April 18, 2012: The 29 Seconds of Zumbro
The Occupy Zumbro encampment was already well established by the time I rolled into the river bottoms on Friday. Despite my leaving work early to drive down in late-afternoon, it appeared my humble abode would be relegated to the tent suburbs. As I popped my shock-corded poles into place, I looked up at the hills. Somewhere out there, diligent runners were making their way along the ridges and coulees like a parade of ants on a sugar trail. They had been going since 8 AM that morning, seeking the 100 Miler belt buckle.
I had come down to southeast MN for the Zumbro Midnight 50 Miler, so had a few hours to kill before I'd get to set off. The plan was to take a nap and wake up an hour or so before the start to gear up. Given that I suffer a bit from “broken alarm clock anxiety” before any race, the sleep was fit-full at best. So, I had to be content with applying the Chuck Norris philosophy of “the body sleeps, but not the mind”. Hey, it worked for him in the movie the Octagon when those night-stalking Ninjas attacked. (Don't you dare question the wisdom of the baddest man alive. He'll beat your...) But, I digress.
It had been nearly 6 months since Wild Duluth, and I was jonesin' for some mileage - which perhaps explained the facial tics. So, by the time the start rolled around I was pining to go. Race Director John Storkamp kept the formalities brief and on his command we all took off. As Friday turned into Saturday, we disappeared into the darkness.
Running at night on trails is a double edged sword. Even with decent lights one can only see so far down the trail. On the plus side, because you can't see the scope of what you are doing, you are undaunted by the mini-Everest the trail is currently ascending. You just put your head down and keep motoring, figuring it will end at some point - hopefully before you get a nose bleed. On the other hand, you know there is some fine scenery out there as you run the ridgeline. But there you are, running in a little Gerbil Ball of light saying, “Wow. Another head-sized chunk of limestone on the trail. Haven't seen many of those tonight.” But, there are treats to be had - like when a critter came swooping from over my shoulder and down onto the trail in front of me, skittering away into the woods. Flying squirrel. Good evening, Rocky.
Things moved along well. I began to pass the 100 milers, getting the opportunity to check in on some friends' progress. Wayne, Rick, Arika, many others - all doing well. First lap done, on to the second – during which the sun finally started coming up. And the views were indeed spectacular. Pace still felt decent. Too many gels had my stomach in a loop for a bit, so I looked to more solids. Fortunately, there were plenty of aid stations, allowing one to run from buffet to buffet. Second lap done, on to the third.
Somewhere over on the other side of the hills drama was unfolding as the 100 Miler race leaders approached the finish line. After leading a good portion of the race, Bob Gerenz suddenly found himself shoulder-to-shoulder with Matt Aro as they neared the end of the race. Still side-by-side, they entered the open field 1000 feet from the finish line. After 100 miles of racing, it would come down to a flat out sprint. In the end, Bob held off Matt... by 2 seconds.
Back on calmer parts of the trail, I had been cruising along for quite a while. After pushing what felt like a pretty solid pace, somewhere between the 40-45 mile mark I finally started feeling the miles. I muscled the last 5 or so miles in, arriving at the finish in 11 hours, 33 minutes - for 12th place overall. Can't complain. I was tired for certain, but it felt pretty reasonable overall, especially considering it was an early season race.
After my race was done I took a little nap, then went back to the finish line to watch the rest of the 100 milers come in. One by one they emerged from the woods, making their way across the field to the finish line. The clock ticked - the 34 hour hard cut-off fast drawing near. As the numbers clicked past 33 and a half hours, I and my colleagues waited. 20 minutes left. 10 minutes left. Single digits... With just a few minutes left, a runner emerged from the woods – followed shortly by a second. The crowd started yelling, spurring them on. Time was short! They could make it, but they would have to sprint! And so they did.
