running and the rhythm

The running and the rhythm. Heaving breath and smooth hot-stepping. Sweat dripping and fiery eyes burning. Thoughts thunk and muscled miles merging. Hauling and hoofing, uphill steadily steaming. The boom-diggity and zoom-zippity. Hell, even the trudge-drudgery and grinding gradually. The move, the groove, the long-lasting loping. The bad mother… flying freely. Heh! Ain’t it funky now?

A Few Snorts from a Wild One, by William Stafford

Life sleeps in this tired old horse, but might
wake yet for a spur or a fire when the muscles
come alive, till even the main gate creaks
as a shoulder hits it and makes the whole corral
shudder its rails while the weakest post
almost gives way. Some time it will, maybe
tomorrow, and then you’ll see: I guarantee you
the road out of here will be filled with a horse.

 

2013 Superior 50KM Trail Race

On May 18, 2013 I completed the Superior 50KM Trail Race on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) along the north shore of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota. A wildly technical course full of rocks, roots and—thanks to our long winter with heavy snowfall accompanied by spring’s late arrival—standing water atop heaps of deep mud. For a mostly average runner like myself there is no conquering such a trail, but there is give and take, highs and lows. There is adventure and an invaluable, rewarding journey. By the end the trail had pummeled the piss out of me and I was left a withered shell of the confident man I was at the start. I was exhausted, sore and bewildered, but not broken nor disappointed, and not at all discouraged. I sit here today intrigued and hungry for more just like the other times I’ve taken on this incredible stretch of wilderness trail.

In summary, the Superior Hiking Trail proved its superiority over this undertrained, soft runner who tried to move swiftly over its face for 31 miles. It reared up, grabbed me by the squishy bits and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until I relented. Even then, I didn’t entirely stop. I kept going for over seven hours and that was enough for this day.

That’s it, that’s essentially the story. Go away.

…….

The rest is all the extraneous details, cussing and raw emotion, because it’s still fresh with frazzled nerves and aching muscles driving me to improve and get the lead out. The wish to get stronger and overcome weakness is part of the core of my ongoing struggle. Even more so, the inexhaustible urge to push boundaries is alive and well. So don’t tell me I didn’t warn you if you read on, don’t tell me I’m a disrespectful, vulgar, no good something or other, because you’re an adult and so am I. Life is hard and if you pretend it isn’t, choose to stay in climate-controlled environments sipping tea and taking it easy all the time, then that’s your choice, not mine. I’ve got a hell of a lot more to take on. The Superior Hiking Trail has much left to show me, so LET’S GO!

I mean, for shit’s sake! Every one of these good for nothing races on the SHT has brought me to a point of exhaustion and pain where I know deep within I am capable of continuing and yet I mentally weasel out of a strong finish and give up the fight before it’s done. Maybe that’s for the best since I did not want to risk major injury so early in the season, but I’m left wondering what’ll happen if I lean on the throttle a touch more instead of coasting. Will I stumble and fall? Probably. Will I hurt myself seriously? Probably not. I’m not talking about sprinting wildly over the last 7+ miles, I’m talking of not giving up challenging myself just because I’m tired and hurting.

Before giving in and acquiescing to the fatigue, I had a strong run of around 23 miles. For that I am glad. Those 23 miles were almost entirely exhilarating! Those hard 23 miles on that crazy-ass trail will pay dividends soon enough. Throughout the first four and a half hours I kept doing a mental and physical check and coming up with, “feeling good, having a blast!” I knew though, with my current level of fitness and the deteriorating conditions of the trail, it’d be extremely difficult to keep it going so well until the end. However, I held out hope and kept my spirits up while cruising along contentedly through three quarters of the race.

Thing is, I was pleasantly surprised by the condition of the trail on the way out. The course is an out and back and we had been warned the night before and prior to race start that mud was a problem— deep, shoe-sucking mud. I was already intimately familiar with all the elevation change (8400 ft.), endless rocks and roots, twists and turns. It’s a seriously rugged trail! So, when we started out and got through an early muddy section it wasn’t bad at all the rest of those 7.75 miles into the first aid station at Oberg Mountain. I showed up and greeted Elena and Sarah with full smiles, feeling unstoppable. I decided then and there to ride the good feeling while it lasted even though I knew it would not. After a quick stop with some chatting and refueling I headed back onto the trail very much ready for more.

Cruising into the Oberg Mountain Aid station, feeling great!

Cruising into the Oberg Mountain Aid station, feeling great!

"Hi Dad, what are you doing?!"

“Dad, what are you doing!?”

Fun for the whole family!

Fun for the whole family!

Back onto the trail!

Back onto the trail!

Oberg Mountain to the Sawbill Aid Station, again, not a terribly sloppy stretch of trail. Still running strong I was able to navigate the technical difficulties happily and joke around with fellow runners. A mile or so before coming into the aid station we encountered the front runners and hot damn, seeing them fly along the trail faster than I can currently marathon on pavement gave me a huge jolt of FUCK-YEAH-MOTHERFUCKER!, because they were moving with authority and I’ve got mad respect for that level of skill and training.

