Friday, February 24, 2017

Actif Epica and the Hrimthurs

It is probably a cop out to say I don't know where to begin with this blog entry. I thought if reached this point it would be easy and write itself. Maybe I need time to reflect on what has just transpired. Completing this series of races has been the hardest thing I have ever done. Each race by itself was extremely difficult and stacking together in a 6 week span added to that. I am very tired, aching and sore physically. Mentally, I haven't wrapped my mind around what this all means. And I don't know if I can describe the emotional state but maybe some of that will be clearer in my recap on the race

Actif Epica the final step in completing the Order of the Hrimthurs, a series of winter ultramarathons. After getting accepted into Arrowhead last fall, I decided to give it a shot, a very long shot. Up until this year only 3 people had done all the races on foot in the same year. 14 finished Tuscobia on foot. Of those, 7 finished Arrowhead. 6 of us would be at the start line of Actif Epica.

On my way to Winnipeg

The potential future Hrimthurs (I'm the giant in the back)

Actif Epica was a big unknown going in. No of us had run the race. The race was 120 km in previous years but this year they were adding a 200 km version for bikers and a 160 km for runners. Either version of the race would count towards completing the requirements of the Order. Unlike most races, this course would not be marked, so it would be necessary to use a GPS and cue sheets with a list of turns to navigate. From the GPS data provided for navigation, the course appeared to be very flat.

After completing Tuscobia and Arrowhead, I felt that I had done the difficult part. Actif Epica was shorter and flatter. There was less gear required. The weather forecast called for temperatures into the low 30s so the cold would not be a problem. Sure it is a 100 miles but it is flat and much of it on roads. I had just spent 64 and 54 hours in the last two races, so a 35 hour cutoff would feel like nothing. This race was in the bag.

I arrived in Winnipeg Thursday evening and was able to relax most of Friday. I did go out to pick up a new jar of peanut butter to meet the calorie requirement, since my original jar from the previous 2 races was taken by TSA in Detroit. Who knew you couldn't fly with peanut butter? Gear check went smoothly and it was then I was told that I didn't need to carry 2000 calories the whole way, but just have it when I started, so I had plenty and hadn't needed the peanut butter.

The pre-race meeting was a bit of reunion for the six of us attempting to enter the Order. We sat and listened to the description of the course which started to sound concerning. Any section where the bike racers had to walk their bikes meant it would be bad conditions. The warm weather would mean sinking into deep snow and there would be several very sticky, heavy mud areas.

We boarded a bus around 4:30 AM Saturday to be taken to the start line. The original route (120 km) racers were dropped off first. We arrived at our start point a little after 6 which was the planned start time, so the start was delayed to 6:30. Due to the expected warmer weather, I tried to dress minimally, tights, a wool shirt, a thin pull over and medium weight running jacket. Waiting to start I felt cold and wanted to get moving in order to warm up.

We rolled out at 6:30 and followed several dirt roads for the first couple hours. There were some sections of two track on the edges of farms where the footing was not ideal but not too bad since temperatures were below freezing and the snow was solid. I felt decent early on but could still tell I had 400 miles of racing in my recent past. By the time I reached 10 miles I could feel the blisters starting on the balls of my feet. Way too early for that.

The first water stop was around 15 miles into the race. The section immediately before this was a solid 2 miles of trail that was total hell. The crust of snow on top would support several steps before giving way to sink in knee deep. Even walking in a previous runners footsteps was hard. This was slow, difficult and frustrating work. Up until then the pace had been good. I arrived at the water stop warm and tired with a long way to go.

The next section was better but still had occasional stretches of difficult snowy trail. My feet were gradually getting worse. My shoulders ached badly from not being used to carrying a pack full of gear. I just wanted to get to St. Malo, which is around 26 miles in and where the 120 km race started. I arrived at the checkpoint at 3 PM, 8 and half hours into the race. This was going to be a long day.

