Sunday, November 20, 2016

Xero Shoes Umara Z-Trail Sandal

FINALLY! A quality minimalist sandal that doesn't have the toe-post straps! I've been waiting a long time for a company to make a zero-drop, minimalist sandal with modern sandal straps that can still hold up to adventures on the trail. 

Introducing the Xero Shoes Umara Z-Trail sandal, sibling (or cousin?) to the Amuri Z-Trek sandal, both sporting a modern Z-strap system as opposed to the huarache style straps that come up between the first and second toes. The Z-Trail, as the name implies, is a slightly beefier trail version of the lighter, more minimal Z-Trek.

In early September I was lucky enough to be the winner of the Barefoot Runners Society contest for a pair of these, and I couldn't be more excited. I had been eyeing these since they came out, and had planned to buy a pair at the start of the summer for a trip to Germany, but I lost track of time in my planning and preparation. Now that I have them, I regret not having had them for that trip. They would have been unstoppable and I could have brought two pair fewer shoes.

As a disclaimer, I will say two things. First, I have never been able to wear sandals with the toe-post. It's incredibly painful and I just can't do it. Otherwise, I would have bought a pair of the original Xero Shoes a long time ago. Secondly, I'll admit that I've always been skeptical about how a minimalist sandal with a highly flexible sole could work with a modern strap design. Keeping the foot from sliding forward off of the footbed or preventing the front of the sole from getting scrunched up or folding downward during the normal flexion of the foot seemed to be a big challenge, but the folks at Xero shoes have pulled it off beautifully.

The sandal bed is altogether 10mm thick with a BareFoam comfort layer footbed, TrailFoam force protection, and FeelTrue rubber grip pods. What does that mean? It means that the sandal is just thick enough to give excellent protection for adventure, but still flexible enough to provide a natural feel. It won't have the same ground feel as the other Xero shoes, but for those who need some reassurance on more technical terrain, this is the sandal for you. It also has a handy heel cup to help maintain foot placement.

The straps are made of continuous tubular webbing which means no annoying seams - a problem I had with Luna sandals previously. The straps also adjust well and quickly at that. For my skinny feet and ankles, there is quite a bit of strap leftover once I tighten them, but that's easily remedied with a trip to the gear repair/shoe repair shop in town to have them cut down.

Ok, enough of the boring part. Let's get on to how these feel and perform!

I was giddy when pulling them out of the box. They looked sleek and felt both light and soft as silk in my hands. The BareFoam footbed is like nothing I've felt before. When I put them on, it was seriously like slipping my foot onto a piece of unicorn skin! Not that I would know exactly how that feels, because I don't condone the killing of mythical animals for their hides, but imagine along with me, won't you? Thankfully, Xero Shoes use all vegan-friendly materials. In any case, it feels incredible and you hardly know it's there! Smooth as a baby's behind - also something I wouldn't choose to wear on my feet, but you get the idea.

As I mentioned previously, the straps were super easy to adjust, and they felt equally as soft as the sole. They slip through rubber grommets which hold them in place well but don't inhibit the flexibility of the sandal. Once I got them on, I could barely feel them, although there's a pleasant feeling of cushion in a way that still allows good ground feel, as if someone laid a nice piece of felt over the rocks for you to walk on. You still know the rocks are there, but it doesn't hurt.

Without wearing them more than an hour, I decided to take these out on a road run. I was just too excited to wait until I could get on trail. I did 5 miles on pavement while also pushing my two-year-old daughter in the stroller, and these were magical! I did get a small hot spot on my right foot, but I chalked that up to my wonky form while pushing the stroller, and considering I popped off five miles right off the bat and the hot spot started at about 4.5 miles, I'd say that's a solid first performance, especially since I hadn't worn any kind of sandals or gone barefoot outside for at least a month.

October was in full swing and I was concerned about getting in enough runs to truly write an accurate review, but the weather here in Minnesota has been so mild that I was able to take these out on the trail quite a bit. I chose a trail that is single-track and rolling without too much technicality to the terrain. There are definitely some rocky sections, however. The first day I tried them was even more magical than the first road run! It was about 50 degrees and the leaves had started to fall a little, but conditions were dry and perfect. To say that this run was freeing and joyous is an understatement. I haven't experienced such bliss on a run ever! The combination of lightness and protection was unsurpassable, and I floated down the trail, finishing with some of the best stats I've had yet! Here's what the trail looked like:

It's certainly not the gnarliest trail, but after only a few minutes in these sandals, I knew they could stand up to anything. I should also mention that after three or four more 5-milers on this trail, I had no more trouble with hot spots.

This was an incredible first experience with these sandals, but I wanted to know how they would do in wet or muddy terrain. Thankfully we had some serious rain after my first couple runs on this trail, and I was able to test them out in the mud, and they did not disappoint. They stayed on my feet, shed the mud well, and the grip remained solid.

Later in October I went on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and brought these with for wet entry and exits if the temps allowed. It was unfortunately in the 20's and 30's for most of the weekend, so I stuck to my rubber boots, but I did take a swim early one morning when it was sunny and calm, and I wore these to help navigate the rocks in the frigid water. Without question, the grip is phenomenal, in the water and out! Even on the slimy rocks at the shore line, these performed like a pro. They dried decently well afterwards too.

In conclusion, I can honestly say that I have found my sandal, and as long as they are being manufactured, I will go nowhere else. They have the perfect combination of groundfeel and protection, grip well in all terrain and conditions, and are some of the most comfortable footwear I have ever owned. They also look like normal sandals, which is a huge plus when wearing them out and about as I've been doing regularly when the temps permit. Whether running or just bumming around town, these are the new go-to sandals. If you want more detailed specs and information, check out the website, and thanks to Xero Shoes and the Barefoot Runners Society for this opportunity!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Moose Mountain Marathon 2015


There is no single word to truly describe how I felt after this race, but elation comes pretty close. Everything finally came together to make for an amazing day on the trail, from the perfect weather and dry trail to my fitness and mental state. This race report will not be as much of a description of my race as it will be dedicated to everything that went into making it so amazing, so if you want good description of the trail and course itself, read some of my other reports. This one is more for those who are interested in what goes into achieving elation.

March 2015 - Registration for the fall races was approaching, and the closer it came, the more I was feeling sad that my wife and I agreed not to run this time, seeing as we had a 5-month-old daughter, making it difficult to train, especially if both of us were to run. In expressing this sadness, my wife - after some thought - graciously agreed to me signing up for the marathon. I will forever be in her debt for this, because I know how much she loves this race series and would have loved to do the same. Having done the 50-miler last year with somewhat disastrous results, I knew that it was way too much for me to fathom this year, so the marathon was the obvious choice. After a few days of tense wondering if I'd make it into the race after a lottery was instituted since the spring series, my participation was verified and it was time to get serious.

I knew I needed an adjusted approach from previous races. Although confident in the bigger changes I made in the last few years to promote better sustainability in running, I definitely had some problem areas to work on, evident from the 50-miler last year. I was aerobically efficient, but my strength and structural integrity were weak. The question was how to do this and maintain my aerobic efficiency.

