October 5, 2010: A Traverse By Any Other Name
Back in my college days, a good friend of mine worked in a video store – meaning we had a virtually endless supply of free movies. This was fortunate, as my roommates and I at the time had a penchant for bad horror flicks. Not the all out slash-fests that are all the rage these days. No, we were after the schlock; the B-movies, like Motel Hell and Return of the Living Dead, that were more comedy than horror whether that was the intention or not. In 1985, one of my all-time favorites came out, a compelling story of a well-intentioned (?) med student that develops a serum for bringing the dead back to life. Hmmm. Interesting tale, that one…
As far as I was concerned Saturday was going to be a perfect day for the Grand Traverse. The Grand Traverse, for those not familiar, is a supported, non-competitive trail run or trek along the Superior Hiking Trail offering a variety of starting points. I had used this event last year as my final long training run before Wild Duluth, opting for the full 27.4 mile distance. This year I had elected to do the same and was looking forward to joining a number of close friends who had also signed on. So, as we stepped off the bus in Jay Cooke State Park into the cool, crisp air and turned on our headlamps, I thought I was ready to go. Except…
Sometimes I operate in a world of willful self-delusion. This is not a bad trait much of the time. It's what allows me to believe that wrinkle-free shirts actually exist, and that someday I'll get to see the Gophers play in the Rose Bowl. However, when it comes to recovering from illness, it can be an impediment. You see, Thursday I had come down with a stomach ailment - a GI churning, food rejecting, appetite killing condition that I had combated by, well, not eating. Over the next day and a half things seemed to settle. Friday evening I decided that given I had a long run in the morning, I should probably coax down a little bit of pasta. Success, says I. Everything stayed put, minimal McGurgle. I must be on the road to recovery.
But a couple miles in, I was already in trouble - and my Grand Traverse had quickly dropped to merely a Fair Traverse. The non-stop jostling had my stomach churning and it began to knot. By Beck’s Rd. I could barely run. I watched forlorn as runner after runner passed me and moved on ahead - Marcus, Randy, Lisa, Shaun, Ethan, all happily trotting along and disappearing off into the forest. I decided I would walk the next section and see if things might calm down. Shelly came up from behind and dropped pace to join me for the trek, happily chatting away and doing her darndest to keep my spirits up. But when we finally hit Magney I had hit an impasse - even walking had me in stitches. Feeling like I was about to replay the scene from the movie Alien where the creature pops out the stomach of the astronaut, I sent Shelly on down the road without me.
Exasperated, I called for a ride home. My Extremely Poor Traverse was about to end. [Warning! Graphic detail ahead! Now would be a good time to set down that sandwich.] Before my ride even arrived, however, my stomach took matters into its own hands. Uh oh, I said - and scrambled out of the car of the aid station volunteer…
Funny, I thought…
I don’t recall…
Eating that much this morning…
A short while later, safely at home, I laid in bed listening to the residual “oy-oy-oy-oy-oy-oy. gurgle, gurgle.” of my stomach - thinking, “I bet those guys are heading up the 131 steps over on Spirit Mt. right now”, as I fell asleep. Two hours later I woke up. My stomach, having unequivocally cleared itself of all solids, seemed to have settled into a state of détente. It wasn’t perfect, but it was quiet. But I was feeling a bit fidgety, there was unfinished business. I looked out at the beautiful fall day, sunny and colorful, and considered the clock - noon - plenty of time, I figured. So I did what any sensible human being would do. I traded my pajamas for running shorts, and asked my wife to take me back to Magney. It was time to “pull a Holak“.
|The backstory… Duluth’s own Andy Holak had taken off like a shot at the Sawtooth 100 - and was running amongst the race leaders - when stomach problems took him down for the count shortly past mile 70. Plenty of runners, especially seeing an elite level finish slip away, simply call it a day at that point. Andy went to bed, slept off the discomfort, then got up and put his shoes back on - to finish the 100 miler. If Andy could pull that off - Hell, I could certainly finish my (Yet To Be Determined) Traverse.|
|It's... IT'S ALIVE!!|
Back from the dead, I stepped out of the car at Magney. I leaned back in and looked at my wife. “What can I say?” I said, “It's just a thing… I've never quit an event.” She responded with a look that said, “I understand. But I still think you’re just a little bit nuts.” Fair enough. And off I went, running quietly down the trail. Not fast, mind you, but running - which really felt quite Grand indeed.
