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.

1 comment:

  1. What a great race report! I'm actually glad I waited to finish mine, as many of the details had blurred together. For example, I thought we had run into each other later in the race! I love that you gave yourself grades! I'll get my race report up soon, along with the race plan (I actually wrote up an "official" plan, believe it or not)! Thanks again for making the 'pact' with me to get to Sawbill. That "money section" was a complete surprise to me at the time, though I had run that section at least twice before, but it came at the right time for me. It was that section that turned it around for me mentally.