Answer #1 - Be deliberate with metabolic efficiency training. Up until now, I had been training on what I had learned from a few different sources on how to become a better fat burner and be more metabolically efficient. I switched to a high fat, low carb nutrition plan and was doing all my training using the Maffetone formula (180-age) to determine my heart rate zones for maximum aerobic function. I had lost about ten pounds and was improving, but I lost a lot of strength along the way, and my fast twitch muscles were fading fast. The information provided in Phil Maffetone's books wasn't enough for me, and I needed something more specific, which brought me to Bob Seebohar, an Iron Man triathlete, sports dietitian, and coach, and his book Metabolic Efficiency Training: Teaching the Body to Burn More Fat, which I had heard about more than a year ago, but couldn't seem to get my hands on a hard copy anywhere, until his second edition was released. Now I finally had specifics, and I learned/became aware of two things: being a better fat burner does not mean strict low carb eating, and hard training must still be a regular part of the workout routine. I was too concerned about killing my aerobic efficiency that I didn't want to stray outside of the MAF zone or what I had assumed was the best nutrition to influence this. With this, I would add two major components to my training that had previously been missing: a 4-week metabolic efficiency "binge" to really pad my base, and thereafter one hard workout per week and an additional one or two varied high-intensity workouts that wouldn't stray far enough out of zone to hinder aerobic efficiency. With the race in September, I decided to start the summer with the 4-week ME training, eating super low carb, running an average of six hours per week and keeping all of it in zone (heart rate between 132 and 142bpm). It was extremely difficult for me, because summer usually means relaxing more and enjoying those amazing summertime delights: cold beer, ice cream, and Chipotle burritos. I'm not sure why, but Chipotle has always felt more like a summer food to me. In any case, the restrictions I put upon myself for the month of June required - but also fostered - perhaps the greatest piece to the puzzle of running a solid race:

Living in a cave by myself for those four weeks was not an option, and so living with my wife who had no need for such extremes and who wanted to enjoy the summer the way we have in the past forced me to truly steel myself to withstand the great temptation to indulge in the things that would set me back. The brain is incredibly good at convincing deceiving you to do things you don't rationally want to and your body doesn't want or need, and for a guy who has spent his whole life up until now as a serious carbivore, it took a great deal to resist.

However, the more I resisted those temptingly sweet carbs, and the more I put in those miles in zone, the more my body adapted and my brain switched along with it. I stopped craving beer and ice cream, and although my brain would see it and tell me how awesome it was, I didn't have an emotional craving for it. The rewards of what I was doing now outweighed the desire to give in. This discipline then carried over into my training. I was also seeing some bigger gains in my efficiency. I was running five miles - mostly on pavement pushing a BOB stroller with my little girl (because that was the only option) - and seeing my time above zone dwindle and my speed improve. It was extremely encouraging.

Answer #2 - Prehabilitation aka Get Strong! Previously I had viewed all harder workouts and strength work to be dangerous to my aerobic efficiency, so I didn't do it, and there was also probably a bit of laziness added in there as well, because my time was limited, and the hatred of doing ridiculous exercises when I could be running more didn't help motivate me any more, but with two of my A races in the last two years resulting in injury during the race, I knew that needed to change. With my newfound discipline and some great training schedule examples from Bob Seebohar's book, a new plan was set into play. I would do one hard workout a week of various kinds: tempo run, ladder intervals, and fartlek runs, and sprinkle in shorter bursts of speedwork into my other runs, mostly in the form of strides, of which I'd try to do 8-10 per week anywhere between 40-100 meters each, keeping an eye on my heart rate. Additionally, it was time to get back to the physical therapy exercises I had been given in the last couple of years by an amazing PT who worked magic on my injuries and mechanical deficiencies. My IT band has a tendency to blow in a big way due to weakness in my hips and glutes, so post-run I would throw in one of the following at least twice a week: one-legged squats, forward-leaning standing knee raises with hands against a wall, and monster walks (my personal favorite).  On a more regular basis, I upgraded my post-run routine to include the Myrtl routine along with planks on all four sides, starting at 30 seconds each and increasing to one minute per side later in the summer. This, in my opinion, was the huge piece to my strength and stability gains. I also started adding a few yoga poses, as recommended in Joe Uhan's Stay the Course post on

Anwer #3 - Run fast...sometimes. Running slowly is great for running slowly. The importance of speed work was something I read about over and over again but wasn't doing, but this time finally accepted once again as important and doable with my current training. In picking the brain of another badass runner and coach Adam Condit, I decided to combine some pieces of advice from different resources for a sort of training smorgasbord, because after all, variety is the spice of life. I started out with a Friel Lactate Threshold Test, just to see where my LT was, even though it wasn't all too important in regard to aerobic efficiency. The process seemed a bit oversimplified: run as hard as you can for 30 minutes, measure heart rate for the last 20, and the average over those 20 minutes is your LT heart rate, but the guy is well renowned and should know his stuff, so I tried it. This was my first hard run after the 4-week ME (metabolic efficiency) training stint, and I came up with what I feel is a ridiculously high LTHR of 194bpm. Could my ME training have had that much influence on my LT, or is this test completely unreliable? It was, nonetheless, awesome to run as hard as I can again.

August 25, 2015 - Endless Summer Trail Series 5k, Murphy-Hanrehan Park. With only 2.5 weeks until the race, I signed up for a final tune-up to push myself hard one last time. Rocksteady Running, the same people who organize the Superior Trail Races, set up some lovely summer races of varying shorter distances at the more lovely parks around the Twin Cities area, and this was the only one I was actually able to do. I hadn't raced that short a distance in a long time, especially not on trail, so I was curious to see what I could do. The weather was warm, but not uncomfortable, and the vibe was relaxed. I set off fast with the intention to hold back a little at the start, which quickly proved impossible if I wanted to get around the throng of people bottlenecked at the start. Redlining within the first few minutes, I decided to see how it would play out, not backing off and running with all the grit and gusto I had. I haven't hurt that much in a long time, but the unique thing is that my legs and muscles didn't hurt, my chest did. My heart was beating so hard that my throat got sore and my chest felt the pressure, as if my heart was trying to squeeze itself out of my mouth. Not a pleasant feeling, but the race was done before I knew it. In fact, I thought for sure we all took a wrong turn and did 2k instead of 5k, but the timing was right. Crossing the line my time was 22:13, a 6:54/mile pace that was good enough for 29th place out of 275 runners, a personal best! I have never run sub-7-minute miles on trail, especially on one of the most challenging trails in the Twin Cities! This was a turning point for me. I knew for sure that I was ready for this marathon, and that my training had paid off. Not only was my body ready, but so was my brain.

Answer #4 - Mental Management. While driving to and from Ely, MN almost every weekend from April of 2013 until May of 2014 while my wife and I had a distance marriage due to a job opportunity she couldn't pass up, I listened to a lot of Trail Runner Nation podcasts, and one that caught my attention in particular was an interview with Lanny Bassham, an Olympic gold medal shooter, who had created a system to improve his mental game and score him the gold medal in 1976. This interview came back to me at the start of my training for this race, and so I decided to check out his book, With Winning in Mind. I was excited to learn something new about unlocking my mental potential, because it's always been a problem area for me. I get really nervous at competitions, and my adrenaline surges right away, leaving me zapped a short while later when it wears off. The book is a short read, and I must say that nothing in it is life-changing, but two things caught my attention that were simple enough to try, and if they didn't work, there were no negative consequences. The first was to make a deal with yourself or someone else, as a sort of carrot to help you achieve your goal. I somewhat half-heartedly proposed to my wife that if I reached my A goal we would go to one of our favorite and most expensive restaurants for dinner, and if I made my B goal, we'd check out a new sushi place we'd heard about. She agreed. The second - and seemingly more influential - piece to my mental game improvement is known as the Directive Affirmation. With this, you write a specific plan in a short paragraph that speaks as if you've already achieved your goal. It's dated at the top with the goal date, you state what you are or are able to do, list the reasons why that goal is important aka the pay value, then state specifically what you do daily to reach that goal, and finish once again with your statement on who you are or what you can do. You're then supposed to make five copies of it and post it around the house in places you go often (bathroom mirror, refrigerator door etc), and read it every time you visit that place. Do this for 21 days and then rest for nine. Well, I didn't print it out and post it, but I left it open on my computer which I saw everyday, so I made a point to read it often. After a while I had it memorized and recited it to myself at various times throughout the day, such as the drive to and from work. Honestly, as cheesy as the whole process sounds, I think it helped a lot in making me more positive and helping me stay disciplined with my training plan.

The two most important resources - a winning pair.

Sept. 4, 2015 - It's always a pleasure to open my email inbox and see an email from the illustrious Samuel Jurek, and on this day, it was short and sweet: "There is a god," along with the weather forecast for race day; sunny, with a low temp of 45 and a high of 59. Perfect! Things were shaping up for a fast course, as it had been dry in the recent week, and things were looking consistent in the final week before go time. For him it was even better, as he was coming back for attempt #2 at the 100-miler, after absolutely disgusting weather in 2013 and an unfortunate DNF.

