Zumbro 100 Race Report – 2022 (Gnarly Bandit part 1)

This is the 2nd time I’ve done the 100 mile version of this race and the 3rd time I’ve been there. The last time I did the 100 miler here was 7 years ago! The course has been changed a little since then so it’s actually 102 miles now with 13,500 elevation of gain. Overall the course changes were good as far as my memory goes. I did pretty bad last time and had to walk the entire 6th loop that year finishing in 28 hours. The current course is a 17 mile loop that you do 6 times for the 102 mile race. While it’s called a loop, it is pretty much a back and forth all over the Zumbro Bottoms Management Area running what seems like every possible trail there is. There are areas where the race director has a choice of taking the easy way or the hard way…of course the hardest way is always the chosen path. It is a very pretty area at least.

My plan for this year was to follow my original plan from 7 years ago of 25 hours and figured with my 7 years of experience I’d probably be able to do it. Plus I’ve finished Superior in 27:30 and that’s a way harder race on paper. I never felt all that great leading up to the race though. I was running OK since Arrowhead but I didn’t feel all that ready for Zumbro. I didn’t run many hills in training due to the weather and that certainly would affect my race. In general it’s hard to run a 100 mile trail race in early April in MN due to poor training conditions here.

The reason I was doing this race again was mostly because it is part of the Gnarly Bandit Series. It’s a series I’ve wanted to do forever but it never fit into my schedule with other big races I’ve wanted to do. This year I yet again didn’t get into Western States and I didn’t want to apply for Spartathlon this year since I knew I wouldn’t get off work for it 2 years in a row. So after looking at my work schedule, I realized I only had to change 1 thing around and it would work! It entails 4 – 100 mile races and a 100k race at the end. They are all fairly tough trail races and 2 of the 100 milers are only 13 days apart now (used to be 3 weeks) so it’s tough to complete. The good news is that it is fairly easy to get into all the races for it if you plan for it right away. Some of the other series out there are basically impossible to complete anymore just because you can’t get into the races. There are usually 5 or so people that attempt it every year. This is the first time in 4 years that all the races are happening at the full distances since Zumbro has been cancelled in the past for weather and of course the whole Covid shutdown. That was another reason I waited until now to do the series, I wanted to do the entire thing. It’s the same reason I chose the harder version of Hrimthurs. Very few have done both Hrimthurs and Gnarly Bandit. I hope to be one of them.

The fun drive there.

There was no bib pickup the night before like usual so I just left real early from home on race day Friday April 8th. I got there about 35 minutes early which is what I was hoping for. It had snowed during the night but luckily the plows had been out already at 5 in the morning to salt the roads. It snowed last time I was there as well. In fact it pretty much snows every year at Zumbro. One of the reasons I’m so slow at Zumbro is I never have a crew and I end up having to change clothes almost every loop, sometimes a couple times a loop. Add an hour of time to what you think you should get if it’s a year of wild temperature swings (which is most years).

The view of the start/finish from the first ridge. Photo Credit – Cary Johnson

There were I think 52 signed up for the 100 mile race but only 46 showed up to start. That’s lower than past years, I assume due to many people not training during the Covid years and dropping to a shorter distance. I totally get the desire to do that, especially if you’ve done this race before. While a loop course seems like it’d be nice since you don’t need drop bags, etc, it actually sucks because every hard part you know you have to do again and again and again. I had forgot how sucky the sucky parts were in the 7 years since being there.

I got my bib and found out there are only 3 of us going for the Gnarly Bandit this year. It will be fun getting to know Timothy Adamski and Andy Lohn. I have already met Andy but not Timothy. Timothy is way faster so I may not get to talk to him anyway 🙂 There is the tradition to get a photo for Upper Midwest Trail Runners for Gnarly Bandit runners at the start of every race. If you’re not a member but live in the Upper Midwest, I strongly suggest you join. It’s a great way to find out about the more local races, there are contest running series you can do, and there are great discounts as well. I more than pay for my membership just from them.

Gnarly Bandit Runners. Photo Credit – Jamison Swift

There are quite a few people that run this race often, some even every year. I think I would lose my mind doing the 100 mile distance every year. Any other time of year and I’d probably love it, including winter. April, not so much. The buff I have on in that photo is I think from 2014. I must’ve seen at least 5 people with it on at the start and more than that probably own one. Mine is in pretty tough shape and all stretched out. I was hoping to get a new one this year at the race but we’ll be getting hats instead. My favorite race shirt is the one from this race in 2015. I have a LOT of race shirts so that means something that it’s my favorite. Wait, skip that, my Spartathlon jersey is my favorite race shirt but I still wear my Zumbro t-shirt more. It needs replacing as well.

Start line. Photo Credit – Anna Woletz

The race started promptly at 8AM and we were off. The trail up the first hill seemed in worse shape than I remembered it. Perhaps it was from 7 years of erosion. I had my Z-poles with and attached to my vest. I didn’t use them for this loop though as it wasn’t worth the effort to take them off and on for the hills since they were short and I was moving well. Plus with all the rocks, I was worried I’d get a pole stuck and snap it. The snow and leaves had everything covered so that you really didn’t know what you would be stepping on. You knew there are rocks and sticks everywhere but you can’t see them until everyone steps on every part of the trail to uncover what’s there. On fresh legs it’s not too hard but you need to pay attention. By the 3rd loop it was clear where the best path was.

I think the top of the first ridge. Photo Credit – Cary Johnson

It was right around 32 degrees at the start and it warmed up a little on that first loop already. I was hot by halfway through and wished I had started with just a long sleeve shirt instead of my thermal shirt. It was very pretty to run through the snow covered hills. There seemed to be much more sand with the current course than I remember. There is a 1.7 mile stretch of nothing but fine beach sand. I think it used to be less than a mile. Wear some gaiters! There also isn’t the steep narrow downhill that I had to hang on to trees while going down in the mud one year so that was nice.

Somewhere on the first loop. Photo Credit – Cary Johnson

The major difference really in the new course is the big reduction in aid. There is a water only aid station just before mile 5 and then a full aid station just after 13 miles into the loop. So you need to bring food for over 13 miles and water for over 8 miles which takes a little more planning than in the past. If you forget something at any of them, you’re going to suffer because you won’t have an opportunity to get anything for awhile. There used to be 2 more aid stations in previous years.

I think this is coming down the first ridge. It looks real nice right now but it became shoe sucking mud the next 3 loops. Photo Credit – Jamison Swift

I got to the 5 mile aid station and filled up with water for the 8.5 miles. I grew up drinking well water and generally like it. The water this year was simply put – bad. At first I thought it was just an off tasting well water but it tasted more like water that had been sitting in a water bottle for months in the sun. Perhaps it was a combination of both. It actually affected my water consumption. Electrolytes helped some to cover up the taste but I can’t drink just electrolytes the entire race.

The section between aid 2 and 3 is where the sand stretch is as well as many hills. Other than the sand the trail condition was pretty good. The ground was still froze so there wasn’t mud yet for most of the first loop. Then comes Ant Hill. I don’t know the story of the naming of this hill but it’s the worst part of the course in my opinion. It’s almost all rocks of varying size and steep. I know in the past I’ve run down this hill fast and suffered the consequences so I took it easier this year. Plus you still couldn’t see where it was safe to step yet due to the snow and leaves. Later on you could run down if you wanted but by then my legs would be too tired for that. I don’t have a picture of Ant Hill so you can be surprised when you get there.

So that’s not me but a good picture of the sand section. Other parts you’re down in a deep cut of a dry creek with the same sand. Photo Credit – Kevin Langton

After Ant Hill we went back up another rocky but more manageable road. I don’t remember doing this in the past so I think it was a new area. I would’ve much rather run this the reverse direction. Then we turned off into someones private land for a bit and then down a nice runnable mile long road to the 2nd aid station. I’ll tell you now that once I got to the road on the last loop, I was very happy. It’s all easy from here to the end.

Coming up the rocky jeep road after Ant Hill. The path clearly hadn’t been made yet as going on the side ended up being the best path on subsequent loops. Photo Credit – Jamison Swift

By the time I got to the 2nd aid station my stomach was already going south a little. Some of the gels I was eating were technically a couple months expired so perhaps that was it too but I’ve never had a problem with expired gels and really they should last for years if kept sealed. Mostly I think it was the water taste messing with my head. I don’t really think there was anything bad in the water though. I got some pop here and some chips.

It’s now just a flat road to the start/finish line from there. I measured it at about 3.8 miles. It is exposed to the sun and wind which can be good or bad depending on the temperature. I enjoyed the cold breeze this time since I was wearing too much.

Road from aid station 2 to the bridge (2nd loop I think). Photo Credit – Cary Johnson
The last couple miles of the loop. Photo Credit – Kevin Langton

I was hoping for about 3 hours on this loop since I did that last time but it was almost 3.5 hours. My legs already felt spent. I knew Zumbro would yet again wreck my goals. 5 more loops and my legs already wanted to quit. The last 2 years had been spent running flats and gaining speed for Spartathlon. It had helped a lot with Arrowhead too since my over 50 pound sled felt light compared to other years. I have definitely lost my hill abilities though. That’s all I’m doing this year so I better get it back soon. I pretty much just told myself the next 24 hours would suck but it was all training to make the rest of the season better.

I had to use the portapotty and then went to my car that I parked along the course to use as my aid station. I changed shirts, and got more food and water for the next loop. I spent about 10 minutes or so which wasn’t bad. My feet were a little wet from all the melted snow and wet grass but I wanted to wait to change socks. I had a cut on my right shin, likely from all the branches that would come out from under the leaves and try to trip you when you stepped on them. I left my poles as I didn’t plan on using them until maybe at night.

The ground had thawed out and was now muddy in spots. It still wasn’t as bad as it can be at Zumbro but there are a few spots where my gaiters were the only thing that kept my shoes on my feet. You’d sink in about 6 inches and hoped you didn’t fall as the mud hung on to your shoe. Of course for the next 3 miles after those spots, your shoes were at least twice the normal weight from the half inch of mud stuck to them top and bottom. Eventually it would dry and mostly fall off.

Half way through this loop I definitely was having issues with my stomach. None of my usual treatments did any good. The water still tasted gross. I usually hit a wall around mile 25 or so anyway so I thought it might just be that but it wasn’t. It somewhat hurt to run so I ended up slowing down a lot. This continued until about mile 75! I wanted to run faster but I just couldn’t. I had zero energy whether I was eating or not. I even tried an anti-nausea pill which did nothing, probably because it wasn’t really nausea. I hope to not have whatever it was ever again. I was pretty frustrated watching everyone pass me and moving so slowly.

Parts of the course that had been easy, were harder in the mud. Some parts of trail had a side incline and it was almost impossible to stay on it with the mud. It was overall a pretty nice day though.

The soup at aid station 2 was about the only thing I looked forward to on every loop. I always felt a little better after having some. Of course it was also almost 4 miles of flat course after it so that probably had as much to do with feeling better than the food but I’ll take the placebo effect. I really didn’t have anyone to talk to most of the race so I started listening to music and kept the podcasts for the night.

On top of the ridge about halfway through the loop. Nice views. I don’t remember running this ridge other years but I could be wrong. Photo Credit – Cary Johnson

I finished loop 2 in 3:50 of moving time. Way slower than planned but I knew then that at least a 27 hour finish was the new reality. I still kept my socks on as they were dryer and I didn’t want to waste anymore time. I got some different food to try this loop. New food didn’t change anything though.

Loop 3. Photo Credit – Kevin Langton

Loop 3 took 4:20 to finish. I don’t really remember much about this loop. The mud was pretty much just as bad as loop 2. It was warmer and the sun was out occasionally. I saw a squirrel. The sun was setting as I finished the loop and got back to my car at 7:45PM. I was half way done.

Photo Credit – Cary Johnson

I got my headlamp out and changed my socks. I had to pop a couple blisters which is unusual for me. I think I still had my shoes set for winter thickness socks from Arrowhead and I was moving around too much in them. It was getting colder so I think I brought along more things to change into in case I got cold. Originally I wanted to get done with the 4th loop just before midnight so I’d be in front of the 50 mile runners but I knew that wouldn’t happen anymore so I took my time to make sure I got everything done that I needed. I planned on using my poles this loop since I was so slow anyway and I thought they might make me faster.

The sky was clear which made for great views of the stars. It was colder but the wind died down as well so it was pretty close to the same wind chill as the third loop. I was tired. More than usual. I tend to do well in the overnight hours compared to most but this year I pretty much just maintained where I was. The poles helped on the hills but made me go slower the rest of the time, especially when I was walking so I decided I’d get rid of them after this loop. Plus I fell twice while using them and never did without so clearly they didn’t help in that regards either.

I finished the 4th loop in 5:10 which just sucks plain and simple. It was just after 1AM and the 50 mile race started an hour ago. I still felt like crap and even though I only had 2 more loops left, I knew they would both be over 5 hours long. It was getting colder. I think around 25 degrees. I knew the course would be nice and frozen so that would help but I needed to get pants on. It takes so much time to get pants on since you have to take shoes off, etc. The neighboring people had a tent that they earlier said I could use. No one was there and it was cold so I just went back and changed in my car where it was still somewhat warm from the sun having heated it up in the daylight. I put on pants and a thermal shirt. I got warmer hats and gloves in my vest. I took off shivering since I had been just standing around doing all this. I turned back and got my coat as I knew it could get even colder and I’d be dumb not to have it. That took more time. I spent over 20 minutes doing all this stuff.

Photo Credit – Christian Worby

The trail was indeed in awesome shape. I warmed up and thought I might have too much on but I was moving slow so I was just fine. The shoe sucking mud was now much firmer but if you stepped in the right spots, you were fine. I met a few other runners on this loop which helped my pace some. About halfway through this loop my stomach started to feel better on and off. It was awesome being able to run at a decent speed when I was feeling good.

The long sand stretch had frozen solid as well by the time I got there. It seemed like really dry sand during the day but was solid and firm now. I knew it would be soft again on the 6th loop but it was fun for now. Since I was moving better now, I actually finished loop 5 in the same time it took to finish loop 4. Time wise though it was 6:40AM since I had such a long inter-loop time. The 34 mile race would start soon and I wanted to get out before that started.

Finishing the 5th loop. Photo Credit – Jessica Knighton

I spent about 15 minutes here. I changed into shorts again. I also removed all my upper layers and redid it with the warming weather in mind. So I put on a long sleeve shirt, then my thermal over that, then my coat over that (it was still 24 degrees). The plan was to take stuff off as needed during the loop. It would suck to take the time but I knew it would be 20 degrees warmer and sunny by the time I finished so I had to shed layers. I left about 6 minutes before the 34 mile race started.

The nice frozen trail! Starting loop 6. Photo Credit – Pat Lehnherr

The trail was still nice and frozen so I didn’t mind that I would soon be passed by a bunch of runners. They wouldn’t be ruining the trail for me until hours later when it thawed out. I still felt good so my goal was to push it a little bit on this last loop and make sure to get under 28 hours. While I wasn’t happy about that time, I felt it was still better than the last time I was here and got 28 hours on a shorter course. In the back of my mind I just kept thinking how I’ve done Superior faster than this and that I had finished Spartathlon just 8 months ago. Some days just don’t go the way you want to. I knew I would at least still finish. I was well within the time cutoffs.

Having some fun running on loop 6. Photo Credit – Pat Lehnherr

I had to stop twice to shed layers and my vest was super full with all of it. The ground thawed and everything was muddier than even yesterday. The sand was now soft and energy sucking again. I ran when it was possible and I knew it was possible to get done under 28 hours. I was almost glad to see Ant Hill just because I knew it would be the last time I’d have to go down it. This is when the first of the 17 mile runners started flying by. I got to the last aid station after running down the road for the last time. I didn’t spend much time here and I kept on going.

