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.