Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Ronda del Cims Preview

Once again I feel like the time has slipped away from me. After my last race at Grayson Highlands I felt like I had plenty of time to finish preparing for Ronda del Cims in Andorra. I had visions of all I felt I should do to be ready and, like always, I end up doing only a fraction of it. Either way, the race is almost here and it will turn out however it turns out. I feel a little unprepared but I care much less about that than I usually do. This race is going to be ridiculously hard, perhaps the most difficult race yet, but I'm going into it relaxed and without expectations.

My current assessment of my fitness
The Principality of Andorra is a micro-nation nestled in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. Ronda del Cims is one of several race distances offered and the longest solo version. It follows the border around the entire country, which covers around 170 km (105 miles) and has over 80k feet of elevation change. The course is mountainous and technical which makes it one of the select few races to be a Hardrock 100 qualifier. The altitude is not as severe as Hardrock but will still be a factor for a Midwesterner like me.

It took no more than a couple messages from Scott and I was signing up for this race. The pictures and videos were breathtaking. I have since heard nothing but good things about this race. Despite vowing to do fewer races this year, here I was signing up for another one. The fact that it was in Europe made it even crazier. The opportunity was there so I am taking it.

Right now, I feel like I have a different attitude and outlook compared to previous races. I know it is going to be very hard. I know it will be beautiful and memorable if I finish or not. Maybe I am maturing in this silly hobby and not taking race results as seriously as I once did. I'm never going to win or place high but I still want to feel like I ran as well as I could. I've come to a place where truly enjoying the overall experience is most important. I'm learning more and more that having the experience is the most important part.

The weeks since my last race have been filled with events that have helped finally reach this new outlook. I had been moving in this direction already. Celebrity suicides brought mental health issues out as a topic of discussion and contemplation. I have watched as many of my running friends grieved the loss of a young lady from our ultra community, who I didn't know but wish I had. The sudden traffic death of a former co-worker who had survived cancer and whom I had just spent some time reminiscing a few short weeks prior. All these things have made trivial things seem even more trivial to me. It has also made time with friends and family much more meaningful.

This past week was Western States week, which is probably the biggest week of the year for ultrarunning. Everyone is watching and following the race. For some reason, it seems that every year this week brings out the best and worst in the community. There are lots of positive things that happen related to that race. Tons of encouragement and relating of inspiring stories. There are those with criticisms of the race or the hype around it, much of which is valid. However, it also seems to bring out petty grudges and jealousies. I've been noticing more and more of that recently around ultra social media which is disappointing. I choose to just run when and where I want to and not worry about the other garbage.

I've said it, and many others have as well, so I'm not really breaking any ground here. It's just running. It is something I do that has provided an outlet. Right now, it is providing me an opportunity to run around some weird European country left over from middle ages. I can go into with an expectation to perform to some unrealistic standard I expect of myself or what I believe others expect, when in the end, I'll be the one with the memories and a my finishing time won't matter to anyone, including me.

Anyway, my training has been mediocre. It should still be enough to get through this run. I'm counting on experience to get me through the worst parts. As always, if I just keep moving forward and try to keep the attitude positive, I'll do just fine. In the end, the race is just a small part of the whole package. It is a reminder that whatever we are facing at the moment is just one thing that will pass onto the next thing, good or bad.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Pacing at Lighthouse 100

The starting point

While creating my schedule for this year, I had considered running a 100 miler in late May or June as a step towards Ronda del Cims and Bigfoot 200. The one that seemed to fit in well was the Lighthouse 100. The timing was decent and the location in northern Michigan was convenient. I was close to running it but decided I should concentrate on specific training for my upcoming races and avoid possible burn out. However, the opportunity came up to be a pacer and I couldn't pass it up.

All this time in ultrarunning and I have finally had the pacer experience. I have seen plenty of fellow runners with their pacers late in races and occasionally have been jealous. I've never had a pacer and this was the first time I have paced. It turned out to be an excellent experience.

Perfect day for a run

The Lighthouse 100 is in its 2nd year. This year the course was reversed from the inaugural year, running from the tip of Old Mission peninsula, down through Traverse City and on to the city of Petoskey, basically following along the coast of Lake Michigan. The whole course is almost exclusively on paved roads with some stretches of paved bike path. The weather was perfect for this type of race. There were aid stations spaced about 10 miles apart with some water drops in between for runners without crews. This was also the first time I had experienced a race with this type of road crewing, where the crews would just move a 2 or 3 miles ahead, along the road and meet their runner.

So the opportunity for me to be involved was in the form of a Facebook post asking for a pacer nearby. Usually I would not respond to such a request but I decided to step out of my comfort zone and go ahead and give it a try. The runner has much ultra experience, which gave me a chance to learn. Also, she is a multiple finisher of a race that has some interest to me. How could I pass this up?

It was strange watching the race start and not be in the pack disappearing up the road. We made a couple stops in the first 9 or 10 miles, which wound through the vineyards and orchards of the Old Mission Peninsula. At this point I jumped in to start my pacing duties, which I would be sharing with one other. There was no real plan as to how we would go about this but ended up just running until we felt like we needed a break and then would switch off. This race had no restriction on when a pacer could join in, which is commonly around 50 miles, give or take. This meant I would get plenty of miles in.

I was nervous about being able to be a good pacer. I wasn't sure if I was fit enough to keep up or interesting enough to keep a runner company for many hours. The alternate pacer was just coming off a recent illness and was not at 100% which would increase my miles a little further. He did a decent number of miles despite not feeling well.