With only two weeks left before the race, the training itself now took a backseat and I switched to maintenance workouts: shorter, more speed bursts, a ton of foam rolling, and no more long runs. Now is when I focused once again on the key piece to running well.

Answer #5 - Nutrition. Although I totally geek out on this and would love to post about the actual science behind my decisions, I feel that I wouldn't be able to do it justice, so I'll leave it to the professionals. If you're interested, check out Phil Maffetone and Bob Seebohar. For now, I want to speak to what I have done over the last few years and more specifically what I did differently this time.

In following a high fat, low carb nutrition plan pretty regularly over the last two years, I was feeling that something was still missing. It had much greater benefits than my previous carb-centric diet and I didn't want to go back. In my daily life, the benefits were the greatest: increased and balanced energy throughout the whole day without the sugar crashes mid-morning and afternoon, better gastrointestinal health with no gas or bloat to speak of, and a general feeling of lightness in both mind and body. Don't get me wrong, it was - and is still at times - incredibly hard to resist all of the amazing foods that are packed with sugar, but time after time of indulging in those foods, I felt incredibly crappy afterward, so the pay value wasn't as high. I discovered that certain carb-heavy foods didn't bother me as much, such as most pizzas (no deep dish) or Haagen Dazs ice cream, which was higher in fat and had fewer sugar/carbs than other ice creams. To this, I still had some of the things I enjoyed, and for those I knew I wouldn't enjoy after eating, I lost the desire to eat them at all, at least in most cases. I gotta say, I don't really miss bread all that much, except for the convenience of a sandwich on the go. For someone without a lot of free time, it's hard to find a variety of non-carb foods to eat quickly. Most meals required planning and preparation, but it was worth it.

Throughout the summer, I would usually eat 3 fried eggs for breakfast adding in bacon, sausage, or do a scramble with cheese and veggies on days when I had time, a salad for lunch with at least three healthy fat sources such as cheese, nuts, and an olive-oil-based dressing along with small amounts of fruit, and a dinner with some kind of meat with grilled/roasted vegetables drenched in olive oil and sometimes also with cheese. Burgers and brats were heavily consumed, but with romaine lettuce used for a bun, which by the way, allows one to experience more of the flavor of the burger/brat without muting it with a bun. It's a bit messier, but tasty. Since I was feeling that something was missing in this equation, I decided after my 4-week ME stint that I would periodically add in more healthy carbs to see how it affected my training. Sweet potatoes became a staple, along with increased amounts of delicious summer fruit mostly in berry form, and of course an occasional splurge of ice cream. I noticed that with moderated amounts of these types of carbs, my runs on the following day were more successful in most cases, without sacrificing aerobic efficiency. I was finally figuring out the right balance for my body.

A key takeaway from Bob Seebohar's book was the idea of carbohydrate restoration. The idea is that if you're a fat burner eating low carb most of the time, adding more carbs to your meal the night before a hard workout will not hinder your performance, but rather give you a head start and buffer your fat burning. This, of course, sounds like carb loading, a long-held theory in the endurance world, but it's much more modest than that. If, for example, you're eating 40-50g of carbs a day in your normal plan, you should bump it up to 80-90g for something like an interval run. That's not a huge difference, and certainly doesn't require a giant plate of spaghetti or something equivalent. That's essentially like eating one normal serving of rice with stir fry at dinner, and only before truly hard workouts. That does not include long runs, because long runs should be done at lower intensity. I used this once a week before my one hard workout. For days when I did strides, hill work, or strength training, I didn't need the extra carbs.

A Note on High Fat Low Carb Eating (or any big change in your nurtition)
I want to mention a few things worth noting about changing to this nutrition plan. I'll try to keep it brief, in list form: 
- In combining this nutrition with aerobic efficiency-based training, I lost quite a lot of weight and kept it off, whether I wanted to or not.
- I didn't get as hungry as often, because my body was burning more fat - a slow burning fuel.
- I did, however, need to eat a sh*t ton more food to keep up with daily caloric needs, because low carb foods are typically lower in calories. The salads I ate each day were family-style sized.
- Two realizations: carbs are everywhere (take a look at ketchup), and I am totally addicted to sugar.
- This plan is meant for people serious about becoming the best athlete they can be. It takes enormous discipline, patience, and checking your ego at the door. It's a big change in daily living. There's no half-assing it. I wouldn't recommend it unless you're totally motivated.
- It takes support and encouragement to do well. If family and friends aren't on board, or at least understanding, it won't work and will cause havoc with relationships. Some may think you have an eating disorder. Be prepared to compromise when you can.
- It could very well make you food obsessive (see the extreme here), but done properly doesn't need to be extreme. One simply needs to shift daily routine and patterns. It does, however, take time to figure that out for yourself and your own body. Obsessing about it is not mentally healthy, and if body and mind aren't both healthy, then you're not healthy.
- There is an ebb and flow with this eating plan. It is not a diet, but a nutrition plan, and it need not be maintained 100% of the time to the strictest of standards. It's taken me a while to truly figure this out and internalize it. Some people will figure it out faster, and some need time to learn about their own body and how it works, because everyone is different. Nutrition periodization is key. Loosen up in the off season and have the bagel or brownie. It's ok.
- In general, this is the plan I chose to try and it has worked for me over time, especially since I learn more about my body each day and tweak things a bit. Everyone is different, but in following some basic principles, you'll be fine with whatever you eat. A great post to sum this up is from ultrarunning champion and pathologist Pam Smith and can be found here.

RACE WEEKEND - SEPT.11-12, 2015
It was finally here! In the two weeks pre-race, I was feeling quite negative: I was stressed from starting the new school year, didn't feel strong, and just wanted to get the race over with. I'm not sure why I was so negative, considering the many big improvements I'd experienced throughout the summer, but for some reason my brain took a downward spiral, probably just because I was super stressed with work. In any case, I worked a half day on Friday and the girls and I headed up north on a gorgeous sunny afternoon. Runner check-in at Caribou Highlands, dinner at Mogul's Grille, and race day prep to follow.
Pre-race day nutrition: 3 fried eggs for breakfast, almonds for mid-morning snack, lunch of chicken choylla (spicy Tibetan dish with chicken, sauteed peppers/onions/tomatoes over rice) with a little spinach mixed in, and bacon-wrapped meatloaf in mushroom cream sauce with sauteed veggies for dinner at Mogul's.
Although trying to get myself ready and help my wife prepare for the day of crewing with our 10-month-old daughter and two dogs in tow was a little stressful, I slept really well, which is quite unusual. The morning started at 5am with breakfast of homemade grain-free granola (nuts, seeds, coconut shavings/oil, cinnamon, and honey) in Greek yogurt and about 8oz of my usual pre-race drink (scoop of chocolate whey protein, 2oz coconut milk, 10oz almond milk) which had frozen into a slushy in the overachieving hotel fridge overnight. Everything else came together and I was on the bus headed to the start. It turns out I sat across from a guy I met at the 5k a few weeks prior, so we chatted a bit about this and that. He had finished right behind me and thanked me for setting a good finishing pace, and mentioned that he was hoping to do the same with this race. I told him we'd see.

The start was brisk, but perfect running weather. I got in a solid warm-up and was thoroughly enjoying the cool temperature. The best part was the woman next to me who was all smiles while wearing a shirt with big black letters that read, "I HATE RUNNING." How's that for inspiration?

Although wanting to run the first part of the race measured and relaxed, I set out at a somewhat brisk pace in the front half as not to get stuck behind slower runners once the pack turned onto the trail itself from the road, where everything bottlenecks. The goal was to run measured, but not "like a sissy" as Max King put it in his Ice Age 50 race report from last year. I hit it perfectly, just behind some runners going a little faster than I would like, with runners behind me going no faster than my current pace. Golden.

