Podcast Reviews

I decided to make a post of podcast reviews. Obviously I have a lot of time to listen to them while running and it’s been hard to find ones I like. I figured I’d give some reviews here for others to both find out about some they haven’t heard of and to know if they’re worth listening to. I will likely just add to this list as I go through more and more of them instead of making new posts. Some are educational, most are entertaining. Some have a set number of episodes and others have been going for years. I’ll put a rating at the end of the review 1-5. 5 is the best. If there isn’t a review yet, check back in a month or so, I’ll get around to them eventually.

The Message

My first serial series I listened to is The Message by GE Theater. Yes the company GE made podcasts. They probably never will again since they’re broke which is too bad. It’s nice to not have commercial breaks. I love this one. I don’t want to give too much away but there is a message that scientists discovered and needs to be deciphered. My wife loved this one as well.

Rating: 5!

Life After (Lif-e.af/ter)

This is a second series from GE. Without giving too much away, someone isn’t handling the death of a loved one very well and is constantly listening to the voice recordings of said loved one when suddenly the recordings talk back. I love this one also, as did my wife. For me the first episode was slightly annoying hearing the same voice recordings over and over and over but I got used to it and once the voice talks back, it’s not annoying anymore. This is one that you’ll want to keep listening to even when the run is done and you can’t wait until tomorrows run to listen to the next episode.

Rating: 5

The Lovecraft Investigations

This is made by BBC4 so again not many commercials although I wonder if they don’t add or take away commercials over time on podcast downloads. It’s based on books by H.P. Lovecraft who I’d honestly never heard of before these podcasts. They have made 3 seasons so far based on 3 books and they are related so definitely listen to season 1: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward first and season 2: The Whisperer in Darkness second and season 3: The Shadow Over Innsmouth third.

I love all 3 seasons immensely. They portray these as being a real life podcast which I love. It took me I think 3 episodes to realize that this was all made up (once I realized they were based on Lovecraft books) since the podcast wasn’t called The Lovecraft Investigations originally. They grouped them together after the second season I believe. Anyway the characters are perfectly descriptive of what’s going on in a way that seems natural to what they would be doing and saying that other podcasts don’t do near as well as this one. In fact there are times in movies where we all say “why are you going that way instead of this way” while being chased by a killer, etc. The characters themselves see how stupid some of the things they are about to do are but explain it in ways that are satisfying. There also aren’t many characters which is important in audio plays. It’s annoying that some writers think it’s OK to have 20 characters with similar sounding voices that are near impossible to keep track of. Things get a little crazier and weirder as the seasons go on but the last season I just had to listen to them all within a week. I ran extra that week.

So what are they about? It all starts with Dexter Ward disappearing from a locked room in a mental institute. It’s somewhat X-files like in feel. You’ll probably notice I have a type of podcast that I enjoy. I don’t want to ruin things. Just listen to a few episodes and you’ll be hooked right away I’m sure.

Rating: 5

The Piper

By BBC4. Just to show that I don’t like all podcasts, I’ll throw this one in now. This one sucked. It’s extremely obvious what the series will be about in the first episode so there’s no worry about spoilers. It’s so obvious what will happen, who the “bad guy” is, etc that I almost quit after the first episode. I didn’t because everything from BBC4 I had listened to up to that point was so good and I was hopeful. Basically, kids start going missing just as a kid that disappeared years ago shows up having not aged a day. It’s obvious that there’s a boogeyman stealing the kids through an online game. It’s like the writers just took bad plots from random TV shows and put them together. The only “good” thing is that the series gives really good lessons on how to be a horrible parent and a horrible person. I hated ever character in this series. By the end I just wished they all would die although I knew exactly how it would end before the end of the first episode.

Rating: 1

The Other Stories

This is a long running series that I didn’t really enjoy. I’m too lazy to even look up who makes it. There are over 100 episodes I believe so clearly some people like it. They are kind of twilight zone stories but not as good. Well that’s maybe not fair. There were a couple that were really good but then you’d listen to 5 or 6 that were basically the exact same story that wasn’t even good the first time. In the end I just wasn’t willing it give it that much time for an occasional good creepy story so I stopped listening to them. You may not want to listen to this one while running in the woods at night. Perhaps someone has done a review where they list which ones are good and which to avoid?

Rating: 2.5

The Black Tapes

Ok. So I’m torn on this series as whether to recommend it or not. I’ll just start with saying the last season is a HUGE letdown and if I had known what I know now, I maybe wouldn’t of started listening to begin with. There are 3 seasons with the last one in 2018. Don’t be fooled by the third season saying it was released in 2020. They re-released them and changed the last episode from “finale” to “mid-season finale”. Supposedly they were going to add 6 episodes because they basically pissed off every single listener with the crap ending. And it was crap. It’s not one of those “people just didn’t get what they were supposed to” kind of things. They just made up random plot lines out of nowhere, changed the history of what happened in past episodes, etc.

So this one is very much like X-files. I’m pretty much convinced that was on purpose. It’s about a reporter that is investigating a paranormal skeptic Dr. Richard Strand and his black tapes that have unexplained phenomenon on them. The first season is very much like X-files in that every episode is basically meant to stand on it’s own, but there is also a general overall story line. I think that’s the reason I kept listening. The lack of answers and any sort of closure to the stories was annoying and I almost stopped the series but I still had 5 miles left on my run and nothing else to listen to. Then episode 4 came. CREEPY! And awesome. That kept me interested enough to finish the season and listen to season 2 as well. Season 3 seemed like it would be good but it just got more and more complex and confusing. Like I said earlier, they just basically made stuff up to suit their needs. Then all of a sudden in the last episode things happen that had absolutely no foreshadowing at all, and it was stupid. Think of where X-files went but in a bad way. If you really want to know, just google it and you will find lots of pissed off reviews that will give you the ending.

So in the end I’d recommend stopping after episode 4. Maybe even just listen to episode 4. Again, don’t listen to it while running at night by yourself like I did. I’m kind of used to listening to creepy stuff at night but still.

Ratings: overall: 2, season 1: 4, episode 4 of season 1: 5

The Deep Vault

This podcast was made by Dead Signals the same people that made Archive 81 which I’ll talk about later. This is a short concise show about the ending of the world. The characters end up in a bunker underground and things get interesting. I definitely recommend it. It’s not the best thing I’ve heard but it’s short enough and interesting enough for most to enjoy.

Rating: 4

Ghost Tape

By Qcode. I plan on listening to most of what Qcode makes based off this podcast and another I’ve listened to already. You might think this is about ghosts but it’s not. I don’t even know how I found out about this one, it’s almost like it just showed up in my computer. I don’t want to give too much away but it’s about a tape that has a war recording on it, and has some “interesting” qualities as well. This podcast is good. They warn you right up front that it’s a mature and intense podcast. It starts out in a way where you kind of wonder why they have all these trigger warnings at the beginning but man does it turn dark within a few episodes. Like really dark, and intense. Maybe don’t be running on a busy road while listening as you might not be as aware of your surroundings as you normally would be while listening to podcasts. I don’t suspect there will be a second season.

Rating: 4

Limetown

You may have heard of this one as Facebook made it into a show. I found this out after I had already listened to it. I watched part of the first episode and it appears it follows the podcast almost completely. I looked into it actually and I’m pretty sure the writers of this podcast were only doing it to get a foot in the door of video broadcasting. They sold the rights to the show for only $10,000 but they required that they be hired as the producers/writers for $50,000 each plus other stuff I’m sure. I would’ve bought the rights for $10,000 and easily sold it for a movie for much much more. It’s a really good story! There are 2 seasons and likely won’t be any more since they don’t control it anymore. Don’t fret though because I loved how they ended it and I wouldn’t want a third season.

There is a town called Limetown that we find out very quickly was a city designed as an experiment in itself. People were invited to live and work there by a famous person and a scientist. Presumably something bad went down in that someone called 911 from the town but once the authorities got there, armed guards wouldn’t let them in and once they were let in, everyone was gone without a trace. It’s really good. Again, they don’t have too many characters. I don’t want to spoil any of it so that’s all the review I’ll give. There is a book that was released between season 1 and 2 that is supposed to give some back story of a couple main characters. After reading many reviews that said they wished they hadn’t read the book, I decided not to. Basically, the consensus seemed to be that it distracted from the story instead of adding to it. It’s up to you what you want to do with that but I would suggest that if you do read it, to read it between season 1 and 2 as that was the intent.

Rating: 5

Sandra

By Gimlet. I don’t remember much about this one. I know it’s about a woman that starts a job at an AI company and things aren’t quite right. It’s short at least. I know I didn’t outright hate it but I definitely didn’t think it was great or I’d still have it. If I remember correctly there were like a million commercials and that really annoyed me. I know something about it annoyed me anyway. Maybe the ending was a let down or something. Great review right?

Rating: 3 I’m guessing

Reply All

Another Gimlet. One of the first podcasts I listened to. I loved it. I say loved because they no longer make them. I was pretty bummed out. In 2020 they really changed format and not in a good way. They got all serious because they thought they had to with everything that was going on. Really guys, you felt the need to depress people with depressing boring stories when people are already depressed? In the end, one of the hosts and a producer apparently weren’t as on board with unions as everyone thought they should be and cancel culture cancelled a great show and now they are all out of a job. It had almost 200 episodes and I listened to them all. This show made Gimlet Media in the same way that Nightmare of Elm Street made New Line Cinema. They wouldn’t exist without them.

Anyway, It’s a podcast about technology and the internet. But it’s so much more too. Lots of stories about people, current (now old) events, with the internet as the starting point. Lots of internet mysteries solved, hacking scams, just all around good stories with interesting hosts. I will really miss it.

Rating: 5

In Our Time

Science of Ultra

Nerdist Podcast

You’re Dead To Me

Ten Junk Miles

How Did This Get Made?

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape

The Adam and Dr. Drew Show

The Dr. Drew Podcast

The Ultra Stories Podcast

Science Vs

Ultrarunning History

Children Of The Stones

Forest 404

Archive 81

Lore

The Grift

Soft Voice

Bad Vibes

Judge John Hodgman

There are more I’ve listened to in the past that I didn’t like but I can’t remember the names and I erased them years ago. I guess you just might have to suffer through them as well.

The Drift 100 – Race Report 2021

The Drift 100 is a winter race in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and Shoshone National Forest in the mountains of Wyoming, at elevation. How much elevation? A lot for a winter race but not bad for a summer one. The total elevation gain is around 9000 feet. The lowest elevation is the start line at 7650 feet and it goes up to 9850 feet. You can see the Tetons from a portion of the course but it was night when I was on that part. Half of this race is run above 9000 feet so it’s not the easiest to come from 850 feet where I live. The course crosses the continental divide several times. The race starts kind of in the middle of nowhere so the closest city is Pinedale, WY and is only 30 minutes away. As most winter ultras, it’s done on foot, ski, or fat bike. As always I chose foot.

As an aside, this will probably be a more mundane race report as I’ll try to put lots of details of the course itself since I haven’t read any reports yet that had good details. This is only the second year this race happened as well.

As usual, the race is longer than 100 miles.

Despite there being lots of snow drifts on the course, the name is actually due to the annual movement of cattle onto the spring/summer pasture lands in the forest and back again in the fall. This movement is just called “the drift”. The “drift” follows the Green River up to the Upper Green River Valley where there is allotment for cattle to pasture on federal forest land.

Sign at the beginning of the race.

The course itself is a figure 8 pattern with very little of the course being run on twice. It’s all on snowmobile trails. Most of the trails are actual roads in the summer but the difficult parts of the course are just trails. One portion isn’t even groomed. As with all winter races, there is required gear you need to carry with you. The list may change so it’s just best to look at the race website for the most recent list. It’s mostly similar to Tuscobia’s old list. The most unique thing on this list is $200 cash. If you quit the race, you have to pay $200 to be taken out by snowmobile. I was expecting a 100% finishing rate when I saw this. It wasn’t. I guess money isn’t a good motivator for some.

The race cutoff is 48 hours which is pretty good. I could see it being harder to make that if there was a huge snowstorm during the race but otherwise, it’s a reasonable cutoff. Also the course was very well marked with both snowmobile trail markers and race signs. There are places all over where snowmobiles go off trail but trust me when I tell you you’ll know if you’re off trail. If you step off the groomed trail, you are pretty much instantly up to your waist in powder. In the white out condition areas you just keep following the poles in the ground along the trail. Yes, white out conditions!

This year we had to have a negative SARS-Cov2 test before the race but we also got to have a drop bag at the Strawberry Aid Station. I ended up not really using anything out of it except some food but it was nice to have. As usual I still ended up bringing too much food with. The check-in was the night before with scheduled times to keep from getting a crowd.

The pre-race meeting was after the gear check/check-in and was nice and quick. They took our photos but I think there was a technical issue so I don’t know if we’ll ever see them. There really wasn’t anything to cover during the meeting that wasn’t already on the website. There were a lot of people that were doing their first 100 mile race by the show of hands. I’m not sure how many of these were runners, bikers, or skiers but regardless, us Minnesotans were surprised. You do have to qualify for this race but it seems like the bar isn’t very steep to get in. I’m not sure why you’d want your first 100 mile race to be in the winter honestly. I’d recommend this not be your first 100 mile race, especially since you’re going to be walking most of this race anyway.

I’m going to give a entire paragraph to the timing of the race. It was March 12th-13th. That’s pretty late in the year. Even Iditarod is the week before. I’m not sure of the reason for that. The weather certainly isn’t going to get very cold so perhaps that’s the reason. I’d rather it get super cold so people quit. This year, it was way too hot during the daytime. There was even 2 inches of slush the second afternoon. I didn’t stop to make a snowman but easily could’ve. The other issue is snowblindness/sunburn. I did what I could to prevent both but still ended up getting sunburned under my beard and the bottom of my nose. I kept wiping off anything I put on the bottom of my nose so I don’t even know what there is to do to stop it. The sun is so strong, your at elevation, and the snow just doubles the radiation. They warned us of that but I never thought I’d get burned under my beard. I guess if you want a full suntan just go to the snow covered mountains and walk around naked for 30 minutes and even your butt crack will be tanned.

Are we playing Tetris at this race?

I decided to drive out there instead of flying my gear and such. There was a storm predicted for South Dakota so I left Tuesday night and drove down through Nebraska to get away from most of the storm. As usual I just slept in my car in a field during the night. I got to Pinedale Wednesday afternoon. It’s a nice town and set up mostly for tourism and cattle. It’s over 7000 feet in elevation so that was good to get somewhat acclimated. I usually like to have 48 hours before I go hiking or running in the mountains but I only had 36 hours before the race so not ideal.

The next morning I decided to head out to the starting line. I had already gotten some intel about it from other people but since I had a whole day to kill I went anyway. I brought my newer smaller sled I was planning on using and loaded duffel bag. I stopped at the signs along the road to learn stuff and enjoyed the awesome clear views of the surrounding mountains.

I got there in no time it seemed. The race starts at the snowmobile parking lot for the Continental Divide Trail. For the race you actually park in the second parking lot which is 50feet down the trail. I took out my sled and just started running in my jeans and regular shoes. The trail basically felt like it was snow that had been melted a bunch of times until it was small chunks of ice. Pretty ideal really but my sled didn’t seem to glide at all. It had no run to it once I stopped. I realized the fins I had added to it to prevent me from sliding in circles downhill were digging in to the ice. I didn’t have long enough pieces to go the whole length of the sled. So much for using that sled I guess. I decided to use my old trusty big sled. I swear the old sled looked at me when I got back to the hotel room in a way that said “I see your new hussy didn’t work out so well”.

The rest of the day was eating, putting screws into my shoes, rechecking everything I was bringing, packing food, and relaxing. Then the gear check and pre-race meeting as stated above. I quickly ate at a restaurant after the meeting and headed back to the hotel. It’s mountain time here so I called home before the kids went to bed since it was an hour later at home. I quickly did my final packing of things and did the pre-race things I could do now, like taping my face.

Since the race started at 9AM I had plenty of time the next morning to get ready. I slept pretty well and got up before 6. I had hoped to sleep a little longer but circadian rhythm is tough to beat. People were looking at me when I went down for breakfast but I didn’t realize until I went back to my room it was probably because I had tape on my face already. The rest of the morning was spent getting hot water from the microwave, lubing feet, eating, getting dressed, etc. My sled weighed 36.5 pounds including food and water. That’s the lightest I’ve gotten it down to. With the warm weather we’d have, not needing snowshoes, and being able to have the drop bag, it wasn’t too hard to get down. If I could afford a down sleeping bag I’d drop 2 more pounds. I didn’t want to be pulling a heavy sled up 9000 feet worth of elevation gain. I left my hotel just before 8AM. We had to check in again at the start.

The forecast for the day was sunny and 34 degrees. The problem was that it was currently -4F at the start line with a headwind of around 8mph. So clearly there was going to be a lot of changing clothes today. It sucked putting on extra stuff, knowing I’d be taking it all off in 2 hours time. I put on as little as possible and just planned on running cold for at least the first hour. I even saw about 10 people with Cold Avengers on at the beginning due to the wind. I stayed in my warm car listening to music until it got to race time. I took some pictures with the Brians from MN and got my picture taken by a photographer.

Trusty old sled at the start.
“Which of these 3 is not like the other?”

There were 42 of us that ended up starting. They allowed 50 to enter and had a wait list but they burned through the entire wait list before the race and ended up with 42. I think they could easily handle another 50 participants in the 100 mile event but who knows with permitting and such.

We just had a mob start after they said “Go!” I think that’s what they said.

My plan for this race was largely based on things I learned at Actif Epica since they are similar distance. Basically what that means is that I wasn’t going to sleep at all and I was going to try to not spend so much time at the aid stations. I also hadn’t had any caffeine or chocolate for the last month so that caffeine would work better during the race like it did at Actif. There were a lot of really good racers signed up based on my previous knowledge of some and previous results of others. A couple ended up not coming but I was still unsure if I’d even get the top 5 like I usually try for.

There were more people on foot than bike – 21 vs 13. That’s unlike most winter ultras. There also were 8 skiers which is a lot. I’m not too surprised since there is definitely enough snow, which is usually a main worry of skiers. Pretty much all the bikes and skiers were in front of me. I think I was somewhere around 6th for most the first section. I know 1 guy had a backpack and was running pretty well. I swear I got his name but I can’t find it in the race list so apparently my brain was already getting messed up by the sun. It’s easier with a sled, trust me. I’m guessing he quit at some point or I passed him at an aid station.

Since there weren’t many racers in this event, I rarely had a chance to talk to anyone. Most of the race I couldn’t even see anyone. I did talk to Jake for a bit. He is a mostly an obstacle course racer (OCR) it sounded like. We talked about World’s Toughest Mudder experiences for a bit. There was another OCR guy last year as well and I think a couple more besides Jake this year as well. I suppose it’s a word of mouth kind of thing as to why there were so many.

There was certainly a younger crowd at this race than I’m used to at winter ultras. Usually I’m one of the young guys but I was definitely on the old side of this one.

A couple hours into the race.
Looking back towards Southeast on “S” trail.
The start of the first climb.

So the first 9 miles of the course is basically flat and just following rivers upstream. Then you start the first big climb of the race. It’s about 1000 feet over 5 miles and it was easily the easiest climb of the race. I was power hiking it pretty quickly. If not for the sled, I could’ve ran it. Well…the sled and the elevation! I was puffing quit a bit. I tried to not mouth breath but it was so hot now that it didn’t have as bad as an effect as if it was below zero. Even so, my throat was already getting sore so I tried harder to not mouth breath. I got passed by a few people that were running up the climb. For me running would’ve been downright stupid with my breathing the way it was already. Plus it was above freezing now.

I had taken everything off and put on a long sleeve t shirt by 11AM, just as I suspected I would. I’ve never worn just a t shirt in a winter race. I was still too hot but I didn’t feel like taking my shirt off and getting seriously burned everywhere.

My homemade Inuit style snow googles. Also time to change into a t shirt!

Since I knew there would be an issue with snow blindness ahead of time, I decided to make a pair of Inuit snow goggles. The reason for this is that regular sunglasses usually freeze up quickly in the winter. Even snow goggles freeze up if there isn’t enough wind or you’re sweating. That certainly wasn’t an issue this year at this race since it was above freezing and windy during the time you’d wear them but of course I didn’t know what the temperatures would be like months earlier. These can be worn at any temperature and not freeze up. You’ll certainly have more field of view with goggles but again that’s only if they aren’t froze over. It’s surprising how much you can see with my improved design. I wouldn’t drive a car with them on but it’s good enough for human speeds.

I was also hoping they would keep the wind mostly out of my eyes as well. I only got to train with them for 2 hours in the cold at home before the race but again it never got cold at the race so I still don’t know how they’ll work in -20F for 12 hours. The race start was -4F and windy and they worked better than expected at blocking the wind so I was pretty happy about that and suspect they’ll do just fine at -20 and windy. I still brought along 2 pair of regular goggles just in case. Plus I wasn’t sure if they would pass the gear requirement for goggles.

As a side-note, I fully plan on using them at Halloween somehow. Maybe put lights on the inside somehow to make them glow? They didn’t cost anything to make other than to buy a couple Dremmel bits since I used scraps and old stuff around the house (including a bra – thanks honey!).

No clouds all day.

After the 1000 foot climb, there was just small rolling hills for the most part. The course is now at 9000 feet or above for the next 40 miles. There was one nice longish downhill that was fun to sled down. It was the first one of the race and I was looking forward to more. I had heard rumors that many of the hills were dangerous to sled down. As in they were way too long and you wouldn’t be able to control yourself. Challenge accepted! In the end I sledded down every hill that gravity and the slushy snow would allow. You certainly need to know what you’re doing on a few of them and have practiced turning. I only had to jump off the sled once because I was kicking up so much snow I couldn’t see and thought it safer to just bail than to keep digging into the turn.

The trail turned East and so I knew it would be about 5 more miles to the first aid which is called Strawberry. First you come back to the Continental Divide (CD) Trail and go on it for half a mile to get to the aid station. I wasn’t planning on staying long. My feet were still dry since there wasn’t any snow powder going on top of my shoes and with it being so warm, everything was evaporating well. The wind seemed to be picking up a bit now and the sun was starting to get lower and cooler.

I got to the aid station at 3:35 PM (6:35 race time). This is at mile 26ish in the race. I was guesstimating I’d get here around 5PM so I was ahead of that. The shelter that is there is brand new and very nice. I think they slid it on the snow to get it there earlier in the season. I didn’t go in it at all this time since they had the hot water and food outside. I filled up with hot water since they warned that people tended to run out on the next section (I had too much in the end) and took some snacks. I wasn’t hungry enough to spend the time having a meal warmed up for me. There is a vault toilet bathroom there so I made use of it as well. I changed back into a thermal shirt and got gloves, hat, and jacket into my jump spot of the bag as I figured I’d need them in the next hour or so. I spent 10 minutes here. I left in 6th place but didn’t really know where I was at the time. It was too early in the race to care that much anyway.

Strawberry Aid Station

The next aid station is 25 miles away called Sheridan. This is by far the worst section of the race as far as steepness and difficulty goes. I was thinking it would take 9 hours for this section in my pre-race plan. Since I hadn’t seen or talked to anyone on the course for hours I decided to get my ipod out and start listening to music. You continue on the CD trail mostly uphill for 4.5 miles and turn on the A trail. The A trail is quite pretty. It opens up out of the trees for great views to the North and West. It’s the first time you can see things in those directions. It was getting closer to sunset now but I was glad to get to see these views before dark. It only lasts for a mile so enjoy it. I saw a helicopter circle around once and then again about 5 minutes later which I thought was weird. When you turn onto A you also cross the actual Continental Divide (not the trail) although I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought the first crossing was later.

Looking South. Gypsum and Big Sheep Mountains (to me it just looks like one giant mountain). I could see them pretty much all the daytime hours of the race.
Looking West on A trail. I believe Darwin Peak. The Tetons are being blocked by that hill on the right side of the photo.
Looking North on A trail. That valley is what the trail follows down. Coffin Butte and probably something else I can’t figure out the name of.

After about a mile it looks like you turn off the trail to the left but in reality you are staying on the A trail and if you kept going straight you would be on the AA trail. This left turn goes down a pretty good size hill. The thing with the next 3.1 miles of trail is that it is not groomed. This means you get to hope that the snowmobile path you chose is firm enough to not posthole through. The downhill would’ve been awesome on firm snow but the ungroomed snow slowed you down a lot, even though you’re on a snowmobile track. I couldn’t even make it completely down the hill. I’m thinking maybe too since this was on the North slope of the hill and then in a narrow valley that it hadn’t melted near as much either. Either way it was “sticky” slow snow to go through. You also couldn’t use poles to help since they would punch right through the delicate crust of the snowmobile path.

I could see I was catching up to a skier which you would think could just glide down this entire 3 mile downhill section. The wind was funneling up this valley and making a strong headwind of probably 15mph. I stopped a couple of times to get more clothes on; mad at myself each time that I didn’t put more on the last time I stopped. It was getting dark in the valley so I got my headlamp out the last time I stopped to get clothes on.

I then saw the blades and very top part of a helicopter. It looked red like it was old and rusted out. I soon saw that it was a complete helicopter and wasn’t an abandoned one from years past. It was in fact the one I had seen flying around before. They were rescuing a snowmobiler. I had guessed he flipped over while climbing a steep hill but I found out later that he had hit a tree after cresting the hill or something like that. They were a couple hundred feet away but he was getting put on a board so it didn’t look good.

I soon caught up to the skier which I think was Emily. She was definitely having a hard time with the snow conditions. She would be the only person I saw this entire 25 mile section. I kept on going down the valley with an occasional uphill. It was getting harder to find a good path to follow and I would start falling in here and there. There was no point in trying to slide as it just wouldn’t go. I ran for some of it since it was downhill but I certainly didn’t need to, my sled wasn’t running into me from behind. Every step was starting to make me mad because I knew that was one more step I’d have to go up. And the hillsides looked steep.

I got to the turn onto trail B around 6:30PM and turned on my headlamp. It was indeed steep. On paper it says it’s 1000 feet up over 3.7 miles. The thing is, 600 of that is in the first 1.4 miles I figured out later. It’s the steepest part of the course and you can definitely feel the pull of the sled. While it is quite steep, it isn’t as steep as some places at Arrowhead. Specifically, the hill after the cold swamp before Mel Georges, the 2 big hills after Mel Georges, and Wakemup hill. If you’ve done Arrowhead, you’ll know what hills I’m talking about. Some of the hills in the 99 -108 mile section are pretty similar in steepness. In fact the section of this race from the turn on B at 35 miles until about 47 miles is reminiscent of the Arrowhead 99-108 section. It’s nighttime for both and lots of hills. The difference of course is it’s the second night at Arrowhead so you’re much more tired there.

Anyway, I’m still not at the top of this hill! After the first 600 feet, it comes out of the trees and into an open space. I didn’t know that was going to happen since I had been told it was mostly trees in this section. In fact there aren’t any trees for a couple miles and then other sections of open space as well. Plan on being exposed is what I’m telling you. The cold wind was smack in my face so I had to again stop twice to keep adding clothes or changing gloves/hats. I also had to put on my nose/face protector. I wasn’t even that mad I was still going up, just mad about the lack of trees. On the plus side, the stars were out like crazy! It was a new moon and with the clear high elevation air, I could see everything. If it wasn’t so windy and cold, I would’ve stopped and laid on the sled for awhile. I crossed the Continental Divide at the top and then briefly two more times on the way to the turn on F. If not for being so windy I would’ve done the obligatory peeing on both sides of it that is tradition for my family and I’m assuming every male in the world. Again, this wasn’t the first time the trail crossed it, but at the time I thought it was.

The turn on to trail F (just before mile 40) is more of a continuation of the same path you are on instead of turning. This is good because it is on a hill and I was moving pretty fast as I slide through the intersection. Then of course you start climbing again. There was a sign around 42.5 miles that said it was the highest part of the course but I don’t think that’s right. For 1 it went down a small hill right after the sign and then went up a bigger hill so clearly that hill was higher. It also said in the course description that it’s around mile 47 and looking at the topo maps, that’s right since it goes through a 3000 meter line (9843 feet) there and only a 2970 meter line where they had it (the next hill was 2980 meters so I was right it was taller). Just don’t be fooled that you’re at mile 47 if you see that sign at mile 42.5.

I’m sure the views are pretty nice from this height in the daytime. You’re supposed to be able to see the Tetons pretty well from the viewpoint near the highest spot on the course.

I think it was fairly soon after I got on F that I saw some lights coming from behind and heard some noise. I assumed it was a snowmobile as they had snowmobiles going by every 2 hours or so to pick up people that were quitting and just to check on us. It ended up being a groomer. I didn’t think they were supposed to be out tonight since they were out the night before but whatever. Usually the groomer makes the trail worse at home when it’s warm like this. This time it didn’t really make a difference either way. What it did do was erase the footprints in front of me so now I could tell how close I was to the people in front of me. We all had trackers but without cell service that didn’t do me any good to see where anyone was. It took 30 minutes to see the first set of prints so that person was probably almost an hour ahead. The next set was around another 30 minutes from there so even further ahead. I didn’t see anymore tracks before Sheridan so the rest of the people had to be quite a bit ahead. Looking at the race flow chart now, I see that the 2 in front of me were just 30 and 60 minutes ahead of me. I ended up closing some of that gap before Sheridan. The trail crosses the Continental Divide and then mostly follows it until after the high spot on the course. It crosses it again at Sheridan Pass.

After the true highest spot, it’s mostly downhill to Sheridan. I slid down maybe 5 hills but nowhere near what it looks like I should’ve been able to on the elevation profile. I mostly power hiked downhill in what seemed like forever to get to the aid station that just kind of sneaks up on you. Since there is no electricity and they didn’t have a generator at the aid station, there was just a faint glow from a window and I think a couple small lights if I remember correctly. I got there at 12:36AM (15:36 race time) which was just under 9 hours from when I left Strawberry.

The shelter itself is small with only two 5 foot benches against the wall to sit on. A lot of the space is taken up by the wood stove and table with the race food, etc on. I was still 6th I figured out later but there were only 2 racers there at the time. I was planning on eating here and changing my socks since it seemed like the vaseline had mostly worn off. My shoes were fairly frosted over now too since it had gotten colder. It was probably around 10 degrees I’d guess. There wasn’t much room to do anything but soon the other guys left so there was more room to maneuver.

They warmed up the rice and veggie option as that seemed like a better fuel source than beef stew. It was OK tasting but not what I was expecting I guess. It was pretty hot at first so I did other stuff while it cooled down. I tried to recharge my watch but my power pack wasn’t working, even though I had tested it at zero degrees. There’s 6 ounces I drug around for 102 miles for no reason. I got more water, changed socks, planned what to wear for the next section and then ate the cooled down rice.

They had music playing there. Some of it was odd sounding remakes of older songs. It’s hard to remember what all was playing but at some point one of the volunteers (it was just me and 2 volunteers at this point) said it reminded him of “Dayman” from the show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I know the song very well so I started singing it. It was horrible because my throat was all messed up from the fast breathing I had to do because of the elevation. Anyway, he was impressed I knew the song. I told him there is a industrial/dance kind of remix of that song on my ipod that he hadn’t known of. I can’t even remember how I found that version since it was just made by a fan but here is the song from the show itself.

Anyway, he proclaimed, “now I want you to win the race!” I’m not sure who he was cheering for before this point but I was glad to have a new friend cheering me on. I think the next song was “Tainted Love” from Soft Cell that started another rabbit hole discussion. After about 45 minutes I was finally on my way. That was longer than I’d like but it was just hard to get things done quickly in a small space and it took awhile to cook and eat the food.

You continue on the F trail for a tenth of a mile and then turn right onto the E trail. In the description they say this is an easy section to Warm Springs Aid Station since it’s mostly downhill. That’s not really true. There’s plenty of small hills and 3 big hills before you get there. I was planning on this section taking 5 hours since I was assuming it would be as easy as they said. I ended up only averaging 3 mph so it took 5.5 hours. It felt like such a slog. I didn’t have much energy at all. The food I ate did nothing. I took a caffeine pill to help and maybe it did but I never felt great.

The E trail wasn’t recently groomed like the F trail was so I could see what looked like 5 sets of footprints. Yep, still in 6th place. It was also colder now. Based on the snow starting to squeak loudly and my nose freezing shut on strong inhalation, it was somewhere below zero but I’m not sure how cold. It was only like this for about an hour or two and then it seemed to start to warm up. I think the wind shifted from the West to the Northeast at the same time like some new air mass was moving in.

Only a couple hills were sledable. I never saw a person this entire section. I did start to see a fair amount of people quitting and going by on snowmobiles. I was thinking of stopping at the Green Creek Shelter but I can’t remember why now. I think it was to change into different clothes or something? I saw it was a good hundred yards off the course and there were at least a couple bikers there so I ended up just continuing on. Plus it was up a hill. Who needs to climb an extra hill?

The 3 big hills start after this shelter. They are long and somewhat steep. I was going much slower than I would like and figured someone would be right behind me at any moment. Turns out everyone else was going slow too and I was actually gaining on everyone. The first big downhill was a disappointment. It was too shallow to sled down all but a small part of it. The second downhill was awesome fun. It was a half mile long with a 180 degree turn in it that I navigated perfectly. I got up to 20 mph! The third downhill was basically too shallow to sled down as well. It was just quicker to run them.

After the hills, it is another couple miles to get to the aid station depending on what you call the bottom of the hill. Again, it’s so shallow, it’s hard to tell when you’re done going down and just going flat. It was starting to get light out now so I turned my headlamp off. I was still going to hit my initial goal of getting to Warm Aid Station by 7AM but it had definitely taken longer to get there than I was planning on from Sheridan.

Sunrise the 2nd day. This is about a mile from Warm Springs aid station.

I got there at 6:55AM (21:55 race time). This is mile 67.9. It is a trailhead parking lot with a vault toilet bathroom and they had put up a dome tent for shelter. I didn’t want to go into the tent for several reasons. First, it would melt the ice on my shoes and then I’d have wet socks. I wanted to just let them melt on their own when it got warm later in the day. Second, I saw there were a lot of sleds and bikes parked outside that I wanted to pass. I opened up the zipper enough to look inside and saw it was crowded anyway. I said I was checking in and asked what food options there were. Thanksgiving dinner (whatever that meant) and hot dogs. I asked for a hot dog and then went about getting hot water put in my water bottle. I still had plenty of water left over in my thermos from Sheridan. I also reapplied lube to my legs and butt. Sexy I know. You are probably thinking, “I didn’t need to know that”. Remember one of the reasons for this blog is just to remind myself how things went so as to learn for future races, hence “reapplied butt lube”.

It seemed like forever to get my hot dog and I was on the edge of getting cold. It was supposed to be real windy on Union Pass which was coming up so I got another coat out and more windproof gloves and hat on as well. I ate my hotdog which was literally just the hotdog with no bun. I was expecting a bun. Either way it tasted awesome and hit the spot as nothing I had with me seemed to taste good.

I was here for about 15 minutes which was 10 minutes longer than it should’ve been. I should’ve just asked for the cold hot dog and moved along since I didn’t do anything that took longer than 5 minutes here. I started off with the extra clothes on in what I found out later was 2nd overall and first place male. I figured I was only passing maybe 3 people. Cole started out right after I did.

It’s not even a mile before the last BIG climb of the race starts. This is the Union Gap climb. It’s 1400 feet over about 4.4 miles. I say about because the vast majority of the climb is in less than 4 miles. It’s not an even climb so some parts are steeper and some seem almost flat. A third of a mile into the climb I realized I was way overdressed. There was zero wind in the trees at the bottom of the hill and the sun was heating me up as well. I ended up wasting almost 10 minutes stopping twice to change back out of everything I had just changed into at Warm Springs. Cole passed me as well so I was pissed at myself for making an error like that. This is of course where experience of the course helps a great deal. I can pretty much know what’s coming up ahead at Arrowhead from anywhere on the course and know what direction I’m going in even in the dark.

I was thinking it would take around 2 hours for this climb. With the stopping, it took almost that long. The trail started to open up here and there and the views were awesome. The wind started to pick up as well. I think partly because it was daytime and partly because there were less trees as well. I was glad I knew how long this hill was because there are lots of false summits.

Looking Northeast 3 miles up the hill. Told you it was pretty.
Panorama view. Also notice the trail is softening up quite a bit already.

I knew I was getting close to the top and I could tell the wind was really going to be an issue once I got there since it was already getting pretty strong. I stopped to get the more windproof stuff back on again. I knew I would probably be too warm with it all on but I’d also be WAY too cold without it. The trail was softening up due to the heat and it was clear there had been a fair amount of snowmobile traffic. I had to move around the trail to find better footing quite a lot.

It was also very sunny again. I put my Inuit snow goggles on but after a half mile or so I realized they were making me really tired and almost dizzy. Apparently it takes a fair amount of brain power to process everything through those small slits. I hadn’t expected this but I wasn’t necessarily surprised either. Vision always gets kind of weird when I’m tired. I got out my tinted goggles and wore them. Since it was already in the 20’s I didn’t have to worry about anything freezing. I have to say though that my tinted goggles certainly aren’t tinted enough for that kind of light. I almost had to squint even with them on.

Finally I reached the summit of Union Pass and crossed the Continental Divide for the last time of the race. The pass is fairly flat so it was kind of hard to tell where the actual top was. The wind was impossible to miss though. It was coming from behind me mostly but also from the left side of me for long stretches as well. The decent is too shallow to sled for the most part so I’d try to run at times but I was getting fatigued and it felt so much better to just power hike down.

Around the summit of Union Pass.

There are occasionally trees along the next 5 miles but they did absolutely nothing to stop the wind. You could stand right next to a thick line of trees and the wind would just come at you from every angle possible. I’m not sure what the wind speed was but had to be at least sustained at 25 with gusts of at least 40. I suggest peeing before you start this section or else just be inclined to piss all over yourself since the wind will do it for you no matter which direction you aim!

The drifts had already started and were getting bigger by the minute. In the beginning, they were mostly only 4 inches deep. What was interesting to me is how slippery they were. Back home drifts are soft while they’re being made so stepping in them is just like stepping in fresh powder – your foot goes straight down. After a while they get a hard crust on top and eventually get as hard as concrete once the cold air gets to them. These drifts were like stepping on a pile of banana peels. You had no way of knowing which way your foot would go other than the certainty that it wouldn’t go straight down. I would say 90% of my accessory muscle use during the race happened in these 5 miles. The sled also dragged across the drifts like they were made of gravel which I thought was odd. Clearly I tried to stay away from the drifts as much as possible.

About a mile into the decent when the wind was coming from the side, it was a complete white out for a half mile or so. The poles along the side of the trail were visible so I just followed them staying on the far right of the trail. The wind blew me off the trail a couple times and I’d posthole all the way down. I didn’t dare go any further onto the snowmobile trail since there was currently a parade of fast moving snowmobiles flying down the trail. They didn’t even throw any candy. This was easily the busiest section for snowmobile traffic. Probably 150 of them passed me in the section from Warm Springs to Strawberry with the vast majority at Union Pass. It was Saturday so I’m sure that was part of it. Another reason to not try to sled this section since you’re much more visible standing up.

It didn’t seem to matter how far down the mountain the trail went, the wind just kept blowing. The drifts got higher and higher. Even when the trail went along side the trees, the wind didn’t stop, it just blew around from a different direction. The mile before the trail intersected with the AA trail, was completely drifted over. They would go from over knee high on the left side to only 8 inches high on the right side so I stayed to the right. The snowmobile traffic had stopped now. It would’ve helped had they been in this section to level the drifts. I was glad that the trail would soon be turning west again into the forest so the wind would get more reasonable. Occasionally there would be a cloud that blocked the sun but not too often.

I was hot most of this time since it was above freezing and the sun was strong but I couldn’t remove the windproof stuff or I’d get way too cold and wet from the blowing snow. In fact I didn’t have one of my bag’s zippers fully closed and that compartment got completely full of snow. Completely.

Finally the turn west and into the trees. My watch had died now so I really wouldn’t know how much further until I got to the section of the trail that I had been on before. About 4 miles before the Strawberry Aid Station I saw Cole up ahead sledding down a hill. I was surprised I had caught up to him. Well, almost caught up, I lost sight of him in the trees again. I was trying to eat things but not too much was enticing. I decided I would try the beef stew at Strawberry and I’d also have to change my socks since my feet were pretty soaked with the warm weather and all the drift busting I had been doing for hours. I took a caffeine pill to help with the final push that afternoon.

Time wise I had thought it would take around 8 hours for this section. I was moving faster than that so I started doing math now that I knew more of what the rest of the course would be like. I figured I’d get to Strawberry around 1PM which was only 6 hours for the section. I was thinking I could finish the race around 7PM then for a time of 34 hours total. It can be dangerous doing math during an ultra as things can change quickly but there isn’t much else to do to pass the time.

I ended up getting to Strawberry (mile 84) just before 1PM pretty much the same time as Cole got there. I knew I had to get stuff done but I wanted to just skip the aid station at the same time. With 18 miles left to go a lot can go wrong so it’s best to take care of things early. I checked in and asked them to get some beef stew ready. Then I got my stuff from my bag to change socks, etc. I remembered this time to tell them to just warm it up and not get it hot so I could eat it right away. I ate the food while doing all my other stuff, taking a bite here and there. It was really good and I wished I could’ve ate it all (it was a huge portion compared to the rice I had last night) but I didn’t need that much. I got some pop as well. I even had some time to chat while the food was being warmed up. I found out that Cole and I were going for second place. I thought that seemed right but I wasn’t sure if that meant second place male or overall. It didn’t really matter, my plan was to go fast and see what happened. I used the bathroom to lube up again. Total time there was about 20 minutes.

Cole left 5 minutes ahead of me. They said it was windy for most of the rest of the course. In reality it wasn’t very windy for the first few miles so I was worried I was overdressed again. They kept talking about the steep hills but they never seemed to come. I checked a couple times thinking I had gone on the wrong trail but I could see other footprints and bike paths so I knew it was right. I had forgotten you go uphill for a few miles first with lots of dips along the way to get there that don’t show up on the elevation profile.

Normally I would’ve been able to sled a lot more this whole day but the sled would slow way down when I sat on it compared to it just running on it’s own. The top 2 inches of snow were soft and you could easily make snowballs if you so desired. So I didn’t ride until the big downhills.

On the elevation profile it looks like you go down 1500 feet in a straight line. It’s really more like steps with a downhill here and there. The first one was OK but not like what I had been told it would be like. I’m guessing it was the snow holding me back. I could see Cole again up ahead. I’d usually follow the path he made with his sled the best I could.

The entire time from Strawberry, you’re basically going South. This day was the day the giant snowstorm hit Colorado and would hit Wyoming that night and the next day. In the distance you could see a gigantic black cloud that went up to space hanging over Colorado. It was amazing to see. I didn’t want to take the time to get my phone out to take a picture so you don’t get to see it.

About half way down this downhill section comes the best part of this entire race. It starts around mile 90 and I had no idea it was even going to happen because there are trees here and there. It is just over a mile section of downhill that is completely sleddable without stopping. It is the most fun I’ve ever had at a race. It’s a full 5 minutes of sledding. Not only do you get to go fast in spots, but there are multiple turns and bumps that your momentum will get you over before the next downhill. If it was guaranteed that no snowmobiles would be on the trail, I really could’ve opened it up! Instead I’d have to slow down at the blind corners to make sure I didn’t run into an unseen snowmobile. I wonder how much more fun it would’ve been if not for the slower sticky snow. Looking at the tracker data, I think a couple people didn’t sled down this part. They totally missed out!