There were many stories told, many about races or people we've met at races. I mostly listened and tried to absorb the knowledge. The talking kept my mind off all the running. The pace was consistent. We would reach the crew vehicle every half an hour or so which made the going seem very easy. Watching her and her husband, who was the crew chief, work at the stops was an education. The organization and efficiency was amazing. They had a system developed over many years that worked very well.

Running through the sunny afternoon, I began to realize how quickly the miles seemed to be passing by. We were into the late 60s and early 70s by the time the sun set. The pace slowed but the relentless focus was still there. The day was not too hot but the sun going down allowed temperatures to become even more comfortable for running.

Eventually the miles are whittled down to single digits remaining. We passed through a couple towns, getting strange looks from the locals wondering who these weird runners with headlamps on were. The final section was nearly all a paved path which was much less stressful than running on the side of a busy road. We began to anticipate the finish around every corner and finally there it was.

I ended up running about 60 miles and felt good. My runner finished with her second best 100 mile time ever so I felt good to have, perhaps, helped make that happen. It was strange to run so much and not be a "finisher" in the race but being able to help someone else reach a goal was very satisfying.

The whole pacing experience was very good. There was much to learn from watching the race from this perspective. The mental approach and attitude I was able to observe hold valuable lessons to apply to my own running. Hopefully I can apply these very quickly as I have two big races coming up shortly. I will be looking for chances to pace again. It seems I have been missing out on a fun part of this whole ultrarunning thing. Maybe I'll even consider having a pacer myself in a race some day.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Breaking News

A few posts ago I hinted at some pending exciting news to come. Well, today is the day to report on that. I'm very excited about this journey ahead for myself and the others I know who are taking part. At the same time I am humbled by the task in front of me.

Last year, I completed the Order of Hrimthurs, which was the hardest thing I had ever done. It included the life changing 160 miles of Tuscobia, the legendary and iconic Arrowhead 135 and, finally, Actif Epica which I appreciate more as time passes. When I started running ultras 6 short years ago, those were all races that were unreachable and impossible to imagine starting, let alone finishing. The lesson learned is that by taking a chance, you find out you can do much more than you think.

Early last month I decided to take another chance on something that long seemed an unattainable dream. After going back and forth as to whether I was ready or capable, I submitted an application to what had become a bucket list race for me. Yesterday I received this...

I've only known about this race since I started running ultras so to say this was a lifelong dream would be vastly overstating it. I have had a fascination with Alaska since I was 8 or 9 years old. It was a place of mystery, freedom and adventure. I've always wanted to go and now I will have the chance.

My previous races qualified me to enter the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350. I will have 10 days to make the 350 mile journey from near Anchorage to McGrath, along the Iditarod Trail in February 2019. And now I am officially on the roster.

I have plenty on my plate to keep me focused this year but as of now, everything is work towards ITI 2019. There is a ton of work and research in the months ahead but this will be an adventure to remember. Stay tuned!

PS: Congratulations to fellow Hrimthurs, Paul Schlagel and Jeff Rock for also getting in. Knowing they will be there will make this experience even better. 


Friday, May 25, 2018

Am I A Brony?

Several years ago, I learned about this crazy race down south called the Georgia Death Race. With a name like that, how could I not want to run it? It was (and still is) a very tough run through the mountains of north Georgia. In the weeks leading up to the race I was amused by the antics of race director, a guy named Sean "Run Bum" Blanton.  Then I was impressed, when due to permitting issues, he had to change the direction of the course at the last minute. Not only did he pull this off but he then, at what I am guessing was his own expense, had new race shirts made so the text matched the new course. The race and everything about it was enjoyable (except maybe a few of the long climbs but that is what I signed up for). I looked into his other races and found one in western Virginia that had as the main feature, wild mini ponies. Being a grown man that is not afraid to admit that I really wanted to see the ponies, I finally was able to sign up this year.

The Grayson Highlands 50k takes place on the trails of Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia. Driving in to the area, I was reminded of the topography at Georgia Death Race but maybe not as severe. The location was remote, leaving me with zero to very small pockets of minimal cell phone coverage, which was just fine with me. This allowed me to relax the evening prior with a book and get well rested.

The forecast was calling for the strong possibility of thunderstorms and rain during the race. However, that morning was overcast but the rain seemed to be holding off and the temperatures were looking good. Just before we were sent off at the start we were informed that the night before they had decided to change the course to a low, unexposed route to avoid lightning issues, but had last minute changed it back and Sean was out at that moment running to reset the course markings. This ensured that we would run the route mostly likely to encounter the ponies.

The race started at the park visitor center that basically sat at a high point in the park so this meant the start was all downhill. My first two miles flying down the road clocked in at low 8 minutes per mile, which included a stop to retie my shoe. Crazy. We made a quick turn and then the splits became more real and familiar.

The course was much more rocky and technical than I expected, however, I wasn't really concerned with how much it was slowing me down. There was some good variety in terrain which included open runable sections, technical climbs and descents, and a section along a river that required some scrambling on all fours.

I felt good most of the day considering I had run a fast (for me) marathon just two weeks prior. Compared to that, this pace felt like a crawl but I didn't care. I kept telling myself to enjoy the scenery and the day. I think I did. Mostly, I just refused to feel bad, even when I started getting tired and wanted to be done. It was, I think, a good lesson in attitude to bring to later races. The idea of preparing for these races and then just wanting them to be over is strange when you consider the logic. Being in the moment and finding the joy is the point.