With just over a minute left, my good friend Rick Bothwell crossed the finish line. He bent over, hands on knees to catch his breath, relieved he'd get to sign the finisher's banner today. Meanwhile, the other runner dug deep, pushing hard. And after the seemingly endless miles of hills, rain, lightning, sun, mud, sand – using up whatever energy was left - Anjanette Arnold finished her first 100 miler, with only 27 seconds to spare.
I've had my ups and downs in these long races. At some point in every one it seems, there comes a moment when I wonder, “Why the Hell do I do this to myself?” Then, I remember... It's about running alone silently at 2 AM. It's about the comedy of sliding down a muddy hillside on your... It's about seeing a friend get hugs from her kids at the finish line. It's about the Beastie Boys cranking on the radio at an aid station. It's about flying squirrels. It's about cheering for friends and racing against others. It's about seeing tears dripping over a smile. It's about PB & J on a tortilla shell. It's about falling down, and getting back up.
And it's about the fact that 27 seconds at the back is just as important as 2 seconds at the front.
January 24, 2012: Hostess, it's been real...
Well, Hostess. We've had a long history, you and I. I've written before of my devotion to you, and the integral role you have played in my running career. But, alas, I fear... this is the end.
In all honesty, we have been growing apart for some time now. What can I say? I'm a quiet, reserved sort. You seem on a path of pure self-indulgence - over the top, devil-may-care, oblivious to the image you're projecting.
Oh, I warned you that your reputation was suffering. They already called you a Twinkie when you weren't within earshot. And I told you time and again, if you kept up with your “Sponge Cake Gone Wild” lifestyle you would end up with a reputation like your old friend, the Ho-Ho. But faithful as always, I defended your honor.
What a Ding-Dong I was. Come to find out, your carelessness has even compromised your fiscal responsibility. You spend like a drunken sailor. Bankrupt, now? Really? Sno Balls chance in Hades of getting out of this one.
Well, I can't let you take me down with you. I need someone with more stability. Someone that I know will be there - faithfully filling those drop bags of life with a little bit of sweetness when I need it. So, I know this comes as a bit of a Zinger, but... Hostess, I am breaking up with you.
No, no. Don't cry. This is for the best. You need to get your act together. And I need...
Oh, stop it now, Suzi-Q. You think you can just bat your eyelashes at me, wiggle your Cup Cakes a bit and I'll just... just...
Sickness and in health, right? Get on over here, you. We've got races to run.
October 20, 2011: Wild Duluth 100K... We're all racing somebody.
Over the course of my running “career”, I've lost count of the number of times I've heard someone say something to the effect of, “Oh, I'm going to go run the String Cheese Festival 10K, but I'm just out there for fun. I'm not really racing anybody...” Well, I call shenanigans. We're all racing somebody. Even at races where I know not a soul, I arrive at the starting line and scope the competition.
Yeah, I see you over there. Those may look like support hose to most people, Granny, but I know compression socks when I see them. You mean business – but you're goin' down today...
The more enjoyable competition, however, comes against your running friends and colleagues. Hey, the guy from Iowa you tipped at the finish of Grandma's will forget all about you tomorrow, but your running buddy will remember you beating him at the Spleen Splitter 50K for a long time. Why? Because you will remind him - and when you suspect the race has faded from his memory, you will remind him again. Such is the way of it. But the end goal isn't about giving your pals s--t (well not all of it, anyway), it's about finding a reason to push harder, run faster. So, when I lace up the trail shoes and toe the line at one of these ultramarathons, I have targets in the crowd - and one of them is friend and colleague, Marcus Taintor.
Now I'll freely admit, Marcus is faster than I am, but I go after him anyway, because 1) if you're looking to run faster, it's generally more productive to chase someone in front of you, 2) I suffer from a bit of Wile E. Coyote Syndrome, and 3) Marcus is on the quiet side, keeping post-race abuse to a reasonable level. I occasionally throw a little smack talk out there, saying “Don't make a mistake, Marcus. I'm always back there, and I'm always coming.” To which he responds by calling me the Terminator, though the chuckle that usually follows makes me question his sincerity.
