Sunday, September 18, 2011

Race report: 2011 Superior 100

Before I ramble too far, there is one important task which shall be addressed. Grand thanks are in order to all who helped me get to Lutsen, whether you were on the North Shore that weekend or not. Here are some, in no particular order except the first.

My wife, pacers Kurt and Russ, crew Tim, Carrie, and Caitlin, everyone who has run with me in Mankato, but especially Becky, Russ (again!), Clint and Chris, Cindra, everyone from Runner’s Edge and Mankato Multisport. Without all of these people, I may not have finished. Each of you has been there at some point in this journey, and I thank you all.

Do you know what it feels like to be alive?

You’re damn right I was excited. 37 hours, 28 minutes and 21 seconds after leaving Gooseberry Falls, there I was, standing at Lutsen and being cheered on for simply finishing. Time and place be damned. I finished, and I was alive.

Sawtooth was a race in three stages. Each had its plot lines, but there were clear delineations. And so the story will be told that way.

Prologue

This year was a changing of the guard. Former race director and current oracle of the Superior Trail Races Larry Pederson was stepping down and handing the reigns to John Storkamp.

In a sense, Storkamp got a raw deal. He had agreed five or so years ago that he would volunteer in a big way for Larry at the fall races, and on the sixth year, he would get to participate and run the course. Well, last year was the fifth year of the deal and this was Storkamp’s turn to run it. Little did he know that “running it” meant running it as race director.

Closer to my end of things, my wife could not be with me this weekend. Her first week of classes was set to begin, and she could not miss those sessions lest risk losing hear seat in the course. She was crushed that she couldn't be there. "It felt like I'm missing your graduation," she often said. So my friend Tim graciously agreed to take time off and accompany me through all hours of day and darkness.

Tim knew me well, but did not know my running style or how to handle things if I walk into an aid station ready to pass out. I already knew I wanted a pacer, and my wife suggested Kurt, a friend from my days working at Many Point Scout Camp and ultrarunner, would be perfect to carry me through the overnight.

Pacing was also convenient for Kurt. His family - him, his wife Carrie and daughter Caitlin - were running aid station two at Beaver Bay. When their aid station closed at 3 AM, they would join Tim at the aid stations and crew for me. Carrie and Caitlin were pros at crewing runners, and masters of aid stations. Carrie is also the queen of enthusiasm and reviving runners.

Kurt and I, shoulder brace and all.

It's never a good thing when your pacer sends you an email the week before the race informing you that he separated his shoulder, but that's exactly what happened. I was nervous that the pain would keep him out, but with his Dr.'s OK, he toughed it out. Apparently the only way to injure his shoulder like he did was to a) fall on it; or b) have someone strike it hard with a blunt object. So long as neither of those happened, he would be good.

While I was waiting for information on Kurt's shoulder, I decided to pick up a second pacer to bringing me into the finish. Russ, a friend from the Mankato running community, agreed to shoulder that burden and bring me in from the marathon start to the finish.

Stage 1: Start to County Road 6 (mile 42.8)

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he who sheds his blood with me today shall be my brother…. For he who outlives this day, and comes home safe, shall stand tiptoe above all the rest.

So there we stood, herded together at the Gooseberry Falls visitors’ center. Storkamp had called the racers to order. I stripped off my sweats and jacket, donned by earbuds and posed in the sunshine.

A few words, a few thanks, another reminder about the trusted Donnie Clark marking system, and we stood at the ready. Some weren’t entirely sure which way we went at the start (Raises hand. I knew we had to cross the river via a path under Highway 61, but how to get there?) We were told just to follow Adam Schwartz-Lowe.

Also, Storkamp had clearly not thought out how he was going to start the race. Should there be a countdown? What about if he just said “Go?” (Which he did at Afton.) The gathered demanded a countdown, and we chanted together, “Five. Four. Three. TWO. ONE. GO!”

Here’s a modest suggestion. Next year, find something, anything, inspirational. And read it. Just a few sentences, or maybe a paragraph. Stoke the emotions and tap into that which will keep your racers going when all else fails. Make us remember. And then send us off.

With “GO!”, we went. Slowly. On pavement first, under Highway 61, then on over-grown and single track through Gooseberry Falls State Park fire roads.

The trip through Split Rock was refreshing. I was on new legs and encouraged by my easy pace. We ran up and down the river and glided over the crushed rocks of the trail. Runners were partially packed up, not yet separated by the miles and trials that would befall us later.

About a mile after I crossed the river, a group of runners came charging down a trail toward the river. Thinking it was the aid station trail, I turned up until those approaching screamed at me to turn right instead of left. Instantly, I was leading a group of eight or so runners and controlling our collective paces. We would hang together until the first aid station.

