Friday, January 20, 2017

Recovery and Arrowhead Preview

For finishing 160 miles at Tuscobia I got a beanie. I love it.

My Tuscobia recovery has been similar to most hundred mile races, at least physically. It usually takes a day or two to get really sore muscles but this time it came and went away after a day. This is probably due to the slower pace, even though the distance was much greater than anything I've done before. Mentally it has been tougher. Of course I was on a bit of a high after finishing, but there is a rather severe drop off I've noticed that happens after these events. Investing so much emotionally all at once is bound to have a toll. I felt something like this last year in the midst of the Midwest Slam so I realize it is normal and that I can navigate it. For me, this down time is marked by a lack of motivation and a loss of the enjoyment I would usually get out of my daily runs. It is difficult because the urge to run and train is gone but at the same time you feel like you are falling behind and will not be able to finish the next race. In the end it almost paralyzes. This is the down time I should be enjoying but it is hard with another race so soon.  I could force myself to run but that could be counterproductive by not allowing my body to heal. In the end I just have to count on my experience.

Post race, I spent a week doing nothing. My first run was about 8 days after finishing Tuscobia. My knees felt like they would buckle in the first couple of steps I took but then I was able to settle in to a very easy recovery pace. It felt good to get the heart rate up and the blood moving. I consciously made an effort to not strain at all during the short 3 mile run, even though I felt I could. Surprisingly, I felt like it would feel good to run faster but better to not push things right now. This close to another race there is really nothing that can be done to improve fitness. I would only be hurting recovery which I may be doing with my ridiculous appetite the past week or so. I console myself by telling myself that any extra fat will keep me warm at Arrowhead. Ten days later my remaining physical issues are some swelling and numbness in my toes and the ball of my foot and some numb, frozen finger tips. These are nothing that should hinder me in any way January 30th.

The Arrowhead 135 will be taking place for the 13th time this year. The race is point to point, starting in International Falls, MN, following the Arrowhead Trail south to near Tower, MN approximately 135 miles later. It is often cited as a polar opposite (see what I did?) to the Badwater 135 that takes place in Death Valley, CA in July. Like Tuscobia, there are run, ski and bike divisions covering the same course. This race is much more remote and has much more elevation change than Tuscobia, so while it is shorter, there is some debate as to which is more difficult. The required gear list is basically the same, so it will all be pulled along in a sled again. The field is limited in order to allow for more opportunities for solitude and self-sufficiency.

The things I'm most concerned with are the remoteness and the footing. The remoteness means there are fewer chances to stop at a town and get some sort of help. Also, based on the rules, unlike Tuscobia, it appears going into a bar or gas station is not allowed. At Tuscobia there were towns or houses at least every 5 to 10 miles so if there was a pressing issue, you could find someone to help correct it. The footing may be poor since the trail is so remote and likely little used, therefore a worn even path in the snow may not be available. This could be a bigger factor when there are hills involved. Another factor that I've just thought of is the phase of the moon. Yes, the moon. During Tuscobia, I was able to spend much of the night without my headlamp on due to the three quarters full moon. Arrowhead this year will be a near new moon, so I expect it to be very dark at night.

I've begun to mentally prepare for Arrowhead. I've been wondering if I can handle going through nearly 60 hours of that kind of mental strain so soon. I'm not so sure I can handle the hurt that I know is coming. Tuscobia hurt bad and was scary near the end mentally. I've never experienced anything like it. My last post didn't include some of the strange deja vu and out of body sensations I experienced in the final stages of that race, which were unnerving and just too strange to dwell on. I suppose all I can do is show up at the start line and do the absolute best I can. It is a test and a huge part of the reason why I do this.

The support of my friends and family was a big factor at Tuscobia and I'm sure as I continue this year, it will get even better, and it has been great so far. Thank you all for your interest and reading these ramblings. Thank you for the messages and encouraging posts. It really does help. Try to remember that in your everyday interactions. You never know who you can help inspire with just a kind word or by showing some interest. Look at me being optimistic and positive. I know some of you will find that hilarious.