Coming into the Sawbill Aid Station, I was feeling decent, but the cumulative stress of 13.3 miles on tough trail was starting to take a toll. I was beginning to feel some fatigue, but still had lots left in the tank. I took my time refueling and had a bit more of a break since I knew the climb and descent of Carlton Peak wouldn’t be easy. It’s very steep and technical with lots of boulders to navigate around and over. Plus, with all the rain that’d been falling throughout the morning all that rock was sure to be slick. At this aid station I saw Brian Klug come through and it was inspiring to see him looking strong and focused.

Feeling good, having a blast!

Feeling good, having a blast!

"Dad, why are you still running?"

“Dad, why are you still running?”

Ok, refueled and ready for Carlton Peak!

Ok, refueled and ready for Carlton Peak!

About three quarters of the way up Carlton Peak I passed Shawn Severson coming down. She was looking great and encouraged me saying I was really close to the top. A couple others around there warned of the slipperiness of the wet rock on the summit, but I wasn’t too worried since I was being cautious and patient on the way up. Besides, my only bumble in this section was an uphill stumble where my toe caught a rock and I fell rather gently into the hill. Falling uphill is always recommended in the mountains. At the peak runners were greeted by Minnesota trail-ultrarunning legend Charlie “Chuck” Hubbard in full western regalia. What a sight to see him standing authoritatively on the peak in crappy weather! He stood there and shook hands and gave support to everyone before they turned and headed back down. I grabbed a Chips Ahoy! cookie and took in the fog-shrouded view before beginning my descent. Charlie even apologized for the lack of view on this rainy, cloudy day. I didn’t care, because it felt fantastic to run 15.5 miles across mountainous terrain and to have reached the top of the area looking triumphantly toward Lake Superior. I was pumped and ready to head back down toward the Sawbill Aid Station.

No major issues on the way back to Sawbill, just more fun trail times and lots of encouragement exchanged with runners heading up Carlton. The out and back nature of this course resulted in more contact with others than usual, which was definitely welcome since trail runners are such awesome folk. A quicker refueling stop at the aid station this time and then I was back on the trail toward Oberg.

Hello again, Sawbill!

Hello again, Sawbill!

I come in peace, I go in peace. The trails are my home.

I come in peace, I go in peace. The trails are my home.

Back to the trails I go!

Back to the trails I go!

On the way to Oberg is where it started to get tough, but I was maintaining. Hiking more of what I was gladly running earlier, I hoped to still be moving well for the final stretch. However, when I was within two miles of the aid station I could already tell the death march was coming. The legs were starting to fail.

Relieved to arrive at Oberg, I wanted to be done then and there. I knew I wasn’t going to stop, but a big part of me wanted to lie down and call it a day. The trail had already begun to get sloppy from all the day’s rain and foot traffic. Also, I was yet to come into the section where the huge wave of 25K runners tore through the course already. All I could do was take my time at the aid station and refuel. Thanks to a few minutes of rest, helpful volunteers, Coke and half a peanut butter and M&M sandwich, along with love from Sarah and Elena, the idea of getting back onto the trail began to seem less overwhelming.

This photo captures all the pain and difficulty I was facing.

This photo captures all the pain and difficulty I was facing.

Back into Oberg one last time.

Back into Oberg one last time.

Coke, a peanut butter and M&M sandwich, and encouraging faces got me ready for more.

Coke, a peanut butter and M&M sandwich, and encouraging faces got me ready for more.

There’s not much to say about the final section of trail between Oberg and the finish. It was hard, incredibly hard. On a good day with strong legs it would have been hard, but on this day after constant rain and hundreds of runners making their way across the rugged terrain, what had been soft sections on the way out had turned into wickedly slick, pudding-like mud bogs. It would have been one thing to push and pick my way across those rocks and roots if not for the mud, but dead legs and the lack of reliable footing was too much. So I hiked probably two thirds of this stretch, not just the climbs and tricky descents, but even the mud-laden flat sections were hiked somewhat gingerly. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the climb up Moose Mountain. Holy hell that son-of-a-bitch is killer on tired legs! My hamstrings almost jumped off and went the other way. The trail goes on and on and the legs burn and burn! Whatever, it’s still a wonderful opportunity, especially in retrospect, to be out on the trail in a self-imposed difficult situation. So I kept moving rather slowly and deliberately until I could hear the Poplar River again, then mustered up the strength to cruise the final mile back to the finish line. Whew, did it ever feel great to cross the line and be able to stop! That was a wild day on the trails.

Finish Time: 7:08:10
Average Pace: 13:47/mile
Place: 110 of 158 runners

Rounding the bend into the finish.

Rounding the bend into the finish.

Done.

Done.

Uff da!

Uff da!

Of course, after everything is said and done, race performance or lack thereof is quite irrelevant, because of this:

Elena checking out some of the countless rocks on the north shore.

Elena checking out some of the countless rocks on the north shore.

Thanks for all of your support and help leading up to and during this race, Sarah and Elena!

2012 Moose Mountain Marathon

What a difference a year and some familiarity with the Superior Hiking Trail make! Last year, upon reflecting I was rather humiliated by the course and my effort. This year, I feel encouraged and ready to take it on again, NOW! I want more and don’t want to wait another year. Heck, I’m even considering doing the 50-miler next time around. There were a lot of factors that made for a much more enjoyable experience on the SHT, many of which were beyond my own training and control.