After the long downhill, there were a couple smaller downhills and a few hills that were too shallow to sled down with the current snow. I had basically caught up to Cole and a biker had just passed us as well on the last downhill. He waited at the bottom to watch how we sledded down the hill. I was surprised there was a biker still out here but I’m guessing he slept at night sometime (maybe one of them at the Green Shelter?). Another one passed me later on as well.

I felt amazing after all that fun downhill sledding. The food and caffeine seemed to be kicking in as well. I had lots of energy. I wasn’t really sure how much was left since my watch died but I was guessing about 10 miles. The trail wasn’t near as drifted over here and had a nice firm surface most of the time if you knew where to walk. I started power hiking as fast as I could to take advantage of the the great footing and energy I had. Cole seemed to be falling behind. I couldn’t see anyone ahead but I also know from past experience that if the person in front of you is having a rough time, you can catch up to them pretty easy over 10 miles. Turns out the first place woman was almost finished when I was at this point so I had no chance of catching someone. I decided I’d give it my all but still played it smart by not running since I was moving so fast just hiking and felt I could keep that up for hours. It was also almost impossible to run and not mouth breath due to the elevation and my throat was already shot. If someone would start to catch up, then I’d run.

It was windy again as we were out of the trees. It was somewhat cloudy now as the sun was getting lower in the sky so it would feel almost cold at times. I was pretty sure now that I’d finish by 7PM and I would try to beat the sunset at 6:20PM or so. Getting the headlamp out was my new enemy. I “felt” like I was going 4mph but I knew that may not be the actual case. I wouldn’t know how much further the finish was until I got to the S trail intersection that we had turned on yesterday morning. From there it was supposed to be 6 miles. Surprise, it’s a little further.

Slowly I became alone as Cole drifted behind. I didn’t let up because I really wanted to get done by sunset. I think I was moving about 17 minute miles which isn’t bad. My family was cheering me from home I found out later. This is the first race I’ve had a tracker that actually worked. I can’t imagine cheering over hours of time. One of the interesting things about winter races is how long the endings take. While I’m currently telling you about this last push, it may seem like things are happening kind of fast. In reality, it took about 3 hours to go from the bottom of that huge downhill to the finish. That’s 2 movies! And that was a pretty fast time, most took 4 hours. It’s like that for many ultramarathons, but ESPECIALLY winter ultramarathons.

It was still 3 miles to go after the last turn onto trail P that went to the Kendall Valley Lodge where the finish line was. The sun slowly went behind the hills and the shadows got longer. A mile or so from the finish a snowmobile was coming towards me with 2 people on it. The photographer from the beginning of the race was on it and got off to take photographs. It must’ve been light out enough yet for some good photos. I asked if the photos would be on the website or somewhere, assuming he was just taking photos for the race. He said he was a reporter for the New York Times. I thought he was joking. I don’t even know if the New York Times has even done an article about people doing the Iditarod on foot so it seemed pretty far fetched. He continued that he was doing an article on back country use of national forests or something like that and felt this was a good example of that. He said to just ignore the camera so I tried to do that. I had lots of questions I wanted to ask though so I probably wrecked all the photos with my mouth moving. He remembered I had the goggles at the beginning of the race. It’d be kind of cool if he ended up using one of the photos although I have no way of knowing when/if the article will come out.

As I watched the shadows start to creep up the mountain to the East, I could see the Lodge come into view over the next hill. I ran a little bit to make sure I’d beat the sunset. In Arrowhead tradition, the finish line is at the top of a hill. I heard cowbells and a couple cheering voices. I have a video of me finishing but I’m not sure I’ll be able to get it uploaded to the blog. It’s basically me hiking quickly and then leaning on my poles smiling after I cross the line. That’s when I found out I was the first place male! Wow. That’s the first time I’ve gotten first in a 100 mile or longer race, and in the mountains no less. My strategy and a little luck had ended up paying off. My official time is 33:18 (6:18PM).

Finishing a race during this current pandemic kind of sucks. There’s no other way to say it. You can’t really hug anyone. You can’t all get together with strangers in one spot to tell your race stories and thoroughly enjoy it. I really wanted to just hang around and watch the rest of the runners come in but that just wasn’t in the cards. Winter races themselves are all about solitude in general, but after the race it’s all about coming together. I really missed that. Ultrarunners are already a different breed, but winter ultrarunners are an even more unique breed. I’d say normal, but most people would say “special”, in that way only Minnesotans can. In some ways it would be hard at this race to all get together anyway since it’s not a big enough lodge for everyone to get a room to stay after the race.

I remembered to turn my tracker back in and then loaded my stuff into someone’s vehicle that was kind enough to drive me the mile back to the start line across the river where my car was. Actually, the race directors loaded it up for me. I thanked them for everything and off we went to my car. I was still awake but I knew if I didn’t get back to Pinedale soon, I’d end up sleeping in my car instead of a hotel.

The driver was asking advice on winter races as he knows some people that want to do this race. First off read blogs and race reports like this. No, I should say STUDY race reports and blogs. Then test, test, test your gear. Also, talk to someone on an actual phone about it. This will likely be a 3 hour phone call if you really want to scratch the surface. If the weather is nice, you can grunt your way through. If it’s bad weather, you could get seriously injured if you don’t know what you’re doing. I can’t stress enough that these CAN be dangerous. People lose body parts. This year wasn’t a bad weather year. I’d be surprised if anyone got frostbite despite there being quite a few rookies. Plenty of sunburn I’m sure.

I drove towards Pinedale and got cell service after a few miles so I could call home. They were all pretty excited. My kids are pretty tough to impress but this time they were. I got a hotel and a big pizza. Showered and slept till 7AM or so. I can’t remember if that was Daylight time or Standard. I forgot to mention that Sunday morning was daylight savings time so those runners overnight had that to deal with. The race was still a 48 hour time limit so the cutoff time was 10AM.

15 of the 21 runners finished the race (71%). It looks to me that there were 4 pairs of people that finished the race together. Shows how much people like to get together. Originally my friend Paul was signed up for this race and I expected we once again would’ve ended up spending a huge amount of time together but he deferred to next year. Even without him 3 of us 5 Hrimthurs from last year were at this race.

Since the snowstorm was indeed the storm of a generation, all the roads in Wyoming were closed other than the one going West to Idaho. It was still nice weather in Pinedale. The roads wouldn’t be opened until Monday afternoon at the earliest and I had to work Tuesday so I went West. Then up through Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and finally home. I slept in the car in South Dakota somewhere. It was good to finally get home Monday noon!

The race is well run with lots of great volunteers. I’m sure the demand to get into this race will continue to increase and the finishing rate will also increase once people hear how fun that last downhill is! How can you stop at mile 70 and miss the hill at 90?

Grand Canyon Hike – 2020

So this isn’t a race report since it wasn’t a race but I thought our hiking experience might be helpful to some who have thought about hiking the Grand Canyon with kids. I’ve wanted to do a rim to rim to rim (R2R2R) run for a few years. Maybe someday it will happen but I’m not going to go all the way to Arizona just to run it by myself. Instead, towards the end of summer 2020 when I was getting tired of everything being cancelled, I decided I would plan a trip for the family to hike down to the river and back. I had never looked into the details of it before then and there is a fair amount of information to learn.

My wife and I decided to keep the details of the trip secret from the kids. We generally try to not have them see pictures of where they’re going beforehand. I love laying eyes on something spectacular that I’ve never seen a picture of before, it’s so much more special than just seeing it and thinking “yep that’s what I thought it’d look like”. They had been to Las Vegas once before and had surely seen a picture of the Grand Canyon at some point so we told them nothing about this trip at all. They pretty much forgot when we were even leaving the week before we left.

The plan was to stay in Vegas for a day and see all the free indoor and outdoor stuff there is to see there. Then drive to the Grand Canyon and look around that afternoon at the canyon from the rim. That’s when we’d tell them we were hiking to the bottom and back up the next day. And that’s what we did. The end.

Sometimes I wish I could just write a race report that short but of course I just can’t.

So the first question I had in regards to planning the hike was how hard was it. I joined a couple Facebook groups specific to the Grand Canyon and hiking in it. The most commonly recommended hike to the river and back is kind of a loop. You start on the South Kaibab trail at 7260ft elevation and go down 4860ft over about 6.3 miles to the river and cross on the Black Bridge. Then you go on the River Trail for 1.7 miles crossing back over on the Silver Bridge. This trail is pretty much flat but a couple ups and downs. Then you go up 4460ft over 7.8 miles on the Bright Angel Trail back up to the rim. So all together it’s 16miles and about 5000ft of vertical gain if you include going off trail to put your feet in the water (why else go all the way down to the river really?) and the couple additional small ups you have to do. We ended up doing 17 miles with the out and backs to the bathrooms, hanging around the river and having to backtrack a little due to mules. Most years there are shuttles that bring you around the park but with Covid-19, they shut down several of the shuttles so I had to run from South Kaibab back to our car at the visitor center which added a little over 2 more miles.

The reason for this route is that there is no water on South Kaibab so going up that trail means you have to carry all of your water from the river. Bright Angel has 3 water stops along the way. Also watching the sun come up is much prettier on South Kaibab since the trail is basically on a ridge the whole way down. Bright Angel is in a canyon so there is some shade from the afternoon heat as well.

The other thing you really need to think about in regards to difficulty is the weather. It’s no accident that most people do their R2R2R in October. There still isn’t snow on the rim and it’s not crazy hot in the valley. It still gets to 90 degrees in the valley though so you need to be prepared for that. If you do this in the summer then you will really need to change your approach and think of doing a night hike or multi-day hike to avoid the heat.

So this hike wouldn’t be a challenge for me at all. Compared to the races I do, it’s easy. My wife has hiked that far and elevation in the past so she wasn’t worried about it either. The kids? Hmmm. I knew my 8 year old son could handle it as he’s done 12 hour races and gone much further. My 10 year old daughter might be a problem though. Unlike my son, she doesn’t like to do physical activities, and she can be kinda whiny. I didn’t want to listen to “how much longer” and “my legs hurt” all day! I’ll also add that my kids are well aware of the amazing things our bodies can do. They’ve been to some of my races and aren’t fazed by someone running 100 miles. I think that could be important in your decision to bring your kids or not. Do they think a 5k is a really long way to go? A marathon? If they think 17 miles is an impossible distance then you need to change that mindset before starting in my opinion. The mental aspect of this is just as important as the physical.

I sought advice from the Facebook groups and a running friend who had just done the same route with her kids. Most were doubtful the kids could do it. I wondered if we’d have to settle for an easier hike. The problem is that the easier hikes where you don’t go all the way down aren’t really shorter in distance and I didn’t really want to just go down a thousand feet and then turn around. I also saw pictures of young kids hiking the canyon from the 80’s and started to get the feeling that current parents may be just too worried.

In the end my choice was kind of made for me by my daughter’s behavior all summer. Not that she was naughty, but that she was WAAAYYY too inactive for all of June and July at daycare. Plus with almost all activities cancelled, she had become a coach potato and that’s just not healthy for a growing kid. So I told her she had to start getting into shape by running/walking the same 1.7 mile loop everyday. Secretly, I was doing it to prepare her for what was in store 7 weeks later. After a week my son wanted to run it too, I think more as a competition with his sister. I also made them do some physical therapy exercises to help strengthen their cores. They had to stand on 1 leg with their eyes closed for a minute and then hold their legs up from the floor in increasing amounts of time each day. Those are poor descriptions but basically the things I had to do when I started running to improve my form.

So how did the training go? Ugh. About as good as you would expect from a 10 year old couch potato. Don’t get me wrong, no one likes running when they first start. It sucks plain and simple. Lucky for her, I’ve been through this and trained other people how to run as well. Right in the beginning I told her that it would really suck the first week, then it would still suck but you’d be able to run further at a time and not be sore, then after a month you’d finally feel like you weren’t gasping for air all the time, then you’d get faster. Over the 7 weeks we went from taking 24 minutes to do the loop to 20 minutes. More importantly there was no more complaining by the end of the seven weeks. Okay, I did have to impose a strict monetary penalty for complaining after week 5. It may seem cruel, but after $2 in collected fees, my daughter no longer made her complaints audible.

I made it as fun as I could. I’d make up silly songs along the way and tell them stories. The song “3 Martis Wide” has been in our rotation anytime we’re walking together ever since. I’d change it up a little as far as when we could walk and when we had to run. Some days we just did hill repeats instead of running. They even got a few days off when I ran around the county.

They kept asking where we were going. I didn’t tell them. After a couple weeks, I told them that people had died doing what we were going to do in order to drive home that this wasn’t going to be a cake walk. I didn’t tell them that they died in the summer and were doing dumb things at the time. I told them to expect it to take 12 hours (even though I was hoping for 9). They eventually figured out that we were hiking somewhere since we were running and going up hills. They kept thinking we were climbing a mountain and I kept telling them they were wrong. It’s an inverted mountain really, and that’s what Kaibab means. They even figured out we were going to Arizona but still didn’t know it was the Grand Canyon. Even with all the complaining, it was a very enjoyable and memorable time for me.

There were a couple pretty awesome things I saw in my daughter during this 7 weeks. For one, I knew she was listening because I overheard her telling a friend about the progression of training to run I had told her in the beginning. She was teaching and encouraging her friend because she now had the experiential knowledge of what it was like. Another was that there was occasionally a spark in her eye when her brother raced ahead of her. She had a fighting spirit in there somewhere. In reality, she could be an awesome ultrarunner if she chooses to. Other than her currently weak hips, her natural running form is perfect and she just cruises along at the same consistent pace.

So, I put that all of that in here for any parents wondering what my kids backgrounds were prior to the hike. What did my wife do to train? Well, not much. She does do Krav Maga and Jujitsu but those aren’t anything like hiking. I kept telling her she should probably do some running to get her lungs in shape. Yes that’s what I call that first month of running where you can’t seem to get enough air. I don’t know what else to call it so I call it getting your lungs in shape.

So the time for the trip finally arrives. The kids weren’t missing much school because of MEA week. The kids figured out we were going to Las Vegas once we got to the airport. They were excited because they really like the Bellagio Fountain.

We flew Spirit Airlines.

That will never happen again.

Ever.

Anyways, all the shows were still closed in Vegas so all there was to do was walk around and look at things. The next day we drove to the Grand Canyon. The Hoover Dam was closed so the kids didn’t get to see that.

The Red and Orange shuttle routes are the only ones that were going. They were half capacity and you had to wear a mask and not eat, etc. The park itself was pretty full of people. I’m sure it’s way busier in a normal year but it certainly wasn’t sparse either. We went all the way to Hermit’s Rest and pretty much got off at all the stops along the way. The weather was great. There were no clouds at all and there wasn’t any smoke from the fires in California (that was a worry).

This is when we told the kids that we’d be hiking to the river and back up tomorrow. They didn’t think it looked that bad. I of course knew better but I wasn’t going to tell them that. I had trained them as well as I could. I told them that it would be a long day but that I knew they could do it. We weren’t going to make the kids carry anything on the hike which would make it much easier on them. We also did a day of training before we left with hiking poles to see if they liked them. They thought they helped so we rented some for them in Vegas as we only had 1 set that we could fit in our suitcase.

We decided against staying for the sunset and went out of the park to get some food and a good night’s sleep. We’d be getting up early and starting our hike in the dark.

I’ll just add here that we all wore trail running shoes. Once I started running in them for races, I realized that hiking boots were inferior for many reasons. They are way heavier and have less traction since they don’t conform around the things you step on. The outsole is too stiff. They hold in too much heat and water as well. They may last longer but that’s it. If you’re starting from scratch in the footwear department, I’d recommend trail shoes over hiking boots.

Otherwise we wore wool socks, gaiters to keep the dirt out of our shoes, hiking pants that convert to shorts, and tech shirts. We brought light jackets, insulated hats and baseball hats, gloves, first aid kit, medications, stuff for blisters, and emergency blankets in case we ended up needing to spend the night for some reason. Don’t be an idiot, plan for things to go wrong. I brought extra socks and underwear for us all. I always bring toilet paper as well. I brought some anti-chaffing lube in case anyone had issues with that. It sounds like a lot, but all that stuff doesn’t weigh much at all.

The night before I packed our backpacks with as much as I could so that there wouldn’t be much to do the next morning. I brought snacks, hard candy (it won’t melt), sandwiches, and sugar caffeine pop for the kids to have at the river so they’d have more energy on the way up. You don’t need as much food as you think you do. The only reason I brought more than I knew we’d eat was because I wanted some left in case we spent the night.

The plan was to get on the Orange shuttle at 5AM from the Visitor Center to the South Kaibab trailhead. If we couldn’t take the shuttle, it would require an extra 2 miles to walk to the trailhead. That meant we had to get up much earlier to get ready, eat, drive there, and get in line for the shuttle. They were listed as only coming every 30 minutes so we didn’t want to miss it. I’m glad we had scoped out the parking lot the day before as there are basically no lights in the park. It’s an official dark sky park which is nice for seeing stars but really hard to tell where you are. We knew just where to go to be parked right next to the shuttle pick up spot.

Just before we got there a group of 5 women got in line all bundled up in blankets. I did some counting of those ahead of us and realized we likely wouldn’t be allowed on due to the Covid limits. 10 minutes later the bus arrived and a couple of the women stayed behind so we could go. We were so thankful. The driver said another bus would be along in 5-10 minutes as they were going more often than what was listed. That made me feel better. After a short 8 minute drive we were at the trailhead. We used the bathroom once more and started down the trail with our headlamps lighting the way at 5:17AM on October 17th.

Ready to go!

While it was around 50 degrees at the top, there was absolutely zero wind. I just couldn’t get over how still the air was. How could nothing be moving up or down the slopes of a giant canyon? The stars were amazing. It got warmer quickly as we hiked downhill at a pretty good pace. I removed my coat and buff within about 10 minutes, as did the others. The trail had a very fine powder that just hung in the air from the people hiking in front of us. It was fun to see the headlamps in a line down below and up above us.

I just love the visual. It’s basically just warning of heat stroke and that you’re an idiot for hiking to the river and back in one day.

Sunrise would be around 6:30 but it gets light much sooner. We got to Ooh Aah point pretty quickly. It was still dark so we decided to continue on to Cedar Ridge (1.5miles) to watch the sunrise. We got there 40 minutes after we started hiking. We stayed to watch things getting lighter and lighter and it was amazing. It’s just so much different to look at the canyon while being in the canyon. From the rim it almost just seems like a painting or something. Once you’re down 1000ft into it, you can really appreciate the scale of everything. If you really don’t want to do a hard hike, at least go down 1000ft into it.

Panorama of Cedar Ridge.

We stayed here for 10 minutes taking it in. We adjusted clothing into shorts and had a snack. There is also a bathroom here. The next section to Skeleton Point was just awesome watching the sun come over the rim and filling the valley. By this point my son was leading the way, running as it wasn’t very technical. I stayed back with my daughter to keep tabs on her and take pictures.

At 3 miles in we reached Skeleton Point. It had taken 90 minutes but of course we were stopping a lot. It was now time to assess how things were going as we had gone down 2000ft. Everyone was doing good. The next section is a bunch of switchbacks down to the Tonto Plateau and then on to the Tip Off (4.4 miles) where the trail crosses the Tonto trail. This is where it gets harder. The trail has a lot more smooth rocks than powder and it’s steeper. Constantly going down is almost like doing a wall sit. Your quads never get a break. Running down would’ve been much easier than hiking but I had a hiking pack and I wasn’t going to just leave my family in the dust.

My daughter had her first fall here. Honestly I was surprised it took so long. Although she has been improving greatly the last couple years, she falls a lot during downhills. When she was young, she would occasionally just fall over while standing. She got scuffed a little but since we were on a steep part, I told her we’d have to get to a flatter part to deal with it. I got her poles out and she started using them. We were really close to the Tip Off so we went to the shelter there and got her knee cleaned off and put on a bandaid.

She was slightly favoring that leg and I told her it was really important to try to use her leg normally or else she would mess up some muscles in her other leg from walking different. Her leg was shaking a little from the constant downhill tiring her out. We took a 15 minute break to let our muscles relax and eat and drink. This was the last chance to turn back. There is about 1500ft more to go down to the river. Everyone was on board with continuing. There is a bathroom here as well.

We could see the river now as we kept on going down. The beginning is kind of nice. The trail followed the curve of the cliff and the path was dirt again. We saw a group of about 8 women coming up from the river. It was pretty clear to me they were doing a R2R2R starting from the North just based on the time of day and the speed they were going. I made sure to tell my daughter what they were doing and to see how much fun they were having doing it together.

That line is the Black Bridge.

The trail then goes into a bunch of switchbacks again all the way down to the river. It was exciting to see the river getting closer and closer. I think my son wanted to just run the rest of the way down. I kinda wished we could’ve stayed together more but I stayed in the back with my daughter who was taking her time.

She fell again when we were only a short distance from the river. This time it was the other leg and some blood. There wasn’t any point in doing anything with it until we got to the river. Now she limped on that leg. I got her to laugh a little when I said at least her other leg didn’t hurt anymore. I told her how excited her uncle would be to know that she got bloody doing something like this. It always worked on me when he told me it was cool to get bloody and that I was a tough guy. Usually he was partially to blame for whatever injury it was, so I suppose he was partially looking out for himself somewhat as well. Either way it worked on my daughter as well.

It does look pretty badass.

This section from the Tip Off to the river is also when I realized how much my daughter had grown the last 2 months. While going downhill her legs started doing that shaking thing again. It was from fatigue but she didn’t know that and I wasn’t going to tell her. She started telling her legs to “knock it off”. She went from whining about running 2 months ago to taking control of her body. Not only was she not complaining, but she was realizing that she could will her body to do what she wanted. I don’t know if my training had anything to do with that but either way I was happy to see it. That will be something she can draw from for the rest of her life.

My son got shaky legs as well but didn’t mention it until later in the day when I heard him talking to her about it. So should you be worried if that happens? I suppose it depends how far down you are. If we had spent a bunch more time resting on the way down it likely would’ve never happened. You won’t have the same issue going up as it’s much slower so each leg has a chance to relax after every step. Plus you’ll stop more on the way up. Slightly different muscles as well. It’s just happens because of the constant muscle contraction on the way down for hours. I could tell my legs were getting tired of doing that. Even in mountain races it’s rare to have a steady downhill for more than 2000 vertical ft. 5000ft is a lot of downhill for one stretch!

I hadn’t told them about the tunnel at the bottom so that was a cool surprise for them. It is indeed pretty cool to go through a tunnel and then be on a bridge over the river.

Don’t know this guy but wanted a picture of the bridge and tunnel.

We got on the bridge at 8:30AM. 3 hours and 15 minutes after we left the top. We hung out on the bridge for a bit to take pictures and enjoy the view up and down the river. The sunlight was just about to get to the river.

We then went the short distance down to the river where rafts dock sometimes. There weren’t any there at the time. The river is a green color this time of year since the flow is low. It certainly looks nicer than brown would and it’s clear when the flow is low as well. I knew the water would be cold but wow, it almost felt like ice water. I cleaned off my daughters leg and kept putting the cold water on it to make it more numb.

We spent 20 minutes at the river. The kids probably would’ve spent all day there if the water wasn’t so cold. My wife was a party pooper and didn’t go in the water. The sun had now made it’s way to us and man did it start to warm up. I had brought a small towel so we could dry off our feet and keep sand off. We spent another 10 minutes eating and refilling water. The kids enjoyed their pop and my backpack was lighter.

Nice sandy beach. The sand was really cold too.
View of the Black Bridge from the beach.

We didn’t go to Phantom Ranch since we didn’t need food, the building wasn’t open due to Covid and it was extra distance we didn’t need to go. We finally left the area around 9:10AM. It was in the mid 80’s for temperature and I wanted to get out of the lower valley before it got much hotter.

The Silver Bridge is more bouncy and slightly narrower. When we were almost all the way across it, a group of people started towards us. If people will be off the bridge in 15 seconds, you should wait for them. Instead they came on and of course just walked down the middle. The fencing on the sides of the bridge is all bent and sharp pieces point in towards the bottom. My foot ended up catching it while trying to get around this group and tore open the top of my shoe. Luckily it was just my shoe and didn’t get my foot.

View of the Silver Bridge. The image is reversed.

The River Trail is fairly flat but does go up and down a bit. It’s a nice view of the river and area the whole time. It felt pretty hot though. I planned on going to the river one more time at the start of the Bright Angel trail to cool off before the long climb out. There is a bathroom there called the River Resthouse as well.

This view was so awesome in person. My wife and son way ahead as always.

I got my head and shirt wet and did the same to my son and daughter at the river. There were some rafts there that were going to pick people up to go down the river. We left the river at 10:10AM. The Bright Angel trail was shaded at the beginning and you follow a creek bed uphill. That was nice because you could get yourself wet from it fairly often if you wanted to. It would be over 3 miles to Indian Gardens.

Eventually we had to leave Pipe creek and go up a pretty steep cliff side with lots of switchbacks. The sun was fully on us now and everyone else was getting hot. We slowly made our way up the cliff and found a pool of muddy water. I took my shirt off to soak it in the water. I stunk anyway so putting some stinky water on my shirt wasn’t going to hurt. Everyone else followed suit. It was in the shade here so we cooled off and had some snacks and water. Soon after we started off again, we met the mule train and had to go back to the wider area we just left so they could pass us.

Once we got up the cliff, we started going up the Garden Creek valley. Eventually we got to the Tonto trail intersection so I knew Indian Gardens Campground would be close. We got there around Noon. It was hot. We used the bathrooms and hosed ourselves down to cool off. We refilled our water as well. I could see one of the pump stations here. The water is piped up to the South Rim through a pipe that follows this trail. It actually comes from a spring on the North side of the river and crosses on the Silver Bridge. We stayed here for 10 minutes before continuing on.

The kids didn’t really get bored or anything on the hike. I was somewhat worried about that. It was clear from our training that if I got them talking about something during the run, they lost track of time and were always surprised when we were done. I had prepared a bunch of questions that I wrote down as conversation starters if things got quiet. I think I only used 2 of them and it was more because I wanted to know the answers. Of course I’ve lost the sheet so I can’t tell you what they were. You’ll just have to come up with your own. There is so much to look at in the canyon that it’s hard to get bored. The kids looked down most of the time so they wouldn’t fall but I made them look around often.

So the climb up Bright Angel isn’t all that steep for the most part. It’s not as steep as South Kaibab. It’s pretty easy to power hike it fast if you’d want to. You can even run it all if not during the heat of the day. The problem is that it gets steeper as you go. My son and my wife didn’t even use their poles since they just got in the way more than they helped them. The last couple miles is steeper and of course you’re more tired then. The next stop was 3 mile Resthouse in 1.7 miles.

We got there at 1:10PM and stopped here for 10 minutes as well. The bathrooms are off the trail and uphill so that wasn’t all that fun to get to. We got wet again and refilled water for the last time. It was still hot but you could see that the trail was in the shade up ahead.

The kids were fine other than being hot. There legs were just fine. They said their feet hurt a little but that’s to be expected after hiking that far. My wife was having issues though. Remember how she didn’t do any training? That was biting her in the butt now. We had to start taking breaks pretty regularly. People were passing us quite a bit now. There were a few other people that we leapfrogged with all the way to the top. There was a dad with 2 teens that was having problems too.

Looking back down at Indian Gardens

As far as kids go, we saw probably 20 teens and I think 2 other kids our kids’ age. One baby but he was being carried obviously. None of them were having issues.

We finally got in the shade and that helped as far as temperature goes. There was even a little breeze for the first time all day. We weren’t sweating near as much anymore and didn’t even need to fill up with water once we got to 1.5 mile Resthouse. We got there at around 2:30PM. We didn’t really stop here since we didn’t need anything and had been taking breaks all along anyway.

The kids were enjoying themselves. Only 1.5 miles to go!
Gives some scale.

Now it was just another 1.6 miles to the top. It’s just never ending switchbacks it seems. You could see people on the rim looking down at you. They looked so close and yet so far away. Basically between each of these stops is 1000ft vertical gain. My son started to lean against my wife to help push her up the trail. It helped quit a bit and he got a lot of compliments for being such a good son.

My wife was pretty disgusted with what was happening to her. It wasn’t hot anymore and the elevation isn’t where she normally has altitude issues. She was almost crying once but she knew there wasn’t an option other than to keep going up nice and slow. We had plenty of time. In fact we were still making pretty good time other than this last section. There are a couple short tunnels in this section. Just before the top there is one. We stopped there even though the top was 300 feet away. After a while, the kids just took off racing to the top. I think they pretty much tied but I’m sure that will be up for debate for years.

The last rest break.

Finally we reached the top! It was 3:40PM. It took us 5 and a half hours to get up Bright Angel. It could easily have been 30 minutes less. Overall it took us under 10 and a half hours. I was expecting 9 and a half but was glad it wasn’t over 12 hours at least. We took some pictures and then walked to the bathrooms nearby and got washed off some. That dirt goes everywhere!

Done!

I left my backpack with the family and ran back to the car. They were going to walk down to a road that was easier to get to. My son carried my pack and said he was very thankful he didn’t have to have one the whole day. Of course it was much lighter now than it had been all day. I should’ve made him wear it at the beginning.

We again chose to not watch the sunset as it would be hours until then. We went back to the hotel and it was funny watching the kids walk like I do after a 100 mile race. Within hours though they were pretty normal. I asked them if it was worth it. Both said it was. I asked if they would do it again. My son is pretty much up for anything if I’m with him. My daughter said she would want to do it again with her daughter if she has one. We ate well and the kids were asleep about 30 seconds after saying goodnight.

The next morning we drove back to Vegas to enjoy the swimming pool. That night we walked around some more, played games, and watched the fountains again. The kids didn’t even complain about having tired legs.

The end. For real this time.

Brown County Circumferential Run – 2020 Report

So I had attempted this run as a training run 4.5 years ago and ended up stopping around 80 miles in. I knew I would try it again but didn’t know exactly when. In case you don’t want to go back to the previous attempt, here is the summary of what this run is. Like the title says, it’s basically a run around the border of Brown County MN. The run route is 132 miles long and 3/4 of that is on gravel roads, the other 1/4 is tar roads. There are a few extra miles thrown into the route to account for areas not having roads and the river that borders the North meandering all over. The true circumference of the county is also 132 miles the way the river currently flows so it comes out even in the end.

I grew up in that county and around age 5 I decided I wanted to run around it. My sister showed me a map and from my recollection told me it was impossible. I gave up on that dream until I started doing ultramarathons. The distance was no longer an obstacle.

I was entered in the Spartathlon race for the end of September and the race was one of the few that didn’t cancel right away due to coronavirus. So with everything else having been cancelled, I had nothing else to train for but that. For the first time in my life I was running 60-70 mile weeks. I was loosing weight and feeling pretty good. We were supposed to get a final go/no go answer on Wednesday July 15th as to if the race would go on. I told my wife jokingly “that means maybe by the weekend”. We didn’t get an answer that day and by Friday the Brits were joking that this was the longest Wednesday they ever had! I laughed pretty hard at that one. Finally the next Monday we got the answer that it was on. I was surprised since many countries couldn’t even travel there yet.

So I continued training. We had reservations for places to stay, etc but we never purchased plane tickets. Additional testing requirements, and the fact that there was zero chance travel would be allowed to Greece for Americans, and a co-worker having an unplanned surgery that made her unable to work for the next 2 months made me e-mail them in mid-August to see if a deferral was a possibility. After a couple weeks I got an email that I could move my entry to the next year. In that amount of time there were more and more countries that weren’t allowed to travel or would have to quarantine upon return. Shortly thereafter, the Greek government banned events over 100 people. The race was officially cancelled Sept 3rd but we already knew on the 1st it would be due to the government ban put in effect that day.

I was in the best shape of my life for fast and flattish road running. I decided to pivot quickly and try to run around the county again. I decided to go ahead and make it a mock Spartathlon race. This would allow me to try out the gear I planned on using and the Spring Energy food I’ve been trying out. With Labor Day weekend coming up, that seemed like the perfect time to try it. In fact the sun angle would be the same in Brown County on September 7th as it is in Greece the end of September when Spartathlon is run. The weather is generally the same as well. It would be as close to race conditions as I could make it.

Spartathlon has an aid station about every 2.5 miles. Each one of these has a hard time cutoff that if you miss, you are out of the race. It requires you to go pretty fast in the beginning of the race. I made my wife crew for me this time and had her stop along the roads at the distances they would be during the race. This allowed me to use my pacing chart I had made for the race with as few changes as possible.

The main change I made was for the final time cutoff. In Spartathlon, there is a mountain to go over 100 miles into the race. I had no way to recreate that so I took time away from the cutoffs starting around 90 miles and continued until the end. I used 30 hours for my time limit. I was really expecting something around 29 hours and if I hit that, I’d be pretty happy. I’ve run 100 miles under 20 hours in the past but that was in cooler weather on a flatter, easier course.

My family helped out immensely by watching the kids for the weekend so my wife could somewhat keep her sanity during the run. She brought the dogs along.

We loaded the supplies up and went to the same pole I started at last time. I set the start time at 6:30AM to somewhat recreate the lighting that would be at Spartathlon.

Clean and ready to go!

Not much exciting happened for most of the morning. Since I didn’t have 400 other people to run with, I was slightly slower than what I had down in my pacing chart. There’s always a bit of excitement that I have to “burn” off when I start a race. There wasn’t a lot of excitement with this start. At the 2nd stop at 5.8 miles, my wife was concerned I was already 3 minutes behind my pace. I was still 10 minutes ahead of the cutoff time which was all I was concerned about, so I told her not to worry.

Some of the aid stations were so close together that we just decided to skip a couple of them since it was still cool enough that I didn’t need another bottle of water at each stop. I was eating my Spring gels and a couple other things that will likely be at the race. I felt pretty good. I was only stopping around 30 seconds a stop which is pretty common at the race. It usually consisted of getting my water bottle filled, grabbing some food, and wetting my head and face. I had to stop once for a #2 break.

Around 10:30 AM or so my friend and awesome ultrarunner John showed up to run with me for a bit. I was now on a fairly long section of tar road. Even though it had only been about 20 miles of gravel so far, it was a nice change to be on solid smooth ground. I was still running well and I likely sped up a little since John was with.

I got to the marathon distance 4:20 after I started. This is 25 minutes ahead of the race cutoff so I was feeling pretty good about that. It was starting to get warmer now. The Spring Energy gels started to not taste all that great anymore which is usually a sign that I need to slow down and not overheat.

John and I shared some good stories. There wasn’t much traffic so we could usually run side by side. My wife asked in her mom voice if I was having fun with my friend. He stayed with until a few miles after Godahl which would be around 35 miles or so into the run. I had to start my walk breaks now to keep from overheating and just to change it up for my muscles.

The rest of the afternoon I consistently stayed 20-30 minutes ahead of the race cutoffs. Probably the most significant Spartathlon cutoff is checkpoint #22 which is in Corinth at 49.7 miles. You have 9.5 hours to get there. Actually I think you have to leave by 9.5 hours. After this point there is still a lot of race left but the cutoffs become easier to make. I left our fake checkpoint #22 at 3:30PM or 9 hours race time. I was kind of hoping for 10 minutes faster but I also wasn’t pushing it. I was trying to play it smart and not overextend myself for no reason. There was a lot left to run.

My wife was able to get some food for herself in Comfrey which was right around that 50 mile cutoff. I was able to continue a pretty fast pace since the sun was getting lower in the sky and generally I just felt better as far as my stomach goes. By 60 miles into the run, I was around 50 minutes ahead of the race cutoffs.

At the corner of the county around 58 miles into the run is where I make the turn North and the gravel started again. The rest of the run would be almost entirely on gravel. Some of it was fairly firm and some was very rocky. It really wears on your feet after being on it for so long. My breaks would start to be longer now. Some up to 90 seconds.

There were road closed ahead signs at one point but it wasn’t really closed so we were able to get across. The house that had a dog come after me four years ago didn’t have one now. In fact there were no dog issues the entire run.

My wife got some food again for supper. She brought me a tiny pizza which was pretty good. It was cooler now and I was ready for the long night ahead. I got my headlamp on but didn’t need it quite yet. I think I turned it on soon after crossing Hwy 14.

So I knew going into this that there were going to be severe thunderstorms that night. Initially it looked like it would be more concentrated to the East of where I would be running at the time but I could already see large thunderclouds forming all around me. The lightning show started around 8:30 PM. The radar was still not showing much and it looked like I would be able to “thread the needle” for at least a while yet. By that I mean I’d be running in an area right after a storm cloud rolled through but before the next row of clouds moved in.

Then checkpoint #35 happened.

It was 9:30PM (15 hours) and almost 77 miles into the run. I had my headlamp on since the clouds were blocking the full moon. Normally I would run just by moonlight unless a vehicle was coming. Running by moonlight is kind of fun when you don’t have to worry about tripping on anything. I hadn’t been past a house for miles and there was one house pretty close to the road I was passing now. I could see my wife pulled over about 1000 yards ahead for the next checkpoint.

Then I saw the porch light turn on. Crap! Usually it means a dog will soon be flying out the door and I’d have about 1 second before it was on me. Instead it was a man asking what I was doing. Ugh! There’s nothing I hate more than night time conversations with strangers while running. I said I was running (duh!) and I was fine. I had a vehicle up just ahead. He seemed to be mumbling so I just continued on to the car. Plus I had been needing to take my second #2 of the run for the last 15 minutes or so.

I gave my wife my water belt and went to the drivers side door to sit on the edge of the door sill. To paint a more clear picture, the car had all 4 wheels still on the gravel road and I was where the grass just starts to come up to the gravel on the right side of the road. I was mid-dump when up pulls a truck with the brights on, shining right on me. The guy gets out and starts asking us what we’re doing. It’s the guy from the house.

My wife tries to intercept and explains that I’m out running and we’re fine. He keeps asking what we’re doing. I said “I’m taking a dump currently.” He said “I can see that.” This is where a normal person would wait until I was done and then we would talk. Not this guy.

I’m trying to finish up and start to wipe, all the while he’s talking. I went into my usual calm talking that I have to do with these type of people I run into at night while running.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

Again I reply “Running”.

“Look at me! Why are you on my land?” he said. Wait, did he just say “look at me?” I said “This isn’t your land, this is road.” “This is all my land!” he said. “No. You may own the field, but even the ditch is public land” I said. He disagreed. Apparently he’s the only farmer in America that doesn’t know how property lines work and that you don’t own the public road that goes by it. I decided to just ignore him and concentrate on wiping.

“Look at me!” he says again, almost pleading.

In life, people desire many different things. Some desire money. Others desire fame or respect. This guy…

This guy’s desire was to lock eyes with a stranger that’s taking a dump.

“I’m going to call the police.” He said.

“Great! I’d love for you to do that!” I said staring into his eyes, hoping the cops would actually come out and talk some sense into this guy.

My wife was trying to explain that I was running around the county. Then began a string of statements that he continued to say throughout the remainder of this ordeal.

“That’s weird! You’re weird! That’s just weird!” I can recall him saying this sequence at least 3 times but it was likely many more. In fact it’s become a running joke with my wife and I ever since.

He then went on to tell us “I’ve hiked on the Appalachian trail. I’m going hiking in the mountains in a week and I know John.” Wait, what? He brought up the name of the same person who had just been running with me that morning. He knows John? He clearly knows what ultrarunning is then since that would be the only reason to bring up his name completely out of the blue like that.

I told him “Then you should understand what I’m doing. John was running with me this morning.”

“Well, maybe I’ll call him.” he said.

“Great! I would love for you to call him.” I said. I felt kind of bad since I didn’t want John to have to deal with this guy, but if it would straighten him out I was all for it. Of course he never did call.

I could fill pages with all the dialog that occurred in the 3 minutes it took to finish pooping and wiping. It was non stop repeating of the same questions. My wife was trying to answer most of them. I wasn’t about to tell this guy my name and address like he demanded.

I bagged up my deposit and ended up putting it in the car since it was clear he would have a complete conniption fit if I buried it in his corn field. I got some water and poured it on any residue that was still on the gravel. He said I didn’t need to do that. What? Now you’re somewhat reasonable?

Then he started up again with the questions. He didn’t sound drunk but it seemed like he had to be on something. It’s like the answers just didn’t seem to register with his brain or something.

I asked what it was that he wanted. He said “You should’ve asked my permission to come on my land.”

Again with the land thing. I again repeated “This is a public road.”

He said “You should’ve let everyone know you were doing this.”

“Who? Everyone along the entire 132 miles?” I asked.

“Yes.” he said.

This guy clearly wasn’t right in the head. “Well I’m sorry, but I didn’t do that.” I said.

So this entire time I had my mace in my pocket and I decided to just keep it there. I didn’t want to escalate things and he was keeping his distance (about 6 feet) for the most part. Plus with the brights still shining in my eyes, I’m not sure how accurate I could spray it anyway.

I was getting my belt back on, putting away the toilet paper, and getting some food. I was pretty much trying to wind things down so I could get going. He kept asking the same questions and wanting to lock eyes with me just one more time I guess since he kept up with the “look at me” statements spattered throughout.

I could tell my wife was getting tired of this as well. She knows Krav Maga and was positioning herself between me and him in case he tried something. He had stated during the pooping portion of this ordeal that he would drag me back to his house. Additionally, we had our dogs with, one of which is a big Mastiff. I wished she would just let out a deep scary “woof” like she’s been known to do, but she was trying to sleep and didn’t seem to notice any of what was going on.

I asked a couple more times what he wanted and if I could go now. He never answered. He just kept repeating the same stupid questions and comments. He seemed to be cooling off since the questions were now coming slower. Or maybe the answers were just finally sinking in. I think my wife ended up telling him my name at some point.

Anyway, after 6 minutes I slowly started off again. I had just gotten to the point of the front tire when I heard my wife say “whatever dude.”

I stopped in my tracks, somehow knowing what was coming next. “Don’t ‘whatever dude’ me!!!” he shouted.

I turned around and went back to see what was going on. He hadn’t moved to attack or anything. Now that I had my headlamp on he was getting a taste of his own medicine with the bright lights. Things seemed fine so I started off again. My wife soon got in the car and left.

As she was passing me she had the window down and I told her to stop after the next turn East just up ahead where we’d be out of sight. I needed to stop again so I could finish wiping with wet wipes and reapply lube since I wasn’t able to do those things during the encounter. She went along side me for a little while first, since he was following us. He soon turned around and went home so we didn’t have to call the cops ourselves.

So I had to waste another two minutes of time to get things situated at this extra stop. My wife was impressed with my calmness throughout. I told her I’ve had to deal with people like this at night before so I’m kind of used to it. No one has ever been this annoying though. Even the drunk guys in TN during Volstate were better. She said she had a hard time not yelling at the guy. Of course she slipped up once with the “whatever dude” comment.

I ran a little faster for the next few miles since I had such a long break. The lightning show was getting pretty spectacular. I was now behind over a half mile from where I wanted to be and I was starting to lose my “threading the needle” position because of it. All around me were huge clouds that lit up with constant lighting. There was no wind and it was strangely quite. Neither of us could hear the thunder, likely since the clouds were further away than they looked. All I could hear were the killdeer birds crying around me. In fact there were lots of other birds flying around in the dark on the road as well. They weren’t bats, definitely birds. It was kind of odd. I suspect the storm was keeping them active.