I was concerned for a bit early on since I had not seen the ponies. Eventually we came upon them and it was very cool. The first small herd was mixed in with some longhorn cattle, which I heard may also be up there. It seems we crossed the highlands several times and each time came across some ponies, closer on each encounter.
Real life mini ponies!!

The final section was a long climb back up towards the visitor center that felt like it would never end. When it did, the course passed right by the the finish but we weren't done. There was still another short loop to run. Cruelty.

Almost finished thumbs up
photo credit: Appalachian Exposures

I finished in a time of 6:40 which means it took me a full 3 hours longer than the marathon 2 weeks ago. There weren't even that many extra miles as, at least according to my GPS, the race was around 28 or 29 miles, not the full 50k advertised. The climbs and technicality more than made up for those "missing" miles. Overall, I had a great time.

As always when I travel a good distance to run a race, I meet new people and get to hear about races I had not heard of. This trip was no exception. Everyone was very friendly and interesting, making the time and miles pass by easily as we talked. Of course, now I have a bunch of new races to look into and add to the growing list.

Now the days are rapidly counting down to my next adventure at Ronda del Cims in Andorra. That and more coming up in the next episodes.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Glass City Marathon Recap

The day of reckoning always arrives, creeping up slowly at first and then suddenly it is front of you, regardless of your state of preparedness. I was relaxed going into the final tapering phase, which is rare for me. I was much more confident about being able to accomplish my main goal but had plenty of remaining doubt as well. I tried to keep my plan simple. I would go out running slightly under the overall pace I needed to meet the goal time and hold it as long as possible.

The weather race morning was near perfect. The sky was mostly clear and the temperatures in the low 40s, meaning the heat would not be a factor even after the sun rose completely. I wore shorts and singlet and some cheap gloves I could pull off as I warmed up.

I found my way to the assigned start corral and soon heard my name called out. Lewis and Brian, who had completed the Midwest Slam of Ultras with me a couple years ago,  were calling me from the close to the front of the crowd, so I moved up to join them. After listening to the anthems and speeches about the race, I took of with them.

The first few miles did not feel too bad as I tried to settle in to the pace as we circled around the University of Toledo campus. It was a strange feeling to start a race running that hard, or even just running that hard at all since I never do it. I began to think there was a possibility of pulling my goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

The course ran mostly through residential neighborhood streets and on a paved path through a park. I quickly realized that running at that tempo made even the smallest change in elevation very noticeable. The "hills" that I would barely even acknowledge in a trail race now seemed to drag me down, even though a quick look at the watch showed a minimal drop in pace.

Once I reached 8 or 9 miles, I started to struggle to keep the pace up. I tried to relax and just keep moving, hoping to keep up. The mile splits were getting longer and longer. By the time I was at 11 miles I knew they would continue to drop and the "A" goal was probably out the window. This was a bit disappointing but not unexpected. I was still moving much faster than my PR race pace and that goal was down to a matter of by how much would I improve.

I reached the half way point in a time close to 1:42, which if I could repeat in the second half would mean I could reach all my goals. However, my splits were still falling even when I felt I was pushing harder. It wasn't happening today.

The second half was slow. I just settled in and let the miles click off. I was not having fun and wanted to be done. The thought of jumping on one of the relay buses back to the finish crossed my mind very briefly. When this idea formed I quickly laughed to myself. I had forgotten how much a road marathon hurt. I was feeling a little miserable but was finally uplifted by a few spectator comments about my hair late in the race. Always good for a laugh.

So I had the remaining 13 miles to think about the failure to meet my goal. It would be very simple to have beat myself up over this but I soon made the realization that my goals only really matter to me. Any pressure that was created, was created by me, on myself. Whether or not I succeed has no bearing on anyone's day. I always appreciate any and all encouragement and I'm very happy if taking part in these races inspires others to try new things. It is hard to not compare myself to others and expect that I should be able to do what everyone else seems to do effortlessly. The fact is that these thing are hard for everyone, in their own way. Trying to meet an expectation based on what others are doing, that only matters to me is fruitless and in the end is meaningless.

The cliche is that it is the journey is what matters. I know this and still have to be reminded periodically. The work I did prior to this race was intended to change my focus and try to regain my joy of running. It did this by forcing me to do difficult things that I had avoided before. I'm very sure this will help my in my training for future ultras.

The final mile felt like I was dragging an anchor. The course wound around the football stadium before finally turning onto the field and finishing at the 50 yard line. I crossed the line in 3:40, which was well over my top goal but was my best ever marathon time by 4 minutes. The first half would have been my best ever half-marathon time. I should be and I am proud of the result.

The recovery over the last week has been good. I was fairly sore for a few days. I did go out an run the following day which I normally would not do. It did help and I have run every day this week. I am ready for the next challenge.

That next challenge is the Grayson Highlands 50k down in Virginia on May 5. Only 2 weeks between races so I will not do anything crazy as far as training goes. That will have to ramp up quickly following this next race since Ronda del Cims is coming quickly. I'll be reporting back shortly to cover the next race.

Monday, April 16, 2018

On The Road Again: A Quick Glass City Marathon Preview

All the training work is done and it is almost time to run the Glass City Marathon in Toledo, my first road marathon in almost 4 years. I'm not sure what to think about my readiness. My last few speed workouts went reasonably well. I mean, I didn't feel like I was going to die. The truth will be revealed somewhere around 16 to 20 miles in. Maybe sooner. I don't know.