As vital as anything else to my improved performance was the weather— around 50 °F at the start with mostly clear skies, clouding over for a couple hours of cool rain in the middle, then becoming partly cloudy with temps at about 60 by the finish. This was fantastic running weather. The rain did add to the technical difficulty, making some of the rocks slick, but fortunately I wasn’t running blazingly fast and putting myself in danger. Plus, while it was raining I was on a portion of the course that allowed me to keep running most of the time and generate enough heat to stay warm. All this cool weather meant I never got close to overheating and cramping was barely an issue. Only once, after about 18 miles when I squatted down to adjust my timing chip’s strap, did I feel a twinge in my left quadriceps as it threatened to cramp. Standing back up and shaking it out allowed me to continue forward without incident.

Going into the race I was somewhat worried, full of reasons I might be in for a brutal day. Despite my concerns I was ready for whatever came, even a major struggle and another outing lasting more than seven hours. With the arrival of my daughter 6 1/2 months ago, finding consistency in training has been a challenge. I’d gotten the bare minimum of miles on my legs, with only one 20-mile trail run prior to the race and only one other outing of at least 3 hours. Living in central Minnesota nothing around here approaches the technical difficulty or hilliness of the SHT. Lots of questions remained concerning what I was capable of.

Then again, I’m a fire-breathing (out the rear), trail-eating, gritty SOB who loves being on trails, even on wild single-track marked by endless rocks, roots, and mountainous incivility. { heh! } I had been on the course the year before, knew what to expect, and had a good idea where I could gain time along with a better strategy for refueling. Plus, I didn’t ultimately give a rat’s ass about my time, I just wanted to have fun and see what I could get done. Overall I had a much more relaxed approach to the race and was comfortably eager to get going and cruise while enjoying the wild scenery. Last year on the other hand, I was ridiculously fired up and, not surprisingly, started much too fast.

Miles 0 – 7.9, Start to Temperance River Aid Station —

After too much standing around waiting and chatting with a few others, the call for the start was given at 8:00 and we headed out. I started with dailymile and fellow trail running friend Chad Walstrom. We ran easily on a gravel road in the middle of the pack for a few hundred yards. Just before turning onto the trail, I saw 100-miler and St. Cloud area running friend Brian Woods. How great to see him about 77 miles into his epic adventure! A short stop with a few words exchanged and then Chad and I jumped onto the trail for our own SHT quality time. Talking while running comfortably for a few minutes and then we came across Brian’s pacer, Dan Cairns, also from St. Cloud, making his way to the Cramer Road Aid Station. Dan reminded me of a good line I had heard from Brian before, “This marathon isn’t a bad one, it’s the three that come before it that are the problem.” Funny to think 26 miles can be the finale of someone’s outing.

Chad and I ran together and among several others for the first couple miles, but after doing some occasional passing and picking up our pace slightly the crowd thinned and we soon found ourselves mostly on our own. With the cool weather and fresh legs it felt easy to pick my way through the tripping hazards and maintain a comfortable pace between 11:00 and 13:00 mpm, for the most part, depending on the trail’s pitch. Most of this section was runnable, with occasional and brief steep climbs/drops along the Temperance River as the trail alternated between following the river’s edge and then shooting back up to the ridgeline. Listening to the river roaring along its rocky bed and crashing into deep pools was invigorating. After 5 or 6 miles and being in front I needed to back off and asked Chad if he wanted to lead, which he gladly did. I followed him around a few bends and let him get farther ahead, stopping to take in a view of Lake Superior at a lookout. Not until after finishing would I see Chad again as he determinedly and quite successfully went after his 6-hour time goal for the race. It was fun sharing those beginning miles with you, Chad!

On the descent into the Temperance River Aid Station I reminded myself that I took a wicked digger here last year, rolling onto my back and sliding a few yards. The fall left me with some abrasions on my back and knees, so this time around I was more cautious, but still moving fast enough to appreciate gravity. Eventually I hit the aid station and was glad to be feeling great, thinking I must be ahead of schedule and ready to refuel then get back on the trail. Sarah and Elena, who were quite surprised to see me so soon, confirmed I was moving faster than anticipated. Plus, as Sarah pointed out, I wasn’t bleeding like last year— I must be doing all right.

Sarah and Elena

Sarah and Elena waiting for my arrival at Temperance River.

Temperance River Aid Station -- 1

Refueling at Temperance River

drinking Coke

Coke, nectar of the trail running gods…with sweat burning my eyes!

back onto the trail

Heading back onto the trail!

Miles 7.9 – 13.6, Temperance River Aid Station to Sawbill/Britton Peak Aid Station —

Back onto the trail I was ready to press on. Remembering from last year there was a nice section along the Temperance River where I was able to find a decent rhythm. Shortly after getting settled into a solid pace I clipped a rock and nearly ate trail. Just a loss of focus there, but the jolt from lunging and saving myself from falling woke my sloppy ass up good and proper. From the near wreck until the climb up Carlton Peak began, I moved well and was having fun. The best part was the roaring river and fact I hadn’t overeaten at the last aid station— the gut was still fully on board with the task underfoot.