A number of hours later, I joined a host of friends at the recognition gathering; watching them each collect the carved stone that is given to the 27.4 mile finishers. And collected one of my own.
September 14, 2010: 100 Miles of Sawtooth
It's been a while since I've written, I know. You see, I've been a little busy. About 4 weeks ago I finally gave in to the little voice inside my head. Now, I know what you're thinking... “Just which voice was that, Ron?” True enough, there are many. This one was that persistent nudge I had been hearing for almost a year, since I started running these longer trail events.
Like some poor soul in a suspense thriller, I would hear it whisper quietly in my ear. “100 miles,” it said. I could spin around looking for the source, but I knew all I would see was a swirl of mist and darkness. But later on... “100 miles.” There it was again. Mysterious. Damn, what was it trying to tell me? “Go run 100 miles, you freakin' moron! I mean, Earth to Ron, you know you want it!” Sometimes the little voices in my head can be a bit rude, apparently. But I couldn't really argue. So, there I was last Friday, standing at the starting line of the Sawtooth 100.
On the plus side, the weather at the outset of the race was a bit more pleasant than last year – cool and in the 50's. Oh, the Weather Gods' sense of humor would show up later, but life was good when the gun went off.
Gooseberry to Beaver Bay (0 to 20 mi): I had a ton of nervous energy as we headed down the Superior Hiking Trail out of Gooseberry State Park. I had already been up for 3 hours, pumped and ready; and my body was like a little kid strung out on Fruit Loops and Orange Crush saying, “Can I run now? Can I go? Wanna go fast? Can I run? Can I run?!” It seemed prudent to find a group to run with that was moving steadily, but moderately conservative – just to keep things in check. I fell in behind a gentleman that I had just met that morning. Brad seemed a sensible sort (he'd been here before), and I liked his pace. So, off we went – a pretty good train of us in fact, heading north. As our group snaked off into the woods, looking 100 miles square in the eye, a song entered my head. Aretha Franklin. Chain of Fools. Seemed fitting.
Those first 20 miles went along pretty smoothly. But as I told Marcus when I reached Beaver Bay, running the first 20 in a race like this is like falling off of a building. The ride is exhilarating – it’s what comes after that causes all the problems. So, I wasn’t going to get cocky.
Beaver Bay to Cty Rd 6 (20 to 40 mi): The short section from Beaver Bay to Silver Bay definitely shows the sense of humor of the SHT trail designers. In barely 5 miles, the trail switches back and forth, around and up and down over every hump and hillock available; trying to wring every foot of elevation change it can out of the limited topography. I swear, if there was a bump caused by a buried culvert, the trail twisted around to hit it. It struck me as funny.
I was really looking forward to the section from Silver Bay to Tettegouche. My family and I had just done some backpack camping up over that trail in early August – it was fun to retrace the steps. Here's where my son ate blueberries until he nearly burst. There's where we camped, and he somehow managed to consume an equal amount of raspberries. Then, up over Mt. Trudee, where we all took in the fantastic view. Like an instant replay, it was.
But I’ll admit, not everything was wine and roses. As I moved up over the hilly section from Tettegouche to Cty Rd 6, my legs were starting to feel the 35 miles already underfoot. Some fatigue and hamstring / inner thigh tightness was making its presence known as I climbed the rocks up Sawmill Dome and its nearby cousins. I was also breathing a bit poorly at the time, and feeling generally a bit off. It was here that I had a brief moment of doubt. “Christ, you're only 30-odd miles into this thing,” I thought. “What if you can't...”
I had let my head go for a moment – and it was off poking in places it had no business being in. Look, we're only human. Sometimes the reality of what we're trying to accomplish can ring in with more clarity than we might wish for at the given moment. So, I had a choice. Let my head keep wandering off down that path; extrapolating, making assumptions – or tell myself to just shut the @#$% up and run. I chose the latter, determined that I wouldn't let things slip again.