I still took a couple walking breaks the last 4 miles but ran as much as possible to make sure I’d get done before noon. Finally I got to the open field of the finish line. I was running which was a big improvement over the last time I did this race. I finished the loop in less time than either loop 4 or 5, at 5 hours flat. It was 11:56 AM for a finishing time of 27:56.

Heading into the finish. Photo Credit – Mike Wheeler
Done! Photo Credit – Mike Wheeler

The volunteers at the finish line were awesome. Someone got me a chair, something to drink, and a pizza! I got to hang out watching others finish their race while I ate. The sun was so nice and warm. I wasn’t very tired now that the sun was out. I saw a few friends finish their race and found a few more that had dropped from their races. I thanked everyone and got on my way home. I slept for an hour along the way when I got tired.

The first leg of the Gnarly Bandit series was done. All 3 of us finished. Kettle Moraine is next up. I said I’d never do it again until I did Gnarly Bandit. Well now is the time.

The banner is getting crowded now so I just signed in the same spot.

Arrowhead 135 – 2022 Race Report

The 2022 edition of the Arrowhead 135 took place on the latest day possible (Jan 31st) this year since that’s when the last Monday in January landed. Since last years race didn’t happen, I was excited to sign up again for it this year. I was so excited in fact, that I clicked the unsupported button when I was registering. I reminded myself after I hit the button that I yelled out loud at the finish line in 2018 that I would never do this race unsupported again. My brain was like “dude, it’s been 4 years, you have no memory about how hard it was anymore, just leave it be, you can always change your mind later.”

So if you don’t know what unsupported means, I’ll tell you. It means no one can help you what so ever. You run this race like you are all alone in the world and no other human exists except for the race directors, who will punish you if you cheat. If another human happens to notice you, they must not smile at you or talk to you, in fact they are encouraged to taunt you with hot food and random pieces of food they drop along the trail that you aren’t allowed to pick up and eat. OK, it’s not quite that bad but the rules for unsupported did get more strict since the last time I did it in 2018. You do get absolute zero help from anyone, including other racers. If it’s an emergency, then of course you can get help but you are disqualified. In 2018 you could still throw garbage away. Now you can’t. Not sure I agree with that one, and I didn’t even know that had changed until halfway through the race. You also can’t change to supported during the race like you could in 2018, you are simply a DNF. They still let you use any fire you find along the way to melt snow into water. I have a feeling Jackie has her eye on changing that one too. 🙂

There was some discussion after the race about eating “found food” but let me assure you, it’s not allowed. That would make cheating super easy. I had to just walk on by food on the trail. Normally I pick up garbage to throw away but since taking food would be cheating and apparently I couldn’t throw garbage away anymore, I wasn’t going to take any more things on my journey. Can you tell I think the garbage rule should be reconsidered? I hate litter and me having to carry garbage just makes littering more likely.

For more details about the race itself and previous race reports click 2017, 2019, 2020. As usual I drove up there on Saturday. I stopped by the Fortune Bay Casino to see how check-in would happen since they are now closed on Monday and Tuesday and I wanted to see how to get my room before 3pm on Wednesday. Basically I was told it wouldn’t happen so that was a waste of a stop. I was hoping I could just get the entry card now that they would program not to work until Wednesday and I would just carry it the entire race. I was pretty sure I was still going to do unsupported and I went pretty fast last time so that’s why I wanted a room Wednesday morning. Plus due to Covid, we couldn’t sleep in the hospitality room like usual waiting to get in our room so I wasn’t sure what I would do. Oh, and all the restaurants in the casino were closed save one that was only open during the day. It was starting to seem like the finish line was going to be a continuation of unsupportedness.

I left for International Falls and stopped in at Gateway General Store (the first check point) since I wouldn’t be able to go in during the race. I got some cheese and sausage for the race and thanked them for helping with the race. I checked the trail condition there. It was pretty soft snow so I wasn’t looking forward to the snow on race day since it was going to be fairly warm that day as well.

Along the way to International Falls you cross the trail while on Hwy 53. Even the car GPS knew about the importance of the trail and let me know when I was going to cross it.

I got to International Falls just as they were starting to check in racers at the Backus Community Center. They had it in the gym this year to spread things out more. It probably worked better that way really. I had to make a quick run to the car to get my fuel since I didn’t have it in my bag. I was seriously panicking that I somehow forgot it even though I make a checklist and everything when I pack. It was in the car! It was easily the quickest check-in I’ve done. Ken was handing out the bibs and he asked if I was unsupported. I still had 2 more days to technically decide and I was expecting a ribbon to put on my bib like last time when I said “yes”. Out comes a large paint marker and Ken puts a big pink X on both bibs. The paint was slow to dry, and I watched as my fate to run this race unsupported slowly dried itself into permanence. There was no going back now!

I was planning on eating at the Mexican restaurant in town like I’ve done every year but it closed down in 2020 due to Covid. I ended up eating at a place next to the hotel which was pretty good. I got back to my room and talked to my family and got some of the food ready for the race. I had all of the next day to pack so I didn’t do very much on Saturday besides checking on the weather. It was supposed to be mid to upper 20’s on race day and then get windy and snowy on day 2, followed by a cold northwest wind and below zero temperatures the second night.

The next day was filled with organizing and packing for the race. I dropped off my finish line bag and went shopping. I was in luck because the grocery store had the 2 types of chips I had been looking for all month back home and no one had them in stock! I was hoping to go somewhat light since it wasn’t supposed to get cold until the second night but that was so far away, things could easily change for the worst. I basically could’ve left 6 pounds of clothes at the start line if I was confident how things would go. Instead I had to take them with since unsupported is no joke. I knew my sled would be heavier than the last time I did unsupported because I was planning on bringing more water with this year.

Looks like a giant turd. Bivy sack, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag rolled up and ready for use.

I took a short nap in the afternoon since I felt tired. If I’m tired before a race, I sleep no matter what time it is. Trying to force myself to sleep when I think I should usually doesn’t work. I packed some more when I got up and then took a break to go to the required pre-race meeting. There weren’t any surprises and it took slightly less time than normal. I found out there would likely be showers at the finish line at least like most years so that was nice to hear. The meal was served take-out style but there were some tables set up for eating there if you wanted. I ate quickly and talked to a couple of guys I usually see along the course every year.

I talked to the family once more and then finished packing while going through my “night before” checklist of stuff to get done. I picked out my race day clothes based on the forecast and set them aside. I got to bed around 9:00.

I woke up at 5AM like usual. The weather was already warmer than expected so I had to change what I was going to wear. This made the sled even heavier. I made sure this year to not have a bunch of extra food with. I brought just over 9000 calories with knowing I wouldn’t eat it all. That was in addition to the required 3000 calories of food you need to finish with. So with the sled and everything together, it weighed 60 pounds even. That’s the heaviest I’ve ever had but that was part of the plan since I was carrying enough water to not need to melt snow during the race.

Pre-race photo.

I headed to the race start and got checked in. I stayed in my car until about 6:50 and then got out and put my sled together. I headed to the start line and went to the bathroom one last time. The bikers took off, and then just as the skiers took off, I realized I hadn’t locked the car. I had to run against everyone to go back the parking lot, lock the car, and then run back to the starting line just in time for the race to officially begin at 7:04AM for the runners.

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=638564350749667

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=420020443142578

There were 10 people on foot signed up for unsupported initially. There was no way for me to know how many were running unsupported on race day. In the end there were only 3 that started the race on foot unsupported (plus 1 kicksled). That’s less than usual. Perhaps people are hearing how difficult it is and deciding against it. Not a bad choice I guess but I think everyone should do it at least once if they’ve already finished this race.

It was about 11 degrees out and an occasional head wind. I had on a single pant layer and shirt layer with a jacket. I was expecting more wind so when it didn’t show up, I had to remove my coat about 6 miles in. I talked to Greg Pressler and Margaret Gordon for a while. Greg had done Volstate and Margaret was a rookie at Arrowhead. We hit the turn onto the Arrowhead trail from the Blue Ox trail and split up from there. Occasionally, I would be with someone for a brief period of time but mostly I was alone with someone always in view. I ran on and off. The snow was surprisingly good which helped since my sled was so heavy. I got to Hwy 53 in a slightly slower time than usual and sent my wife the usual photo.

Too warm for an ice beard today.

The trail in the afternoon started to soften up a little but still not as bad as I was expecting. I don’t think it ever got to the upper 20’s like was expected so that made a big difference. There was a pretty clear path that had the best footing so we were a long stretched out line of runners making our way to Gateway. I was still able to run here and there and was eating well. I added a few new food items this year that I never thought would work well in cold weather, but with testing I found out they worked just fine. In the end, I really never had a stomach issue the entire race and only occasionally something didn’t taste very good. I got to talk to a few more people that I run with every year. Many hadn’t raced much at all the last 2 years so they said they were under-trained. 5 of us went into Gateway pretty much in a row.

Coming into Gateway.

I was going to get into Gateway pretty close to the time I was planning on. I got in at 4:20PM. I stopped to get my coat back on and get food and water into my vest for the next 3 hour section. I left my headlamp off for now. I was 14th place (foot division) when I got to Gateway. A bunch of people were inside eating awesome hot food and soup when I left a few minutes after I got there so I certainly left in a higher placing. I was quite sure they would catch up to me at some point before Mel George’s.

Usually I start to get sleepy after Gateway. Maybe it’s because I usually have some nice hot food in me or just exhaustion, but this time I still felt great. I ran for a while and settled in for what would be over an 11 hour trip to Mel George’s. I talked to Charlie Farrow who was kick sledding. He ended up bivying before Mel George’s which was his plan. It got dark so I put my headlamp on, reloaded on food and kept on moving. The hills were sometimes big enough to get on my sled and ride down but mostly I just ran down them since they were small and my feet didn’t hurt yet. Some years, even a 10 foot hill seems worthwhile to sled down just so I’m off my feet for 15 seconds.

John Storkamp and Margaret caught up to me again I think around Sheep Ranch Rd. I stuck with John for a little while. It was weird going through the swamp section that is usually so cold. It was colder and windier in that section but nothing at all bad since it was still probably 18 degrees or so there. Once I climbed up the big hill at the end, it was in the 20’s again. I took a small amount of caffeine around 9pm to help get through the night although I wasn’t overly tired. I wanted it to be out of my system by 4am in case I wanted to sleep. I changed socks for the first time around Sheep Ranch Rd as well.

I have to say, the one thing that seemed much different this year is that the hills didn’t seem as high as I remember. Especially since I was pulling the heaviest sled I’ve ever had. I hadn’t trained on hills or anything either. I was always surprised when I got to the top of the big hills that I was done already. I’m not sure of the reason for this. Perhaps it was just mental.

I now got out my ipod to listen to some music since I knew I probably wouldn’t see many people for the rest of the night. Ray and Troy caught up just before Mel George’s which was about when I expected most of the people to catch back up to me. There was a line of 4 of us crossing the lake. The lake probably had the worst snow of the entire race.

I got to the check-in cabin at 3:32am and told the volunteer my number and unsupported status. I was 7th at this point. I think I put on a second shirt here since I knew I’d eventually have to as it got windier and colder the remainder of the race.

I was originally planning on not sleeping this year since bivying last time I went unsupported was such a failure. The weather forecast changed my mind though. Trying to sleep on my sled in -30 windchill wouldn’t work during the second night so I thought it was best to try to do it now when it was still in the 20’s. I knew the shelter 2.5 miles after Mel George’s faced the north so it would be protected from the south wind. I always thought it was so stupid to have the shelter face the north since that’s the usual wind direction but now it didn’t seem so dumb. I got on my snowpants and puffy coat and laid down on the sled.

I started shivering right away like I always seem to the second I lay down. I figured it was just like when I stop at the end of the race and get cold. My body needs time to adjust to not making heat from my legs. I heard a bike go by and then a person on foot at some point as well. I thought it was right away but looking at times that people checked out of Mel George’s I had been down for a while. I would wake up shivering every 5 minutes it seemed and I’d do some crunches to warm up. The frost on my shoes had melted and my toes were pretty cold from being wet now. There really wasn’t anything I could do since my booties were in my sleeping bag and I wasn’t going to get them out. Then a couple times I wondered why my lip hurt so bad only to realize I was biting the inside of my lower lip really hard. I was clearly in and out of sleep but never really felt like I was sleeping. I hadn’t set an alarm, knowing I wouldn’t sleep long and if I did, then I needed it.

Damage from biting my lip.

I got up after an hour and changed socks and got ready to go. It was supposed to be a cold head wind so I dressed warmer but it ended up taking forever to get windy so I took that stuff back off after an hour or so. All together I was stopped 90 minutes here which pretty much matches the time I spent trying to bivy and making water the last time I was unsupported. While I didn’t feel like I had slept, I felt much more refreshed so I knew it had been worthwhile. Soon the sun would be up and then I’d be even more awake.

The 2 big hills right after the shelter were harder to go down since it had started to snow and it was hard to see with the headlamp. I ended up going down slower than usual to play it safe but it was kinda a disappointment. It started getting lighter out. I had hoped to not stop at all before I got to the road crossing after Mel George’s but I ended up stopping I think 3 or 4 times to get my clothes right, etc. I hate wasting time. It was supposed to be cold but it wasn’t. I guess I should’ve just waited until I was cold instead of trying to get ahead of it.

I caught up to Ray at the road crossing. The road and trail after that crossing were the worst snow of the race. It was soft everywhere and the new snow made it even worse. I was in somewhat poor spirits when I usually like this fairly flat section. Eventually it firmed up again and I just went into cruise mode listening to music.

I had a muscle that started to cramp in my lower left shin. I’d have to constantly stop and massage it to relax it. It sucked realizing I’d have to have pain for the rest of the race. Nothing seemed to help it stay away. I started to realize that it didn’t hurt after I rode down a hill. It never got worse but it also wasn’t going away permanently. It slowed my walking speed quit a bit. I couldn’t stretch out my stride and running seemed to make it worse so that didn’t seem wise either.

I don’t remember much else about the race until around noon. I never saw the Myrtle Lake shelter this year, maybe it was gone? It was still snowing and was very windy. It was also very pretty in some of the valleys with the snow coming down and everything being covered in white. There wasn’t any point in taking photos since they never capture it correctly. If not for the wind, I would’ve been tempted to just sit and watch the snow for awhile.

I started seeing signs along the trail. They were all shaped like a fox jumping into the snow but had short phrases on them. They were so spaced out I didn’t remember what the last one said by the time I got to the new one. Many seemed to be about snow or cold. I’m not even sure they were all supposed to be related to each other. The signs ended after the Embark checkpoint so maybe they put them up. Otherwise I have no idea what they were about.

Before I knew it, I was getting towards the hilly section. I had left Ray behind now and was by myself when I got to mile 99 where the hills start. Again the hills didn’t seem that big or difficult. They didn’t even seem to go on forever like usual. My sled was likely only about 36 pounds now after all the water and food I’d used. Plus, I had on more clothes as well since it was finally cooler. I was awake but knew that could change once the darkness came. The new snow made it so I couldn’t sled down the hills as far as I’d like but at least I could still go down them. Oftentimes though, I’d run down since my sled wouldn’t run into me due to the snow slowing it down so much. There were a lot of snowmobiles in this section going way faster than I usually see them going through the hills.

There was one hill around mile 107 that I could see 2 people up in front of me. It looked like a kicksled and Margaret. Eventually I caught up to her. The kicksled was too far ahead to see anymore. We talked for awhile. She had lost some food which I never saw. I suspect the snowmobiles either grabbed it or ran over it. I told her there might be some food left by other racers at Embark.

My leg cramp was gone for good now so I could finally walk fast again. It doesn’t seem like 2 minutes a mile faster is much but that adds up with 30 or so miles left in the race.