My plan is to set my pace slightly ahead of the goal and then just try to hold on. The overall goal is to qualify for Boston, which for me is 3:25. To actually get into next year's race will require at least a couple minutes faster than that. So the goal hierarchy goes something like this:

  1. Qualify fast enough to register for 2019 Boston  (3:23ish)
  2. Qualify (3:24:59)
  3. Marathon PR (<3:44)
  4. Finish and don't get hurt
I'd be very happy with the first 3 and perfectly fine with just a finish. Based on the training feedback, I believe a PR will be nearly certain without an injury or illness. The qualifying will be a close call and I'm sure, very taxing towards the end of the race. Those last few miles will show exactly how much that goal actually means to me. I'm looking forward to learning the answer.  

The change up in training has provided a bit of what I was looking for when I decided to do this. It has renewed my enjoyment of running and made me appreciate it more. It has showed me that working on those things I'm not good at can be very positive. I should do more of it and will try to do just that. Hopefully this has taught me to be more aware of falling into a comfortable groove and that getting out of that groove requires hard work but it is rewarding work. I suppose this can apply to more than just running. 

I am looking to moving back to the trails and will do so very soon after this race. The work I have just done should help there but I will have to begin my focus on the mountains. A different world but I'll get to that when it is time. Until then I will make sure to enjoy the race in front of me, the best part of which may be seeing others finish their first marathon.

In the meantime, some exciting things are happening that hopefully I can share soon. In the last couple of weeks there has been so much anticipation and some tough descisions. We will see how everything turns out soon but I have again been reminded that you have to take chances and face what scares you in order make dreams come true. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Reasons and Randoms

Everyone has their reasons for running. Not everyone knows those reasons. I have been trying to figure out what my reasons are. I thought I knew them but maybe, like all things, they evolve and they change.
Last year I went from a high to a low. I complete the Order of the Hrimthurs feeling I could do anything and went on to fail in 3 out of 4 races. I didn't work hard to prepare. I didn't make myself suffer enough during the races to finish. 
This year I decided to change it up and set a goal that would require a different focus and approach. Instead of just racking up miles and time on my feet, I would do the dreaded speed work. I haven't run a road marathon in nearly 4 years. Easy when compared to an ultra right? It's so much shorter. However, it is different. It is intense. It is another kind of suffering that I am not accustom to. Once again the whole game is so much more mental than physical. 

I've found the races I do the worst in are the one where I was stressed for one reason or another shortly prior to race day. My best were those that I went into with no expectation or concerns. It all speaks to the role of the mind in accomplishing physical tasks. 

The speed work does not scare me a  much as it once did. It is beginning to become familiar. It is still very hard and not comfortable. The race is just over 2 weeks away an I feel pretty good about it though not 100% confident. Physically I will be ready, but I worry about other factors. 

Word salad and expressing vague thoughts. That's all any of this is. Fear of over-sharing, well maybe not exactly that, but of making others uncomfortable with what I choose to share. In the past, I would have said nothing. Selfishly, I feel better when I say it, even if it is uncomfortable. However, as you may have realized, I have come to believe that it takes a bit of discomfort for growth and improvement.

While getting more comfortable with the discomfort of speed work, personally I have been struggling with some abrupt changes at work that seem to have triggered me to seriously evaluate the choices I have made. I am coming to realize that I really don't like what I do, what I chose as a career. I am finding no satisfaction in my work. It has been making me more negative and increasingly unhappy. Well, that's not completely correct as it is much more complicated in my mind. I suppose I'm just feeling unhappy even though I truly have nothing to complain about. From all appearances, my life is in a very good place, and it is. I have wonderful family and friends, a great paying, secure job, and zero tragedy in my life. That is what makes feeling this way even more frustrating. I know there is no real reason for it but here it is, sitting with me constantly. I can't just will it or reason it away.

I have found some relief and an outlet in the structure and effort in training to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Running has felt very good again for the first time in quite a while. Last year I reached a point where I found no joy in it and this showed when I made my attempt at the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. I had no drive or desire. That place within me, that I can physically feel myself reach into when I'm struggling was completely spent. For me this place is located somewhere deep in the abdomen, roughly between the belly button and the rib cage.

Remarkably, that place seems to be full again at a time when I am struggling making it through a work day. I suppose I should try to look at it as a low point in an ultra, make some decisions about how to address it and eventually things will get better.

So back to the question of why I run these races and what gets me through them. Well, it seems that it teaches me about myself and ways to deal with life issues. It gives me confidence that even when I don't feel my best, I am still able to do much more that I think I can. Also, I honestly feel like I have a need to prove to others that I can do more than they think I ever could as well. That really shouldn't matter but it does, so there.
I've also been thinking about some of the people who have told me that my running posts and blogs have inspired them to do x or y. That is probably the coolest part of any of this. I'm hoping there are few more I haven't heard from and I hope there are more to come. Overall this seems like the best reason why and it's the one I'll stick with.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Zones of Comfort