The race was truly a blur. I ran behind a couple of runners for a while - one woman in purple and a guy in bright orange - and shared some good conversation. I kept passing the woman on the downhills and she'd overtake me on the uphills, so we agreed to let it play out. Once we hit Cross River, however, she and the guy in orange took off. Later on there was a college student from St. Cloud behind me for a good stretch. It was his first marathon, and he seemed to like my pace. Once we hit Temperance AS - which came up a helluva lot quicker than I expected, even with it being the longest stretch of trail on the course - I didn't see him again. I rolled through there in about 51 seconds, but only after the girl who filled my water said, "Hey, I remember you. You had the cute baby at the restaurant last night!" It's those kind of statements that make trail racing fun. Thanks for that, whoever you are.

The second section includes the climb up Carlton Peak, which was thoroughly enjoyable this time around. Once again, it came up quicker than expected. I made good use of the awesome sustained downhill coming off the backside. I was a little bit sluggish rolling in to Sawbill AS, but still feeling good, and looking forward to seeing my girls. Upon arrival, no wife and daughter! It was here that I realized I was blazing at my A-goal pace! I also wasn't going to wait around, so I fueled up and took off.

Now it was on! Between Sawbill and Oberg is the fastest part of the trail, with rolling hills and relatively smooth trail. It was quiet here and I was alone for most of this section, passing an occasional runner. I recalled the last climb up to Oberg from 2013 and remembered how trashed I was feeling, but this year the thought was: "I'm eating this sh*t for breakfast, but actually since I had breakfast, this is second breakfast!" Hitting the soft, wide path shrouded in pine just before the opening into Oberg was almost magical, and I hit the downhill into the AS with a huge smile, especially because my girls were there waiting! One of the TC Running Company guys made swift work of filling my Camelbak while I connected with girls, who just barely missed me at Sawbill.

On to the final stretch! I was pumped to get moving and blaze the last 7+ miles on my all-time favorite stretch of trail. Coming down off Oberg Peak I opened it up a bit more, only to feel a blip on the inside of my right quad, threatening to cramp. Damn! I was feeling so great. It was time to pay attention to my form a bit more. I was letting my legs splay out to the sides and my feet get in front of me too much, but by the time I got to the long, steep climb up Moose Mountain, I was ready. I kicked it into climbing gear and set out, passing a guy in a green shirt, who held on with me to the top. After the race he came up to me and thanked me for pulling him up the mountain with him, but to be honest, it was him right behind me that put me in gear. Heading down Moose felt fast, but I was focusing hard to keep that threatening quad in check.

Next came the "Long Climb of Loneliness" as I like to call it, up Mystery mountain. This time around it wasn't long or lonely! I felt great and was hiking well. At the top of this climb is where I usually set it to my final push and realized at this point that I've never been passed in this last section, so I felt confident and was ready to keep it that way.

Until I heard footsteps approaching behind me.

A tall guy in a hunter green shirt passed me up at a brisk pace, but not too brisk that I couldn't hang with him, so it was on! We zigzagged through the woods until we passed the campsite, which is always my signal that the end is incredibly near! One last set of screaming downhills before hitting the approach trail and the river. I stepped out in front, feeling ready to fly...and then promptly ate it, my first fall ever in a race! Tumbling into the soft dirt just off the trail, I got up quickly, checked myself, and took off. Green shirt guy was about 30 yards up the trail, and just as I started cruising, I saw him faceplant. Now it was getting interesting! I caught up and passed him, feeling both my quads offering a "hang on a minute there" in polite rebellion, but ignored it. Bad idea. Just after passing, I ate it again! This time it was a bit more intense and I did a sort of awkward side roll to get myself up without coming to a full stop. The sudden jolt sent a huge blip to my right hamstring. No, I can't cramp now! Ok, at this point, being way ahead of my A-goal pace, I decided to back off and let Green Shirt Guy run his own race. It wasn't worth cramping right before the worst part of the race, namely the 3/4 mile of pavement back to Caribou Highlands. Setting into a swift and only somewhat uncomfortable rhythm, I hauled it in to the finish ahead of schedule, with such joy that I did a diving somersault across the finish line, squirting water out of my Camelbak all over me. Official finish time 15:15:25 with a 12:03/mile pace!


As I've said before, I'm no elite runner, but surpassing lofty goals is something truly amazing, especially when everything comes together and it almost feels - dare I say - effortless. I had a blast on the trail that day, and it went by so quickly.

As wrap-up, I'll stick to my traditional format:


Fitness - A
Of course there's always room for better fitness, but I nailed it this time around with the added hard workouts and additional PT/post-run exercises. Other than the blip in my right quad, everything felt solid.
Mechanics - A- 
Just like with my fitness, I feel that my form was solid and sustainable. The only thing that gives me pause is that inner right quad blip. I was stepping too much out front and to the side on downhills with my right leg. That hints to an imbalance that I'll need to figure out more. It might simply be psychosomatic.

Mental Toughness - A
Great mood all day, ready to race but disciplined and smart.

Nutrition/Hydration - A
No problems whatsoever. Consumed only gels, banana chunks, Heed, and water all day, and in relatively small amounts. Fat burning was truly optimized.

Joy - A+
I totally overachieved on this one. I had no lows at all, even when I felt a little sluggish coming in to Sawbill. I had my party pants on...or shorts as it were.

Pacing - A
Allow me to share my stats, for you number nerds like me.
- Start-Temperance: 1:27:51 (7.1mi, 12:22/mi pace), avg HR 165, max 171, AS time - 57sec
- Temp-Sawbill: 1:07:23 (5.7mi, 11:48/mi), avg HR 168, max 173, AS time - 2:07
- Sawbill-Oberg: 1:06:08 (5.5mi, 12:00/mi), avg HR 172, max 180, AS time - 5:11
- Oberg - Finish: 1:25:48, (7.1mi, 12:00/mi), avg HR 177, max 192
- Avg HR for the whole race: 170, max 192. 

Until the next excessively tardy race report. Cheers!


Friday, September 19, 2014

Superior Trail Races 50 Mile

"I think I'm done," I told my wife, hands on my throbbing knees and fighting back tears. The time was 6:47pm, I had been walking for the previous 24 miles, and I had reached the final aid station just 13 minutes before the cutoff. The final runners there were scurrying to get their needed supplies and head out as the volunteers were packing up after 19 hours of service to several hundred runners. The thought of suffering for 7.1 more miles on the toughest section of the course in the dark was something I couldn't get my head around, and yet I couldn't admit that I was truly done.

Traveling 50 miles on foot in a day is not something most people would consider, let alone run that far on one of the most challenging trails in the Midwest. Some hear about people running this distance - and much farther distances - and nonchalantly recognize it as something that crazy people do, without ever grasping what it is to actually do it: how much time it takes to train, the mental energy expended obsessing over the preparation, the strain on relationships, and how much willpower, grit, and patience it takes to execute on race day while enduring what can at times be the greatest suffering that the runner has ever endured, certainly in the physical realm, but most often also on the mental side as well.

Add to that the specifics of this race. As the race website states: "[it has the] reputation as one of the toughest, most scenic and best marked trail 50′s in the country." It's technically 52.1 miles point-to-point, 100% trail and 99% single-track. It has an elevation gain of 12,500ft and an elevation loss of 12,500ft for a net change of 25,000ft. The course record is 8:53:19. Take a look below at the elevation profile and you'll know why it's referred to as the Sawtooth Mountains.

THREE YEARS is a long time to wait to accomplish a goal, especially when it has to do with something you do almost every day anyway. The goals I typically choose for myself are usually much more swiftly accomplished, but in the summer of 2011, I realized that there was something big I needed to do, and it would take a great deal of time, devotion, and discipline to make happen. Crewing for my friend Joe Uhan at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in California that June was an epiphany of sorts, witnessing this crazy sport called ultrarunning. I've mentioned this experience many times in my previous entries, but it's interesting to think back to it now as I finally reached the goal event that I set out to do. In the previous three years, I went from being an occasional 5k runner to running barefoot, overhauling my mechanics, drastically changing my diet to promote fat burning, training with a heart rate monitor to maximize aerobic function, volunteering at an ultra, running half marathons, a marathon, and a 50k, and reading or listening to anything and everything I could on ultrarunning and the various ways to prepare and succeed at it. It's been an interesting journey to say the least, not without its ups and downs, but this last weekend was the culmination thus far in such a long journey. 