The wind was luckily coming from behind us since it was really blowing and was 0 degrees now. I told her what was coming for the rest of the course and that it would be wise to get whatever clothes she wanted on for the last section while in the nice warm tent.

I had turned my GPS watch back on around mile 100 so I’d have it the last part of the race. I knew the course would be real windy soon so I stopped before Embark to add clothing. Margaret continued on. I added my hooded puffy coat and got mittens and a hat ready in case I needed them. I knew the puffy coat was more warmth than I needed but I wanted the wind proof layer and hood. I took off a coat from underneath it to help stay cooler. I ended up just having a buff on under my cloth hood the rest of the race. Occasionally I’d put up the puffy coat hood when it was really exposed. I also got my headlamp out since it was getting dark.

Anyway, I got going again and got to the Embark checkpoint at 5:53PM in 5th place. I had never gotten there so early. It was still somewhat light out! It was a little further down the trail than normal. I ran on through since I couldn’t stop for anything anyway. I had enough water to make it to the finish so I didn’t need the fire either.

Right after the checkpoint, I went to grab my water from my vest and realized my vest wasn’t there! I panicked. I thought I’d have to run a mile back to where I put on the pant and coat layer. I wondered how they let me go through the checkpoint with no reflectors, etc. Then I realized I should check under the coat. Sure enough I had just put the coat on over my vest. Phew! I stopped and changed things around.

Then I realized my blinkies were getting dim and needed a battery change. I decided to wait until the top of Wakemup hill so I’d be warm and there was a shelter there from the wind. I stopped there and changed out the lights. So in the last 2 miles, I had spent about 20 minutes of down time doing seemingly nothing important. I think there was another stop for clothing issues in there as well but I can’t remember. I know I was pissed I wasn’t moving.

The ride down the last hill was fun but again the sled didn’t run very far at the end. I started to do some math on how long it would take. It’s always way longer than I’d like. I was still awake but took some caffeine to help keep it that way. My math had to be wrong since I would think at one point I’d be done at 1am and other times 3am. Clearly I was more tired than I thought.

I got to the road that had the detour on it in 2020 (Olson Rd). It was still there. Apparently that’s just the new route and they really need to add some permanent signs. They hadn’t mentioned it at the pre-race meeting once again so I wasn’t expecting it this year. I saw a stationary headlamp up ahead. It was Jim Reed and he started coming towards me as I got to him. He was unsure if it was the right way. I told him about 2020 and that I was 95% sure I was going the right way. Indeed it was the correct way but it adds a mile to the course and curves enough to really make you wonder what the heck is going on. Now the course is really 135 miles instead of the 134 that it used to be.

Jim and I ran within sight of each other for a long time. As is usual, at about 38.5 hours into the race, the sleep monster showed up. I took some more caffeine and made sure I was still eating. I wasn’t near as tired as I sometimes get but I had to concentrate on moving fast. I could occasionally run but there wasn’t much reason to. I didn’t want to aggravate my muscles and have the cramp come back either.

I had switched to listening to podcasts instead of music as it tends to keep my attention better. I was counting down the miles to the next road crossing / finish line. They seemed to take forever. Again, my math seemed wrong as often as it was right. I’d look back and not see Jim’s lights for miles. Then 15 minutes later, I’d look and he seemed right behind me. I was clearly having a hard time keeping pace due to being tired. It’s the difference between 14 and 20 minute miles if I’m alert or not. I was never super tired like other years and I could follow the podcasts just fine. I just couldn’t keep a constant pace.

I seemed to wake back up the last 4 miles and kept up a good pace. It seemed like the lights of the casino never got any closer. Finally I got to the turn to the casino. Just a couple miles left and I’d be done. I wasn’t going to get the 42 hour finish I wanted, but I was way faster than I’d even been before. I finally got to the finish at 1:37am for a 42:33 race time finish. I was 1st in the unsupported category, 3rd male and 4th overall. It was easily the best I’ve done at this race!

I didn’t get a finish line photo but they all look alike I guess. It wasn’t too cold outside and I was fairly warm since I ran a bit the last 2 miles. It was about -10 degrees but still about -30 with the windchill. I caught my breath and we went inside for the gear check. We then went up to the finisher lounge. I got some soup and my drop bag with clothes in it. The unsupported trophies are a little different this year than the first one I got. I also got a hat.

I took a shower, gave the race directors an accidental “show”, and went back upstairs. There was a group of us that called the cab for a ride back to International Falls but they couldn’t get there until 8:45am. The restaurant didn’t open until 9am. I slept for a couple hours on and off on a couch and checked my email, etc.

By the time I drove back to the casino after getting my car, I could check in to my room. The rest of the time was the same as other years except no buffets. It was unfortunate that we couldn’t hang out in the finisher lounge due to covid. It better be back to normal by next year.

Most of the items I got from the race.

The temperature graphs of the nearest official stations. It’s always colder on the course. Wednesday night got to -40 so a day can make a huge difference with this race as far as weather goes. Luckily my car started just fine so I could go home.

Once again, the race was run amazingly well, even with a lot less volunteers due to covid. Ken and Jackie do a great job!

I always cut my beard in a different way after my winter racing season is over. The last couple years, my daughter had designed it. Here is this years.

The End.

Addendum: Ken says he’s fine with throwing garbage away during the race.

Tuscobia 80 Mile – 2022 Race Report

I started in the new year with the 80 mile version of the Tuscobia winter ultra at 10AM on New Year’s Day. Well we started late so more like 10:05. I’ve run at this race 2 other times, the 80 mile version in 2016 (the first year they had that distance) and the 160 mile version in 2019 in which it rained and sucked big time. I enjoy the small towns along the course and the people of the area but I don’t really care for the trail itself if I’m being honest. The 160 mile version was very boring and the rain didn’t help with creating a fond memory of doing that version of the race either. It’s the only race that the “type 2” fun still hasn’t kicked in. I’m still glad I did it since it was part of Hrimthurs but 2019 sucked, plain and simple.

So why all the backstory of this trail and why did you do it again? Well, in 2016, it was my first winter ultramarathon with pulling a sled. It got down to about -18 in spots and I barely made it through since I wasn’t expecting it to be that cold and I was new. In the end though, I finished in second place in just under 23 hours and so began my love with winter ultras. I came back in 2019 and finished the first half of the 160 mile race in 21.5 hours with much better snow conditions than in 2016. I knew I would never want to do the 160 again but I wanted to see just how fast I could do the 80 mile version. So, I signed up for the 2020/21 version which of course got cancelled and signed up again this year. My goal in essence was to win. I wasn’t there for the scenery or the thrill of it. I wanted to go fast and I wanted to win.

For a while it looked like this year might be a very low snow year in which I’d have to take a backpack similar to Actif Epica. I was kinda looking forward to that actually since it would be a nice difference for this race and 80 miles is much less than 104 so it’d be easier than Actif too. In the end they got close to a foot of snow that stuck around and compressed down to 1-2 inches on the trail depending where you were. It was enough to pull a sled on but there were rocks, sticks, and leaves in many places since it was so thin. The day before the race I tested out the snow in a couple spots. It sucked! I felt bad for the 160 mile people that started that day as I knew they were going through it. It was 2 inches of mashed potato crap that you just get nowhere on. I knew it would harden up really nice in the subzero temperature forecast for that night though so I wasn’t worried.

The forecast was essentially the same as what it was for the 2016 race. It was supposed to get down to around -20 during the night while the race was going on. There was supposed to be a little wind but that never showed up which actually ruined some of my race plan as you’ll see.

There was a gear check in the afternoon on Friday which was different than normal due to Covid, including a location change. It went fine. I came back for the required pre-race meeting. This being the third time I’ve heard it, there were no surprises. Usually it’s nice to talk to the other racers at this meeting but I only talked to a couple nearby to me since we were spaced out in an auditorium. Once I saw the results, I noticed a couple people listed that I didn’t even know were there. Some people with masks on just look like everyone else I guess and I didn’t notice they were there.

There wasn’t a long required gear list like most years. I’m not sure of the actual reason for this but I agree with it for this race. There is a road within sight for the vast majority of the race and decent cell coverage as well so getting help is easier here than Arrowhead where I would never, ever skimp on supplies. There is a section between Couderay and Birchwood that you are in the middle of nowhere but that’s it. If it wasn’t for the cold weather being forecast I would’ve brought even less than I did bring. I’ve been fooled with forecasts being conservative and it getting much colder. I didn’t want to be stuck not being prepared for the worst. Basically the only thing I changed from what I’d typically bring is that I left my sleeping bag, bivy, and sleeping pad back at the hotel. I brought my extra puffy snowpants and puffy coat that I wouldn’t normally bring for these temps in their place so I only cut a couple pounds of weight really. I also didn’t bring any sort of stove. There was no reason whatsoever that I’d need to make water with the plentiful fill up spots at this race. A 2L insulated thermos is all you need here.

In the end my fully loaded sled weighed 28.5 pounds at the start. WAY more than I was expecting but I wasn’t going to be the reason the required gear list came back to this race. This is the first race that I feel I brought too much stuff with. There were 2 thick layers I wasn’t even close to needing and I was testing out a couple pairs of gloves that added weight I didn’t need as well. I always bring too much food but I can’t predict what food will taste good ahead of time. I don’t know that 10 pounds less stuff and food would’ve made that much difference in how I performed but that’s about how much I could’ve gotten rid of and still been safe with the weather that actually showed up.

That being said, I never condone going with no extra supplies in winter ultras. People can “get away” with it in all but the worst conditions, and often they are at the front. I’ve sometimes had to get things out of their pack for them because their hands were too frozen or fix their sleds for them because they didn’t think to bring repair supplies along (another pound I could leave at home). I’ll say this here like I say it in person; If you need to use hand warmers in anything other than a true emergency you are doing something wrong! Seriously, having them in your race plan simply isn’t a good plan. Bad things can happen, so have them with for those times, but never plan to use them.

The start of the race was in a different location than usual but I never heard the reason for it other than it was out of our control. It looked to be pretty much the exact same distance anyway so I didn’t care. We started at Northern Pines Resort on Butternut Lake. This was the first time my family ever came to a winter ultra. The hotel had a hot tub and since it was so short they’d hardly notice I was gone anyway. The added benefit was I didn’t have to ride the school bus to the start line and I didn’t have to drive myself home after I was done!

We got to the start line just after the bus did the way it looked as they were still unloading bikes from the semi trailer. I waited for the porta-potty in what felt like the slowest moving line ever. I was nice and cold by the time I got back to the car which isn’t really a bad thing at these events. You don’t want to start out nice and warm if you plan on running. I checked in before heading to the car.

About 15 minutes later it was time to get things ready and head to the starting line. The family stood out of the way and I got lined up behind the bikers. We were going to go a mile or so on the lake to start the race so we were told to stay near the cones to keep from going through a fishing hole. It’s not as scary going on a lake during the day than at night at Arrowhead for some reason.

Waiting for the start.

The bikers started off first since they’re usually faster. I took off running once it was possible and pulled up towards the front. It was sunny and -3 according to the car. We would be going with what little wind there was for 4 miles before we turned west once we got to the Tuscobia trail. It wasn’t supposed to get more than about 5 degrees above zero for the day and I was expecting more of a breeze once we turned so I wore my clothes that protect some from the wind and not much else.

Getting on the lake. No I’m not smelling a fart from that biker. I’m testing the air temp by breathing in hard through my nose. It’s a learned skill. Photo Credit: Gregory T Photography.
I’m on the left with the bikers. Photo Credit: Gregory T Photography.

Once we were off the lake, it was a single track route for a mile or so. No chance for passing for the most part on the single track. When we got to the road leading to the trail, things were spreading out a little. I was feeling pretty good and almost a little too warm but I knew that would change once we were in the trees and not going with the wind. Jeff from Indiana was in front of me a little bit. Once on the trail for a few miles, Jeff, Eric and I were together for much of the beginning of the race. There would be a little back and forth as we stopped for food, etc but we got to talk for a long time. We were pretty much together for the first 20 miles or so. It was nice to get to know a couple new people. I think Eric said that he had read my blog before. It’s always nice to hear that people get something out of them. Without it being said, it was pretty clear we were all going for first place.

We were probably averaging 12 minute miles and the snow was pretty good. There was about a 3 mile section that was as good as snow can get. There were a few bikers with us as well. Jeff’s family was cheering us on at most every intersection. They didn’t have a cowbell at first but they had one after about the third one. I knew I wouldn’t see my family, they were bowling and having fun.

Photo Credit: Watterson Family
Not sure were this was, but they told us it was above zero temp at that point. Not surprising since we had nothing on our heads anymore. Photo Credit: Watterson Family

Somewhere between Loretta and Winter I started pulling ahead a little bit. I still felt good running and I was going to run as long as it felt good. Plus, it was finally cooling off a little again so I wasn’t worried about getting too hot. The first “larger” town on the course is Winter at about 29 miles into the race. I normally stop at the gas station here to get some hot food but I wasn’t really in need of hot food. It was 4:15PM when I got there and just over 6 hours into the race. This was faster than I was expecting but I didn’t get too excited since I knew the section after Couderay would be much slower. I was expecting to get under 21 hours for the finish but under 20 hours was a real possibility based on how things were going.

I went into the heated indoor bathroom at the train depot in Winter which is super nice. I wanted to add a shirt layer for the colder temps coming, checked my phone, and got a few other things done in preparation for the dark. It took me 10 minutes and Eric passed me here and was in the lead from then on. I could pretty much always see his lights since it’s such a straight course for long sections. After Winter I didn’t see Jeff behind us anymore, only an occasional biker.

The only official aid station of the race is just before Ojibwa. Eric was leaving just as I arrived. I got some hot water, and some chips and left. I had already taken care of everything else in Winter. I was anywhere from 2-10 minutes behind Eric depending on when we’d have to take breaks for food, water, etc. Radisson came and I added a coat there.

It was getting colder and I thought it would get much colder than expected since there weren’t any clouds in the sky for most of the evening. But then around 10PM or so the clouds rolled in so it looked like it wouldn’t get super cold anymore. I still only had on 1 pant layer and thought it would be prudent to put on another pair once I got to the snowmobile clubhouse at mile 60ish. I wasn’t cold but I could see myself having to put on another pair if it got much colder and I didn’t want to do that in -15 degree weather. It was about -10 to -12 at this point.

While on the long uphill after Couderay I saw what I thought was Eric’s lights but they looked slightly different. Indeed, they were a bikers and not his. My muscles were getting annoyed with me but nothing major. The snow conditions had gotten slightly worse as well. Sleds never pull well over real cold snow to begin with but it was the snow that the bikers went over that was the worse. It almost seemed like there was a static charge that they gave to the snow somehow and my sled would just stick to it. I had the option of either going on the path made by the bikers that gave better grip to my feet but made my sled stick. Or, go on the other parts of the trail where you’d collapse into the snow with every step but the sled would run better. I usually ended up taking the better footing option.

At this point I was hoping it would get much colder. I wasn’t going to be able to run the last 25 miles. It was looking like the only way I would win was if Eric had to stop for a while to warm up or make lots of clothing adjustments to deal with really cold temps. It didn’t look like he had a lot of supplies with him but it’s hard to tell since a puffy coat can be compressed down so much. The wind that was supposed to show up never did either. It wasn’t supposed to be much (just 5mph) but when it’s -15, it makes a huge difference. I still put my nose cover on since it was about -12 and I didn’t feel a need to be cold for no reason. I even ended up getting my mittens out but they were too hot so I’d take them off about half the time to keep from sweating. Looking back to the first time I ran this race in the exact same temperatures, I was much better prepared now. In that race I was pretty cold and miserable the last 25 miles of the race. Plus my water froze before Birchwood that year. This time I felt great and still had 2 more layers if I needed them. Experience is a great teacher!