Then the climb up Carlton Peak was on! I remembered from last year how it meandered and remained gradual for awhile. Then farther along, I was shown how steep the trail became and how rocky the peak was. In one section a clearing offers views of the rocky peak and I thought, “Oh yeah, I’ve got to get all the way up onto the shoulders of that beast so I can tweak its nose!” Steep, heart-pounding switchbacks and an endless supply of chunky rocks. Legs were still feeling pretty good and I was able to hike quickly. Passed a lady on the way up and we shared encouragement. She’d later catch up and finish the race ahead of me.

The descent from Carlton Peak was nearly as challenging as the climb— terribly technical with jagged switchbacks and numerous boulders to hop from and around. Eventually the rockiness abated and the forest regained its root-ridden grip. Arriving at the aid station after having been on the trail for about 2:55 I knew I was half done, but the toughest climb was yet to come. The second half would surely be harder than the first. Still, my legs felt strong and I was making much better time than in 2011. I reminded myself this was the aid station where I ate and drank way too much last year, causing a major slowdown over the next few miles while my stomach slowly processed the gunk.

The weather continued to be my savior. While not having to battle the heat I had an easier time rehydrating, snacking appropriately, filling my bottles and getting ready for more trail humping before long. Rain had begun at this point and temps were only in the 50’s, so I knew I’d have to move fast enough to generate enough heat in order to stay warm over the next 5.5 miles. I felt like I would be able to do that and turned down the extra shirt Sarah offered. The rain was coming down in buckets before I headed back into the woods. I was eager to taste more SHT and feel the forest as the rain poured from the clouds.

Miles 13.6 – 19.1, Sawbill/Britton Peak Aid Station to Oberg Mountain Aid Station —

Quite a different atmosphere under the trees on the trail as water drips and puddles along the way. Since I was still moving well, the rain was a reprieve from what was beginning to become an exhausting effort. Running on a ridiculously technical trail is as tiring on the mind as the legs for me. Maybe it’s just a lack of practice on such terrain, but the need for attention on every step wears me down. The cool water washed some of my fatigue and sharpened my focus as I persistently moved forward.

Ups and downs abound along this stretch, including Britton Peak and LeVeaux Mountain, but fortunately nothing monstrous. Legs and feet were wearing down and on LeVeaux Mountain I took my only fall of the day. It was on a slight downhill covered with massive roots. I simply made a poor choice trying to step between two roots while moving a bit too carelessly and caught my toe. Catching myself with my hands on the way down jarred the upper back. Getting back up, brushing myself off and moving again allowed the pain to pass and I knew there was no major damage. BE CAREFUL, PETITTO!

A little farther on came a pleasant series of boardwalks traversing a marshy area. I remember sailing comfortably and having a blast. The boards are rather new here so most of them are stable and the wood wasn’t slippery enough to be problematic. With the boards bowing gently I was able to give my feet and legs an easy time. Eventually popping out of the forest and BOOM!, I’ve arrived at the last aid station with only seven miles to go!

Unfortunately Sarah and I greatly miscalculated my pace and our estimated time of arrival at each aid station was off by a lot, especially the last two. She barely caught me at the Sawbill/Britton Aid Station right before I headed back into the woods and missed me entirely at Oberg. The volunteer tracking runners at Oberg misread his list of runners’ numbers and didn’t spot my “371”. This meant even though I was long gone by the time Sarah arrived, she thought I hadn’t come through. After waiting for three hours she was quite worried and thought I had injured myself on the trail. Of course, I was fine and well on my way toward finishing. Too bad for Sarah though, not a fun time hanging out at an aid station worrying about my sorry ass. She was there for so long I finished the race before she even left that last aid station. Next time I will be sure to have my arrival times at each aid station from previous years noted and we’ll better predict the appearance of my ugly mug.

Regarding the actual stop at the Oberg Aid Station, I didn’t rush knowing the toughest section of trail was coming in those last 7 miles on the way to the finish. I took my time, drank ginger ale, munched some peanut butter and jelly along with pretzels, and got my bottles refilled by some very helpful and enthusiastic volunteers. I even slowly walked the very runnable dirt road leading to the trail hoping I’d catch Sarah before ducking into the woods. The rest here allowed my legs to recover slightly and head toward Moose Mountain with some go juice still in the tank!

Miles 19.1 – 26.2, Oberg Mountain Aid Station to Finish —

The climb up Moose Mountain is a real blast to the nuts after 20 miles and nearly 5 hours on my feet, but I knew I had to man up and deal with it if I wanted a respectable finishing time. I also knew I couldn’t entirely burn myself out on the climb because there’s another surprisingly challenging climb immediately after— Mystery Mountain. I managed to keep moving, sometimes at a decent clip, sometimes slower than molasses in January, but I never got light-headed nor had to sit down like last year. Again, the lack of heat changed everything.

The way up Moose Mountain offers views of the steep trail ahead and then you can’t see any farther, but you eventually hit the point where the trail changes direction and you look some more, realizing it only continues to climb. SON OF A BITCH! Gradually and persistently hiking, heart pounding out of my chest, sweat pouring from the bill of my hat— BANG BISCUIT! Eventually, the trail levels and starts to descend. Of course by then my legs were nearly shot and I was too beat down to move quickly without wrecking, so I took it easy.