The minutes seemed to tick by way too fast. I was approaching 20 minutes which would mark the end of the warm up portion and kick off what had been on my mind all day. Speed work. Specifically, 1 mile at 10k pace repeated 4 times with 5 minutes of rest in between. As the time came closer and closer, I felt myself tensing up. Emotions were welling up. I desperately didn't want to do this. It was nearly overwhelming. I was fighting the urge to give up and leave this for another day.
The entire day I had been obsessively thinking about this upcoming work out. I had to keep reminding myself I would be fine. It's a 9 or 10 mile run in total. No problem. I am 2 weeks out from finishing the Arrowhead 135. Why would running 10 miles fill me with dread?
Last year during my deep running funk I came to the conclusion that I should switch things up this year and have some new goals. One that I have been putting off was running a Boston Marathon Qualifying time. These are based on age and gender. For me, the time required is 3 hours 25 minutes. My personal best in the marathon was over 3 years ago in a time of 3 hours 44 minutes. To accomplish this new goal, I would have to run nearly a minute a mile faster. That is quite the obstacle to overcome. This marathon goal is just an arbitrary thing. It has no bearing on my value as a runner or person. It is just a target to work towards. The things that happen between now and then and how I deal with them are what truly count.
In order to run 100 miles or further you basically just train by running as many slow miles as you can. Even then I believe you can get by on mental will alone. Being physically fit helps but you suffer either way and just bear it for long time.
Running a "fast" marathon (fast being relative to each person's natural ability) is a different kind of running. The intensity is ramped up much more. The time is much shorter than an ultra but the average level of discomfort is much higher.
The training requires getting into this uncomfortable zone and, at times, into even more intense, painful zones. My running over the last 4 years has completely avoided this. I've gotten comfortable and, likely, complacent, running on the base I've built up and not pushing anything too hard.
To put it bluntly, I've been afraid of pushing myself this way. I mean actual fear. Running hard and fast hurts in a different way than running slow and long. I've grown comfortable with running slowly for long periods of time. It has become familiar. I was looking for any reason to put this off and not do it. I was afraid.
The time for the first interval arrived. I ramped up the treadmill to the my 10k pace and tried to keep my feet moving fast enough to keep up. I tried to relax and breathe. The seconds seemed to tick by slowly but I was doing it. I watched the time creep by, telling myself I only had 2 minutes to go, 1 minute to go, then it was over. 1 down, 3 to go.
By the time I reached the third and fourth, I would get a minute or two into it and my mind would be screaming out to me to stop, offering a litany of reason why it was ok to quit. I was struggling but I was still moving. I would think to myself, "what will happen if you just keep going?" and I would. I felt like I was balancing on a blade between quitting and continuing on. Finally the end came, as it inevitably does, and I had faced down my fear, at least for today. 
For the next 10 weeks I will be facing this fear of being very uncomfortable in a different way. I will be trying to practice what I preach about doing things that scare you. I will do my best to remain consistent and do what the training requires that day. That will mean facing fear and doubt in myself. None of this guarantees success but I think the trying is where personal progress is truly made.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Arrowhead 2018: Snowy Smoke Kittens and Other Delights

Last year, sitting in the pre race meeting in International Falls, I felt like I didn't belong. This year I felt much more comfortable despite my apprehension about what lay before me. The faces were more familiar. I had come to know many of these people over the year that had elapsed. I was beginning to feel like I was part of the Arrowhead family.

My finish at the 2017 race showed me that what I thought was impossible, can be possible. It was a very difficult race, especially coming off the Tuscobia 160. Finishing gave me an immense boost of confidence. However, this confidence did not translate into much success last summer. Perhaps it was a fluke. Maybe I just happened to get lucky in a relatively easy year for the race. I needed to prove to myself that this wasn't the case and I got all I could handle. I decided to give the unsupported option a try this year, meaning I could not refill water, get food or go inside for warmth at the checkpoints. This would be an added level of difficulty.

The all important weather reports leading into the race showed a low of around -10 F at the start which would then trend upward to 20 F the next day. After spending over 20 hours near -20 F at Tuscobia a few weeks ago, this would almost feel balmy. Having the same gear since last year's race gave me assurance that I would not have to worry too much about the weather {foreshadowing!!}

I slept somewhat fitfully, having recurring dreams of myself dealing with one problem or another on the course, but still felt good when I rose to put on all my gear. Sometimes, thinking about the fact that I will be living in those clothes for the next couple days puts the event in some perspective. Knowing that I would have to be out there for two days and nights in order to finish can become overwhelming. It often hits me most when putting my shoes on. "When I finally take these off", I say to myself, "my feet will likely not be in great shape."
Before. A little terrified. 

I checked in at the start and then had a series of hugs, handshakes and words of encouragement with my fellow racers. I tried to relax and get in the proper mindset. The fireworks went off and the waves of bikes and then skiers left before those of us on foot set off. I tried to walk quickly to get warm.

The first couple miles, similar to Tuscobia, had me waiting for my feet to warm up. Once they do get up to temperature I never seem to have any issues. I was wearing a new pair of gloves since I somehow lost a mitten at Tuscobia. I tend to believe mittens are better for keeping the fingers warm since they are bundled together and not seperated as in gloves. Early on the new gloves appeared to be working well.

The sun rose shortly after the start, revealing an overcast sky and some very light snow. The trail was hard and fairly smooth, making the footing nearly perfect. The early hours were spent with the usual chatting with other racers and moving along happily with no worries. However, for whatever reason I was already yawning and feeling a little sleepy 3 or 4 hours in. This was not a good sign but I would just have to deal it as it came. I was also struggling to find a good temperature balance. I was constantly adjusting jacket zippers up and down. I would pull a bluff over my cold face only to feel like I was being smothered, so I would pull it back down. This constant battle would be slightly aggrevating but it also gave me something to do instead of think about how much futher I had to go.
Early on with fellow Hrimthur Randy
credit: Burgess Eberhardt

As I approached the first checkpoint (Gateway Gas Station/Store) at 36 miles, I tried to decide what I would do there, if anything. I still had plenty of water but thought maybe it would be a good time for a hot meal since I couldn't go inside to warm up. I reached the checkpoint nearly half an hour sooner than last year, checked in and immediately headed back out on the trail to find a good place to my stove out and melt some snow to cook a freeze-dried meal. The stove lit reluctantly as I scrambled to do so without too much exposure of my hands to the cold. The flame was very low and eventually quit. I tried a couple more times to get it going but I ended up deciding I was wasting time with a stove that was not going to work at these temperatures. I was a little dejected by this but I hoped that with the warm up that was forecast, that I would be able to get things going and keep my unsupported status.