I couldn’t remember exactly where the snowmobile clubhouse was located since I don’t even think they had it open for us until 2019 and that year it was closed by the time I got there. Eventually I could see it and I pulled in just as Eric was leaving. I had already made up my mind it would be foolish to not add a second bottom layer and since I was taking off my shoes, I might as well change socks. I tried to be efficient but I knew it would take awhile, plus I had never seen inside so I didn’t know where things would be located, etc. I got some soup and crackers as well while changing my socks. I was there for almost 40 minutes so now Eric was that far ahead of me. I don’t even know how it took that long but that’s what my watch shows. I think I walked back and forth in there about 20 times so clearly I wasn’t efficient at all!

I made a new glove choice that ended up being the wrong one and had to change them soon after I left as well. Even more time gone. I passed the 15 mile marker soon after I left the clubhouse which meant 19 miles left in the race. That’s not much distance to make up that amount of time. It was clear that unless Eric quit, I would be second. I couldn’t see anyone for miles behind me so I wasn’t concerned with getting passed. Finishing under 20 hours was still a real possibility so I kept plugging away as fast as I could, running very rarely and mostly speed walking as best as I could.

The hills after Birchwood weren’t even sledable this year due to the cold and rocks on them. Once I got to the long straight sections through the woods I just started to zone out and count down the miles. If I couldn’t see Eric here, I had no chance of catching up. I ran through my head a bunch that I didn’t really have to stop to change all that stuff at the snowmobile club. If I had only spent 5 minutes instead of 40, perhaps I could’ve run Eric down. Of course he probably didn’t push as hard as he could’ve either since he never saw me the last 5 hours. It is what it is, he clearly made better choices than I did.

The cold they predicted just never seemed to show up. It was about -12 most of the night. I could tell the last 3 miles of the Tuscobia trail got colder, probably down to about -18 at most but more likely -15 and completely calm other than what wind I made moving. You could see smoke from houses and such go straight up. All in all, I’m sure it was a good experience for a bunch of people to get a feel for what long term cold temps are like. I’d just caution them that with even a little wind, things will feel much colder. 2016 felt much colder with the 5mph side wind that year. I likely would’ve needed googles this year if there was a little wind.

There were quite a few dogs barking at me this year the last 10 miles of the race. Someone let their dog out of the house at 5AM to bark at me. I was surprised someone was up that early on a Sunday.

Finally I reached the junction with the Wild River Trail where we go for almost exactly 4 miles south to the finish line. Again no one was in sight. I ran most of this section just to make sure I got in under 20 hours. I’m always skeptical that my watch is recording the distance correctly so I always think it’s further in this section than it is. I saw my first and only wildlife of the race, 2 rabbits in this section. I reached the finish line just before 6AM to absolutely no fanfare. With covid I wasn’t really expecting anyone there outside anyway like there often is other years. I got inside and told them my time. We weren’t allowed to hang out at the finish line for long due to covid so I never saw Eric to congratulate him and see how his race went. Jeff ended up getting 3rd which is great. The white beard gang from the beginning got the top three. I really miss the finish line stories at winter ultras. It’s probably half the fun to me. I’m glad we could still run the race but this covid crap is getting old.

My official time was 19:57 which was almost 3 hours off my time in 2016 under the same conditions. The snow and weather conditions in every year affect the finishing times but sub 20 hours is rare for this race so I feel pretty good about it. I got my 2nd place wood medallion and a $30 gift certificate award for TwinCityRunning in addition to my finisher hat. I called my wife to wake her up and come get me. It was nice to get to go to a hotel to take a bath and sleep in a bed before going home unlike the usual of sleeping in the car and then driving home myself.

So once again I got second place. I’m not sure if I’ll be back to Tuscobia. It’s nice and close but I don’t know how much better I could do. All together I was not moving for less than an hour. For a winter ultra that’s not much at all. It’s not a course that calls to me like Arrowhead or the mountain races do. We’ll see.

Spartathlon – 2021 Race Report

I’m not sure how to start a race report that I’m sure will be extremely long. I waited over 2 weeks to start this and still can’t organize things in a way that seems perfect. I’m not going to worry about it and just start. Hopefully by the time you’re done reading this, I’ll have written all I want to say and you’ll be informed.

I think I first learned about this race in 2012 from the ultralist, 2013 at the latest. It interested me immediately. It is a race that follows in the footsteps of Phidippides. Who’s that? You may have heard that he ran from the battle of Marathon to Athens to proclaim the victory over the Persians and then died because it was so strenuous. Most historians would say that’s wrong. It may not have been him, and most likely the messenger never died. What’s very much agreed on is that Phidippides was a long distance runner by profession and he was sent by the generals of Athens to run to Sparta to ask for help to fight the Persians that had landed at Marathon.

He left Athens and arrived the next day. That’s 153 miles in less than 36 hours people! The Lacedaemonians said they would help but couldn’t leave until the moon was full based on their religious law. Who are the Lacedaimonians? That’s what the Spartans called themselves. It’s the area where Sparta is. Anyway, it’s not written when or how Phidippides returned to Athens, only that he did return. Most believe he started walking back the next day and likely took a couple days to return with the news.

This is where there is a lot of good story making that comes into play. The unsubstantiated story is that he then goes to the battle of Marathon, fights in it, then runs back to Athens and dies. That part of the story is written much later by less accurate writers. Also I’ll mention that the original writer Herodotus calls the runner Philippides and not Phidippides but everyone refers to him as Phidippides now. To me, if this part of the story is true, then he only died because he probably was wounded somehow. Clearly a marathon isn’t going to kill a guy that just ran over 12 times that distance the week before.

In 1982 some people decided to try to run the same route and see if it could be done in under 36 hours. A lot of the details of this 1981 run can be found on the ultrarunning history podcast among others. I don’t want to get into it too much. The end result was that yes it could be run in under 36 hours. Within months the Spartathlon race was organized and has been run every year since other than 2020 due to Covid. This year is considered the 39th race as they count this 1981 run as the first.

So I had always heard that the name Spartathlon came from adding Sparta, Athens, and London together. This is because it goes from Athens To Sparta and the first runners were from the UK (London) or at least associated with the UK. Recently I’ve heard it’s a combination of Sparta and a word meaning foot. Regardless, Spartathlon just sounds right to me. I don’t know what else I would call it if not that.

It is run the last Friday in September. I don’t know why. Phidippides started his run September 2nd or 3rd, 490BC based off of Herodotus’ account. This is using the Athenians Lunar calendar. If you go by the Spartans Lunar Calendar it happened August 3rd. The issue is Athens calendar starts after the summer solstice and Spartans start after the fall equinox. Because of the blue moon effect, this would put it in August for the Spartans. Which is right? I’d almost have to say the August date because why would the Spartans be following the Athenian calendar? Regardless, I’m just fine with them running it later in the year than he did it. The cooler weather the better!!!

At the end of the blog I have the translation of Herodotus Book 6 Chapter 100-117 with some extra stuff as well. It’s interesting history I think.

To me the distance isn’t the hard part about the race. Even the hot weather can be dealt with. The issue I have is the difficult cutoffs in the race. You have to start this race off fast if you want to beat the early cutoffs. Even more so, there are 75 check points along the route and every one of them has a time cutoff! If you get there late, they kick you off the course and put you on a bus. There is basically no room for error. You can’t catch back up at night once it cools off. You can’t puke and rally if your puking makes you miss a cutoff. Having a time cutoff every 30 minutes or less is nerve racking.

The general cutoffs are this. 0-50 miles you have 9 and a half hours. 50 miles to the mountain top (about 51 mile distance) in 13:20 (22:50 overall). Mountain top to the finish (52 miles) in 13:10 (36 overall). You can clearly see the first 50 needs to be fast. The second section is where most of the elevation gain is. The third section has some hills but is mostly downhill or flat. Those are broad strokes. The overall elevation gain is just under 11,000 feet so it’s pretty flat and almost all of it is runnable if you’re so inclined. In fact you need to run almost all of it if you want to finish in time.

Because it is such a difficult race, they have qualifying times you have to beat in order to even apply to the lottery to get into the race. The qualifying times keep getting faster and faster. I had qualified for this race since my first 100 miler in 2014 and beyond. That doesn’t mean I was ready though. Perhaps I could’ve finished it in 2015 with dumb luck if I applied and got in. I decided I wanted to feel ready when I applied so I waited until 2018 when I had a 100 mile qualifier under 20 hours. I got on the wait-list in a pretty low spot so I trained as though I was in and waited for an email. It never came. It was pretty devastating really. Many people told me I’d get in based on past history of the wait-list. I basically wasted an entire summer running season since I didn’t do any major races that year.

In 2019 I was on the wait-list again but in a worse spot. Some still said I’d get in but I didn’t believe it. I still didn’t have any big races planned other than I’d have to run a fast 100 miler again to qualify. I did Tunnel Hill again and got a good enough time. In 2020, with 4 tickets in the lottery, I finally got in. I purposefully ended that sentence with a period and not an exclamation point. While I should’ve felt excited, I didn’t. Covid had already shut down racing and the borders were closed everywhere. We knew the chances of this race happening were close to zero. Our (my wife and I) brains couldn’t take another up and down on this Spartathlon roller coaster. It may seem weird that this affected us so much emotionally, but it really did. This race was in the works for us for years. To yet again have this race “taken away” would be hard.

Since there was no other race to train for anyway, I trained hard for Spartathlon. I had zero issues and was running great. I ran 60 and 70 miles weeks for the first time in my life. Then the race was officially called off due to the government not allowing athletic events. The borders were closed anyway so even if it went on, we couldn’t have gotten there. Instead I ran my “around the county” run that I’ve wanted to do since I was a child. I learned a couple more things that would help with Spartathlon so perhaps it was for the best.

Now it’s 2021 and my entrance carried over (including the race fee) which was awesome. There are a couple things about the race direction that could use improvement in my mind but they did us all a huge solid by carrying over all the entrances and fees. That was not the norm during Covid.

I only had 1 race in 2021 set up. It was The Drift 100 in March. After that it was time to start training for Spartathlon. I started getting this belly pain on my long runs in April. It got worse and worse over time so I went in to physical therapy. Nothing improved after 2 months and the exercises were making it hurt more so I stopped and went to a different PT. Dry needling helped some and there were definitely some additional muscles messed up but nothing ever got rid of the pain, including not running.

I was able to run more and more throughout this time so at least I was getting decent training in. It wasn’t as much as the year before though and it didn’t have as many hills as the PT said that would likely make it worse. The thought is it might be a “sports hernia” which the specialist I went to in September said was a very generic term and there’s no diagnostic test for it. It’s more of a diagnosis by exclusion kind of thing. The only thing that might help is putting mesh in my entire abdominal area which I’m not at all excited about. I’m really not convinced it will take the pain away and it’s not just something you can undo.

So I was doing twice a days fairly often and getting 65 mile weeks at the peak. I haven’t run more than 16 miles for my long run for 2 years now. The sports physiology research has shown there’s no advantage to exercise sessions longer than 2.5-3 hours from a physical standpoint. I don’t need the mental aspect of long runs anymore, I know what it feels like already to be tired, sore, and sleepy. It seemed odd that such short long runs would work so I asked my elite running friends and sure enough, if they want to do 30 miles, they do two 15 mile runs in a day and not one long run. That was good enough for me and I switched. I like 2 a days. I feel stronger that way even though I’m running more miles overall. I know many people if not most do 100 mile weeks preparing for this race. I don’t really have that kind of time. I got by with much less so don’t fret if you’re “only” getting 70 mile weeks.

I did loose weight for this race (almost 20 pounds). I usually bulk up a little for the winter race season so -40 doesn’t feel so bad. Because of that I always start my diet for summer races just after Christmas. I take the slow and steady approach so I really don’t even notice it. I just count my calories and how much I run and aim for losing a half pound a week. It works well for me. I got down to 152.5 pounds for this race which is the lightest I’ve been in 16 years. I just realized that’s about a mile of race per pound. 🙂 There still was another 5 pounds at least that could’ve be lost, but I don’t need to be that skinny. So why loose weight? Simple physics. It’s easier to move a lighter object. More importantly though, is it’s easier to stay cool if you don’t have a bunch of insulation around you.

I usually make a point of it to say that there is no body type for an ultrarunner. I still believe that. I know obese people that have finished ultras, including the long winter ones. At the same time, I’ve always known the winners are thin. I’ve also been suspicious that taller people have an advantage in ultras, especially at walking. I have to say that this race pretty much confirms those thoughts. I’m 5’9″ and I felt short. I was actually one of the taller ones on the American team but overall looking at the start line I was quite short. I have over time also lost more upper body muscle as I’ve run more and more. It’s a normal process. A look around at the Spartan Mile (more on that later) showed everyone else had little upper body mass as well. Interestingly, also almost all the guys could’ve been 5 pounds lighter as well. We weren’t cookie cutter copies by any means but there were similarities in key areas.

We felt pretty confident that the race wouldn’t be cancelled this year. We had gotten vaccinated in March and Greece opened up to Americans in the spring. The measures put in place in Greece were being lifted as well. We got plane tickets in June and had already made reservations for an Airbnb and car before that. We ended up not getting another crew member to help Jessie out during the race so she’d be doing it all on her own. She’s amazing so I knew she could do it.

I was so preoccupied with my belly issue that it was hard to get super excited about the race. I didn’t even know if I could go 30 miles. It hurt bad by 11 miles. The end of August I paced my 9 year old son at a 12 hour race. He went 46.3 miles, half of which was walking but my belly pain wasn’t all that bad. That, plus the specialist saying I wouldn’t do any permanent damage by running gave me some confidence a finish was at least possible. It might hurt like crazy but when doesn’t 153 miles hurt?

I started making the packing list for the trip. It was long and detailed. I knew I would be using mostly my own food as the aid stations don’t have much and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t find what I wanted there in the grocery stores. Therefore, 1 checked bag was basically all food. That’s no joke. I should’ve taken a picture. The nice thing was then there would be room to bring back stuff after we ate most of the food. We had one other checked bag and 2 carry-ons. 1 carry-on was filled with all my race stuff that was irreplaceable. It looked like we were going there for a month. In reality all the clothes we brought fit in one small carry-on.

I stopped taking caffeine a couple weeks before we left similar to my winter races where I know I’ll have to be up with no sleep for a couple days. Staying up for 36 hours usually isn’t that hard but with having to have such a constant hard effort, I figured I’d be more tired than normal and wanted all the help I could get staying awake.

My plan for what to wear is what I had been planning and training in for 3 years now for this race. Thicker shorts to help hold the water and sweat, Ultimate Direction waist belt with added pouch, team shirt, hat, neck sun protector, and start with Altra Torins for shoes, switching to Olympus for the mountain and maybe switching back after it. The waist belt has a 20 ounce water bottle in it. I would carry my phone in the back and put a bunch of food in the front pouch and more in my short pockets if need be. I hate handhelds but that would be an appropriate choice if you love them. I love vests for ultras but with the heat and the multitude of aid stations, I didn’t use one. I did bring one with though just in case. I pretty much always have backups of everything important.

I always make pace charts and laminate them to protect from rain, etc. The race hadn’t updated the road book which has what aid stations your crew can help at. Even in the beginning of September it wasn’t updated. The rules of the race never were updated before the race. Right there means you have 2 different set of rules as they list different aid stations. I was starting to think they’d cancel the race since there was a similar communication black hole right before they cancelled it last year. I waited as long as I could before making my pace charts. Finally the road book was updated 2 weeks before the race and it only had 11 instead of the usual 15 spots that crew could help at. It was a little frustrating since I wanted as much help as I could get. I quickly made my sheets and laminated them but still didn’t make up my list of drop bags or what I wanted Jessie to do for me at each place she could help. I planned on making those decisions once we got to Greece and knew more about the weather forecast.