After not nearly enough recovery time on the descent, the trail annoyingly starts to wind back and forth and climb again. This is the way up Mystery Mountain. The climb is only about 350 feet in a mile, but after 23 miles it’s a brutal kick to the nickels. Oh well, what could I do!? There’s no going back. The quicker I get it done, the quicker I can begin dropping toward the finish line, sit down, rest and laugh about it all. I wonder why they call it Mystery Mountain. It is entirely shrouded in trees so maybe its presence is a mystery, but for runners of the SHT the real mystery is how such a small mountain can be a cruel sucker-punch to the gut.

Once all significant climbing was over, I began my gradual descent toward the Poplar River. Still some ups and downs before the finish, but nothing overwhelming. Legs were pretty much ruined facing the last three miles, but I just kept doing my best to gut it out, walking the steep and extra gnarly junk and running the rest. I got to the point where I didn’t want to run at all anymore, but I forced myself as the six hour mark was approaching. I thought it’d be neat to beat my time from the previous year by a full hour.

Pushing through the pain and I eventually popped out of the woods onto the gravel road leading to Caribou Highlands Lodge where the finish line awaited. Crossing the line in 6:25:08, I was relieved to be done. With a 58 minute improvement over the 2011 race I felt I had put in a respectable day on the Superior Hiking Trail. Within minutes I was thinking of ways to knock off chunks of time and get under 6 hours next year. NEXT YEAR! We’ll see what I can get myself ready for in 2013.

Finally, I have to thank race director John Storkamp and all the wonderful volunteers. What a big challenge to host a major series of races (the 100 and 50-milers also take place at the same time) on such a remote trail! There isn’t even reliable cellular service much of the way so they have to use ham radios to communicate. Everyone involved pulled it off without a noticeable hitch to runners like me. Each aid station is well-stocked and every volunteer I encountered was tremendously supportive and helpful. The trail is endlessly gorgeous with occasional views toward the magnificent Lake Superior. Basically, it’s the best way I know to spend 6 or 7 hours on trail.

Official Finishing Time: 6:25:08
Place: 84 of 144 marathoners

If you’d like to see more numbers, here’s the Garmin data.

in Grand Marais post-race

Sarah, Elena and I in Grand Marais several hours after the race.

2011 Running Retrospective

January is not yet over and 2012 is still rather fresh. Not too late to type out a few thoughts about running this past year, right? Mainly, I’m going to use photos to highlight some of my best memories in my running-related adventures from 2011. Over the entire year I ran 1,396 miles, a bit more than in 2010, but not as many as I would have predicted. June was my highest mileage month with 181 miles, December was my low with only 72. Best part of the year was managing to stay almost entirely injury free, except for a few minor strains, bumps and bruises.

Heading to Santa Barbara in early March, I was able to find reprieve from the Minnesota winter and rejuvenate my legs with running along the beach and in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

rusty, trusty sign

My second run in the Santa Barbara area was on the Jesusita Trail along a creek, then up into the mountains and ending near Inspiration Point rewarding me with a fantastic view back towards the city and ocean.

banana slug!

Here’s a banana slug on the Arroyo Burro Trail. Little did I know at the time, but as the year went on I’d have several trail running experiences where I’d come to feel exactly like a slug on the trail.

the three mountain running superstars

Elodie, Scarlet and I on the Rattlesnake Canyon Trail. What a gorgeous spring day to be running in the wilderness with friends!

on Tunnel Trail at the end of Rattlesnake Connector

After splitting off from Elodie and Scarlet for awhile, I was able to get higher into the mountains and eventually come to some magnificent views towards the back country.

back from where I came on Rattlesnake Connector

Such a narrow trail enticing one to fly along in search of adventure. Spots like this always leave me yearning for what’s over the next hill or around the next corner. There is always more to see!

sweaty, happy trail runner up in the mountains

Looking back towards Santa Barbara here the city is hidden beneath the marine layer fog. After running and gradually ascending into the mountains, much is clarified besides the view in various directions.

In mid April I took on my first race beyond marathon distance, the Trail Mix 50K on the trails of Hyland Lake Park in Bloomington, MN.

cuddly couple

As usual, Sarah offered great support throughout the race. Seeing her along the way was always a boost.

about 2/3 of the way through my third loop, wishing it was my last, but no, there'll be another

This race, being my first time running more than 27 miles, presented lots of opportunity to struggle with exhaustion and dead-feeling legs. However, I always found I could keep moving and running easily, even if my pace was incredibly slow.

finishing up loop #3

The 50K course featured 4 loops of 7.75 miles with the terrain getting soggier and more torn up as the day went on. Repeating the same loop time and time and time again was a major mental challenge. By the time I stopped I had my first 50K in the books with a time of 6:00:02.

In May good running friend Shannon and I found a trail race in eastern Minnesota at a privately owned farm— the Growing Green 20K. After an incredibly wet spring, we had lots of water to deal with. Several creek crossings and soggy fields got the runners completely soaked and rather muddy, but what a blast!

cruising along happily

With only 15 competitors running the 20K, I found myself in 3rd place early on and decided to push on to see if I could manage a top 3 finish. Still feeling strong from the past month’s 50K, running hard over less than half that distance was rather easy and lots of fun on sloppy trails.

ALL RIGHT!