At one point during the next hour, the sky actually cleared directly above me. I could see the full moon and Mars was super close to it. It was beautiful. If I wasn’t running, I would’ve just sat down and watched it all. The sky was still being lit all around me with lighting.

It became clear now looking at the radar that I would be getting hit with some rain. The rain I wasn’t worried about. The constant lightning was a different story. I was definitely the tallest thing around since this section of road has no trees or farm sites near it. There weren’t even power lines nearby. So at about mile 84 at 11:20PM or so, I got into the car to wait for the storm to pass. I was an hour ahead of the cutoff at this point.

It barely even sprinkled. Man was there lightning though! I charged my watch to take advantage of the downtime. I got out after 30 minutes and could barely walk! Everything had tightened up sitting in the car. I was moving between 14 and 15 minute miles. I had been doing 13 minute miles before the stop. I soon made the next turn North and could see the next set of clouds coming. They weren’t on the radar when I left the car. I rechecked on my phone and sure enough they just appeared in 5 minutes time basically right over me. There was lightning everywhere so I again got in the car not even an hour after I had gotten out. It was now 12:50AM.

It rained pretty hard this time. There was even hail. The wind picked up so much that we had to move the car away from the trees we were by in case they fell on us. It was about as black outside as it can get during most of this time. It took an hour and five minutes before I could get out of the car. It probably still wasn’t safe since lightening can travel miles from the cloud but I was tired of sitting around and cramping up.

I was running again but had to stop once again 20 minutes later. This time it was only for 18 minutes but basically the chance of finishing in 30 hours was out the window now unless I could start to run like I had been before I ever stopped. I had been stopped for 1 hour and 53 minutes total! I was now 30 minutes over the cutoff. Technically, at Spartathlon I would’ve been pulled from the race. I kept going because I was at least going to finish this run to fulfill my childhood dream.

The rest of the night was fairly uneventful. I wasn’t moving very fast at all. My feet were hurting from the gravel. There was a mile or so section of tar that felt like heaven. I reached the river valley edge around 5 AM. I couldn’t take advantage of the hill down as much as I’d like. I’ll have to work on more hills before Spartathlon next year so I can take advantage of the downhills later in the race. Good to know.

Now I’d follow the river Southeast back to the start. The vast majority is gravel roads that curve a lot and have gentle 30 foot hills. I had forgotten about all those small hills. They seem like nothing when you’re driving on the road but after 100 miles, you notice! Oh yeah, I hit 100 miles just after 5 AM which was about 22:35 race time. That includes the almost 2 hours of stops so it would’ve been a fairly fast 100 mile time for me without them. Even with them, it was my 6th fastest 100 mile time.

Slowly it started to get light out but it wasn’t waking me up at all. Since my time was all blown up anyway, I decided to take a nap at 6 AM. I slept 25 minutes and felt much more awake. It didn’t help my running one bit since I cramped up again but whatever.

The nice thing was it was absolutely gorgeous watching the sun come up in the river valley. The grape vine leaves had already turned red and it just felt like it was going to be a nice day. It was probably close to 7AM when John showed up again. He told me he might try to find me today again when he left yesterday. In fact, he had so much fun running yesterday, he had to do some more today he said.

Picture John took of me along the bottom road.
What’s funny is I’m pretty sure I was “running” in this photo. Clearly both feet are touching the ground so I’m technically walking. The “ultramarathon shuffle”!

I immediately was running faster now that John was with me. 13 minute miles were easy again. Normally in a race, I have much more drive just because I want to beat other people. Just going from 40th to 39th place gives me great drive, despite it not being a big deal to anyone else. Racing against yourself can be hard, especially when your main goal is already out of possibility. Another good lesson that I already knew, but driven home even more. Too bad there are no pacers at Spartathlon. It’s the only race I’d ever think of using one.

John couldn’t run very long this morning since he was leaving town but gave great encouragement. Eventually the course goes up out of the valley on a steep road that gets washed out all the time. It was now hot again, and even more humid than yesterday. The air was smoky as well from all the fires out West. My wife went off course so I called her and told her how to find me.

After 5.5 miles and lots of turns, the course goes back into the valley for the last time. I was glad for the shade again even though it was still morning. The humidity along the bottom roads of the valley is basically always 90+%. There is no wind and you can just feel it when you are getting close to a creek crossing or slough since it goes up to 100%. In MN you pick your heat training poison: Either it’s humid with full sun baking you, or shade and extreme humidity steaming you.

It was obvious that it had rained more along the river than where I had been during the storm. There was lots of gravel and dirt deposited on the road and in ditches from the hillside.

I was seeing people that live along the road out for a Sunday morning walk. Everyone was very friendly and encouraging. I met an old, very nice German Sheppard named Tank and his old, very nice owner. He didn’t seemed phased when I said I was going around the county. Then about 50 yards later I hear him calling back “how far is that?”

I knew this road well so I was getting kind of excited to be done. Even when I got to town, it would still be 5 more miles…but it would be sweet sweet tar! I really wanted to at least get under 32 hours so I was able to pick up the pace to 12 minute miles again. I think that surprised my wife after watching me suffer and suck so much the last 5 hours.

Finally I got to the pole at 2:21 PM for a time of 31:51. Not the 30 hour limit I had set or the 29 hour time I would’ve finished in if not for the storms. In the end I was still happy to complete my goal of running around the county. I learned a few things that will help me complete Spartathlon as well.

All done.
Finished, tired, and wondering why my wife is just sitting in the car 100 feet away! That’s 100 feet more than I need to go!!!

We went home and I think the dogs slept instantly. They didn’t sleep very well at all since every 2 miles or so, the car would beep when the tailgate went up and down for the aid station breaks. I iced my feet to prevent any swelling. I had absolutely zero tibialis tendon pain for the first time in a race that long. I’m guessing since it’s so flat, but even at Tunnel Hill I’d have some pain. I took some photos to send John on how I tape my feet. I still had a small blister along a big toe but otherwise pretty good. My wife was awake enough with the cat naps she got during the run to go and get the kids. As usual, they weren’t very impressed with what I did.

So pretty. Look at all the salt. I used salt tabs for the first time. I didn’t need to.
Cover-roll Stretch tape if you’re wondering. Works great as long as you’re not splashing in water.
I always like taking photos of my watch telling me I should be dead.

The end.

Bur Oak

This is my most favorite tree in the world.  It may look small but it’s the biggest bur oak I know of.  I’ve seen both the tallest and largest tree in the world but this is still my favorite.  It’s easily over 300 years old.  That trunk is about 3 feet wide and the span is probably around 80 feet.  For perspective on how slow northern bur oaks grow, a branch from one of my smaller bur oaks got torn off 40 feet up during a storm.  It was 11 inches wide and had 110 rings.  The trunk of that tree is about 20 inches wide.  That’s why it’s easy to see how this big tree is at least 300 years old!  There’s not a person alive that has seen this tree in their lifetime as anything other than a mature, giant tree.

How did it survive?  This was prairie when it was “born”.  You wouldn’t have seen another tree around in this photo back then other than perhaps a cottonwood on the bank of the nearby creek.  This is prairie land.  The mighty bur oak has thick bark that can withstand the fires that prevented other trees from surviving, but it takes years to develop that thick of bark.  It can survive severe drought with its deep taproot.

Perhaps the somewhat narrow steep valley that this creek cut has something to do with it.  Could it have been much wetter ground 300 years ago that prevented the fire from burning the grass around the tree?  Maybe the fire rarely went down into the valley.  This could’ve gotten it to 30 years old where it could survive the fires.

What then of the bison?  What few trees that would’ve been around were used heavily by the bison as scratching posts.  Bison herds were very destructive at first glance.  They’d eat the grass, chew up the dirt, and rub trees raw.  But, the prairie needs that!  The newly exposed dirt would bring forth wildflowers and other forbs.  The bison eating the grass is what actually adds carbon to the soil by the plants trimming some roots after grazing and making new roots.  Prairie grass roots go down deep, some over 10 feet.  That’s what actually built up the soil, not the decay of old dying plants.  Seems strange at first, but yes grazing grassland takes more carbon dioxide out of the air and puts it into the soil than just letting it grow wild does!

Quick side note just to prove the point more fully.  Only 40 miles or so from here is Jeffers Petroglyphs.  It’s an area where humans have been carving into the exposed rock for 7,000 years.  The entire surrounding area is still intact prairie because it was impossible to till the soil with the large exposed rocks.  On a tour I asked if they’ve ever dug down to find more rocks that used to be exposed.  Sure enough they had recently dug down in an area and showed it to me.  They started where the rock was exposed and followed it down its natural slant, deciding to quit about 3 feet down from the surrounding soil.  All the rock they exposed had carvings on it!  And that’s just were they decided to quit.  That’s what prairie grazed by animals does, it builds the soil by adding carbon.  That’s what makes our topsoil so black in the prairie states, the carbon from centuries of prairie grass roots.  Experiments in the last 30 years has confirmed it.

Okay, back to the bison.

Perhaps the bison preferred the small river just a mile away that has a sandier bottom to drink from, or even the large Minnesota River 2 miles downstream to bathe in.  We’ll never know.

What then of the Dakota that lived here in this tree’s early life?  They used trees for various things but maybe not the bur oak.  Either way, they let it stand.

Tornadoes, thunderstorms, and windstorms are a constant threat on the prairie for a tree that stands above the rest.  I’m guessing it was protected in this 60 feet deep valley from the full force of the storms it’s seen.

Then what about when this tree was middle aged?  When Europeans first settled the land and began to till the soil.  Lumbar was very expensive.  In fact most settlers, including my ancestors, lived in sod houses or caves before they could build a house.  Even at 140 years old, this tree had enough lumber to build a small house at the time.  Why wasn’t it cut down?

We’ll of course never know the answer.  My hope and belief is this.  That everyone that has ever seen this tree saw it in the same way that I did the first time I laid eyes on it.  They saw the beauty.  They saw the perfection.  They saw that some things are worth more than money.  They realized that this tree was more important than their current needs.  Perhaps they even thought they’d like their great, great, great grandchildren to be able to have a picnic under it.

I’m so thankful!

Thankful for everything that others have done for me, both in my lifetime and before I was born.  From people who know me, and from strangers alike.

Even those who had no idea that a decision they made would make me smile every time I run past this tree.

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I know it may look small from a distance, but it’s even bigger than the barn that is 100 feet closer to where I was standing.

Arrowhead 135 – 2020 Race Report

This is probably the latest I’ve ever written a race report after doing the race so it may end up short and not very detailed.  I’ll guess we’ll see how good my memory is.  For more background on the race you can read  here, here, and here.  This was my forth year doing the race.  It was also the second race in the Order of the Hrimthurs series.  Having just finished my poor performance at Tuscobia 160, my main goal in this race was just to finish in good enough shape to finish Actif Epica-100 16 days later.

The weather forecast for this years race was about as perfect as it could get.  Initially it was supposed to be almost mid 30’s which is way too warm but then things started to show 20’s as being the highs.  I ran a few times the week before the race to make sure my body was recovering well (it surprisingly was).  I spent almost every minute of those runs arguing with myself on whether or not I should run it unsupported again since it would be such an easy year.  I of course knew the smart decision would be to not go unsupported as that would jeopardize my chance of finishing Hrimthurs.  I somehow finally convinced myself on my last run that I would do the smart thing and just do the regular supported.  I did somewhat try to convince my friend Ed to do it though.  I was really surprised I didn’t see a lot more people go unsupported this year, it will likely be a long time until the weather is this perfect again.

I’ll talk a little more about the weather right away I guess.  If you ask most of us veterans we’ll tell you that 10 degrees is about perfect for a winter race.  Cold enough to keep you from sweating if you know what you’re doing but not so cold as to be a hindrance in any way.  This race was mostly in the high teens and maybe up to the low 20’s which is warmer than I’d like but still nice.  It was forecast to be in the upper 20’s by the way so it ended up being colder than forecast.  The sleds moved effortlessly!  I could sled down even the shallowest sloped hills for the first time in 3 years.  I even saw Storkamp have some fun sledding down the hills!  This just makes the race so much easier and more fun.  Really the best thing about the weather being warm is that the chance of dying from the cold goes to zero.  Unless you jumped in water and didn’t have any clothes on, you won’t have an issue in the 20’s with no precipitation.  You can make so many mistakes and still be perfectly fine when it’s 28 degrees.  You don’t even need a good thermos at that temp, just a homemade insulated bottle will give you 20 hours of liquid water.  You can just sleep on top of your sled and not have to bivy when it’s that warm.  There’s just so many things that are easier, I didn’t even have gloves on for about a fifth of the race.  Et cetera.  Alternatively, if you make the smallest of mistakes at -20 or colder, your race will likely be over or very close to it.  It was a great year to be a rookie and I expected a high finishing rate.

All of that being said, don’t be a dumbass and think you can half ass this (or any winter ultra) race in a good weather year.  You still need to have trained well and know what to do if/when the weather turns from what was predicted to something else.  Basically, just because I’m diminishing the chance of death/frostbite with this years race doesn’t mean you should construe that to mean this race was easy in the literal sense, just “easy” in the Arrowhead sense.

So what was the finishing rate?  46 out of 68 finished on foot (68%) which is pretty high.  I thought it would be higher but I know quite a few of those who didn’t finish had issues with things other than the weather (poor health or just mentally not wanting to do it).  I could somewhat relate to the mentally just not wanting to finish.  Normally in a winter ultra you need to constantly (literally constantly when it’s -40) evaluate your body and the situation.  In other words constantly checking that your fingers, nose, toes aren’t frozen, have you drank, have you ate, do you need to adjust your clothes, time of day, is the weather changing, where am I, when I stop to open my bag what exactly am I going to do and in what order, etc.  It’s never ending and even worse when you do it unsupported!  This year, I thought of those things at most once an hour.  I actually got bored!  I know some of those that quit were just bored and likely won’t be back for a few years.

So get on with the race report already!

Okay.  Here’s check in.  I checked in Saturday like usual.  Of course I still somehow forgot something for check in.  I had to go and get my mittens from the hotel.  In my defense, it was a new required gear item but something I’ve always carried in a race.  It’s one of the items many of us put in the so called “oh sh*t bag” or something to that effect.  There may not even be a separate bag that you put those things in, but in your head they’re special items of last resort.  Basically the things you never plan on wearing but have just in case things go sideways or unexpected weather.  Some people didn’t bring much of any extra clothes whatsoever but they also ran the majority of the race and finished in the top 3.

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I’m nowhere in this photo but it’s what I had.  One change is we had to go in a different door this year.

The next day I didn’t need to check on the course so I finally went to Voyager’s National Park which is right next to International Falls.  I got a bunch of information since I hope to come up in the summer once with the family.

That night was the required pre-race meeting.  They switched it up and put the slide show screen on the opposite side of the stage.  First the different door for check in and now I had to turn my head the other direction to see the slides.  Too much change for a Minnesotan in one year.

IMG_20200126_160406

After the provided spaghetti supper, I went back to the motel room and finalized my gear bag.  I also got done what I could get done the night before as far as taping, etc.

So a quick side note on the motel.  Ed and I decided to stay at a different motel this year as it was quite a bit cheaper.  About an hour or so after we checked into different rooms, we were leaving to go to gear check (4:40PM) and the owner comes out to ask Ed if he used the fan in the bathroom.  He did since that’s what a normal person would do to remove air from a bathroom.  Well apparently the owners kid’s bedroom is above Ed’s motel room bathroom and it woke the kid up.  The owner told him to not use the fan anymore!  Crazy.  In the end things worked out since I think the owner realized he was being a dick.

Anyway, I woke up around 5am on race day January 27th for the 7am start.  I realized there was a hole in the tights I planned on wearing so I was glad I had brought everything from home so I could switch it out with another pair.  I tried hard to keep my bag light but it still ended up being 42 pounds with food and water included.  I’ve just had so many races where the weather turned bad and I was always glad I had that extra gear.

It was about 14 degrees with a bit of snow coming down and a slight wind.  That temp is just kind of right in between 2 different clothing options for me so I hate it.  I of course chose the too cold option which is always the proper choice to make.  You can always run more or harder to warm up if need be.  Don’t overdress to start the race.  If you aren’t somewhat cold the first mile of a race, you are definitely wearing too much.

I sat inside the building in an area that either was always previously locked to us or I just never bothered to go into.  I almost don’t want to tell people since it was so nice and quiet and pleasant in there.  I enjoyed the quiet and prepared myself for the next 2 days of the race.  I checked the weather again one more time (like it mattered at this point), e-mailed my wife (don’t want the text to wake her up), and exited the door that goes right to the trail.  I took my usual pre-race selfie and put my phone away.IMG_20200127_064447

I started toward the front this year so I could actually hear the “release the hounds”.  Most of the time I can’t hear it due to all the crunching and squeaking snow.  The fireworks went off and then the bikes started.  Next the skiers.  Finally, the foot division.

I talked to a few people on the way to the first turn (a couple hours) but I don’t remember many of the conversations.  I know one of the guys was going for his third attempt I think.  He had always done the Brazil 135 2 weeks before the race and never got past Mel Georges.  I told him he never even got to the good part of the race then since he never got to any of the good hills.  I’m pretty sure he finished it this year.

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The stretch after the turn to the East.

After the turn I didn’t see people very often at all.  Occasionally in the distance I’d see someone.  I was running some but having just done Tuscobia a month before, I could tell I wouldn’t be running as much as usual.  I made it to Hwy 53 about the usual time.

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Hwy 53 crossing.  No snotcicles this year.

I helped out another runner fix his sled somewhere along the way in the morning but I can’t remember where exactly.  Since I helped him out last year too, I joked “you’re going to have to help me out next year”.

In the early afternoon there was a moment when I was by myself for a little while.  There are always a couple moments during Arrowhead where something just takes your breath away.  I don’t know how to explain it really.  Just a feeling that everything around you is perfect and I feel really close to God.  It’s one of the main reasons I like winter ultras.  It’s impossible to see the things you see or experience the things you experience during this race from home or in a video or a picture.  I took a picture to remember this moment.  To you it will just look like any other section of the race I could take a picture of.  To me, it’s much more.  If anything, the point of this picture is to remind myself that many experiences just can’t be captured in anything but the mind.IMG_20200127_144315There were a group of I think 4 of us that ended up somewhat together for the hour or so before Gateway aid station.  I was pretty efficient here.  In 30 minutes, I ate, went #2, changed socks, added a layer, and reloaded water.  While I was trying to go fast, in reality I didn’t care much.  I knew I would place much lower than normal.  I was still going about as fast as most years but that’s because the snow conditions were so much better, not because I was “fast”.  The sled just ran so nice.

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In Gateway store.

It was light out for a bit yet after I left Gateway.  The big group I left behind soon caught up to me.  For a couple hours or so, they’d pull away and then I’d catch up sliding down a hill.  About the time we got to the cold swamp area, they were out of sight.  It was quite enjoyable not to be freezing in the swamps this year.  I was listening to music from here until the last 13 hours in the race basically.  Since I took such a good GPS reading last year, I had perfect mileage for when I’d get to the next road or shelter.  I was looking forward to Mel Georges.  I wasn’t sure if I would sleep or not.  I was seriously contemplating just not stopping other than food and would sleep on my sled later if need be.  It was about 12 degrees out which is a little cold to just sleep on my bag though.

Once I was getting close to the lake I could see lights ahead.  Had I caught back up to the group?  No, it was just a couple people that had passed me early on in the race that had slowed down now.  I passed them and then crossed the lake.  There was talk about it having overflow (liquid water that goes on top of the thick ice caused by the heavy snow pushing the ice down) a couple days ago so I was prepared with some bags to put over my shoes but it had frozen over since then so I didn’t need them.  It was so nice not having the cold blast of air in my face like last year (remember someone got frostbite on his cornea in this section last year).

I reached Mel Georges at 3:47AM, about 30 minutes slower than last year.  I was feeling tired and so I thought I’d at least try to sleep while I recharged my watch and headlamp.  I ate quite a bit of food and then headed upstairs to find a spot.  Just as I got up there, Mark Scotch comes out of the only room in the cabin and asks if I want it.  I just hit the jackpot of this race!  Now I wouldn’t need to sleep on the floor with people snoring everywhere.  I could still hear people talking but it was much quieter.  Unfortunately, I still slept very poorly, if at all.  I’m sure there were a couple bouts of sleep in there but I felt as though I was awake the entire 90 minutes I laid down.

Finally I just said “forget it” and got up.  I re-lubed up my feet, checked the weather on my phone, used the bathroom, and got dressed.  It was much easier getting my stuff repacked this year.  I had been much smarter on where I put stuff and didn’t have to wander everywhere getting stuff.  In the end I was there for almost 3 hours which was longer than last year but whatever, I wasn’t really in a hurry.  I left at 6:34AM, 50 minutes behind last year.  It was still dark but I knew it would start to get light out before the first of the big hills.

There weren’t any foot division people that left around the same time but there were bikers that woke up and started to pass me in the morning.  I took a picture of the first big hill which is my favorite of the race.  It doesn’t come close to capturing the real essence of sunrise on the 2nd day of a winter ultra or even the beauty.  You just had to be there I guess.

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Soon after what you see here, it drops down real fast.

Most of the day was uneventful.  I didn’t see many people other than bikers that I can recall.  I was getting bored as I stated earlier and I was still tired.  I was expecting to have to sleep somewhere once it got dark again to avoid the mindless wandering that’s happened in the past.  I was around 96 miles into the race.

That’s when someone caught up to me.  I soon realized it was Paul Turner, who finished only a couple minutes after me 2 years ago when we both did it unsupported.  He missed out on all the “fun” of last years cold weather.  We soon agreed that staying together to keep each other up talking would be the best decision for both of us.  We were both doing Hrimthurs and just had the goal of finishing in good shape for the 100 mile race we had in just over 2 weeks time.  While we could’ve run many times, it just seemed foolish.  Even though we only had around 35 miles left in this race, it felt to us that we weren’t even half way through a 235 mile race.  With that mindset, we could keep ourselves from unnecessarily doing something dumb, or at least we hoped.

If you remember from previous reports on this race, this is the section that the hills really kick into high gear.  It’s about 10 miles of never ending hills.  It was so much easier when there was someone to talk to and race down the hills.  Sometimes I’d glide further and sometimes he’d glide further.  Imagine two 13 year olds going sledding.  That’s pretty much what it was like.  We’d occasionally almost run into each other.  We’d try going down different ways.  It made what is usually the suckiest part of the race almost fun.  Last year I could only slide down I think 3 of these probably 80 hills since it was so cold and the snow sucked so bad.  What a difference!

There are 2 areas of this area that I was looking forward to this year due to the snow being so fast.  1 is a section that if you get enough speed you can go down 3 separate hills without getting off your sled, or at least I’m convinced that it’s possible.  It requires perfect turning without losing speed.  I almost made it this year but couldn’t quite make it.  I wasted too much energy on the turn.  The other area is the last long downhill before the last aid station.  It’s not steep at all but I think about a half mile long.  It was awesome just hanging out on the sled going for a long slow ride.

There are a couple more miles until the Surly aid station.  We got there at 7:30PM.  I was only 20 minutes behind last year now since I could slide down hills this year and didn’t have to go slow to not overheat.  We were still awake.  The aid station had a complete different vibe than last year.  It was around 16 degrees and no wind.  Compare that to -30 and very windy last year.  Therefore, everyone was pretty much outside instead of in the tent.  There was a big block of snow that they put upright and were currently showing the movie “Tropic Thunder” next to the campfire.  They offered us alcohol (like I need to get more tired), and we were quite certain there was a certain plant being smoked by someone.  Everyone was in a great mood.  We got enough water to finish the race.  We ate some noodles that Paul had among other things.  I think I was planning on changing socks but realized that I had put 2 left socks (injinji) in my pack.  I think I just ended up re-lubing my feet.  I put on another layer of clothes since we were moving slower now and it tends to get cold in the swamps towards the end of the race.  I would’ve loved to stay and watch the entire movie but that would just make us more tired.

They started lighting fireworks off when someone leaves last year and that tradition continued this year.  We were only there around 30 minutes.  Last year I was there longer since I had to get so much prepared for the cold weather.

I think we caught up to 1 or 2 people right before Wakemup Hill.  We made sure to allow time between us going down so we wouldn’t run into each other.  I made it up to 28 MPH this year.  Super fun!  You don’t want to hit someone going that fast.

At the first road crossing, the trail seemed to go with the road.  I didn’t remember ever going along a road before but we were talking so much that it didn’t really register.  After a bit we saw a headlamp coming from the other way.  That’s when we were pretty sure we were going the wrong way.  He said the trail just ended at a ditch so we turned around.  We could see where we went wrong and confirmed it with our phones where the trail was.  Nothing was said about this section being different at the pre-race meeting so we just went on the trail that we knew from every other year.  It sucked pretty bad since it wasn’t groomed.  It was all snowmobile hills (about 18 inch hills every 5 feet) that made it super annoying.  The sled would pull hard going up the hill and then slam into your feet on the way down.  Eventually the trail was groomed again.  I have no idea why the guy said the trail ended since it obviously had to get back here somehow.  Anyway, on we went.

The remainder of the night consisted of trying to think of more things to talk about.  Try talking to someone for over 13 hours straight, especially when you’re tired.  Unless your a 14 year old girl, it’s pretty hard.  I think we even got as desperate as “what is your favorite color”.  I’ve lost track of a lot of the answers.  Little did we know, we’d repeat the same 13 hours at Actif Epica.

We made pretty good time but not excellent.  There are times we wanted to run.  Either from boredom or to thermoregulate.  We stayed the course and kept walking instead, to save our bodies for the next race.  We stopped occasionally for a clothing change, bathroom break, or food break.  I’m positive we ended up saving time by going together and talking instead of going it alone and ending up having to sleep.  We kind of had a goal to finish by 45 hours which is my usual time.

We finally got to the last road crossing.  The last section always seems to take longer.  In the theme of changing things this year, the finish line was moved.  We had to go a little further than before but we also didn’t have such a steep hill at the end.  We finished together just before 4AM for a total time of 44:55.  Despite it being about the same time as I always get, we were 14th instead of my usual 5th.  I’m sure this is due to the conditions being so much faster this year.IMG_20200129_040326We got the Minnesota Nice gear check and then went into the hotel.  There weren’t too many people in there but more than other years.  I picked out a trophy with a different colored arrowhead than my other ones.  I ate, and went to see if I could get into my room early.  I was in luck and my room was open!  Paul was going to use the taxi and go back to his hotel in International Falls.  I’m super grateful that we got to help each other finish this race in great shape to later finish Actif Epica together as well.

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The rest of the story is like other years.  Lots of buffets, sleeping, and talking to other people.  Ed unfortunately didn’t finish this year.  We drove back to International Falls Thursday so I could get my car and dissected the race.

I likely won’t be back next year as I have a work conference I’ll likely go to that is during the same week.  I’ll definitely be back again at some point, hopefully 2022.  I still love this race.  Maybe I’ll even learn how to ski and try it that way.

Here’s the weather during the race.  Trail conditions of course vary from the weather stations but as you can see, it didn’t get as warm as it was supposed to but also didn’t get as cold as it was supposed to.

Actif Epica 166K (104mile) – 2020 Race Report

Actif Epica is the 3rd and final race in the Order of the Hrimthurs series and takes place in Manitoba.  This years race took place on Feb 14-16th.  Good thing my wife and I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day or I might’ve been in trouble.  The race course had a major change this year in that it is now an out and back for all distances, meaning we start and finish in Winnipeg.  The course was changed yet again just 2 days before the race with the addition of 4 miles due to some construction.

After finishing Arrowhead 135 just 16 days before the start of this race, I initially wasn’t sure what distance I would do.  You can do the shorter 72 mile distance and still be admitted to the Order of the Hrimthurs since that is the original distance when they started the series.  I had signed up for the 100 mile distance initially so my plan was to just see how I recovered from Arrowhead and decide the week before the race if I’d drop down or not.  In the end I felt good enough to go for the longer distance.  I knew it would bother me later in life seeing that asterisk next to my race results saying I did the shorter distance.  In reality there will probably be some other kind of asterisk next to it since the course was changed this year and then changed again to be 4 miles longer.  I knew that at some point during the race I would be mad for doing the longer distance but at least I knew that going into it.

My training for this race consisted of relaxing, LOTS of stretching, making a packing list, and worrying about if I could fit everything into a backpack.  Yep, I forgot to  mention that this race is almost entirely on roads, sidewalks, paths with no snow.  Therefore you need to carry everything on your back somehow.  I don’t have a nice large running pack so I just used my 35L Atmos hiking backpack.  It’s heavier and not nice to run in but I knew I really wouldn’t be running much anyway having just done 2 races before this.  On fresh legs though this would be a fast race if you could pack light.

The gear requirements aren’t horrible but in reality you still need to bring what’s needed for the race.  This year was going to be windy and cold.  Much colder than the last 2 races this season.  So I needed to bring a lot of clothes and gear to make sure I’d make it to the end while moving slow and not making much heat.  I basically brought everything to Canada including a sled in my car and decided to make final decisions there as to what I’d carry.

Mandatory gear chart 2020 – Sheet1

Like I said earlier, the course had a couple changes just 2 days before the race.  I had already made all my distance sheets and time estimates, etc so now they weren’t accurate anymore.  I didn’t have time to make new ones so I just had to add about 90 minutes of time to what I was planning.  I still didn’t know the final cutoff time for the race at that point but knew it was in the morning.  Finally Thursday at 6AM they published the cue sheets which have the written directions of the course and the cutoff times.  I had the GPS track the day before but you need both for the race.  I quick printed them off, laminated them, and put them on a carabiner so I’d have quick access to them during the race.

AE2020 CP Cut-Off Times – Sheet1

The finish line cutoff was 9AM Sunday!  That’s only 37 hours for a 104 mile winter ultra.  While that might seem like a lot, especially for a flat course, in the winter it’s not.  Oh, and more importantly, this race starts at 8PM so you’ll for sure want to sleep during the race but due to the short time cutoff you won’t be able to.  Plan on staying up for 50 hours without sleep if you want to do this race.  No, that’s not hyperbole.  This race really seems to be geared toward bikers (it likely is a great race for bikers) who start the next morning.

I drove up Thursday night to Winnipeg.  It’s always interesting explaining to people what a winter ultramarathon is.  It wasn’t any easier to explain to the border agent getting into Canada.  I assured him I wasn’t bringing any weapons into Canada which really seems to be the only thing they care about going into Canada.  I stopped by a bar along the race course that I was planning on stopping at the first night to get water since there wasn’t supposed to be any water for the first 33 miles of the race.  I of course had to get some poutine.IMG_20200213_202055

I made it to my Airbnb which was super cheap due to the exchange rate.  Basically everything was 25% off in Canada during my stay due to the strong dollar.  I brought everything in, called home, and went to bed with the goal of sleeping for as long as possible.

The next morning I woke up about 7:30AM.  I wanted to drive some of the course to make sure it was as I thought it’d be.  The wind was about 35mph so snow was blowing everywhere.  It was below zero but was supposed to warm up during the day with the South wind.  I drove past kids getting on to a bus at 8:30AM which seemed weird.  Weirder still was all the concrete being poured at construction sites.  They must use some very hot water to keep that stuff from freezing.  Let’s just say that winter is definitely not the season to go and visit Winnipeg.  I’m assuming the summer is much nicer.

The course was indeed just gravel and dirt roads.  It was white out conditions so it was kind of hard to drive the course.  I took a photo to show how little I could see.  When I looked at the photo, I could see the road really well.  That was weird.  I put on my polarized sunglasses to see if that was the difference.  Nope, still couldn’t see the road.  Somehow the camera on my phone got rid of all the whiteoutness (yep made that word up).  I then started to drive while just looking at my phone.  It was so easy to see the road but felt so weird to be just looking at this small screen.  I had never heard of this effect before but I’m glad I know it now.IMG_20200214_093508

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In real life I could only see a generalized darker area that I knew was the road and not the ditch.  It looks much easier with the phone.

What’s weird is I never saw any drifts anywhere.  Even in the very few areas with trees, I didn’t see huge 10 foot drifts like I would at home with this kind of constant wind.  My only guess is that the trees don’t slow the wind down enough for it to drop snow into drifts.  I certainly now knew that pulling a sled was out of the question.

For people unfamiliar with the Red River Valley, which is what the entire course goes near and crosses several times, I’ll give you some geology.  It’s flat!  Like way flatter than most anyplace.  The Utah salt flats are the only thing I can think of that are flatter and that’s not by much.  It’s flat because the entire area was the bottom of glacier Lake Agassiz.  Here is a great website to explain it a little bit: https://mrbdc.mnsu.edu/minnesota-river-valley-formation .https://mrbdc.mnsu.edu/sites/mrbdc.mnsu.edu/files/public/mnbasin/fact_sheets/graphics/glaciers/lake_agassiz.gif

As you can see, it was gargantuan in size.  It burst it’s banks on the Southern most point and created the River Warren in about 2 weeks times.  We’re talking over a mile wide and about 600 feet deep river.  The Minnesota River runs in the same valley now but is minuscule in size competitively.  Anyway, if you’ve ever driven through any of that area of MN or Canada where the lake was, you know how flat it is.

When the Red River floods, it spreads out a large distance due to this flatness.  Every town is either protected by a dike system or the houses are built up on man made hills.

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House built on man made hill.

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Man made flood-way that goes around Winnipeg.  The locals told us about it’s history during the race.  Oh and this bridge had chunks of concrete missing all along both sides, no they weren’t for drainage.

Here are some more photos I took of the course on Friday morning.

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Fraser Rd which had the first aid station on it.

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The flood way dike.  Looking South with the city of Winnipeg behind me.

I got back to where I was staying and started to really pack my backpack with what I thought I’d need based on the weather forecast.  Basically it would get to about -18F the second night and be really windy and cold on Saturday.  The first night would be pleasant.  So I’d need lots of clothes at the end of the race but not much to start with.

Gear check started at 3PM so I got there first thing to pick up my bib and check in.  Gear check was pretty laid back which was nice.  While this is still a winter ultra, the entire course had cell phone coverage, lots of aid stations, and while you can get lost on a road, you’re still on a road which means civilization is always near by.  This all makes this race much safer than any other winter ultra, hence the limited gear requirements.  Gear check is under the CN Stage at The Forks which is where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet.  It looks like a big dressing room with a wall of mirrors and lights for putting on makeup.  This is also the Start and Finish line of the race.  We got a toque for some swag and I also won a pair of running sunglasses in the raffle.  I need a pair so I hope they work great.

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Gear check.

The required pre-race meeting started at 6:15ish PM at the Forks.  Not being a local, I had a hard time figuring out where to park with the passes and where the meeting was.  I didn’t get towed so I must’ve been in the right spot.  It was basically the open lot parking lot across the street from the Human Rights Museum.  The meeting is in the building that says Forks Marketplace on it and on the second floor.  If you are in the building with lots of little food places, you are in the right place.  It was a pretty short meeting.  We found out we had to go together for the first 1km for safety and then we could start racing.  Ha!  Like us runners would take off like that.  Certainly that was geared towards the bikers.  Similarly, there was a spot over a mile from the end of the race that was the “finish line”, meaning whatever place you were in at that point you had to maintain until the end of the race.  Again, I’m sure it was geared more towards the bikers not going crazy trying to pass each other on crowded narrow trails through town.  In the end it didn’t matter for us runners but it did seem weird to finish a race almost 20 minutes after you passed the “finish line”.  The turn around location for us 104 mile runners was a stuffed animal tied to a pole along a river and we’d have to take something from there to prove we were there.  It ended up being a kit kat bar.

After the meeting I talked with fellow Hrimthur runners about the “fun” that was about to begin.  I had by far the biggest pack.  Some volunteer made the often heard comment “You pack your insecurities”.  Well considering in 3 of my 6 winter ultras up to this point, I had on everything that I packed at some point in the race, he was wrong.  I knew I’d need almost everything I had.  Plus we weren’t really sure if we were allowed to wear your emergency clothes during the race.  Some people’s emergency clothes were a joke in my opinion and would do little to keep you warm.  Basically they just had another shirt and tights.  I went back to my car to get a little food and make one more pack adjustment to get the center of gravity much lower.  My pack weighed almost 21 pounds at the start.  With a lighter backpack and warmer year, it could be 5 pounds lighter at least.

Before I knew it, it was almost race time and I had to hurry to the stage for the race start.  The start was like many ultras in that it was just heading out the door and saying “go”.

There were 8 of us that started.  We were all talking about where we were from and who was going for Hrimthurs.  Paul and I had spent 13 hours talking at the end of Arrowhead so we knew each other pretty well already.  A couple others I knew just of their name.  We got across the busy road at the 1km spot and we were off.  Not.  We just kept going together for probably a good 4 miles before anyone took off.  We ran a bit here and there but it really sucked with a 20 pound pack on tired legs.  We walked over 4 miles an hour which was plenty fast.  I would’ve preferred going a touch slower but I wanted to stay with the group since there are a lot of turns in the 14 miles or so of town.

I’ll just say here that you should plan on taking a wrong turn somewhere during the race.  Even the local Winnipeg guys took the wrong turn a couple times.  The ideal would be what Patty had which was an app that just told you where to turn from her phone in her pocket.  That way you didn’t have to dig stuff out all the time to see where you were and read where to turn.  It gets hard to read small font in the dark when you haven’t slept for over 40 hours as well on the second night.  I only got lost a couple times and none were horrible.  One guy ended up quitting after a wrong turn because he couldn’t handle it mentally from what I heard.  That sucks.  Going 70 miles and then quitting.  I understand it though, I was pissed before the race about the extra 4 miles, it would be tough adding a couple more on your own mistake.  Being an out and back helped some too as things would often look familiar.  The problem was when it DIDN’T look familiar, then I’d worry I made a wrong turn.

Anyway, a bit later, 2 more people took off leaving the 5 of us going together.  We’d often pair up and have conversations.  Then switch positions and talk to someone else.  I was surprised how few people we saw out and about since it was Valentine’s Day and they do celebrate that in Canada.  Perhaps they don’t like to take walks in the winter.  I never saw a single person walking on any of the sidewalks or paths through town.  Not even to walk a dog.  There were  a few people when we went past the U of M campus.  I guess it was pretty late at night though.

We got to the bar at mile 14 but I had water so I kept on going.  Plus we were told at the meeting that there would likely be water at the first aid station but it wasn’t guaranteed.  Soon after is where you get out of town and the trees.  Now the full wind could be felt although it was very little by this point at night.  Still very pleasant and I still had on light gloves and no wind protection layers on.

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Probably my favorite picture of the race.  The 5 of us at some point still in the “town” section.  I’m in the back with the triangle reflector.

Because of the course change, the way to the first aid station was turned into an out and back spur.  So we were doing an out and back spur on an out and back race.  Things often felt so pointless.  Whoever made the Crow Wing Trail (which is what we were basically following) didn’t like to take the shortest path to anything!  Here is a general overview map to get an idea of what I mean.course

We actually took a different path to Crystal Spring from Niverville but came back on the path you see.  The point is you can see many roads that would cut a great distance off if your goal was simply to get from The Forks to Crystal Spring.  You can find the actual GPS track on the Actif Epica website.

The first aid station was almost 19 miles into the race and called Fraser Rd.  There was a porta-potty, fire, and shed that had some snacks and some Coke.  I had a can and I think some chips.  I loaded up with some more water and put on my semi-wind proof jacket on.  I think I got warmer gloves as well.  We would now be going into the wind for the next 14 miles to the St. Adolphe curling club.  Canada seems to have curling clubs like we have bowling alleys.

We got there at 1AM and left 10 minutes later.  We went back the way we came due to the construction and made the turn South on the bridge across the flood-way.  The couple guys that were ahead of us before, all of a sudden came up behind us after the bridge across the flood-way.  They had not taken the turn and probably added a mile or more to their race.  Now we were 7 strong again for a time.

The road sections weren’t bad.  We could kind of turn our brains off as you basically would go for miles before a turn and then miles until the next turn.  My shoulders didn’t hurt as much anymore.  They hurt like crazy for the first 6 hours but then just got used to it I guess.  I normally thermoregulate by running when cold and walking when getting hot.  With the backpack though, that wasn’t much of an option.  It just hurt too much on my feet and back to run.

We got to the curling club at 5:23AM  Everyone but the leader was still there when Chad and I got there.  I checked on my feet and added some more Vaseline since I could feel a couple hot spots starting.  I also ate a cheeseburger a volunteer had and reloaded my water.  I didn’t need much as the next aid station was only 7 miles away.  I spent 30 minutes here which is about what I expected.  Chad, Patty, Simone, and I left together at 5:53AM.Screenshot_2020-02-23 Tweets with replies by Actif Epica ( ActifEpica) Twitter(1)

I’ll say here that the volunteers at this race were excellent.  Most went far above and beyond what was needed.  I’ll be so bold as to say you probably could’ve gotten one of them to wipe your butt if need be.  Gross I know, but I think it gets my point across.  I think it was either at St. Adolphe or for sure by Niverville that I first experienced a volunteer coming up to me to take off my pack.  The first time seemed kind of weird, like why are you invading my space to help me do something I can handle myself.  That changed real fast though.  By Crystal Springs, I couldn’t wait for a volunteer to undress me.  In my head I was like “Oh yeah, take it off.”  At least I hope I never said that out loud.  It felt so good to get that pack off the second you walk into an aid station and not have to fumble with it yourself!

The road South to Niverville seemed to take forever but we got there in 2 hours.  The sun came up during this time.  I was still tired even with the sun so I took my first 100mg of caffeine.  I hadn’t had any caffeine since Arrowhead and I slept as much as possible in the weeks leading up to the race to help my chances of staying awake for the entire race.  While initially I had planned on sleeping a little bit as some point, it was clear that there wasn’t going to be any time to sleep once they added the 4 miles and didn’t add any time for it.

The aid station was the Niverville Hockey Arena.  They had the best perogies I’ve ever had at this aid station.  They topped them with sour cream, cheese, and bacon.  I think I had 8 of them.  I was here 25 minutes.  It would’ve been shorter if not for the awesome food.

We left at 8:23AM and it was now getting windy.  The temperature was already dropping but it would continue to drop throughout the day with a strong mostly West wind.  We had gone 40 miles and had about 9.5 miles to Crystal Springs.  While it was nice to have the sun out, the wind sucked.  I put on my wind jacket and more wind proof gloves.  We still banded together for the most part but we talked less now.  It was hard to hear with the wind anyway.  We tried to help a volunteer get his van out of snowdrift on one of the roads but he was really stuck.

This is where you start going on actual dirt roads.  I’m talking heavy black field road dirt.  I was all of a sudden very glad it was cold.  This stuff would stick to your shoes like crazy if it was near freezing with the sunshine.  There were miles of it.  The first couple bikers passed us in this section.  With a tail wind in spots they were probably going over 20mph at times.  The last section going West into the wind by Crystal Springs was tough.  My hood was making vibrating sounds it was so fast.  I’m guessing around 25mph based on the snow starting to blow and having to lean into the wind just to walk.  Finally I had to run the last mile or so into the aid station to warm up a bit and left them behind.

