 miles." He he. Funny stuff, that is. Five aid stations dot the landscape, four out on the loop, with the start / finish area making the fifth. While there's room for dropping into a reasonable rhythm in places, the trail's ADHD sets in at regular intervals to keep runners honest - solid climbs and quad-crunching descents, some of which are muddy slip-and-slides only an otter would love. Leading up to the race it had been cold and wet, leaving slush and snow in the mix. And just for good measure, Mother Nature dropped a little extra snow the night before the race began. It was like someone had forgotten to send her a card on her birthday (I'm looking at you, Race Director John Storkamp), and nobody was going to hear the end of it.
Howard: I'm seeing good footwork early by Sugar Ron, Frank. Seems to be able to stick and move, not getting caught on the ropes. Both fighters look to be measuring each other carefully in the early going.
Everyone feels great on the first go-around, of course - a natural reaction akin to the gates opening at the Kentucky Derby. The trick is to not let irrational enthusiasm take over. Working my way through the snow, mud, slush goulash, I could tell there was going to be a lot of extra energy expended on finding stable track with each footfall. So, I set into my pace - and decided not to chase anyone, nor worry about anyone that wished to go on by. I had one opponent today, and we were already staring each other straight in the eye.
Round 2 (Ding! Ding!)
Frank: Well, Howard, it looks like the challenger faired pretty well in round one, I'll give it to him on points, and... Whoa! It looks like Sugar Ron let his guard down for a moment early here in Round 2, and the champ stuck him with a punishing body blow!
After a couple dozen pretty smooth miles I headed out of the Aid Station 2 buffet and... lost my lunch. Which was a damn shame, that was pretty good soup. It was a bit concerning that my stomach was being flaky this early, but I needed to keep getting calories in there. At the next aid station I crammed more food in, and... created a Jackson Pollock painting in the snow once again. OK, so that's how you're going to play it, stomach? Well, calories are going in, like it or not. I stuffed my pockets with sandwiches and quesadillas, and worked them in a bit at a time as I climbed up over the venerable Ant Hill.
Howard: After being rocked early, it seems the challenger has pulled himself together for the moment. But, wait a minute, Bottoms has switched to boxing southpaw! Man, he's hard to predict.
The trail conditions seemed to change with each lap. Some places had packed down nicely under the myriad feet of runners, but other stretches were less predictable - as temperatures varied, so did the trail. I don't know that the track's fickle nature was yet daunting at this point. It more so kept my head busy, studying the trail ahead for the most logical path. But it was definitely work.
Round 3 (Ding! Ding!)
Frank: I'll give that last one to the champ, but both of these fighters look pretty tired, Howard. I think all of those body blows are adding up.
Howard: They've been going toe-to-toe for quite a while now. I think both of them realize this one may go to a decision, and this is where we find out just who has the mental and physical fortitude to go the distance.
Well into lap 3 night has fallen, and darkness fences you into a radius defined by the power of your headlamp. The warmth of running alternates with cold and damp on slower sections. After nearly 50 laborious miles, the legs are feeling every snow-encrusted toe-hold used to climb each ascent - and it dawns on you that you aren't even half way home. Doubts float like specters around the periphery, and you look for motivation to keep you pressing forward.
I drifted back to a couple nights previous, when a good collection of running colleagues had come out for the weekly group run to wish me, and good friend Sam Carlson, the best of luck. (Sam was heading off to run Boston.) I've always said that a train wreck of a finishing story beats a DNF story any day, unless of course the DNF was caused by either the Swedish Bikini Team, or a fight with a bear - in which case go ahead and spin the yarn. But no such wildness had arisen as of yet, so I wanted to bring back a finishing tale that would make those folks smile.
And as I looked for light moments on a dark hillside high above the Zumbro River, I also thought about the late Eugene Curnow, who passed away in late March. Northland running legend, finisher of 200 races of marathon length or longer, including 10 Superior / Sawtooth 100 milers, race director, tireless volunteer, and friend. Irrepressible is the word that I use to describe him. If he were there, he would have cheerily dropped his trademark phrase in that slight rasp of his, "You look fantastic!" Thanks, Gene. No complaints here. Let's get on to the end of lap 3, so I can start counting down...