I was never able to catch up to 2nd place, but I won 3rd. First podium finish in a race since high school, but it sure helped to be part of such a small field of competitors. Still, what fun! I finished with a time of 1:48.26 for an average pace of 8:52 per mile, which seems slow, but not for that tough course and especially those sloppy trails.

looking on ominously

WOOHOO!

Throughout the year Shannon joined me on a lot of running adventures. We ran a few races together and did several training runs throughout Minnesota on trails. She’s been a good friend, to both Sarah and I, and is one of the few people in my life that fully understands my love of trail running.

Shannon and I at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge

Here we are putting in some miles at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

In early July I took on my second 50K and had to drop at the halfway point due to electrolyte imbalance issues related to the exertion over an incredibly tough course. Because of the Minnesota government’s failure to pass a budget, state parks were closed and the race couldn’t be held at Afton State Park as usual. Instead, the race was held at the nearby Afton Alps Ski Area, which is an incredibly hilly downhill ski area! Not only were the hills more intense than they would have been in the state park, but much of the race was back and forth across slopes which were fully exposed to the intense sun of the day. All in all a great experience as I learned more about my limits and how to fuel properly in such conditions.

Afton Trail Run 50K/25K,  2011 July 2, Afton Alps Ski Resort

Vanity Moment: I may have dropped from the race, but I’m looking good here— probably more fit at this point than any other throughout the year.

Afton Trail Run, out in the open

Crisscrossing the slopes at Afton Alps, baking in the sun.

Just 3 weeks after the Afton Trail Run I was back at Afton Alps for the Warrior Dash. Frankly, it was a waste of time. The crowd was huge and obnoxious, the obstacles were too easy, and the race distance was only 5K— much too short. The hardest part of the whole day was charging up some of the hills at Afton Alps and then trying to get the mud off after the race was done.

Warrior Dash at Afton Alps

Hey, at least I got some fun photos and a few bites of muddy banana out of the deal!

In August I was part of a team running the Ragnar Relay Great River and what a METRIC SHIT-TON of fun that was! Our team, “Better than Bond Girls: Dirty Martinis”, featured 12 people split up into two vehicles. We all took turns running the 196 miles along the Mississippi River from Winona to Minneapolis, MN over a time of 30:47:54. Each runner had 3 legs, my runs covered 5.2, 9.2, and 5.9 miles. The best part was tooling along through the day and night with a bunch of fun people while occasionally running.

Ragnar Relay Great River

Here’s Erin taking on a monster climb during her first leg, about to get water dumped on her head to cool off. Cheering and supporting my teammates along the way was half the fun.

Ragnar Relay Great River

Finishing up my first leg, it was HOT that day!

Ragnar Relay Great River

The whole Dirty Martinis team finishing our Ragnar experience.

Ragnar Relay Great River

Van 2, what a fun group of folks!

In early September I got my first taste of running on the Superior Hiking Trail with the Moose Mountain Marathon. This was definitely the toughest marathon course I’ve ever taken on and that includes the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Superior Hiking Trail features endless rocks and tree roots and almost constant elevation change as it ascends and descends the numerous small mountains along the coast of Lake Superior. Another great experience, especially since I got to share it with my buddy Curtis! Also along for the trip was Sarah, Curtis’ wife Sarah and their son Blake. The four of us had a great weekend!

Curtis and I, aid station #1

Here’s Curtis and I at the first aid station. We both took a fall on that first leg of the course. Fortunately no major damage, just some scrapes on my back and knee.

indubitably!

At the second aid station, just past the halfway point, feeling hot and beat down, but good enough to keep going.

finally made it!

Nearly done, the finish line is just around the corner!

spent.

Utterly exhausted after the hardest 26.2 miles I could’ve imagined. Curtis was definitely right about this race being significantly harder than the Equinox Marathon.

Sarah, Neko and I

Thanks for the encouragement, Sarah and Neko! That was a hard day on the trails, but worth every slow, treacherous step!

Shannon and I also found some new trails in central Minnesota, including Lake Maria State Park.

Lake Maria State Park

A gorgeous autumn run at Lake Maria State Park!

The Surf the Murph 25K at Murphy-Hanrehan Park in Savage, MN capped off the year’s races. The course was challenging, but quite enjoyable. The crowd was bunches of fun too, with it being Halloween weekend lots of people were wearing costumes and carrying on. I’ll definitely return someday for this race, especially since there’s a 50K and 50 mile option.

Surf the Murph 25K

Shannon and I finished off our 2011 racing seasons with a fun 25K on gorgeous trails in great autumn weather. Hopefully next year I’ll make it back!

As I’ve mentioned before, the best part of all the running I was able to do was staying mostly injury free and having lots of truly rewarding experiences. I was able to share many of my trips with Sarah and friends. Plus, I learned a lot more about myself, what I’m capable of, and how to better prepare for long trail races. We’ll see what next year brings with my and Sarah’s daughter due to be born in early March. Whatever running and racing I get to do next year I’ll definitely be eager to take on the challenge!

2011 Moose Mountain Marathon

Prior to the Moose Mountain Marathon I thought I was a reasonably tough, capable trail runner. I had twice successfully completed the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Equinox has a reputation as being one of the top two or three most difficult marathons in the country. This year I’ve run a lot of trails, even completed a trail 50K in April. Sure, training has been full of ups and downs with plenty of challenges since then, but I’ve kept going and put in some decent training runs and races.