Or so I thought.  Chad was sitting in a chair when I got there.  I guess he got in a vehicle and quit a couple miles back.  I thought he was right behind me the whole time.  I only spent a couple minutes here.  I was going to do the out and back to the turn around point quick and then spend more time when I got back.  I took off alone.  About the time I was leaving the complex, the first place runner was coming back.

The out and back was almost 6.5 miles long along a river.  It wasn’t as fast as the road of course but it wasn’t too bad.  I got lost once while getting to the river but it wasn’t too far.  I saw the other 2 runners still ahead of me when they were going back.  It was easily the prettiest portion of the race.  I got my kit kat bar and turned around.  Now the main pack of bikers were coming slowly.  The snow was slowing them down significantly.

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Views of the river.

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I returned to the Crystal Springs aid station at 1:30PM, just over 2 hours after I left.  I took some time here to eat, pop my heel blisters that formed from all this walking, change socks, charge my watch and headlamp, and get water.  All in 30 minutes with the help of the awesome volunteers.  In fact I was catching up to the runners in front of me, not because I moved faster but because I didn’t spend as much time at the aid stations.

If I thought the wind was bad before, it was worse now.  Full on straight into the wind for long sections.  The temperature was also dropping.  It was probably around 10 degrees at most.  With the windchill it was probably -20F.  I wished I had put my wind pants on and almost turned back to put them on.  I didn’t though and just kept on going.  I put on my face protection bands I made this year and they worked well.  I basically just kept my head down and looked up every once and a while to make sure I hadn’t somehow missed a turn.  They always took much longer to get to than I wanted.

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This isn’t me but it shows what it was like Saturday afternoon. Strong NW wind.

There is this weird area on the way back to Niverville (remember we go a different way) that has the road take these 90 degree turns and then a random slight turn onto an unused field road or old trail.  The 2 guys in front of me missed the turn.  I tried to get their attention by yelling and using my whistle but they couldn’t hear me since I was yelling into the wind and they were  a ways ahead of me.  Eventually they figured it out and started coming back.  Just like that I was somehow in 3rd place.

This angled trail section was almost 2 miles of post holing straight into the wind.  Every once and awhile the drift would be hard enough to walk on for a step or 2.  Just enough to somehow make it worse than just post holing the entire way.  I tried to just think to myself “light as a feather” as if that would somehow not make me sink.  I pretended it worked.

Finally we got to some trees and then went with the wind into Niverville.  This was again a long boring road.  There was one place that had a bunch of corn spilled from harvest time.  In the months since, not a single animal had bothered to eat it.  Apparently no deer, birds, mice, etc live in the area.  Once in town the rest of the race would be on roads I’ve already traveled.

I got to the aid station just as it was getting dark at 6PM.  While I would’ve loved to sleep here, there was no time.  I spent 45 minutes getting a bunch of stuff done.  I basically was getting ready to go the entire 36 miles straight through if need be without stopping.  I ate a bunch more perogies, added layers of clothes, got my headlamp out, charged my watch, changed my socks one more time, and did a lot of math about my chances of finishing the race in time.  There was little room for error.  14 hours seems like a long time to go 35 miles.  When you’ve already gone about 70 miles and haven’t slept for 36 hours already, it’s not.  There was a real likelihood my speed would drop below 3mph.  Nothing to do but try.  I left with Paul.  We would essentially do a repeat of Arrowhead and finish the last 13 hours together keeping each other awake.  I’ll quickly add that I was happy I brought all the clothes I did.  I know Paul had to lend someone some mittens since they hadn’t brought any.  It was getting much colder now but the wind was subsiding at the same time.

We were going pretty slow it seemed to get to St. Adolphe.  We got lost trying to find the dike we were supposed to take to the curling club.  It was so frustrating.  We saw the runner in front of us on a dike that ended up being the wrong one.  He was long gone by the time we realized it was the wrong one, he ended up quitting.  We could see the curling club in the distance but couldn’t find the right path.  The GPS made it seem like we were right there.  Finally we figured it out after going through some deep snow and got to the aid station at 9:20PM.  Paul and I didn’t need anything but water as it had only been 7 miles.  There was some confusion I think as to who we were, likely because they were expecting the lost guy instead of us.  We were only here 5 minutes.

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Me in blue jacket getting water.

This section into town was cold and boring.  I took more caffeine and it was working.  While I was tired, I wasn’t swerving all over the place or hallucinating.  Paul was worse off so we tried to keep talking.  I think after these 2 races we could do well in a gameshow where you have to know stuff about the other person.  While it wasn’t all that windy, it was definitely colder so any wind felt bad. I was close to having to put on my emergency clothes but we didn’t know if we’d get disqualified so I really didn’t want to.  There were race cars (cars involved with the race) almost constantly now passing us or meeting us at most turns.  I asked one of them what the temperature was and he said whatever being the equivalent of -18F degrees which was already colder than they had forecast he said.  The coldest the windchill got was probably around -35F since it doesn’t take much wind at all to get to that.  Running into a slight breeze will get you there easy.  It was about 1AM.  The wind had slightly shifted to the Southwest now.  It was in our face but I was hoping that meant a warmer air mass was moving in and it would not get any colder.  I ended up being right.

It was easier to stay awake in town due to all the turns and distractions.  With all the trees now, it also felt warmer.  We no longer were worried about having to put on our emergency layer.  The women passed us just in town.  They were definitely moving faster than us.  More bikers were finally passing us as well.  I thought they would’ve passed us hours ago.  We got to the U of M aid station at 3:37AM.  Just over 10 miles left in the race.  We didn’t have much to do here.  I wanted some new warm water and changed out my wet face coverings for my last fresh one.  We also went to the bathroom which was of course down a hall and stairs.  Ugh, stairs suck!  We hit the bathroom stalls and almost simultaneously said we could fall asleep on the toilet in a second.  It was so comfy and quiet.  We stayed awake and left the aid station after getting our packs on one last time at 3:58AM.  5 hours to go 10 miles.  The women were still drying off some clothes so we ended up leaving before them.

The next 8 miles seemed to go fairly quickly in my head.  We were doing well not to get lost.  There was a race car seemingly at every turn.  He’d almost always ask our numbers, as if he couldn’t tell we were the same 2 people he talked to 5 minutes ago.  It was like we had our own personal stalker.  I’m sure it was to make sure we didn’t cut the course or something but it was kind of funny.  He was seriously at every turn for about 4 miles.   Finally we got to the trail along the river section.  The bike tire tracks made it pretty easy to tell where to go from now on.

We kind of felt like running, I think mostly just to get the race done with.  We ran probably over a mile.  Now I was nice and warm the rest of the race even though it was still -15F.  We got to the “finish line” area where we weren’t supposed to pass anyone anymore.  I think it was still almost 2 miles to the actual end of the race though.  We started seeing more race volunteers as we go to the busy road, bridge and Forks complex.  There was either 1 or 2 other races going on as we got closer to the Forks.  I think it was a half marathon and maybe a 10k.  Runners were constantly coming at us from the other direction.  Everything seemed different to me than it was 35 hours ago when we left this area.  Eventually we could see the CN stage and made our way into the true finish line / dressing room.

We finished at 7:32AM Sunday so 35:32 for the race.  We were third.  The trophies for us last 4 runners were waiting on the table along with a couple people.  It was awesome to get our pack off one last time!  We got our pictures taken and waited for Patty and Simone to finish a few minutes later.

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The bigger trophy is the Order of the Hrimthurs.  I also got a buckle.

We talked for a bit while trying to stay awake.  Simone still didn’t seem to understand what the Order of the Hrimthurs was that she just got.  I think it was mostly just a language barrier thing but we found it kind of humorous since at the beginning of the race she made it seem like she had no idea about it.  Like it was the first time she had ever heard about it, and perhaps it was.

We headed over to the Marketplace to eat some breakfast.  I just ordered a bunch to use up my Canadian money.  It was good but I couldn’t finish it all.IMG_20200216_083329

I took a shower at Paul’s hotel and then took off for home.  I always bring an inflatable mattress and blankets along.  So I sleep in the car until I wake up, usually about an hour.  Then drive until I’m tired, and go back to sleep again.  I slept twice before I got to the border.  There was a long line of cars.  I somehow picked the slowest line.  Once I finally got to the agent, I found out why.  He was super chatty.  He wanted to know way more details than necessary to find out what I was doing in Canada.  Like how long I’ve been doing winter ultras, how we ate, how we slept (we don’t), what we wore.  I don’t even think he asked me a single question about if I was bringing anything into the country.  Finally I got back into the USA.  It was supposed to snow overnight so I continued my sleep/drive cycle until I got home around 1AM.  It ended up not snowing until noon but we got 10 inches so I was glad I got home.

Looking back I’m very glad I did the longer distance.  I was indeed cursing myself several times during the race about that decision.  Mostly when I realized how close to the cutoff I’d be, and also when my flexor tendon hurt so bad I essentially couldn’t run the last 35 miles.  I hope they change the start or cutoff time some for the long distance run.  I didn’t get to sleep until about 51 hours and that’s crazy long.  On the plus side, my plan of getting lots of sleep and not having any caffeine before the race seemed to work.  I don’t think I have any desire to do this race again anytime soon.  It would be a great starter race for a bike though I think.

Here is a great video of the race with us 104 mile runners.  I couldn’t embed the video so you might have to watch it on Facebook itself, sorry but it’s worth it.

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I put screws in my shoes to help with the icy roads and sidewalks.  They were pretty worn down by the finish.  Enough that they didn’t do that well on pure ice anymore.IMG_20200217_172549IMG_20200217_172534

In the 3 races combined I covered 400 race miles in 7 weeks.  That’s plenty!  Not many people have finished the Order of the Hrimthurs on foot.  I think 11 different individuals have finished in the past seasons total.  I’m pretty sure 5 of us over the different distances finished it this season.  I’m actually feeling pretty good already other than my shoulders.  Now it’s time to loose weight again for the rest of the season.

The end.

Tuscobia 160 – 2019 Race Report

So I could almost title this post “How to go from first to last” but I wasn’t quite last place at the end.  I did finish so there’s that I guess.  There’s a song by AJR called “100 Bad Days”.  Basically the premise is that bad days make for great stories.  I texted my wife on Sunday morning that this race should count for 3 Bad Days and that I’d be really interesting at parties.

It sucked!

We have a saying in ultrarunning that it’s type 2 fun.  If I haven’t described it before, this is what that means.  It’s not that fun during the event, but afterwards, you remember it as being fun, fulfilling, awesome, etc.  In reality it was fun, you were just so tired, hurt, etc that you didn’t always see in the present how fun it was.  I do have to say that there is almost always at least one moment, where in the present, I am overwhelmingly happy.  I mean I’m in nature in some of the most beautiful places in the world, how can you not take that in and be happy?  Overall though, the memories are much more fun than you remember it during the event if that makes sense.  If not, go run an ultramarathon and you’ll figure it out. (Wife edit- or your wife can go hiking with you and bitch and swear about how hard and sucky it is, then that night say, “That was pretty fun, we should do it again”).

While I did have a little fun the first day of this race, by and large, it doesn’t even qualify as type 2 fun.  It just basically sucked.  I’m glad I finished and I’ll get into that later but I guess what I’m saying is don’t expect this to be a race report that pumps you up to do this race.

So just what is Tuscobia 160 you may ask.  The short answer is it’s the longer version of the Tuscobia 80 mile I did 4 years ago.  It takes place on the Tuscobia Trail in Northern Wisconsin.  It’s an out and back that starts in Rice Lake, goes to Park Falls, and then returns to Rice Lake.  It takes place usually between Christmas and New Years.  This year it took place Dec 27-29.  You can go on foot like I always do, or go by ski or bike.  None were great options this year.

My main reason for doing the full 160 was I’m going for the Order of the Hrimthurs this year.  It where you complete the Tuscobia 160, Arrowhead 135, and either the 75ish, or 100 mile race at Actif Epica.  I think Hrimthur is an giant made of ice in Nordic mythology.  Anyway have fun guessing how to pronounce it and then google it to see how wrong you were.

The weather was forecast to be in the 20s on Friday and warm up throughout the day.  Saturday around noon was when the rain was supposed to start.  That’s right, rain!  I never thought I’d need to bring a rain coat to a winter race, but when 1 inch is forecast, that’s what you do.  The trail was probably the best shape it’s been in years at the start.  There was about 8 inches of nice hard pack in most places since they had a lot of snow early in December.

My plan was to try to run this race quickly.  Not the smartest thing when you’re doing 3 long races in 7 weeks but the trail is flat and there is always an outside chance I could win the thing.  The chance of that wasn’t great this year since there were 5 other people better than me signed up but winning this race has the added benefit of being entered into a drawing for a different winter race I can’t really justify the cost of.  So logic be damned I was going to at least try, but at the very least not ruin my chances of finishing.

Since the rain wouldn’t start until Saturday, I also wanted to get as far as possible before the poor weather hit.  That way there’d be less miles of suckiness.  I had a motel reserved in Winter at about the 110 mile point to sleep before the second night hit.  I thought I should be able to make it there without sleep based on previous races and timing.

I made a different sled for this race.  It’s a little smaller and lighter since I don’t need as much stuff for this race.  It worked out well but I don’t know if it really made me any faster or anything.  The more I modify and make new ones, it seems like it doesn’t make much difference as far as drag goes.

I got my sled, pack, and gear down to 20.5 pounds.  As you can see even with the warm temperatures, I didn’t skimp too much.  Wet clothes are worthless clothes and with an inch of rain, I was sure to get some wet clothes so I needed to bring stuff to change into.  With food and water it weighed 27 pounds.

I still put on my face tape.  I wasn’t worried about frostbite or anything but I figured it would keep any windburn away since it was supposed to be somewhat windy the first day.  I also put screws on my shoes.  Not so much because I thought I’d need them on the trail, but because everywhere else was ice.  I almost fell twice the day before and I didn’t feel like getting hurt the morning of the race just walking to the race.

The race started at 6AM Friday.  Too early for me but it is what it is.  I didn’t sleep well either.

Basically everyone walked from the beginning of the race.  I had to run.  The trail was almost like ice and I couldn’t even tell I had a sled behind me.  I felt great.  At 4 miles is the turn onto the Tuscobia trail from the Wild Rivers Trail that leaves Rice Lake.  Luckily there was a porta potty there for me to use.  That slowed me down but I eventually caught back up to first place.  Mostly I was just running what felt good.  I wasn’t worried about sweating and such since it was so warm, I’d sweat no matter what.

I was the first to Brill and the first to Birchwood.  Basically I was 45 minutes ahead of schedule and running 11 minute miles.  I needed to stop at the bathroom again in Birchwood.  I also got water there since I was going through it faster than I thought I would due to all the mouth breathing and sweating.  I would never see first place again.

I still ran on and off, but wasn’t feeling it that much anymore.  I stopped in Radisson for water.  The trail was still in excellent condition.  I got to the first aid station (outside Ojibwa mile 45) I think around quarter to 5pm.  It was still light out which was my goal.  I was now in 3rd place.  Not completely out of it but not really in it anymore either.  The Sawyer County Gazette reporter was there and took my picture.  She interviewed me while I was changing socks and eating at the aid station but none of the interview made the article.  The photo did.  I guess I’m more of a photogenic kind of guy? 🙂

I managed my time well there and got moving.  I stopped in Winter for some more food and water before the long haul to the turn around in Park Falls.  Nothing would be open the rest of the night so even though I stopped less than 2 hours ago, I had to stop there.  I asked the clerk if she worked tomorrow night and she said “yes”.  I said “I’ll see you tomorrow night then when I come back through.”

Really I did a pretty poor job of planning out my stops this year.  I should’ve just taken more water along so I didn’t have to stop so much.  I had room for it but just didn’t think I’d use so much that first day.  Having to stop twice for the bathroom didn’t help anything either.

It was starting to get colder.  The sky was clear so I was pretty sure it would get colder than the 20 degrees forecast and it did but only to around 16 degrees.  Despite this, I had to keep putting layers on.  By the time I got to Loretto I was dressed for -10 weather.  This was kind of worrisome.  I was still moving at a decent pace.  Not as fast as I wanted but not slow either.  I was pretty sure I was trying to spike a fever.  The family had snotty noses 3 days before the race started.  When the 1 racer that passed me this section hiked by without a hat on, I knew there was something wrong.  I was getting super tired as well and knew I’d have to sleep some at the turn around in Park Falls.  Basically all hopes of finishing according to plan were gone.  By the way, “according to plan” finishing time still would’ve only gotten me 3rd place in the end.  Lots of great runners this year.

I got to Park Falls at 3:23 AM.  This was pretty much what I planned on.  Since I ran the first leg faster than I thought, even with the slow down after Ojibwa I still got there early.  In fact I finished this first 80 miles 90 minutes faster than I ran the 80 mile race 4 years ago!  That’s crazy to me.  I hadn’t planned on stopping for more than food and sock change but since I was so tired I knew I’d be here longer.  I ended up taking almost 2 hours to get out of there with just 1 hour of that being sleep.

I was 5th by the time I left.  And so began the long horrible hike to Winter.  The sleep did little to energize me.  In fact by the time I got out of Park Falls I was already tired.  There is a nice long slight downhill from town I planned on running but couldn’t.  Not just because I was tired, but because of the pain.  I had horrible cramping pain right behind my right knee similar to Volstate.  Only there I had lots of time to work on it and I wasn’t pulling a sled.  It spread to my calf.  It hurt a lot.  Nothing helped.  Going slow, fast, running, stretching, stopping, contracting, massage.  Nothing.  NSAIDs did nothing.  Of course everyone always has their cure for cramps and they’re all garbage.  They’re caused by muscle trauma and after 80 miles of snow, that’s what I had.

Eventually I figured out that walking a certain way and shuffling my right foot as I walked at least made it bearable.  Of course this meant something else would end up hurting because of the compensating I had to do.  It ended up being my left hip.  So now I was waddling like an old person with some good war stories.

The sunrise did nothing to help my spirits.  It made it worse knowing the rain would start soon and the 80 mile racers would start to pass me.  There are few things that make me feel worse than shorter distance runners passing me when I feel like absolute garbage saying things like “good job” or “looking good”.  Really?  The guy waddling and shuffling around at 3 miles per hour looks good?

The obvious call was to quit.  Only the first chance to quit was still hours away.  Oh yeah, and I’m doing that Hrimthurs thing so I really can’t quit.  I wouldn’t allow myself to do that.  I had plenty of time.  My “sprint” to the turn around gave me plenty.  Would walking the first half have prevented this?  I don’t know.  Probably.  But perhaps it was just a bug that was causing the issues with thermal regulation and the cramping as well.  It didn’t matter.

I had been listening to music the entire race basically since no one was ever around me save that 10 minutes I spent with the hiker that passed me near Park Falls.  Nothing helped to take my mind off the pain.  I just had to get to Winter and hope that the sleep would help.

It was sprinkling and warm.  There were still snowmobilers out on the trail even in the rain.  I’ve done that before and it sucks because you can’t see anything with a helmet on.  There were lots of snowmobiles on Friday too since the weather and trail were so nice.  With the slush forming on top of the trail, the snowmobiles completely trashed any nice surface that remained.

Finally I got to Winter.  I don’t even want to go look up on my GPS when I got there.  It was still a little light out so I’m thinking 5pm.  Basically 5 hours later than planned.  I got a bunch of food at the same gas station as yesterday and walked to the motel next door.  There was a fan so I hung everything up to dry and turned it on.  I ate well and then went to bed.  I wanted to sleep for about 2.5 hours but only got a good hour of sleep before waking up.  I was still super tired but I kept having these horrible dreams about the motel starting on fire or my feet swelling to giant size.  I couldn’t get them out of my head.  I knew they were just dreams and not real but it didn’t seem to matter.  I just got up and prepared to leave.  I knew it wasn’t enough sleep but I didn’t know what to do.  I started freaking out about time as well which made no sense at all.  I had plenty of time and sleeping here would be easier than sleeping somewhere else later.IMG_20191228_184828

I was frustrated with my mind but the one awesome thing about this stop was…the cramping was gone and I could finally stretch the muscles out.  There was only around 50 miles left.  I took the screws out of my shoes since I wanted to try my snowshoes and see if that would help on the soft trail.  The screws would ruin the snowshoes if I left them in.  I think I left winter around 7:15pm.  I filled up with water so that I wouldn’t need to stop at the aid station just 5 or so miles away besides to check in and grab some food.

It was now full on raining outside.  So much for putting on nice dry shoes and socks, etc.  I knew I couldn’t keep having gloves getting wet or I’d have nothing left for after the rain stopped.  I took the bags from the gas station and put my hands through them as a sort of raincoat for my gloves.  Water could still trickle in if I had them down at my side so for the next 12 hours or so I had to keep my hands parallel with the ground while grabbing on to the bags.  Yeah, bring on any Survivor challenge you’ve got Jeff Probst.  I had some pretty cool hand cramps by Sunday.

There were lots of people now.  Some were 160 milers and some 80 milers.  All were moving faster than me.  The snowshoes worked fine but the trail looked hard enough that I wasn’t sure if I needed them.  The last 2 miles before the aid station I took them off to see if there was a difference knowing that I could put them back on there if need be.  I could walk fine without them so I never put them on again the remainder of the race.

I was in and out of the aid station in I think 8 minutes.  There were some yummy grilled cheese sandwiches and I talked to friends that quit, otherwise it would’ve been 1 minute.

In Radisson I had to put some more layers on.  The rain wasn’t getting through my raincoat but I needed more insulation than just shirts between it and my skin.  So I put on a coat and also a poncho underneath the raincoat.  I know that seems weird but ponchos go down almost to my knees so it kept the rain from running down my legs or blowing onto them since it was pretty gusty as well.  My gloves were for the most part dry enough.  I was so tired but I had to keep moving.  It seems like I wasted a huge amount of time here.

Here’s maybe a good spot to tell about the daydreams I had this year.  So usually it’s hallucinations I have when I’m this tired.  While I did see some waterfowl that didn’t exist in the swamps on Sunday, for the most part I didn’t “see” things.  I basically had full on dreams while walking around.  Like conversations in my head with people that weren’t there and I didn’t even see.  Kind of like I was watching a movie but then also not really.  Maybe more of like a phone conversation just without a phone.  Occasionally the person would say something that struck me as odd so I’d recognize that it was a dream and not real but then I’d just keep on going along with the dream.  This basically continued until the next day when I slept in Birchwood.  It was kind of weird as I’ve never had that happen before.  Of course I had never hallucinated until Arrowhead a few years ago either.  Remember this is all with music playing the entire time too in my headphones.  I turned it off for a bit to see if that did anything but I just got more tired.

I tried to stay awake with some comedy podcasts and even just tuned into a NPR radio station somewhere.  They talked about people getting head trauma and then waking up with skills they never had before.  Like one guy can play the piano amazingly but had never played the piano before and can’t even read sheet music.  Weird stuff, or maybe just another dream?

Cauderay is the next town and there was supposed to be a bivy spot there.  It was still raining and was getting windier now.  There were people sleeping on picnic tables under a shelter.  It was windy but still better than sleeping in water.  It seemed to take forever to get organized to treat my feet and put on dry socks.  My sleeping bag was completely soaked.  While I had everything else in ziplock bags and even had a tarp over my gear bag, water still soaked in through the bottom of the gear bag.  I thought the bag my sleeping bag was in was waterproof but obviously not enough.  It wasn’t cold really so I just put my sleeping pad in the bivy sack and tried to sleep in there that way.  I’m not really sure if I slept any at all or not.  I think I had 1 or 2 of those same dreams I had while awake so who knows.  I do know that I didn’t feel any better and wasted another hour of time.  To top it off there was a 5 inch deep lake at the road edge I had to cross to continue on the trail so my dry feet were yet again completely soaked.

The sled still pulled fairly easy which I wasn’t sure if it would.  I could tell there was more weight due to all the water but it wasn’t bad.  The roadways were easy to cross since the rain was freezing to the roadways.  They wouldn’t salt them until the next day.

The rest of the night was varying degrees of more suckiness.  It was very rare that I would ever see anyone.  I was staying warm better than I was before so I took that as a good sign considering I was now going barely over 2 miles an hour.  I remember it seeming to take forever to get to the railroad crossing.  Eventually I was with someone for a little while.  It helped to keep me up but I soon lost him.

Closer to sunrise the trail crosses a road and then goes up a pretty steep hill.  This hill was basically a vertical river.  The nice 8 inch pack of snow was a slush field.  It was impossible not to posthole basically every step up this long hill.  My feet were already wet but now they were pretty cold after walking through ice water for a couple minutes.

Around sunrise I was already somewhat waking up but it helped more.  A biker caught up to me just as the race director showed up on a snowmobile.  We talked to him for a little while.  He said there was supposed to be a bad spot similar to the hill I went up closer to the railroad track crossing.  I must have gotten past that point before it finally succumbed to the rain.

Probably a couple miles past that slush fest hill, my feet were telling me they needed to be dried out.  It was daylight now and seemed windier again.  I stopped at a road crossing where there was enough of a snowbank to sit on to change my socks.  If I had time I would’ve just sat there with my shoes off to totally dry out my feet in the wind but I didn’t.  My shoes were still wet but I needed to get some dry socks on to stop the progression of my feet.  My plan was to totally dry my feet out, somewhat dry my shoes out, put on my last pair of socks, sleep, and eat at Birchwood.  That was now my mission.

Eventually I got there.  Still enough time to finish the race but I was almost positive I’d be last by the time I got there.  I couldn’t believe there were still people behind me.  I felt so slow.  It was during this time that I took a couple pictures to share with my wife.IMG_20191229_091412_01IMG_20191229_091234

I had to pick my foot placements very carefully.  I didn’t want to get my shoes completely submerged anymore.  There were plenty of footprints in front of me to show where NOT to step.  Lots of bike wipeouts carved into the snow as well.  The flat areas around Birchwood were pretty much all like the photo above.  You could see the water moving through the snow along the edges of the trail.  I must be lighter than some people since I was able to not punch through almost the entire way.

Finally Birchwood arrived.  Crossing the roads now sucked since all the ice and snow were gone.  I spent an hour I’m sure ordering food, drying shoes with newspaper, airing out my feet, talking to the people who quit and others waiting on the racers they knew.  Someone asked if I was dropping.  No way I came this far to quit.  I would’ve done that over a day ago.

I couldn’t sleep there at the gas station so I went back on the trail trying to look for a picnic table or something.  The trail was in horrible condition with water and slush everywhere.  It was slow going just because you had to meander everywhere and take your time to find where to step.  I wasn’t going to have soaked feet the last 8 hours and get horrible trench foot.

Towards the edge of town there is a display for the Ice Age Trail.  I crossed the road and walked over to it and slept on the bench they had there.  It wasn’t the most comfortable and I’d get woken up occasionally with the traffic noise but I got close to an hour which should be enough to get me to the finish line.  I felt fairly awake now.  Well at least comparatively.

The trail was sloppy with open water in areas until I finally got out of the hill area and into the more swampy area.  I could see someone in front of me and I thought I’d be able to catch him but then I slowed down again.  Not sure why but I just couldn’t keep a decent pace.  I had to make one pit stop and then I never saw him again.  I’m sure a few people passed me while I slept so I was pretty sure I was close to last place.

I saw about 20 mosquitoes, a couple spiders, and some other winged insects.  Yes these were real, and the reason you keep your dog on year round heartworm preventative.  I was too lazy to take a picture of them.  I did see some imaginary waterfowl through the fog of the swamps.  It was really foggy in some areas, kind of pretty really.

It got dark and I still wasn’t done with the race.  I’ve never started a third night in a race other than Volstate.  It’s not something I’d recommend.  Eventually I got to the end of the Tuscobia trail and turned on the Wild Rivers trail again.  Just 4 more miles.  I was awake enough to listen to In Our Time podcasts about Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, the Rapture, and one other one I can’t recall.  That’s how slow I was going.

I saw a headlamp behind me with a half mile or so to go so I finally had a reason to really force myself to run. It hurt but I didn’t care.  I didn’t feel like losing another spot.  I finally finished to the sound of a cowbell at 8:12PM, 62:12 race time.  The cutoff time is 65 hours.  They took my picture at the finish line but I haven’t seen it posted yet.  It was dark anyway so it probably didn’t turn out very well.

Someone did some analysis of the foot division people.  Not to my surprise, I was by far the slowest person the second half of the race.  I still finished 10th male with 3 people behind me.  Only 16/46 starters finished the race in the foot division for 35% finishing rate.  This was by far the largest foot division field that started in race history.  The largest before was 32.

I got inside the building, got my finisher hat, and ate almost an entire pizza, some soup, pop, and other items.  After eating and talking, I loaded up my stuff in the car and slept in there.  Eventually I woke up and drove home.

While I do like this course, I don’t know if I’ll ever do the full 160 again if I finish the Order this year.  It’s a great race for newer winter runners since there are lots more food and water sources.  Plus you can go in any warm business you want.  Lots of road crossings to bail out at as well assuming you have phone coverage.  I have AT&T which basically only had coverage to about 5 miles past Birchwood and then not again until near Park Falls.

Arrowhead always calls me back though.  There are always periods during that race that are so inspiring and beautiful, something you just can’t see any other way.

Tunnel Hill 100 Mile – 2019 Race Report

There isn’t a whole lot to say for this years race.  I did this race in 2017 so that post has a fair amount of information in it.  The only reason for going back this year was to once again get a qualifying time for a different race.  I was hoping to get under 20 hours like I did last time so I’d get the under 20 hour buckle they have now and didn’t have last time.  I needed under 21 hours to qualify.

The main difference this year was that we brought the kids along.  Not ideal of course.  They were difficult for my wife as bored children can be.  They did help once with a shirt change that we had practiced at home.  Not that shaving off 5 seconds of time was that important but I figured they’d feel like part of the crew.  Basically I gave my pack to my wife to fill up with water, then lifted up my shirt and my daughter pulled it off, then my son had the next shirt already opened up so that all I had to do was put my arms in and he’d pull it down on me.  It worked just like we practiced.

Other than that, they basically added 15 minutes of time throughout the race.  Either they were distracting my wife from having ready what was supposed to be ready at that aid station, or I’d have to look at whatever interesting thing they had found or were doing.  My daughter insisted I stop to play with a dog at one aid station.  The hugs I got I certainly didn’t mind taking time for.

My son at one point told me he’d be dead by now if he had run that far.  I found out later though that half the time he complained I was so slow.  I’ll remember that if I ever crew him!

So to start this all off, we drove down the day before the race.  The drive wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been with the kids.  We didn’t get to listen to any of the fun grown up songs that my wife and I like to listen to on long road trips though.  That was a bummer.  While we don’t necessarily enjoy long road trips, my wife and I have a lot of fun when we’re by ourselves driving, especially in areas we’ve never been.  Great conversations and just goofing around to pass the time.  Before blogging, we’d keep journals of our trips and made sure to put some humorous writings in there as well.

Anyway, we drove straight to the packet pick up and supper.  The kids got autographed photos from Camille Herron.  She just broke the world 24 Hour record last month!  I also got one from Pete Kostelnick.  Among other things, he ran from Alaska to Key West a few years ago.  He ran through Mankato on that journey but I wasn’t able to run with him that day unfortunately.

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It was super easy to see this coat during the race so I always knew where my crew was!

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He was a little shy.

The rest of the evening was the regular, getting to the hotel and preparing for the race.  For the first time ever, the children went to sleep in the same bed and were fast asleep in 5 minutes.  Usually it’s an hour of fighting over covers, and annoying each other.

Race morning was uneventful.  We got to the start line about an hour early.  It was in the 20’s so I wore my puffy coat before the race to stay warm.

We started at 7AM.  I just used the same timing sheets and everything from the 2017 race.  I felt pretty good in the beginning so I just kept running comfortably.  It was a little faster than I needed.  I took my coat off almost right away so I probably should’ve just started without it.  This year I didn’t get to see my crew until the second aid station which is Karnak, 10 miles into the race.  I say 10 miles but really I have no clue what the official distance is.  It’s a certified course so you’d think it would be exact but the timing chart says 10.2 miles and the race booklet says 10.9.  Plus I still don’t know how that extra 0.25 mile parking lot run thing we do at the beginning of the race plays into the total distance.  Perhaps it’s just extra we’re running since we don’t do it on the second 50 miles.  Anyway, I got there a little early.

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Before Karnak the first time.  Photo Credit: Jeff Genova

After this aid station you run to the Southern turnaround and right back to the same aid station so I just had them stay here.  I got back to them in 51 minutes and did the shirt change I talked about earlier.  I was off to the next station.

Phil Orndorff
Coming back from the Southern Turnaround. PC: Phil Orndorff

I was feeling good still and talked to a few people briefly.  In general there was much less talking this year.  Partly I think this was due to most 50 mile runners starting 2 hours later.  This helped to keep the number of people down in the first couple aid stations.  I started my run/walk pattern I think after the Heron Pond Lake aid station around 22 miles into the race.  I was really hoping to just maintain a nice 10:30 pace until 50 miles like I did last year at FANS 12 hour race.  That just didn’t happen.  In fact I finished the first 50 miles even slower than the last time I did this race.

I’m not sure if the starting out slightly faster than that pace is the problem or if that little bit of hills at FANS somehow changes things up enough to make that pace feel good.  Perhaps I still was hurting from my last race.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, I’m still only 25 miles into the race.  I was already hurting.  I just felt beat up, like I had already run 60 miles.  Instead of improving my time this year, I was going to be struggling the next 16 hours just to get under 21 hours.  I got to the start/finish line (26.5 miles) and told my wife things weren’t going well.  I started the Northern loop.

I made note of the mile markers as I ran North since I didn’t really trust the mileage chart or my watch that much.  It was still a pretty run this year.  I was worried I’d be bored doing this race a second time but I wasn’t.  I was listening to podcasts and music the rest of the race since I wasn’t talking to anyone anymore.

The kids thought the tunnel was pretty cool.  I know runners liked my daughters jacket since they could see her in the darkness of the tunnel to give them some perspective of distance.  It really is confusing to the senses going from full sun to almost total darkness while at the same time being blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel.

The aid station breaks weren’t as good this year as last time.  Basically my crew was always a station behind when it came to having the right stuff ready.  I blame my kids for this.  They were just too much of a distraction for my wife.  Luckily the aid stations aren’t terribly far apart (1-2 hours) so they’d have whatever it was ready the next time around but by then I already needed something else.  That all started to affect my performance.

It was clear by the 50 mile point that under 20 hours wasn’t going to happen.  I was in a lot of pain.  I’ve never felt that much overall pain.  There was some exhaustion as well and things just didn’t feel right in general.  The aid station mix ups added some time to my race but overwhelmingly, I was just sucking at running.  My walking pace has improved greatly from 2 years ago so that helped to slow the bleeding some.

As I said earlier by 50 miles I had lost my 10 minutes of banked time and was another 10 minutes behind schedule for an under 20 hour finish.  Things only got worse from here.  I never felt nauseous but nothing was appetizing and the foods that usually give me some energy did absolutely nothing for me, even  hours after eating them.  I got my headlamp at the 50 miles spot but it was the wrong one.  Luckily it was still light out so I switched it out at the next aid station.

And so began the long sucky night.  Nothing to report really for most of the rest of the race.  It sucked!  No food helped.  Nothing seemed to help.  I couldn’t afford to just sit for 30 minutes to see if that would help.  Usually the night time is my favorite time of a 100 mile race.  I do better, well at least I feel better.  I of course run slower than the beginning of the race but compared to everyone else, I usually pass people like crazy at night.  I did indeed pass others this night but not many and they were all basically just walking so they were feeling worse than I was.

One interesting thing was that while going North on the North loop, I heard a group of coyotes screaming and howling just as I was crossing a long tressel.  They were very close and it just echoed everywhere since it was kind of a valley there.  Creepy and cool at the same time.

I finally got to the Tunnel Hill aid station for the last time at 18:26 race time.  It’s about 9.5 miles to the finish from here.  Last time I got a nice second wind here and pushed it in to the finish in under 2 hours.  That wasn’t going to happen this time.  Even if I could do it in 2 hours again, that wasn’t even close to getting under 20 hours.  I don’t know if my wife was delusional from being tired or what but she said, “You’ve got 90 minutes.”  I think I even laughed.  Like I was going to run under 10 minute miles at this point!

I just had to be content with finishing under the 21 hours which is what I needed to not have this race be a complete waste of time for me.  My watch finally died so I just had to keep watching the mile markers to know how close I was getting to the end.  The last mile or so I was able to push it a little bit and ended up passing someone.  The next person in front of me finished 20 minutes before me.  If it wasn’t for all the runners going the other direction, I would’ve been alone that entire North loop.

I crossed the finish line in 20:41:47.  Good enough.  It was 3:41AM.  400 started the race and 225 finished.  Probably over 100 people dropped down to the 50 mile distance which is allowed in this race.  That’s why it looks like such a horrible finishing rate.  I placed 44th overall.  While it is a flat and easy course, it isn’t an easy race.  I’ve never hurt so bad at the end of a race.

Of course that being said, I could carry stuff up and down stairs easily 2 days later, which never happens.  I still don’t know why I hurt so bad during the race.  It really makes me rethink my desire to do a 6 day race at some point.  That’s all completely flat too.

Anyway, we went back to the hotel to shower and sleep.  We got up and drove home around 9AM.  I slept on and off on the way home and still slept well that night.  Work the next day went just fine which I was kind of worried about.

I won’t be doing this race again.  It’s just too far of a drive.  Plus having had a better performance on a short loop at FANS makes me think there’s no advantage for me to run this race over that one.  If I still have to get a fast qualifying time in the future, I’ll just have to find another race closer to home or do a timed race.

Surf The Murph 25K – 2019 Pacer Report

This race took place on October 19th, 2019.  I ran the 50 mile version 4 years ago.  My son decided to run the 25K version this year as his first trail race.  It’s really 16.7 miles long which is more like 27 kilometers.  Since he’s still young and didn’t want to run it alone, I went along as his pacer.  It’s not a very difficult race as far as trail races go and a great option as a first race.  Since they don’t make any race vests, etc for children, I got permission to carry water for him.  It’s not that far between aid stations so you could go without carrying anything at all if you wanted to.  With us going so slow I still thought it prudent to bring some.

The race started at 8AM which meant we had to get up early to drive there but that was still better than getting a hotel room the night before.  It also meant our entire race would be during daylight.  He decided he didn’t want to dress up at all even though there is a costume contest.

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Pre-Race Photo

We hung out under the eave of a building to get out of the sprinkling rain before the race.  We didn’t have to wait too long until the start.  We started off running and kept up with most of the people until he wanted to start walking a couple miles into the race.  I taught him a little on how to run downhill.  We’ve gone hiking quite a bit and he was just getting over the falling down while hiking stage so I wasn’t sure how it’d go running downhill.  I’m happy to say he never fell once the entire race!

It wasn’t raining hard enough to put on a poncho but it was cold enough for him to have to put on gloves and arm sleeves.  We hit the first aid station at 2.9 miles into the race.  A couple of the fast 50K runners passed us there.  Alex had a few snacks and then continued on.

The next section of the course is the hilliest section.  I remembered it was close to 4 miles into the race that you hit the biggest hill.  Alex kept asking at every hill if it was the big one.  I kept telling him he’d know it when he got there.  Finally we got to it.  Really, it’s more like 3 hills in 1 since you go up a steep section, then turn a little and go up another and then another.  Finally we got to the top and he realized it really wasn’t all that bad.

As we were getting close to the next aid station at 5.5 miles we heard some people coming up behind us.  We had pretty much been alone by this time since everyone ran away from us.  As their voices got louder, we heard one scream.  I assumed she had slipped but later found out she got scared by another runner passing her.  I introduced Alex to the concept of “making them work for it” meaning making the other racers work to pass you.  Not by blocking the way of course, but by speeding up.  We didn’t really have any reason to try to beat anyone, but honestly I was kind of tired of walking and wanted to run a little.  It worked and he got this smile on his face as he started running to keep them from catching us.

We finally got to the second aid station and I had Alex change his shoes here since we had a drop bag at this aid station.  It had finally stopped sprinkling.  The new shoes had better tread on them and would help him with the mud to come.  I had him eat something and we reloaded with water.  It took a little while at this aid station due to the shoe change and such.

The next couple sections are mostly along and in the prairies with some shorter sections in trees.  It’s not very hilly and I planned on running a fair amount of it with Alex.  We still walked a bunch of it.

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The 2nd to 3rd aid station is the longest section.  Alex was starting to get tired now.  I showed him on the map that we were as far as we could get from the start/finish line so there was nothing to do but keep going.  We got to the 3rd aid station at 9.9 miles.  Over half way done!  There was some running on the road that we did which quickened up our pace.  I started to go in front of him and sang really bad, dumb dad songs.  The only way I would quit was if he caught up to me and slapped my butt.  After a few rounds of that game my butt was getting sore so I stopped.

There were some big muddy areas that we made it through without falling.  We met a woman who recognized me from my blog.  That was pretty cool.  It used to be people would recognize me from showing cows.  Now it’s always from previous races, or my blog.

We ran down the big hill to the 4th aid station at mile 12.8 which is the same aid station as the 2nd one, just from the other side.  The last 4 miles or so, Alex said he wished he could take a break like at the 12 hour race.  I told him this was the spot to take a break if he wanted one.  Now he didn’t, so after a short break for food we continued.

The last section is in the trees again and hilly again.  Here we were getting passed by a lot of runners from other races.  I was expecting this and told him not to be discouraged.  We walked the hills and ran the downhills and flat portions again as best he could.  We talked to a few people along the way.  There is a part where when I did it 4 years ago, we had to go across a log and wet area.  Now the water had risen at least a couple feet and the trail went around that area completely.  It was a pretty spot.  Bryan Cochran got some great photos there that I made a slide show of.

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A short while later, we started catching up to the 2 women that were close to passing us back at aid station #2 that we heard scream.  They must’ve passed us while we were there changing shoes.  Another woman was in between us and them.  We were all going up a long straight hill.  When the woman in between us passed the other 2, Alex said we should try to scare them.  I agreed for several reasons.  1: This is a Halloween based race.  2:  I saw them turn towards us to see the other woman pass them so I assumed they knew we were there.  3:  I didn’t think it would work because of reason #2 and how loud the 2 of us were running together.

I told him we’d have to be quiet and not talk.  He wanted to run up to them and say “Boo”.  I said we’d say “boo” on the count of three with my fingers.  Mind you, we were already running slowly at this point and the women were walking.  When we got about 30 feet away I decided it was close enough.  I made the hand signals and on 2 he started sprinting towards them.  Apparently our plans weren’t the same and by running he meant sprinting.  I starting running faster to keep up with him, but still behind him.  Neither of us had said a word yet.

This is my recollection of what happened next.  Alex full on sprints in between the 2 women without a peep, almost grazing them as he flew past.  They both are startled a bit and slightly jump back while turning towards each other slightly.  In their minds I imagine they are just starting to realize it was just a little boy and not a lion that ran past them and so they start to calm down.  This is just the moment when I got within a couple feet of them and yelled “Boo!”.  Man did one of them scream!

Since they didn’t scream when he went past them, I assumed they did indeed know we were there.  Apparently not.  I immediately apologized a bunch of times.  I think I even threw Alex under the bus and said it was his idea.  What a great dad.  They said they’d been getting startled a bunch of times.  That made me feel a little better.  Alex was like 50 feet ahead already now, so I apologized once more and caught up to him.