The next section from Gateway to MelGeorge Resort is around 34 miles. The previous section is basically flat the whole way, not a single hill to climb or descend. The hills begin to appear here. For me this stretch has always happened directly between sundown and sunrise. I probably wouldn't even recognize it in the daylight. The sky had cleared and a nearly full moon allowed me to go for a good amount of time with turning the headlamp on.

Shortly into this section, probably only 7 or 8 PM, I was struggling to stay awake. My eyelids became very heavy and I would find myself drifting from side to side, held up only by my treking poles. I would stop to eat or drink some water in an effort to wake myself up. This happening so early on the first night was not a good sign. Based on previous experience I knew if I fought and got through to the sunrise, I would feel better, at least for a bit. Easy to say but when you have 11 hours of hills, cold and darkness ahead of you, the feeling of helplessness looms large.

The hours and the hills passed by slowly. I began to struggle to stay warm. I would try to speed up but this helped little. I bundled up and put on as much clothing as I had with me. At a road crossing about half way through this section, I met Todd, the man with the snowmobile who will save your ass if things get real bad. Talking with him, I joked that I thought it was supposed to start warming up. "Yeah", he said, "it's -25 right now but in an hour or two it will start going up a degree an hour." This explained why with every piece of clothing I had on that I could not warm up. I started to have thoughts about whether or not I would realize I was freezing to death.

I was moving well despite the cold and fatigue, arriving at Elephant Lake an hour earlier than last year and before dawn. In those last couple of hours I had made a decision about my unsupported status. Since my stove refused to work it was probably prudent to be safe and get water at the next checkpoint. Also, spending several hours thinking about the grilled cheese and warm beds at MelGeorge was too much to resist.

The lake crossing felt shorter this year, as I knew what to expect. I followed a red blinking light moving far off in front of me and in less than 20 minutes, pulled my sled up in front of the checkpoint cabin.

Inside the cabin is chaos but oh so warm. There is gear scattered in every open space. I found an open chair, stripped off layers and piled them up in front of me, while volunteers kept bringing me warm food. The grilled cheese was excellent as always. 2 or 3 of these, a bowl of soup and a couple cookies later I moved upstairs to find a place to lie down. I found a spot on a queen bed where another racer was already sleeping on the other half. I'm not one to just sleep in a bed with a strange man but I was exhausted. Still don't know who it was.

After tossing and turning for 15 minutes trying to make the cramping stop, I fell asleep for a good 45 minutes. I looked at the time and tried get myself moving to get out of the cabin before I became too comfortable. Some of my gear was still a little damp but dry enough. I mechanically put piece after piece back into place. I felt like I was stretching the process out in order to avoid going back outside, but then the big parka was on and it was decision time. I was little surprised at the resolve I had to go back out but then it had to be forceful or I never would have stepped back out. The cold quickly swarms over you as you turn your back on all those warm friendly faces inside.

Back in my sled harness I started the 40+ mile trek to the Surly checkpoint. It was 9 AM and the forecast snow had started to fall. Fall may not be the right word. It flew perpendicular to the ground due to a strong wind, directly into my face, stinging my cheeks and eyes. The firm footing of the previous day was replaced by a layer of loose, powdery snow.

Overnight there had been a few of the typical hallucinations due to fatigue and the shadows created by the moon and headlamp. Now, going into the second day, they really started to kick in. Gazing down wearily at the path ahead of me, I would become transfixed by the footsteps of runners in front of me. The foot impression in the snow became a bowl of swirling white smoke. I then began to see the faces and paws of equally white snow kittens climbing out of the smoke bowls. This was getting interesting.

Miles crept by and I was reminded of my thoughts last year when I wondered where all these legendary hills were. They did come and were not quite as bad as I remember. They were still long and relentless but I just tried to avoid negative thoughts, put my head down and keep climbing until there no climbing left to do, repeat. Over and over.

Eventually the course levels out and I knew I was getting close to the final checkpoint. I kept expecting it around every turn but I just kept walking. I began worrying I had missed a turn. Time kept ticking on but after nearly hour over my calculated arrival, the familiar teepee came into view. I stepped inside and tried warming up with a backpacking meal. I sat for nearly an hour with my shoes and socks off and set next to the wood stove in an attempt to dry them out.

The combination of sweating during the climbs and the temperature finally rising had started to get my gear a little damp. At this point last year my feet were blistered and pickled pretty bad but were only just beginning to get uncomfortable here. At least I seemed to have figured that puzzle out.

Leaving Surly was not so hard as it meant that I was in the home stretch with a short flat section of only 23 miles. Not even a marathon. Of course it starts off with the longest, steepest climb of the whole race. What comes next though is what makes this climb worth every second. The sled ride down Wakemup Hill. This is longest and fastest ride down. Just like last year, I reached a speed that made me rather uncomfortable but I appreciated the fact that I was covering distance with little to no effort.

The remainder of the course is basically dead flat with long straight stretches. By now the sun had risen on me for the third time and I just kept my head down, chipping away step by step. I also needed to keep my head down to maintain some sense of reality. Whenever I looked ahead, I would see people, houses, parking lots full of vehicles through the trees, only to find out on arriving that they weren't really there. Nothing I saw could be trusted to be real.

