Thursday, May 1, 2014

(A belated) 2013 Sawtooth/Superior 100 race report

DNF stands for “did not finish.” It also stands for “did not fail.”

It was just before 2 PM on Saturday, and the Temperance River Aid station was chock full of runners. 50 milers had started to come through, and I had been passed by more than my fair share. En route to this oasis by the river, I had been seen the first 20 or so runners throwing down in a race half the distance of mine. It was odd how much distance was between each runner, far more than I had ever seen at the front of that event. Everyone was by themselves, slogging along in the relentless afternoon heat. 

Me? I was about to all-but collapse in Bill Pomerenke’s arms as I hobbled into the aid an incoherent mess. My 1,000 yard stare looked for my crew, but all I could do was raise my eyes the to height of Bill’s chest. "What do you need?" Bill said. I was ready to cry. I said nothing, instead mumbling something and waving my hands horizontal in front of me like I was done or that I was refusing what he was offering.

Bill ushered me over to a chair in the shade of the aid station’s canopy. I fell into the canvas seat as I let my body ease up. I rolled my head back to the headrest, then leaned forward. Head in hands, tears coming to eyes.

Bring me water, Bill asked the station workers. You need to get your core temperature down, he told me. Bill handed me a Dixie cup of water. I grabbed it gingerly in my hand without looking up and took a sip. And sobbed. All the while, Bill tried to get information out of me and my pacer. How much had he been drinking, eating, taking salt? he asked.

The section to Temperance has routinely, regardless of race distance, been the hardest section for me. Once you hit the Cascade River, the root- and rock-lined single track wends forever and by that point you’re still a few miles from hitting aid. And between that river bottom and the next, you’ve got to make it up and down the largest climb and descent on the entire course. That elevation change is exposed, dry, deceptive and relentless. I had taken it and its river route gingerly, carefully taking baby steps while holding firm to my poles and just trying to keep moving forward.

Bill summoned bags of ice and workers rubbed them over my back and held one under my armpits. My running companion’s parents assisted with this process, and his father modestly declined with a southern drawl to place the ice near the femoral arteries in my groin. My head was still in my hands. I kept sobbing. Step one was lowering my core temperature, and we were well on our way to inducing some chills.

And then they started in on the food. Orange slices times two. Watermelon, a slice so perfectly cut like an oversized Scrabble piece. Banana. Grilled cheese. Two pb&j's. Soup times two, the first with an extra bouillon cube. At least four salt tabs.

With hot soup in hand, I started to shiver. Here I was, 80 degrees out in the shade, and I was trembling. Slightly at first, then more violently. Always uncontrollable. Bill brought me a blanket and a medical-type person (nurse?) come over to check me out. Should they take my core temperature? The worker said no, it wasn’t necessary – persons exerting themselves to exhaustion often shiver when they stop because they’ve used up all of their fuel and the only thing keeping them warm – the exercise – has now stopped.

I kept consuming the soup, sipping at first and then by the spoon and pourful. It was extra salty. That it didn’t taste repulsive was a sign to me that I was deficient on NaCl. On any other day or in any other race, I probably would have spit it out or vomited.

I gradually came around. It started in steps. First I was able to lift my head up. When I came in, I could only look as high as someone’s knees while sitting. Then my eyes could rise to someone’s waist as the inflow of calories started to take effect. Then to the workers’ shoulders. Finally I could look them in the eye. Joni, my pacer for the last loop of Zumbro 2012, was there. Eric, who also paced that last loop, was running the marathon that day and had recently pulled into the aid station.

Then I started talking. Words came individually at first, but clearly. Then in complete sentences. "What's wrong with your body," the medical staff (maybe a nurse?) asked.

My feet are sore – pounded to a pulp, really – and I have dead quad, I responded. Every time I took a step my thighs wanted to collapse out from underneath me. She asked me if I had ever had dead quad before under circumstances where I ate something and it went away. I told her no, but that I was willing to try, if only to believe I could be revived. By this point I had been shoveling in everything they had given me. Would solid food cure my quads?

At this point I want to thank Ian Torrence for his article on Troubleshooting on the Run and especially Western States director Craig Thornley for the section on Troubleshooting in his article on preparing for Western States. Instead of looking at my feet and quads as a problem that could not be overcome, I looked for a solution. It is a mindest I am convinced is necessary to get through a 100 miler.

“But what are we going to do about my feet?” I asked her. She suggested a fresh change of socks. The only pair I had left in my bag were some ankle-high cushy running socks that I had never worn with these narrow shoes. My MT 110’s, long expanded with my swollen feet, would be stretched further. The hell with it, we’re going to try.

I eased off a sock, and tried to rub some dirt out from between my toes. Ever so gingerly, I rolled the clean cotton on and loosened the laces on my MT110’s to accommodate the extra bulk. Repeat. Tight fit, I thought. My pinkie toes were jammed into my fourth toes and my arches were a wee bit wide for their narrow accommodations. But it had to do. It was my solution. If it didn’t work, my feet would be numb soon enough not to care.