During this race up on the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) I encountered and struggled mightily with my physical and mental limitations. Now, two days after the race, my body feels like it’s been through a meat grinder and my spirit is diminished. I’m a shell of the man I thought I was. I’ve been humbled by tough runs before, but not quite like this. Not ashamed, because I did finish and take solace in the fact I managed to keep going all the way to the end, but the experience was completely sobering. And whether it’s wise or not, I’m disappointed by my inability to push through the difficulty.

There are no excuses, but many reasons for struggling. Mainly, my training was not up to snuff for taking on such a technical, hilly course. Central Minnesota does not have many technical or hilly trails. My weekly miles were not where they needed to be in the last few months. Since my DNF letdown at the Afton Trail Run 50K on 7/2, I slacked off for a few weeks and lost my mojo. Over the last month leading up to Moose Mountain I was starting to feel strong again, but in retrospect I see it was already too late and I hadn’t gotten the needed miles and hills to properly prepare for this endeavor.

Whatever, training is always full of challenges and lessons along the way. Heading into race weekend I had the expectation of a hard course and hoped to purposefully go somewhat easy and enjoy the scenery. For a while I was able to do that, to thoroughly enjoy the trail, camaraderie, and the challenge of an extremely technical and mountainous course. As the day went on, however, exhaustion set in like never before on a run. During a couple long, lonely sections after the halfway point I wanted little more than to lie down and shut my eyes. I hadn’t slept well the night before, but that’s typical for me coming into a big race. The way I was dragging you’d think I hadn’t slept in a week.

Already I’ve received encouraging words from nice folks who know completing any substantial distance on the SHT is an accomplishment, and I realize there’s truth in that. However, a big part of why I’m disappointed is because I lost my will to fight about two thirds of the way through on Saturday. This is the third time in three long races where I’ve come face to face with serious doubts and have mentally acquiesced before finishing.

At the Trail Mix 50K I persevered, continued to run easily for much of the latter stages and eventually finished. Similarly, the fight was gone 2/3 of the way into Trail Mix and I was moving like a slug. At Afton I dropped from the race, probably wisely, as I ran into an electrolyte imbalance in the heat and was approaching issues with dizziness and cramping. This past weekend at Moose Mountain after a mostly enjoyable first half where I was able to stay positive, I reached a point where I had given in to the trail and was walking many more sections than necessary. No longer was I racing on any level, I was only moving forward because I wanted to stop. Reaching a point of negativity and a significant erosion of my willingness to struggle makes me question the value of taking on such challenges. Running fast and/or far reveals how much pain we’re willing to endure. Moose Mountain fully uncovered my weaknesses.

In the end, I completed the course! And now, two days removed, despite the soreness and fatigue, I’m already starting to look back on the experience and relish what I encountered. Ceaseless doubts and questions aside, I have few regrets! Looking back I’m even coming to understand and better accept my lack of will since 7+ hours is an hour more than I’ve ever been on my feet during an outing of any sort. Seven hours is a long time to sit on a couch, let alone cruise along a gnarly trail with few breaks.

The weather on race day was great, especially early on with cool temperatures in the morning near 60°. Clear skies all day with rather intense sun, probably reaching the mid to upper 70’s by the afternoon, which felt surprisingly hot when in the open. The forests, scenic vistas, and soothing sounds of rivers and waterfalls were a joy to behold. The race was wonderfully organized and supported. As always, fellow trail runners were awesomely encouraging and entertaining throughout. Encountering occasional 50 and 100-milers always provided a boost and helped me shove aside the pain and negativity I was grappling with. 26.2 miles on that course thoroughly kicked my ass, the thought of 50 or 100 miles is completely mind blowing! Kudos to all the runners who took on any of that crazy course!

The first half of the race was a blast. Starting out my buddy Curtis and I were caught up in a fun group of runners picking our way through endless rocks and tree roots, ups and downs, twists and turns toward the Temperance River Aid Station. The tight single-track made passing difficult, so we mostly went with the flow. On the long descent towards Temperance River fatigue was setting in and I wasn’t being cautious enough. Cruising down a mostly straight piece of dusty trail, I kicked a rock and was immediately launched into a headfirst dive. There was no way to save from falling, it was just a matter of how bad it’d be. I didn’t fight gravity and used both handheld bottles to absorb the initial crash and somehow rolled and slid along on my back for a bit. My left knee and lower back were scraped and slightly bloodied. Lots of other places were banged up and dirtied. Sitting there stunned for a moment the runners ahead asked if I was okay. I responded with a chuckle and “I think so!” Then I got up and slowly eased into a run again checking to see how everything felt. Fortunately there was no real damage, just minor scrapes and bruises. The best part of the fall was being reminded how dangerous loss of focus can be on such a trail. I remained upright the rest of the day, despite several stumbles and close calls.

Curtis and I at the Temperance River Aid Station

Curtis and I at the Temperance River Aid Station

Reaching the aid station it was great to see my wife, Sarah, our dog, Neko, and Curtis’ wife and son. I gobbled up some tasty goodies, including Coke, which is probably my favorite nectar during long races! Sarah put some Vaseline on my scrapes for a little protection. After that it was back to the trail! Curtis had headed out a couple minutes before me and I was eager to get caught up.