I got cocky running down to the first aid station. The path had widened to about 10 feet, and the woman in front of me was going slowly down the hill. Wanting to beat her and the pack to the aid, I jutted left to pass. Just then, a spillway carved by a run off opened in front of me, my foot got caught on something, and down I went into the dirt and the rocks. THUD! I slid a little.

I got up, quickly and without embarrassment. My neck felt like it was off center. I thought of the soccer player who played with a fractured neck, not knowing it until his teammates told him his neck had a jog in it. No, I couldn’t have done that much damage. I assessed the rest of the damage. A couple scrapes on my legs and left hand, and the remainder was just dirt. My forearms were the same way. My left index finger had jammed and started to swell. But nothing major.

At the aid station, I filled up my bladder and made the conscious decision right then and there to always fill it up regardless of how much water I have or how far it is to the next aid. I wiped down my forearms with a wet paper towel, drank HEED, had a banana, and was off. It was about 10 AM, and I came in around my goal 24-hour pace. A little fast perhaps, but I was encouraged by how controlled I felt throughout Split Rock.

The next section was 10.l miles long, although I had only an inkling of that thought at the time. Had it been later in the race, I would have been demoralized by the distance. Now I wasn’t so concerned.

That is, until the heat started to kick up and I ran out of water – all 70+ oz. of my carrying capacity – with 2.5 miles to go. I sucked at my hose again. Nothing but drops and a gurgle. By now, the air temp had increased significantly. It was turning out to be a perfect day, not a cloud in the sky, sun radiating overhead, but the terrain boosted this weather pattern something unexpected.

That section is predominantly on top of rocky, exposed mounds. The grass was pale brown, long-ago burned lifeless by drought and sun. The rocks absorbed the radiation and bounced it back to us, and the vegetation did likewise. It was like feeling the heat reflect off a glass-like lake on a calm day. The lack of breeze didn’t help the situation.

Several runners were having fits over the temperature increase, and of those that weren’t doing so well, most of them were carrying a single handbottle and nothing else. A bottle, mind you, that likely couldn’t carry more than 24 or so ounces. If that was my bottle, I would have consumed all of that by mile two or three and would be in their same situation.

About eight miles in, I saw a runner sitting on a rock in the shade. He had his left knee up, and his left hand draped over his patella onto his shin. His other arm was limp, resting on the rock, a single bottle in hand.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” he responded. Without turning his head, he immediately vomited a stream of yellow liquid. He was not fine. A few hundred yards later I would see a woman in a 2011 canary yellow Superior Trail Races shirt walking south on the course and carrying a bottle of water. I assumed it was for the runner. A few under yards later I saw Donnie Clark.

“Do you know anything about a runner down?” he inquired.

I relayed his description, location, and problem and let Donnie take care of him. I would later find out that runner eventually hobbled to the aid station, and spent a significant amount of time there. And then he dropped, a mere 19 miles into a 103-mile ultramarathon. Several runners would drop there that day, presumably because of the heat.

At the Beaver Bay aid station, things were going smoothly as they could under the circumstances. I relayed to my crew that I had been out of water for the past 40 or so minutes, and I pounded two glasses of HEED, had a banana or two, and kept going. Silver Bay and my favorite section of the entire Superior Hiking Trail was a mere 4.9 miles away.

And so I left. I ran past the makeshift campsite I had spent the previous evening. Then a twinge appeared and it didn’t go away immediately. I stopped, looked down. I was cramping and felt tightness on a muscle in my inner thigh. My world crashed down for a brief second. Nothing had gone wrong to that point, and now something was going wrong. I did what I could – I massaged it, pressing the heel by my hand on that which was tight. It didn’t go away, but I couldn’t just stop moving. So I pressed on, took an Endurolyte and kept moving.

The section to Silver Bay carries the same exposed rock hilltops as its predecessor just a few miles in. Like its processor, the same heat issues arose. But this time, there was no collapsed runner vomiting beside the trail. And it was much shorter.

It is generally good to see people walking on the trail in the opposite direction of the race. When I saw a man with a camera while I was on top of what I thought was the final mound, and he told me it was a steep drop down the hill and I knew I was close.

Coming into Silver Bay, ~2 PM Friday.

I descended the mound and dropped into an area of welcoming shade. I crossed Penn Boulevard and entered the Silver Bay Aid station. Tim greeted me with an entire banana - too much for me at one time – and handed me glass upon glass of liquid. I complained about the heat again and asked for ice in my hat. Once refueled, I left with some beef jerky in hand.

The section between Penn Boulevard in Silver Bay and Highway 1 is the best of the entire trail, let alone the race course. It takes runners up on the cliffs above Bear and Bean Lakes, on top of Mt. Trudee and the overlooks the hill inspires, and through the muddy cedar forests of Tettegouche State Park where roots choke the trail like interlaced fingers and ferns grow rampant in the damp soil.