The Bucket List (for now)

In preparing for this race, I knew that this summer would be key, but would also present myriad challenges. I had just come off of the best race of my life - my first 50k - in May on the same trail as this 50-miler, and was intent on maintaining my fitness and building strength over the summer. The only problem was that I would be traveling for most of the summer, first in Germany with 34 students for four weeks, and then in Norway for two weeks visiting friends. Consistency was definitely not in the cards, and I am a man of routine. Additionally, my wife is eight months pregnant, and preparation for the baby has required a good deal of thought and effort, and continues to do so. The greatest setback for me, however, was the death of my father on the 4th of July. I was in Germany at the time, and it was a devastating shock that threw me completely out of the orbit of my world. I truly felt disconnected from my own reality, unable to get back into a rhythm of normalcy. To say I was mentally stretched is quite the understatement, especially when I went back to work again for another school year. I knew when registering for this race back in March that I would face challenges, but was not prepared for the burden that those challenges actually became. At least I was feeling good, and had a few enjoyable runs, including a 35km run in the Fjella of southern Norway, which looks a lot like a melding of the North Shore and the Ely/BWCA forests.

TWO WEEKS prior to the race, I embarked on a quick two-day adventure up to the Superior Hiking Trail with beast athlete and fellow adventure friend Sam Jurek in order to scope out the first half of the course that I had not yet seen. Everyone I had talked to mentioned how brutal the 9.4 mile stretch between the Crosby-Manitou and Sugarloaf aid stations is, so I wanted to be prepared. We drove two cars up and set out a plan to see the entire first 26 miles if time and energy allowed. The weather was perfect, albeit a bit humid, and the trail was devoid of other humans save for one ragged through-hiker, and Sam and I had a lot of catching up to do. It was a disservice to me and Sam that my mind was in a negative spin at the moment. I was concerned about keeping the effort easy so close to the race, but that would mean going so slow that Sam would be tortured by my snail's pace. These two thoughts were so conflicted that I couldn't keep my stress in control and my heart rate spiked immediately after we started running. At about the 18 mile point, my IT band tightened so much that it yanked my left knee into an aggravated, unrunnable state, the same condition I experienced last fall during the marathon. Now I felt really f***ed. To a certain extent it was a blessing, however, because it caused me to give up the endgame and just roll with it. I focused on the PT exercises I was given after last fall's incident, and rested as much as possible. What else was there to do?

THREE HOURS pre-race, the alarm rips me from a dream at 2:15am and I'm up to eat and get ready. After taking the previous day off of work to make my way up north with a bit more leisure, stopping in Duluth to have lunch with my brother- and sister-in-law at Northern Waters Smokehaus, I had everything laid out and my mind was finally lucid and relaxed, except for one detail; in my rather scattered last-minute packing of my personal stuff (I had spent more than a week carefully packing the gear box for my crew), I realized on Friday night that I had brought my heart rate monitor strap, but forgot the watch at home! This is the one thing I need to help keep my pace, because I suck and keeping my running measured when racing. I figured that this was the sign that I was meant to relax and just race by feel, that I knew by now what my heart rate and body were telling me. Normally this would have been something that I couldn't get over, but with everything I had experienced in the previous two months, I let it roll off and was thankful that I wouldn't have to wear that strap all day.

My breakfast of paleo granola with Greek yogurt and a whey protein/coconut milk shake went down easy as I ate quietly in the dark motel bathroom as not to wake my wife and crew. Suiting up, lubing up with sunscreen and bug juice, and grabbing my start line bag, I was out the door after a goodbye kiss and a "see you soon" for my wife. The timing was almost exact as I climbed aboard the yellow school bus that would shuttle me and my fellow 50-milers to the start line. The "bus manager" boarded and gave us the details, and when another runner asked him for something more profound, he paused and then said something like, "This race is a gift. The weather, the volunteers, and the course are giving you a great gift today, so go out there and make the best of it." Unknown to me at the time, that simple first sentence would be what pushed me through some of the greatest suffering I've experienced ever in my life. It didn't click as much at the moment because we were all too busy laughing nervously as our bus driver took a wrong turn before even getting out the parking lot. An outspoken runner from the back was our sole saving grace who directed our clueless yet pleasant driver to the start line after one more missed turn, prompting the driver to keep going despite his desire to wait for the guy he was following with the convincing urgency in his statement, "I gotta take a dump!" It should also be noted, that for most of us there at the Finland Rec Center, it was the first time that the line for the men's room was longer than for the women's restroom. I suppose it's proof that women don't poop.

The banter was lighthearted and electric as we gathered outside for race director John Stohrkamp's final directions under the crisp, clear night sky, with stars that never before seemed so welcoming and bright. I had enjoyed this view on the bus ride, feeling calm and thankful with a few small prayers in my heart: for health and safety of all, a successful finish, and that my wife would not go into labor on this day. We lined up on the road with only ten seconds to start, and suddenly we were off. 

I had never started a race in the dark before, and running with a headlamp creates a rather surreal experience, especially when it's not very bright. I had a small amount of headlamp envy as my fellow runners' head torches blazed the path in front of them. I was quite happy to be in the midst of their light all around me on the road to the trail. Dipping down onto the trail, the forest enveloped us in its lush, dense blanket and we truly began our journey. It suddenly became quiet. The energy was still light, but focused, as we all now contemplated the day ahead. After ten minutes or so, voices emerged from ahead and behind as the runners loosened up once again and began to chat. To the general audience around me I asked when the sing-a-long would start, and the guy behind assured me that I didn't want to hear him sing, so instead I requested jokes. Jim, who first declined to sing, started it off with an Ole and Lena joke. I followed with several more, and this locked in our trail companionship for the next several miles. He asked if he could pace behind me, as he liked my approach in the beginning miles, so we talked training and running history, and he shared the challenges of running on a treadmill and playing video games simultaneously. With a baby on the way, I gleaned some insight into my possible future from his tales of time management and multitasking.

Soon enough the light from our headlamps was no longer visible and the starlight transposed to muted morning colors and a fresh smell of damp soil.  The terrain in the first section was rolling and moderately technical with no real surprises, and the conversation flowed easily. Eventually I stopped to pee and lost my new-found running comrade Jim, and I did not see him again. Soon after, however, a group of guys came up behind me, and in listening to their conversation I recognized both a familiar story and a voice. Turning around, I recognized a man I had run into a couple times before, once when I was volunteering at Sawbill AS back in 2012, and again in the hot tub at Caribou Highlands after the marathon last year. I first noticed him because he did the marathon in 2012 in Vibram Five Fingers, which I thought was rather brave. It seems we were on a similar path, and as it happened, were running at a similar pace. Reintroducing himself as Chad, he and his buddy Andy tucked in behind me as we rolled into the first aid station, Sonju Lake. It's a small operation with no crews aloud, and we were all feeling so good that we didn't spend much time there. A quick cup of Heed, a thank you to the volunteers, and I was off. Chad and Andy followed suit and we passed the next few miles with banter at a swifter pace that I would have liked, but it still felt comfortable. I was reminded of Max King's Ice Age 50 race report and the statement of his that has been my mantra ever since; "Don't run like a sissy." Without a heart rate monitor, and having the distraction of conversation, I must say that in looking back it's still hard to tell if I was running smart or letting my joy overexcite me. 