We flew to Greece the Friday before the race and got there Saturday morning since it’s an 8 hour difference. We got in earlier than we were supposed to so we had to really take our time since check-in wasn’t until the afternoon. Getting through customs was ridiculously easy. We had to show them our form that said where we were staying and they looked at our vaccination card. That took 5 seconds. Then we waited in line for the actual customs for less than 10 minutes. The two agents were just talking to each other the entire time. They never spoke a word to us or even looked at us. They just took our passports, opened them, stamped them, and handed them back. I was impressed actually that they could do that without ever turning their heads to look at us or the passport while grabbing them. There was a door that said “things to declare” that was closed. The “nothing to declare” door was the only one open so that’s where we went and got our bags.

I don’t know where else to put this but I’ll just add that Athens is actually Athina and Sparta is Sparti when you look at most maps and pronounce things. It will help to know the Greek spelling of things when you’re trying to find things in google maps. Sometimes it’ll be listed as our spelling using the Latin alphabet, sometimes it’s in Greek, and other times it will be in our Latin alphabet but with the Greek spelling. For example Athens Αθήνα Athína is all the same place.

We took the metro into Athens. Our Airbnb was at the Acropolis station so we were really close to everything. We were able to drop our luggage off at least at the Airbnb and then went shopping and walked around the base of the acropolis. All the little shops sell pretty much the same things. It’s very much like Mexico in that way, haggling seems just fine as well.

I loved where we stayed. It was super quiet and the bed was comfortable. We went to the Acropolis Museum later in the day after taking a nap. We had to show our vaccination card to get in the building. We needed it to get in every museum actually. Everywhere else you just needed a mask when indoors. We had been to London in 2008 so we had already seen all the things that were taken from the Parthenon back then. Not surprisingly Greece is kinda pissed they still have them. This museum was built specifically to get those things back. Anyway, it was worth the money. Due to Covid all the museums put markers down on the floor and blocked stuff off so you could only go through the museum the way they wanted. It was a little annoying having to go through all the pottery to get to the things I’m more interested in. I really tried to like the pottery. I mean it’s cool that something that old is still together but I just can’t get excited.

We had to of course have a meal of Greek food that night. It was all good. The main thing I wanted to try was moussaka. It tasted like a MN hotdish. I tried some ouzo knowing I wouldn’t like it, but wanted to say I at least tried it. It was nice people watching. Oh, and everywhere we went had things in Greek and English. There was the occasional small shop off the beaten path or in a small town that didn’t speak English but it didn’t matter. It’s pretty easy to just point and such. The other thing that helps is they are required by law to give you the bill before you pay. This is for everything (shops, gas, tolls, etc), not just at restaurants. Kinda like a receipt before the receipt. It’s easy then to know what you are paying for and if it’s correct. Tax and tip are included in the price other than for gas which had a 25% tax on top of the listed price. It cost the equivalent of over $9 a gallon.

I get asked a lot about gyros. So at every place that served gyros, they put french fries on them. In fact almost every meal is served with french fries and bread. Normally that would be great. The issue is that the fries kinda suck. It’s not that they’re under cooked or cut real thick or anything like that. They just taste soggy somehow. The few times I saw the oil used, it was similar to what’s used at home so I can only surmise it’s the temperature that they’re cooked at that is different. Or the potatoes grown there are just way different. They also don’t use tzatziki on much at all. They usually have 5 or more different sauces to choose from and tzatziki isn’t the standard. We never even had it at any meal so I can’t tell you if it tastes better or worse.

The dumpsters you see in the streets are communal. I’m guessing it’s paid for through taxes or something. So you just put your garbage or recycling in any dumpster you see, you don’t have to worry about filling up someone else’s dumpster. Generally there are garbage cans all over in Athens as well.

If you’ve done any sort of construction work or remodeling, you will probably be like me and not be able to turn off the “this is built wrong” and “that’s dangerous” part of your brain in Greece. I don’t know if there just aren’t building codes or if no one follows them. Based on our experience, I’m guessing it’s more of the latter. You want an electrical outlet directly behind the faucet of the kitchen sink? You got it! There is apparently no such thing as a GFI outlet either in Greece. Smoke alarms? Why would you want that? You won’t be able to get out of the house in time anyway since ALL the doors have to be locked and unlocked with an old school skeleton key, even from the inside of the room. Someone in our group saw a power line go under a road. Not buried in the ground, it was laid on top of the road and they just put another layer of asphalt on top of it! You want to do some plumbing? Just punch a hole in the wall and tap into the pipes with a hose, it’s all good. It’s never ending the things that would never be allowed in the US.

The next day (Sunday) we planned on going to the Acropolis so we got there before the 8AM opening. Why? Because I failed to mention that it was 100 degrees on Saturday. The air was so dry too. My throat hurt when I was done running Saturday afternoon. It felt very similar to running in Death Valley. Anyway, we wanted to beat the worst of the heat and sunshine. It’s so bright with all the marble there. I had to squint even with sunglasses on. After we were in line for a few minutes, the guard said it wasn’t opening until 10:30 that day since the prime minister was coming.

OK, change of plans. We had a pass to see like 7 different ruins so we went to the other 6 places instead and also the big park next to the Acropolis that has the Philopappos Monument. Kerameickos, Roman Agora, Athenian Agora, Hadrian’s Library, Temple of Zeus, and Hadrian’s Arch are where we went. Bit by bit it became clearer on how Athens used to look over 2000 years ago. We walked over 10 miles so I didn’t run that day.

We also watched the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier they have in front of parliament. They have some interesting shoes with a poof ball and nails on the sole to make sound. They use an exaggerated step as they move very slowly. I wasn’t very impressed. I’ve now seen changing of the guards in the UK, France, Italy, and Greece. I know people hate Americans for thinking they’re the best at everything, but when it comes to military changing of the guards I believe we are. These guys weren’t together at all, there was another guy that helped them get their uniforms correctly in place, and he even wiped the sweat from their foreheads. There were also a bunch of corrections they made to get their feet in the right spot. You could see them whispering to each other as well, although maybe the guy was telling them they sucked super bad and he was disappointed. Enough snobbery.

On Monday we finally got to go tour the Acropolis. There is certainly more put together now than there was in the past but it is still very much in ruins. Lots of history up there to say the least. We stayed on the top for awhile and then made our way down to the things around the base that we hadn’t seen yet. I was glad I had seen the replica of the Parthenon in Nashville before. It helped to get a sense of what was supposed to be there.

That afternoon we went to the Archeological Museum. There were some pretty good things there but a lot of stuff I would’ve rather skipped if not having been forced to go through the museum in a certain pattern. This was the only place that was of a significant walk to get to. On the walk back we noticed a lot of the embassies of other countries.

The typical bathroom in Greece. Enjoy hovering and putting your toilet paper in a pail with everyone else’s.

After walking around for 8 miles during the day I went back to the park by the Acropolis to run around the marked and unmarked trails there. It was really fun. I would definitely recommend hiking the trails. One of them follows another ancient road out of Athens along a ancient river that doesn’t flow anymore. I wish I would’ve brought my phone with to take pictures. There’s an observatory on a hill as well.

I think it was late Monday night or otherwise Tuesday morning that the race changed its mind and added back the aid stations that crew could stop at. Well a couple were still at different spots than most years, but there were now 15. My wife was pretty pissed, I was actually expecting it. I just had a strong feeling things would be changed last moment at this race. She had everything written out with all the 15 aid stations but threw those notes away when the road book came out with just 11. Now she had to redo them again. I was just glad that I hadn’t wasted any time planning out my drop bags yet.

Tuesday we didn’t have anything planned since we got everything done that we wanted to see already. So the morning was taken up with writing our notes and planning my drop bags. I wrote what I wanted at each check point she could go to and filled in the gaps with drop bags. She grumbled a little more and I think was getting anxious about helping me all on her own.

In the afternoon we went to the Panathenaic Stadium which is where the first modern Olympics were held but was built over 2000 years ago originally. This place had a audio guide which was nice. It also has almost all of the torches used for the various Olympic games throughout time.

She got first place.
Hey, quit bragging!
Pretending to hear our National Anthem.

We did some final shopping and then got ready for something we had planned a couple weeks before we left. So I was worried about loosing my heat acclimation right before the race. I took my hot water baths at home everyday the 3 days before we left. The 100 degree temps once we got to Greece certainly helped to prevent losing it as well. What we had done was set up an appointment for a Hammam massage. We’d never heard of it in the USA but it looked like it would be nice and hot. It was definitely worth it. We didn’t do it until 6:30PM but everything is so late here that it was starting to seem normal.

So it starts with some food. We got some yummy figs and Turkish delight served with tea. Of course I didn’t think to ask if there was caffeine in it before I tried some. We’re still not sure if there was or not. Then we put on swimsuits and went into a steam room like thing where the walls and tables are heated. You lay on them and get really hot. They tell you to pour cold water on yourself to cool down. I was loving getting hot. I think they thought I was getting a little too hot when they checked my pulse but that was my plan. We were probably in there for 30 minutes before they came in for the massage and treatment.

It’s interesting. Lots of water pouring on you. Getting scrubbed with gigantic amounts of bubbles, sesame seeds and honey at different times. Plus all the dead skin scrubbed off. You get massaged as well through all this. There’s probably better descriptions of this online somewhere. We enjoyed not knowing ahead of time. Then we got more food and tea while we cooled down. We ate a lot of dessert. Once we were cooled down we got dressed and went back to the Airbnb. It cost the equivalent of less than $100 each which seemed very reasonable. There are lots of these places in Athens so it could probably even be cheaper if you searched around. The workers had to wear masks in the steam room because of Covid. Imagine wearing that for an hour in that kind of heat.

The next day (Wednesday) we got our rental car about a block away and found a parking spot next to the Airbnb (we kinda lucked out). We loaded it up and were on our way to Marathon to check out the things there. It wasn’t on the way to Glyfada where we would be staying for the race portion of our trip but it seemed like an obvious thing to look at since the race is about the run before the battle of Marathon.

The drive there was fairly stressful. Google would be telling us to turn way too soon it seemed. There aren’t roundabouts but you still have 6 roads come together in spots so it’s a bit confusing. We eventually figured it out and got to the plains of Marathon. I guess this is supposed to be fertile soil. It’s more red like Georgia but not as red. At least the hillsides were green unlike Athens so they must get some rain. We went to the Archaeological Museum of Marathon first. They were very strict here for some reason. They checked our vaccine cards over and over and seemed very confused by me only having one shot of the J&J vaccine. She finally accepted us saying it is only a one shot vaccine with that look on her face that says “Whatever. I still don’t believe you.” It is a small museum filled mostly with Egyptian statues and of course more clay jars. They also have part of the top of the victory monument that used to be in Marathon.

There is a mound very close to this museum where the Plataeans that helped in the battle are buried. The door was locked although I’ve seen pictures of the inside from the few times the museum staff are nice and give tours to visitors. It’s basically skeletons in boxes that they unearthed. I’m more curious how they have the roof supported so the dirt mound doesn’t cave in but we couldn’t go in so I’ll never know I guess.

We next went to the park that has the Tumulus of the Athenians mound. It’s where the 192 Athenians that died in battle have their ashes buried. It’s more interesting to go here because it’s pretty much the only place in Greece that the signs actually tell you history instead of just describing the architecture of the building. On many occasions, we could be heard yelling at signs “I can clearly count how many pillars there were on this building, WHAT WAS IT’S PURPOSE?!” Honestly, just show a small drawing of how it looked instead of paragraphs of words trying to describe it. Use that space for actual history.

Map of the Marathon plain.

You can read about the battle in the historical text at the end of the blog. The signs here told a bit of a different story as it probably includes additional texts and I’m guessing the Persians account. The area is filled with olive trees. It’s actually kind of hard to see the mound through all the trees except for a few spots.

After this we went to the marathon museum which is a museum about the marathon distance race. While parking some lady made a point of it to yell at us for slowing her down when we turned onto the road. At least that’s what we think she was mad about. She stopped traffic so she could yell something at us anyway. That was the only bad driver we met. Despite the roads being being crowded and curvy, people were very mellow and things went smoothly. If you had to move over, you just did and no one was mad about it. If someone was in your way, you just went around them, no matter what the lane lines said. With small agile cars it was pretty easy to zip around. In a lot of ways it felt like island driving in the Caribbean.

The museum had pretty detailed information on every Olympic marathon race and some of the marathon races around the world. There was a small display about the Spartathlon race but it was broken so I don’t know what the big red button would do. There was a video about the marathon as well, of course showing him dying when he arrived in Athens (insert eye-roll here).

The Spartathlon display.

We then drove to Glyfada which is a Southern suburb of Athens and where the old airport was. The race puts all the runners and crew from the various countries together in 1 of 4 hotels. This year the Americans were in the Oasis Hotel which was also the hotel that we registered (checked-in) for the race. The rooms are very nice here. From here on out all the meals, hotels, and transportation is included in the cost of the race registration (6 days worth). That’s a really good deal for 600 Euros. The price goes up to 700 Euros next year but still that’s cheap. You can choose to eat elsewhere on your own of course. We also had our own car so we didn’t use the buses other than the last night. We got there about 2PM and they were still serving lunch. Well, not “still” as much as they don’t start serving until 1:30 or 2. So we ate first and then brought all our stuff into our room.

We then went down to register for the race. Registering was pretty quick. They didn’t have my doctors note on record so I gave them that and was allowed to continue to the next table. There I got a tracker, envelope with badges, chip timer and tickets in it, and a bag that had more stuff. I wasn’t really sure if I had everything or not. I didn’t know much about the tracker. I knew the Brits always had trackers themselves and so I was concerned that I was given one. Was that a mistake? Some people online thought it was since some other people hadn’t been given a tracker at check-in. Turns out that yes indeed, everyone was getting a tracker this year and every year from now on. They weren’t all there in time so they occasionally ran out of them at check-in which is why some didn’t get them. Luckily I was on the British WhatsApp group so I knew how to use it. I really don’t know why the race couldn’t tell us this stuff before we got there. Clearly it had been known about for weeks ahead of time by them. The tracker doesn’t need line of sight and could be put in a pack or waist belt. While looking at the tracker website I could see circles around islands. That plus the fact you didn’t need line of sight makes me think they use phone towers and not a satellite. They add a couple ounces of weight but I knew it would help Jessie immensely in knowing where I was during the race.

I found out about the shoe chip timer from Amy. She said Andrew Snope who I ran Volstate with didn’t know about it and didn’t have it for the beginning of the race one year. It’s made to go in the laces of the shoe. That makes it very difficult to change shoes since you have to unlace everything on 2 pair of shoes to move the chip. I never untie my shoes and I didn’t want to have it take forever to change shoes so I decided to buy some zip ties and attach it to my laces that way. Then we could quickly cut the zip ties to remove from one shoe and zip them into the next shoe very easily. It worked just as planned during the race so I would suggest zip ties if you plan on changing shoes.

We were a little concerned they would be testing everyone for Covid again at the check-in. This ended up not the case. I think the National Public Health people were there just to watch over stuff and maybe test those that weren’t vaccinated. That was good because statistically someone would’ve had a false positive with testing that many people.

While looking through the packet in my room I realized there wasn’t any mention of what starting wave I was in. The race was going to have groups of up to 50 people start in waves at least 5 minutes apart. This seemed like it would be a big cluster as how would anyone know what the time cutoffs were since everyone started at a different time. I talked to some Brits that were much more in the know about what was going on. They assured us we didn’t have to worry about the waves. This is when it dawned on us that like our experiences the past week, there is what’s supposed to happen and then there is what actually happens. Had we been told it was like this in Greece before we got there, we wouldn’t have been nearly as anxious. I’m not going to go as far as to say you shouldn’t worry or assume things will just turn out fine on their own. Just don’t expect as rigid of an environment as the rules make it seem.