Leaving St. Malo I fell into pace with Randy, who was also going for the Order. This would be a lucky break after what happened a couple hours later. We were moving along decently, talking a little bit, when my GPS watch that I was using for navigation, beeped to tell me the battery was almost dead. Damn. But this was OK because I had a handheld GPS purchased just for this race to meet the gear requirements. So I pulled out the handheld, turned it on and tried to bring up the route file. It wasn't there. I was sure I had loaded it on and checked it before I flew out but it wasn't there. Now I had no way to navigate through the rest of the race. From what I had seen so far, I knew I couldn't do it with just the cue sheet turn directions. I was screwed. Was all my effort and work going to end like this? This was way too early in the race to stick with someone the rest of the way. I did not want to hold anyone up because of my incompetence and bad luck. I told Randy that all my navigation was dead and didn't know what to do. He took out his handheld which I had not seen him use and told me to use it for us since he couldn't figure it out. Looked like we were a duo from now on.

The sun was setting around this time. I kept telling myself I only needed to get through one night, not 2 like the last couple of races. All I had to do was grind until the sun came up again and everything would be OK. These are the lies I tell myself. Unfortunately I had been yawning since early int he afternoon. This was not a good sign going into the night.

The night was long, moving from checkpoint to checkpoint. Luckily, I was with Randy and we talked which helped the miles go by and helped me stay awake, which became a real struggle. At the stops I took in caffeine. I started to take Excedrin to help dull some of the pain in my legs, shoulders and feet. The blisters would become painful on uneven footing but I knew if I endured it long enough they would become numb again. Thankfully, there were hardly any issues with deep snow since the night became cold enough to firm up the snow but the footing was still not good.

The colder night wasn't even that cold relative to the previous races, probably only into the mid 20s. However, I was not drinking enough water. I had a 2 liter insulated flask in my pack but if I wanted a drink I had to stop and take the whole pack off, therefore, I would just keep walking instead of drinking. Dehydration can contribute to hypothermia. Knowing this, I tried to force myself to stop more often, especially when I started feeling too cold. I did end up having to put on my heavy jacket since I was unable to stay warm with everything else I had on.

The drama of the race increased at the Crystal Springs checkpoint shortly after midnight. We saw a group of runners leaving as we walked up. "Get in and get out!" they yelled at us. One of the race organizers met us at the door and told us we had to be out of the next station by 4:30 AM, over 12 miles away or our race was over. This meant we would have to do 3 mph or better over who knows what kind of terrain. We ate and drank coffee quickly and moved on.
Arriving at Niverville with 10 minutes until cutoff

I have never been close to cutoffs in a race before. We moved well toward Niverville. I kept calculating when we would arrive and it was looking like it would be very close. Shortly after 4 AM we could see some lights that indicated a town. Randy decided we should start running when we could, which we did. It actually felt good for a while. The checkpoint was eventually reached at 4:20 AM and we had to be out in 10 minutes, so I quickly ate a plate of pierogies and sausages and got up to leave. There were no more cutoffs other than at the finish line and we had adequate time to get there, so there was some relief but there were still 35 miles to go.

The sun rose and, as always, my sleepiness was somewhat relieved but nothing else got any easier. This second to last section was 18 miles and never seemed to end. There was a long road section that became very heavy sticky mud that clung to shoes and made walking that much harder. My feet felt like they weighed a ton but there was nothing to do but plod on. The wind had nothing to block it across the flat prairie. Long straight boring road sections would be followed by rough uneven trail sections that made my feet scream with every step. By now, the skyline of Winnipeg was visible but the finish was still well over 20 miles away. Only 6 or 7 more hours of painful step after step.