Cty Rd 6 to Crosby-Manitou (40 to 60 mi): The brief mental battle behind me, I headed off down the trail toward the half-way point. After a couple of good hills, the trail laid out nice. I could stretch out and run comfortably. Darkness set in, the headlamp went on and I ran a rather uneventful section, finally reaching Finland where I would pick up my first pacer.
I'm going to stop right here and tell you that I was blessed with the services of two fantastic pacers. Tyler Behrends had volunteered to pace me shortly after I dropped my name in the Sawtooth hat. A short while later, I learned that another running colleague, Marcus Taintor, had recovered from knee issues and was available. Both of these gentlemen are remarkably even-tempered and excellent runners in their own right (not that I was going to be testing their limits any). Tyler would pace me from Finland to Cramer Rd. and Marcus would pick me up from there and run me to the finish, each taking about 26 miles apiece.
In turn, they each settled in to their pacer role immediately, as if they'd been doing it for years; reminding me to take in water and food on a regular schedule, monitoring pace and assisting in any way possible at the aid stations or on the trail. These guys played a huge part in my success at Sawtooth. I can't thank them enough.
Somewhere between Finland and Crosby-Manitou, the Weather Gods returned. The rain started falling, and it would be with us off and on throughout the night. It was here that I donned perhaps the piece of ultra-running equipment that has the best cost-benefit ratio in the book – the 30 gallon Hefty bag. Keeps the rain out, keeps the heat in, folds to minuscule size – better than GoreTex, I say. And the cut is very slimming. Personal comfort aside, though, the running was getting difficult from a footing perspective. The rocks and roots became slippery, and the trail muddy with plenty of standing water. The resulting slower pace, however, was allowing my legs to recover – and I noted that most all of the previous soreness / tightness had disappeared. I was 60 miles in, and I felt great.
Crosby-Manitou to Temperance (60 to 80 mi): The Aid Stations were a godsend, but there was one drawback – lack of running. Standing at Crosby-Manitou trying to eat a cup of soup, I had cooled down considerably. I got the shivers and my hand started shaking. It was shaking so bad, in fact, that I couldn't connect the edge of the cup with my lips. I started swearing at the cup. Right about then, Tyler suggested that I go warm up by the fire. I don't know that I was delirious as such; I was just so focused on the one task (must eat) that I excluded all other solutions. Ah, the value of the objective pacer.
Funny story… At Crosby-Manitou I also decided to do a complete clothing change, kind of a reset for the long night ahead. So, I took my drop bag and went over behind a truck to change. Well, right about the time I was standing there in nothing but a pair of running shoes, someone climbed in said truck and started it up. Uh oh, I thought the aid station workers were about to get quite a show. Fortunately, the truck stayed put until I was decent. But it certainly was worth a chuckle – the mental picture of what might have been is priceless.
I have to say, the trek up over the 9.4 mile Crosby-Manitou section was incredibly long, and monotonous. Hilly, rocky, rainy – and a thick fog combined with the darkness to make it feel like we were running in a closet. I was pleased when we finally reached more runnable trail near Sugarloaf and then moved on to Cramer as the sun started coming up. Things were going well as Tyler retired for the day, and Marcus and I headed off. The rain had stopped, and it looked like a nice day was in store.
Temperance to Finish (80 – 100): Hmmm. A sharp, pinching pain in my lower shin started making itself known on the long downhill into Temperance. This proved extremely frustrating and it definitely slowed me down. It began as an irritation, but increased as I moved toward Sawbill and on to Oberg Mt. As I went up over Moose and Mystery Mountain, I was getting angry. Don't get me wrong – you would have had to have shot me to keep me from finishing at that point, but it was hard not to get a bit worked up. I felt like I had a great run going and was afraid this obstacle was going to take much of it back.