I ascended the climb up to the hills surrounding the lakes, gnawing on my dry jerky, and eventually met up with Joe Boler. He wasn’t looking so good. He was red, and moving slowly. I finally passed him around Penn Creek as I ran down the hill into its small valley and power walked up the other side.

Bear and Bean Lake were gorgeous as always, and Donnie Clark had me stop for a photo op. while we overlooked Bear Lake. The sun radiated down upon us and we moved with inspired speed.

Sometime after I left the lakes, I came upon a man sucking on a single water bottle. He was moving forward, but I passed him easily. From there, he stuck on my tail. Three times he asked me how far it was to the next aid station. The first time I said it was just a few miles up. We needed to go over Mt. Trudee, then through Tettegouche, and then it would be there, I said. The second time I said was just before Mt. Trudee, and I said I wasn’t sure anymore. The third time I shrugged it off, and said that it was as far away as it was. We didn’t talk after that.

I tried to drop him, but he mirrored me. When I ran, he ran. When I walked, he walked. Soon we ascended Mt. Trudee as we slogged up its side. He sucked at his long-empty bottle and I tried to take in as much water as I could. Gasping, I moved on and started my descent.

We hit the top of the Drainpipe in Tettegouche having just passed a group of hikers. They were huddled at the top of this monstrosity of a trail section and just let us by. I maneuvered down the first part of the Drainpipe – the part with the handrail – with great agility. This trick was old-hat by now.

But when I turned the corner and released from the handrail, both calves cramped simultaneously and I fell to ground.

“OUCH!” I screamed with reckless abandon. “Release!” The hikers, who had to have heard me, did and said nothing. I looked down and watched a wave of contractions roll through my right calf. I touched my right calf. It felt like a 2x4. I pushed on it and extended my leg in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. Gradually, the cramps released and I slid down the remainder of the obstacle on my butt. Never have I felt such excruciating pain, and I do not look forward to the next time I do.

I recovered well enough. Standing at the bottom of the Drainpipe, I sucked down some water and had three salt tablets. With that, we left its view and negotiated the remainder of the trail to the aid station, negotiating the cedar roots and mud-hopping boardwalks.

The aid station was at a spot just west of the river at a trailhead I was unfamiliar with. I knew from there I had to cross the river, ascend the mound where I camped last year, and then bolt down to Highway 1. From Highway 1, however, the remainder of the 8.6-mile section to County Road 6 was unknown to me. It was a section I had only hiked once, on my thru-hike, and I had no memory of what it entailed.

At the Tettegouche aid station, I downed the entire banana that Tim had peeled for earlier. And then ate another, and pounded liquids. I had urinated only once up to this point, and I had been running for over eight hours. I didn’t feel dehydrated, but given the gallons upon gallons of water I had been consuming, it didn’t sit well with me.

After leaving Tettegouche, I crossed Highway 1 soon enough. I entered the forest on the other side unsure of what was to come. My post-race memories are fuzzy, too. What I do remember is ascending Sawmill Dome and Picnic Rock, a gigantic hill in the middle of a low-lying bog. When I hit the rock’s north side, I could see County Road 6 and hear the cheers of the crowd. Looking down the side, I realized that even though I could see the oasis that I sought, it was a long way down.

And it was. I struggled down the hill on my sore quads. Once it flattened out, I came to the road and realized I was 200 yards down the way from the aid station. Running on asphalt is quite a pounding after doing 42-plus miles on trails. But the cheers pushed me on, running into the aid station strong and with confidence in my waning stride. Little did I know it was some of the last running steps I would take that day.

Stage 2: County Road 6 to Sugarloaf Road

He who suffers remembers.

I knew the night would be hard, so hard in fact that I made sure I had an experienced ultrarunner with me who knew my running style and what to do when crap hit the fan. Yet I grossly underestimated the depths of suffering I would endure.

We left County Road 6 with the best intentions. Headlamps were donned and illuminated, and slowly I explained the last 42 miles to a friend that would spend the next 14-plus hours toiling with. It was not 8 PM. We began into the woods at my usually jogging pace, and then the sun went down and we started the climb up to Section 13. And we started walking.

I would not run again for another eight hours, and not run meaningfully for another 14 hours. The first part of that last sentence was part of my plan – to power walk and hike the overnight, conserving my energy for the daytime – but the slow speed at which I strained to maintain took me by surprise.

I wanted to quit twice during the overnight and entertained the thought on several other occasions. When I got to Finland, I plopped lifeless in the chair, tilted my head back and rolled it to the side. I had lost almost two hours on my 30-hour pace. Would I pass out from exhaustion? Please. That would end this race, and give me an out, something I could point to and blame for stopping. And I would be happy for a brief, fleeting moment before the depression and disappointment would set it. But that moment would be glorious. And then it would be over.