It was clear we’d be able to finish under 5 hours if we kept up the pace the last couple miles.  We were averaging just under 18 minute miles.  We walked fast so that we could run the last part in.  We could hear the finish line long before we got there.  He wanted to finish together so we ran it in together once we could see the finish line.  He finished in 4:57:50 for 89/93 finishers.  I don’t know how many started but I assume everyone who did finished the race.

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First Trail Race Finish

I had told him about getting the finishing woodallion branded with the race distance, but they had lost the 25K and 50K brands so he didn’t get to have his branded.  I don’t think he was too disappointed.  He got lots of congratulations from the runners at the finish line that we had talked to along the way.  When he was asked if he would do it again, he said “no”.  I told him everyone says that right after a race and not to make up his mind until next year.

I told him that people were really impressed with him finishing the race.  He just looked at me with his sarcastic “really?” face.  He wasn’t impressed with himself since “it’s not 100 miles” (his words) so he doesn’t understand that it’s a really big deal for his age.  His comment during the race when we were about 5k into it was “a 5k is a baby race”.  Not in a jerk kind of tone, just matter of fact, like running ultras is just a normal thing and we weren’t even doing an ultra today.  I guess that’s what happens when you grow up with an ultrarunner for a dad.

Since we had been up for quite a while, he was tired.  We met a few more people we saw during the race in the parking lot and talked to them.  He laid in the grass for a couple minutes and then he was recharged I guess.  We drove to the aid station to pick up his drop bag.  Well I did, he stayed in the truck.  He said he had a fun “dude day” hanging out with just me.

We ate and then went to his cousins’ house.  I fully expected him to just lay around on the couch there all afternoon, but he was soon jumping on a trampoline and running around.

Once I got home I looked to see how much we actually ran based on the GPS watch data.  We ran about 8.5 miles of the distance and walked the rest.  Basically we ran half the distance but of course not half the time.  That was better than I thought it would be.  I was expecting 6 miles of running going into the race with a finish time of around 5:30.  I don’t plan on ever encouraging him to go faster in a race until he’s a teenager but clearly he could’ve run a lot more of the race if he wanted to based on his running around after the race like he hadn’t just gone almost 17 miles.  He was never breathing hard during the race either.  I think I would’ve had a very difficult time running that far at that age.  There just weren’t those opportunities when I was his age.  I loved to run at that age but no one ever encouraged me to pursue it.  Plus I had never heard of an ultrarunner until I was an adult.

The end.

Barkley Fall Classic – 2019 Race Report

Well I went back to Tennessee to once again torture my body in September.  Mostly I wanted to have a better performance than I did last year, or at least not almost pass out from the heat.  For a refresher of last year, you can go here where I talk much more about the race than I plan on in this report.

The main thing different I did this year was to make sure I was heat trained.  I spent 10 days out of the 14 before the race taking hot baths to get my core temp up after whatever training run I did that day.  I just sat in my bath tub and got my core temp up to at least 101.3 for 40 minutes or so.  That’s right CORE temp.  That’s the only way to get an accurate reading and it’s much safer as well so you don’t overdue it.  Oral temps aren’t accurate for heat training and every research paper on heat training or heat stroke confirms that.  Just make sure to mark that thermometer so no one ever puts it in their mouth by accident!  Really it wasn’t too bad at all.  The first few sessions sucked pretty bad.  By the end I didn’t ever feel light headed or anything anymore.  I would watch episodes of Mysteries of the Abandoned since no one else in my house likes those.  I learned a few interesting things but mostly it just passed the time.

I didn’t get near enough hill training in again.  Mostly I was concentrating on getting back to full mileage after Rhonda but I did get a few hilly runs in at least.  I lost some weight as well to help with the hills.

Once again I flew out to the race.  I stayed at my friend Clark’s house about an hour away from Frozen Head State Park where the race is held.  The time zone at his house is different than the race time but I kept reminding myself that I’d just need to adjust accordingly.  It was a great place.  Nice and quiet with good conversations.  Him and his wife even fed me a few times!

I got in later Thursday night and the packet pick up started at noon on Friday.  I left at 10am to get there with the time change right at noon.  This is really the only race I know of that I try to get to packet pickup early.  That’s because it’s the first time you find out what the course is going to be.  Laz changes it every year although there are only so many places the course could go.  He had hinted it would be longer with more elevation this year and it definitely was.  The swag bag was similar to last year.  The shirt was white this year and much more usable.  I don’t know why anyone likes to wear black shirts while running in the summer but that’s what we got last year.

Clark came along for the pickup to show me way there and back.  We went back to his house and I started studying the map.  I figured it was about 35.9 miles long and just under 12,000 feet elevation gain.  That’s about 2 miles longer and around 1,000 feet more elevation gain than last year.  I was guessing it would take around an hour longer due to that but I subtracted some time since I wasn’t expecting to be hit by the heat so much this year.  After looking at each section and figuring out how long each would take me, I concluded on a finish time of 11:50 and was fine with that.  The course this year was basically impossible to get lost on unless you weren’t paying attention since it was all on maintained trails or under power lines.  There were even signs where the trail split which was nice but unnecessary if you can read a map and pay attention.

The rest of the day was spent going 4 wheeling, carbo loading, and hanging out.  I got everything set up for the race after supper and went to bed around 8:30pm to get some good sleep before the early rise and long day ahead.  I wanted to get to the parking lot around 6am like last year so I planned on leaving at 5am.  I set my alarm accordingly for 4:20am.  Did you catch it?  The time zone change I had been reminding myself about the last 36 hours?  I didn’t!

As is usual for me, I woke up early.  It was 3:30am and so I went to the bathroom hoping I could fall asleep again after I was done.  While siting on the toilet in the dark, it dawned on me that in fact it was now 4:35am RACE TIME!  A slight panic set in but quickly subsided since I was really only 10 minutes behind and very thankful that I woke up early.

I quickly went through my checklist of stuff to get done before leaving.  Checklists are very useful when sleepy or in a hurry!  I left about 10 minutes later than expected.  I drove through the dark night which had a surprising amount of traffic for 4am local time on a Saturday.  Along the way was a church with a big lit up billboard.  It said “Preparath to meet thy God.”  Seemed spot on for something to see while going to this race.  With the time zone change I arrived at 6am and set about using the porta potties (much nicer than last year), leaving my drop bag, and finalizing everything.

I heard several groups of people talking about actually trying to finish this year.  The words were sometimes different but that was the basic premise of the conversations.  That kind of stuff irks me.  Why even sign up for a race if you’re not going to try, let alone continue to sign up for the same race?  I also know people who every year get caught by the sweeps before the first aid station.  It’s of course normal for some to get hurt, sick, etc and get caught before the first station but I’m talking about the same people each year.  They have zero chance of finishing and they know it.  Yet, they continue to take a spot from someone else to get even their first attempt.  I won’t get into specifics but I remember most of their names and their results and I’m not saying all this to embarrass anyone.  I’m saying it to anyone reading this who is thinking of signing up for this race.  Think about if you are ready to have a fighting chance of finishing the full distance.  Think about others wanting a chance to see if they can complete this difficult race.  Ask yourself, if you’d like it for someone else to get in instead of you and then not train or even try hard to finish.

Some people get all touchy about this like I’m being a jerk complaining about it but I don’t care.  This is a very difficult course and deserves the respect of that fact.  Plus there are literally hundreds of people on the waitlist that are training just in case they get that email a week before the race saying they finally got in.  If you’re just signing up to say you were there, that’s not the right reason.  I put pretty much the same post on the race Facebook page and laughed for the next hour at all the responses I knew I’d get.  I always like the “life’s not fair so deal with it” response people like to give.  No SH&T!  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt to be courteous and thoughtful in the decisions you make in life.  There are plenty of other 50k races you can sign up for and half-ass train for and then just blow off that don’t have waitlists.  This race is special, act accordingly.

With that said, there will always be lots of people who don’t complete the full course.  Some don’t even finish the shorter “marathon” course.  If they trained hard and gave it their all, I’m happy for them and they deserve to be there.  Of those that fail and are lucky enough to get in again, the vast majority will try even harder the next year since they know what’s coming.  That’s awesome!  But those that I spoke of earlier, that keep just showing up for the shirt, and to say they were there, and make up some stupid stories about how “epic” it was, I guess I’ll just call them classless.

So what do I think is a good test of whether you should sign up or not?  If you want a reasonable expectation of finishing the full course in the time allotted, you should have finished a hilly (over 8,000 feet of gain) 50 mile race in 12 hours or less.  That’s how this course “runs”.  That’s not to say you can’t finish the full course with worse results than that in your racing history.  Let’s just say I’d be surprised if you didn’t finish if you have that history.  There are people that have finished 100 mile races that still don’t complete this race, I suspect mostly because of the time limit.

Anyway, it was time to line up for the 7am start of the race.  I lined up around a third of the way from the front since that’s about where I was expecting to finish.  I also planned on going up Bird Mt. a bit slower this year so as to save some for the end of the race.

We had to have a flashlight along for the entire race this year but they didn’t check for them until the decision point like last year.  Since we had to have them along, a lot of people wore their headlamps at the beginning of the race which made the first 2 miles much easier since it is still dark then.

They had a big sign and a bucket around a mile along the course telling people to put their GPS watches in if they had them.  They are against the rules.  Of course a mile later the backpack on the woman in front of me made the distinctive Garmin beep sequence.  Whatever, people always feel the need to cheat I guess.  Really I can’t even imagine a GPS watch on your wrist is all that accurate on this course, let alone in your backpack.

I made it to the top in 45 minutes, the same as last year.  There was a big log that people seemed to have a hard time going around part way up so there was a big bottleneck there.  It wasn’t hard by the way.

I tried not to bomb down the other side like last year.  I still had to pass a group of 15 or so people but once I caught up to the next group of people, I just stayed with them.  They were going fast enough and it kept me from going crazy.  It seemed to take forever to get down the hill this year.  There are 3 climbs before the first aid station but they didn’t seem as bad this year as I knew what was coming.

My heel was hurting already on my right foot.  I kept checking for a rock or something but couldn’t find anything.  I didn’t tape my feet since I was expecting to get wet in the tunnel again.  In hind sight I probably should’ve just taped them since the tunnel was mostly dry.  After a couple hours it didn’t really hurt anymore, so I just figured it was a rock.  I did have a small heel blister when I finished the race so I was surprised it didn’t hurt the entire race.

I got to the first aid station which was the same location as last year at 9:15am.  Right on schedule.  7.4 miles in and I still had some water left, but that was my plan for this race.  I was NOT going to run out of water this year, even if that meant carrying extra.  It was still cool and there was even a breeze for most of the morning.  This was the first bib punch.  It was clear that it was going to spell IM A WINNER when completed.  The next section was a short 3.7 miles back down a gravel jeep road to the ranger station.IMG_20190923_200753

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Nice easy road down.  Photo Credit: Larry Kelley

i-vXRFrhp-X2Again I just took it nice and easy down the hill.  Nature was calling so I took a quick pit stop in the campground bathroom.  It was nice to be able to wash my hands and face.  I planned on getting to the 2nd aid station at 10am but got there a few minutes early.  Over 11 miles of the race in only 3 hours.  I of course knew this was all the “easy” part of the course so I didn’t get excited.  The next section is the Chimney Top Trail.  We did this after the decision point last year and I was super slow on it.  I was looking forward to power hiking this section like a boss.  It’s over 6 miles so I filled up completely with water again and ate some food.  This is also one of the only places on the course that they had a timing mat.

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Leaving Aid Station #2. Photo Credit: Mary Bogart

This section was SOOOO much easier this year since it was so much earlier in the race.  I was of course not near as tired and I also wasn’t overheated like last year.  I power hiked the entire way up the first 2 big hills passing a few people as I went along.  This trail never really has a final peak as you kind of go up and down a ridge.  The last peak ridge is fairly steep in areas so I slowed down quite a bit there but once that’s over, it’s basically flat or downhill.  There is one spot I had to slow down to confirm I was still on the correct trail since there are several paths going around the rock formations that aren’t the trail.  Just look for the painted trees and stay on the correct color, every trail has a different color.  I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what trails are what color.

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Just starting to come off Chimney Top.  Photo Credit: Larry Kelley

I’ll add here that cramping seemed to be a major thing affecting what seemed like most runners.  I saw people having issues at every stage of the race, some even on the first hill.  I didn’t have any problems with cramping at all.  I’m not sure if I’m lucky or if I’ve just done this long enough.  I cramped occasionally the first 2 years of running and then it just stopped.  I think it may just be that once you get adapted to ultra distances, you’re muscles are able to handle things much better.  Kind of the same thing as not getting a side ache while running after a big meal anymore.

After the sharp turn left in the trail, I knew it’d be fairly easy up to the Tub Springs Aid Station #3.  It turns into a jeep road after the place we turned off last year.  It was slightly uphill but a nice easy power hike to the aid station where Laz was to punch our bibs.  I got here I think about 11:50am so 10 minutes ahead of schedule.  I lost my timing sheet somehow but had it memorized anyway for the most part.

The next section was going down another jeep road toward the top of Testicle Spectacle.  It was mostly downhill with about 300 feet uphill after the road crossing.  It was now hot and the wind was gone.  The temperature was around 88, similar to last year but the dew point was around 60 which was much better than last year.  Not a cloud in the sky for shade.

Finally I was at the top of the hill.

I was basically planning on getting to the bottom of Testicle Spectacle around 1pm which was almost 2 hours later than last year.  That’s how much more of the course Laz put before the big difficult hills this year.  I was looking forward to this hill all day.  Well this and Meth Lab which is right after.  I took off down the hill but as expected I almost immediately caught up to people going more cautiously.  Since it was an out and back section, there were people going both ways which slows it down even more.  Most people were going down on their butts very slowly.  I was surprised how many people just had regular road shoes and not even trail shoes, let alone the aggressive trail shoes that are needed.  I was happy to get a picture of me running down this hill.  This is in one of the steepest sections towards the top.

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Photo Credit: Steve Durbin

Below is a video someone else took of the race.  Around the 7 minute mark is where we started going down the steeper part of Testicle Spectacle.  I say “we” because I’m behind him for part of it and can be seen a few times.  The part of the video with Ratjaw is really good as well.

 

Whoever we were following went off the best path and we had to climb back up a steep hill to get back on track.  We didn’t even go all the way to the bottom of TS which is actually after you go up a small hill in between.  There was a tent and a bib punch.  I was now about 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

Next was the climb back up.  I tried to get in front of people so I wouldn’t be going so slow up the hill.  It really wasn’t hard at all this year for me.  It helped that a lot of the hill was in the shade because it was 2 hours later in the day than last year.  Also we weren’t doing the entirety of Testicle Spectacle.  There was more waiting for people coming down than getting behind people going up.  I didn’t trust that someone above wouldn’t just biff it and take 10 of us out like bowling pins.  I tended to just make a new path up the hill to stay out of the way.

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I’m pretty sure this is the top of TS.

At the top was some person incorrectly telling people they could go this easier way down Meth Lab Hill by going on a road.  It really only made the first 20 feet down easier for them anyway but I don’t know why anyone was listening to her.  The rules are clear that you have to stay under the power lines.  A lot of this hill is runnable.  I see a lot of race reports that say it’s horrible and impossible to run.  Those people usually don’t make the time cut off so believe whoever you want.  There are certainly areas that you will slide down this hill in powder and/or gravel.  If anything I just slide on my hands, I never slide on my butt.  It slows you way down to do it that way, and I don’t feel like having a pound of dirt in my shorts the rest of the day.  There were a couple mud holes part way down too this year which added to the fun.  Towards the bottom you hit a road that cuts across the hill and has a sign pointing you left out of the power line cut.  There was one small unmarked turn that I found someone looking at his map but I remembered it from last year and showed him the way.

This year I ran the entire road section to the Prison Aid Station #4.  I felt pretty good about that since last year it was a hot overheated walk.  I filled up completely with water again here and ate some more sugary stuff.

I walked to the prison to allow myself to relax and get my body ready for Ratjaw.  We went over the wall and through the tunnel the same as last year.  There was barely any water running this year so I only got one foot a little wet.  Also someone in front of me had a flashlight so running through the tunnel was much easier as well.  We got to the base of Ratjaw and crossed the only other timing mat.  It was now 1:45pm.  The sun was right above us.img_6834.jpg

This shows the very bottom of Ratjaw.  It’s nice and steep here.  The person at the bottom told up there was a bib punch somewhere in the upper section of the hill.  She also recommending going to the right side of the tree you can see in the upper left part of the photo.  I’m not in this photo by the way.  I waited for the person in front of me to get most of the way up the hill and then I started.  I went to the right of the tree and then had to hit the brakes as the guy in front of me had stopped for some reason.  This isn’t really a hill you can just stand on the side of very well.  I got off balance and started to fall to the left of the tree.  I did a little “jig” and then grabbed on to the tree and swung around back to the right side.  I got some applause from the observers below and made the comment that it was so fun the first time I wanted to do it again.  By now the other person had moved so I continued up to a semi-flat area and proceeded to pass a couple people that weren’t sure where to go.  Up.  You always go up on this hill.

Being that this was 2 hours later than last year, it was a lot less crowded.  In fact you couldn’t put Rat Jaw any later in the race and still have it part of the “marathon” run.  In case you didn’t read the report from last year, if you don’t make the cutoff to continue for the entire course, you can just run back to the start via an easy shortcut and get a “marathon” prize.  Most years it’s not even a marathon distance.  You can also just decide to take the short way even if you still have plenty of time for the full course.  He does this to mess with peoples’ heads supposedly.  Personally I think more people would quit this race sooner if there wasn’t the “marathon” option.  They wouldn’t even go up Rat Jaw if they knew there was no chance of finishing the full distance and wouldn’t get the consolation finish.  Last year Rat Jaw was kind of in the middle of the race before the decision point and the year before that it was pretty much in the beginning.  I’d like to see all the big hills be after the decision point.  People might actually train better so that they get the chance to do them.

The path on the first part of Rat Jaw was easier than last year.  It was much wider and not near as many thorns got me in the portion up to the access trail.  I made it up fairly quickly and I wasn’t overheated this year!  I stopped for about 10 seconds to look over the dozen people laid out in the grass like I was last year.  Heat training was helping but I was still tired.

I continued up the path and then got into a traffic jam.  I wasn’t too upset about it since I didn’t mind taking a break here and there on the section up to the turn.  At one point I heard some people saying they thought it’d be another hour to the top.  It had already been 50 minutes and I told them it wouldn’t take near that long for the rest of it.  Soon enough we got to the turn where it flattens out a lot.  I was looking forward to this “easy” part since you can hike it instead of climb it.  But due to the slow people in front it still took 40 minutes to go the less than half mile.  Last year slow people would move over when they took a rest but not these guys.

There was supposed to be someone punching our bibs somewhere after the rock cliff wall you go through.  At least that’s what the woman at the timing mat at the bottom said.  You never can fully believe anything anyone says at this race so I was somewhat worried I already missed the location.  This section is where it’s solid thorns.  They were a couple feet taller than last year so no one ever made a nice path through them like last year since they were above your head.  Instead it was easier to just bear crawl through them.  It was like going through a tunnel of thorns.  Every once and a while you could get your head up above the thorns and see where you were.  Finally we could see a white shirt where we correctly suspected was the bib punch.

By now there were another 20 people behind me.  Still the people in front didn’t move over and just told us to make a new path if we didn’t like it.  I think a few people did try that but quickly quit since it was just as slow to make a new path.  It was an easy thing really.  It’s not steep and going slow doesn’t make the thorns hurt any less or grab you any less.

Occasionally someone behind me would pull off a cane that had completely attached itself to my head and pack.  I thanked them since they did kind of hurt in my head.  The thorns this year were different than last year.  Well more specifically there seemed to be 2 kinds of thorns this year instead of 1.  There were the regular long thorns you’d see on a rose that cut you.  There were also these more clear, smaller thorns that broke off into your clothes and skin.  I didn’t have any of them last year although I heard about them in previous years.  Some of the leaders from 2 years ago said they had thorns come out of their skin this year from then.  This is the type of thorns they were talking about.  I only had about 4 in my arm when I got to my friends house after the race.  I haven’t had any come out since then and don’t suspect there are any still left.

Finally after 90 minutes total, I got to the top.  It took about as long as last year even though I didn’t stop for 10 minutes.  I lost 20 minutes having to follow those guys.

 

 

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There are lots of great photos of people all cut up at the top of Rat Jaw.  As you can see from the photos, I wasn’t one of them.  I got scratched up sure, but not all bloodied.  I saw people very cut up only half way up Rat Jaw with blood dripping off their arms.  I’m not sure what they did to get so cut up but it’s part of why I won’t be going back to this race.  I didn’t see anywhere near that much blood last year or I wouldn’t have come back this year.  Blood born diseases are real and I’m not going to put myself at risk to getting them.  Even without the blood, there are plenty of other diseases you can get just from the scratches and cuts from the plants and dirt.  I’m sure the risk is low but think about it;  you’re getting cut by the very same plant that 100 people directly in front of you got cut on.  Perhaps that’s why I’m not very cut up, I was consciously trying hard to not get cut.

After Rat Jaw is the tower.  As I neared the top I heard a voice announcing  my arrival, “From the frozen tundra of Minnesota”.  It was Carl Laniak who helps direct Volstate (among other awesome things).  It was great to see him again although it was just briefly.  I told him later that he had the best spot for bib punching on the course.  He certainly deserves it, Volstate is hard on the RD’s as well.

After the tower was a short jog down to the aid station we were at once before, and the decision point.  It’s where you decide to do the full course or take the shortcut back.  I got there at 3:30pm.  I was there 90 minutes before the cut off, the same as last year.  The cut off was 10 hours this year instead of 9:30 like previous years.  I got some food and drink from my drop bag and also my poles since I thought they’d be helpful on Bird Mt.

I got my bib punched saying that I was a winner and continued on the full course.  It was a basically flat 3.1 miles to the next aid station that we had been to before.  I really didn’t feel the urge to push it.  I wasn’t concerned with my placing in the race and was hoping that someone behind me that I wanted to talk to about Andorra would catch up.  I was also fairly hot.  Nothing like last year, but the temperature was maxed out now and there was no wind.

It probably took close to 45 minutes to get to the next aid station where I got the final punch.  It took 2:15 to get to it from the reverse direction this morning.  I knew it would take longer now going the other direction, even with it being more down than up.

It wasn’t a great finish to the race.  It was hot.  I was slow.  Bird Mt. seemed higher than I knew it was and I had to take a few short breaks going up it.  The poles did nothing to help since my arm strength was all used up bear crawling for a third of a mile.  I was mad at myself for not realizing that at the decision point and just leaving them there.  I started to feel a little nauseous which usually never happens to me.  In the end I wasn’t really all that concerned since I knew I had plenty of time to finish and would still even finish close to my expected time.  The entire race I was planning on listening to music on this last 7.4 mile section, but I never did.  I’m not sure why as it might have brightened my mood.  This really is my favorite part of the park, even though I suspect most like the Chimney Top area better.

Finally I reached the top where some of the people that passed me were taking a break at the top.  I guess they were just as tired as me but wanted to wait till the top to stop.  I ran behind 2 people on the way down.  It was a nice even pace down the hill.  I suppose I could’ve passed them if I really wanted to but I never tried.  The asphalt road at the bottom seemed to take forever to get to the finish line.  Around a half mile before the finish line, the marathon shortcut merged onto the road as well and I saw a lot of people coming from that direction.  Some were walking and some were almost sprinting.  I finally crossed the line at 6:55pm for a race time of 11:55.

After some cheaters were removed from the results (there are always people who cheat but this year they actually seemed to do something about it) I was 79th out of 456 starters.  There might even be a few more people removed before it’s all said and done.  Only 186 people finished the entire 50k course in the allotted time.  That’s quite a bit less than last year but it was also the hardest course this race has had.

 

 

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I got my 2nd year medal since I finished it twice now.  I ate a Sword ice pop and sat on a chair for a bit.  The steak sandwich meal tasted even better this year.  After that I got changed into normal clothes and out of my dirty stinky ones.  I was in much better shape at the end this year.  So much so that I wondered if I didn’t take it a little too easy.  I was able to walk around normally and could stand in line for the food just fine.  Usually I have the “ultra” walk going on at least a little bit, and I hate just standing in line for the first hour or so after a race.

I waited around for a bit for a couple people I knew that I thought would be coming in soon but I never heard their names announced.  I decided to leave as it was getting dark and I didn’t want to have to drive when I got tired.  I gave a ride to a couple of runners that had to park in the overflow lot and then I was on my way.

The drive back was uneventful and after eating some awesome home made pizza at my friends house, and a shower, I crashed asleep.  It wasn’t the best sleep since the scratches and cuts hurt with every slight movement I made in my sleep and I kept waking up.  The next morning I was sore and hungry as normal.  I ate an awesome breakfast and sat around talking and looking at Facebook until it was time to catch my flight home.

As I stated earlier, I don’t plan on ever going back.  Mostly it’s just a bad time of year scheduling wise and it’s a long way to travel for such a short race, which increases the cost.  It also is much more crowded than I like.  While I don’t want to degrade the race by saying it’s somewhat like an obstacle course race, some parts of it have that quality.  You run and then stand in line at an “obstacle” and then run again and do another obstacle.  The obstacles could be as simple as a tree over the trail or as difficult as Rat Jaw.  Again, I’m not trying to denigrate OCRs, I used to enjoy them, but it’s not what I’m looking for in an ultramarathon.  Overall this race is fun and worth it if you’re serious about your training.

Ronda dels Cims – 2019 Race Report

To start with I failed to finish this race so if you’re looking for a full description of the course, you won’t get it here. In fact, good luck finding one anywhere. You can get the gpx file easily but that doesn’t tell you much. There are official videos that show portions of the entire course but they basically consist of the peaks and rivers and not much else in between. Really the only thing helpful was Google Earth.

Also this report is almost as long as my VolState report so be warned.

Prior to doing this race I found and read 5 race reports. That’s all I could find. I think 1 of those was even translated. There must be more somewhere, perhaps in many different languages that Google didn’t find. Regardless, this race was mostly an unknown besides it being very difficult. No one who had finished it responded to my questions. Only 1 person who had started the race and quit responded to me. A big part of my success in ultrarunning is my preparedness. If I hadn’t done some mountain peak hiking in the past, I would’ve known even less than I did about what to expect.

The real reason I failed to finish this race had to do with being under trained. I knew full well what I had to do to get as prepared as I can in MN. The Minnesota river banks are actually the equivalent of 2,000 feet elevation gain per mile if you know where to go. That’s what I started training on. Then I somehow woke up one day in May with my knee feeling tight. Nothing hurt the day before, no acute injury or fall. Obviously it was some sort of overuse injury. Long story short, I got physical therapy but I essentially did no training other than to keep some sort of running ability and cardio. I think I got up to maybe 25 miles a week which isn’t even my normal long run. No hill training at all! Remember in my Arrowhead race report where I said “hope” should never be a word you say before an ultra? Yeah, I certainly “hoped” my previous training would somehow get me through this race. The race and trip was already paid for, so there was no reason not to try.

So just what is this race? I’ll try not to glamorize it since I really don’t want it to get popular and it is really hard. It’s a 170 km (106 miles) long mountain race in Andorra. Andorra is in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France. By the way I never saw a Pyrenees dog there. It takes place usually in July but has also been in June. I think they try to have it during a full moon. Ronda dels Cims means “round of the peaks” by most translations and it basically goes around the perimeter of Andorra with occasionally going across the border into Spain. It goes up and down 16 mountains. That adds up to over 44,200 feet of elevation gain and 44,200 feet of loss. The only good thing is that it never goes over 10,000 feet above sea level so that never was a factor.

So that averages out to about 420 feet of elevation gain every mile. Of course because you have to go down as well, that means the average steepness of the race is 840 feet a mile. That’s steep! For comparison Superior 100 which is one of the hardest 100 mile trail races is only 22,000 of elevation gain. Hardrock is 33,000 feet of gain but is of course much higher elevation above sea level. Really it’s not even so much the steepness that bothered me, it’s the fact that so much of it isn’t runnable downhill.

I did some fun math if you’re not used to thinking about hike steepness in feet gain per mile. If you didn’t know, there is a race up the stairs to the observation deck on the 86th floor (1050 feet up) of the Empire State Building. Based on my observation of the stairs in the building and extra steps for landings, the stair rise and run itself, math, etc I come up with this: Go up the Empire State Building using the race course and back down, then run 1.8 miles, then do that all again 41 more times! This would actually be much easier than the race since the downhill and flat portions are all runnable and at sea level.

Only about half the field of runners finishes every year.  The record time for this race is over 30 hours on the normal course.  Hardrock’s record time is under 23 hours for comparison.  While I haven’t run Hardrock, I am assuming more of it is runnable to account for this difference.

So why do this race? If you haven’t figured that out by now, I can’t tell you.

Really the only reason I’m even doing a race report is for myself and to hopefully help our American runners do better there. I guess there’s some information of use if you ever go to Barcelona or Andorra as well. I’ll eventually get to the race but not for a long time I suspect so skip on ahead if you’re just here for the actual race report.

I like to research things if you didn’t already know so I checked out every book that had anything to do with Andorra from the library. By library, I mean every library in Southern Minnesota since there were only 3 total books to be found. Only the book obviously meant for 6th graders doing a book report on the country was of any help. There are no tour books for Andorra to be found. Not even many online resources either. The country’s official tourism website is slightly helpful but the best resources (physical maps, hotel guide, things to do, etc) are only available at the tourism offices in Andorra itself. For example if you look for a hotel online in Andorra you will find maybe 4 in Ordino and another 5 nearby. That’s even using the European travel websites. When you get there and look around you can see there are over 50 places within 6 miles. The paper guide on accommodations you get at the local tourism office is really thick and has all these places in it. I brought one home and I’ll never give it away, it’s a rare treasure, and it’s even in English.

Here’s a brief history on Andorra (probably would only get a D in 6th grade for this paper). It is believed to be created by Charlemagne granting a charter to the people for helping battle the Moors in the 8th century or thereabouts (again a D). This is really kind of suspect at best but at some point in the future a document appeared that said this was true and everyone in the world basically went along with it. It was originally ruled by the Count of Urgell. He gave it up in a land swap to the Diocese of Urgell which means it was under the control of the Bishop of Urgell. Then since they had no army, the Bishop asked the Lord of Caboet for protection and they signed an agreement for co-ruling Andorra in the 11th century. Through a bunch of marriages, revolutions, and stuff like that the Lord of Caboet’s co-ruling status ended up in the hands of the President of France.  So currently one co-prince is the sitting President of France currently Emmanuel Macron. The other is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Catalan city of La Seu d’Urgell, currently Joan Enric Vives i Sicilia. To start with there were 6 parishes. This was later made into 7 but I can’t remember why. So if you see the national symbol in a church or elsewhere with 6 stars instead of 7, then you know it’s really old. Each parish was ruled by one family that lived in it. They pretty much had absolute power but didn’t abuse it all that often as best as I can tell. Fast forward a bit and you realize how well this co-ruler thing worked out for them. They became a trading area and because of being ruled by both Spain and France in essence, they didn’t have to make allegiance to either of them. They were a kind of mini Switzerland. The populations never grew much until after WWII and even more so the last 20 years. It’s over 80,000 now. They use the Euro for currency now but they aren’t part of the European Union. There used to be no tax on shopping until recently but it’s still not bad by European standards at 4.5%. Basically the mountains are made of slate and because of that so are the buildings, at least the old ones anyway. Agriculture consists of grazing cattle and horses, and growing tobacco. Yes, they grow tobacco in the mountains. Here’s the story on that. Cigarette companies wanted to sell cigarettes in Andorra since everyone went there to shop due to the low prices and no tax. Andorra said you could only sell cigarettes there if you buy Andorran tobacco. Since Andorra’s tobacco sucks, the companies buy it as required but then just burn it and use good tobacco grown elsewhere. Andorra made a modern constitution in 1993 and joined the United Nations the same year. They speak Catalan which to me seems like a mix between Spanish and French. Barcelona speaks Catalan as well by the way, as does all of Catalonia which is probably why they want to separate from Spain which speaks Spanish. Well it might have something to do with being forced to join Spain, whatever (yes I know it’s serious but remember this is a 6th grade report). In Andorra you can go to a Catalan, Spanish or French school and most people know how to speak all three at least somewhat. They don’t know much English though. The end, and yes I did that in 1 paragraph on purpose (a D remember?)

Okay, let’s move on. I haven’t even put one picture in here yet, ugh. I have a lot to share too.

To start with I’ll go over phones. A phone that works in Andorra is one of the requirements for the race. We have Consumer Cellular and we use AT&T towers. You can also use T-Mobile with them since they both are GSM networks. We have unlocked GSM phones. Only T-Mobile allows Consumer Cellular to use it’s network overseas so we had to switch out our AT&T sim cards for T-Mobile sim cards. We basically had no coverage where we lived so we had to use voice over internet for a few days before the trip. Anyway, the phones worked great in Spain and Andorra. I’ve actually never had so much phone coverage in a race before. I guess it helps being on mountain tops constantly. I guess you could try to buy a sim card there but I didn’t really see them for sale in Andorra. There were plenty around in Barcelona but although both Spain and Andorra (and basically all of Europe) use the GSM network, I’ve read that not all Spain sim cards will work in Andorra since it’s a different phone company. Also don’t expect your European Union plan to work in Andorra either since they’re not in the European Union. That doesn’t mean they won’t but they don’t have to allow roaming like they do if you are in a EU country other than your own. It’s confusing but since I didn’t see much for sale in Andorra, I don’t know that I would just wing it and expect to be able to buy a burner phone easily in Andorra. Try to get it figured out before you go.

My wife and I packed our bags for Barcelona. Oh yeah, there’s no airport in Andorra and it’s land locked so you have to go through another country to get there. I put all my race gear in my carry on since I’m paranoid. I brought an extra…well basically an extra everything since almost every race report where someone finished the race, they broke a pole and changed shoes.

We landed in Barcelona on Tuesday morning after leaving Monday. The time change is 7 hours which is another reason I think Americans haven’t fared very well. Even after a couple days, it’s just hard to be well rested. We landed late due to some sort of air traffic issue in New York even though we flew through Washington DC.

First photo of the blog!
First photo of the blog!
We flew along the coast for a while before landing.

We had to deplane on the tarmac and take a bus to the customs area.

I got a strange feeling about Terminator on this bus. Is Cobus Industries just a rebranding of Cyberdyne Systems?

Then we spent over an hour going through the line at customs which took all of 5 seconds once we got to the agent. We got our rental car which wasn’t too bad. It was actually bigger than I’d like since I knew we’d be on narrow roads in Andorra.

Similar to Oregon (what’s with you Oregon?), you can’t pump your own gas in Spain or Andorra.  We didn’t know that at first but eventually someone came over and asked how  much gas we wanted.  Not a big deal, but just a FYI.

I had planned ahead by downloading offline Google Maps for the areas we’d be driving in. Although we could use data, the roaming rate would be expensive so we tried not to use it if possible. I had prepaid for a parking spot near La Sagrada Familia Church which is an amazing church that I’d recommend seeing. More on that later.

We then took the subway to a station near the beaches. There are supposed to be lockers available on some of the beaches but it took us a while to find them. They basically are in a building built into the earth and you pay for them as a group package with a shower, bathroom, etc. It’s not easy to find but they are indeed there (my wife was starting to doubt me I think while looking for them). The basics of the Barcelona beaches is that each sandy area between break walls is called a different beach. There are signs along the beaches starting at #1 in the South and counting up to the North end of town that helps you remember where you started walking from, crossroad you need, etc. Very useful.

I had a friend that said the beaches were topless so I was expecting that to some degree. Most online and tourist books made it sound like there were only certain areas that were topless. No. My friend was right, they ALL are topless beaches. We didn’t really care but just a heads up to expect to see lots of tan old ladies with floppy boobs in your sight line. Sorry everyone, I don’t have any photos. There was an occasional younger set that I’d see, that my wife would miss seeing. Weird how I could somehow find them so much better than her, I guess I have better eyesight. It obviously isn’t a big deal over there. The only thing that kind of bothered me was seeing a mom topless with her 12 year old son next to her. I don’t care how normal being topless is, I don’t think any 12 year old boy wants to see his mom’s boobs. We swam for about an hour. The beaches themselves have a pretty quick drop off and lots of rocks under the water so not really that great of swimming. It at least woke us up after the long plane ride.

So this is probably a good place to talk about bathrooms. It was the best of bathrooms, it was the worst of bathrooms. Public bathrooms had much to be desired in both Barcelona and Andorra. The public bathrooms at the beach were downright disgusting. There were no toilet seats, no toilet paper, and no soap. Yet there were usually dryers in them. I guess to dry your poop off? No changing tables in them either.

So that’s the beach bathrooms which you could maybe expect to be bad. What about the rest? Basically 80% of public bathrooms had no soap. I guess Europe is a bring you’re own soap zone. Even in the bathrooms you had to pay to use, there wasn’t soap. Really gross. I will have no sympathy for Europe if some outbreak happens there. Seriously I will bring my own soap everywhere next time I’m there.

In all this bathroom wasteland, there was one true treasure. At a gas station no less! We had to buy something to get the key to the outside entrance bathroom (usually a bad sign around here). Despite the grungy exterior, inside was a very small slice of heaven (3X4 feet max). It smelled great, there was a toilet seat, toilet paper, soap, hot water, mirror, paper towels, and a plant. I mean a nice plant, not some fake thing with 5 years of dust on it. With it being a single stall and I with the only key, there would be no interruptions from strangers or my kids which were thousands of miles away. I will say it was one of the most pleasant #2 experiences I’ve ever had. My wife in the women’s bathroom had a similar experience.

Next we ate at Burger King since we had limited time and just wanted to keep moving. We walked around the Gothic Quarter a little bit. It’s a fun place to explore. Lots of small shops, small streets, and lots of graffiti. Really all of Barcelona was graffiti. And not good stuff, just stupid idiots tagging their name. They stayed away from the stone and siding portion of buildings most of the time, but every window and door on multiple levels was covered in graffiti. We’re talking about thick wooden doors that are likely over 300 years old that some dick just spray painted their tag on. Occasionally there was one obviously political in nature, mostly for independence.

Gothic Quarter
Basically everywhere we went had this much graffiti.

For the most part Barcelona seemed like we were just in another city in America. Sure the buildings were different but almost all the signs were in English, the demographics were the same as any major city, the rules of the road and driving were basically the same, etc. I wish we could spend more time there exploring someday.

Next we took the subway back to the church. We had a little time to kill before our tour time period opened up so we did some shopping for the kids. We also got some of the exterior photos of the church.

Since I already did a 6th grade report on Andorra, I won’t be doing one on La Sagrada Familia. Just Google it and you will find tons of info. It is indeed as amazing as people say it is. I think my wife and I appreciated it even more since we’ve been in many other older large cathedrals around the world. To us this cathedral took it to another level in terms of beauty and thoughtfulness. It still isn’t finished but will be within 10 years most likely. It started being built over 135 years ago. The photos of the huge areas of stained glass just don’t do it justice to even put in here. Can I also just suggest you don’t spend 15 minutes posing in sexy poses and facial expressions for selfies like we saw some people doing? It’s a church!

The Passion Facade
The Nativity Facade. Notice all the cranes building the remaining taller towers.
These columns are meant to look like trees. They look better in real life and so much different than other churches.

We then said goodbye to Barcelona slowly since there was a fair amount of traffic getting out of town. We decided not to take the tunnel way to Andorra which costs money. I think it would’ve been around 30 Euros and only saved 10 minutes according to Google. It’s a 3 hour drive to Arans, Andorra where we stayed. We enjoyed the countryside as much as we could. I commented to my wife that people around here really like Spanish architecture. I almost immediately realized that duh, I’m in Spain.

The crops were basically in alignment with where they should’ve been in MN if not for the late spring this year. The roads weren’t very fast since we had to constantly slow down for round-a-bouts. At least it seemed that way. The car we got had navigation but it wasn’t very helpful for directions. Probably 2/3rds of the way into the drive we figured out why it kept beeping at us. It was warning us of upcoming radar traps. Unbeknownst to us, there are permanent radar sites all over Spain and Andorra where they take a photo of your license plate and ticket you automatically if you’re over the limit. I was just following traffic speed but I’m positive I was going faster than the limit. I haven’t gotten a bill yet from the rental car company so we’ll see. There are almost always signs to tell you they are coming up as well, we just didn’t know what they meant at first. You’ve now been warned. I wish they would’ve said something at the rental car place.

Near dusk we arrived at the international border with Andorra. We didn’t even need to stop to show our passports. We were kind of bummed that we didn’t get an Andorra stamp. There were lots of tunnels the closer we got to Andorra. The mountains also got much steeper. I was getting a little nervous. I knew how steep they’d be but seeing them is another level of reality.

We finished the drive through Andorra to Arans. It was quite funny listening to the Google lady pronounce the road names in Andorra, especially the tunnels. None of the roads have name signs anyway so we just concentrated on where to exit the round-a-bouts. I think there were 50 we went through in the 10 miles or so. That’s not hyperbole, it’s constant. The poor Google lady couldn’t keep up. The signs are in English or at least have the name of the town you’re going to with an arrow sign. Pretty easy to navigate and after just a day I was a pro getting to where we needed to go. After all there are basically just 2 river valleys in Andorra and 1 major road in each.

Some of the stoplights aren’t actually stoplights. They are red unless you are going slow enough and then you get a green light and positive feedback. In this case a winking smile emoji. Sometimes it was a thumbs up emoji.

We had some difficulty getting into our Airbnb since we had to find some WiFi to get the passcode since the owner didn’t bother to text it to us until that afternoon and the message was so long it didn’t all come through. We found a helpful bar owner nearby that let us use his. We ate at the only restaurant in town. It was around 9pm which is actually when most people eat supper around there. Many places don’t even open until 8pm. We were so tired but we had to eat and had to get on local time at some point. It was quite difficult to order with the language barrier so there was a lot of pointing, etc. Most everyone speaks Catalan, French, and Spanish but very little English. Often times there is an English menu available so for the most part it’s not hard to know what you’re getting, it’s the questions they ask or we ask that are hard to get through. Also we both know a little Spanish but not near enough to understand full speed native Spanish. I had rabbit which was one of the things I wanted to try here (a local specialty I read in my book). My wife had carbanara. Both were great!

We settled into our apartment which had a kitchen. The bed was a little bigger than a normal Queen bed which was nice but there were no sheets, just a down comforter, and fitted bed sheet. That would prove to make temperature control very difficult since we didn’t have air conditioning or a fan. There was one old school regular size roll of toilet paper. This was for 2 people for 8 days. Apparently they expect you to just bring your own toilet paper around here too (this is exactly what our Airbnb host told me when I asked for another roll). The other interesting thing was we didn’t have any screens on the windows. In fact we never saw a screen on any windows in Andorra. There are a lot of flies in this country due to all the animal poop everywhere (more on that during the race). Also some mosquitoes but nothing worth putting bug spray on for. So when we opened the windows to get the apartment cooled off, flies would make their way in. Also a stray cat made it’s way into our apartment as well since we were on the ground floor. While Andorra is a very safe country, we still kept the windows closed at night because of the previously mentioned issues, more than worries about theft.