Now, I know what you're thinking right now, “Geez, Ron, just finishing 100 miles should be victory in and of itself.” You would be right, of course. But, just like at the Voyageur 50 Miler, I wanted to press it – see what I had in me. So, this foot issue was quite unwelcome. I give Marcus credit, he kept me fed, focused and moving forward – up over the Moose Mt. climb, across the ridges, up the switchbacks on Mystery Mt. and down the other side to home.
We trotted across the finish line at 31 hours, 24 minutes. When the race director stapled my tag to the board in 12th place, I quit my grumbling. There was just no complaining to be done. I had run 100 miles, and I had done it on my terms. I paid for it a bit at the end, but when all was said and done, I was satisfied.
Now I wonder if the voices will stay quiet for just a little while...
Afterwards: I was pleased to be able to watch a couple of good friends, Shelly Thompson and Rick Bothwell, cross the Sawtooth 100 finish line a short while later. My hats off to you both! Congratulations!
And, the leg is recovering. It'll be good to go by Wild Duluth. ;)
July 27, 2010: Voyageur 50 Miler, or How to Eat an Elephant
Stupid Human Tricks: Back in my college years, my friends and I had a saying we used anytime we saw someone do something particularly moronic. It was reserved for someone - often one of us, mind you - that was doing something that was destined to show up on America's Funniest Home Videos (aka old-school YouTube), and pretty much any act preceded by the phrase, “Hey, watch this!” After observing the entertaining, yet often painful, event one of us would calmly deadpan, “Huh. That's a special kind of stupid right there.”
Toeing the starting line of the 2010 Voyageur prepared to run 50 miles, I speculated for a moment just what my old Gopher alumni pals would think of the idea. But as I looked about at the other runners, it appeared that everybody around me was a well-adjusted, seemingly intelligent human being. I mean, this couldn't possibly be a silly thing to do. Right?
And don't forget the BBQ sauce: So, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time, of course. Thinking of 50 miles as one large chunk of running, or even two 25 mile legs seemed a cruel trick to play on the mind - enough to leave you muttering like the old man in the park who talks to the pigeons. So, I decided to mentally break the race up into more manageable pieces. Carlton to Forbay, Forbay to Power Lines, Power Lines to Fond Du Lac, etc. – work on each 5 mile niblet, rather than the whole flank steak all at once.
Understanding the ups and downs of each section from running the NMTC trail series, the ½ Voyageur, and many training runs certainly didn't hurt, either. To wit, it was easier to push the Power Lines a bit; knowing that nice drop down to Fond Du Lac was coming. All of this made pacing my first 50 miler feel less like groping in the dark. Never underestimate the value of the home court advantage.
Manna from Heaven: It’s amazing how quickly the runners get strung out in a long trail race. Before you know it the starting line jumble has disappeared, you’re twisting through the woods and out there running mostly alone. The nice thing is, every once in a while, the solitude is broken up by these friendly people that seem to drop in out of nowhere – and they bring treats. I can't say enough about aid station volunteers – friends and colleagues, all so cheerful, supportive, and incredibly helpful:
“Fill your water bottle for you, Ron?” (Why, yes.)
“Care to sample from our fabulous array of hors d’oeuvres?” (Oh... if you insist.)
“May I recommend the Pinot Grigio as a nice compliment to the Fig Newtons?” (Absolutely.)
OK, I made that last one up. But I'm certain they'd offer a good Pinot if they had it. They're that kind of people.
Flying the friendly skies: The first half of the race was remarkably uneventful, which was the way I wanted it. It was like a good plane flight that way – no running equivalent of turbulence bouncing the ice out of my gin and tonic – just smooth, steady sailing. I ran into the race leaders as I passed through Magney. I have to say, it is impressive watching Chris Gardner coming at you, running like a linebacker – knowing that he’s been barreling like that for over 25 miles and will do the same for 25 more. I saw fellow blogger Connie as I dropped down toward the Zoo. She was motoring up the hill, and also looking fantastic.
At the turn-around I finally took an earnest look at my watch, pondering my split. And... my goals changed. Going into the race I had figured somewhere between 10 and 11 hours would be a nice run – get me into the top 3rd of finishers, maybe. Doing the mental math – I realized that it was not unreasonable to slip inside the 10 hour mark, as long as I paced diligently on the return trip. A nice, refreshing rain was falling, but it was a mixed blessing – muddy trails would be a challenge, especially at the Power Lines. But you can't worry about things you can't control – all you can do is run. So I set off, feeling a fun sense of urgency.