Stopping to pee again - a trend that proved my nutrition and hydration was locked in, Chad and Andy passed me a short ways before we opened up onto Bensen Lake Rd that leads up to Crosby-Manitou State Park and the aid station there. I could see them up ahead and made my way to them, power-hiking the gradual uphill, slowly passing the string of parked cars that led toward the sounds of civilization. Rounding up over the hill I could see Anna waiting for me, followed by her brothers Nathan and Jerod and their folks Tim and Nancy. It was the first time I got to see my wife and crew that day, and there was joy, relief, and comfort seeing them there with gear ready for me. Jerod filled my Camelbak while still on my back to save time, only for me to discover that I still needed to take it off to empty the air from it to avoid sloshing. Duly noted for the next AS. I chatted for a few minutes and Nathan informed me that I was right on pace between my first and second scenarios (perhaps a bit too fast?). Grabbing a banana and some gels, I made my way happily up the hill out of the AS and onto the longest stretch of the race, 9.4 miles to Sugarloaf.

In hearing several reports of the 50-mile course, every person said that this stretch from Crosby to Sugarloaf was the hardest. It's the longest single stretch between aid stations and includes some rocky terrain, some densely overgrown areas, and a few short, steep climbs. After running it with Sam, I felt that it wasn't all that hard, just really long. It tends to drag on quite a bit, and can be especially challenging if running alone. I had left the aid station before Chad and Andy in the attempt to follow my plan to keep moving early in the race, but set out at an easy tempo to relax a bit and settle in some more. Normally in races I like to be alone; it helps me relax, focus, and I don't need to waste breath talking or stare at the back of someone else's feet, which can make me really dizzy. I didn't mind it too much here as the sun peeked in through the dense cover from time to time and my brain spun in its rambling directions from one thought to another. The "brain iPod" was playing a track from the new Jonathan Byrd CD I got at the Storyhill Fest music festival over Labor Day weekend, which had a few key lines akin to my predicament:
"There's a jack knife out on highway 10,
it's the biggest mess I ever seen,
I'm waiting to meet the candy man,
it's been a long time, since I've been clean.
Reaching the one steep climb I remembered from the training run two weeks prior, a group of guys - who had been hootin' and hollerin' down the previous hill - came upon me and it felt like an eighteen-wheeler tailgating me on the interstate. I had to pee again anyway, so I stepped off the trail to let them by. "You're peein' a lot today, Matt!" shouted a voice from the middle of the pack. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Chad truckin' along, so I dropped in behind them and settled back in. We soon lost one of the guys, and the front runners pulled ahead, leaving just Chad and I. He had left Andy at Crosby to take care of some foot issues and was on his own. Already with a tight left IT band and sore right glute, he lamented, "I think the marathon would have suited me just fine today." He was still moving well it seemed, and I was comfortable at that pace, so we picked up our conversation and rolled. With about three miles to go to Sugarloaf, I was feeling a little antsy and wanted to pick it up just a little, so I bid Chad adieu and smoothed out the pace a little. This didn't last long, however, because my brain decided to get in the way. On a nice, easy flat section along an unknown lake, I reached the exact point where I remember my IT band jacking my left knee out of place on my training rung. Suddenly, I felt it again. It had been a little tight since Crosby, but was working fine, until I remembered it. Almost like clockwork I could feel the knee going, with minute flickers of acute pain when stepping in certain ways. The knee was going, and there was nothing I could do about it. I slowed down, focused on my mechanics, and tried to get my head in check. "This is nothing. You won't blow it out again if you take care of yourself now. You got this." I still felt positive and was in control, despite the blips that were growing. At just the perfect time, I rolled in to Sugarloaf, finishing on a beautiful stretch of open, flat trail through a grove of trees that both shelters and welcomes the runners into the aid station. 

Sugarloaf felt a bit more hopping than Crosby, being more out in the open as the sun was shining high. It was a bit awkward as I stood at the aid station, because a huge puddle separated me from my family. They clearly didn't want to get in the way of any runners coming through, but had eager smiles on their faces and wanted to help. After getting what I needed from the aid station, I stepped around a bit more, had Anna remove my arm sleeves, and chatted briefly before taking off again; 5.6 miles to Cramer Rd and the half-way point in the race.

The looks on the faces of both wife and dog are quality foreshadowing.
Although I was in good spirits, the memories of suffering on this section of trail two weeks prior were incredibly fresh and vivid. The power of the mind is something I've come to respect in the last year or so, and this was an example of that in the negative. I fought hard to keep positive, thankful for the weather and the day, feeding off of the energy I got from my family, and telling myself that I could make this work, but the visceral memory ran deep. My left knee was tweaking more and more, and the pain was becoming more organized and consistent. I started walking more, focusing on feeling my body relax and loosen up. No good. The knee was going to do what it was going to do. In addition, the majority of this stretch of trail was unrunnable mud. There was no getting around it, and it spanned the entire width of the trail, making travel miserable. Finally drying out and recognizing the last 3/4 mile to the aid station, I made a point to try and run easily as much as possible. I mean, it's all about looking good, right? Waiting at the road was Nathan with the camera in hand, cheering me on. I crossed and took the trail down to the trail spur that leads to the parking lot. As soon as I turned onto the spur I could run no further. I hobbled in to the aid station, feeling defeated. Stooping with hands on my knees, the conversation at the aid station was something like this :

 Me: "That section SUUUUCKED!"

Anna: "Yeah, everyone has been saying how terrible it is. How are you feeling?"

Me: "I've got good news and bad news. The bad news is that I blew my knee out a few miles ago. The good news is that I'm not done yet."


Jerod: "Damn right you're not!"

Leave it to my brother-in-law Jerod to say exactly the right thing, simultaneously sternly encouraging and humorous, to put us all back into reality. I told them that I couldn't quit at the half-way point, even if it meant walking to the next aid station. The decision was to keep moving as long as my knee allowed, or until I missed the cutoff at an aid station or the sweepers caught up to me. In any case, I was still on my middle pacing scenario, which surprised me quite a bit. I stretched a little and grabbed a bit more food than in the plan, as I knew I would be walking and my stomach could handle more than if I were running. Perusing the options, I noticed a pot full of breakfast sausages! "Sausage? I love you!" I blurted out to the volunteers as I scarfed one down, followed by a square of grilled cheese. Food never tasted so good.  I decided to pass on the biscuits and gravy though, which turned out to be a good call. At this point, Chad rolled in and I asked how he was doing. He mentioned dropping and made it sound inevitable. I wondered if this was also my fate, but was not ready to admit to it.

Walking out of the aid station, I was revived and positive, despite the conditions. Sure, I was walking in a race that I should be running, but I knew this second half of the course decently well, and it was a gorgeous day. Running or walking, a beautiful sunny day on the trail can't be under-appreciated. Thankfully, the first half of this section is relatively flat, so I was able to move quickly. I had forgotten, however, that this stretch was over seven miles, and not 5.5 as I had thought. It did seem to drag a bit, until finally a familiar face caught up to me. Chad pulled in behind me and we regaled each other of the events of the day since we had split. He was now in the pain cave and had been for a while, and sounded rather sure that he would drop at Temperance. I explained my situation as well, and after some deliberation I thought it was silly for him to drop at Temperance with no crew and no way to communicate with them. Having thought ahead before I had arrived at Cramer, I told my family to go to the Temperance River State Park parking lot and hike up to the bridge and wait there. Since no crew was allowed at Temperance AS, I would continue past there down to the bridge, where I would either have officially dropped back at the AS and would hop in the car with them to head back to the motel, or would continue on to Sawbill AS. The more I thought about it, though, I knew that Sawbill was a distinct possibility. We did the calculations for our current pace, time of day, and cutoff times for the aid stations, and realized that we still had plenty of time. Wanting to encourage him, I offered up a pact to forge ahead to Sawbill, and we would make the call there. Albeit somewhat begrudgingly it seemed, he agreed.