Other quick little quirks. The electricity is different. We brought our converter and a power cord to plug all our stuff into. There is I think zero carpet in Andorra. It made stretching out muscles painful at times laying on concrete. As with most of Europe, you’re screwed if you have a physical disability that requires a wheelchair. The roads are of course narrow and curvy being in the mountains. On the plus side, the roads are all pretty much brand new with nary a pothole in site. There’s also no tractor trailers, just tall trucks.

Something that isn’t a quirk but actually kind of nice is paying by credit card. Every place (in Andorra and Spain at least) uses the same credit card machine and this is the process you go through. You tell them you want to pay with credit card or just show the card to them and they’ll understand. They bring the credit card reader to you at a restaurant or it’s on the counter if you pay at any other store. They punch in the amount you owe. They then hand it to you and you insert your chip credit card into the slot at the bottom. In a few seconds a screen in Spanish or Catalan pops up. Basically it’s asking you if the amount is the correct amount. Hit the green button if it is and then the charge goes through. You take your card and hand it back to them. It prints out a receipt you need to sign and they’ll usually ask if you want a receipt as well. We always paid in Euros since our credit card doesn’t charge transaction fees. In Barcelona they often asked if you wanted it in Dollars, they will charge you 2% for this service. You should never have to give your credit card to anyone. It should always be in your sight. I assume this is so they can’t copy your card or run a charge you’re not aware of. There is no tipping line on any receipts since it’s already included in the price.

So nice of them to once again search my checked bag. This bag has been searched every time I use it. So much in fact that I’m going to leave a letter to the TSA in it from now on.

In general, there is WiFi available almost everywhere in Andorra. Signs are clearly posted in almost every establishment with the password. It is so ubiquitous and so well posted that it seemed quite strange that they even required passwords. Perhaps a security measure. I use a VPN anyway for security. There are even government hot spots in most cities that are free as well. In the end we never needed to use our roaming data at all.

The next day (Wednesday) we went for a hike. My wife wanted to go on one and I wanted to see what the terrain was like. I had researched some hikes to find an “easy” one. There really aren’t any easy hikes in Andorra. The one I picked was to estany de l’Estanyo (Estanyo lake) in Parc natural de la vall de Sorteny (Sorteny Valley Nature Park). It was 5 miles round trip and about 1,800 feet of gain. It also happens to be one of the trails I’d be running on 2 days later. We had to pay a small entrance fee for the park. We got a map at the visitor center and went on our way. It was very beautiful with flowers blooming everywhere. We followed a creek for most of the way.

It was kind of weird to see all these plants and flowers that are invasive species at home living peacefully in their home environment. Instead of taking over the entire area like they do here, they are kept in check and you’d see a couple here and there. It really does kind of make me mad that I’ll never see what America looked like before all the invasive plants and animals ruined the ecology. At least we’re not as messed up as poor Australia. Anyway, it really was a sight to see. Very pretty and fun for me to try to identify stuff as we went along.

My wife on the other hand was not enjoying things very much. She was slipping on the grass (more on that later during the race) and said it was too steep. We’ve gone on hikes this steep so I don’t know why she said that. I’m guessing she was still super tired. When we went through a tree area, the trail did kinda suck and she started crying. I kept on going the 40 feet to the top of the hill where it flattened out and waited for her. She does this basically every hike at the beginning and by the end says it was a great hike and wants to go again. She did not say that at the end of this hike by the way. I think she was mad I didn’t stop and say “there there dear” this hike. In my defense she did want to do this hike.

Where the “incident” happened. I took this during the race 2 days later.

After a couple minutes she continued up the hill to me and we continued through a beautiful meadow.

One of the few flattish areas in Andorra. If all of it was like this, the race would be a cake walk.

Hearing bells ringing up ahead, we continued up the trail to where some bred Brown Swiss heifers were hanging out. They had horns so we didn’t mess with them on the way up. On the way down though I could tell they were pretty tame so I went up to them to pet them. I went to the one that looked the most daring (tame). Having grown up with cattle I know how heifers act. There’s always one that will check you out before the others. I ended up picking the wrong one and the one I should’ve picked came running over once she saw that we stopped. We pet her and she started licking the sweat off of my wife. It was pretty funny since she then wouldn’t leave her alone. Heifers can get kinda bucky and with these having horns we decided to leave them before they got too friendly.

After this there was a stone fence that had steps built into it that you go over and follow the creek up to the lake.

We started to notice the flags that I would follow during the race to show where the course is. The person who was putting them in went past us the opposite direction while we were going up.

As we got closer to the lake, I could see runners coming down off a peak and then going up another peak. They had to be the Euforia race runners. They started that morning on a more difficult course that is the same as the Ronda course up until the lake. It was nice since I then knew about how long it would take me to get there. It was a little longer than I was originally thinking it would take. I knew there was supposed to be 1 American team but I didn’t see them. They did finish which is awesome.

Euforia runners. They had to carry more supplies than us.
The lake.

In all honesty the lake wasn’t that great. If you’ve never seen one, you’ll enjoy it but most mountain lakes are prettier than this one. We headed back down. My wife fell a few more times. We went a slightly different way towards the end which took us to the refugi (pronounced ray-fuji) that would be an aid station during the race. Basically think of the refugi as a mountain hut for hikers to stay at for free. Some even have people there to kind of run the place. This particular one had electricity, WiFi and served lunch if you called the day before. Some are much more rustic.

View from near the refugi.

After the hike we headed back to our apartment to hang out before supper and our free Cirque du Soleil show. Yes that’s right free. Every July in Andorra there are free Cirque du Soleil shows if you know how to get tickets. Basically you just sign up for tourist information emails and they’ll send you the link to sign up when they open the ticket sales. Then you pick your day you want and print off the tickets within 48 hours I think it was. Otherwise they give them to someone else. You can pay for tickets if you want seats but I wasn’t going to do that. I wasn’t even sure we’d go since the show didn’t start until 10pm.

First off we tried to find a grocery store. Google was useless for this. We ended up stopping at a gas station which had a surprisingly large selection of items. And cheap! Days later when we went to the big grocery stores, food was even cheaper. Basically everything is cheaper in Andorra than in MN. Food, alcohol, perfume, etc. And don’t forget very little tax. On the way back we saw a bakery type looking place and stopped in. They had the grilled cheese sandwiches I had read about online, and other things like pizza besides baked goods. This is where I started to learn that there is no such thing as a heat lamp in Andorra. Basically most food you get is room temperature if it’s not just made. No one seems concerned about food safety. There’s no time set that you have to throw food away if it’s not sold by. Even at the one buffet we went to after the race, they just cooked the food in cast iron and put out the pot. I guess that kept the heat for a little while but it was room temp by the time we ate there. Anyway we brought the food home and microwaved it to enjoy with our ultra high temperature pasteurized milk since they don’t sell fresh milk in the country either. It was kinda okay, at least with the yummy warmed up food. We soon started to drink our pop for the remainder of the meal.

Garlic and parsley chips. Quite good. I just got it because I liked the pirate chip guy, I had no idea what flavor it was.

I think the rest of the afternoon we kind of organized things a bit and took a nap. It’s hard to remember since it’s been a month as I’m writing this.

First off for the evening though was going to supper at Topic in Ordino. We had horse the first/last time we were in Europe and loved it. If you want to judge me for it than go ahead, live in your bubble. It tastes almost buttery and very tender. The main meat produced in Andorra isn’t those Brown Swiss we saw in the morning, it’s the horse I’d see during the race. I had researched what restaurants the horse meat producers partnered with so that I could make sure to have local organic horse. Normally I don’t care at all about “organic” foods but for reasons I won’t get into, I only want organic horse meat. Anyway we went there and ordered 3 different horse dishes. I had some sort of appetizer of horse meat and then horse burgers. Mine were great. My wife had some sort of horse stew which wasn’t as flavorful as she had hoped. I concurred it wasn’t great. It still tasted like horse but the stew just kinda ruined it. She would’ve much preferred some sort of horse steak but we never saw that offered anywhere or in the stores either.

Then we left for the show. It was in the capital city called Andorra la Vella which is also the largest city. The show was under a large semi-permanent tent structure. We showed up just before the show on purpose so we wouldn’t have to stand too long. The show was just okay. This wasn’t a Vegas show. It basically was all the things I’ve seen at local circuses here but done better and with much more production effects, etc. It was an hour long which was just about the right length I thought.

Where we parked for the show. This is the normal parking space size. The mirrors of all the cars fold in automatically when you lock them so they don’t get knocked off by other vehicles. You often need your parking ticket stub to use the elevator and to get into the bathroom so always take it with you. You also pay at a kiosk before going to your car to exit so again take your ticket with.

By the next day we were starting to get used to the time zone change. We decided to do some easy tours around the country. There is a perfume museum in the capital that we went to. It was kind of hard to find since it’s in a normal large perfume store on the second level. We ended up finding it and the lady there gave us a phone that had an audio tour in English. Well by English I mean an extremely accented version with many words pronounced wrong. It was still better than nothing and we got enough information to make it useful. It was free for us but I think we were maybe supposed to be charged something.

Next we drove to Canillo where there is a road that goes up and over Coll d’Ordino (Coll means neck but it really means a mountain pass in this situation) back to Ordino. It’s super twisty and some crazy bikers were going up it. Runners aren’t crazy by the way, just bikers 🙂

Nice and twisty!

At the top is a platform that goes out over the ledge giving you a pretty good view of the area. It looked to me like there was a via ferrata route up the cliff if you’d rather get to it that way.

Statue at the end of the platform. Ordino is over the mountain to my right. Canillo where we started is to my left.

We finished the road into Ordino and I got some pictures of the start/finish area. We then went to our apartment and I slowly went through everything I needed for the race. I made piles and checklists for race day and packed up the supplies for my wife/crew in our wheeled carry-on bag.

The Race

Check in for the race was that afternoon in Ordino with a pre-race meeting in English/French at 6pm. Things were kind of spread out all over town but there were pretty good signs to help you get to where you needed to go. The hardest thing was finding a parking spot for the next 3 days. Basically the only rule for parking in Europe is there are no rules. There were some areas blocked off near the finish line but otherwise you just parked wherever you could. That included sidewalks. There were a couple times we just made sure that it would be impossible to tow us without picking the car straight up on a steep incline. No one ever got a ticket during the race weekend, come Monday we saw police everywhere.

This cow had changing LED lights at night, pretty cool.

Bib pickup was pretty easy. I forgot to ask for safety pins the first time through so had to go back for them after the meeting. There was a lot of stuff in the bag we got. We got calf compression sleeves, arm sleeves, compression shirt, headband, a BOGO coupon (worth 42 Euros) for the hot water spa we were already planning on going to after the race, free meal after the race, plus some advertising type stuff and food stuffs. All together the swag was worth more than I paid for the race (which is dirt cheap). With whatever you get if you actually finish, you’re way ahead of the game. There also were drop bags color coordinated for the 2 drop sites you could use if you didn’t have a crew. There were two wristbands that are actually for your crew to wear at all times so that they are allowed at the aid stations. We didn’t know those things until the meeting.

The elevation chart is upside down so you can look down at it. It is not at all an accurate representation of the topography. They basically just drew straight lines from the high to low spots and ignored everything else. I will make my own next time.

The meeting itself was informative but the English portion was an afterthought for the most part. We videotaped the whole thing so we could go over it if we missed something. The slides were in French and the race official told everything in French and then a French guy interpreted what she said. Well he tried and did a very good job as far as I could tell considering there were times she talked in French for a good 2 minutes straight before he was given a chance to translate. Of course he would say something maybe 10 seconds long so very summarized! There was actually a lot of information that wasn’t in the rule book or race guide. Like how to guide a helicopter to land for a rescue, how to squat to have the least chance of dying from a lightning strike, things I don’t normally hear at a local pre-race meeting. You have to have insurance that covers a helicopter evacuation by the way!

We went home and I finished my preparations for the race. I taped my feet since it was going to be dry during the race, or at least no all day rain predicted. I could barely get all the required items in my pack. For the longest time I wasn’t sure what was actually required. The translations were kind of vague for a couple things. A month or so before the race though they put up a list with pictures of the items which made it much clearer. For example “Elastic Adhesive Band” was what we call vet wrap. I was thinking it either meant KT tape or Elastikon, or an Ace bandage until I saw the picture.

Friday morning was race day. I felt fairly refreshed considering the time change. I finished my preparations including putting sunscreen on. Almost all of this race is exposed. It makes for great views but lots of sun and little protection from lightning. We headed to Ordino a little earlier than we thought we’d need to normally so that we could find a parking space easier. We picked up a runner hitchhiking to town, he sounded French. We eventually found a spot and headed towards the race corral. There are zero port a potties or bathrooms provided by the race. There was one restaurant open so there was a huge line for the bathrooms in there.

After that big use of time, I decided to go in the corral where you couldn’t leave from. You had to show an item from the required gear list, this year it was your headlamp and extra batteries. Most of the volunteers for this race look like they’re 12 as I’m sure almost the entire town of Ordino was helping out. I showed my stuff to one of the girls and then walked around the table where a woman stopped me to show her the gear. The girl acted like she had no idea who I was so I had to again get my stuff out to show the woman. Take away here is to just go to the grown-up if there is one. There were 6 of us Americans that showed up race morning but I didn’t see any in the race chute. I’m sure I was the slowest of all of them so I lined up towards the back. On a side note, while normally you will see people of all body types at ultras, you will only see one type here: thin. I was probably the fattest person there and remember I didn’t finish.

There was a drum line there making lots of noise and an announcer/emcee that I can only describe as that person you’ve heard yelling “goooooaaaaalllll” during a soccer game. What was funny was he only had that animation in his voice while speaking Catalan. Once he spoke English he was all boring and down to business. There were some fireworks and then the announcer did a countdown to the start at 7am!

I was nervous but had a good race plan. We all were nervous, most of us would be happy just to finish this race. I can’t imagine what it’d be like trying to win this, that kind of pressure. The only races I actually try to win are the winter races and even there I know someone else’s race would have to blow up for me to win. I knew I had to go at this as a multi day hiking expedition. There would be no running up steep hills or going faster than I wanted just to keep up with others. I would be fine with chasing cutoffs the entire time. I wouldn’t charge downhills like I’m known to do, flying by people as I go. I would run down easy if possible and hike if I had to (you almost always had to). I had only “blown” out my quads once during a race and that was due to screaming downhills early in the race. In that one I was able to walk the last 17 miles, mad but still a finisher.

We went through the city streets. Surprisingly the hilly streets that I disliked walking up and down earlier in the week felt pretty good to run up. I was already towards the back of the pack so there wasn’t much movement in position. My watch was acting all goofy the first 2 miles or so. I ended up restarting it and then it worked normally. Now I had no clue how far I had really gone or how much further to go since the readings were all off. We went on some wide dirt trail and then back in town just briefly before we finally hit the single track. Here there was a brief waiting in line.

Once we got moving again things moved better than I’ve ever seen them go. Almost everyone had poles, myself included. My goal was to not be the rookie American that took someones eye out when his pole slipped back. My poles never slipped so I guess that was one win for the race. For the same reason, I made sure to go behind someone without poles so as not to get taken out by a pole. People were super polite if they wanted to pass or would move over if they felt you should pass them. 99% of the time though, everyone I was with was content with the current speed of the herd. I still just can’t get over how pleasant that first 4,100 foot climb was, as far as speed and not being in a conga line. Over 400 people were in this race.

There were 2 smallish (300 foot) descents during the 4,100 foot climb. I wasn’t sure how many miles I had gone for most of this section due to the watch error. It didn’t matter really, I learned quickly that you weren’t done going downhill until you crossed some sort of creek no matter how many slight uphills you went on your way down. You weren’t on the top until you couldn’t see anything above you. That and the only flat areas in the race were often the very peak of the mountain. The trail was well marked with those flags in the ground when there weren’t trees and ribbons tied to branches when in the trees.

After climbing almost 3 hours we came out of the trees and would essentially be out of them until the decent into Margineda.

7000 feet elevation or so, looking somewhat back where we came from. Trust me, none of what you see is flat.
Pretty much looking the other way.

There was still another 1,000 feet of steep gain to be had. I could see the other runners ahead of me on the top already. The leaders were probably an hour ahead of me at this point and past the first aid station. I heard some cow bells only to find horses with bells around their necks. I never got very close to these.

My anterior tibialis tendons were basically mad at me since the beginning of the race. I had forgot to put KT tape on during the hike 2 days ago so they got a little inflamed then. This pretty much happens every race and always will just because of how my ankle is made. Anyway I just ignored it as best as I could knowing there wasn’t anything to be done about it. What is weird is that after the second aid station I never felt an issue with them again. This is even after tightening my shoes quit a bit due to the steep downhills and my feet moving forward too far in my shoes. Usually tight shoes make it worse. I haven’t really figured out why the pain went away.

Looking left from the picture of the horses above.
Looking North East up the trail. Looks kinda flat right? It’s the equivalent of 700 feet gain per mile for that short section you can see people on. That’s how much these photos don’t show the true steepness. I kept thinking things were flatter when I saw other peoples’ photos and videos and wondering how the race could be 44,000 feet. If I took the photo with the camera level you wouldn’t even see the orange flag in the photo.

I finally got to Coll d’Arenes around 10:40am and enjoyed the view. I was going about the speed I was expecting based on seeing the Euforia runners 2 days ago. I would be behind the chart I had made for my wife but that was really just a guesstimate based on what I thought at home. I would’ve changed it had I known what I know now. I was staying hydrated and still eating up to this point. Actually the entire race I would use up my last water just as I was getting to the next aid station. I couldn’t have done a better job with planning on how much water to fill up with.

View from Coll d’Arenes
Another view
360 degrees. We came up from the left and went over in the middle of the photo. The mountain on the left and right are the same mountain for bearings.

There was a little bit of running on the side of this mountain before we rounded it to go down to the lake we hiked to 2 days earlier. This was a fairly steep and technical downhill. I wasn’t surprised since I saw the Euforia runners walking down it and figured there was a reason. Once I got to the lake I was starting to feel the heat build. I wet my head in the cold water and took off down the somewhat flat area that had the heifers.

I ran down without using my poles. That was my plan and it worked fine for this section. Later in the race I used them on downhills more for safety in the super steep descents. It slowed me down but I figured it was better to be slow than have my race end due to an injury or fall. There were 2 photographers in this section. Neither photo looked all that great so I didn’t buy them. I stopped to take a picture of the “incident” area of the trail. I got to the first aid station which is Refugi de Sorteny at 13 miles into the race at 11:47am. Yes, almost 5 hours for 13 miles, and I wasn’t even the slowest person.

I didn’t see my wife right away so I took my pack off and looked at what food was available. They scan your bib at almost every aid station and it instantly updates to the race app and online. Since this one had WiFi at it, my wife got an alert that I was there and then walked around the building to find me (she was hanging out in the shade). You also could send a text with your location via the race app to anyone you wanted as well. I never used it since she was getting updates all the time on my location anyway. In fact, she said it would even tell her estimated times of my arrivals at the aid stations she could go to.

I had heard the food was much different from our races here. I guess that is kinda true but I found it to be very similar to ours, save the addition of cheese and cut up salami type meat. I absolutely loved that meat and cheese. The salami type stuff you could get in any store for 1 Euro. The cheese I never could figure out what kind it was. It tasted so good at that 80 degree temperature with the meat. It was hard not to eat too much of it. I kept it to a minimum since I needed things easily digestible in this heat. This aid station had less food options than the remainder of them but it was still fully stocked in my opinion. They don’t have gels for you. They have water and an electrolyte mix that wasn’t too bad but I stuck with what I brought since I know what it has in it. Theirs was a brand not sold here. My wife helped out getting water and reloaded mixes and food for the next section. I didn’t mind taking more time at aid stations this race since I wasn’t in a hurry and it was important to not forget anything as it took a long time to get to the next station. I spent close to 30 minutes at every station. This one was faster since there wasn’t much to do.

My wife modeling the salami type meat sticks they would cut up at the aid stations.

The trail goes up for a little bit and then down. After that starts the long hike up about 2,500 feet to Portella de Rialb. This was a very pretty hike. We followed a creek for most of the time. There were plenty of opportunities to cool off in the stream and the springs feeding it. I was dunking my head every chance I got. I don’t know what the temperature was but it was hot for me. There was no wind but full sun. I know John Kelly had issues with the heat as well which is part of the reason he ended up quitting. I wasn’t overheating but it was hard to go slow enough to keep my heart rate down. Because of this I could tell I wasn’t absorbing anything food wise anymore. Normally I don’t care too much about this since I know in the cool of the night I’ll make up ground. At this race though, there is no making up ground. As I would find out that night, you can’t cruise along quickly in the dark in this terrain.

We were told to look for these during a lightning storm and go in them.
Ever up!
I mean come on, how much nicer view can you get? It was like this for miles.

Soon enough I got to the top at 1:43pm. There was a great view of the ski hill where the second aid station was. Of course we wouldn’t go straight there, we had to go down and up an few more times before arriving at the next stop.

30 feet of flat ground, enjoy it while you can.

We then went down around 1,700 feet before going up again to Estany Esbalcat. This lake was a gorgeous one and hidden from the valley below. Well worth the hike if taking a much shorter way to get there.

Come to Andorra for views of magnificent mountain lakes!….and a naked guy swimming in them (look closely).

The race guide says this is a relatively flat and clearly marked trail from the lake onwards. That is not at all how I remember it. I think we went up 400 feet on this relatively flat trail and it switched back and forth a lot that if not for the other racers, I probably would’ve gone off course. Eventually you go downhill and run into a lot of day hikers. I suspect they ride the gondola up and then hike back down to their car. Then it’s uphill to the top of the gondola where there is a restaurant we used as the second aid station at mile 19.3 of the race. This is called Coma d’Arcalis but I just called it the first ski hill aid station as there’d be more. I got there at 3:30pm (yes I was that slow and there were still 50 people behind me). Since the road to the restaurant was under construction, my wife got to ride the gondola up for free.

I spent more time here as I had to take care of a small heel blister I could feel forming due to all the steep hiking. I hadn’t taped my heels since I never get blisters there. The only time I had was at Volstate which makes sense since I walked some there as well. I popped my blister and then used Tincture of Benzoin to help the new tape to stick to my heels. I ate the pasta they had here as well as the meat and cheese. I tried to eat more than usual here for the long haul this evening when I’d be able to digest it. I had my wife take pictures of the food tables to help you know what was available. She missed the pasta and soup table and also the meat and cheese table so this is only half of what was there really. They had paper bowls and wooden spoons to eat the pasta with but you need your own cup for drinks. I just used the bowl for other food after I finished the pasta. The bowl and spoon were composted.

That’s tuna on the left, available at most aid stations, I put some in the pasta. Sometimes they had pineapple as well and different versions of cake.

I left the aid station and started up the ski slope. There was a large group of horses here with their foals. It became apparent that all the ski slopes in the country were grazed by horses during the summer. My blister hurt for a couple of minutes and then never hurt again. Really nothing was hurting, my legs just felt tired. I was worried about my injury acting up but it hadn’t yet. I was getting a little chaffing and realized I forgot to apply more lube at the aid station. I stopped to get it out of my pack and the second I opened the zip lock bag it was in, a bunch of horses came running over. I have a strong suspicion that they are used to being fed by the tourists that ride up the gondola. A foal started to eat my race bib so I had to shoo them away while trying to apply lube down my shorts. Probably a good video to be had there.

Bib eater.

This is probably as good an area as any to talk about all the manure on the course. I don’t know if there aren’t any dung beetles in Andorra or what but if there are, they must not be able to keep up. The manure was a common theme in the race reports I read. While it wasn’t as bad as some of them made it seem, it was definitely something you had to look out for anytime you were in a pasture area. The smell was very apparent as well, which is something coming from me. There were a couple times I was expecting to see an elephant or rhino over the next hill because the manure piles were over a foot high and 2 feet wide at times. I don’t know if these horses are trained to all go in the same spot or if they just hold it for that long but I’ve never seen piles so big before (other than rhino or elephant).

It was fairly gentle incline in the beginning but then it gets steep. Steeper than we’ve had so far in the race and much rockier. In fact it was pretty much all rocks for the next 10 miles. I think we went up 1,700 feet in just over a mile. I even stopped for a couple minutes going up this hill. Normally I don’t stop but at least I took a photo.

The view from where I took a break looking back at the aid station in the distance (center left). That grass is about 1000 feet below me. The lake in the distance is not the lake we went past earlier, you can’t see it in this picture.

It was on this section at the base of Bretxa d’Arcalis I met a guy I would play leap frog with all the way until Refugi Joan Canut Pla de l’Estany the third aid station. He had his bib folded up so just his number was showing so I never did get his name or what country he was from. He could see I was from the USA so his first words to me were “just 400 meters” as he pointed to the top. As if 400 meters is a small amount. That’s still 1,300 feet and it was on loose shale. I’m pretty sure he was from Belgium because he had a French accent and later on talked about the best Belgium runners smoking. See, he smoked a cigarette every time he stopped. I saw him smoke 5 times. The views were nice from the top and it was at least thinking about cooling off. Some runners already had on arm sleeves or jackets since it was slightly windy on top. I made it up in 45 minutes but it seemed much longer than that.

View from Bretxa d’Arcalis looking South.

Guess where we went next? That’s right down. Nice and steep down. This is where I started using poles going down. As the English version of the race guide states, “We take the initial technical descent, remaining concentrated.” Real translation is try not to slip constantly on the moving rocks. It really wasn’t too bad, you just had to go slow and know where to step and place your poles. I was a quick learner. At the bottom were some lakes and then right back up the next climb called Pic del Clot del Cavall (Pic just means Peak if you couldn’t tell).

Again with the steep climb up and my friend telling me how many meters to go. We talked briefly about the race. He had made it to Margineda last time he was here and quit there. He was hoping to get at least that far again this year. I’m suspecting he didn’t make it any further if even that far since I never saw him again after the third aid station. He was under trained the same as me due to injury. I told him I at least wanted to get to Margineda so that I would experience all the worst portions of the course. Weird what kind of goals ultrarunners have. Of course I had no idea if I’d even make it that far. Things were starting to feel better but that can change quickly.

He was the only person I talked to the entire race. Even though I could always see another person either in daylight or their headlamp at night, I felt more isolated than I do during Arrowhead*. It wasn’t a hopeless feeling or anything but just the sense of being alone and somewhat helpless. Kind of like the isolation I felt while watching Lost in Translation, or more so how I think she felt. Seeing a loved one rarely and only for a brief time and then back into a foreign land with a communication barrier. I so wanted to talk about the race with other runners. What we’ve gone through and what is coming up if they’ve been here before. I’m not sure how I could prevent this isolation while running this race again other than to just know it will happen. I pretty much listened to my iPod the entire race because of this.

* {Don’t get me wrong Arrowhead is lonely, but I’m constantly thinking about the race and survival, that I never have time to let the isolation sink in I think}.

From the Pic del Clot del Cavall looking West towards Pic del Comapedrosa.

We reached the top of Pic del Clot del Cavall and the clouds were moving in. It didn’t look like it would rain anytime soon for now at least. If I remember it correctly, it wasn’t too bad at first going down but then got real steep. I know we went down 2,000 feet in just over a mile. There was some nice runnable trail towards the end through the trees. I was starting to feel better in the shade and the wind from running helped to cool me off. Since the last aid station there was hardly anywhere to cool off like the previous section with water constantly around you. Every once and a while I’d see Pic del Comapedrosa through the trees. It’s the tallest in the country.

Finally the trees gave way to a most beautiful scene I’d see in Andorra. I’ll just show you the best picture I have of it but it doesn’t do it justice at all.

This is the best view I saw!

This is the place I’d recommend someone to hike to in Andorra if you’re just there for hiking. Towards the left you might see 2 orange shirts that are workers at the aid station #3 Refugi de l’Estany. That water you see is the Riu del Bancal Vedeller cascading down 2,000 feet in this photo to give you a sense of scale. There’s another one to it’s right that was smaller and you probably can’t see it. There is a lake up there but we didn’t go past it. There were quit a few people with tents around here. You can see just a few of them in the photo.

The peak is the mountain in the center kind of hiding behind this foothill.

It was still a little distance to get to the aid station. I got there at 7:43pm and had gained a few spots even. This was a decent aid station but the refugi was not near as nice as the others. They didn’t let us in it so I’m not positive on what it was like but it was pretty small. There was a water fountain running that was just the stream water that they collected from further upstream and sent down in a plastic pipe. It’s here that I realized probably all the water we’ve been drinking was just collected straight from the streams untreated. I knew Giardia would take a few days to hit me and since I didn’t have any other options I went ahead and drank it. Plus like I said, I’m pretty sure I had already been drinking it and just didn’t know it. There were horses all over pooping and peeing above where they collected this water by the way, I saw them while hiking up the mountain later on. I also saw those heifers standing in the lake before the first aid station as well.

There wasn’t anywhere to sit here really either other than the rocks, so I ate quickly and got on my way. I wanted to get to the top of the mountain by dark. I put my headlamp on now so I wouldn’t have to deal with it later on. I was finally cool and that stretch of easy trail before the aid station allowed my heart rate to finally get down and I was absorbing some calories for once. I started the 2,900 feet climb up Pic del Comapedrosa. This is in less than 2 miles and completely rocks and boulder hopping after the first couple hundred feet.

I passed a couple people right away but didn’t think much of it. It was kind of hard to find the way sometimes. There were plenty of flags but since it was just a bunch of rocks, there is no clear path between the flags. I was doing surprisingly well at picking rocks that didn’t move under my feet. Soon I passed another person, then another. I never pass people on an uphill, like ever. Here I was a flatlander passing mountain people going up the hardest climb of the race. I passed 8 people! This was my only “win” during the race. It just shows how much more energy I had. And probably how little energy they had at the moment. I was almost having fun going up this mountain.

This was taken about a 1000 feet up from the aid station. This is what you’re hiking on and why it’s hard to find an “easy” path.
Looking I think North towards a different peak. The trail went to my left in this photo.
I think this was taken on the last leg up to the peak. I reached the top 15 minutes after this was taken. It’s looking West towards Spain based on the suns position.

There is a false summit and I knew that. The last part of this climb is very steep. It’s steeper than Rat Jaw at Frozen Head State Park if you’ve ever been on that climb. It wasn’t as hard at the top part of Longs Peak in Colorado but it seemed close. There were a couple spots you needed your hands so I guess it would be considered a Class 2 trail but it wasn’t dangerous by any means. All the nice sharp slate rocks would stop you from sliding to your death pretty quickly if you slipped. The rocks slipping beneath you or from above were the dangers. I always made sure to look above and below me if I was in a loose rock area to both not get hit and try not to hit someone else. You will have rocks falling while going up and down this mountain.

Top of Andorra! Looking East.
The last picture I took during the race. Looking West into Spain. Looks kinda steep to the left right? That’s how we went down. It’s considered the easier route (it actually is).

I reached the top in just under 2 hours at 9:50pm. You could still see although the sun had gone down already. I didn’t spend much time up there. I took a couple pictures, had my bib scanned and I was on my way back down. The first part is very steep and I was plowing a lot of dirt and rocks down the mountain. Then you eventually get to a more normal decline with a lake I could tell was there but really couldn’t see since it was now dark.

The trail continued to follow the stream that came out of the lake. The trail was sometimes dirt, sometimes big round rocks, and sections of snow. The snow wasn’t bad when it was in a flatish area but sucked when it was sloped. It seemed forever to get to the aid station. We only went down around 2,000 feet but it seemed more. The trail was occasionally hard to see because the big rocks would block the reflective flags a lot. I suspect whoever put the flags in this section went backwards on the course while placing them so they were in view from that direction more than the way we ran it. I wasn’t the only one having to stop often to look around for the trail in the dark.

I believe it was this section or maybe the next that I got pretty good at telling what species of animal was coming up by the smell of the manure in the dark. Really it wasn’t hard for me since I’m used to these smells. I hate horse manure smell but unfortunately that’s what most of the pastures were. It was in one of these night time manure land mine areas that I saw something that made me laugh pretty hard. Whoever was putting flags in the ground got creative and placed 2 rocks on top of a massive horse manure pile and stuck the flag in between them. I didn’t think to take a picture at the time but it was totally something I would’ve done myself if that was my job.

As seems to be the usual for this race you had to go uphill right before the aid station. I got to the 4th aid station which is Refugi del Comapedrosa at 10:57pm. So I went 2 miles an hour downhill. That’s what I mean by having to hike downhill in a lot of areas. It’s just really hard to make up any time in this race. I could see this aid station from a ways away. It was lit up like a Christmas tree pretty much. It was large and had a kitchen, electricity, and a pretty big dining area. We were only allowed to use a portion of the area. There were benches against one wall. Some were wide enough that people were sleeping on them. There were a lot of worn out faces at this aid station. I found out later that a lot of people quit here. I thought it was a weird place to quit. First off, you still have to hike out of here as there is no road to the refugi as far as I could tell. Plus the next section looked like it would be the easiest of the entire race according to the elevation profile. A nice gentle slope downhill after a couple short uphills. I was looking forward to it. Maybe they knew something I didn’t.

Here they had tomato sauce with the pasta. It was amazing! Much better than eating it with tuna like I did at the first ski aid station. I was getting low on energy again since it had been quite a while since I ate. The cheese and meat was again awesome, as was some cake I had. I also had some pop and I took some caffeine to help get through the night. They had a bathroom downstairs in the basement, of course with no soap. It was pretty hot in this aid station as well which I guess was kind of good since I was still soaking in sweat and it kept me from getting chilled. I didn’t stay any longer than needed. Of course they stopped me on the way out wondering why I didn’t have a coat on. Can you seriously not see I’m still sweating? Next time I’ll just put a sign in 5 languages that says “I’m not cold!” and “I like talking to people” but that part would only be in English.

The next mountain was only about 700 feet up. It started with a easy slope but got rocky and steep the last part. Once on top of this one I think it was pretty easy downhill to a kind of saddle and then an easy (for this race) uphill on the side of the next hill. I was in Spain for a portion of that section. Then we got to what I thought would be a nice easy downhill. I was looking forward to running down the entire way.

What I got instead was a ski slope with multiple narrow ruts going down. Oh and by the way not at all at a gentle slope. Doesn’t seem too bad right? Well add to this the fact that the wind that was present just a moment ago was completely gone and the trail consisted 4 inches of the finest dust I’ve ever seen. By fine I mean flour consistency. This meant it was very slippery and all I could see was a dust cloud from the previous racers and myself. There were flags in the ground but there really wasn’t any trail. You’d go back and forth between the ruts trying not to fall down. So why not go on the grass you ask? Great question. I don’t know what kind of grass this was but it was weird. It looked like fairly normal grass but when you stepped on it, you’d slide all over, almost like it was coated in wax which maybe it was. But that’s not the weirdest thing. If you put your hand down on it with any sort of pressure, it would feel like needles were going into my hand, and this was with gloves on. You couldn’t see thorns or anything and it didn’t burn like nettle but it hurt a lot so you definitely didn’t want to fall on it. Some grass was fine and in the dark it all looked the same so I couldn’t tell what was safe to touch and what wasn’t. It all seemed slick though. Especially since it was a steep downhill.

After about 300 feet or so of this I saw a couple runners stopped on the trail looking around. I figured they must’ve lost the trail of markers in all the dust. Once I got down there, I soon realized why they had stopped for a while. While I was correct that they couldn’t see the flags, the reason wasn’t the dust, it was a group of horses in the way. These seemed even bigger than the previous ski slope group. I think I saw a few mules in this group as well. A few had bells on which helped to know where they were. The main issue was they would keep going down the hill in front of me kicking up lots of dust. Finally after a while of this some of them broke off to the side. Great, now I was in the middle of the horses. I finally got in front of all of them. Then what do I hear? A bell ringing like crazy closing in on me very quickly. I could vaguely see a large horse barreling down the hill right at me. About 5 feet before me, he broke off to the side of me and stopped. I’d start down hill and a different one would do it but he didn’t have a bell so I just had to listen for the thumping of hooves. The moon hadn’t come up yet so there was no light other than my headlamp in a cloud of dust. For the next 10 minutes, my life consisted of being chased by 2 horses down a steep ski slope. I suppose they probably thought it was fun but maybe they were pissed that us runners kept coming up on them in the dark. Either way I was glad to finally get to a rocky area where they quit following me.

By this point I was most of the way down to the highway that we cross at the Andorra/Spain border. There wasn’t a border guard or anything like that though. The road in Andorra is tar and the road in Spain is dirt. It looked blocked off by the race officials who took down our bib numbers. Maybe there is some sort of barricade to keep you from crossing in a car but then why even have the road go there at all if not to go to Spain. Anyway the next part sucked even more than the dust.

We went off trail (well actually I think almost the entire time from the last aid station wasn’t any official trail) down the steep grassy slope in a straight line. It was almost impossible not to slip on that stupid grass. This went on for over a mile. I slipped often and if any damage was done to my knees or legs during this race it was here because of all the sudden jerks and slips. About 2/3rds of the way down I could smell I was coming up on a cattle herd. I was expecting an issue with me running with a head lamp on shining in their faces. Nope. I could run right behind cows laying down and they didn’t even care. They had their calves with them no less!

Finally towards the bottom I completely biffed it and rolled down the hill for about 30 feet. All the dirt stuck to everything. At the bottom of the hill was a stream with no real way to cross without getting one foot wet as far as I could see. I used my poles to vault across as far as I could but still got one foot wet. The first time I had a wet foot the entire race. At least I could change socks at the aid station that was now about 400 feet above me, plus 30 feet of stairs to get into the second ski hill aid station. Ugh.

Through all this slipping I was trying to think what could be done. 2 different surfaces and both are slippery. I suppose really deep treads on my shoes might help but I hate Saloman shoes and Sportiva aren’t great either (everyone from Europe wore one of those 2 brands). Do deep treads help on slick grass? I’ve figured out what I’ll do to fix it the next time for this section but I’m not telling my secret until I finish the race. It might not even work.

I reached the 5th aid station Coll de la Botella which I called the second ski aid station at 2:05am. I had gone 37.3 miles. It was a large cafeteria type place. They only let us in a small area of it. I wish I had a picture of me. I looked like I had been in the field plowing all day I was so full of dust. I made a huge mess in the bathroom trying to wash my arms and face. Brown water went everywhere since the faucet pressure was crazy high. I had to use towels to clean up the mirror and counter. I changed my socks. My tape was still hanging in there although I might use the benzoin for all the tape next time. The food was okay here but I didn’t eat much other than the cheese and meat again. Maybe something sugary. I wanted to sleep in the car since it’d be quiet and dark, but I figured that was against the rules or someone would think I was cheating so I kept on going.

The next section starts out with almost 3 miles of runnable trail. Other than the roads after Margineda, this is the only flat part of the course. It is a gradual incline in reality, but you couldn’t even tell after what we had already gone through.

I started hearing thunder and could see some big clouds in the moonlight from the North West. I had noticed this is the direction the clouds move from the last few days so I knew they would get to me eventually. I was doing the math and it didn’t look good as far as where I’d be when it got to me (like top of a mountain bad). We got out of the trees for just a bit and there were race officials at the bottom of the hill we’d go up. I was trying to determine if I should just wait here or keep going. Everyone else kept going so I did as well.

It was a pretty steep climb up a very eroded trail (or maybe not a real trail) through trees. It would’ve been tough without poles. Eventually we got above them and it was a more gradual climb up to Bony de La Pica. Basically we kind of skirted the ridge as we went up. Overall the climb was around 1,000 feet so not too bad. I could hear women cheering up in the distance and figured it must be the top. I have a feeling the views from here would be amazing in the daytime. All I saw now were the lightning strikes. They were still a bit in the distance but it was windy, and a few rain drops were felt. I moved quickly to the peak.

I made it there at 4:18am to cheers from the race volunteers on top. It looked like a miserable place to be. It was very windy. They scanned by bib and I immediately started down. They were worried I wasn’t dressed enough of course. I had finally just dried all the sweat off. The fist 10 feet down is a scramble and then it’s a mix of that flour dirt and loose rocks. Also there was absolutely no wind now that I was off the ridge and behind it. I started to sweat again 10 minutes later. It really never cooled off that much overnight.

So maybe I buried the lead a little bit here. If I got anything from all the race related things I read, it was this; Bony de la Pica should scare you. Or more specifically, going down from the peak should scare you. This is the part that has chains bolted into the rock to help you not fall off a cliff. It’s almost 5,000 feet of descent in an almost constant fashion. And most everyone will do it in the dark. This is the part that I meant when I told the Belgian I wanted to at least do all the hardest parts of the course. What really made it suck for me though was the dirt and rocks beneath your feet just gave way. I almost felt like I was just plowing my way down the hill with my feet. Poles helped a little bit but you can’t use them when you have to hang on to a chain. Really the trail wasn’t that dangerous, the drop off was usually only about 30 feet. You wouldn’t die but you sure don’t want to fall that far either. The only reason you would fall though is because it is so frickin slippery. The trail is wide enough to just hike down it if it had a normal trail surface. I think there were 4 or 5 short sections of chain. This was all towards the top of the peak.

Okay, so now that you know that this part is scary and a long steep downhill I’ll continue.

There were a few sprinkles almost immediately after I got off the peak and I wanted to get past those chains quickly in case it really started raining. It never did rain by the way and the lightning quit as well. Of course I didn’t know at the time.

During the chain section I could hear and see people running down the hill, yes running. They ran as though someone had just plopped them on the top of the mountain with fresh legs. I was confused as to how they were doing this while I was slowly going down with my poles in front of me. I certainly could’ve gone faster without using my poles but not that fast and I didn’t feel safe doing that anyway not knowing at all what the trail was like ahead. I moved over for them as best as a person can while on a steep narrow trail with sections of chain. They would just have to wait until I got to a section between chains to pass. After like the 3rd person I was getting pissed. Did these people sleep for 5 hours at the ski resort and wake up refreshed and new? Why were they so far back with me if they could run this good? Who purposely goes slow for almost an entire day before kicking it up a notch (more like 5 notches)?

After the chain sections, the trail was still steep but kind of switchbacked it’s way down. There were small sections of big boulders and what looked like rivers of rocks that had flowed down the mountain that we went back and forth over, or at least it seemed that way. Mostly though the trail was the dirt and loose rock and roots. It was hard work going down this mountain. Harder work than all of the previous ones. Plus with no wind and almost all of it in the trees, I was almost hot again. The last bit was more gentle downhill so I ran it. I was still getting passed by other runners screaming down the hill. I only passed I think 2 people going down. After 2,900 feet of down (with an occasional short up) I got to Aixas which is private property. I think it is maybe a vineyard or has stables maybe. It was hard to tell in the dark but it looked like a fairly big complex. There was a fountain with water and a couple race officials. I think they wrote our bib number down but I can’t remember.

You have to go back uphill about 200 feet but not too bad and then you go the rest of the way down. Here the trail surface is much more stable dirt. Still some roots and rocks here and there but runnable. It has lots of short switchbacks on it. The sky was getting lighter now. Still more people passing me but now that I was running I also passed a few people towards the end. It was light enough to turn my head lamp off now. This last section of downhill was 1,700 feet.