We worked our way into the city and made our final stop at the University of Manitoba. Only 9 miles to go. It almost felt like we were done already but no. The final stretch was over icy city sidewalks and park trails. Still no easy steps for sore feet but the finish was in sight.
One last stop
Heading out to finish this thing

And just like that (not really), we were there at the finish. The final 3 of the potential Hrimthurs crossed the finish line together while the other 3, who had already finished, were waiting to greet us. Hugs were exchanged all around and pictures taken. We were moved to warm room to get some food and drink and relax.
After nearly 400 miles, it ends
Post race decompression

I suppose that was a pretty dry description of the race but I don't know how else to present it. I could go on for pages about certain events but that would be too much for this blog. There were long hours of conversation in the night. There were quiet times when I was fighting the urge to quit because I didn't know how I could take any more of the hours I knew were ahead. If it wasn't for my goal of entering the Order I am almost positive I would have quit. Thinking about explaining to you all that I quit kept me going as well.

This race was very difficult. Much more so than I believe any of us expected. I'm very happy that I stuck it out. I have talked about this in previous posts but the people I have met through these winter ultras have been incredible:
The Runners - Through all this series I have talked to other runners on and off the trail and they help the miles go by while we endure and suffer together.
The Volunteers - At every stop they  tell us how impressed they are with what we are doing but I am amazed by their selflessness and generosity.
The Race Directors - They do very difficult work with little or no reward just to provide us with a special experience.
My Fellow 2017 Hrimthurs - I have been able to get to know these people over the last 6 weeks. Each one of them has a background story worthy of a novel or Oscar nominated movie. These are some of the strongest and toughest people I have ever met but they are also extremely generous and friendly. This race series brought us all together and I am honored to be part of this group. Jeff, Paul, Scott, Kari, and Randy, thank you. You all are some truly impressive, inspiring folks.

The new Hrimthurs. These are good people.

This adventure has come to end. I am working on recovering both physically and mentally. My feet and my muscles will heal given some time and slowly building my strength back. The raw mental nerve that has been exposed will only make me stronger in the next difficult race. I will definitely need this as I begin my training for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, which is the next challenge.

When I first learned of this series of races I did not think it was possible for me to do it. Confidence is built over time and I have learned that the things that seem impossible at first are possible given the effort. This is not to say that it is ever easy because this last race proved it never is and to take any race even a little bit lightly is a mistake. Feeling discouraged and frustrated are normal but can be overcome by just pushing forward. I'm not superhuman or have some special gift. All I've done is taken the risk where previously I would have avoided it. Doing so has led me to learn many things about myself, some good, some bad but overall it makes my life  more rewarding and me a better person.  I think everyone can find a way to apply this to whatever their passion is and have the same results. If you do so, please share it and I will gladly follow along and encourage you. Go get it!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Actif Epica Preview

On to Winnipeg, Manitoba this weekend. Here's a quick update on recovery and a preview of the upcoming race.

The week following Arrowhead was a sleepy one. I mean it was literally very sleepy. I was in bed every night at ridiculously early hours. I was napping every afternoon. I have never been this sleepy and tired after a race. No matter how much nor how well I felt I slept, it was not enough. Each day at work I would soon want to lie down. I have to admit that there were a couple quick car naps.
Similar to Tuscobia, I was only slightly sore for a couple days after the race but it was gone quickly. Overall, the word I would use to describe how I felt was heavy.  It was a solid weak of heavy fatigue. I actually felt like I could go for a run shortly after the race but didn't want to push anything with little benefit. Mostly I would try to take short walks at work to get the blood moving. My feet seem to have recovered, at least to a level that I can get through another 100 miles on them.
My food consumption has reached a ridiculous level as well. After the next race I will have to be much more disciplined in order to reach a race weight that is more in line with faster, warmer ultras. I give myself the excuse that the extra fat is good for keeping me warm in the winter and it has worked so far, so who am I to argue.
Actif Epica Logo
On to Actif Epica. This is the final race in the series (Tuscobia 160, Arrowhead and Actif Epica) that completing all races in the same year gets one into the Order of Hrimthurs. This has only been done all on foot 3 times before. This year there are 6 of us left attempting to accomplish this. Hopefully all of us will make it and we can celebrate together Sunday afternoon
The Order of the Hrimthurs