If you want to know how a race is really going, hang out at an aid station. You’ll see all sorts of things – runners who handled the ups, downs, heat, roots, rocks, ruts and those who didn’t. And those who didn’t are in rough shape. That was me at Finland and at Sonju Lake.

At Finland, I needed some serious work. I changed shirts, grabbed a hat, changed socks, dropped my compression socks, and received a much-needed leg massage. It was here that I first realized that chicken soup broth was the nectar of the gods. Its power to refresh runners is like no other. It contains all of what runners need – liquid, a high salt content, fats, and the noodles, carrots, and chicken provide carbs and protein that goes down easy enough.

I left Finland feeling refreshed as I could be. It was 11:45 or so, and I was over two hours under cut off when I left. The freshness didn’t last long. The next aid station was at mile 58 at Sonju Lake, and it was not accessible by crews. It would be the darkest, hardest stretch of trail.

My steps en route Sonju struggled throughout, but the last hour or so was the worst. Kurt kept referring to a bridge – once you’re there, the aid station is but a half mile past. My mind reverted to looking for that damn bridge. And I slogged until I met it. My time cratered as a result, and I another two hours off my 30-hour pace.

I repeated my aid station flop at Sonju Lake. I threw myself down in a chair in front of the fire and received a blanket and my fleece hat. I tried to flood myself with food in an effort to revive myself. HEED, Coke, three cups of soup, a salty mixture of salt tablets and water, banana, nothing. Nothing I did perked me up. Runners came and went, passing me while I sat and commenting on my general state of disarray.

I put my head in my hands, and solemnly asked Kurt to let me quit.

He wouldn’t let me. You can’t, he said, because you’re still going to have to get to the next aid station anyway because this one is inaccessible. Either you quit and walk to Crosby, or you walk to Crosby and stay in the race, he said.

My choice was simple, and my addled brain believed his logic that we couldn’t get a vehicle to me – even though there was a truck to my left the entire time and I was aware of its presence. So I forced myself up, declared that I was leaving, and walked on. It was only 4.2 miles to Crosby, and I had to make it there.

So I left, and we started walking. Slowly at first. And then faster. My arms began swinging, and the power returned to my power walk. And then one foot started running. The other followed and I was jogging through darkness at 4:30 or so in the morning. We passed everyone that moved ahead of my while sleeping. Congratulations ensued, I was back, alive, and moving forward with a full head of steam.

We ran in the darkness, dodging roots and rocks until we reached the road into Crosby. The road up is a gradual incline. We walked it fiercely, arms in full swing as we moved closer to the next oasis. There was no official cut off at Crosby, but for some reason I thought it was somewhere near 7 AM. We had pulled in well under an hour below my imaginary cut off.

I announced my presence with pride. “34, in!” I told the volunteers. I plopped down in the chair and repeated what worked so well at Finland. Leg massage. Soup broth. Coke. HEED. Tim awoke from his nap and came over to congratulate me for working my way through the night. It would be light soon, and I grabbed a hamburger with bacon on it as I left.

We started walking, still riding the high of the previous miles. This next section through the park would tax me like no other before. The section was long – 9.4 miles – and started with a treacherous, rocky descent into the Manitou River valley. As always, what goes down must go up, and the climb out of the Manitou it straight up, has several false summits, and is generally a struggle. At least we had company. Several other 100 mile runners had joined me for the climb, and we suffered together. My strength was still with me, and Kurt and I ascended the summit as fast as we could.

Shortly after we attained the peak of the climb out of the Manitou River, the wheels began to come off. My steps became shorter, and I could not run even though I wanted to. I plodded and stumbled, and fell over once on an incline simply because I could not maintain my balance. We were passed by a multitude of runners.

Just prior to the Caribou River the first three 50 milers blazed past us. Now the demoralizing would begin. Athletes on fresh legs, running a different race, would begin passing me with ever more frequency. I stepped out of their way, and they congratulated me on still moving forward. A half-mile later, Andy Holak passed me at the Caribou River. From there, it was 1.2 miles to the campsite at Silver Creek and who knows how long until Sugarloaf.

The goal was Sugarloaf Road. It had attained it two years ago when I blitzed the SHT from Section 13 to Sugarloaf and back in a single weekend, a push of ~61 miles over the course of 20-some hours of hiking. Familiarity started to set in. As I remember it, the path would meet an ATV trail, and from there hit the side of a ridge. Once on the ridge, it is a flat push past the Silver Creek campsite and to the road.

Like my running stint in the last section, something clicked in my brain and I started moving faster. I overcame whatever was holding me back and I instructed Kurt to get moving. He got excited and onward we went, running inclines that I would have needed to walk just an hour before. We ran, jostling Kurt’s separated shoulder in ways it didn’t want to be jostled. I was running again, and all was right with the world. We passed runners who had long-since walked past me in my lower times, and blazed into the aid station running strong and proud. It had taken me nearly five hours to do those 9.4 miles, but I was back at it and looking stronger than ever. From here on there was never a doubt that I wouldn’t finish.