We decided to go swimming since tomorrow was supposed to be cold and windy. There is a beach just a couple blocks from the hotel. The beach is rocky like most places on the Mediterranean it seems. I was glad I brought my aqua shoes. The water was kinda cold but we adjusted fine. There weren’t any waves so we didn’t stay in very long. I walked along the shore to look for interesting rocks while Jessie sunbathed. I didn’t need anymore sun after the last few days. We stayed only an hour or so.

After getting back to the hotel we walked around the town and was planning on buying a cooler for ice during the race from a store that someone on the WhatsApp group recommended. It was closed but indeed would have what we were looking for based on what we could see through the window. I don’t think the place even had a name. We asked the shop owner next door when it would be open and he told us the next morning. Glyfada is a nice area. Much less crowded than Athens and there are actual sidewalks you can use instead of just walking on the road like in Athens.

I ran 3 miles that afternoon and met up with Steve Troxel who was running on the same path along the beach. His wife didn’t come to crew as originally planned so she’ll have to come next time. We talked a little race strategy and had a nice relaxed run. That was the last time I’d run before the race.

Supper was served at 8PM. We always sat with Americans and eventually met almost the entire team before the race. I only knew 3 of them from Facebook and online chats. I knew I had run in races with a couple others but never met them before, I just noticed it while looking at their ultrasignup history. To us the food at the hotel wasn’t too bad. The chicken was always dry anywhere we went in Greece. It was buffet style, although there were very few options and never any milk which was annoying. Some hotels have worse food it sounds like and people eat elsewhere. We’re cheap so we only ate out the night before the race with a bunch of the American team. This was more to mingle than to eat somewhere else. The more connections we could make, the better off Jessie would be if she needed help crewing. After the drive to Marathon, I think she was getting concerned about finding her way.

Due to Covid there wouldn’t be any pre-race meeting. We had gotten an email weeks before that all the information would be put online. Finally at 10:30 Wednesday night they put a couple page note on the website. It was written as though it was to be read days before anyone arrived. It explained the trackers (finally) and about a couple detours (one of which was only for crew vehicles and not the runners). If you hadn’t known about the recent crew check point changes, it let you know about that. Another new change was made in this letter that there were now 13 check points that wouldn’t take drop bags. I was planning on using one of them so I had to adjust that. I certainly understand there can be last minute changes to a race but this was starting to get ridiculous. We just laughed as we wondered what new changes were in store for tomorrow. Perhaps we’d get an email the day after the race describing some changes that were to happen?

Thursday morning I got my drop bags packed up and ready to put in the drop bag boxes. They didn’t let you put anything in the boxes until later in the afternoon though. I enjoyed eating as many carbs as possible from my stash of food from home. We went and bought our cooler. They were out of hard side coolers. We had seen one in a store in Marathon so we should’ve just got that one. Oh well. We got a soft sided cooler instead and I guess that way we could bring it home instead of throwing it away. We also got our zip ties and batteries since I forgot those at home.

The main event for the day was taking our group photos for the American team and most of us having supper together at the traditional spot which is George’s Steakhouse I guess. At the photo I realized only 14 of us were there and not the 17 signed up. A couple were missing for injury and I’m not sure what happened to the third. I gotta say we looked pretty good in our team shirts. I was one of the younger members of the team and I’m 45. Only 3 people were under 40. To finish this race in your 60’s is pretty awesome. We split into a couple groups as the vegetarians understandably went to a different restaurant. I wasn’t planning on eating much there since I was carbo loading.

The 14 runners.
Runners and crew.

We sat with Thomas and M’Lee Jackson. I had actually done a preceptorship in vet school where they live in Washington. I think my wife was happy that we weren’t just talking about races. We had a good time and Jessie and M’Lee would help each other out during the race since they were both crewing on their own. It was starting to get late and we knew we should get back and go to bed.

Photo Credit: Amy Mower

I did my usual night before prep of taping my feet and such. I went to sleep pretty easy.

The Race:

The race was to begin at 7AM on Friday September 24th at the base of the Acropolis by the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. We got up around 4AM so we could leave around 5AM. We wanted to make sure we’d have a parking spot and plenty of time to find it, etc. You don’t want to be short of time with a flat tire or something before the biggest race of your life. I had my homemade shake, beet juice, caffeine to get things moving, and a little real food. I put on my KT tape I need for runs longer than 20 miles and also put a piece on my belly hoping it would potentially help keep it from hurting. It doubled as protection from the waist belt rubbing on my skin. I also put on sunscreen right away so I wouldn’t have to worry about it during the race. I felt proud and lucky to wear our USA team shirt.

Beet Juice!

I felt ready. Was I ready? There’s always a doubt that creeps in before an ultra, even the ones I’ve done numerous times. 36 hours of running is a long time for something to go wrong. When I say running, I mean it. There was almost no time for walking in this race for me. If I could drop 8 minute miles for hours at a time, then sure I’d have time to walk. I can’t even do that for a marathon. This race is 6 of them in a row! There was definitely moments of imposter syndrome that showed up in the days before the race. I’ve raced with the best in the world before, but here, almost everyone was the best in the world, not just a couple. And almost half won’t finish! It reminded me of the “bright shining star” speech we all got the first day of vet school.

This speech was giving to us by the mental health department so we wouldn’t get depressed and off ourselves (it’s a real problem in my profession). They show you a bell curve that everyone that’s taken statistics has seen. They show that in high school you were way over on the right side of the curve and a “bright shining star”. Then in college, you were still on the right side of the curve but maybe not quite as far, still a “bright shining star”. Now in vet school you were likely just in the middle of the bell curve. They stressed over and over, you are still a “bright shining star”, you’ll just be getting B’s and C’s most likely. It made us all laugh but the message got through. In this race I was clearly way over on the left side of the curve. I’d made the cut to get here but I’d have to have a great race to finish.

We left the hotel around 5AM. The road was empty and we made it to the parking lot by the Odeon of Herodes Atticus within 15 minutes. XP9F+Q7 Athens, Greece is the google code. That’s 3-4 times faster than during the day. Traffic sucks in Athens! We just relaxed in the car for a bit. There was only 1 other car with people in it. They were with the race. I got out to check out the start line. There was nothing there. It’s 90 minutes before the race start and there’s nothing here. Did we go to the wrong spot? I found those people and asked where the porta potties were that are supposed to be here. They thought they’d maybe show up later.

What an awesome view to start a race.

I went back to the car after taking a couple photos of the lit up Acropolis. We searched around the parking lot in the dark and found a building that had WC (water closet) on it but it was closed and blocked off. I went up the hill of the Acropolis to see if the bathrooms at the entrance were open. Nope. The people said there is one in the parking lot where we were parked. Well that one is closed so I guess I’m pooping outside while it’s still dark.

My wife kept watch as I hid behind some trucks along a shipping container looking thing. I placed some toilet paper down on the ground and expertly landed my load on said toilet paper. I was pretty proud of myself. I picked it all up and put it in garbage dumpster that was on the other side of the shipping container thing I was hiding behind. Then I saw a faint light glow from the container for 5 seconds before turning off. I decided to investigate around it and then started laughing my butt off. The shipping container looking thing was a multi-stall temporary bathroom! In my defense, this thing was hidden behind multiple semi trailers. At least I knew where to go the next time before the race. It even had water in it.

That black space on the right was where I was. I’m still laughing about this.

I went back up to the start to see if anything had changed. There were a few more cars now and they were taping down the start line. In a race where there are permanent signs along the road and they paint markers on the road for the turns, there is no permanent start line I guess. In fact the start line area had nothing but this line. No banner flags, music pumping, crowds of people cheering, etc.

That red and white piece of tape is the start line. They also had a few glow sticks under the tape as well. This photo was taken exactly 1 hour before the race started.

We stayed in the car and slowly it got lighter and lighter outside. It was somewhat cold so we stayed in as long as we could and then I went up with about 25 minutes until it started. I turned on my tracker and hoped that the SOS button wouldn’t get accidentally pushed during the race. We had brought a gardening knee pad and a pillow from the flight to sit on. I wasn’t going to sit on stone or stand any longer than needed. About 15 minutes before the race it was time to start lining up. Due to Covid they were trying to keep everyone apart from each other, wave start, masks, etc. As we had already learned from being in Greece for a week, what people say will be enforced and what is actually enforced are very different things. I wore a mask until a few minutes before the start. It was clear everyone was just going to start running at 7AM no matter what the race directors told us to do. We all did our part to try to stay apart but it really isn’t realistic since we’ll all be running together once the race starts anyway.

Jessie and M’Lee – contemplating the monumental task of crewing their husbands alone for 36 hours. They would end up helping each other get through it.

There wasn’t any sort of check-in like most races have and like the rules said there would be. I talked to some of the other Americans and we lined up together. It was go time. There was a simple 10 second countdown before the race started. It was started with an air horn that seemed to never end. 280 of us started the race out of 341 that were signed up. Most of the people that didn’t show up were due to Covid restrictions in their own country (especially Japan) or injury. Normally there are 400 allowed in the race.

It was slow going to start with due to it being crowded. The beginning of the race is downhill so it was frustrating to not be able to open it up and just fly down 7 minute miles for the first 2 miles. I talked to Chris Calimano for the downhill about Arrowhead 135 of all things. It’s probably the most opposite race as you could get from Spartathlon. My main goal was to keep moving fast and comfortable for as long as possible to get a buffer on the cutoffs. You never know when you’ll need to stop for the bathroom and so I wanted at least a 5 minute buffer quickly.

Since I’m on the subject of bathrooms, here’s some important race information. There basically are no porta potties or bathroom facilities along the race. I knew this going in and was concerned about it. My wife said a couple check points (CP) had them but they were all out of toilet paper and worthless. Don’t fret though. There are plenty of places to go along the way, even in the city of Athens and for both #1 and #2. So in Athens you are along a busy road but after just a couple miles it starts going uphill (you better be running up this hill, it’s not bad) and there becomes opportunities. There are areas that look like they would maybe be a bus stop area but it’s not. It’s just an area of a bunch of junk, garbage, and overgrown plants on a widened area of concrete with a wall. Often times this is just after an overpass or bridge of some sort. You can hide behind these areas pretty easily. You’re not completely hidden but no one can directly see you other than other runners (no cars will see anything) and no runner is going to care. These kind of areas continue until you are out of town miles later. There are also lots of garbage cans in town. Once you get in the country they are rare. Of course bathroom use in the country should be pretty obvious as what to do. I always bring my own kit that includes enough toilet paper for a session, a couple wet wipes, and an individual use packet of butt lube. I’d replace the kit the next time I saw Jessie.

The race course supposedly follows as closely as it can the original route that Phidippides would’ve used. Of course now most of this route is paved but would’ve been dirt or stone then. We start from the Odeon but I’m guessing Phidippides would have been given his orders from the generals in the Agora and used the main road from there. That is on the North side of the Acropolis and not the South. It would’ve been really awesome if they would’ve opened the gates and let us run on the ancient paths through the Agora and Kerameikos area that had the gate to the city through the city wall. Regardless, once past Kerameikos, we were basically on the ancient path to Sparta as far as I know.

The blue is the race route. The red is the ancient road from the Agora.
The ancient road through the Kerameikos area. This is looking towards Athens and the gate through the city wall that used to be at the end of the path.
This is the same view as the Google map above. The gate into the city is in the top left and you can see the road going out of the city that we followed. Really crazy to be following a path that has been used for thousands of years.

They had one lane of the road closed off to traffic and there were cops at every intersection keeping traffic away. The race basically shut down all traffic on the roads we were on until we passed by. Horns honked to cheer us on. “Bravo” was said to us by everyone that we passed along the way. It almost felt like the crowds you’d see at a marathon. The lane being blocked off allowed us to be able to pass other runners as needed safely. It was rare that we were ever 3 people across though and it was mostly single file running after the first 2 miles.

This race doesn’t allow headphones. They say it is for safety and for solitude. For the first 10 miles or so you wouldn’t be able to hear them anyway. The traffic noise through town was so loud. And the fumes from all the diesel vehicles (way dirtier than our emission standards) was horrible. It was hard to breath at times. Since I didn’t want a repeat of the “Rocky Top Tennessee” incident of the Barkley Fall Classic, I decided ahead of time I needed a better song to have on a never-ending loop in my head. I actually put a lot of thought into this and determined that “Coolin’ With Da Homies” song from the Eurovision Song Contest Movie was the clear choice. It’s got the perfect cadence for cruising if you sing it a little faster in your head, easy to learn, and makes me laugh at how horribly lame it is every time I hear it. If you haven’t heard it, it’s basically what kids my age in the 80’s would make up ourselves, thinking we could actually rap.

If it doesn’t play for some reason or gets taken down, just google it and have a listen.

After about 10 minutes, the song was just automatically playing in the background in my head. I could even be talking something over in my head and still hear it in the background in my head like it was really there and not just in my head. Make sense? Anyway that song was on loop for almost all of the next 35 hours. Occasionally I would hear a song playing from a car driving by, or at a check point and that would be in my head for a while until I realized it. I’m thankful I currently can’t remember any of those songs now because they were all horrible. The only other time I didn’t have it on loop was when I was really tired early the second morning and was singing out loud everything I was doing and thinking in a rap version with some random beat that came in my head. Singing out loud is a great way to stay awake.

After a couple miles.

My first goal was to get to the marathon distance (CP 11) in about 4:15 which was what I did in my county run and other timed racing events. In normal years this would be the first crew support aid station. This year that wasn’t until the next one (CP 12). Things went pretty much as planned. My watch ended up losing all the data from the first 17 hours of the race so I only have the tracker data to go off of besides the official timing mats for most of my race data. By CP2 (5.8 miles) I already had a 13 minute buffer which made me feel good. I saw Bob Hearn twice while in the city and made sure to not get in front of him. If you’re in front of Bob, then you’re likely starting out too fast in my opinion. In general I was getting passed more than I was passing people and I was just fine with it.

This is the first race in which I never went into “race mode”. In other words I never tried to race anyone or do anything to get in a better position than anyone else. Perhaps I could’ve finished sooner if I had, but just as likely I would’ve pushed too hard somewhere and not finished at all. It’s almost cliche how often I hear you need to run your own race, but for me in this race, that’s exactly what I did. The only point of this race for me and I think most people is to see if you can run in the footsteps of Phidippides and finish in the same time. Now don’t get me wrong, we have a lot more help than he did. At the same time though, he was a professional runner, had certainly been on the route to Sparta many times, and had a lot more reason to run fast than we did. If becoming a slave under the Persians was the cost of failure, I’d be giving it my all too! The point is, the ultimate goal for most is just to finish. I sincerely wanted everyone in the race to finish, and I didn’t care if I was last.

The race course is pretty easy to follow. Some put the route in their watch to follow but I didn’t. People have made wrong turns in the past but usually don’t go too far off course. I never made a wrong turn which was good, I couldn’t afford the time. There are markers painted on the road that point the way to go at most intersections. They additionally have X’s painted on the roads you shouldn’t take. Since I was always within sight of someone else, I mostly just followed the person in front. That can be dangerous so I tried to always confirm it by looking at the road markers.

This is the typical newer sign. There are more worn ones that have the SP letters on either side of the arrow or at the top of the arrow. Photo Credit: Chris Calimano

Around the time school should be in session we were running through a town and came upon groups of children cheering us on. In one section they were in a tunnel under a road and their screams echoed like crazy! It was pretty fun running by giving high fives and such.

Marisa Lizak the first place American this year.

My belly pain had showed up right about an hour into the race. It continued to get worse until about 3 hours into the race and then just kind of stayed at that level. I tried to ignore it and stay in the moment of the race. If it got worse, so be it, I’d just have to deal with it.