For more info int he Arrowhead 135, check out their site:
The galleries section has some good articles and blogs about the race.
There should be a GPS tracking for this race which I will post later.
For a $3 Vimeo rental you can see a short film about the race called Among the Wild. I'll be watching it again before heading out to Minnesota:

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Redemption at Tuscobia

A year ago I made a half-hearted attempt at the Tuscobia winter ultra 160 mile version. There is saying in ultrarunning that you “can’t fake a hundred miler”. That is likely even more true for a 160 mile race at subzero temperatures. I won’t say I tried faking the 2016 version but I wasn’t as committed to finishing as I needed to be, which is obvious since I dropped at the turn around point (Park Falls, 80 miles).
Running the race this year I had more motivation. I wanted to finish the race I had DNF’d last year. I wanted to get the first step in the Order of Hrimthurs completed. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something that seemed impossible. I had spent the last year telling myself I could have finished if I had just kept going at the turn around. I have been waiting for the chance to prove myself right, to prove that I had the physical and mental strength to finish what I started there.
My last post had some of the background of the race. Simply, it is out and back, from Rice Lake, Wisconsin to Park Falls and back. 80 miles, turn around, repeat. The time limit is 65 hours. Since the race takes place in the dead of winter, over long, remote distances, there is a list of gear required to aid the racer in an emergency situation, since help may be hours away.
The List:
§  Sleeping bag – Zero (0) F degree or lower
§  Bivy sack  
§  Sleeping pad.
§  Stove.  
§  Fuel – 
§  Pot or container 
§  Firestarter (matches or lighter).
§  Headlamp/bike light or flashlight.
§  3 individual flashing red LED lights + back-up batteries for each light
§  At least 20 square inches of reflective material, 10 front and 10 back.  
§  3000 calories

Gear check

By rule, you have to start and finish with all of this gear. That means you have to carry it the whole way, in addition to any extra clothes, water, and food. The simplest and most common way to move this gear around is by pulling it in a sled.
The other critical rule is that there is no outside help. Other racers, race officials and volunteers can help you. You can stop in a business in town and buy something but you cannot accept help from friends, family, crew. Self-sufficiency is required.
I arrived in Rice Lake on Thursday afternoon and checked into my hotel to relax for a couple hours prior to attending gear check and a pre-race meeting. The meeting included photos of a case of frostbite one participant had the year before. If you don’t have to look at frostbite pictures, don’t.
This year I recognized many of the faces from last year as winter ultras are a very small subset of the very small set of ultrarunners in the world. I have to say that being around these familiar people is starting to feel very comfortable and welcoming. We all share a love for what we do and, probably most importantly, we share common experiences that often involve long periods of suffering but end in persevering. I like these people.
I slept decently but not great, even waking a few minutes before my alarm at 4 AM. I arrived at the start with time for a coffee, a bite to eat and few minutes to sit and think about what was about to happen. 6 AM came quickly and the 160 run was off.
The start temperature was around -15 F but I didn’t feel too bad. I just tried to settle into a comfortable pace for this first 4 mile stretch before turning onto the reportedly 75 mile long Tuscobia trail (though I believe it to be closer to 77 or 78 miles). By the time I was 2 miles in, potential disaster. I looked down and my red “blinkie” light was out. I turned it back on and checked the 2 on my back. Both out. 5 minutes later all were out again. Without these lights functioning I was terrified I would be disqualified due to safety concerns, since these are intended to help protect racers from being struck by a snowmobile. I was panicked. Luckily the race director was at the 4 mile mark guiding people onto the main trail. I discussed it with him and he was very understanding. He ended up bringing me a couple spare lights a few miles down the trail and I had no further need to worry about that issue.

Herd of buffalo 8 miles in

  I rolled along at a good pace, stopping briefly at bar around 36 miles in for a plate of fries and a beer. The sun was just setting at this point and I began to try to mentally ready myself for it. Around 3 hours later I walked into the Ojibwa checkpoint, close to the same time I arrived last year. I spent an hour getting some warm food, changing socks and drying my shoes.

This little lady followed 2 runners 22 miles to Ojibwa

The next stretch is where I lost my will last year and it almost happened again. A couple hours in, I approached another racer who appeared to be staggering from one side of the trail to the other. I knew he was sleep walking so I caught up to him and told him I’d stay with him and talk to keep both of us awake. We spent the next 2 or 3 hours together, which turned out to be very helpful. I was wearing down so he went off ahead.
I really struggled the last couple of hours going into the turn-around at Park Falls. My feet were feeling sore and blistered. I was getting very sleepy like last year and I was wondering how it would even be possible for me to turn around and do what I had just done. About half an hour out, the 80 mile racers passed me coming from Park Falls since they start there on Saturday morning. While they gave me good words of encouragement, once they all passed, I felt crushed and started crying. I was filled with doubt and was mad at myself for even thinking I could possibly do this, being so bold as to start a blog and have people follow along online. But I reminded myself that the plan was to take a nap at the turn around. I would not make any final decision until I did that. I owed that to myself. I was arriving a couple hours later than last year, which was also discouraging but I still had plenty of time, if I had the will to use it. 
Park Falls checkpoint is opposite of Ojibwa. Ojibwa is rustic, cold, and uncomfortable. It’s better than being outside, but not by much. Park Falls is too comfortable. It is way too easy to stop there and not leave again. Again, I had some hot food and got down on the ground for a nap. I gave myself an hour and a half and would then reassess my situation. It didn’t feel like I slept much but the time went by very quickly. As I was waking up I heard a couple other racers discussing leaving. I didn’t want to go but listening to them, I thought, “If they can go, I can go”. I could at least try to get back to Ojibwa and make another decision. So off I went again.