My watch had stopped recording my track but I could at least still tell the time. This time the uphill before the aid station was very small but there were still 20 feet of stairs. I arrived at the 6th aid station and the 1st major aid station of La Margineda at 6:30am. My official time is messed up since they marked me as coming back in when I quit later on. The hard cut off for this aid station is 9am so I was still doing pretty good as far as that goes. This aid station is at mile 45.4 and is a school.

I found my wife and told her I wanted to sleep for a couple hours to see if that would give my legs more energy. The food here honestly kinda sucked. it was supposed to have all this great food since it was a major station but it didn’t. I barely found anything to eat but forced myself to eat something. I wanted to eat 1,000 calories before I slept but there just wasn’t anything good or with good sustaining carbs. I mean who eats a salad during an ultra? Bizarre. Also there was no where to sit down in the gym. No chairs, benches, etc. Just lay on the floor guys.

I saw runners with a different color bib than I had on. They were Mitic runners. I didn’t realize they had started their race at 10pm the night before. I thought they started today (Saturday). So all those runners who were flying by going downhill were the leaders of that race. Now I wasn’t so pissed anymore. No wonder they looked so good, they are good. Probably 20 of them passed me on that mountain.

This last section I had really noticed myself slowing on the uphills. My legs just didn’t have any energy going uphill. I could still run downhill pretty well which was bizarre to me. I’m used to my quads either hurting or not hurting. Not this compartmentalized fashion where they could handle one stress but not a different one. I knew I couldn’t continue the race with the way they felt. I also know that things can change for the better with some simple sleep. They had a nice room of cots with blankets away from the large gym where the food and massage tables were. I went there and got some sleep but not great. I should’ve changed shirts to get rid of my sweat soaked one. I just put more blankets on to stay warm.

After about 90 minutes my wife woke me up. I didn’t feel any better. I changed my shirt and loaded up my pack. I decided to continue up the next hill to see how my legs held up. I told my wife to stay put for at least 30 minutes in case I called it quits. I checked out at 8:40am.

You run downhill and then mostly flat for almost a mile through town in a convoluted way as to cross under the major highway and over a river before the climb up the next steep hill. I tried to run some on this flat part but it felt better to just power hike. I was hiking 4 miles per hour and felt like I was flying. Oh why couldn’t I just walk it in the rest of the way like this? Because you signed up for a crazy hard race, that’s why! Some more Mitic people passed me, what else was new.

Initially the climb wasn’t very bad. Then I realized how slow I was going and how much steeper the 2,000 foot hill in front of me would get. My legs had no energy and I just wanted to cry. I was so mad at my body for crapping out like this. I looked at the cutoff times and realized I would never make the hard cutoff at Coll Vallcivera at 2am. I knew they let people finish the race after the cutoff and they even joked about it at the pre-race meeting. I was positive they didn’t let you leave the aid stations after a cutoff time. I don’t know if I got that from previous race reports or what.

I could keep going maybe I thought. Perhaps some great resurgence of energy would happen. Maybe I wouldn’t get any slower in the next 55 miles. Ha, ha, ha, maybe Superman will make the Earth rotate backwards to turn back time too. Sounds a lot like hope doesn’t it? I thought for a long time as I very slowly made it up the easy part of the slope. If I quit after the next aid station, I would basically be in the middle of nowhere. I would have to hike myself out or take a helicopter ride. I didn’t really feel like figuring out how good my helicopter insurance really was. I fought back tears and turned around.

I had just done what I had never done before.

I quit.

Little did I know how horrible it would feel. Little did I know how stupid of a way I did it. Now I had to watch everyone who didn’t quit go by me in the other direction. Just now as I’m writing this, the feelings are coming back. It sucks. It sucked then too.

Most of them were Mitic runners. Then I saw Ronda runners. What? It was already well past 9am. How are they out here? Then as I went down I saw 4 more in a group. They obviously left after 9am. They were ALLOWED to leave after 9am. I seriously thought about turning around and going back up the 200 feet I had already gone down and ignoring the 30 minutes I just wasted. I imagined this group of Japanese runners would be my new best friends and we would somehow communicate and persevere I told myself. This is why I quit in the worst way. I had to quit about 10 times in my head before I texted my wife to just pick me up.

It took some time for my wife to find me but we eventually got together and she drove me back up to the Margineda aid station. I told them I was quitting. They scanned my bib for some reason which messed up my results page (I left somehow before I even arrived). I think they thought I was just showing up for the first time. Then they tore off the finisher portion of my bib so everyone would now know I was a quitter. The scarlet letter of ultrarunning.

It’s been a month since I quit this race and I’m still having a hard time figuring out how to write my feelings. You know how artists like to reference a fire burning inside all of us? Well I guess I’ll try to use that metaphor. Once I quit, whatever flame was there shrunk in size greatly. I’m not going to say it was an ember because that seems cliche and dumb. The fire was still there (hence me wanting to turn around), but it was small. I also know artists like to then talk about something changing inside of you at this point of the story/song/poem. They use words like kerosene being dumped on their fire, or explosion. I think you know what I mean.

There was no explosion, no kerosene. If I had to describe it, I’d say what came next felt like a big Bur Oak Tree stump being dropped on me. The weight of it sucked. That scarlet letter sucked. I was so pissed at my legs. I wish I could say I was numbed by it, but I can’t. I was wide awake and aware of all the suckiness. Yeah, that’s probably not a real word, but I’m not an artist either.

Anyway, we left and looked for a fast food place so we could just eat and go to the apartment to sleep. It was after 10am now, but McDonald’s and Burger King weren’t open yet. We ended up going to the gas station along the way and getting some food there. We ate at the apartment and I took a shower to clean up. It felt so strange being able to stand, squat, etc in the shower while cleaning myself up. Usually I’m just sitting on the floor in the shower or tub because I hurt so much. My feet felt fine which is another oddity.

I hadn’t thought to make ice the last few days so we didn’t have any to put in the bags that I did remember to bring along to ice my ankles, so that didn’t happen. I just lay on top of the bed with my legs on a pillow and slept for about 3 hours or so. I didn’t want to sleep too long and then wake up at midnight or something like that.

So going back to that fire metaphor. Stumps are hard to burn. Bur Oaks likely even more so, since they are made to withstand prairie fires, although I’ve never tried to burn one. The only way to get them going is to use fuel of some sort to get the fire to catch onto the stump. My little fire wasn’t going to do the trick on it’s own. The sleep I got was the equivalent of paper. Something, but certainly not enough.

There was a buffet at a restaurant very close to where we were staying and they were still open for lunch when we got up so we went there. I made many trips and tried pretty much everything once or twice. The food was cold of course since it was something like 2:30pm, but it tasted good. The fruit and yogurt parfaits were amazing. They need those at aid stations!

There is a church right next door to that so we went there next. There was a young woman there to give tours. There happened to be a British older couple there as well so she gave a tour in English. She was very good. She kept thinking the Brits were our parents due to their age and we all spoke English. There are many very old churches in Andorra to look at. We’d see a few over the next few days since we had all this extra time now.

Sant Marti Church in Cortinada

We killed a few hours at the apartment and then went to Ordino to eat the finish line meals we had paid for around 7pm. It wasn’t too bad, but nothing impressive and I wouldn’t bother to buy it for your crew if you have one. It was here that I saw all the Japanese runners that passed me as I was walking back after quitting. They had all quit as well at some point that day. I had mixed emotions about seeing them. Happy that I probably made the right call, but sad that they didn’t finish.

Now I had cardboard for the fire.

I wanted to watch some people finish the race so we went over to the finish area (the food was blocks away). The announcer was doing his job in his ggoooaaaallll voice and giving beer to the finishers. There really isn’t a good place to just sit and watch the finish line really. Plus I was still feeling weird about not finishing. We found a grocery store in Ordino just walking around and got some more supplies. We went back, finished off the pirate chips and other snacks and went to bed.

Had to get something from Cuba. It is really good and it’s legal to bring back to the US

The next day we slept in. The main goal was site seeing today. We started off by going to the Miniature Museum in Ordino. It was quite good and I’d recommend it. It has lots Russian dolls, miniature artwork, and bottles that are painted on the inside of them. Amazing.

There were over 20 sets of dolls. All were beautiful.
Lunch that day. I just liked the cute little fry basket.

We then went to the Caldea Spa in the capitol city. It is expensive but we had a BOGO coupon from the race. It is worth it having just done the race. It’s not a natural hot springs or anything, just a giant building filled with various hot water pools. There are different portions of the complex that you pay more to go to. We didn’t really know which was what so we just went everywhere until someone told us we couldn’t be there. The places I liked the best were a couple places we weren’t supposed to be. There is one pool that has grapefruits floating in the water. Kind of fun to play with them, there were signs not to eat them. The other nice one was a 4 foot deep 3 foot wide walkway/pool that had river stones on the bottom of it. It meandered around like a river would. It felt amazing to push my feet through the rocks as I walked around the pool as the instructions said. Like a foot massage all over my feet at the same time.

Now I had sticks.

We left around 5pm and set about finding somewhere to eat. It was Sunday so a lot of places were closed. This is also the time in our trip where we were missing food from home. There are no Mexican or American Chinese restaurants in Andorra. There are I think 2 places that have sushi, but my wife didn’t want that. We settled on finding a pizza place. There are quite a few of those in Andorra and they have good pizza. We ate close to our apartment again. It’s always fun trying to figure out the toppings in another language.

We spent some time trying to find a cheap place in Barcelona for the next night since we had seen most of Andorra and wanted to see more of Barcelona. Plus we’d be closer to the airport for the flight the following day. In the end we decided to just stay in Andorra and save the money. I tried to not think that I would first be finishing the race now (Sunday night), had I kept going.

The next day (Monday) we drove to the oldest church in Andorra. The road was narrow and eventually just kinda quit. We parked like everyone else does in Europe and just started walking the rest of the way up. It was supposed to be open when we got there based on what the tour guide at the last church had said, but it wasn’t. It’s over 850 years old.

View of the church from the defense tower that was built later.

The main plan for the day was to go to the one part of the country we hadn’t seen yet, the Eastern most part. The road to France is on that side and the city of Pas de la Casa. This is where the second major aid station is. As we drove, we stopped at yet another church that was open and looked around.

Sant Joan de Caselles Church in Canillo

From Canillo on, we kept seeing all these parking signs for Grandvalira. Turns out the Grandvalira ski area is so big that it traverses several towns. There are 210 km of runs there. That’s huge! Anyway the road gets real nice and twisty again just before Pas de la Casa. There is a toll tunnel you can take instead but I think I’d only use that in the winter when the road likely sucks.

We parked in Pas de la Casa at one of the ski hills parking lots. The terrain in this area was what I was expecting from the videos I’d seen online. Much more gentle slopes and runnable terrain. The mountains were still tall and I wouldn’t have been running after 80 miles anyway most likely, but it definitely looked easier than the portions I had done.

Now I had dry, split pine.

Parking lot.

Pas de la Casa can basically be summed up as a giant shopping center for French people, with hotels for the ski people in the winter. Signs and advertising were everywhere. A million shops selling the same stuff, etc. We ate at some crappy buffet. We shopped around a little just to price check things mostly. We wanted to find horse steak to cook at home but never did. They pretty much only sell pork there. I got some Muscat wine since all we ever see at home is Muscato (bubbly and less alcohol than straight Muscat wine). It was very good by the way. I also got a stick of that salami meat stuff to have it one more time. We weren’t going to bring home any pork of any kind even though I would’ve loved a case of that stuff. It’s just not worth the risk of bringing home a foreign disease. Please don’t bring back meat from any country.

The grocery stores are called supermercat. We liked to say Super Meerkat instead.
Their warning labels were very to the point.

The drive back from Pas de la Casa was long. Well not long in distance since it’s a small country but it takes over an hour due to the speed limit and round-a-bouts. Along the way, I got all my fire starting items together and placed them next to my flame that was being crushed by that stump.

It lit and the fire took hold of the stump. I wanted so much to run the race again. This giant Bur Oak stump will burn for a long time. It will sustain me for months and years to come. Through horrible hill training and saunas. It’s already given me a new drive in my running since I’ve gotten back. Now that it’s burning you can dump water all you like on it, the flames will come back. It’s a stump. I won’t quit.

I don’t know if I told my wife that I planned on coming back someday during that car ride or not but I’m sure she already knew it. That’s one of the great things about her. I don’t know if she’ll come with next time but I also know she won’t stop me either. It could be years before I get there again.

The rest of the night we got stuff packed up and ate at the bar that helped us out the first night. It seemed like a fitting way to end our stay in Andorra.

We got up early for the 3 hour drive to the airport. This time at the border crossing we had to stop on the Spanish side. We had to show them the alcohol we brought in but it wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t really hit any traffic and made sure to go the speed limit in the radar areas.

The airport check in is a little different in Barcelona. The airlines don’t have a specific check in counter. There are just rows and rows of counters with numbers and you check into a certain numbered counter based on the flight you are taking. In other words everyone on your flight checks in the same place and no one from another flight. We had to show our passports constantly it seemed. I think 5 times we were required to show it through all the security and customs check points.

We took buses again to the plane. Even though we weren’t in first class, we were still on the first set of buses to go to the plane. My wife ran up the stairs to the plane on the tarmac and was the first one on. She was so excited. I went much slower although by now my legs were feeling pretty much normal. I guess I’ll just end the trip portion there.

The portion of the race my watch collected after I restarted it and before it died.

So officially I made it 73km or 45.4 miles. I went another 2 miles before I turned around and quit. My best calculations put my total elevation gain at about 20,500 ft in those 47.4 miles. Crazy. Notice in the graph above around 32 miles where it drops real steeply and then again after a short flatter part? That’s the portion that looks real easy on the official elevation profile. That’s why I say don’t believe it. Put the gpx file from the race into Google Earth and print out your own elevation profiles. I mean seriously, it was just as steep as any other downhill on the graph.

Out of the 408 starters, just 210 finished. I suppose that should make me somehow feel better but it doesn’t one bit. 6 of us Americans showed up for Ronda and only 1 finished (he was 10th). That’s horrible in my mind. We need to do better and I hope this blog helps somehow. Of the 5 that quit, 1 made it to Como Bella (the aid station after I quit), 3 stopped at Margineda (myself included), and 1 at Refugi del Comapedrosa. Looking overall at where people quit; if you made it past Coma Bella aid station, you went on to finish. That kind of makes sense since there isn’t a good place to quit for a long time after that, and who wants to quit at mile 80 once you reach civilization again?

As far as the rest of the course I didn’t do goes, I suspect it is mostly easier terrain. I know that after Pas de la Casa it can be more swampy. Also there is supposed to be a mountain that has fog in the morning which can make it difficult. I don’t remember which one. They mentioned it during the pre-race talk. I really wish I could be more help.

So now I’m going to talk a bit about something I’ve wanted to write about for some time. I figured I should keep my mouth shut until I had my first DNF (did not finish) so I had the complete picture. I’m guessing many won’t agree with me. Ever since I’ve started doing ultramarathons I’ve heard people say variations of this phrase “I think everyone should DNF because I learn so much more than if I finish”. I’ve always thought that was complete crap on many levels. Having my first DNF just confirms what I thought before.

Here’s why I think that sort of thought process has no business in ultrarunning. If I’m really honest, I wonder if people even believe what they are saying or if they are just trying to make themselves or others feel better because they failed. The time for learning by failure is IN TRAINING! In every other sport, you practice. You fail almost constantly at first but you get better. At some point you don’t fail much at all and even if you do, you don’t learn anything from it anymore. You just realize what it was that you did wrong and it was something you had previously learned was wrong. You just didn’t execute correctly.

I failed, period! I didn’t learn anything new.

If you DNF because of weather, that’s on you. Why weren’t you running with completely soaked shoes that you dumped water on every hour to train for that possibility? If it’s a hot race, run in hot weather, or a sauna, or with lots of clothes on. If it’s cold, run in the cold, or with wet clothes, or in a walk in cooler. Etcetera.

The same goes if you failed due to the course itself. If it’s a hilly course, run on hills, or a parking ramp, or stairs, or a tiny hill a million times. If it’s a road race, run on roads. Etcetera. The course and terrain will be spelled out in great detail in many race reports and even the race website if you bother to look. Even without fine details of this race course, the major picture could be seen on what to expect. I knew it would be really hilly. I didn’t know about the grass being slick but that certainly isn’t the reason I failed.

Some say they quit because of injury which would be fine if you were actually injured. Most new people think something must be broke because they hurt so bad. No, it just hurts a lot to run 100 miles. Actually, now that I think about it, I know quit a few runners that still finished races despite actually being injured. I wouldn’t recommend that necessarily, but it shows how much more we can do than we think we can. Our minds are weak.

The point of training is to purposely “break” things so that you know how to prevent, fix, mitigate, or deal with them during a race! That includes the mental aspect of training as well. I’ll give an example. For VolState I ran 80 miles for a training run with all my gear I was planning on using packed the exact way I planned on packing it. It took until mile 45 before anything “broke” with what I was planning on using in the race. The initial goal was 132 miles but I stopped at 80 in order to not wreck my body more than I already did. That was the time for a DNF. I learned a lot of things that day that made my race go smoothly.

The other thing that really bothers me about people being so cavalier with DNFing is that they took away a spot from someone else who could’ve finished. Almost every big race and even the small ones nowadays has a lottery to get in because space is limited due to permitting or whatever other reason. I know for a fact there are people that purposely sign up for races knowing 100% they won’t finish. They just go to see friends and go a few miles on the course. That’s crap! Go volunteer, or pace someone, or just show up and see you friends without wasting a spot. If you want to see the course, there’s this thing called hiking you can do anytime you want, even on race day, and it’s free! I pulled out of a race early this year to let someone else have the spot because I knew I wouldn’t be able to give it my all due to where it fit in my race schedule. I could’ve just went and ran a few loops and hung out with all the elite runners from around the world. I would’ve felt like garbage if I had done that though.

It’s not to say you can’t fail in a race, or shouldn’t try something at the edge of your ability, but don’t act like it was a good thing to DNF. Think real hard about how prepared you were before that race. Did you read all the race reports? Did you train on the right terrain and in the right weather? Do you know what shoes to wear in what conditions for your feet? Do you know how to prevent and treat blisters in ALL conditions? Did you do any nighttime running? My wife likes to tease me that there are times I’m not “doing anything” but just sitting there inside the house or looking at something outside. I tell her I’m “figuring stuff”, meaning coming up with every possible way I could screw something up or something else could screw me up. It’s the same way when I’m designing something I’m about to build.

Could I have finished this race? I just don’t know 100%. I know for certain I wouldn’t have made it in under 62 hours. The last person to finish was 2 hours over the limit so…? If someone put a gun to my head of course I would keep going and likely could’ve even finished the course eventually. Even if someone would’ve offered me $2,000 to finish the course, I probably would’ve kept going, knowing it wouldn’t be official. In reality though, my chance of even making it until nightfall was slim. This is possibly all Monday morning quarterbacking and I wouldn’t have even made it up that first 2,000 foot hill after Margineda.

One thing I am certain of is that I want to go back and run this race again. If I do go….I will finish! That stump won’t quit burning until I do.

FANS 12 Hour Race – 2019 Chaperone Report

I titled this report as chaperone report since I didn’t participate in it, my son did. I ran/walked with him the entire time since he’s only 6 and the course location was changed to a much busier area than previous years due to flooding on the normal course. Plus I got to spend all day with an awesome dude that way.

The race this year was June 1st at Mount Normandale Lake in Bloomington, MN. The course was on an entirely paved pedestrian path around the lake. While it was nice to be entirely paved, there were lots of hills on this course compared to the Ft. Snelling course. While none were over 25 feet or so, it added up to about 80 feet a loop or more. The loop itself was also shorter at 1.82 miles. In the end I much prefer the last years course. Nicer course and much nicer/safer tent area set up.

Since I wasn’t running, we didn’t need a crew. Time wasn’t going to be an issue and I’d be with him to help him at any time if he needed it. Last year he got 12.4 miles with little real effort since he mostly spent time in the tent with his sister. This year his goal was to become an ultrarunner!

We got to the race early to get his packet with race bib, medal, and tent setup instructions. They didn’t have his shirt size so this year he got an even bigger shirt than last year. We set up in a place where it should be shady in the afternoon. It rained overnight but now was fine and the forecast was for nice weather. We still brought the tent even without rain just to have a place to change if we needed it. We put all our stuff inside and got his bib on.

Before the race.

The start line was about a quarter mile away from our tent. The lap counting area was even further away. He had to get weighed in first so we did that (he gained a pound during the race) and then went over to the starting line. We didn’t hear any pre-race instructions since there wasn’t any megaphone. Everyone was busy talking to Alex, asking how old he was, etc.

Finally at 8AM we were off and running. So here’s basically how the course went this year from the lap counting tent (not the starting line). Overall we were going around a lake counterclockwise. The first part after the lap counting area went over a small bridge. This area had carp in it. Then we got to the turtle area, with turtles covering every log in sight basically. This was also the area where the short loops would begin in the last hour of the race. Next we went South through the porta potties and tent area. The tent area began the gentle hills area. We then went East through trees. It meandered a lot with hills the entire way pretty much. At the Southeast corner was a steep downhill with a waterfall (it’s a dammed up man made lake) and the only aid station besides the counting tent. Then turned North through exposed grassy area. Then turned West in partially exposed and tree lined area. This area also had a busier road and taller buildings along it. Then down a steep downhill and uphill run to the official lap counting line.

Alex ran up that hill every single loop! It didn’t matter if we walked the entirety of the loop before that hill, he just had to sprint up it. Must’ve been the cheering that always happened there.

Also, along the course were signs telling where certain distances would be achieved during a certain loop. For example, the marathon distance was not far before the second aid station on loop 15. That was of course Alex’s goal, to get beyond that sign. Of course for it to really count, he’d have to go another mile to finish the loop. Last year they didn’t have a 50 mile sign, or maybe didn’t have any signs. It was a nice addition to the race to have these and a good photo opportunity.

The plan was to run the first loop, walk the second and run the third. We ran the first and ran/walked the second and third. By the end of the first loop, we had warmed up. It was cool and breezy which was great if you were running. Alex complained about the hills since he’s not used to them. Of course it only gets worse every time you do the same hill on a loop course.

I’m not sure where to put this in the blog so I’ll just put it here. The tent area is a fun place. There is a contest every year for the best tent area display so while not many people go all out for it, some do. There was a meat raffle one where you spun a wheel. That’s absolutely irresistible to my children. Almost to the point where if you had a puppy, a kitten, and a contest wheel next to each other, they might actually go for the wheel first. Alex did this probably 5 times throughout the day and somehow “won” all but 1 time. Obviously he just won because he was a kid but he didn’t know that. He got candy, or a toy animal, and the last time was doughnuts. Also, there was a guy dressed up as something different every time we went through the tent area the first 4 times through. At first he was bacon (Alex thinks he was a hot dog, so I’m not sure who’s right), the next time he was a can of Mountain Dew. Alex was getting mad since the costumes kept making him hungry for those things. Next I think was Homer Simpson. Finally he was in one of those inflatable T-Rex costumes.

It was fairly crowded the first loop as we thinned out some. I tried to keep Alex from meandering all over the trail in front of people trying to pass, it wasn’t easy. Before we knew it we were seeing signs saying “free beer at the aid station”, followed with another sign saying “just kidding about the beer.” The the usual “you paid for this”, etc. Later in the race, someone put put up a sign with the elevation gain of the race depending on how long you’ve been running. To start with it was just 15 feet, then 150, then 1500, then for the 24 hour runners 15,000. If you’ve ever run a loop course for a day, you’d completely agree! I’ve cursed individual rocks if they’re large enough or distinctive enough to notice every loop.

On the second loop, we walked occasionally and spent some time looking at the turtles. Alex counted them every loop and indeed they must’ve moved some since the number was different every loop.

Sometimes, this log was completely covered with turtles all in a conga line.
Some more turtles. This is on the Northwest corner of the lake looking Southeast.

On the South side of the second loop, we started looking at all the different trees and plants. I spent pretty much the entire day telling him what everything was. You’d think he’d know all the trees by the 5th loop, but no. Maybe on the last loop he got a couple trees correct. For the most part, 90% of the plants were invasive species, some even on the noxious weed list. It’s really annoying that the government makes rules about requiring us to eradicate noxious weeds and yet does nothing themselves. This is a flowing waterway so they’re just spreading seeds to everyone down the creek. I could go on forever about that, but I won’t.

We were making pretty good time since we were running a fair amount of the time, with multiple stops to look at plants and wildlife. I think on the third loop or so we saw 6 big carp thrashing around a log by the bridge. We watched them for a while. A muskrat swam by as well then. The sun was starting to break through a little now as well.

People were starting to come out to the park to run/walk their dogs, etc. There was a separate bike path so we didn’t have to deal with them which was nice. Alex was finally starting to figure out how to not get in front of people passing.

He’d take some food here and there from the aid stations, candy mostly of course. Since I wasn’t in the race I had to just eat what I brought with which got fairly boring. I forgot I’d be walking for most of the day so I could eat regular food instead of candy and chips. But all we brought was candy and chips so that’s what I got.

We walked most of the 4th loop and I think all of the 5th loop (except that finish line hill of course). We were both a little tired so we made our first stop in the tent after the 5th loop. This was 2.5 hours into the race and over 9 miles. We had run about 6 of those miles but we never ran much at all the remainder of the race.

Putting his feet up and taking a break.

We spent about 30 minutes eating sugar and drinking some caffeine pop. That was enough time to get back out there. We ended up from then on stopping after every 3 loops which would take us around 2 hours to do. We’d stop for 25-30 minutes. By 11AM, they were serving subway sandwiches. I don’t remember them being offered last year. Alex loves them but only ate 1 the entire race. Guess where we just HAD to go eat after the race? Subway of course. I told him, we could go anywhere, and he picked Subway anyway. Whatever.

Yummy Subway

Pretty much most of the afternoon was spent walking around a lake looking at everything. I had the course memorized by the third loop, but Alex was much more just in the moment kind of mindset. He never seemed to know where on the course we were. It probably worked out better that way since he was always kind of surprised when we got to the lap counting tent.

He was pretty excited when we got over a half-marathon distance since that’s further than mom’s gone.

Everyone was of course interested in Alex like last year. Alex was more shy this year. I kept telling him that people that said “good job” were talking to him and not me. I wasn’t in the race and honestly, me walking for 12 hours isn’t impressive. He finally started talking more and occasionally telling people “good job” back. He proudly told everyone he was six and a half years old.

A couple people asked me 6 hours into the race how I got him focused enough to go that long. I never really thought about it before but just said “I’ve been an ultrarunner since he was born so I guess he just grew up thinking that’s normal.” Now that I’ve had more time to think about it, that still rings true. The reason people think something can’t be done is usually just because someone hasn’t yet. Once lots of people do something, it no longer seems impossible, even if it’s still really difficult. I’ve never told him he couldn’t go over a marathon distance, so why would he think he couldn’t.

The other reason I think he was still going was that I made sure last year was fun for him with zero pressure besides having to run the first long loop with me. After that, he did the other loops when he wanted to. He spent the rest of the time playing with other kids or his sister. I spent the weeks before the race last year, telling him about the great runners he’d meet like Courtney Dauwalter. Then when he got to meet her and talk to her, it was that much more fun and memorable. He asked to do the race again this year on his own.

Plus I think 6 year old boys just love to spend time with their dad. I’m sure my wife is jealous I got to hold hands with him all the time.

By mid-afternoon, I noticed he was always falling behind me in one part of the North area despite it being a long gradual downhill section. Turns out he was trying to count all the retaining wall blocks in that area, followed by how many stories each tall building had.

There also was a big party with bounce houses near the lap counting tent after a different 5k event was finished. I’m sure that was torture for him to go past loop after loop, watching kids play on them.

His goal was getting closer and closer. By loop 11 he started counting how many loops were left. He was confident he could do it since we had plenty of time. I of course knew how fast things can go downhill in a race so I was cautious. We stopped after loop 8 and 11. We were going to try to get 4 loops done since we’d be over a marathon after loop 15. Loop 13 was getting slow. I gave him my iPod to listen to, which helped him pass the time and keep his mind off of his soreness. Loop 14 was even slower. He was obviously starting to feel it in his feet and walking slow. He didn’t really complain until we were almost done with the loop. We definitely were going to have to take a break before loop 15. This was of course just 1 loop after he said he was going to do at least 16 loops. How quickly things change.

We had plenty of time so we started loop 15 and stopped in our tent for about 25 minutes. I was kind of trying to time it so that we’d finish loop 15 with 1 hour left in the race so we’d get credit for the distance going back to our tent.

We left the tent to become an ultrarunner. I made sure that one of his favorite songs (Genius) was playing on the iPod when we left. There is a gradual hill right after our tent and it was amusing watching him go up that. It takes a little while to get going again after stopping for a while with sore feet or legs. Usually it’s just a couple hundred feet or so (at Volstate, it took me close to a mile sometimes!) To see him go through that was mixed feelings. On the one hand I was proud to see him fight through it to meet his goal. On the other, I was worried how sore he’s be tomorrow (spoiler alert: he ran some the next day, so obviously it wasn’t too much).

It was less than a mile from the tent to the marathon sign. We actually ran some of this distance once he got over the initial pain of getting going. The excitement was obviously helping. I ran ahead to take a video of him crossing the sign and becoming an ultrarunner (personally I don’t agree with that definition of an ultramarathon but that’s the current accepted definition: anything longer than a marathon). He ran across and kept on running. I had to call him back so I could take a picture of him by the sign.

New Ultrarunner!

He was super excited and told everyone he talked to after that point that he was an ultramarathoner. Excitement was keeping him going all the way to the counting tent. The problem was that with all this running, we got there 15 minutes sooner than I thought we would so my plan to get there with an hour left didn’t work. I told him we could just sit here and wait for 15 minutes before we go to our tent and quit, or we could do another loop. He didn’t hesitate and wanted to go another loop.

About a mile before the loop was over he wanted to make sure I wouldn’t try to beat him up the hill at the lap counting tent this last time. I wasn’t even in the race and never ran up it with him before so I’m not sure why he was worried about that. Possibly I think he wanted to walk up it since he was tired and didn’t want me to pass him. Either way I told him that I wouldn’t. I told him everyone is probably expecting you to run up without me like every other time. I told him the same thing I’ve told him before; “The only race I’ll try my hardest not to let you beat me in is a 100 mile race. You’re going to have to earn that one.” He smiled at that. He’ll likely smile the same way someday when he kicks my butt.

He ran up the hill to finish loop 16 and we continued to the short loop area. Since they wanted as few people as possible in this area, I just went with him to the South terminus of the short loop. I told him he could keep doing short loops as long as he felt like and I went to the tent to start packing up. He ended up going back and forth 2 more times for a total distance of 29.77 miles. I think had he known that one more time back and forth would be over 30 miles he probably would’ve done it. He still had 15 minutes on the clock. I asked him if he wanted to go back, but he said no. Overall in the race we stopped for 2 hours total and left 15 minutes on the clock so there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

His secondary goal this year was to not be in last place like last year. I think he ended up beating 4 men and 4 women so he accomplished that as well. Really though in timed events, placing isn’t as important. Some people just go to see how fast they can do 50 miles and then quit, etc.

We finished packing up and went to Subway. We then left for home. He stayed up until we got home (probably due to caffeine) which was kind of nice since he could take a shower that way before bed.

He slept in the next day, not surprisingly. I heard him asking for help in a giggling voice when he woke up. In dramatic fashion, I found him on the floor, face down, moaning. I carried him to the bathroom upstairs but after that, he was walking around like he hadn’t just gone a super long distance for a 6 year old. The little jerk even ran about 100 feet that afternoon when we were walking the dogs. I say jerk because I’m of course jealous of people like him. The next day he was running around playing like normal.

This race keeps track of your total lifetime miles for the event. They even put that number on your bib. Alex only had 12.4 miles on his. A couple people are close to 3000 miles over the 30 year history of the race. Even after this years race, I still have more lifetime miles than Alex and I told him that. He thought about that for a bit and then said “When I run it next year again, can you not run it so I get more miles than you?” We’ll see.

Zion 100k – 2019 Race Report

The Zion 100K ultramarathon was held April 12th, just outside of Zion National Park in Southern Utah. The start and finish is in Virgin, UT. The 100k course was changed this year and I’m assuming it will stay in this current form next year as it worked well I think. I ran this race over a month ago (partially due to 3 hours of work on this report being erased somehow) so my memory might be a bit fuzzy but I think I can give some good details. Lots of pictures with this report at least.

Since I didn’t get into Superior 100 this year I needed to quick find a race that would qualify for Western States as I still haven’t won the lottery for that race. The 100k version of this race (also available are 100 mile, 50k and half marathon options) qualifies for Western States and wasn’t full yet. Also I’ve never been to Southern Utah and wanted to check out some of the national parks with my wife to see if we’d want to come back when the kids are older. I hadn’t run a 100k distance race yet either, so that was of some interest to me as well.

We left Minnesota a couple days early so we’d be able to explore the area. This ended up being perfect timing as the blizzard hit a few hours after the plane took off. We landed in St. George and went straight to Paria Valley in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I’ve wanted to go there for years after seeing a photo of the place. I kept this part a surprise for my wife since I didn’t want her to know what it looked like before we got there. It was cloudy but soon after we got there the clouds parted enough for me to get some great photos. People keep using my photos without giving credit so I’m not going to put any of those on here since they’re good enough to be worth something. It was worth the drive I think. Along the way there were some towns we drove through. It was interesting to us to see lots of homes with no siding whatsoever. Basically people just painted the OSB sheeting and called it good. I guess in the desert that’s okay?

We stayed in Hurricane, UT at an AirBnB. Turns out everyone staying at the place was in the race or a crew for a runner. It certainly made us not feel so bad getting up super early on race day. We ate some awesome Mexican food and went to bed.

The next day we went to Zion National Park. I wanted to go up Angels Landing and even if I didn’t want to, there was basically no other choice. Essentially every other trail in the main valley was closed due to flooding or landslides. It’s about 2000 feet of elevation gain total and close to 5 miles round trip but I wasn’t too worried since the race was only supposed to have 5500 feet of gain which is pretty flat. The trail is a steady climb for pretty much the whole way to Scout Lookout which is where the trail gets “scarier”. I wasn’t too surprised when my wife decided not to continue since the going down part would be scarier than going up. It’s not anywhere close to as scary as half-dome in Yosemite but if you’re not used to hiking along cliffs, you’ll be concerned.

About half-way from Scout Landing to the top.

There are chains along portions of the trail to hang on to but I just used my hands to hold rocks instead. It was much faster that way and the chains moved around a lot. If it wasn’t for crowds, you could run most of the flat parts really. Same with going down, if no one was around you could get down pretty quick. I hung out at the top for a little while to enjoy the views and take some pictures.

1500 feet straight down. My mom loves these! That’s the Virgin river and the park road way down there.

On the way down I saw at least one Condor. We couldn’t quite read the number on his wing to look it up later but it was pretty cool it flew so close over our heads and beside us that we could even see that at all. It was 2 digits but I think they’re all just 2 digits and then color coded. This one seemed orange or yellow. The sun kept blinding us. There’s still less that 300 of them in the wild! My wife I think saw it from the landing as well. Of course since I spent so much time watching the bird she was concerned about me by the time I got back to her. Oops. The rest of the day was pretty much spent relaxing, getting my bib, and getting everything finalized for the race the next day.

The race started Friday at 6AM. The 100 mile and 100k started at the same time so there were hundreds of runners. Since it was still dark, I needed my headlamp. We ran on the shoulder of the highway for a bit and then dirt roads headed toward the first and only big climb of the race. About 3 miles into the race is where it starts to get steep and just gets steeper. I wasn’t really in the front group but was towards the front. Somehow a group of people after the front runners took a wrong turn and we all followed up the wrong trail. After going up a couple hundred feet we saw people running back down saying it was the wrong way. So back down I went and now it was of course super crowded since we were just running into the people behind us. Surprisingly, people hiked up the correct direction at a decent pace so I didn’t have to stop and start all the time like I did at Bighorn waiting for people to move. Finally after about 1200 feet you get to the top.

View from the top at Goosebump Aid Station. You can see the trail going down if you look close bottom center of picture.
The dirt road in the center of the photo going kiddie-corner is the road we ran on to get to the mesa from Virgin. Looking North just left of the picture above.

Here is the first aid station called Goosebump. We’d go through this station 2 more times later on and there is no crew access here so it’s the only place I left a drop bag. I got here in just over an hour so not too bad.

From here to the next aid station which was Grafton Mesa was pretty much flat. It was all on dirt road with a downhill at the end. I talked to a few people along this section and realized I wouldn’t need my poles for the rest of the race. There was a chance of rain forecast initially but it looked like that probably wasn’t going to happen. I was fairly hot already since I was still used to winter weather at home. It wasn’t all that hot, probably only got up to 70 degrees and sunny but I was feeling it pretty much the rest of the day. I also was feeling like the hike yesterday was definitely going to slow down my time. My legs just felt kind of dead all day.

Road from Goosebump to Grafton.

I found my wife at Grafton fairly easy around 8:10AM. I got some ice water from her, changed into a t-shirt from a long sleeve shirt, got food, left my poles and told her I’d see her later. We went through this aid station twice more so she just stayed there and read. The race continued on down the road until Wire Mesa where we went onto a mountain bike trail. There was an aid station at the start of the trail and we’d loop back to it before going back up to the Grafton Mesa.

Wire Mesa is the closest mesa to Zion National Park. Basically it’s just Southwest of the entrance to the canyon so you can see some of the peaks in the park. The mesas themselves are gorgeous though as well. The trail led all over the mesa and the edges of it. The views from every edge were great. I heard several people overwhelmed with the views. They were full on swearing in disbelief for minutes at a time. I was starting to wonder if they’d ever been outside in their entire life.

View from Wire Mesa looking NE at the Virgin River Valley entrance to Zion National Park.

The trail itself was overall flat but you were going up a rock here and down a rock there almost every 2 steps. It got annoying and it was starting to dawn on me why the previous finishing times of this race were longer than I expected them to be based on the distance and elevation gain advertised. It took about 90 minutes to complete the loop.

During this mesa section I realized I’d need to use the bathroom at some point. I saw there were 2 compost toilet tents at the aid station the first time I went through. I also saw there were about 7 people in front of me on the trail when we were nearing the station. I didn’t want to risk having to wait for all of them to use it first so I sprinted downhill past them all and went straight into the toilet.

Okay, this is going to get gross. I’ve stopped talking about pooping in my reports due to comments but this I can’t skip over.

So to start with, here’s how the race advertises these compost toilets in the race booklet;

We also use Great Outdoors Composting Portable
Toilets which conserve water, eliminates the use of
harmful chemicals, and create a nutrient rich soil
amenity. It is the best pooping experience you will
ever have. To learn more about Great Outdoors
Toilets or to have them at your event visit www.
greatoutdoorstoilets.com or ask the race officials
for more information.

The best pooping experience you will ever have you say? No! You’ll be talking about it for sure, but not because it’s great. I don’t have a picture of these since I never wanted to get close to them again, so I’ll do my best to paint a picture with words. You could go to their website, but they smartly don’t show you pictures of the inside of the tent version they had at the race.

The compost toilet consists of a wide plastic bucket with a 3/4 inch thick piece of plywood placed on top of it with a hole cut out. They did add a toilet seat to this board so there’s that I guess. This board was about 2 feet wide and the depth of a toilet seat. This was all surrounded by a shower tent like structure. Look it up if you don’t know what I mean. This tent however was much smaller than a shower tent which is tiny to begin with. Basically if you were over 6 feet tall, your knees would be touching the tent wall when you sat down and your head hitting the ceiling. The zipper was also under a lot of tension so it was basically impossible to close all the way from the inside due to the tight space. I suppose you could’ve walked in, put your face down in the seat area bending over and put your hands through your legs to close it? I wasn’t going to try that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a little. There is sawdust already pre-moisturized that you’re supposed to scoop from a barrel outside this tent and spread on top of your deposit to the plastic bucket. One scoop for pee and two for poop I think the signs said.

Anyway, when I got to the aid station a guy just came out of the tent and I went right in…. Remember when I said it was sunny and kind of hot? Imagine a greenhouse filled with poop, wet sawdust, urine and zero air flow. That should paint the air temperature and smell for you. Then the sights, oh the sights. Toilet paper, sawdust, and what I can only assume was poop all over the seat and plywood. If you put a dog in similar conditions, you’d go to jail. It wasn’t quite as bad as the scene from Rambo where he’s being hung in the waste water from the outhouses, but my mind immediately went there.

There was no way I could do all I needed doing while holding a single breath, especially after sprinting downhill to get there. My breath number was definitely in the double digits. I went as quick as I could and did a horrible job of applying more butt lube since there wasn’t any room in there and I didn’t dare let my pack touch any horizontal surface. That would certainly haunt me later. I was seriously considering just opening up the “door” and doing everything in full view of all the runners coming down the trail and the people eating at the aid station. Why should they be punished though, they were probably smart and just pooped on the course somewhere.

The first breath of fresh, cool air after you exit is about the best thing you can imagine. That is until you realize you have to go back in not only once, but twice, to sprinkle sawdust on top of your carefully crafted cupcake. Why can’t you just make a bigger scoop?! Even though I kept my hands clean, there was no way I could say they were clean after touching the tent itself, anything in it, or the scoop. I had a worker push the plunger on the water spigot so I didn’t contaminate it and didn’t get any food. I still had some of my own left anyway.

How is it even legal to compost human waste? That means it’s sitting out in the open for weeks. Truly one of the worst pooping experiences I’ve ever had.

After this I continued on back up the road to Grafton aid station. I found my wife in the same place and briefly described my experience. She said she heard some of the toilets at that aid station had poop up to the toilet seat already. She smartly never went into one. I got ice water and soaked my head with water.

The next part of the race was to run a 5.5 mile loop on the Grafton Mesa. There was a short section in the beginning that both directions ran on so I saw there were a few people already finishing the loop. It was a little nicer trail that the last one but the views weren’t quite as nice. Basically you ran a gentle slope towards the end of the mesa and then back up to the aid station. It was getting much more thinned out now. While I could see someone all the time up to this point, now it was only about half the time.

View from Grafton Mesa. Pretty sure looking West.

I was now starting to slow down as I was hitting the marathon distance in this section and the heat was getting to me since it was almost noon. I lost some time in this section but I just had to remind myself this is pretty normal at this point in a race. I got to the Grafton aid station for the last time and reloaded a fair amount since I wouldn’t see my wife for over 5 hours. She went back to the Airbnb and I think even took a nap.

I tried to make up some time on the road back to Goosebump with some fast walking uphills. It seemed to take much longer this second time running on this section. The views were nice though and soon enough I got to the aid station at 12:52PM having made back the time I lost on Grafton. There was now less than 29 miles left.

The next section was an 11 mile loop on Gooseberry Mesa. We started out on the North edge of the mesa going West. The trail was right on the edge of the cliff for the first mile or so and was gorgeous. The best views of the race!

Looking North from Gooseberry Mesa. You can see the road from the race beginning again. The Mesa on the top left is Hurricane Mesa. The cool thing about that one is that the Supersonic Research Site is on the top of it. It has rocket sleds for testing ejection seats, etc. Privately owned now but still used.
Looking Northeast. You can see the trail down in the bottom right of the photo.

After about 20 minutes I got to the “slick-rock” area. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. At home, slick-rock is flattish smooth rock. What they called slick-rock here was petrified sand dunes. They weren’t slippery at all due to being sandstone and they certainly weren’t flat. Best to just show a picture.