Toward the first area of refineries outside Athens.

Even though I had Jessie crew me, there were long periods of time in the beginning where she couldn’t help and I didn’t even see her. Lots of other crew were along the course cheering but they just couldn’t give aid. I left things in a few drop bags so I didn’t have to carry as much food and such from the beginning. The first drop bag I had was at CP7. I was going to put it at CP6 but that was one of the check points that they recently said we couldn’t have drop bags at. It was just more gels and drink mix. I ended up only using 2 drink mixes the entire race. It was so hot that I had to use water from my bottle to wet myself constantly after the first couple hours of the race. Because of that, I didn’t want to spray electrolytes all over myself so I only put straight water in.

Lets talk about the weather shall we? As stated earlier, this is generally a hot race. I heat trained for years even though it’s really only the 10 days or so before the race that really matter as far as your body goes. The weather the day before the race would’ve been perfect. It was 70, cloudy, and windy all day on Thursday. It felt downright cold after the 100 degree weather earlier. Alas, on race day it was back in the 80s with full sun and no appreciable wind on the course. It’s almost like being in the mountains in snow when it comes to the sun in Greece. It seems to just bounce off everything and is way brighter than it should be for the latitude which is equivalent to the middle of the US. The air was much drier than I was told it would be. I constantly read in race reports that it was hot and humid. I checked the weather history and the dew points were in the 50’s and lower 60’s in September. That’s really comfortable compared to MN so I just assumed conditions along the course were different and the race reports were correct. No, it’s dry. I guess compared to Arizona it’s humid? Just looking at the country, you’d think you were in California. It looks very much like wine country in spots and dry central valley with scrub brush here and there in others. Clearly it doesn’t rain much and the Mediterranean doesn’t seem to pump much moisture into the air in September as least. This was both good and bad. Good because evaporative cooling actually worked but also bad because I wasn’t used to breathing in such dry air. The heat didn’t let up until around 6PM. While it was still hot, it certainly seemed to be one of the cooler weather years this year. I needed all the help I could get and 80’s instead of 90’s for temps was a great help!

There was a detour at CP 10 that added 0.4 miles to the course. Since I’ve never been on the course, I didn’t notice it. I just kept following the runners in front of me. By the way, I could always see another runner during this race save a couple 10 second periods in especially curvy areas through some small towns. It’s probably because I was in the back of the pack where most people are. 60 of the 167 people that finished the race, finished in the last hour. Over half finished in the last 2 hours. Think about that. That’s likely why I could always see someone.

The issue with the CP10 detour was that it wasn’t known to us until a couple weeks before the race and the road book that they gave out didn’t have the increased mileage included in the distances listed. The most critical issue for most was that they didn’t increase the cutoff times for any of the aid stations after CP10 to adjust for this added distance. I got to the marathon distance on my watch right on time at 4:15 and yet the CP11 seemed nowhere in sight. Did I make a wrong turn? If I did, so did about 50 other people. I kept going and about a half mile later I got to the checkpoint in 4:20 official time. Good thing I had the buffer built up to 30 minutes before this CP.

This is were the race started it’s ending for many runners. Lots got caught chasing the cut offs from here on out. CP16 has probably the hardest cut off to hit. It’s 36.3 miles this year with a cutoff of 6 and a half hours. That’s under a 10:45 pace which isn’t impossible but you also have to run 120ish miles after that so you can’t be spent. Many would be out of the race before CP22 (50miles) where the cutoffs start to get easier.

I saw Andrei Nana pass me just after CP11. I got to CP12 to see my beautiful wife in her crew outfit. It really helped that all the Americans and crew had on the same shirt. They were easy to spot from a distance and even if they weren’t your crew, they’d know where yours was and be cheering you on. I ended up never putting my sunglasses on so I just gave them to my wife. She gave me more gels and food. She failed to ask me the 3 questions she was always supposed to ask at every CP I saw her at. Did you poop? Do you need lube? Do you have garbage? I think she only asked them twice the entire race. So didn’t really forget anything else, save one, that was written down though so it worked out in the end I guess. I remembered those questions myself this race, even when tired (which is the whole reason she’s supposed to ask, I forget when I’m tired usually). The most important thing she gave me this aid station was a kiss. Trick! She was all business, no kisses or softness whatsoever. The most important thing was an ice bandana.

Ode to the Ice Bandana: You’re amazing!

OK, not much of an ode. I had never used an ice bandana before. I guess I’ve seen people have stuff on their necks during hikes on occasion in my life but I’ve never seen anyone use them during a race. I guess since most of my races are trail races and there’s no ice around and it’d never last anyway, that’s why I’ve never seen them used. I had only read in a race report about them a month before the race. Most people talk about putting ice under their hat or in arm sleeves or down their shirt. I tried the ice hat in training at home and it didn’t seem to help much. I tried the down the shirt and it didn’t seem to do much either, plus they would somehow find their way past my waist belt over time. I declare the ice bandana to be the “cats ass” as we’d say in college. Just google how to use one. Super easy and even though it takes 30 seconds to redo at every aid station, it’s worth it. Sometimes I could skip an aid station if there was still enough ice.

The ice cools all the blood going past your neck and then as it melts, the cold water goes down your body and then evaporates. It’s like 3 cooling actions in 1! I’m almost positive I wouldn’t have finished this race without it. I know Phidippides didn’t have people giving him ice along the way, but I don’t care. I’ll take the advantage.

The rest of the daylight hours of the race would involve the following cooling strategy. Drink water as needed. Ice bandana. Hat. Neck sun protector. Then I would take my water bottle and every 5 minutes put a little on my hat to soak through to my scalp. I’d also squirt it down my shoulder and each arm. It felt amazing. I’d also wash my face with some water every 15 minutes. There was an aid station about every 20-30 minutes where I’d fill up my water bottle and soak myself there as well. They have buckets of ice water with sponges in them that you can use to get yourself wet. Not the most hygienic I suppose but nothing about an ultra is hygienic. To the races credit, there was always ice at the check points. Occasionally there were only 5 cubes left but still enough cold water. I rarely put ice in my water bottle. It would melt almost instantly and really all I was after was the evaporative cooling effect anyway since it was so dry.

Corinth Timing Mat.

So what else was at the check points? Not much really. There is water and usually some Coke. Very occasionally I saw juice of some kind. For food there was very little. Some raisins or dried apricots. There were supposed to be figs which I love but never saw any. They had plain bread with nothing on it, also this dried bread that they must really like because it was everywhere (think giant crouton), often times potato chips, and crackers. I fell in love with the crackers. That’s all I ever got from the aid stations. There were supposed to be chocolates, candy, and yogurt at a lot of them but I never saw it. At I think 5 checkpoints there was a light meal. This usually was just some noodles in a small bowl or soup. I guess once my wife said there were meatballs. None of it ever sounded good so I usually never even went over to the food table when I was at a check point she could help at. I did have some soup once in the night I think.

CP 18. Not me in the photo of course but just wanted to show what a CP looked like. You can see the timing mat in the background. I had a drop bag here as well with more gels and food. You can see how sparse the options are. Behind the guys left leg is the bag of ice water and sponge. Also the drop bag area.

So I continued on with over a 20 minute buffer against the cutoffs. After CP12 is where it starts to get very pretty. This is about 30 miles into the race. There are occasional hills and lots of curves as the road hugs the edge of the sea, sometimes at sea level and other times on the cliff. The photos people take don’t do it justice. I’m sure there are professional photos somewhere that have the right colors but none of the regular Joe pictures I’ll put here. The water is so clear and you can see so far down in the water. The colors are amazing blues and greens. You can see islands in the distance. If it wasn’t for it being the hottest part of the day it would’ve been perfect. I walked most of the hills here as they were just at that point where you could walk or run but with the heat it just made sense to power hike up. I can’t remember how long this pretty area lasts, about 4 miles I think. After that you are still close to the sea but running in what seems like the longest town in the world. I’m sure it’s just a bunch of them together but there’s pretty much always a fence on the left side of the road and houses blocking the view of the sea. This is for miles. Here are photos Jessie took along the pretty section.

I was getting tired already somehow. I was also starting to hurt generally everywhere. My hamstrings where sending the message they could cramp at anytime and sort of laughed at me because they knew I didn’t have 20 minutes to spare to stretch them out like at Volstate. My belly pain wasn’t any worse and seemed like it was getting overpowered by all the other pain.

There are occasionally concrete pillars along side the road that have numbers carved in them. They were matching up exactly with the course in kilometers so I’m suspicious they were originally put there for the race. The first one I think was maybe 11? I for sure saw one at 49 but I never saw any more of them after that. Maybe I’ll ask around if I ever end up back there again.

So with this being a road race it would be wise to wonder about the road camber. I was somewhat worried about it but had seen on videos that we would run on different sides of the road at different times which lessened my worry. In my opinion, there isn’t really much to worry about at all. The first 10 miles or so are run on the right side of the road before we start going against traffic. Later on when the traffic is much less, you can basically just go wherever you want. Moreover, the camber on the roads in Greece is almost non-existent. It’s nothing like in MN or TN. The road is cambered on the curves of course but it goes both ways so it all evens out. I didn’t notice any issues from the camber whatsoever.

Just before CP16 was the bridge that only runners could cross. The road was more than half washed away leaving 1 lane to cross on. I made it past the difficult CP16 with over a 20 minute buffer (I still wasn’t going to use all that up just to stretch). That made me feel fairly good. My goal was to hit the 50 mile mark (CP22) around 9 hours (4PM) which would put me 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Again that time is based on previous events. An interesting fact is that the first race in 1983 had an 11 hour cut off instead of 9:30 for this check point. They also started at the Panathenaic Stadium about a mile away from the current start. I’m not sure when it changed.

CP 19 is another oil refinery with oil being pumped from ships offshore. The smell was what you’d expect. This is about 44 miles into the race and was the time I realized that I now had zero belly pain. I could cough and not feel any issue whatsoever. Perhaps the muscles finally relaxed like they often do once fatigued.

Soon was the uphill to the Corinth Canal. It’s only about 200 feet but seemed more. I guess since it’s almost 50 miles into the race it just felt like it was more. So I didn’t do much research on the canal. You can do it yourself I guess. It’s obviously over 200 feet deep though. This is the only time I took out my phone during the race. I wanted to so many times but it didn’t seem worth the risk of losing 30 seconds here and there throughout the race. Technically you can only carry a phone for emergency use according to the rules but people used them for lots of things: music, calling crew, etc.

Jessie would be at the next aid station CP22 which was only 1.6 miles further. This is only the second time I could see her. I crossed the timing mat at 8:55 race time which was 35 minutes ahead of cut off and about what I was hoping for. Only 103 miles left! There is a sense of relief to get past this point. The cutoffs get easier after this. Not EASY, but easier.

Don’t know this guy but that’s the bench I sat on and popped blisters. This is CP22. You can tell the British Crew by their red shirts.

My Altra Torins were giving me blisters on the top of my toes from rubbing with every bend of the top of the shoe. I had to take my shoes off earlier than planned. I was thinking about just cutting the toe box open but that would take time. I told Jessie to do it and she flatly refused. In fairness, she probably had no clue what I meant anyway. So we decided to switch to my tried and true Altra Olympus. They are significantly heavier though so I wasn’t excited about that. I was hoping Jessie would cut one of the 2 pair of Torins I had along in her spare time so I could use them after the mountain but that never happened. In the end I never changed shoes again.

I changed socks since I had my shoes off anyway. Jessie cut the timing chip from my Torins and got zip ties to put it on my Olympus while I popped my blisters on the top of both big toes through the tape on my feet. The tape does great at preventing most blisters but not on the top I guess. I had never gone this far in Torins so I wasn’t all that surprised there was an issue in an untested shoe. I put on new socks, gaiters, and shoes. I would regret the gaiters since they made my feet so hot and took them off at the next check point she could give aid at. I kept them off until the mountain.

Photo Credit – Robert Kulijewicz

The rest of the time spent was getting food and a protein sugar shake I made.

Speaking of food, I was doing quite well with food intake. Gels still tasted great which was unusual for me this late in a race. I usually am overheated and have to walk a lot to keep cool and have real food by 35 miles. The ice bandana and water was doing their jobs at keeping me cool and moving well. The shake ended up not sitting that well miles later. Nothing horrible but it didn’t give me the usual boost at all and made me slow if anything.

I had basically taken about 3 gels an hour. I use GU since they have glucose and fructose in the correct ratio for maximum absorption rates. I had only taken a packet of raisins and chips from the aid stations up to this point. The rest was my own gels and food (snack cake type things). Being able to continue food intake was something that was vital to me finishing this race in time. I couldn’t afford taking off time to deal with GI issues.

This is the time I realized I was in a pretty consistent group of about 25 runners. I might not see some for an hour but then I would again. This was pretty much the same group from mile 30 until the last 15 miles where I dropped back more than the rest of the group did. I never got to talk to anyone very long though. There wasn’t a language barrier as almost everyone could speak English quite well. In fact, the Irish were almost harder to understand than other Europeans sometimes 🙂 It was more that I didn’t feel like talking all that much (it just hurt to talk with the dry air) and I wasn’t going to change pace just to keep up to someone. Part of my race strategy going into the race was to have conversations since it makes me go faster most of the time and would pass the time quicker with the whole no headphones rule. It also keeps me awake when I’m tired. During the sleepy times though, no one was close enough to talk to. I could always see someone but they were too far away to talk to.

The next time I could see my wife was at CP26 (58miles) at ancient Corinth. She really wanted to look around there but didn’t have time I guess. I kinda remember running past an area that seemed like a cemetery to me at the time. I very much remember running down a cobblestone road in the town towards my wife and M’Lee sitting down at the aid station. It looked like they were having a good time enjoying the beautiful surroundings. What I didn’t notice was the giant ruins just to my left going out of town. It’s almost comical how I missed it. It sounds like almost everyone misses it their first time running the race. I think part of it is they have photographers on the other side of the street so you look that way at them. I guess we’ll just have to go back sometime.

Running down to my wife at ancient Corinth. The fence behind me is where you can see part of the ruins. Much more can be seen going out of town.

I had a drop bag here that had a spare headlamp in. I knew it would be too early to use it but the plan was for me to take it in case something happened and Jessie couldn’t make the next stop at CP29. If she wasn’t there, then I’d have it already and if she was there, I’d just give her the crappy one and take my good one. Well we both forgot about it so it got left. I realized it fairly soon after but I wasn’t going to go back to get it. I was 43 minutes ahead of the cutoff here which was about where I wanted to be. I should’ve been adding time from here until the mountain even with my slowest planned pace of 14 minute miles. Everyone says you can gain time here and you really can if things are going well. You’ll see that didn’t really happen.

I gave back my gaiters since my feet were hot. My toes were feeling great again in the Olympus shoes though. My stomach was feeling a little off. I wasn’t nauseous but maybe just gassy? I slowed down eating which I didn’t like. I figured it would have to just settle down after the shake I had back at CP22.

So I was somewhat worried as the sun was going down about the headlamp. I knew the math I did before the race had to be right and I’d have my headlamp in time, but I had to triple check since it was 3 check points until I’d see my wife again. These checkpoints were pretty close together so I was indeed fine. I remember in this section seeing a grandma teaching her little grandkids how to cheer us on. It was very heartwarming. She’d help them clap their hands and say “Bravo!” in the way only little kids can.

CP28 had a timing mat since it was at 100km. I got there at 6:40PM which would be 11:40 race time. That’s not too bad of a 100km time so I was still feeling pretty good about my pacing. Just before CP29 is the start of a 20 mile section that is almost all uphill. It’s not too steep to run but at the same time it’s nice to walk some of it since it’s over 60 miles into the race.