To be honest, though, I felt like the Terminator reputation had taken a bit of a hit lately, what with consecutive drops at the Voyageur 50 Mile (health issues) and the Wasatch 100 Mile (challenging course combined with, ironically, poor execution – a story for another day). So, I was looking to regroup at the Wild Duluth 100K – and get a bit of my mojo back.
And thus it began, as Marcus threw down the gauntlet at the start, taking off like a shot with the lead group. I recall thinking, that's a bit of an aggressive pace – I wonder when I'll see him again... as I settled in – solid and steady – at a nice pace that I planned on running for hours. Patience... patience.
The beauty of an out-and-back course is that you can take measure of your race as those in front hit the turn-around and start filing back past you. After a very comfortable 30 miles, I was heading into Jay Cooke State Park expecting to see Marcus at any moment. I emerged from Gill Creek, no Marcus. Forbay Dam, no Marcus. Oldenberg Pt. spur, ah... there was Marcus, just leaving the turn-around aid station. I was closer to him than I thought. He noted his legs felt tired as he went by. Hmmm...
It was tempting to rush through the aid station and charge back out, but I was trying to stick to my race gameplan, stopping long enough to take on good food (trying not to repeat mistakes from Wasatch) and change into a dry shirt. Back on the trail toward Grand Portage the legs felt good, and it was nice to know the miles were counting down as I headed toward home. Rolling into the next aid station, I spied Marcus again, just leaving. Considering the time I had spent at Oldenberg, I had actually made up some time. I ate a bit and headed out, knowing he was within reach.
A couple miles into the next section, I caught him. We ran together for a while (along with another gentleman named Aaron). I was feeling comfortable as we moved toward 40 miles, and was really enjoying the trip down a favorite bit of trail I have run countless times during training. When I reached Beck's Rd. Marcus was no longer with me. I headed up over Ely's Peak, trying to maintain pace.
The thing about a 100K race is that one can go through a number of peaks and valleys. Be patient, take care of yourself, and you can recover from the lows. As Marcus relayed to me later, his legs came back around somewhere up over the Ely's Peak to Magney section. Feeling rejuvenated, he upped his pace and set out in search of... me. Expecting to see me around every corner, I apparently proved elusive, spurring him onward. While I had no idea what was going on behind me, I was no fool. I knew I needed to keep steady. I tried to eat well and keep moving, making my way reasonably through Magney, down Spirit Mt., up over the Zoo, down and back up to the Getchell aid station – the Big W, as we call it.
Night had fallen at Getchell, and as I stood there eating some soup, in rolled Marcus – and then, well, out rolled Marcus. I grabbed my water and headed out into the darkness. For a fleeting moment I saw the glint of a headlamp ahead of me, before it disappeared. @#$%! He was running like he was being chased by the law. (Which reminds me, Marcus, I gave the nice officer your name... and address... and a general description of your height and build.) I may need to investigate those Stinger Waffles he was eating, I'm thinking they contain some sort of banned substance, as while he was running at A+ level, I was answering with a C at best. Despite my efforts, I didn't see Marcus again until the finish line.
So, I had chased Marcus for 30+ miles, catching him. He chased me for near the next 20, reeling me in, then driving a stake in over the last 9 with a great finishing kick – but I can live with the result. The friendly competition allowed me to take almost an hour off my PR, finishing in 15:28, for 15th place overall - and let me climb back on that horse that had eluded me over the past couple of long races.
So, admit it. We're all racing somebody, no matter where we are in the pack. It's to our benefit - and I, for one, love every mile of it. I would have liked to have held Marcus off, or held closer down the homestretch. But, hey, even Sarah Conner put the Terminator through the crusher at the end of the movie. Just keep in mind, Marcus... there were sequels.