Stage 3: Sugarloaf Road to Lutsen

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

I was running again, and that was all that mattered. I took it as a high, something to crash down from. But the crash never came. Russ and I left Sugarloaf intending to run as much as we could until the finish, and damn it we did. We ran lengthy stretches, stopping only when we needed to walk up a hill or accommodate tricky footing. It was a kind of rhythm, and miles floated by like a blur.

We were caught by a local runner, Scott Rassbach of the St. Peter/Mankato area, as we pulled into the aid station at Cramer Road. He had passed me during my troubles in Crosby-Manitou, and apparently I left the Sugarloaf aid station five minutes ahead of him. We ran together into the aid station, each congratulating each other from pulling ourselves back from the brink of failure.

The section to Temperance River contains the single largest decline by elevation drop on the entire race course, and correspondingly, the climb out of the river – as gradual as it is in parts – up to Carlton Peak is the single largest climb by elevation gain and distance on the entire race course.

By now, I had been re-setting the gel-notification alarm on my watch every time I hit an aid station. So when we got 30 minutes out from the Cramer Road station, I realized I had forgot to reset it. I slammed a gel, and have no memory of the next 30 minutes.

I think I fell asleep while running. Apparently I kept up logical, lucid conversation during my daze, and I managed to maneuver over and around the roots and rocks quite nicely. The spell broke 30 or so minutes later when I asked Russ what we had been talking about. He explained, and I couldn't remember any of the information he relayed to me. Had I really been sleep-running? Possibly.

The heat started to set in as we pushed our way to the peaks above the Temperance River. It as déjà vu, all over again; it was hot, oppressive, and the rocks heated up just like they had the day before between Split Rock and Silver Bay. And the climb never ended. My reading the elevation profile, a few things must be noted. What goes down, must come back up. And before you go down, you may need to go up. Sometimes way up.

This was my experience climbing to the top of the descent into the Temperance River. The trail mocked us, always initiating a climb immediately following a descent. And then a person with a dog came ambling up the trail. Seeing people on the trail who do not look like hikers – read: over burdened backpacks that run contrary to my hiking philosophy – are always a good sign. They are like light houses – they tell you the harbor is near, but not necessarily how far.

When we saw that person on our way down, we knew we were clearly on the descent toward the aid station. As we turned down the slope and dirt enveloped our footprints, a faint sound of rushing water tickled our ears. A sure sign that we were getting close. The trail pulled us down and flattened out. The oasis appeared, now at mile 84.3, just over 18 miles remained until my goal. It was 3 PM; the cut off was 4 PM.

We blasted out of the aid station and ran down the flat, sandy trails of Temperance River State Park. The path up to Carlton Peak was about 3.5 miles long and 2.2 miles remained on the other side of the Peak to the aid station. We needed to be there by 5:30 PM. Plenty of time.

The climb up Carlton Peak is deceptive. Once you cross the Temperance River, the climb starts gradually. The trail remains sandy and expansive, so you run the shallow incline. And then you leave the park and head until the more unknown, the woods and wide-open birch forests that surround and precede Carlton Peak.

And then you climb in earnest. First you remain upright, then lean forward to accommodate the incline. Soon, I was full-on, hand-on-my-knees plodding, gasping with every other step. Such a climb so late in the race destroys momentum and does an appreciable amount of damage to your pace.

Finally, we reached the edge of Carlton Peak and trail started to curl around the mound of rock that stood before us. I sat down behind a boulder and all-but collapsed right then and there. I had attempted to put myself in the shade, but my head remained exposed. I lacked the energy to do anything about it. I sucked down gel, some Endurolytes and stood up. From here, it was 2.2 miles of well-trodden path to the aid station at the base of Britton Peak.

We trampled around Carlton Peak and began our descent. As we rounded a corner, Kurt appeared. He was wearing khaki shorts, his maroon FANS 24-hour shirt. And he started yelling and running.

“Get going! You don’t want to get dropped at Oberg!” he warned. “This is the best running you’ve had in a long time.”

“I can’t go any faster,” I replied as I picked up speed down the dirt trail. “My feet hurt and I can’t go faster.” Although my feet had gone numb long ago, pain sensors still reacted to pressure when I put just a little more effort into my stride.

“I don’t care if your feet hurt, you don’t want to get dropped Oberg!”

“I’m not going to get dropped at Oberg.”

We hit the boardwalks that guided through the lowlands around Carlton Peak, Kurt pushed for a fast transition. I needed gels, salt, a banana, and soup. My water needed to be refilled, and then I would get moving. I was not allowed to sit down, time was too precious. Beware the chair.