Food your Mom won’t let you eat: Fellow blogger Eve had promised me Twinkies at the turn-around. She delivered and they were delicious – a big step up from GU gel. Funny though, juggling and eating Twinkies while running in the rain soon left all of my fingers covered with mushy, sticky, orange sponge cake. I'm pretty sure I could have used them to climb a wall like Spider-Man, given the chance. On the plus side, having to gnaw off the remaining bits made the enjoyment last a little longer.
Release the hounds: As I ran through the Fond Du Lac Aid Station, Ethan was manning the check-in board – and he mentioned that I was running about 21st. In hindsight, I don't know if he meant overall, or amongst the males - but it didn't really matter. I was somewhere near the top 20 - and pleasantly surprised. The information served as a nice motivator, especially a few miles later as I stopped for a moment at the Seven Bridges Aid Station. Looking back down the stretch of Munger Trail I had just covered, I saw them. From out of the woods runners were emerging, and pounding resolutely in my direction... 1, 2, 3, 4... like ants on the way to a picnic. Right about there I quit counting and started running.
The Power Lines on the return were slippery in spots from the earlier rain. On one nice downhill I decided to slide down sideways like I was on a snowboard (mudboard?). It wasn't entirely graceful - Shaun White really has nothing to worry about - but it got the job done. Overall, it was all pretty manageable.
And now for a bit of family time: I had estimated the time my wife and son should meet me at the Peterson Aid Station (at approx. 41 miles), and was looking forward to seeing them there. But when I arrived, they were nowhere to be seen. I checked my watch. Doh! 40 minutes early. Leave it to a guy to screw up the schedule.
But all was not lost. Rolling into the Forbay Aid Station a short while later, there they were. I learned later that I had missed them by mere minutes at Peterson's, so they had plenty of time to zip on ahead. My son wanted a hug, which I obliged. To his credit he didn't even cringe. Given my sweaty, muddy state, in his place I might have opted for merely a firm hand shake. Of course, 9-year-old boys are of the type that have no problem with storing frogs in their pockets, so it probably wasn't a big deal.
The end of the beginning: Turning the corner off the Munger trailhead in Carlton, I saw the blue finish arch. It had been a great day of running, and I had thoroughly enjoyed myself - but that was a truly welcome sight. As I crossed the line, the clock read 9 hours, 41 minutes. To say I was pleased would be a gross understatement.
So, my first 50 miler is in the books – and it was a grand experience. Now I get to turn my attention to the next one, which is looking like it will be the Superior 50 Mile come September. Just promise me you’ll hold your tongue when I step to the starting line and say, “Hey, watch this…”
July 19, 2010: Winning, Losing, and Points in Between...
“It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” An old, well-weathered quote to be certain – and leveraged often when we work with our youth in their many pursuits. But I wonder if the quote’s originator ever had to try to raise the chins and dry the eyes of a dozen 9 and 10-year-olds that had just lost the championship game of the Little League county tournament. Such was my experience this weekend as our team’s glorious run through the playoffs came to a screeching halt.
Kids at this age know full well the difference between holding the trophy high at the end of the day, and what it means to sit on the bench and watch the other team do it. Knowing this, coaches try to walk a fine line. You want your boys to desire victory, yet be able to manage defeat. Not accept defeat, mind you. Losses need to be a bit uncomfortable. In this discomfort lies the seeds of drive and perseverance that keep the shoulders square and the chin set when the going gets tough.
But in the end, these are still kids. Channeling disappointment and turning it into a motivator is a skill that is still very much in development. So as a coach and a father you point out the positives from a long, successful season, and provide a shoulder to lean on should they need it.
We have different sorts of opponents as runners, of course. In reality, the foes we choose to battle are as varied as the racers that show up to any given event. Perhaps it's a fellow runner, our age group colleagues, a personal best time, the weather. Even if our goal is simply to finish the race, we are still by definition battling the very course itself. But the lessons found in balls and strikes are no less tangible.