Round 4 (Ding! Ding!)
Frank: I gotta say, Sugar Ron has shown some resilience, but he's certainly been through the wringer.
Howard: Yeah, but he's got one of the best corner men in the business in Lisa "Wild Knits" Messerer. Definitely a no nonsense type, she'll keep him upright.
Lisa dropped in to pace me at mile 50. Having someone to talk to was certainly a nice change of pace, and I was able to hand the timing duties for eating intervals off to her. My stomach and I had reached a level of détente back on lap 2. But on lap 4 it started pounding its shoe on the podium like Khrushchev. I'm certain the folks at Aid Station 2 were getting a little tired of me fertilizing the ground around them. It was frustrating, but on the plus side, the stomach issues were more irritating than debilitating. They didn't seem to affect pace much.
When the soup failed me - or rather, I failed the soup, ‘cuz again, that was pretty good soup - Wild Knits pointed me toward ginger wafers and Jello. I guess one of the advantages of cold weather 100 milers is that Jello Jigglers will maintain their beautiful cubic consistency indefinitely, even when sitting out on a table all day. Though it did dawn on me that I may need to evaluate my stomach management options for the late June heat out at the Black Hills 100, as puddles of Jello are far less practical, and likely not on the menu.
Round 5 (Ding! Ding!)
Frank: Hendrickson appears to be in good shape here. Doesn't seem intimidated by Bottoms. I think he feels this one is in reach.
Howard: You bet, Frank. He's trading punch-for-punch with the champ, who's lookin' a bit like Apollo Creed out there, wondering who this paluka thinks he is.
The course changed once again on lap 5 as the late night / early morning cold froze the ground on many downhills, making them a bit more treacherous than previous. Here, some of the deeper snow became useful as it allowed one to step out of the compacted, ice glaze of the more well-traveled path and stay upright.
After a steady diet of Jello, fruit, ginger and other assorted items, things had come back around and I was having an easier time with food once again, even looking forward to it. I was encountering 50 milers at this point, most passing me, but a few that I actually passed here (and later on) - though I resisted the urge to say, "Don't worry, it'll get better the fourth or fifth time around." I would have deserved any pop upside the head I received had I done so. It struck me that everyone was just out there battlin', no matter the distance, no matter the speed. It reminded me of the saying, "Run what you can, hike what you can't, crawl if you have to..."
Round 6 (Ding! Ding!)
Howard: Well, Frank, I'd say the challenger is ahead on points here. He's well on his way to... Wait a minute! Sugar Ron is down! He's on the canvas!
Frank: Hold it, Howard. That looked like a slip to me. Yup, he's getting back up quickly.
Feeling confident, I headed out of the start area for lap 6, and started on a farewell tour of the course. Less than a mile in I hit a patch of ice and did a classic cartoon, man steps on a banana peel, both feet in the air, flop on my back. Fortunately, my fall was cushioned by my hydropack. Unfortunately, hydropacks aren't meant to absorb 160-odd pounds of force coming in for a landing, and the clip that keeps the bladder closed broke, pouring water down my back. @#$%! On the plus side, the kind folks at Aid Station 1 had the most versatile tool known to man... duct tape. After going MacGyver on my pack for a few minutes, I had it reasonably repaired and holding water once again.
I felt like I was moving reasonably well. Everything was in relative order, any aches and pains were pretty standard, "Hey, whaddya want? You've been going at this for 25 hours..." type of stuff, and that final trip around the course went by remarkably quickly. As I headed down the road from Aid Station 4 toward the finish line, a sense of elation began to seep in. I could taste it...
Frank: Look at that, Howard! Sugar Ron has something left! Where is it coming from? The crowd is on its feet. Look at that footwork! He has Bottoms on the ropes!
Howard: Down goes Zumbro! Down goes Zumbro! Down goes Zumbro!
Sprinting across that finish line (hey, it felt like sprinting to me) was fantastic. That Zumbro 100 Mile finisher belt buckle was a precious one, hard earned - and its heft felt good in my hand. As an added bonus, I managed to capture 1st place Masters, which was a bit of a surprise; and more a product of stubborness than speed. But in a game of attrition such as Zumbro 2013 - the course and weather had beaten the field down to a 31% finishing rate - you have to leverage all the tools you have in the box... and be able to take a punch or two.