We passed a handful of people on the boardwalk. They stepped aside. Kurt was in front, and running full-steam ahead. He was pulling away from Russ and me. And Russ was in the middle, running, and pulling away from me. I languished in the back, running as hard as my legs would carry me after 90 miles of the roughest terrain in the state. My knees must have been coming up only a few inches as I shuffled along.

It’s just around the corner, just over the road and then you’re there, Kurt prodded us. By this time, I knew that when Kurt said something was just around the bend, he was being purely motivational and the destination was not indeed just around the bend. Russ, however, didn’t know that and just kept pushing. But there was nothing else to do.

We came into Britton Peak aid station at mile 90 at 4:30 PM – an hour under cut off. Kurt had lit a fire in me, and put the 7 PM cut-off at Oberg at the forefront of my thoughts. All energy would be focused ahead on this time. The transition was smooth, under a minute or two. Kurt and I barked my needs, stressed by the time pressure, and Russ and I were off.

The trail through Britton is surprisingly runnable. There are no major climbs, no major declines, just a section or two that require serious walking. And the section is mildly familiar to me because of my Superior 50K races. I remembered landmarks, like where top woman in the 50K, Christy Nowak, passed me near the boardwalks. And then a pine forest with its gravel-coated path, where earlier in that same race Christy had her feet slide out from under her, and in wearing nothing but shorts and a sports bra, put some serious scrapes on her side. (Christy had crushed the 50 miler that day, taking second overall (at least three of the top men dropped, but regardless) and demolishing second place by 72 minutes.

Still strong, coming into Oberg Mountain at mile 95.5.

Finally the trail turned right and I jogged down the ramp that led to the Oberg Mountain parking lot. A full-on party was ensuing. Kurt was there, headlamp around his head, ready to carry me in.

TC Running Crew had their camper out, and they were manning the aid station. I threw my race vest at a volunteer to fill, and he clumsily filled the bladder while it was still in the vest.

Kurt left Oberg with us. This final push would be a testament to our triumphs that day, and he deserved to share in the final glories. When I left the aid station, by butt was soaked. I couldn’t be from sweat; the time had long-since passed when I was sweating enough to soak my clothing. Could it be a leak? I had Kurt pull my bladder out of my vest and check. Nope. The aid station worker had dumped water on by vest, which was now soaking my shorts and irritating already-chaffed and sensitive areas.

Little items that like that can derail a race because they are so taxing mentally to address. The physical aspect is not problematic – the problem will address itself eventually. But the mental toll grinds slowly and is not so easily remedied.

It was 6:30 when we left Oberg, and we had until 10 PM to travel 7.2 miles. On fresh legs, I had run this section in under an hour. Today, I guestimated it would take us 2 hours and 40 minutes and bring us in right around 9:10 PM. Well past dark, but also well before the final cut off. Under no circumstances would I permit myself to not meet that 10 PM cutoff.

Like the push through Britton, the singularity of our goal focused my strength. We pushed up the initial climb to Oberg and dodged the spur trail that would take us to the peak and trudged on. The trail from here would first take us up Moose Mountain, and the climb up was steep and lengthy. I trudged up, hands on knees, refusing to stop moving until I reached the peak. During this melee, I gasped and turned my headlamp on to get a better view of my steps.

At the top, I sat down and hit reset. Gel. Salt tablet. Espresso beans. And I was up again. We ran across Moose Mountain as best I could. Night was starting to come, and the sun was red on the western horizon – a sure sign of the smoke in the air from the fires near the BWCA just a hundred or so miles from us.

We started the descent down Moose and watched our footing closely. The trail was steep and covered in a fine sand. We slid, and recognized the runaway runner spots where the trail cut off for a brief part and flattened out. Runners who got out of control (on the way down) or needed a rest (on the way up) could park themselves here and wait out the discomfort.

The temperature dropped as we descended into the valley between Moose and Mystery. Now completely dark, I was relying on my headlamp for all illumination. And somewhere in there I lost time in the doldrums of that valley. Did I fall asleep again? Perhaps.

It was in this period of time that the preceding 100 miles started to show on my body. At one point, I was running on a flat bit of ground, and hearing my increased footsteps, Russ started running too. Soon, he pulled away from me, and when he couldn’t hear me anymore, he looked back. I was still running, and Kurt was keeping up with me simply by walking.

Soon the unmistakable climb up Mystery Mountain began. Unlike its cousin on Moose, this climb is long and steady, the trail wide and even without rocks and roots jutting out to alter the terrain. But the climb is lengthy.

At the top of Mystery, we saw the unmistakable sign of the Lutsen resorts. This is a false hope, however. Once on top of Mystery, you need to go down and around its backside in an elongated horseshoe. It is only when you see Lutsen for the second time that you are getting somewhere. During this time my focus waned. My speed had slowed and the time, and my thoughts turned to disbelief.

“Did we miss [the campsite]?” I asked my pacers. No, they replied. We couldn’t have. There would be markers everywhere, logic concluded, and we’d be descending into the river by now if we had. We weren’t near the river, and so not at the campsite yet.