July 9, 2011: On Baseball, and Running
As the parent of a Little League baseball player it's the type of moment that gets your heart pumping in excitement, but also ties your stomach in knots. Championship round, bottom of the last inning, bases loaded, two outs... as my son, Colter, strode purposefully toward the batter's box. He took a couple final practice swings then stepped in, set his feet, and brought the bat up into the ready position.
The pitcher began his windup, and my stomach tightened one more notch...
The boys on the bench leaned forward in anticipation, each one seemingly trying to will the hit off Colter's bat that would bring across the winning run. It's interesting, the dichotomy. Baseball is a team sport, of course, but it also has it's moments when a player has to stand out there on the island, by himself, bat in hand. But while the act is decidedly solitary, he's not really alone – his teammates are behind him, providing support. This is not dissimilar from the relationship between a runner, moving in seeming isolation through the woods, and the crew of folks that make running an ultramarathon enjoyable, and are often key to success.
You see them at every aid station - friends, colleagues, relatives, spouses – all standing there looking down the trail, as if they were anxiously awaiting the arrival of a bus. Some are working as crew, others spectating, and still others working as volunteers at the aid station itself - but all are ready and willing to offer support and encouragement as a runner, their runner, comes through on his or her way to the end goal.
Colter cocked the bat, tensing, ready to swing...
And the pacers. I mentioned in my write-up after the Sawtooth 100 Miler, that I was blessed with a fantastic set of pacers, Marcus Taintor and Tyler Behrends. In addition to moral support, they kept me eating, hydrating and relentlessly moving forward. And, hey, covering 100 miles also takes a while – being able to carry on a little conversation certainly helped keep my mind off the various parts of me that were starting to hurt, and made the time and miles pass.
It's fair to say that one initially enters a 100 miler looking for the individual accomplishment - but I can also tell you that part of the drive toward the finish line revolved around delivering for the team. These guys were behind me 100%, spending time, mental energy and considerable physical effort on my behalf. I wanted to give them a finishing story, too.
The ball left the pitcher's hand, hurtling toward home plate...
But the support network in an ultra is not always running at your side, or waiting at the next aid station. They are running as well. As we move along, we often get updates on how the rest of our colleagues are doing and pull for them – willing them along from afar. I often find myself inquiring into their status as I pass their crew or some mutual friends at an aid station. “Mile 30 and still on good pace,” I might hear. Knowing others are moving well is uplifting, motivating. Hearing that they are struggling has me pulling for them all the more, as if directing my psychic energy might provide them a bolt of energy. We're all in this together, and I want to see them at the finish line, happy and healthy.
The ball was coming in inside and tight...
Baseball players my son's age are still a little leery of live pitching; many have the tendency to jump back out of the batter's box when the pitch is tight, and often even when it isn't. Standing tall in there can be tough to teach. I had been working with Colter to hold his ground and not give up the plate, and he had gotten to be pretty steadfast.
This one was indeed too far inside...
At the last moment my son tried to get out of the way, but it was too late, and he took the pitch hard in the leg. Thwap! Even 10 year olds can throw a decent fastball, relatively speaking, and that one had stung. He paused for a moment, and I wondered how he'd react. Then he heard it – his team was cheering wildly, not so much for the fact that he had gotten hit by the pitch, but more so for what it meant. A hit batter gets first base. With the bases loaded that thumping had forced in the winning run. He raised his head - there'd be no tears today - and trotted to first. Winning a championship has a way of making the hurt go away real fast.
So, perhaps it wasn't the big, Kirk Gibson style home run to win the ball game. But, hey, no one ever said we get to write our own made-for-TV endings. In baseball and ultra-running sometimes you do hit it out of the park - and sometimes, you might take a thumping and have to grin and bear it to the finish line, or to first base - and take one... for the team.