By this point, I had spent nearly 50 minutes in the aid station and was now coherent enough to congratulate Misty Swanson nee Schmidt on her nuptials after the Spring superior races, and to correct her when she confused Kevin’s wife and parents for mine.

And then I rose and turned around. My quads, previously destroyed, felt thrashed but springy. I gave commands about gels and could reasonably calculate how many I would need for the next section up, around, and down Carlton Peak. I made sure I had enough salt tabs. I had never felt so successful doing basic math. I asked about headlamps, and got Bill’s when mine came up AWOL. I changed shirts to my bright green Mankato Multisport.

I lept out of my stance. “122 out!” I shouted. “Hundred miler!” Bill and the rest of the aid station crew cheered. I was running again, motivated and determined. It was all that mattered.

“You’re fucking amazing,” my pacer Russ said as we bounded toward Lake Superior adjacent to the river.
I would never feel that good again for the remainder of the day.

Mistake One and through the night.

I arrived at Temperance in my sorry state because I made two mistakes. One of these was a minor pre-race error which requires the benefit of experience and hindsight. It alone would not torpedo a race or prevent a finish. The second was a critical error of focus, a rookie-type mistake for which I should have known better. In contrast to mistake number one, it could independently torpedo a race and prevent a finish. And worse yet, it aggravated the effects of mistake one and made them much more significant.

So what were the mistakes? Mistake one was shoe choice. I wore my New Balance MT 110’s, the second pair I had gone through. They were untested by me in any ultramarathon and so I really had no idea how they would perform as the race ground on. I had been extremely impressed with them on trails, and they are basically mountain racing flats with very aggressive tread and a rockplate under the forefoot. They were much more protective than my old Asics Hyerspeeds that carried me to Lutsen in 2011, and more protective than the MT 10’s that I beat up and wore through Zumbro in 2012.

But they weren’t enough. Everything had gone perfectly – absolutely perfectly under the circumstances – until about mile 55 and Sonju Lake area. I had come through Finland at 10:30 PM, had been eating and drinking well on the run despite the heat and managing to put down real, solid food at aid stations. After that, I had run hard through the forested single track that was the start of the 50 mile race.

And then my feet got chewed up. I ran through a section that was solid knobby rocks and came out of it feeling like someone took the multi-pyramided side of a metal meat tenderizer and banged the soles of my feet repeatedly. I started running tenderly and gingerly, wincing at every step. Add to that a little bit of sore quads and life becomes a plodding mess. It took me 2.5 hours to go from Finland to Sonju.

I spent another 30 minutes in the aid station recognizing my plight and doing everything I could fix myself. My world fell apart at the Sonju aid station in 2011, and I wasn’t about to allow it again. I had arrived in much better shape and spirits this year. One volunteer recognized me from my sufferfest, and I ran into Scott Mark again. This time, I was much more coherent and on my game, but my troubles really started in earnest here again. My appetite was down even though I was eating, and the quad soreness and foot tenderness that would eventually finish me started here.

I walked most of the four miles to Crosby, and was slightly incoherent when I arrived. I didn’t recognize Russ or his voice even though he was standing next to my crew, Lisa. I ate three pieces of quesadilla. Coke and ginger ale had lost its flavor, and I spent another 30 minutes trying to bring myself back. It was 3:30 AM, and I was rolling out. I took my poles and headed into the depths.

My gingerly walking continued as I descended into and out of the Manitou River, and leaned heavily on my poles. The sun gradually started to peek its head out and I crawled on as fast as I could, yearning for the last few miles of the section where it’s flat running and I have burned the sunny side of my calves hiking. Those came and went, and so with it the sufferfest of finishing the overnight.

And then I made mistake two and destroyed any chance of finishing. I just didn’t know it yet. Discovering the irreversible error would take several more hours.

Mistake two.

I had gone into this race planning to do it sans crew if necessary. As such, I had put together a handful of drop bags to be sent to key locations. For example, County Road Six – where I planned to and did enter the night – I stowed a long sleeve shirt, hat, gloves, headband and some gear to make sure I got through the darkness. I would not endure a hypothermic shiver walk again. Sugar Loaf Road, the aid station at the end of the Crosby-Manitou section, is where my race started to end. It was also a planned gear stop, complete with post-overnight clothes.

Mistake two was hardly consuming any food or non-water beverages at Sugar Loaf. Although my appetite had waned at the prior two aids, I chalked that up to exhaustion and normal circadian rhythm. Now it was bright, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky sunny, and I hardly mustered anything in my stomach.

And it wasn’t even for lack of trying. At Sugarloaf, I changed socks and shirts, and I spent an exorbitant amount of time popping and taping heel blisters. I was focused, in a get-it-done mode and basically failed to eat much more than a little soup (I think?), a chunk of a banana, and a sip or three of Coke in my hurry. That’s it. That was breakfast. And I packed up with gels and water and went on my way toward Kramer Road.