It wasn't long after that when we hit a "money" section of flat open trail that runs along the Temperance River to the bridge that crosses over and heads back upstream. By now, I was completely unable to run except for about ten hobble-jog steps at a time every few minutes. Chad, on the other hand, was feeling a little better and decided to try and run for a bit. "You'll probably catch up to me later," he said as he started running. I was happy to encourage him to do so and hoped that he would find some redemption. Not long after, I made my way to the bridge and found my family waiting there, looking relaxed, especially my Husky Dart, who was lying in the "dead dog" position on the warm pavement. Standing there on the pavement amongst tourists and day-trippers was an almost unfamiliar feeling, as this is the closest a racer will get to main roads or non-race people the whole day. I didn't care to stay long, but I basked in the warmth of my family surrounding me and took a few moments to pet my dog and rub my wife's baby bump. Surprisingly, I was still on pace! I had completed the stretch from Cramer to Temperance at just under a 16min/mile pace while walking the whole thing. This bode well for me and I was now set on finishing this race, but I still had to climb Carleton Peak. Time to go.

Looking like crap, doin' the "hobble jog"
The "dead dog" yoga pose.
Heading back upstream into the wilderness, the trail is equally smooth and flat as its counterpart on the other side, so I decided to push a little and run whatever I could. I forced the "jobble" and tried to move quickly any way I could. It was ten steps running followed by double that speed walking and it was working well. Reaching the point at which the trail starts to climb, I power-hiked to make some time. I passed a hundred-miler with a most excellent beard and a will that was dwindling. I encouraged him on as best I could, hoping that he would make it to the finish. Although this section is only 5.7 miles, it contains the toughest climb on the whole course, but it's not without a dark sense of humor. The trail climbs from the Temperance River valley at about 650ft up to about 1250ft in the span of approximately 2.5 miles, and then you see the peak...and the gorge in between you and it. Just as you think you've made it, you must go down again into the woods and then climb an additional 250ft in less than a mile up ancient boulders, skirting along ominous rock faces with deep fissures pumping out cool air. It's refreshing, but seemingly out of place on this course. The climb itself this time around wasn't altogether unpleasant for me. Whereas I normally suck at climbing during races, my current condition had made climbing my strong suit. I powered up the trail, thinking back to the summit turnaround of the 50km last May and wishing that the volunteer was still up there with the beer he was offering to runners. I settled for water and another S! Cap and made my way over the top and down. Normally, heading down the other side is incredibly fast. The trail rewards those willing to relax and open up a bit to zoom down, but today the larger drops from the boulders toward the top end destroyed me. Going down was viciously terrorizing both knees now after overcompensating with the right knee. I poked my way down gingerly as a few runners passed by. Thankfully the aid station isn't far after the descent of Carleton.

Sawbill aid station. I've had a fondness for Sawbill ever since I volunteered there in 2012 with the Immerfall family who has been championing its operation for the last twenty or so years. Not thirty seconds after I stopped, another familiar face was right there to greet me. For the life of me I can't remember his name, but he volunteered there as well in 2012 and has run the 50-miler in the past. I can credit him for first warning me of the stretch between Crosby and Sugarloaf, and it was nice to see his imposing stature and ear-to-ear grin. He was incredibly helpful as we chatted, and Dale Immerfall also came up to say hi. I almost didn't have the chance to talk to my wife, but I felt tremendously supported - something I needed after the last stretch. The people there were so helpful, in fact, that they beat my crew to their jobs. With the whirlwind of humanity buzzing here, there was no doubt I would make it to Oberg AS, and if I made it to the last official aid station, why wouldn't I make it to the finish? The pain and tiredness were catching up to me, but my stubborn mind was determined. Kiss the wife and go!

The motivational force is strong with this one.
Lovely day for a walk.

Keeping track of my pace since I started walking, I was making decent time and figured I could get close to my third scenario goal time of 14hrs 49min. This thought was rather perplexing, seeing as I was walking, but considering the terrain and average pace of a runner, I guess power-hiking was a close second in regard to moving quickly. The section from Sawbill to Oberg is also an easier 5.5 miles of rolling terrain. No problem...except for the boredom. The sun had baked me on the previous section - the most exposed section of the course - and now my mind was losing focus. I started to consider how long I had been on the trail, and how ridiculous such an endeavor is. For weeks before the race I had contemplated bringing my iPod should I really want it, but I have never been able to run with music and didn't see the need for it, especially since I can never get earbuds to stay in. Such a failure of preparation I have never regretted more. The "brain iPod" had shut off and my mind was spinning into a vortex of boredom and negativity, and all I needed was some tunage to pump me up. No deal. Oh, and there was more mud, lots of it. The constant slipping was starting to aggravate much more than my knees.

Dark times. Many ultrarunners - particularly 100-milers - speak of the dark times that a runner faces mentally, where the stress on the body breaks down the brain and it cannot remain positive and in focus. Although I was on one of the easiest stretches of the course, I was moving incredibly slowly, the pain in my legs was steady in both the throbbing and stabbing varieties, and my brain had opened up a deluge of destructive thoughts. Never before had I been in the middle of such a conflicting proposition; quit at Oberg with only 7.1 miles left and be free of the suffering and pain, or continue on in the dark for another 3 hours and slowly go insane. Thoughts of my father also came to mind, combining my loss with my current suffering and pain. I had decided soon after his death to dedicate this race to him (albeit privately), so how would I honor him with this miserable excuse for a race, especially if I quit? "Ugh, stop thinking like that, Matt. It will only destroy you more."

Struggling to hold back tears, I approached the aid station. Looking at my watch, I saw that I had only thirteen minutes before the aid station closed. I was at least five minutes out, maybe more, and this stretch of 5.5 miles had taken me almost two hours and twenty minutes. The thought of stopping and waiting in the woods so that I would miss the cutoff crossed my mind briefly, but I dismissed it just as quickly as it came. That would be a complete and total waste of the gift in the most weak way possible. The woods opened up to one of the coolest entrances to an aid station I've seen, and one that I had hoped would make an awesome photo op, but now that I was hobbling and it was nearing dark, that small dream had vanished rather quickly. There were few people left at Oberg, and the aid station volunteers were already packing up.  

"I think I'm done."

As the words left my mouth to my wife, another rushing impulse of tears flooded to the surface, but I held it back. Anna, thank God, called me on it, and asked me if I knew that I was done, or just thought so. We had made a pact before the race that would apply both to my race and her giving birth. Should I want to quit or should she want an epidural, the other would simply ask, "100%?" If we were 100% sure, then there are no questions asked and no further encouragement to go on in the present state. She posed the short question to me, and I wavered. I knew I couldn't give up, but I just couldn't wrap my head around three hours of suffering in the dark, just to finish a race that has no real meaning (or so I was thinking at the time). Knowing me as well as she does, Anna reminded me that I had just come 45 miles, and if I didn't finish now I would hate myself for a long time. At this moment, the aid station captain and sweeper came up to me and inquired how I was doing and if I had my headlamp with me. When I showed signs of doubt, he very matter of factly said, "You're not done. You've got about half-an-hour of light left and then two hours in the dark. No problem. Can I check your headlamp to see that it works?" Sometimes it's necessary to hear things put bluntly. "I've seen much worse. You're not done." He reassured me, and I realized that I was still standing, still walking, and still lucid. He and Anna were right. Jerod filled my Camelbak for me one last time and I took a gel and a Kashi bar from Anna and headed out after one more prompting from the sweeper. "You need to go now. I'll be coming your way soon, and I hope not to see you." I told him that if he did catch up to me, he'd damn well better bring the horse to carry me in. "Oh no, the horse will just run you over." Fair enough.

Anna walked me to the trail, reassuring me that I could do this and that I was doing the right thing. As we parted, I felt one more swell of tears, but turned to the trail and immediately went into determination mode. "Let's put this beast to bed!" I knew I couldn't run and that downhills were excruciating, so I took stock and asked myself what I could do. I could power-hike. Looking as ridiculous as the speed walkers in the Olympics, I took off up Oberg Mountain like a man on a mission. There was no way I was going to be on that damn trail another three hours. I've been able to run it in 1:15 in the past, so I should be able to hike it in two hours, I thought.