I'll loosely paraphrase our head coach this year, who once said to the boys, there are two ways you can lose a game. Sometimes, you play your hardest – but the other team just gets the extra hit, or makes the crucial catch – and you simply get beat by the better team at that moment. The other way to lose a game is to actually “lose” it - stop working as a team, stop communicating, stop performing. You can deal with the former. The trick is to not allow the latter, no matter the adversity.
I talk about this at times with my son – as it relates to the games we play, and other more important endeavors. I often invoke that peculiarity of runners... that they continue to run for the finish line, even if someone else has crossed it first, or their personal best time has long since passed. A race may not go our way - like baseball, someone or something may have gotten the better of us for the moment. But we continue to move forward, relentless.
This weekend I'll put those words into action again, stepping out there and running more miles than I have ever run in my life. I'm going to dedicate this year's Voyageur to my son and his young colleagues, the Esko Dynamite Minors Little League team. You made me proud this year, boys.
These 50 miles are for you...
June 5, 2010: In Pursuit of Greatness
Saturday morning. And I was feeling lucky. The legs were fresh, the weather perfect, and the Pound the Pavement for the Playground 5K was setting up in Esko, MN. With a number of competing races in the region, the talent was well distributed about the land. Racing in my own back yard, in a small town race. Perhaps today would be my day to shine. Feeling confident, I cased the competition...
Hmmm. That 9-year-old looked ready to go – and everyone knows if you could harness the energy of a 9-year-old you could power a city the size of Proctor. Still, I was the wily veteran here. I'd leverage my vast racing experience – I figured I could take him. I looked around some more. Middle aged man with running stroller. He'd have the advantage on downhills. But this was a flat course. Still good.
Overall, the field was sizing up well. 150+ participants, a good mix of runners of all ages. But I had been training hard and was feeling loose. Maybe I had a shot at Esko fame and fortune. But little did I realize as I did my mental calculations, that I had neglected to account for one critical thing. The Return of the Legend...
Suddenly, the crowd seemed to hush, and parted like the Red Sea as he strode through. Maybe it was the quiet confidence in his stride, or perhaps his dashing, Brad Pitt-like good looks, but women seemed to swoon as he passed by.
“Is that...?” a boy said, hushed quickly by his father.
“Yes. That's him.”
“Oh, I just want to touch him,” said a woman in the crowd.
“Me, too.” said her husband.
I looked up, knowing what I would see. It was true. Bigger than life. NorthlandRunner.com entrepreneur and legendary Esko runner, Kris Glesener was in the house. It was at that moment that I knew what Lex Luther must feel like when Superman arrives.
With the crowd settled and the pleasantries over, it was time to race. The gun (whistle) went off, and a myriad of youngsters shot to the front – burning their energy candles like a sparkler on the Fourth of July. They faded quickly and I found myself at the front, save for one runner, who was gliding effortlessly in front of me.
Tenaciously, I tried to keep pace. At about the 1 mile mark Kris was feeling his oats and looked behind. “C'mon, Ron!”, he taunted. But I had no answer (and contrary to rumor, no, I did not make any obscene gestures). I was running with such velocity my cheeks were flapping like a dog with his head out the car window, and yet Kris slowly drifted further away. I pushed for the next couple of miles, to no avail. I just hoped I could get to the end before Kris was already in his car on the way home.
I hung on to finish third, passed by Tonya Thompson in the last mile – who was running barefoot. I was satisfied with my time, one of my faster 5Ks in a while - yet I stood in awe of the greatness I had seen today. The murmur can still be heard around town about this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Perhaps we'll get another glimpse of him, they say - maybe at the Kristen Burkholder 5K in August.
Maybe then I'll be ready. Maybe then I'll hang with the Legend. Dare to dream...
In all seriousness, the turnout was great for this fundraising 5K. Over 150 runners and walkers hit the course and over $6000 was earned toward the new playground to be built at Winterquist Elementary School in Esko, MN. I wish a heartfelt thank you to all Northland runners and walkers who stopped out for the morning.