I managed the route to Kramer Road well enough, and I was still well under cutoffs when I arrived at the next aid. I had left Sugarloaf at about 8 AM, a full 3.5 hours under cutoff and about 2.5 hours earlier than 2011 and was well under cutoff at Kramer. And Russ started to come with me, pulling pacing duties for the last marathon.

Looking back, I didn’t sit at Kramer and I think I ate standing at the aid station tables. Did I eat enough? I don’t think so, but I know I did try to get solid food in me there. Did I continue mistake two? Maybe. I was just hurried, unfocused.

As I have written in the past, the section to Temperance is my least favorite in the entire course. It’s 7.1 miles split into three sections – wooded single track (simple), rocky, up-and-down river running (very hard), and exposed climbing out of the Cross River and down to the Temperance River (adding insult to injury). About halfway through the Cross River section, I started to falter hard. My steps got shorter, my mind got fogged and out of focus, and everything became infinitely more difficult. It was like I was watching myself from a bird’s eye view, watching me walk at a snail’s pace, and be completely unable to do anything about it. I ran out of gels, drank lots of water by my perception (but not enough), ran out of salt tabs, etc. It was complete exhaustion. The Fuel Tank read empty, and the effects of Mistake Two were rearing their head.

But I go into these races with a simple rule, a basic mindset. I leave the course under three conditions: I finish; I suffer a serious medical injury that physically prevents me from continuing; or I miss a time cut off. I do not quit. And that’s what kept me going, even if I was confused that there was a 1:30 PM cutoff at Temperance and I had thought I missed that (there isn’t a cutoff, but aid closes at 4 PM).


The running high from Temperance River lasted a while, but not too long. Once we started in on anything with a moderate incline on the north side of the river, I started walking what I could probably could have run with a smidge more effort.

The hike up to Carlton Peak has three or so good climbs, and every time I have come at it from the south, I look up and all I see is the tops of trees. Are we at the top yet? And every time, I have to think, “No, we’re not – Carlton Peak is a huge boulder that comes out of the middle of nowhere.” Like other landmarks, it just appears.

I fully expected to hike around the Peak and then start running when we hit the board walks, which is what I was capable of doing – running at mile 89 into a mile 90 aid station. Cut off was 5:30. We rolled in about at 5:17, and Matt Long in his Grim Sweeper’s shirt was sitting there with two of his crew.

“This is the easiest section,” he said, referring to the trip to Oberg. I knew he was right. It’s 5.6 miles of rolling hills, with one decent climb and nothing too technical.

“You’ve got 13 minutes to get out of here,” the Grim Sweeper said. I asked him for some slack in jest, but he and I knew the cut offs were hard this year, especially at the end of the race. In 2011, we got into Carlton/Britton Peak aid station at 4:45 PM, a full 45 minutes under cut off, and hit Oberg at 6:30 PM an 1:45 later. Here I would have to hit that pace and then have no cushion to get to Lutsen by 10 PM. It was going to be close.

And so we rolled out after I pounded down some soup broth and potatoes. Running what I could, walking what I couldn’t. We had taken food with us again to make sure that if things started to go south we could attempt a rebound.

But the pains in my quads and feet came back, slowly at first and then it became debilitating. Nowhere near the sufferfest of Temperance, but also not even close to the pace I needed to maintain. It was deadquad, and my feet were too tenderized to land on what pounding my quads could put on them. When John Taylor passed me, I knew I was in deep trouble. And then I looked back and saw two fistfuls of orange flags. Sweeps. Game over.

Or so my brain thought. I picked up the march but the problems continued. Pain kept me from running, and my faulty memory – I couldn’t place where in the sequence Leveaux Mountain came around – gave me a false senses of hope. All I could think about was watching Christi Nowak take a digger and scrape up her side in the 2011 Spring 50K. I knew where that occurred was close, but I needed to get there. Patches of the trail were flashing back to me, but I was unable to connect the dots.

I started running hard when I saw the beaver ponds, thinking that I was getting close – more like about three quarters of the slow slog through. Once I realized I wasn’t even close, I backed off, and we kept walking. My watch read 7 PM, and I was done. All that was left to do was get out of there.

And that was the cruel irony of the situation. Ultras are not races where leaving the race is easy. Aid stations are often the only access points to the trail from which to exit the course, and missing a time cut off is the cruelest of ways to leave. You must finish the section to get out, but you can’t go on when you get there.
I timed out at mile 95 at Oberg Mountain when I rolled into the vast parking lot at 7:45 PM, a mere 45 minutes tardy. Only Matt Long and the TCRC RV remained. Everyone else was gone.

On the drive back to Lutsen, I was happy and had no feelings of regret. By this time I had long reconciled with myself over the race. Did I make any mistakes? Yes. Having made those mistakes, did I do everything in my power to finish? Yes. Did I leave anything on the course? No. Any lack of production was not for a lack of effort. I did not quit, as much as I wanted to be done with it while trudging to Temperance. I did not finish, but I did not fail in putting all of my effort into finishing.