Immediately back into the trail I came into a quarter mile section where I could run at a good clip. The roots and rocks were few and far between and I was finding a rhythm. Of course, it wasn’t long before more tricky sections and hills slowed my roll. Catching Curtis we ran together for a while. I got a little ahead and shortly thereafter he took his second fall of the day, after having already fallen near where I wrecked earlier. Curtis falls well and he never injured himself. This would be just another episode in a series of falls for him as he struggled to get his feet to plant where intended. I only got about three hours of sleep the night before, Curtis got none! Lack of sleep the night before a race may not affect the body much, but it certainly affects the ability to concentrate.

The rest of the way through this section of trail leading to the second aid station featured an enormous climb up Carlton Peak, certainly a tough slog that helped to quickly bring my demise. After going over the peak and coming back down an older guy and I cruised happily through a long, flat section with raised wooden planks in an area that must often get flooded. With the trail almost completely dry the boards made for smooth running. A couple relatively easy miles through this leg of the course helped to improve my mood before reaching the aid station. I got to the Sawbill – Brighton Aid Station, 13.6 miles into the race, still feeling strong. I knew my legs had already taken a righteous beating, so I hoped to eat well here and load up for the second half. Unfortunately I overate and took in too many fluids. It’s so damn hard to find that perfect balance with nutrition and hydration during a long race!

at the Sawbill - Brighton Aid Station, ready to head back out

at the Sawbill - Brighton Aid Station, ready to head back out

Heading into the third big section nausea quickly set in. Besides taking in too much during the last break, I may have hit the gels a little too frequently along the way. Whatever the cause, I was reduced to a long walk even though much of this part of the course was navigable at a slow run. I’d try to run for a bit, but that’d bring the nausea roaring back. I then decided to walk it off for as long as needed in the hopes I’d recover and be able to finish strong. What was strange was how tired I began to feel while walking. I don’t know if it was all the blood rushing to my stomach in an attempt to aid digestion, but my head was in the clouds. I felt lightheaded and weak. Keeping moving wasn’t a huge problem, but I was beginning to fantasize about lying down under a tree and taking a nap. Occasionally I’d run for a while, but I was never able to feel quite right again the rest of the day.

coming into the Oberg Mountain Aid Station

coming into the Oberg Mountain Aid Station

Reaching the third aid station at Oberg Mountain, 19.1 miles into the course, my spirits were in the toilet. Dropping from the race was very tempting at this point. The heat of the day had set in, I wasn’t having fun anymore, and I still had 7+ miles of wildly difficult trail ahead. I told myself to not make any hasty decisions knowing negativity was clouding my judgment. Sarah helped me get some food and drink and I sat down in the shade for a few minutes. Sitting and resting quickly improved my attitude and after about 10 minutes I knew I’d continue and finish. I even began to again feel hopeful for a strong finish.

resting at the Oberg Mountain Aid Station

resting at the Oberg Mountain Aid Station

Back on the trail I was buoyed by thinking my next stop would be the finish line and I’d be done with this ridiculous race. Along the way down to Rollins Creek I found some short sections to run, but my legs and feet were throbbing by this point, so giving in to pain and fatigue was much more desirable than forcing myself to run. I caught a couple marathoners and briefly hammed it up with them. While running together I was feeling boisterous, shouting things like “This course ain’t no joke!” and “I guess they call it the Superior HIKING Trail for damn good reason!” We were having fun until I detoured my way down to the creek for some refreshing cool water. I splashed water on my face and head, soaked my hat and got back on the trail. Walking became more frequent from then on even though I was still capable of running the flatter sections and moderate climbs. The opportunity was wasted as I crept my way toward the big climb up Moose Mountain.

Ouch! Some of the trail up Moose Mountain was ridiculously steep. Completely unrunnable except perhaps by a mountain goat, I did my best to hike slowly. Even then, I couldn’t catch my breath. I sat down on a rock in the middle of the trail and let my swooning head settle down. A 100-miler nearly caught me here and seeing him approach turned down the volume of my personal struggle. I got back on my feet and continued moving. After Moose Mountain there was a descent, which I mostly walked since the legs were spent, and then it was up again, this time up Mystery Mountain. Quite a mystery how a once proud runner could be reduced to such a slowly oozing heap in only 20 miles!

The rest of the way to the end was little more than short spurts of running, occasionally respectable power-hiking, and lots of mindless zombie trekking. There was much swearing when I’d fail to step high enough and kick a root or rock. I began to have fun coming up with creative curses for the tripping hazards. My diaphragm was even hurting, like I had strained it with all the heavy breathing. I didn’t care, didn’t seem it’d kill me. I just kept moving slowly and eventually came out of the woods and was on the road leading to Caribou Highlands Lodge. Finishing was an absolute relief! I could finally stop running and I’m still not sure when I’ll start again, but before long I’ll be out on the trails for some more.

Official Finishing Time: 7:23:28
Place: 109 of 136 marathoners

» The rest of the photos can be found on Flickr.

approaching the finish

approaching the finish

exhausted and glad to be done

exhausted and glad to be done

Sarah and I after the race

Sarah and I after the race

Curtis and I sharing war stories

Curtis and I sharing war stories

What a difference a shower, some rest and food make!

What a difference a shower, some rest and food make!