I looked at my watch frequently. Now more than ever I fretted about the cut offs. With my life confined to my headlamp, I once again could not accurately judge distances. Minutes stretched and the rolling hills would not give me any reprieve.

And then a clearing appeared on the left, underneath a single pine tree and I knew we had made the campsite. Reflective ribbons confirmed my memories, and the larger main site showed its character. Welcome to the homestretch. I sighed relief, and knew I was almost done.

With that, we descended down Mystery and its set of switchbacks. We crossed the campsite’s water source, a small stream that was beset on both sides by thick mud. We hit the ATV trail and the sound of the river grew more and more. And then we hit the rocky truck path, and started to run, we started to run. Only a few elements remained. The bridge over the river left us sprayed by mist. A final climb to be run simply because it was the last, and I told my pacers to make it count.

And then the road. Gravel road on a gradual decline. Then pavement. Never have I been so happy to run on asphalt. A man on a bicycle, lamp on and pointed at us cheered. We pulled onto the sidewalk, then turned onto the final trail, an incline of a dirt road and a turn parallel to the hotels. I ran faster, and my pacers released me. I was almost there, so close I could hear the crowd and their party.

I felt like I was running as fast I could on fresh legs, but I know I wasn’t. It just felt that way. I hit the edge of the fence around the pool and then turned toward the finish line. Cheers exuded from the gathered. This was the moment I had worked so hard for, and the euphoria set in.

I cocked my arm and pumped my fist into the air and unleashed a barbaric yawp. Storkamp was there and handed me my buckle in one hand and tried to shake my other. I bear hugged him instead.

The finish, immediately drained of all the energy it took to get here.

Kurt didn’t cross the line – in his words, it wasn’t his to cross. Russ did, not thinking, and I gave each of them high fives and screamed a few more times.

Bill Pomerenke was there, and congratulated me for finishing in races flats.

“You did what you came to do,” he said. I only half-responded, thanked him, and stood there in the daze.

Pictures were taken, more congratulations ensued. One man, who had long, black hair and dark skin, was sitting on one of picnic tables. He was absolutely floored that I came in just over 30 minutes under cut off – his implication was that it was absolutely amazing that anyone was still coming in. I took from his wonderment that there was a magical finishing time during which finishing is no longer amazing. Too fast, and you’re speedy, on the podium, and your performance goes beyond mere mortals. Too slow – i.e. me and those that followed – and your grit and determination puts you in a like category. Come in somewhere in the middle of the bell curve, well, you simply finished, a task in its own right.

The runners: Kurt, myself, Russ (L->R).

Aftermath and afterglow

I paced around immediately after the race. Photos were taken of the runners, the prize, and then food took over my brain. Without it, and clean clothes, I would start shivering and plunge into hypothermia.

I ambled my way inside, managed to walk up two flights of steps – always a good sign – and was taken to our hotel room. First priority was to get clean. I sat down on the bathroom and removed my shoes and socks. I was horrified as to what I saw.

My flats were shredded, and looked like they had several hundred miles more on them than the ~250 that they did. Part of the heel on my right foot separated from the softer under sole underneath it. So much of the sole is was that I may just need to replace them outright.

My shoes being racing flats with inlets in the soles, my feet were covered in a fine layer of dust. The toenail on my right big toe was toast, and a blister had developed over the cuticle. My podiatrist would get a call on Monday for a Tuesday toenail removal. Blistered abounded. 11 on my right foot, three on my left. But the ones on my left were far more severe. Two on the left foot were heel blisters – one of those was popped and covered with tape. When the tape was removed, it left a line of clean that demarcated where the tape was (skin-colored) and where it wasn’t (dirt-colored). Another blister or two had formed between my big and second toes on my left foot. And some time ago, they had popped. What I had suspected long ago when I took off my shoe to remove what felt like an acorn between those two toes had now been confirmed. It was a blister, it had popped, and it needed to be dealt with.

I ran my feet under the bathtub faucet. Too hot at first, stinging the open wounds. Then gently, with soap this time, the dirt gradually flushed away. Even at this early stage, I knew dirt would be embedded in my toenails for weeks.

I couldn’t shower – my feet hurt so much from blisters that standing was out of the question. So I laid down, turned the showerhead on, and did the best I could. Frequently I put my head under the stream of steam and just breathed in, working the dirt-covered mucous out of my nose (they don’t tell you about that one when you sign up).

I sent my crew out to the car three or four times during my attempt at a shower. First for shoes, then for bathroom supplies, then for clothes. While I stood there in a towel drying off, I started to shiver. I dried off again and it did no good. My crew arrived with dry clothes, and recovery officially began.