This next section was fairly uneventful. Night had set in again and almost passed again by the time I got to Ojibwa. I had had only one good hallucination the previous night, I thought I saw a giant snow owl on the trail and yelled at it to go but, of course, it wasn’t there. This second night, however, the visions were very common. Every shadow, tree branch, or light would appear to be something odd. Looking down most of the time, I would watch the footprints on the snow become faces which shifted and changed as I moved over them. I finally reached Ojibwa after about 13 hours, ate and took a brief 15 minute nap.
Leaving Ojibwa, I told myself there was only a couple hours until sunrise, which should help the sleepiness and mood. Also, I was on the home stretch, although this home stretch was 45 or so miles long. I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I had already gone further than I ever had before; around 120 miles. I kept putting my head down and taking step after step. I began saying, out loud to myself as I got into walking rhythm, “You just have to keep doing this one simple thing, over and over, until you get to the finish. It’s simple and it’s all you have to do.” I don’t know how many times I did this but I continued this mantra to the end.
I entered Birchwood just before sunset and would have to finish the final 15 or so miles in the dark. I watched for the trail mile markers to slowly count down but it felt like hours between some of them. The hallucinations stepped up even more at this point. Every shadow was a person or creature. I saw multi-limbed creatures silhouetted in the windows of the cabins I passed. Snow covered bushes at the side of the trail looked like piles of discarded furniture and boxes. A couple miles from the finish, I swore I saw a huge piece of toast (mascot-like with legs and arms) slow dancing with a man as they gazed across a moonlight field.
Finally, I saw the finish a couple hundred yards away. Unlike any visions you may have of crowds cheering you on as you finish an epic run, ultramarathons are typically anticlimactic to an epic degree. There was only one person standing by the finish line, my brother Matt, which was a bit of a surprise and I will forever appreciate it. I fell to my knees, sobbing a bit, at the finish line. It was finally over. 63 hours and 45 minutes. I had done it. I had redeemed last year’s failure. I had also continued on and finished even when I thought it would be impossible.


Park Falls - Half way


A week prior to the race, I happened to listen to a philosophy podcast on the sublime. Sublime is one of those words I see occasionally but never really got a grasp on the definition.  From Merriam-Webster "tending to inspire awe usually because of elevated quality (as of beauty, nobility, or grandeur) or transcendent excellence".  The discussion on the podcast was around what the sublime is and what inspires humans to seek it out. I immediately thought that running a 160 mile race in subzero temperatures may count as a sublime experience. An experience so grand, beautiful and difficult to describe that it invokes an overwhelming sense of awe. I believe the awe here isn’t in those outside observers, who though they may be impressed, do not have the physical and emotional experience of the event.
I suppose this begins to scratch the surface as to why people like me do these ridiculous things. The experience, sometimes joyful, sometimes miserable, but overall, so powerful and awing that there are no words to describe it, is one of reasons I continue to do this.

These poor feet

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Big Year

My name is Daniel. Danners to some. Don't ask. I will cut straight to the point and make the statement that I am a runner. A slow, mediocre runner. I used to be the furthest thing from a runner but that is a story for another time, perhaps to be told if this little self indulgent project is of any interest to anyone and continues.The purpose of this exercise is selfish. Mainly I want to record, for myself, an account, as it happens, of my 2017, mostly focusing on running events I will be participating in. This is nothing novel since every other ultrarunner out there has a blog filled with race reports and rambling essays on the understanding of the meaning of life that only running a ridiculous number of miles with give you. This may sounds dismissive but I love reading running blogs so there you go. Here's another one but this one is mine.
So, if you're still with me, here's the deal. I've got a ridiculous race schedule lined up for this year. Its audacious, bold, and probably really, really stupid. I'm going to try it anyway because the chance of failure makes finishing so much better.

