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.
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!
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.
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.
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