Leaving the aid station I was dead last. That made me the DFL representative (Dead F***ing Last), and with my new motivation I took that as a badge of honor. If I was going to be dead last, then I would at least make it look good. My first goal was to make it as far as I could with the daylight that I had left. After discovering that morning that my headlamp really isn't that good, I didn't want to be in pitch-black forest on arguably the most technical section of the trail with a crappy light. I soon caught up to some of the runners who had passed me in the last section, which ruined the growing pride of being last. I was almost looking forward to it, but no matter. I passed the incredibly peppy 100-mile woman who exclaimed; "Great job! I sure wish I could keep up with you, but keep it up!" Later, I passed the 100-miler with hiking poles in pristine-looking street shoes (his fourth pair of shoes for the race) and his pacer that I had run with a bit earlier, and as I moved around them, his pacer exclaimed, "Wow, he's on a mission! Nice job!" Although it's always nice to hear positive comments, I was too focused to give a sh**. Eyes forward and legs moving. I started passing more and more people who I recognized from earlier on. I thanked them for letting me by and cheered them on, but did so quickly. I can't recall ever going up Moose Mountain so quickly or with such little effort. Spending most of the day at a heart rate well below my normal aerobic range must have prepped me for this. Half way up the longest, steepest climb, there was a tree down across the trail, but at chest height, with no possibility of going under it, and little of going over. There was another runner there contemplating how to get over it, so I directed her to the side of the trail where there was just enough ground built up to climb over. I offered her a hand once I got over, and almost fell over in doing so. Thankfully, I made it to the top and out onto the flat section before the blue above changed to black.

Darkness. The moment finally arrived when I was forced to turn on my headlamp. "Now it gets real," I thought to myself, hoping that my headlamp would do the trick. My eyes had been adjusting naturally, and now the headlamp added a surreal contrast between the complete absence of light off to the sides of the trail with the little bit of definition I got from the light in front. Periodically, trail markers would appear, horizontal reflective pieces of tape floating like some kind of forest spirit there to guide me. A few times I also spotted a bouncing light up ahead and wondered if I might overtake them. The light seemed far away, and suddenly it was right in front of me. I passed several runners in the pitch black, one of whom asked me if I knew where we were. Thankfully I knew exactly where we were, as we had just topped out of the "long lonely climb of loneliness," the winding gradual climb up Mystery Mountain that always saps my energy at the end of these races, but not tonight. I felt awesome and couldn't quit. During the day, I recognize every inch of trail on this section, as I have now run it four times, this being my fifth (the eighth time if you consider the out-and-backs), but there was a long stretch where I had no idea where I was. Following the trail was a type of vertigo, and my mind struggled to determine where exactly my location was. Just then I noticed something glowing off the trail to the side. On a strangely-shaped lump that was definitely off the ground, I made out the reflective tape on a hammock between two trees. Following that, I saw a campfire ring and realized I was a lot farther than I thought. This was the marker I always look for, the campsite just before the turn off the trail to head down to the road! In a mad fever, I turned right and started bounding down the trail, almost running, and with no pain! Down, down, down, until I saw a headlamp standing still. A man in street clothes said, "You're almost done. Keep it up." I could hear the rushing Poplar River, and suddenly the trail opened up wide, leading to the turn onto the bridge. Turning my head to either direction, I paused ever so briefly to take in the beauty of the full moon shining on the river as it plunged dramatically down the hillside. Immediately after crossing the river I scurried up the small hill, passing four runners walking together, and the temperature must have risen at least 10 degrees! The air rising from the cold river water had just as dramatic an effect on the air temperature as it did on the scenery.

Gravel road turns to pavement. Now the last, and most painful stretch of the race. It's flat, open pavement and you can see and hear the resort, but the road stretches on for an eternity. Passing Papa Charlie's bar, I could smell the burgers, salivating while trying to stay focused on the finish. I wondered if I should stop and make that my last aid station, but continued on, mainly for the simple reason that I didn't have any money with me. A random guy standing by his truck asked me what time I started this morning, and after saying "5:30am," he simply nodded and said, "Hmm." Surreal as it was, and although the focus on finishing was great, I recognized the importance for me to contemplate the magnitude of the accomplishment, because I knew the finish line would be a whirlwind, and after 15+ hours on the trail, it passes by in a heartbeat.

Feeling the finish line, I offered up great thanks. This day truly was a gift. I was perplexed that I had just run 52.1 miles, and really just wanted pizza. Heading off the road onto the gravel trail that leads down behind the resort to the finish line, a number of spectators watched from the balconies of their rooms, shining their headlamps onto the runners and cheering them on. I felt one last burst with their cheers and picked up the pace, running as best as I could. The announcer introduced me just as I came around the back side of the building when at the same time I heard, "Matt, is that you?" Anna and her family were sitting there waiting and seemed totally shocked that I was coming in so soon. My mother-in-law Nancy squealed with excitement as I rounded the pool and crossed the line, fist pumping above my head. 

John Stohrkamp presented me with my finishers "medal," and I thanked him sincerely with a two-handed handshake. Official time: 15:38:51. Then suddenly, Chad's friend Andy appeared in front of me to offer his congratulations and send along congratulations from Chad, who finished more than 30 minutes ahead of me which couldn't have made me happier. It took a minute for my family to get over to the finish line, as they truly hadn't expected me to arrive so early. Who would have? The previous 5.5 mile section took me 2hrs20min, and this 7.1 mile section took me a hair under two hours. How's that for a revival?

Couldn't have done it without my awesome crew and cheer team!
Suddenly it all hit me. I had accomplished my goal of three years - to run 50 miles in a day. Now, I can't truly say I ran 50 miles, but all things considered, I raced 50 miles no matter what my pace. It was surprising for me to hear that of the 185 runners who started earlier that morning, only 107 finished. In that light, I suppose I reached my ultimate goal of finishing in the top half. It wouldn't have been possible, however, without my wife and family to help me along. I can't thank them enough for urging me on through the moments of doubt and suffering, because the feeling of finishing did make it all worth it in the end. Hanging out at the finish line, drinking my post-race recovery beverage, I felt the life come back into me; even my vision seemed clearer. Taking off my shoes has never felt so good, and to top it all off, my in-laws showed up to the finish line with pizza! Although I would have liked to hang out at the finish line and take it all in for a while, I was getting cold and wanted to relax on a soft chair and feast on my reward, so we headed back to the motel.

On the walk back to the motel, the question was posed to me if I would ever do this again. My immediate reaction was to say no, and with perfect timing, a guy in front of us said, "Give it two weeks." Now that it's been only a week, I already feel that I must do this again, to redeem myself a little, to be able to run this course sustainably and finish well. In the meantime, however, I'm not in a hurry to do so, and I'll be happy with my finish regardless.  Now is the time to drink beer and eat whatever the hell I want!


Fitness - C+
Although I had the ability to finish this race, including some impressive uphill power-hiking, the knee injury clearly showed how weak I am. I spent way too much time on metabolic efficiency and not enough on core strength. It showed greatly.

Mental Toughness - B?
Tough to judge. For the majority of the day, I had a clear and determined mind, and even when I was bored and hurting, I was mostly able to continue on. From Sawbill to Oberg would be the exception, and without my family, the outcome may have been different.

Pacing - B+
Without a heart rate monitor, I feel that I was at a decent pace. The 50km last May was my benchmark, and I ran that whole race between 150-170bpm. I'm sure I went too fast in a few parts this time, and I wonder how much longer I could have run if I had started much slower, but I think the knee would have blown regardless.

Nutrition/Hydration - A
After only a few races I feel that I have dialed in my nutrition and hydration: half a gel twice an hour, one S!Cap an hour starting 1.5 hrs in, drinking to thirst, and one cup of Heed at each aid station and a piece of banana when I felt necessary.

Mechanics - C-
Although I attribute my injury to core/trunk weakness, I'm sure that in turn affected my mechanics. I felt great when I was running, but the photos that I've seen so far show me hunching over more than I would like. The low grade is because of the injury.

Joy - B+
Clearly the last half of the race presented challenges, but I feel that I was thankful and positive for most of the day. It was truly a gorgeous day and an honest gift. Even when I was suffering, I was able to recognize that.

More information on this race - 
Previous race reports for this course on this blog - 25km, Marathon

Parting shot.