Winter Races

 Last year I tried the Tuscobia 150 (which now is really 160 miles) and quit at the half way point. I vowed to return to get and redemption but also because, despite giving up, I had a great time and really enjoyed it. To get into this race you just sign up and you're in. More on this one later since it is coming up in a matter of days.
The next race is one of the best known and prestigious on the winter calendar (no slight to Tuscobia which is fantastic). You have to send in a paper application which requires you to justify why you should be allowed into the race. This race is the Arrowhead 135 and I got in. Similar to Tusciobia, it is shorter in distance but usually colder, more remote and more elevation change. It takes place 3 weeks after Tuscobia so finishing both would be a huge accomplishment.
I went back and forth on whether I should sign up for the next race or not. There seems to be a tendency in the ulrarunning world to "bundle" races into a series and reward the completion of all the races in that series. The winter race version of that is known as the Order of the Hrimthurs. Apparently it has something to do with frost giants. The Actif Epica is a point to point race that finishes in Winnipeg, Manitoba. If, after completing Tuscobia and Arrowhead, I finished this 100 mile race, I would be entered into this order. I talked to a guy at a race this fall about being signed up for Tuscobia and getting into Arrowhead. He immediately said, "Well, you have to sign up for Actif Epica now." So I did.
The beginning of the calendar looks like this:

Tuscobia 160  Rice Lake, WI   January 6
Arrowhead 135  International Falls, MN  January 30
Actif Epica  Winnipeg, Manitoba   February 18

Summer Races

I have had the worst luck with race lotteries. I was around 0 for 10 in them. Some races have become so popular that they hold drawings to see who get in. The 2 big lotteries in the ultrarunning are held for the Hardrock 100 and the Western States 100, which is the original 100 miles race in the US. This year was the third time I have entered the Western States lottery. Finally, my name was announced. I am in this year. The race takes place in late June, so I will have plenty of time to recover train after my early races.
Once again, a race series comes into play with my scheduling. A series known as the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, which consists of the 4 oldest 100 miles races in the US. Getting into Western States is the key attempting to complete the Grand Slam. I got into Western States, so I had a decision. Do I go for the Slam? Last summer I ran 5 hundreds for the Midwestern Slam and had a tough time with so many races in such a short time, so I was worried that I could do this. But then, when I would have another chance at this? I'm surely not getting any younger. So, I'm going for it. Here is the remaining schedule:

Western States  Squaw Valley, CA  June 24
Vermont 100  West Windsor, VT  July 15
Leadville 100   Leadville, CO  August 19
Wasatch Front 100    Salt Lake City, UT  September 8

It has only been a few weeks since my schedule has been set so there has not been that much time to think about it. When I do consider it, I am not sure I have any business trying to do this. The first race is coming up in 3 days as I write this. I feel unprepared. I always do.

Tuscobia 160

Tuscobia is an out and back course, 80 miles out to Park Falls and then you turn around and go back. Participants have 65 hours to do this. The first stop is 44 miles in and then it is another 36 before turning around. There is a required gear list since it could be hours before anyone could help you if there was any trouble. Pulling a sled is the usual method of transporting all this gear and food, which for me comes out to around 30 pounds. There are three divisions of the race: bike, ski and foot. I will be doing this on foot, of course. The trail is generally flat and used by snowmobiles so the footing should not be too bad (no snowshoes required).
Last year I made it to Park Falls in 26 hours and 30 minutes. This included an hour stop at the one checkpoint in between to get some hot food and change socks. The final 4 or 5 hours into Park Falls were tough due to my overwhelming desire to sleep. I had no caffeine to help and was fighting hard to stay awake and keep moving. This contributed to my decision to say 80 miles was enough that day. The other was the condition of my feet, which looking back was not too bad. There were some blisters but I've since dealt with much worse. The main thing that happens to me is that I do the math, as an engineer is required to do. I am constantly calculating. If I move at X rate I will be to Y in this amount of time. These amounts of time were just unbearable at the turn around and I flat out quit. I couldn't face the 12 or so hours it would take to get back to the next checkpoint. I'm not sure if I would have finished if I kept going. There were 23 starters and only 4 finishers so I wasn't alone.
This is my chance to get some redemption at one of the 3 races I have not finished. I'm looking forward to it but feeling a bit unprepared. I made myself take several weeks off in October since I was just making any progress recovering from last summer's races. The holidays came shortly after that and I did get some decent miles in here and there but nothing like I feel I needed. Then again, I always feel like this before a race and they generally turn out fine. I just need to be able to keep moving, however long it takes. The topic of needing patience in ultras is probably a future blog topic but it is something I have been trying to work on and will definitely need this weekend. Last year I was reasonably terrified going into a race with so many unknowns. This year, I know much more and, because of that, I am not feeling any less scared. So be it. Once I get out there, I'll tell myself to have fun and do the best I can. That is the point after all.

The initial plan for this blog is to at least preview and then recap each race. I'll try to get some training updates and maybe even some of those rambling runner philosophical rants here and there. You've got your Tuscobia preview. I'll recap it when I have the strength, hopefully with some pictures, video, etc. Thanks for stopping by.