The race has traditionally been 120 km with bike and foot divisions. This year they have added extended courses for both divisions. The longer foot version is 160 km which is 100 miles. When signing up for the race, I asked which distance was required to enter the Order of Hrimthurs and was told the long (160 km) version, so that is what I signed up for. In the last few weeks, others asked the same question and were told the original 120 km was all that was necessary. So do I drop down to the shorter distance. No. I might as well go an extra marathon distance. It's only a few extra hours of suffering and after nearly 5 days worth in the last two races, what is 5 or 6 more hours? I'm sure I'll be cursing the decision come this weekend.
This will be a new and interesting way to run 100 miles
While this race is similar in ways to the previous two, there are some significant differences. The required gear is much less. There is no sleeping bag, bivy, or stove and fuel requirements. The reduced gear means I can fit it all in a backpack instead of a sled. Whether it is hard to carry gear on my back instead of pulling it remains to be seen. Another difference is that this course is not marked and will require some navigation using a GPS and cue sheets which will give directions. I've never had to do this before. This has me concerned about getting lost and ruining all the work done until now. I will remind myself that others have finished the race so why not me.

The course it supposed to be very flat which is welcome after the hills of Arrowhead. It is significantly shorter, "only" 100 miles. I have 35 hours to finish, which should not be too bad if I consistently keep moving forward. I don't care about my finishing time, just about finishing. There are several checkpoints but they will only have water, so I have to carry all my calories with me. This should not be an issue as I seem to be able to get through these races needing fewer calories than before. The weather forecast is calling for relatively warm temperatures, near freezing. This could make the footing slippery and also make getting overheated and wet a problem.
The race starts early Saturday morning, after a very early bus ride to the start line. The finish line is in downtown Winnipeg.I am very much looking forward to getting there and greeting my new Order of the Hrimthurs friends.

Post race there will be some time for recovery and then I will have to get into some serious work to get ready for the next stage of this big year. This has been fun so far. Thanks for following along.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Impossible Arrowhead 135

It didn't used to be so hard.
It used to be impossible.
-Magnolia Electric Co. "Almost Was Good Enough"

I felt unprepared going into the 2017 Arrowhead 135. It had only been a short three weeks since I had completed the toughest race of my life at Tuscobia. Physically the toll was not too bad as my only real concern was the continuing numbness in the balls of my feet and on several toes. I have learned that even when I don't feel great physically, my body will usually respond and surprise me with what it is capable of. The real question I had about myself was how I would respond mentally. The days leading up to race day I had been feeling like I could not handle another 60 hours of this. Tuscobia was an experience like no other. Towards the end it had scared me with where my mind went. I was worried about what would happen if it went there again. Could I handle that strain again?
There was plenty of time to think about this on the long drive. In the days leading up, I had been getting over the usual post race depression from Tuscobia but still having major doubts. Arriving in International Falls did little to ease those doubts. Like most introverts, I find myself quietly observing others while trying to stay in the background. At the pre-race meeting and dinner, I looked around at the other racers, observing and feeling like they belonged here and I didn't. They know what they are doing and I am a pretender. This is nothing new for me as I feel this way before every race. I did see some faces I recognized and said hello, which was reassuring. This winter ultra community is small and tight but also, as I am learning, open and welcoming. More on that later.
Added to my worry about my own ability was the fact that I had been rather lazy and had not checked my gear very well after Tuscobia. Two days before leaving I noticed my sled was worn through and cracked. It would never survive another 135 miles. I desperately searched online for a new one but none could be shipped next day. I finally found a hardware store in Madison, Wisconsin that I could pick the sled up in store. Now I was going to be using a brand sled, sight unseen, hoping it would fit my gear and work with my harness. This type of stress is not ideal prior to a race.
Your sled should not look like this pre-race

The night prior to the race, I went through all my gear multiple times, making sure I saw each essential item and knew where it was. Some time would go by and I would think about, say, my extra socks and I would not be able to relax until I went through my bag until I saw them and knew they were there. The last thing I wanted was to be left without some important, and even some not so important pieces of gear.
Minutes before the start