Slick-rock?

I’ve never gone mountain biking so I’m not sure if they like to curve all over the place when they ride or they’re just drunk because these trails never went straight. Up to this point the biking trails we were on were classified as Easy or More Difficult similar to ski slope ratings. We were now getting into Difficult and at several points I noticed a rating of Extreme. I’m assuming that’s like a double black diamond in skiing. Regardless, in the photo above I’ll try to explain how the trail went. You go up and over the left part of the dune in the middle of the photo. Then up the left part of the dune behind it. Turn around and go back down to the back side of the middle dune but only go part way up it and then down and then up the right side of the dune behind it. Then turn around to go down and then up and over the right side of the middle dune that you can’t see. Then back up the backside of the dune on the right. All of that instead of just turning right at the middle dune! Now it’s been a month so I might be off slightly in my description of that small area but it was pretty shocking so I think I remember it pretty well.

So how did I know where to go? Well the race course is marked with those little pink ribbons you can see on the tree on the right, but since there aren’t that many trees around and you can’t stick a flag in rock, they are somewhat far apart in this section. The bike trail is marked with white dots of paint. This is what the race book stated about them:

The trail will be marked with pink ribbons.
Note that sections of this trail may also have
markings of white dots painted on the slickrock.
These white dots are markings for mountain
bikers. Even though some of our course coincides
with the mountain biking trails DO NOT FOLLOW
THE WHITE DOTS. Our course will veer on and
off the mountain biking trails- just make sure
to follow the pink ribbons.

The big joke was that if you didn’t follow the white dots, you’d have no clue where to go as you couldn’t see the next flag from the one you were at without following the white dots. There were maybe 2 places on this entire mesa where the trail turned off the bike trail and there were lots of flags in those areas to make sure you made the turn. Otherwise if you didn’t follow the dots, you’d get lost. Plus they’re on the ground and much easier to follow than the flags 4 feet up in the air.

Occasionally I could see the next flag across an area of these hills but even then I followed the trail instead of going straight to it. I don’t know if it was cheating to cut straight across or not but I saw people doing it. Really I don’t think you saved hardly any time doing that unless you knew the course really well. Sometimes the hills had steep dropoffs and some were sloped. The white dots never went off a cliff and stayed on the sloped area.

Clearly this section was going to take a lot longer than I was planning. The elevation profile advertised for this area was a gradual elevation gain towards the turnaround and then gradual decent. Of course going up and down 5-8 foot hills constantly adds a lot of unmeasured elevation gain and technical difficulty. Here’s another picture of the sucky-suck that was the slickrock.

Near the turnaround spot.

After an hour of these hills, I made it to the turn around spot at the end of the mesa. The views here made it worth the effort if you’re ever in the area. You could see pretty much everything from here.

Looking West.
Panorama from Northwest to Northeast. Hurricane mesa in the top middle. Town of La Verkin in the top left. Zion National Park in far top right.

I kind of caught up to a few people in this area. We laughed while telling each other not to follow the white dots since we clearly had no other choice. We were now skirting the South rim of the mesa. The views weren’t quite as nice but still beautiful.

Looking South from the turnaround area.

There was an aid station called Gosseberry on this section but I didn’t know how long it would take to get there. We were again in sand dune land. At least I had some company to laugh with about the insanity of going up and down hills. These hills seemed bigger and steeper. We quite often saw scratches in the rocks from bike frames being scraped along them due to the steepness of drop offs. It ended up taking about an hour to get there. It was mid-afternoon and sunny. Not great for me, but since it was such slow going anyway I wasn’t too overheated. The best thing about the aid station was that I realized the only way they could’ve gotten all that stuff there was if there was a double track a truck could go down to deliver it. Sure enough the trail got much better!

At least we went around this rock formation.

After a bit, I could see the windmill that was visible from the road going to Goosebump from Grafton. I knew we had to be getting close to the Goosebump aid station. I arrived there at 3:40PM, almost 3 hours for a loop I thought would only take about 2.5.

I spent a little extra time here to tighten my shoes for the steep decent off the mesa. I reloaded and got some food loaded up since it was over 8 miles to the next aid station where I could finally see my wife again. I placed my drop bag in the “return” pile and started off down the hill.

The trail was right at the edge of being too steep to run down and since it had lots of round rocks that liked to roll, I just hiked down it to play it safe. My feet were almost always slipping down the hill but I maintained my balance and made it down fairly quickly.

I hadn’t really thought about what to expect in this section once I got down the big hill. I was thinking it would be fairly flat since it was off the mesa. Well not really. The trail was a double track that went along the North foothills of the Gooseberry Mesa I was just on a short time ago. This meant constantly going up and over hills to get to the next drainage off the mesa. Sometimes we’d follow the muddy creek beds up a ways, crossing the water multiple times before finally leaving that drainage just to go down another one. This played out for quite a while. It wasn’t really all that bad but just wasn’t that fun with tired legs.

Well, it was pretty bad in one way at least. Remember when I was in that hot box from hell earlier in the race and didn’t apply lube appropriately? Now things were getting chaffed fairly good. Since it was so dry, all my sweat just dried in place. It never soaked to the outside of my clothes like usual. This meant all the salt was still on my skin. I always have Vaniply with and I just had to apply that every hour or so to keep it at bay.

The Gooseberry Mesa turnaround area is the high area in the top center of the picture.

I saw a few pacers running the other direction. I’m assuming they were going to meet their runners somewhere up on Gooseberry since crew weren’t allowed there. They made the trail look easy. I was running out of water when finally the trail left the foothill area and got on a more flat area. I knew the aid station couldn’t be too far away. I got there at 5:34PM still about 20 minutes off pace. This aid station is where the 100 milers split to a different course from the 100k runners. I think there were a fair amount of 100 mile runners that called it quits here. I told my wife I was expecting to get to the finish line later than expected as I didn’t think I would make up any time.

Soon after I left the aid station I saw a race worker sprinting down the trail yelling at the guy behind me that he was going the wrong way. He must’ve been a 100 miler but he told the worker that he knew it was the 100k course and that he switched races. I didn’t know that was a possibility but it’s not that unusual to be allowed.

There was about 10 miles left in the race and it was generally flat to downhill. The course was on bike trails once again. The trail itself was nice and easy. There were a few small hills here and there while going over small drainage areas. The next aid station was only 2 miles away called Virgin Dam. I didn’t see a dam anywhere. It was a fairly well stocked station and had helpful volunteers but I didn’t need anything this late in the race and had plenty of water.

I’d pass a few people here and there and get passed by an equal number of people as well. I saw quite a few people with pacers which seemed a little odd since it’s such a short race and we’d be done before dark. In fact, that’s one of the perks my wife and I were looking forward to in this race. We’ve never been done with enough time to go back to the room, take a shower, and go out to eat in the same day I started a race. We were planning on going to a BBQ place in Hurricane that closed at 9PM. Yes, you read that correctly; They close at 9PM on a Saturday, come on Utah!

Since I was behind pace, I was expecting to finish around 7:50 so we’d be cutting it close unless we left right away from the finish line. While this race is called 100k, it was advertised longer at 63.5 miles which isn’t unusual for a trail race.

All the signs at the aid stations, including the Virgin Dam station agreed with my watch for distance. The trail got close to the Virgin River but never really got to it until the end of the trail and a water only aid station called Sheep Bridge. It was supposed to still be 4.1 miles to the finish line from there so I filled up with some water and again wet my head to keep cool. The course was now on a somewhat busy dirt road that went toward the highway into town. It crossed the river and I was mostly walking up the road. Since I still had almost another hour left, I was saving some energy for the last push.

Turns out I should’ve been running the whole time. Once I got on the highway, I could see the town just ahead. Even now, I kept telling myself the turnoff for the finish line must be at the other of town or something since this is nowhere near 4 miles. Nope, I was letting people pass me for nothing as just a mile or so down the highway was the turnoff for the finish line. I was happy but also kind of pissed I hadn’t tried harder the last couple miles. There was no way to cut this part of the course so I know I was on the right path, plus there were lots of runners around me. I finished at 7:15PM, ahead of my original goal time and a good half hour sooner than I was expecting at Virgin Desert.

My placing in the race kind of depends I guess. On the official site I’m listed as 51st, even though I was the 50th person to cross the finish line. They have the official results listed by chip time which I’ve never seen in an ultramarathon before. DUV has me listed as 50th since I was the 50th to cross. Whatever, out of 331 starters it was about where I expected to finish.

I got my medal and was just turning to head to the parking lot area since I was so early. I saw my wife just walking into the park. She was just as surprised as I was to see me so early. I laid down for a bit and then used my food ticket to get some nachos since we had so much extra time now.

We did indeed have plenty of time to eat nachos while talking to a couple other finishers, take a shower, and go to the restaurant. We were in bed by 10PM! Weird.

The next day I got up somewhat early since I can never sleep that well after a race. I went to get my drop bag that we of course forgot to get the night before. Then I picked up my wife and we went to the other valley in the Northwest part of Zion National Park and did a shorter hike to some overlook that wasn’t worth the effort. The valley itself would be cool but not in the morning. The sun was in our eyes trying to see the mountains. Afternoon would be much better. Our plane left that afternoon and soon we were home.

Elevation profile and distance based on my gpx file in GPSvisualizer.

Runners only section: Not much else to say here other than the 5500 feet of elevation gain is way off. It was based on a watch measurement, and my watch actually agreed pretty close with that. Mine came in at 5700 I think but I did also do that extra hill in the beginning. My watch only records a elevation change if it’s over 5 meters and I’m assuming the race watch did as well. If you change the threshold to 1 meter to include all those little hills (mostly on Gooseberry Mesa) in the race, you end up with 7992 feet. I’m guessing it’s somewhat less than that but much more accurate to how the course “runs”. It’s fairly technical with plenty of rocks to trip you or slip under your feet.

I know a fair amount of people quit the 100 mile race in the night so I’m guessing those extra Mesas they run are fairly difficult.

If they continue with this course, expect that last section from the bridge to be shorter than advertised, otherwise everything was pretty spot on.

Follow the white dots or get lost.

Hurricane is quite close to Virgin, we stayed on the very Eastern edge of Hurricane and it only took 10 minutes to get to the start line.

It’s about as easy as a race can get for a crew. Very little driving and lots of time for naps.

Pretty much full sun exposure the entire race so if it’s sunny, use some protection of some kind.

I would definitely recommend this race just because of the beauty of the place. If you’ve had your fill of Southern Utah for some reason, then maybe not. I could see myself someday going back for the full 100 miler, not for a while though.

Race results here.

Lost in the Woods – 2019 Race Report

The 3rd rendition of the Lost in the Woods race took place April 27th in and around 7 mile creek park near St. Peter, MN.  Last years event was cancelled due to poor trail conditions.  I was worried this years’ might be cancelled as well since we had an April blizzard this year as well and the river was again flooded.  The forecast called for rain and snow, but whether it was cancelled or not I was going because I needed to get in some miles and hills for training if nothing else.  I received a confirmation email that the race was indeed still on a full 6 hours before the race was to begin. 🙂

This is the second time I ran the race although the course is changed every year.  This year was a 2 loop course with an extra aid station thrown in.  Basically you run up and down a bunch of hills off trail, tearing out pages of books similar to the Barkley Marathons, but much tamer.

Looks like a 3 year old just scribbled on a piece of paper and called it a map!

I got to the start line only about 30 minutes early this year which was basically enough time to get ready although I didn’t really read the whole directions sheet very closely since I was too busy talking and trying to figure out what I wanted to wear and bring with in my pack. It was already raining and about 38 degrees. It was going to get colder, windier and start to snow by 10AM as far as the forecast was concerned. I brought my poles with since I knew it would get muddy and these hills are steep!

Pre-Race Photo

We started off at 7AM on our clockwise loop if it could be called that. Pretty much a goofy figure 8ish type loop with an out and back in one part. Just look at the picture above and try to figure it out I guess. Since it just started to rain not long ago things weren’t very muddy in the beginning. I didn’t use my poles at all the first loop although there were areas they may have helped. In less than a mile I was sweating since I had too much clothing on. I stopped at a pavilion and changed out my thermal shirt for a regular long sleeve shirt.

Now I was way behind everyone which isn’t a big deal but it makes it easier to follow people so that they are the ones who have to figure out where to go. Eventually I caught up to a few of them at book 1 and was with them all the way to the first aid station. The downside of following people is of course following them the wrong way. We went right past book 6 and had to go back up and over a hill to get it. Ugh, there are enough hills already.

Aid station 1 was in the same place as last year. The short loop from there, which is basically just going down and up a hill for no reason other than to add a hill, was much more enjoyable this year. I’m not sure why but I think it was because there is landscaping which makes it more like steps up and down which made it much easier than the mud we were going on/sliding down everywhere else.

Now I was getting in front of the pack since I could actually bomb down that area and I didn’t stop long at the aid station either. It seemed like I had gone a long ways already but there was still around 9 miles left just on loop 1. I enjoyed the flattish trail running until it was time to go off trail once again for basically the remainder of the loop.

There were 15 books to find and 1 punch location where you punched the pages you had so far. These are the book titles I have from my pages: These Thousand Hills, Vertical Run, Impossible, Terminal Event, Personal Injuries, The Blooding, Breaking Point, Dead Run, Definitely Dead, Dead as a Doornail, Cause of Death, Death Qualified, Come to Grief. A couple didn’t have the titles on every page so I don’t know what the remaining ones are.

There was a point before the second aid station that was a new area for me. I’ve been to the park many times and always wondered what was at the bottom of the overlook area. It always looked way too steep to go down plus I figured it was private property. Well the map said to go down it so away I went. It is very steep! At the bottom was a creek. In fact with the rain, the bottom of every hill was basically a creek. The water was ice cold! The other water crossings weren’t near as cold as this one. On top of this the course, which was laid out with flags, crossed the creek multiple times. I think by the fourth time I was fully expecting there to be a sign that said “now lay down in the water for 10 seconds so you can freeze the rest of your body too”. Finally we went up the other side and a slightly less steep incline as going down. There was a beautiful path with lights strung up above it. I’m sure it’s beautiful in the winter.

The aid station was in a tent in a yard. I was the first one there! I haven’t really ever been in the front during a race. I ate some more candy bars and potato chips were just blowing my mind so I ate a bunch of those too. I had lost a water bottle somewhere after the first aid station but since it was so cold, just having 1 was enough for now. I left and then we went along some roads and through a plowed field. It was colder now and snowing mixed with the rain. The wind picked up as well. I finally stopped sweating. If you’ve never ran through a muddy field in the mid-west, just imagine tying bricks to the bottom of your shoes and that’s the kind of weight you experience with the mud stuck to them. I was definitely feeling tired now. Still 5 more books to go. After the next 3 books we went down to the main park area again.

Since the main creek in the park had flooded earlier, there was about 6 inches of new dirt laid down all over the grass and bridge in the East area. We had to cross this area which was interesting. If you ran fast you wouldn’t sink all the way into the new mud. I wish I had a picture of that area. It was kind of comical really. Tough Mudder would be jealous they don’t have an area of that size with mud.

There was an out and back which was new as well. With the constant rain, it was really getting muddy now and I knew I’d need the poles for the second loop. With the out and back I could see there was just 1 person close to me. This area as well as a few others had tons of wildflowers growing which made it enjoyable. I finally got back to the start/finish with the first loop in I think 4:12. I turned in my pages and got my new number to know which pages to tear out on the second loop.

The second loop was in reverse order which is good and bad. It makes it slightly harder since you could miss a book easier. It also allows you the opportunity to see where everyone else is. While I wasn’t planning on trying hard during this race because I just did the Zion 100k 2 weeks ago, I kind of had to try to win since I’ve never been in the lead before. I passed almost everyone by the first book so they weren’t far behind as far as distance goes. It would all depend on how much time they stayed at the aid station and whether they continued on the 2nd loop at all.

I don’t really have any pictures of the course since it was raining the whole time and I was pretty full of mud so I didn’t want to take my phone out. Unlike the race 2 years ago, the park was pretty much devoid of people not in the race so no one else took photos of us either. The plus side of no people is that no one messed with the books this year.

After I passed the last person I would only see someone at the aid stations. The mud made it go slow. My poles helped but when they sink in 5 inches they almost made it worse. I was hoping to get done in 9 hours total but that was getting doubtful since I had to walk down everything. Since everything was backwards, the 2nd aid station was now 1st. I wasn’t looking forward to the steepest climb of the course which was the part going up the overlook hill after the multitude of creek crossings. The water was still cold! I slowly made my way up and was glad I was the first to do it as it would only get worse with more people going over the same place.

I tried to keep the pace up but it wasn’t going to happen with the mud. I had to get my map out a few times since I kept convincing myself I missed a turn somewhere even though I never did. I think the course flags might’ve been placed while going clockwise with not as much thought about going the other way. Often a flag would be hiding behind a tree when going the counter-clockwise direction. I was going slow enough though that I wasn’t too worried about going past one without knowing it.

I found my water bottle just before getting to the last aid station. It fell out while I was ducking under a downed tree I suspect. When I finally got to the last aid station the race director was there and asked how it was going. I think I grunted and he responded “going well then!” He assured me it was all “downhill” from there. While there weren’t many hills left, the hills on the south side of the park seem to have more clay in them so they are much worse when it’s wet.

I wasn’t sure where anyone else was but knew there were 7 of us still on the course. I remembered it would be about 2 miles to the finish from the last book in this counter-clockwise direction. This was a fairly easy 2 miles. I was starting to get excited that I would finish first. With some irony, I got a text from my wife wondering if I was ever coming home. She was expecting me to be done a couple hours ago. I joked that apparently winning wasn’t fast enough. To be fair I was hoping to be done in 8 hours without knowing anything about the course.

I walked up the last big hill to the finish line and rang the bell to signify my finish. I turned in my pages and sat down. It had just stopped raining minutes earlier, so I can’t say it rained the entire race. I thanked them for a great course and ate the famous finish line chili.

The finish bell. The finishers names are engraved below it every year.
This was to make my friend Ed jealous since he didn’t show up this year.

Results

1.       Nathan Marti                     9:03

2.       Bryan Whitesel                 9:55

3.       Tyler Struss                         10:18

4.       Katie Looft                          10:19

5.       AJ Groebner                      10:19

6.       Paul Grimm                        10:19

7.       Jim Weart                            10:20

DNF

Josh Winkler

Lisa Bos

Gregg Lind

The course itself was around 14 miles a loop. I ended up doing 28.3 miles with the extra due to missing book 6 initially. The total gain only came out to about 7000 feet. It certainly seemed like more than that. I suspect it was due to the steepness of the hills this year. The last time I did it, there was more elevation but it also wasn’t muddy. That really wears on all the accessory muscles. I only biffed it twice but that was helped by the poles I’m sure. The good thing with the rain was I got to test out my rain coat in a race and it performed fine. The course always changes so we’ll see what next year brings. Maybe 3 loops of the same course. That’d be tough to finish in the time allotted.

A few hills would you say?

Arrowhead 135 Race Report – 2019

This was my third time starting and finishing the Arrowhead 135 (2017, 2018).  I had some lofty goals that needed to be changed based on the weather but I stuck it out and finished.  Really, I’ve never seen the trail in such a perfect condition.  It was smooth and hard packed the entire way except for a few snow drifts in the swamps at the end.  The wind was at our backs most of the time so that’s good.  My sled and gear only weighed 40 pounds this year at the start so that was much better than last year.

And yet, only 13/64 (20.3% finisher rate) foot division competitors finished this year.  The reason of course was the weather.  It was one of the coldest years and maybe the most consistently cold year.  Air temps have been colder at the race before and it was more than -40 both the day before and after the race (we lucked out?).  I think the main thing was that it just never warmed up.  It was relentlessly cold and it got worse as the race went on.  Colder and windier!  Even half the bikers quit and you couldn’t have had better trail conditions for them, plus it didn’t get really cold until some of them were done already.  No skiers and no kick sled guys finished.  It was a tough year all around.  I was more surprised how many people actually showed up to begin with.  It was pretty clear a week before, that it would be especially cold this year.

My goal for this year was to go for speed.  This did get changed once it got cold, but I still went ahead with that plan in the beginning to get as far as I could while the temperatures were still reasonable to limit the time I’d have to be out there in the severe cold.  I built a new sled for this year but ended up using my old one after a training run on Sunday morning (-44F) showed the new one wasn’t better in the cold on a hard trail and since it weighed more, I used the old one.  Neither sled gave much “run” due to the low temps.  Things don’t slide on snow and ice well at all once it gets so cold.  Also the surface snow consistency makes a big difference.  It pretty much felt like pulling through dry flour but not quite as bad as sand.  All I heard the entire first day was how hard the sleds were pulling so I wasn’t the only one.  Hills that during my first year at Arrowhead (20F) I could slide down with ease, I couldn’t even move an inch this year.

I’ll now go back to more specifics and a timeline format.  I drove up Saturday as usual and picked up my friend Ed at Fortune Bay where he left his car.  He’d bring me back to my car at the end like last year.  We went straight to gear check-in and got through quickly since we both have done this a few times and had everything laid out in a minute for exam.  A graduate student was doing a nutrition study so I grabbed a questionnaire for that as well as my bib and goody bag.  We then checked into our hotel, ate, etc.  I also did some final packing of my gear bag, drop bag, filled out the nutrition survey, and checked the weather forecast a lot!

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This years goodie bag. There’s a bunch of safety stuff too about how to not kill yourself, etc.

The next day I got the car started at -44F, barely, and went on a trial run with my 2 sleds as I stated earlier.  I ran near the Gateway checkpoint so I got gas there and checked out the store layout since I couldn’t go in there last year.  The lady explained where things would be tomorrow on race day which was helpful.  I then went back and turned in my drop bags for Mel George’s and the finish line.

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Everywhere was a fog cloud at -44 Sunday morning.

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Gateway store.

At 4pm was the mandatory meeting and supper.  I met a couple more people I knew there.  After supper I went back to the hotel room for serious packing, putting on my KT face tape, laid out my clothes after final weather forecast check, and Facetime with family.

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There were I think 3 film crews this year. I don’t know why.

The morning of the race I got up just before 5AM.  Probably wouldn’t need to be up that soon but that’s when I woke up.  I used the coffee maker in the room to heat up my 2L water.  I weighed my sled, gear, water, food, etc and it was 39#.

It was supposed to be -20F at the start but it ended up being only -12F.  I took off another jacket and got out colder gloves as well.  I had already planned on being cold on purpose since I overheated last year.  I wore cast stockings on my shoes but that was too much and took them off after 10 miles.  Otherwise I had on medium weight Injinji socks, Altra Olympus shoes, 2 pair of pants, 2 shirts, my breathable hooded jacket, fleece hat, and warmer fleece gloves.  I was only outside about 2 minutes before the bikers started.  Before that I just stayed in my car and took a couple pictures.

The race started on Monday Jan 28th, 2019 at 7:00 AM with the usual fireworks! https://www.facebook.com/140879779273203/videos/322266671727966/

We left on foot at 7:04AM.  https://www.facebook.com/140879779273203/videos/2176261242591187/

I had my clothes pretty much dialed in other than I didn’t need the cast socks.  I also quickly changed my fleece hat for a buff.  The groomer had been out about half an hour before the race started so everything was packed down nice and smooth.  I was kind of close to a few people for an hour and then it was more spread out where I’d only see them as we leapfrogged while stopped for water, food, or whatever.

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Sunrise the first day.

It was much easier to run this year due to the sled being so much lighter.  It still pulled harder than in training due to the cold and snow conditions but it didn’t grind me down to walking right after the turn onto the Arrowhead trail like last year.  This year I ran on and off all the way to Gateway.  Of course there are people that walk just as fast as my run/walk so it’s not like I was cruising along quickly either.

The trail was so hard and packed that it even has a camber on it similar to a road.  I had to occasionally move to the other side of the trail to keep my accessory muscles happy.  That’s the first time I’ve experienced that in a winter race!

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45 minutes into the race.

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I made it to Hwy 53 in 4 hours this year.

One thing that was kind of weird this year was that it always seemed to be snowing.  While it really only snowed for part of the first afternoon, there were always crystals the size of snowflakes falling down.  It’s normal when it’s this cold to have frost particles in the air but this time they were just so much larger than I was used to.  I’d have to brush layers of the stuff off my duffle bag every time I stopped.  The warmest it got during the first day was just below zero.  I was hoping to use my deep freezer thermometer but it kept giving me high readings.  I checked it before I left and when I came back with a calibrated digital thermometer and it read accurate.  My best guess was that since it was a spring coil type thermometer, that the constant twisting of it back and forth made enough heat to make it read wrong.  The things was shaking everywhere while I was moving.  When I’d stop for 10 minutes or more, it would show accurate to what volunteers had at check points but once I started off again it would read 5 degrees hotter.

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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt

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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt

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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt

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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt

I was eating fairly well the beginning of the race this year.  Some things from last year tasted bad this year.  Some new things were awesome this year.  I knew it would be hard to eat later on in the cold so I tried to maintain some food intake as long as I could.  Again the faster I could go now, the less miles to cover in the cold later.

Finally I got to Gateway at 3:45PM, ahead of last year since I could run so much more.  Originally I had planned on only 20 minutes here but I took more time since it was already clear that the weather forecasts were getting worse not better for the next 2 days.  Basically it meant changing socks and drying out my shoes some due to wearing the cast socks when I didn’t need to in the beginning in the race.  I wanted a cheeseburger but they only had a hamburger that ended up being red in the middle.  I heard there were chicken tenders at one point which would’ve been good too.  Really there are tons of great options there but I’m partial to cheeseburgers.  I reloaded on hot water and left at 4:15PM.

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I always like wondering about this place on the way to Gateway.

It started getting dark soon after Gateway.  There was a biker still near me that I was leapfrogging with.  It was kind of fun since his headlamp must’ve been at least 400 lumens and lit the trail up pretty good.  This makes for awesome shadows.  I pretended to be a giant monster roaming through the trees.  My shadow was at least 50 feet long.  I do this sometimes with the kids at home on the side of the house.

Speaking of lumens, I thought I’d tell what I use.  I have a black diamond sprinter headlamp.  It maxes out at 125 lumens I think.  That’s enough to see down the hill when you’re sliding. Otherwise I turn it down to probably 40-50 lumens the rest of the race.  It’s got a nice feature that you just touch the side and it goes to max power and then when you touch it again, it returns to where you had it.  Very convenient for the hills.  Last year with the full moon I didn’t even need that much light.

I put on my headphones now but had to keep the iPod in my glove so the battery wouldn’t die.  I don’t understand how some rechargeable lithium batteries like my headlamp can last in -30F for 2 nights and yet an iPod dies in 15 minutes in -10F.  It got to about -15F by 11PM and continued to slowly drop from there until 9AM the next day when it was about -26F.  I put my second jacket on at some point after Gateway and a skull cap and fleece hat over that when I got the headlamp out.

The cold valley from last year wasn’t as bad since it was windy this year and the cold air didn’t settle in there very well.   It was -31F with the windchill slightly coming from behind versus the -35F last year.  I still should’ve put my googles and face cover on though.  My hands, feet, and body felt warm and toasty but my nose was getting cold without me knowing it.  I should’ve felt it with my fingers to confirm the temp instead of just thinking it felt warm.  Anyway once I put on my face cover, my nose felt hot so I knew I was later than I should’ve been.  Veteran making a rookie mistake!  I have always done a mental check at least every hour to see how things are going.  Most of the time it’s much more often, especially in a cold year like this.  I’ll obviously be adding a physical touching of the nose to confirm temp from now on.

This is the point in the race that the mental challenge really begins.  It’s cold, you’re tired, I hadn’t seen anyone for at least 6 hours.  I had only seen snowmobiles once from the race up to this point.  The race course itself doesn’t even get hard until after the half way point and since I’ve been on it twice before, I knew well what suckyness was coming.  I was able to check my phone again and saw the forecast for Wednesday morning was even worse, now showing -38F at sunrise.  Plus a windchill of “doesn’t matter at this point anymore, keep everything covered dumbass!”  The high for Tuesday was supposed to be -18F (it never got that hot by the way) which wasn’t great either.  I really had to wonder if I wanted to go all the way to Surly checkpoint at 111 miles just to have to quit because I didn’t think I could make the last 23 miles through the swamps in the cold.  I thought about this for hours and never really came to any decision.

I really didn’t know if people were quitting the race or not.  I never saw any snowmobiles filled with dropped competitors pass by me like I did last year.  I had no clue how many people were in front of me either.  The snow was so hard, it was difficult to make footprints or for the sleds to make tracks to count how many in front of you.  I found out later, people were dropping quickly behind me and a couple in front.

Going across Elephant Lake for the mile going into the wind to Mel George’s sucked as always.  The windchill was -39F at this point if you believe the official of 9mph wind.  It certainly felt faster than that on the lake but at least it wasn’t that bad in the trees.  If you want some evidence that it was likely colder on the lake than -39, I’ve got some.  Another racer got frostbite on his eyeball!  That’s not a joke, he seriously froze his cornea on the lake section on the windward side of his face.  I showed a biker where to go once I got to land.  There weren’t as many markings at this turn as in previous years.  In fact most years there was a volunteer there to point the way.  With the temp this year, it was understandable for no one to be there.  I checked in to the second checkpoint at Mel George’s at 3:15AM which was later than I had hoped.  I just always seem to think this section will take less time than it does.  I’m also convinced it’s 73 miles and not 72 miles to the checkpoint which accounts for some of that (it really is 72).

I had never used the check-in cabin before so I certainly wasted some time here that I could fix in later years.  I ate about 1000 calories of food and tried to organize my clothes and such that I knew I’d change into after sleeping.  I charged my watch and headlamp up to make sure they’d make it through the cold to come.  I eventually made my way up to the loft to sleep.  All the beds were taken.  Somehow there were 8 competitors in the cabin but I only counted like 4 bikes.  Anyway it was hot enough to not need a blanket or anything.  I put in my earbuds and listened to white noise.  I was tired enough to drown out the talking and snoring with the white noise and slept for a total of about 50 minutes.  It wasn’t great sleep since I was constantly woken up but it’s all I was going to get and certainly better than trying to bivy up in the cold and wasting time with that.

I got up, checked the weather which was about the same and decided to keep going without really thinking about it very much.  I had more layers than last year with me.  It took me way too long to get out the door.  I had my stuff spread out over too many areas.  It was so hot in the cabin that I couldn’t really change into my clothes until I was in the breezeway.  I went back and forth a bunch of times getting stuff ready and packed and loaded.  I did finally leave at 5:45AM.  2.5 hours and not even an hour of sleep.  What a waste.  Plus my shoes were still by the door and I never got them in a place where they could dry out.  I had on 3 pair of pants now, including my windpants.  I had 3 shirts on and 2 or 3 jackets (I know by nightfall I had 3 on but I’m not sure when I put that one on).  Face mask, goggles, skull hat and fleece hat.  I now had on wool Injinji socks and also upgraded to mittens from gloves.

It was slowly still getting colder and windier.  The big hills after Mel George’s kept me warm and were steep enough to slide down.  I had poles with me this year for the first time.  They were a big help on the hills.  Not that I made it up them much faster, but I could keep my feet straight instead of pushing off the sides of my feet which prevented me from getting the hip pain I’ve gotten every other year.  By sunrise it was -26F and a 13mph wind.  That’s -50F windchill although I was protected from most of that wind by the trees and often going with the wind.

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Elbow Lake shelter.

This was a pretty lonely section.  No snowmobiles at all during the day except one at dusk.  I heard one bird and saw a small dead mouse.  Otherwise no wildlife at all.  The sun stayed out longer than it was supposed to which was nice.  It was rare that I wasn’t in a shadow though so it didn’t warm me up much.  I never bothered with the iPod (too cold) although it would’ve been nice to listen to some podcasts or something.  I pretty much just went into cruise mode and tried to eat and maintain speed.  The sled pulled so hard that I couldn’t run the sections I ran last year even though my sled was lighter and I had some sleep.  I had to breath in through my mouth and out my nose all the rest of the race to make sure I didn’t make my nose cold again.  It was annoying but I eventually got used to it.

I didn’t see things in the trees like last year.  I only thought there was something there twice and I knew right away I was wrong.  I made a game of guessing what it was in reality before I got there.  It guessed wrong both times.  It was always a tree that was horizontal with snow on it.  One time I thought I saw an orange streak go past.  In fact I did, it was a photographer walking behind a sign that I saw after a small bend in the trail.  I don’t know where that picture is.

Around mile 96 when I was taking a break, John Storkamp and Ray Sanchez caught up to me.  I thought Ray had left before I went to sleep at Mel George since he was packing up stuff as I went up to the loft but he hadn’t.  We were kind of together for 10 miles or so when I could no longer see John.  I absolutely hate the section after 99 miles.  Just non-stop STEEP climbs for 5 miles.  Ray and I pretty much went in together to Surly.  If not for my nose, I could’ve gone faster after those hills but there really wasn’t much point anymore.  I had given up on time long ago due to the cold.

David Jess 1
Going down the hill into the flats before Surly. Photo Credit: David Jess

David Jess 2 before surly
Going down the hill into the flats before Surly. Photo Credit: David Jess

There is a nice downhill to the flats before Surly checkpoint after you turn South East.  I couldn’t even tell there was an incline this year.  I knew were I was but I kept thinking it couldn’t be right since it didn’t seem at all like I was going down.  It’s even steep enough to slide down if it’s 20F.  I was pretty bummed when I realized we were down to the bottom land and indeed the downhill was rendered ineffective due to the cold.  The wind was behind me now for the rest of the race.  In the picture above you can see the cloud around my face.  It was hard to see since the headlamp would light it up no matter where you pointed it or how bright it was.  You couldn’t hold your breath long enough for it to dissipate either.  There was just a constant steam cloud in front of you.  It also started to fog up my goggles and they were useless by Surly.

We got in to Surly at 7:10PM which was much later than I wanted but again, time wasn’t of concern anymore, safety was.  I ended up staying an hour which didn’t seem that long.  I ate some food since I hadn’t had anything for a long time.  I dried my shoes over the stove in the teepee and changed socks one more time just in case.  The trail at Surly was like a wind tunnel.  Taking your glove off for a couple seconds made them cold.  I brought in most of my clothes to the teepee to figure out what to put on and what to put in my most accessible areas of my pack (what I call the on deck area) for easy access.  I knew there was essentially zero places out of the wind a few miles past Wakemup Hill so things had to be done now if possible.  I also put on the cast socks again in case it got down to -40F.  It wasn’t supposed to anymore but it’s just easier to put on now.  In the end I wouldn’t have needed them on.  I also put on the cold avenger mask I bought this year.  I had never used it before and wasn’t real keen on not being able to eat and drink with it on but with the cold and wind, it was a better protector than the other face mask I was using.  I put on a fourth jacket as well.  I hoped I wouldn’t get too hot since this is the jacket that likes to freeze shut and can’t be taken off easy.  I put thin running gloves on under my mittens so that I never had to have skin exposed to do more finer detail oriented things like drink or eat or pee.

They shot off some fireworks when people left which was kind of cool.  Of course I forgot something so mine went off before I actually left for good.  I felt great after the rest and ran pretty much the whole way to Wakemup Hill to get the blood flowing and since I felt good.  I couldn’t wear the goggles anymore since they just fogged up like crazy with the cold avenger.  My eyes were cold which made me somewhat cold but there wasn’t much to do about it until I figured something out later on.  The other thing the cold avenger does is put all the moisture directly at your neck.  All my zippers were frozen in ice in minutes.  Good thing I wasn’t planning on taking them off until the end of the race.

I was tired but not as bad as last year.  I was taking caffeine pills to help stay awake.  Really I mostly was just bored.  I knew it would be about 8 hours to finish this section and after the fun Wakemup Hill there is still 7 hours left of boredom going slowly uphill.  I tried to sing songs that I made up but even after a 10 minute long made up rhyming song, you still had hours left. There were no people at any of the road crossings.  The other years there was a car at almost every road crossing.  Really the entire race there were very few road crossings with people.

I’d get too hot if I ran, but slightly cold just walking.  I figured out it was because the back of my pants all breath and the strong wind behind me were going through them.  Also I didn’t have a wind proof hood or goggles anymore so my head was slightly cold.  I decided to take the time to put on my snowpants.  These are super warm and I had them basically in case I had to just stand still or bivy.  But they’re windproof as well.  I put them on and my legs were immediately hot.  My head was still cool so I took an empty zip lock bag and tore one edge to make it into a 3 sided hat.  I put it under my hood and headlamp and it worked great.  Within minutes I was overheated and had to slow way down.  Like 30 minute mile slow which was just dumb.  I decided to just take off the snowpants and deal with the wind.  It took a while to cool down but eventually I could walk fast again and had more normal breathing.

Sometimes I’d even have to take the zip lock bag off as well to keep cooler.  I’m thinking a thin wind pant and a poncho instead of the 4th jacket would’ve been better.  Plus not having to need the cold avenger mask.  With about 4 hours left to go I ended up taking the cold avenger mask somewhat off, just keeping it close enough to my face to help warm the air.  The other downfall was all the snot I was consuming.  The mask somehow made it all run or blow into my mouth.  The last hour of the race it was a struggle not to barf from the taste of the snot and having a belly full of it.

I ate some food thinking it would help, I felt this bump on my tongue start forming right after I ate it.  I think I froze part of my tongue with the -26F food.  Won’t be doing that again.

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See the white spot on my tongue?

Anyway it was still getting colder.  The wind seemed to die down for a bit but then really took off again more from the West instead of the NW.  The official wind speed at Tower was not close to what the trail condition was for wind in my opinion.  I was keeping warm enough and could always put back on the snow pants and wrap myself in the sleeping pad on top if I needed to.  Really I had to thermoregulate somewhat like last year by taking on and off my mittens (still had the thin gloves on) and hats.

I so wanted to be done.  I would look back every once and a while looking for Ray since I knew he would be right behind me.  Turns out he made a wrong turn somewhere and went 4 miles off course so he was no where near me.  I was miles from anyone in either direction.  I slowly started counting down the miles.  It was hard to see the trail through the swamps with the snow drifts blowing over it and the giant fog cloud in front of me.  I just looked down and followed the couple tire tracks I could see.  For hours!  I ran occasionally just to change things up.  I got out my poles again just to have something for my arms to do.

I thought I saw a UFO.  There was this light moving all around crazy in the sky.  Turns out I just was moving my head around in the wind and from being tired the fog messed with my perception of what was stationary and what wasn’t.

Finally I got to the last road crossing.  There was still more to go but at least my mind would be occupied with the multiple turns and twists to the finish line.  Up to now it was just miles of straight lines with an occasional 10 foot jog in the trail.  The hill to the finish line was easier with my poles.  I was surprised that I didn’t have to go into the tent at the finish line to find someone.  They somehow saw me coming or else they are really hardy to stand in a -54F wind chill waiting for hours at a time.  I finished at 3:54AM for a time of 44:50 and 5th place.  That was very similar to last year which wasn’t too bad.  It was -33F air temp.  We went in right away.  I would’ve liked a photo at the finish line but I couldn’t get my phone up from my chest very easy with the cold avenger having frozen everything.  They gave me the Minnesota nice gear check which was the first time I got that one.

Finish line - paul Wilken
Bag works pretty good doesn’t it? Photo Credit: Paul Wilken

I went up to the deserted hospitality lounge.  Well, it was deserted other than the volunteers.  Volunteers are awesome at this race!  So few people were around since so many quit the day before and already went home.  I got some food and talked about the sucky last section.  I got to pick from a large selection of finisher trophies since not many bikers finished this year.  This is where I learned about Ray getting lost and my friend Ed dropping.  The next person to come in was almost 4 hours after me so I think they probably got a nap in after I left the room.  I was able to check in to my hotel room which is so nice.  I love the Fortune Bay Resort.  I paid them back by eating every buffet they had until I left Thursday.

I showered, slept for an hour, got up and ate and slept again.  The usual.  I posted pictures of everything I was wearing when I finished the race.  Here they are.

Here are the screen shots of the official NWS sites during the race along the trail.  Trail conditions certainly vary from this some.  I wish it would record the actual wind chills as well but you just have to calculate that yourself.  Overall a very cold year!  Maybe next year will be a huge snow year.

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Since people have been asking, and you made it all the way to the end so you probably actually care; here is the elevation profile and mileage chart I made based on the full gps track I made during the race.

Arrowhead mileage chart

Big’s Backyard Ultra 2018 Race Report

This is an event where failure and success are very fluid.  There is only 1 winner (sometimes no one wins) and everyone else is a DNF (did not finish).  There is no set end to the race, it’s all up to the competitors.

Why run a race with no chance of winning or even finishing really?

The answer is different for everyone I guess.  To some just a couple loops are a success. To others, 48 hours is a failure on at least some level.  This race has a way of making you contemplate many things.  The runner contemplates the reasons they run it – before, during, and after.  The crew contemplates their runner’s needs, mental and physical state.  The thousands of observers who follow the race online, staying up for hours to see just a once per hour update; they contemplate our sanity, how they’d stack up, the human spirit.

On such a basic level this is just a footrace like any other.  It’s a 4 1/6 mile long course on trail during the day and paved road by night.  You put one foot in front of the other just like any other race, perpetual forward motion.  Then it gets a bit wonky, as some of the foreign runners would say.  This loop must be run within 1 hour and the next lap started exactly 1 hour from the previous loops start.  The faster you run the loop, the longer you have to rest but the more energy you expended.  The other key difference is that it’s a last man standing format, meaning that the last person to finish a loop on their own wins the event.  This means every other person must have quit before there is a winner.  And ultrarunners don’t like to quit.

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I’ve known about this race since it’s beginning and even could’ve gotten in years ago off the waitlist but it was only a couple weeks before the race so I turned it down.  This year I applied again and was accepted right away.  There really isn’t much to prepare for this race different from other ultramarathons.  I usually have a fast turn around in aid stations and you just need to think through things before you get there.  It would’ve been nice to have a crew but I didn’t realize just how helpful one would be until the race started but I’ll get to that later.

I drove to this event since there was a lot of stuff to bring and I had no idea how long I’d be there.  I was trying not to get sick from my loving children the entire week before the race.  I went to bed 2 hours early every night, etc.  Sure enough though my nose was running by Wednesday and on the drive there Thursday my lymph nodes in my neck were swollen and I was just sore everywhere.  I hoped doing basically nothing that day and Friday would help speed recovery.

My legs were still somewhat off from Barkley Fall Classic which I was surprised by really.  Honestly though there have been very few races I started where I felt everything was 100% normal.  The races are held when they’re held, not when you’re ready for them.  Now you need to sign up almost a year in advance for most big races, so really you’re just betting on yourself to stay healthy when you sign up.

I arrived at the race site Friday which is the race director Laz’s property.  I would’ve been able to set up my stuff in the “contender” area since I was planning on over 24 loops but I had a 4×4 foot shower tent and that was too big for that area so I set up behind the flagged off area.  Also it wasn’t allowed since it had a rain cover and you couldn’t have tarps or coverings in that area.  It wasn’t that much further away, probably 20 seconds added to each lap total.  Plus even though I’d go over 24 hours, I had no chance to beat the people who did set up right next to the starting corral.  Everyone knew the 10 or so people that would still be going 36+ hours into this and let them be close.

We could walk the