December 1, 2012: How You Like Them Apples?
So there we stood, my son Colter and I, at a crossroads. And by that I mean quite literally, the trail branching off in two different directions. To the right, the race course for the NMTC Hartley run – the pink ribbons begging one further into the woods and across a marsh area before taking a sweeping loop to the finish line. To the left, a trail that led directly back to the nature center from which the race started.
I could tell he was good and tired, having already covered over 3 miles of trail that bent up and down and twisted around like it had been laid out by a drunken sailor. His 11-year-old legs were feeling it. It was his call, I told him – and either answer was perfectly acceptable - right or left? Then I stood silently as he pondered his options...
Frankly, this dilemma was not part of the original plan. Clear skies and coolish temperatures that morning promised a beautiful day to be out and about, and the final NMTC trail race of the year was on the calendar, with a pot-luck dinner to follow. A quick glance at the race web site earlier in the week had indicated 5K was on the docket. 5K? Pretty short... perhaps a nice day to take my son, and have him join me for a jaunt through the woods.
When I broached the subject with Colter, his ears perked up at the mention of those golden words, “pot luck dinner”. Even at his young age, he's caught on to the fact that such dinners are comprised of approximately 60% desserts. He had to earn his eats though, I told him, which entailed running the trail race. His quick bit of mental math determined 5K for copious brownies was a fair trade – and he was in.
So, it was a bit of a surprise when we arrived at Hartley Nature Center and learned the race had been upped to a 10K. Colter's face registered instant trepidation. The comfort zone had been breached... Now, Colter is not a runner in a sense that includes training, running regular races, and the like. It's just not a big blip on his radar at the moment. That being said, he's not a couch potato either. He plays basketball, baseball, downhill ski races – we get out and about. We figured he could work his way through 5K, but 6+ miles of trail work? Hmmm. Not wanting this to come off like the ol' bait-and-switch, I told him simply, let's just go run – get about 5K in as we previously agreed and make a call at that point. That seemed reasonable to him. So when the crowd burst from the starting line, off we went.
Obviously I'm not entirely objective, but I was impressed with the fashion in which he knocked out the trail, at times I even had to tell him to relax a bit and save some gas in the tank. He was steady, relentless. But trail running is what it is, and as he ticked past 3 rolling, twisting miles on untrained legs the whole “over the river and through the woods” thing was taking its toll. Until, finally, we arrived at the crossroads. He was tired, and said as much. But there was something else there...
Colter stood for some moments, and I could see the gears turning. Left, pain over. Right, more hills, rocks and roots, dog-tiring - but an official finish. Then... I saw The Look. That look I've seen on ultra-running colleagues deep in races. It's the “Let's just finish this [bleeping] thing!” look. (No, he didn't say it – but if he had I wouldn't have made him put a quarter in the swear jar. Though I might have asked him not to tell his mom.) He turned and headed off following the pink ribbons. A few grind-it-out miles later as we neared the finish, I asked him if he had anything left – and he answered by sprinting in, finishing his first 10K like an Olympic medal was to be had. I'm not sure which of us was beaming more broadly as we crossed the line.
It was a Proud Papa moment for certain. But though it was golden, I still have no idea if running will become a beloved pastime to my son as it has for me. They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. True in some cases, I suppose. But for all I know this apple may hit the ground, roll down an embankment and end up in the field next door. That's OK, he's young – and as we mature we're all entitled to map our own paths. I figure my job at this point is to keep filling his toolbox with experiences, lead by example and give him opportunities to accomplish things that initially seem out of reach. I won't dictate his map, but that doesn't preclude me from lending him a compass.
And who knows? Maybe someday he'll be looking for an outlet, he'll reach into that toolbox - and it will ultimately lead him to crossing the finish line of his first ultramarathon. Perhaps he'll catch his breath, pause and quietly say, “Thanks, Dad.” With any luck the gentleman that finishes right behind him will respond, “No thanks necessary, son. We're even.” When it comes to inspiration, we always have been.