The race started shortly before sunrise, this bikes going first, followed by the skiers and then those of us on foot. The temperatures were in the teens, so with a moderate effort, I warmed up quickly and even had to remove my mittens and hat occasionally to keep from sweating too much. Within a few miles the snow started, which was forecast to be anywhere from 1 to 5 inches. I hoped for the minimum in order to keep the best footing on the trail. I moved well early and fell into talking with several other runners to pass the miles. From time to time I would suddenly realize and say to myself, "You're running Arrowhead". To be honest, I still can't believe it.
Warm and snowy early
credit: Burgess Eberhardt

Based on my pace, I was hoping to get to Gateway, the first checkpoint, just after dark. I arrived at Checkpoint #1 (36 miles) a little after 6 PM. I was beginning to get sore and my feet were already blistering near the balls of the feet. My shoulders and upper back were also very tight and aching which was concerning this early and something that had not happened at Tuscobia. It was a relief to sit, dry some of my clothes and change socks. Hot food after 11 hours in the cold is a true joy and it gave me a huge boost. Going into the stop, I gave myself the time limit of 1 hour which I kept by getting out after only 50 minutes.
Gateway feast

These poor guys. Only 100 miles to go.

The first section was completely flat. The section going into Mel Georges (Checkpoint #2, 72 miles) begins to have some hills, which when added to the accumulated fatigue, slows the pace. Also, this section was nearly all covered during the first night. I took in some caffeine to avoid the sleepiness that had been a problem in the past. I don't recall this getting too bad but still, going through the night is never easy. One highlight of the night was hearing wolves howling, which I have not heard since hiking at Isle Royale nearly 30 years ago. Shortly after sunrise, I arrived at Elephant Lake, which you cross to reach Checkpoint #2. Crossing the lake left me exposed to the wind and I was cold for the first time in the race. While this crossing is probably not that long, it seemed to last forever, as I was more than ready to get inside, eat, and take a nap.
Somewhere early day 1

Somewhere else, early Day 1
credit: Jason Johnson,

The cabin at the checkpoint was chaotic. I removed and hung up some of my clothes to dry out. Sitting down in the only available chair, I ate some soup and one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I have ever had (at least it tasted that way at the time). I realized I was very hungry and tried to get some calories in but more than anything wanted to lay down for an hour or so. Luckily there was an open bed in the upstairs loft so I took it. I planned on getting around an hour of sleep but the muscles in my legs began cramping, making it very difficult to get comfortable. I tossed and turned the entire time but I must have slept briefly since the time seemed to be gone too soon.
It was difficult to leave the warm comfort of the cabin but I wanted to get as many miles in daylight as I could. I told myself that I was over halfway and getting this next long section (approx. 40 miles) done would put me within striking distance of the finish. I changed shoes, hoping my blistered feet would feel better and this was a good choice.
Too warm for hats, around half way

I was told by many of the veterans that the section from MelGeorges to Checkpoint #3 was long and hilly. There were a couple hills initially out but I thought these were easy and began to think they may have been overselling the hills. I can't recall exactly when they started for real but the last 5 or 6 hours leading into the Surly station (Checkpoint 3) was one hill after another. Climb on top of climb. Sure there were some descents and some of those were long and steep enough to allow me to sit on my sled and ride them down, covering ground quickly and easily but this could never make up for the slow crawl many of the climbs turned out to be. I tried to keep the climbs slow and steady but still overheated at times. I would eat snow to try to cool down and get some hydration, which I have to admit, I had been slacking off on since getting tired. Looking back, I'm not sure it is the effort required to climb the hills that gets to me, but the slowing of the pace. I get impatient and just want to cover ground but these hill were relentless and seemed like they would never end. I even started counting them at one point and lost count somewhere in the 30s. Based on what came before and after counting, I would estimate there were well over 100 hills in that section alone. I may have yelled out a curse or two on seeing a new hill appear in my headlamp. Other times I would just laugh. It is an ongoing struggle for me to try to remain positive and when I see myself getting negative I try to turn it around. I would tell myself that each hill was one closer to being done, or that I had to pass over this one to get to the next. Sometime I have to remind myself that no one put the hills there to "get me". The course is what it is and it is the same for everyone. I don't know if I will ever perfect being positive but I believe limiting the negativity is a key to a good finish, or even finishing.
I attempted to lie down in my bivy sack at one shelter about 10 miles out from Surly. The ground was cold with uneven rocks but I was so tired I didn't care. After 10 minutes, I was getting too cold and began to worry about hypothermia. Fear won over fatigue, so I got up and set off for the 3 hour march to the next station.
Around 35 pounds that felt like 100 on the hills