I'd like to say this section went by quickly, and compared to others it did, but it was still a good 8 to 9 hours of struggle. The turn taking me off the Arrowhead trail signaled that I only had 2 miles to go. It was nearly over. I could feel the emotions rising and then falling, being to tired to sustain any constant thought. The finish line that I felt at times would never come, appeared and I had repeated the thing I had once thought I could never do.

After. A little sleepy.
Often during the later stages I would think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. I felt at times like I was carrying a huge black demon on my back. A demon personifying all my failures and insecurities, telling me I'm wasting my time and effort and weighing me down. Overcoming and finishing doesn't solve any of life's problems. What it does is make facing that demon bearable. It proves that even when things are difficult, patience and determination are what I need most often.

Hotel room aftermath
Here's the thing about a race like Arrowhead. It draws a very unique and special group of people. They are humble, kind, generous and friendly but also some of the toughest people on the planet. The shared experience of suffering brings them together. I just wrote a bunch of words about this race but unless you have been there and done it, words can never fully capture what one of these events is truly all about. Before and after the race, we tell our stories to each other and we understand beyond words. We learn from each other and are inspried by each other. I do the best I can for myself but also to honor what they do as well.

There were several first time finishers and many who have multiple finishes. There were those that didn't make it all the way for one reason or another, but had the courage to give it the best effort that day would allow. There was Kari and Kate, who started at the finish line the Thursday before the race, did the whole course, turned around and started with the rest of us, accomplishing the mind boggling Double Arrowhead (Article). Every single person involved has an amazing story and I will always do my best to be back.

Post Arrowhead tradition: A Grain Belt or two

Friday, January 26, 2018

Return to the Wild

Hard to believe it was only a year ago that I was taking part in the iconic Arrowhead 135. I still can't believe I actually finished it. My race report last year covers all that but a year later I feel I have yet to fully grasp all that happened. Now the time has come to return to northern Minnesota. Finishing once could have been a fluke so doing it again will be a big test.

I've spent the month after Tuscobia running a little bit. My longest run was 15 miles at a local "fat ass" event. I've done a few runs on the treadmill at the gym. It has been a bit of a struggle to get myself to get going but once I start running I feel good. The main problem now is I'm feeling bored and impatient. I want to get to the meat of the training for the spring and summer races and this small window between races does not allow for doing too much without risking injury or being fatigued at Arrowhead. And speaking of meat, I have most definitely been eating way too much in the interim. My justification is that I am putting on an insulating layer. Hey, it worked last year. Luckily my bathroom scale died and I haven't had to deal with it. Ignorance really is bliss but also a little chubby.

Where I want to be again
I don't have much more to say about Arrowhead that I haven't said previously (see the race report from last year). I'm very confident I can finish. It will be extremely difficult, mostly mentally. I have the advantage of knowing I have done it before and I am fully capable of doing it again. I will just have to keep telling myself that over and over again. The Tuscobia 80 was very hard and a very good reminder of the focus and determination these races require.
The weather looks like it won't be too extreme, with temperatures expected to range from around -10 at the start to 25 degrees towards the end. There may be some snow on the 2nd night that could affect footing and slow things down. Worrying about it won't change it so I will just deal with whatever happens.
This year I am going to give the unsupported option a try. This means I will not be allowed any food, water or aid at the 3 checkpoints. I will have to carry all my food and melt snow for water refills. I will not be allowed to go inside and warm up. It adds a bit of difficulty and will likely take longer. This should all be good practice for future winter races I'd like to try.

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I'm after the one in the middle

As always, the best part of these winter races will be getting to see the small winter ultra community. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone, telling stories, sharing some miles out there and giving big hugs after finishing. It's a beautiful thing we got going. See you in International Falls!

You can follow the race live beginning Monday Jan. 29 here:

Monday, January 8, 2018

Cold Lessons

Minutes before the start

As I sat waiting to start Tuscobia for the second time in 2017, I began to worry that I had not been taking it seriously enough. Nearly 12 months ago I had run the Tuscobia 160 and it changed my life. It may have been the hardest thing I have ever done. 160 miles on foot in temperatures around -20 F. A year later I am still trying to comprehend how I did it but also why I did it. In order to complete one of these events, being physically and mental fit helps, but most importantly, there needs to be a reason that drives you to the finish. I knew I didn't have a good enough reason to get me through another 160 miles so I decided to "only" do the 80 mile version this time around. The worry I was experiencing prior to the start was the realization that even though I was doing much less this time, it was still going to be very, very hard.
The shorter version of Tuscobia begins the day after the full version, at the turn around point in Park Falls, Wisconsin. Starting at this time would allow me to see some of the course in the daylight that I had only traversed in the night each previous attempt. The morning was bright, clear and ridiculously cold. The starting temperature was around -15 F. This did not worry me too much since I used the exact same gear last year and I survived. However, I began to worry in the first couple of miles when my feet felt very cold. I then recalled that this happens every time and forgot about them. Sure enough, within the first hour my feet felt nice and warm.
The days leading up to the race I had not been feeling 100%. For several days I had been experiencing what could politely be called an intestinal issue. This is not ideal going into a 80 mile race where you are bundled up in many layers of clothing. Luckily, it never turned out to be a problem. I was able to eat and drink without ill effects.
The 35 miles to the only checkpoint on the course at Ojibwa were fairly easy. I was moving along consistently, occasionally leap frogging other runners, but mostly alone. I made a conscious effort to take in the scenery and enjoy my time outside. When the flags indicating the turn off for the checkpoint appeared, I was surprised I was there already. Everything was going well. I looked forward to taking a quick break to sit and warm up.
The check point was much warmer and more organized than in the past. I took a few minutes trying to thaw my face cover off my beard. The condensation from my breath had frozen into a solid block near my chin making it impossible to remove the cloth cover. I ate and refilled my water. I felt good and was eager to get back out on the trail and to not spend too much time here. One of the hardest part of Tuscobia is leaving the Ojibwa checkpoint. It was made even harder this year since there were so many people in the cabin that I knew from previous races. The winter ultra community is small and close.
Feeling good at Ojibwa
photo credit: John Taylor