I hobbled over to my bed. My hiking backpack was sitting on the end, and I laid down and propped my feet up. I got cold, and had my pacer pull an insulated jacket out and thrown over me. Here I was, in a resort hotel, refusing to use any of its amenities to accomplish the same task.

We had some sandwiches and then my need to sleep promptly took over. I took some pain medication to ease the inevitable cramping which eventually set it and deprive me of much-needed shut eye, and repeated the same when muscle tightness awoke me at 4:45 AM.

The walking wounded gathered informally at the resort’s restaurant for breakfast the next morning. I had steak and eggs and black coffee. My body and taste buds had now been deprived of fat for over 48 hours, and I devoured the butter-soaked eggs as if I was ending a planned fast. The coffee, thick with its natural oils, added unnecessary and tasteful lubrication to the whole event.

With breakfast finished, there was but one thing left to do. I congratulated the runners still gathered and walked out to the car, ready for the world and forever changed. I had run 103 miles, finished in the allotted time, and came home safe.

The prize.

SOME FAQS

Did you really run 103 miles?

Yes. Here’s the (preliminary) race results to prove it.

Did you ever stop?

No. I took extended breaks at aid stations, and sat down a handful of times during each section, but otherwise no. The name of the game is continuous forward motion.

Did you sleep?

Not voluntarily. I did sleep while running/moving at least twice. One time occurred at about mile 79, the second around mile 100.

What did you eat?

Between aid stations, I figured I ate somewhere around 60 gels, 65 salt tablets, 30 or so espresso beans. At aid stations, I ate lots of bananas, homemade chocolate chip cookies, two sticks of jerky, veggie chips, a couple oz. of coffee, and lots and lots of HEED. I can’t venture of a guess as to how much water I consumed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was close to 10 gallons.

Wasn’t your body just destroyed afterward? Another variant: how are you even walking (pick your day)?

Yes, I was pretty destroyed. My legs were severely tight for a day or so, and slowly eased up. But my immediate muscle recovery has been drastically reduced from my first completed marathon in 2008. Like my previous races, my muscles were fine on Wednesday or Thursday after the race. Racing and training begets a speedier recovery.

What’s next?

I told my wife I would take six months off of racing. This puts me at the beginning of March 2012, so no races that I would otherwise run will be missed. I will be volunteering at Surf the Murph on Oct. 29, 2011 and have yet to set race plans for next year. I’m qualified for Western States 2012 and for Hardrock for the next three or so years, and I’ll get to those eventually. Right now, I’m resting and waiting to return to running form. I’d like to run some courses that are a little less rugged and hard on the feet.

13 comments:

Beep said...

Great report! Congratulations on your finish!

Ross said...

Congratulations. That is an impressive effort on a beast of a course.

SteveQ said...

My favorite part of this great report is that you started with the idea of finishing in 24 hours... then 30 hours... then before the 38 hour cut-off. Nothing shows how humbling that race is better than that!

Anonymous said...

Matt,
Great story. We were the guys camped at Leveaux, 1.5 miles from your last aid station. I'll never forget your answer to the question " How are you doing?" F-----G A!!! Great job.

Dave Noll

Matt Lutz said...

@ Steve: I put together two pace charts - one for 24-hours and 30-hours - with the premise of spending 45 percent of my time on the first half and 55 percent of my time on the second half (see: Adam Schwartz-Lowe's performance this year) with the full expectation of finishing around 30 hours. There is a reason only a handful of folks have gone sub-24 on this course, and I am not one of them yet. The night was the humbling part - I had planned on power walking the whole night, but I grossly underestimated how hard the darkness would be.

@Dave: I was feeling pretty good at that point, still moving pushing hard. Not too shabby for having gone 94 miles.

Eugene Smith said...

Wow, awesome run Matt, this is inspiring to me, thanks for sharing this.

SteveQ said...

Looking at yout 2011 Training Plan spreadsheet, what did you consider "easy pace" and "Marathon pace?"

Matt Lutz said...

@Steve: I forgot that was event still up.

If figured my marathon pace was somewhere between 7:15 and 7:20, easy pace was anything north of about 8 minutes.

For the most part, I didn't do any of the planned speed work I set for myself this year. That will hopefully change next season - I'll be more ambitious on mileage, less ambitious on speed, and work to make my running week more routine from week to week.

Adam said...

Great report, glad you were able to persevere through the difficulties. The next one will be so much easier.

Scott said...

Matt - again, you just rocked the comeback in that race. That is an immensely satisfying feeling to stay with it and bounce back. Fun to cross paths with you a few times out there, I'm sure I will see you out on the trails. Great job!

George Carr said...

Great report. Congrads on your finish! Certainly a more impressive feat than I could ever dream.

samh said...

Amazing, Matt. Truly amazing.

treklightly said...

Great work Matt!!! I am truly impressed! Thanks for bringing us through your trials and victories... it helps the rest of us partially understand if we ever get to do it ourselves...