I finally arrived at Surly around 2:30 AM of night 2. This checkpoint consisted of a large tepee like tent with a wood stove. I sat in chair near the stove and couldn't help falling asleep briefly before being told sleeping was not allowed inside the tent. Putting my shoes back on, I decided to just go out and try to get this over with. There was still nearly 4 hours until daylight and if I could get through that, I would be ok. Getting through another night was difficult but not nearly as bad as it had been at Tuscobia. The hallucinations were minimal. Once the sun rose, everything seemed to get better. The course had flattened out. The sun eventually came out, though the wind had picked up and it was colder overall. These last miles always seem to go slower as the anticipation of finishing increases. I was again warned earlier by a veteran that you can see the casino where you finish approximately 5 miles away. When I finally saw it, I knew I still had nearly 2 hours to go.
This finish contrasted Tuscobia by occurring around noon, in bright sunshine. There were several people waiting to greet me and they began to ring the cowbells. I saw my brother there again like at Tuscobia (and having someone at the finish is a whole future topic), I walked up to the line and he handed me a large can of beer. I was done. 53 hours 30 minutes after leaving International Falls, I had arrived. I had finished the iconic Arrowhead 135.

Driving towards the finish
credit: Danny Chen, International Falls Journal

Finished, beer in hand

The best part of these winter races has been the community of people around them. Everyone in encouraging and helpful. I was offered and given rides by strangers prior to the race which was super helpful based on the logistics of a point to point race. The knowledge and advice you get from veterans is priceless. Post race, everyone's first question was "Did you finish?" After responding yes, there is an outpouring of congratulations. No one cares or asks how long it took. They take joy in your success. It has only been a few days since finishing and, to be honest, right now I dread going through it again, but I would love to return if only to be around these people again.

Since I started running ultras, nearly five years ago now, I have consumed any information about as many different races I could get my hands on. I love reading race reports, looking at course maps and elevation profiles, watching videos, etc. From these earliest days, there were those races that appeared to me to be forever out of reach. Hardrock was one of those races I would read about and think to myself that there was no way I would ever be able to do something like that. Badwater was another. Arrowhead would sometimes pop up from the very fringes of the ultrarunning and I would almost immediately dismiss it as a race I would ever be able to run. First off, it is 135 miles. It is in northern Minnesota in January. There is very limited support (only 3 checkpoints). Impossible. I have somehow navigated my way from believing a race was not even a consideration to finishing it. When it was impossible, it wasn't hard. Now it was possible and it was very, very hard.
So, here I am, an Arrowhead 135 finisher. I'm still in some disbelief about that. It was maybe 2 or 3 hours into my drive home that I thought to myself, "You finished Arrowhead" and teared up. This has happened several times in the days since. I was a bit emotional finishing Tuscobia and rather at ease finishing Arrowhead. I'm still waiting for that full emotional release that hasn't been there at either finish. It will come, perhaps in Winnipeg.

Post Race Beer Review
Surly Coffee Bender:
My brother handed me this beer right at the finish line. I opened it a took a big swig without even looking at it and the coffee flavor surprised me. The coffee is very strong in this beer, especially for a brown ale, I would expect this much coffee in a stout. I did get the sense that the brown ale that this is based on would be very good on its own and browns are not my favorite. Also, bonus points to Surly Brewing for hosting Checkpoint #3. I highly recommend this beer. If you are ever in northern Wisconsin or Minnesota, check it out. Surly Furious is delicious as well.