May 26, 2011: Jottings from the Superior 50K
Inauspicious Beginnings: As I sat in the dentist chair late Friday afternoon enduring an unanticipated root canal, I couldn't help thinking, “Man, climbing the Moose Mountain staircase at mile 25 tomorrow will, no doubt, be more pleasant than this.” As I pondered this, my chatty dentist asked yet another question that would require a small dissertation to properly answer. I grunted a couple syllables around the impossible amount of dental hardware sticking out of my mouth, and let my mind drift off to the peace and quiet I would find out there on the Superior Hiking Trail...
The Clean Plate (And Shirt) Club: A few hours later, I was up at the condo a group of us were sharing up in Lutsen - where fellow blogger Shane was teaming his home-made pasta with running colleague Christi Nowak's family recipe spaghetti sauce. Given that half my mouth was still numb from Novocaine, I wasn't sure I was getting full mileage out of the meal. But what I could taste was delicious, and I didn't drool it down the front of my shirt – so, I had that going for me. Well, that and Twinkies...
Rapture Day, Still Here, Might As Well Run: And they're off... The trip up over Mystery and Moose Mountain went by remarkably fast. Familiarity helps on a stretch like this – and I've been over this section a number of times. So, there aren't many surprises. I try to mentally break it up, deal with the hills as they come, and shift back up a gear once the top of the ridge is at hand. And while sometimes the climbs can feel like the endless staircase in an M. C. Escher drawing, I know there's reward coming in some nice downhills.
Top Down, Seat Back, And Cruisin': A couple of Oreos at Oberg and off down the trail... The middle 15 miles of the Superior 50K are where one can make some hay. The trail rolls and weaves, but is very runnable. Even the climbs that are present feel like child's play after the rigors of Moose. With the generally dry conditions, it was time to put the legs on cruise control and do the running equivalent of hanging one's head out the car window like a basset hound.
We've Got To Quit Meeting Like This: I've mentioned before that I like out-and-back courses – you get to see how everyone is doing around half way through the race. As I approached Carlton Peak, I began to see folks I knew. Christi, of the famous spaghetti sauce, was running well (she would go on to take the women's title), as was fellow blogger Connie (who would take the Masters women's title). And the parade continued - my Sawtooth pacers, Tyler and Marcus, went on by. After the turn-around, Shane, then fellow blogger Sam, looking like she was enjoying herself. A short while later, Wayne (my Twinkie supplier) came along down the trail, Rick (who does not supply my Twinkies, but I'm sure he would if I asked – he's that kind of guy), and many more...
The run back through Sawbill to Oberg was fairly uneventful. I was running alone, which I had done for most of the race. While I enjoy the solitude, it can become a challenge to keep pace without another runner to use as a gauge. I'm not a clock watcher, preferring to run more by feel – and through here, it felt like I was on PR pace, as long as I kept the pace honest.
If I'm One Of The Chosen, Now Would Be A Good Time: OK, I'll just be blunt. The climb up the rocky staircase going back up Moose Mountain is a pain in the ass. I keep trying to come up with a name for that section. Stairway to Heaven? Nope. If that's the stairway, I'll go hang with the sinners and bring lots of sunscreen. I need a name, though... Something that combines climbing like a zombie, a rock-strewn goat path, and an arctangent calculation that results a ridiculously large angle. Of course, I do have some names in mind, but children might be reading this, so I'll keep them to myself.
(Wait, are zombies even capable of climbing?)
Kids These Days: Heading back over Mystery Mountain, I encountered Connie's son, Henry, running the 25K with his father. It dawned on me that I had passed him much earlier in the course last year. So, he must have been on pace to greatly improve his time. Not bad for an 11 year old. I may have to buy that boy a Nintendo - turn him into a couch potato before he starts thinking of bumping up to 50K's. It's already hard enough trying to keep up with these youngsters...
The Final Tally: 5 hours, 34 minutes – a new PR for the Superior course. Can't complain.
(Finish photo, courtesy of Lisa Messerer)
(Rock-strewn goat path reference, courtesy of Shane Olson)