I was in and out of the checkpoint in less than half an hour. Back out into the cold night, the difficult part would now begin. I left Ojibwa at 9 PM. The night was clear and brightly lit be the nearly full moon. The moonlight is made even brighter by reflecting off the snow covered landscape. It is bright enough to travel without turning on your headlamp. It is an experience that I often think about on a random day in July. I long to be in that place, out in the middle of a northern forest, on a cold, moonlit night, alone, with only what I can carry and pull on a sled, miles from anywhere. It produces an intense feeling of freedom and tranquility. There is only the moment. The outside world is so far away that none of it matters. For the hours or days that I'm out there, nothing else is of consequence. I can exist without distraction, focused only on the task in front of me.
I had 10 more hours of night to get through and 45 miles to the finish. It was not too long before my old friend, the Sleep Monster appeared. I had several cans of Starbucks shots I had warmed by the fire at the checkpoint. I opened the first shortly after leaving and discovered, not unexpectedly, that it was completely frozen. No caffeine for me. I walked on for a while before coming up with the brilliant idea to put a can under my arm to try to thaw it. I have learned that decision making in winter ultras can be slightly impaired and slow. After 20 minutes or so, I had sufficiently melted my frozen coffee and drank it down. Almost immediately I  felt awake and alert. This was short lived. Within an hour I was drifting from side to side and struggling to keep my eyes open. I repeated the thawing technique but this time I opened the can too soon and was only able to extract about half the contents. I struggled to keep moving.
The night dragged on and on. I desperately wanted to lay down but didn't want to make the effort to get my sleeping bag out, so I kept moving. I kept an eye out for promising places to bivy but would just move on when I spotted one. I knew I would feel much better when the sun came up so I needed to just move forward.
As dawn approached, I began to feel really cold for the first time. I tried moving faster but my mind and body were not agreeing. A bit of doubt and worry entered my mind at this point. I just kept moving as I had learned to do before.
I reached the town of Birchwood shortly after the sun rose. This is the last town before an approximately 17 mile stretch to the finish. I stopped at large gas station where several other runners were resting. I put down a breakfast burrito, a donut and hot cup of coffee. I wanted to stay but I also just wanted to be finished so I gathered myself and stepped back out into the cold morning.
This final 17 mile stretch was much more of a struggle than I expected. My legs were aching. My feet, which had been in very good shape, began to develop blisters. I calculated the time left to finish. 5 hours. 4 hours 3 hours. Each time I did, it felt unbearable to continue that much longer, yet I would just keep the feet moving. Time slows down. The pain becomes all consuming.
I finally reached the turn off the Tuscobia trail to the 4 mile straight stretch into Rice Lake and the finish. I passed the scene of the toast hallucination. All appeared different in the daylight. This stretch was long but not nearly as bad a last year. I rolled into the finish, ending a nearly 6 month drought of ultra finishes.
photo credit: Scott Kummer

I shouldn't have been surprised with how I felt after finishing 80 miles because I felt nearly exactly as I did the previous 2 years. I couldn't imagine turning around and doing it again but that is what I did last year. It is a reminder that even when I feel like there is no way I can continue, I still have plenty left in the tank.
I stepped inside to warm up and decompress. After several pieces of pizza and some beer, I laid down to wait out the inevitable cramping that was setting in. Finishers would come inside and we all would clap. The race had taken quite a toll as the finish rate was one of the lowest across all the race versions.
After. Not as bad as last year. 

This was a good start to the new race season. I got the DNF monkey off my back, at least temporarily. Arrowhead is next, which is 55 miles longer, more remote and with many hills. My confidence was not improved by this latest outing but I always learn so I should be fine.

Tuscobia has become one of my favorite races to attend. I have gotten to know so many inspiring, positive people. Paul Schlagel, who completed the Hrimthurs last year, won the 160 Run. I was hearing about his progress throughout the day and was so happy for him. His wife, Julie, who had never run a race over a half marathon, finished the 80 mile on foot. I had trouble keeping up with here for the first 35 miles. Hrimthur Scott Kummer had to drop due to having a bad cold but still battled to get to Ojibwa. I passed Hrimthur Kari and Erik, who I finished Actif with last year, early in my race, as they were approaching Park Falls. Unfortunately they had to drop there but 80 miles in those conditions is nothing to discount. I was also given a boost by seeing  Hrimthur Randy and John Taylor at Ojibwa, where they were selflessly volunteering. Bridget Durocher, who I met during the Midwest Slam in 2016, was the only female to finish the 160. An amazing performance. All these folks and everyone else I encountered before, during and after the race inspire me so much. Each one has an amazing story and I'm honored to share the trail with every one of them. Finally, Chris and Helen Scotch, the race directors, put on a fantastic race. They genuinely care for every participant and do great work providing an unforgettable experience.
A small step on the way to completing my goals for this year is done. I've got some hard work ahead but it is all worth it.