I got to CP29 just before 7PM so the sun was still up. I got my good headlamp and spare batteries since they made a point in the days before the race that everyone was required to have batteries. Of course no one checked. I think I ate a bit of food here. I got rid of my hat, ice bandana, and neck protector. I put on my headband. It would be mostly uphill for a while now and I wouldn’t see Jessie until CP32.

It was now pretty crowded on the road. There were LOTS of cars crewing the people around me constantly going back and forth, yelling things to their runners, honking their horns, etc. It’s very common for people to honk as a sign of encouragement. The traffic was kind of annoying as the road was curvy and it would’ve been nice to just get in the zone cruising up the hill and cutting corners. I got to CP30 at 7:30PM and then turned on my headlamp.

This is where my memory starts to get a little hazy. I remember I was plenty tired around this time but my pace was still good. I know I wasn’t eating much since my belly hurt. Looking at the data, I was moving much better than I remember at the time. Likely this was because it was cooling down. Anyway it’s just a constant uphill on a slightly curvy road. It gets pretty steep right before CP32.

So CP32 (mile 70) I think is where I started having some crackers. I had tried a little food before the aid station and I realized that the reason my stomach seemed off was that it was so empty that the first couple things I ate just made it grumbly since it finally had something to work on. Once I started filling it with crackers, it was back to normal and I could pound the gels again. The only other race I could eat gels this late in the race was my first 100. I still felt either gassy or like I’d have to poop at some point. I’m sure no one cares about this but some of this stuff I just put in so I can go back and learn from it in the future. I’ll just note these crackers didn’t really have much salt. They were more like a buttery flavored cracker, not a saltine type at all.

There is a short downhill which I couldn’t really distinguish at the time and then back to climbing up. The biggest buffer I had from the cutoffs up to this point was at CP 33 with an hour. This is where things started to go bad. I was eating fine, my legs were about the same as the last 30 miles. But I lost 10 minutes of buffer from CP33 to CP35 according to the tracker. The issue was I was basically sleep running. While it’s not that hard to sleep run, it is hard to run fast while doing it. To you non-runners, it’s a little hard to describe. You’re not actually sleeping by most people’s definition, and you’re not completely unaware of what’s going on. Like I’d know instantly if a car was coming or something like that. It’s more that you can’t concentrate on running or anything really. The mind just goes into a weird sleepy state. You go into and out of it every minute or so. I took some more caffeine but I was losing time. I wished I could just sleep for 20 minutes as that would fix it. 20 minutes isn’t something I had to spare though. I knew I would eat up some buffer getting to the mountain up the steepest part of the road so I had to save the buffer for that. Plus it’s not like you can guarantee that you’ll instantly fall asleep if you stop.

I got to CP35 (77miles) at 10:13PM. There was a timing mat here and my crew was before it. I went across the mat and then back to my crew. Yes I had to go backwards. It wasn’t much but it really pissed me off at the time. I was already mad about losing time and being so tired. Plus my stomach was not right still. Amy, Rachael, and Dave were helping out Jessie here which I was somehow expecting. I think I had maybe seen them along the route earlier? They ignored my attitude like an awesome crew should and helped out. I asked if they had some gas-x (I think my exact words were “that stuff you give babies for gas”) and they figured out what I meant and luckily had some which I took. It either ended up working or things got better on their own since I was eating better. Either way I was very happy about them being there and having it for me.

If there was a low point in the race, this was it. I know I always say there are multiple low points and there probably would’ve been here too but like Jessie Ventura said in Predator “I ain’t got time to bleed.”; I just didn’t have time feel low, and my mind accepted that as fact it seems. I remember sitting down on some weird ledge thing with my feet in a gutter by a church just mad at the situation. I was up 50 minutes but was wanting to be further ahead instead of losing time like I was. I remember saying out loud “this f-ing sucks and because I’m going so slow now, I’ll have to run 13 minute miles the last 50 miles and I don’t want to have to run 13 minute miles!” I never really thought it would be impossible to finish or had any thoughts of quitting. I just really didn’t want to have to run the entire last 50 miles. I wanted to be able to walk some if I wanted to, and enjoy it a little. I could see the future and it wasn’t going to be comfortable at all. Instead of getting by with 15 minute miles, I’d have to do 13 to stay ahead of the cutoffs due to hills and time spent at check points once I got over the mountain. If only I could sleep! I was very frustrated but there’s nothing to do but keep going. I reminded myself how crappy I felt after stopping in Andorra instead of making them force me off the course. I remembered I’m following the footsteps of someone trying to save his family. The speeches in your head are never as uplifting as the coaches speech in the movies and there’s never any music, but I got off my feet, pouted while I walked slowly up a hill on the stone road out of sight, and then yelled out and started running.

Again, not me but that is the ledge/gutter on the right side of the photo I was sitting in during my frustration.

It would be tempting to think that the race was half over at this point. Half the distance was completed but I looked at this race more by how much time was left. In my head I set myself up thinking it would take all 36 hours so I was still almost 3 hours away from being half done with the race. I think this was a good way to look at it. I’ve had winter races where I’d get excited that I’m only 5 miles from the finish but it still takes 2 hours to get there and it’s just mentally a drain. I wanted to prevent that. I remember at 50 miles thinking I’m a third done with the distance but only a quarter done with the race since it was 9 hours.

I pretty much kept a steady but slow pace. Instead of being in the “fast pace” column I had made on my time chart, I was now in the “slow pace” column. I think after CP37 is where the road turns to gravel for a few miles. The support cars were super considerate for me and drove under 10mph so they didn’t make a bunch of dust. I heard that wasn’t always the case for other runners. The moon was coming up. It was midnight. The moon at times was bright enough to turn off the headlamp but I didn’t. I wanted to keep the blinking light on in back and I guess there wasn’t a reason to save batteries. It was only 12 hours of dark.

Soon enough I got to CP40 (87 miles) and saw my crew again. My watch had stopped working a few miles before this. Usually it records everything before it dies but this time it didn’t do that so that kinda sucks. The plan was to give it to Jessie to recharge at this CP anyway so I gave it to her and got a regular watch so I’d at least know what time it was and could see how I was doing based on the cutoff times at the CPs before I saw her again in 5 miles. There’s some downhill before this CP and after. I made up a little time but not much. I was pretty much an hour ahead of the cutoff. I had hoped to be an hour and 45 minutes ahead.

All through the night I could hear what sounded like a shotgun on occasion. I wasn’t quite sure what it was all about at the time and it never seemed super close so I wasn’t too concerned. I also heard coyotes a few times. That’s what the gunshots were for I found out later. People set off charges to scare them away from the flocks or whatever else needs protecting I guess.

There are also dogs barking all through the night. I felt pretty sorry for the people that lived along the course since their dogs would bark all night long on race night. Also, all the cars kept on honking through the night. Some would do it right as they passed me and scare the crap out of me. I was fine if they honked as they pulled up to me but the ones that waited until they were right along side me would freak me out for some reason. Seriously guys, stop honking by 1AM. It’s just rude to the people that live there. In general I was getting tired of seeing crews helping their runners on the road as well. Some would just cruise along the runner for 10 minutes at a time. Others would stop every 100 feet and wait for the runner. Handing them stuff, etc. All of it was against the rules and more importantly dangerous when the road is curvy. The car is in the wrong lane basically stopped, how is someone coming the other way supposed to know you’re there? This happened day and night the second half of the race. I was glad I couldn’t understand what they were saying so at least I knew they weren’t Americans.

I saw my wife again at CP43 (92.5miles) and got my watch back. The plan was to eat a lot since the mountain was in a couple hours and I’d be going slow anyway up the steep road to get to the base of it. I think I did have some more shake here but I wasn’t all that hungry since I had been eating fairly well anyway. I was tired again I know and my pace shows it.

I had another beet juice at CP45 where I had a drop bag. The road gets pretty steep from here until the mountain base. From CP45 you can see the road switch back and forth with a good view of the mountain the entire time. It was weird seeing how high up the road would have to go in the next few miles. I walked the entire time which was the plan and by the time I got to mountain base CP47 where Jessie was, I was only 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff which of course wasn’t where I wanted to be.

I guess I’ll talk a little more about qualifications for this race. As stated earlier there are requirements to even apply for this race. For men you have to do a 100 mile race under 21 hours and for women 22 hours. Now it’s not unusual for women to have an “easier” requirement than the men for the races that have one. The issue with this race though is that the check point cutoffs don’t care what sex you are, you either get there in time or you don’t. The cutoff for CP47 (99.5 miles this year) is 22:10. That’s only 10 minutes longer than the requirement to get in for women. Plus you have 54 more miles to go plus the steep mountain pass. So if you’re just getting under the qualifying time at a flat 100 mile race and are spent at the end of it, you may not have what it takes to keep ahead of the cutoffs at Spartathlon. It’s just something to keep in mind. That’s part of why I didn’t feel ready to apply until I got under 20 hours for a flat 100mile race. With all that being said, not many people time out after the mountain as far as I’m aware and those that do usually are having some sort of physical issue like cramps or GI issues.

It was windy now and I had completely dried off so I didn’t need to change into a dry shirt before the mountain. Everyone looked cold waiting for us at the aid station. I put on my gloves, arm sleeves, and took my emergency poncho in case it was as cold as everyone says it is at the top. I was actually just starting to wake up. The cold wind felt amazing to me. I didn’t really stay long at all, maybe got a little food and more gels. I put my gaiters back on as well. I took the sharp left turn off the road and up the dirt trail to Sangas Pass on Mount Parthenion at 4:30AM.

The start of the dirt path up the mountain pass. Photo Credit: Chris Calimano

I warmed up in 2 minutes of going up the mountain so I took off the gloves and arm sleeves. The trail was well marked and had light markers everywhere. It was much easier than I was expecting based on all the reports I’ve read. The trail wasn’t very wide but the footing was better than I expected. It was smooth compared to the Superior Hiking Trail if you’ve been on that. I was passing a lot of people on this section, mostly because I felt so much better in the cold that had woken me up. I got up the 1.4 miles and 1000 feet in 20 minutes which was much faster than I was expecting.

Looking down part of the trail we went up. They had lights on all the poles and caution tape strung between them. Photo Credit: Chris Calimano

I saw flashes from a photographer at the top but I guess my picture must not have turned out well since they never posted it. I think maybe I took some water at the top but basically just kept on moving back down the mountain.

When Phidippides went over this same pass, he claimed that he met the god Pan. Pan called out his name and asked him why the Athenians paid him no attention, though he was of goodwill to the Athenians, had often been of service to them, and would be in the future. Phidippides told the Athenians this when he got back to Athens. Indeed, the Athenians believed he had met Pan because they believed Pan helped them win the battle against the much larger Persian army days later. The Persians are said to have had sudden and unwarranted fear during the battle. This is where the word panic comes from, because Pan caused the fear in them. From then on, the Athenians worshiped Pan more and had celebrations for him, etc. Kinda interesting I think. Anyway, I didn’t see anything unusual at the top of the pass other than a twisted destroyed high tension power line pole on the ground.

I was expecting to be able to go down the mountain even faster than I went up since I love downhills and reports made it sound like it was scree going down which would be easy to cruise down. It certainly wasn’t what I would call scree. It was a jeep road made of sharp rocks that for the most part didn’t move. I was glad I had on trail shoes just because of the extra cushioning, not necessarily due to the traction. The main reason I couldn’t go fast was because some of the rocks would roll and it didn’t make any sense on which ones would or wouldn’t. With natural rocks on a trail I can almost always tell where to put my feet. I don’t know why but I do. This was a road that they put a bunch of rocks on and it just baffled my skills I guess. Sometimes you’d hit a rock and it’d roll down just for me to step on it 3 more times as it kept rolling down. Everyone else seemed to have similar issues as we all tried to find a track in the road that wasn’t sucky. I must’ve gone back and forth on the road 15 times trying to find a better way down. I ended up taking longer going down the stupid mountain than up! I was frustrated by the time I made it into the town of Sagas. Stupid weird rocks! Looking back I guess it was better to go slow and not get hurt with 53 miles left in the race. Also if you think the trail down goes a lot further than the trail went up, it does. It seemed to take forever to get down the mountain on that stupid road. I would’ve much rather had an actual trail!

The bottom of the road coming down. It was steeper higher up and it seemed rockier as well. Photo Credit: Erica Sietsma

I kept making my way and the course levels out again. I could tell I’d have to use nature’s facilities at some point in the race and decided it was best to take care of it before it got light enough for everyone to see what I was doing. The road had a steep deep embankment so I went down it and took care of business as quickly as I could.

Just before CP52 (mile 107) there is a 150 foot hill back up to the aid station. This is the first time I could see Jessie again since the base of the mountain. This is I think also where Tom Jackson passed me up. I got there at 6:52 AM almost 24 hours into the race. It was getting light out again now. I gave back the headlamp, gloves, arm sleeves, gaiters, headband, and emergency poncho. I took back my hat and neck protector and got a new bathroom kit. She slathered sunscreen on me for the sun of the second day. There were meatballs here that my wife said were gross so I didn’t take any. I was 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff, the same as before the mountain. I would lose time from here on out. 46 miles in 12 hours was doable but I’d rather have 13 hours.

The sleep monster was back again as it started warming up. Usually the sun wakes me up but it did very little for me. After CP52 it goes down the 150 feet and is flat for about 17 miles. This area was farmland filled mostly with vineyards it seemed (especially after CP55). The workers were just starting to get to the fields and were getting ready to harvest the grapes. They looked so good! The bathroom fairy said it was time to go again. Now it was sunny so this would be a bit more difficult. All there was surrounding the road were fields. There weren’t any porta potties supplied for the harvesters so since they were clearly just using the field, I would too. I waited until I found a plowed field. It just seemed gross even to me to go in a field with grapes. I was much more visible in an open field but so be it. I was at least a bit more discreet than the guy I saw go while standing up on the side of the road. Can’t get that visual out of my head. Maybe he didn’t think he could stand up if he squatted? I didn’t take any Imodium as I was pretty sure that would be the last time of the race (it was).

Speaking of bathroom visuals, I have to describe something that just amazed me. So on the first afternoon of the race a woman stopped just ahead of me. Now by stopped, I don’t mean she moved off the road, etc. No, she was running along and then just suddenly stopped. She was wearing I guess what I would describe as boy shorts. She didn’t widen her feet, squat or anything. She just reached down and slid the crotch over and a perfect stream instantly came out. The best way to describe it is that it looked just like a water fountain that has the water bottle filler built in. It was a perfect, large, and forceful stream without any splashes or drops. I mean NONE! After 5 seconds, she just stopped peeing and started running again. That was easily the most impressive micturation I’ve ever seen. Many others including my wife saw her do the same thing and they were just as impressed.

CP57 (mile 116) came at 9:20AM. It was hotter today than the day before. I got my ice bandana back again. Oh how it love you ice bandana. There wasn’t any wind in the morning but by the afternoon there was wind.

Soon after CP57 Will Thomas passed me up. He had been fighting the cutoffs the entire race. He was gaining on them and I was loosing on them. I was now the last American. I was running almost all of the time. I would’ve loved to do a walk/run as was the plan. My hamstrings still weren’t right. My butt and hips were now starting to tighten up as well. Stretching for 20 minutes likely would’ve helped but I didn’t have the time. Generally things were still working well enough though. I think most of the slow moving in this part of the race was just due to being so tired mentally. It was hard to stay awake and focus on moving fast, not just moving like I can get by with in winter races. There were still 9 hours left in the race. It was still too early to put myself in the “smell the barn” phase of the race and go balls out.

I was doing math a lot as I watched people pass me. I was barely keeping up with the pace of the cutoffs. If I hadn’t been doing such a good job at managing aid station time, I would’ve already timed out of the race. In my plan I had 108 minutes allotted for the all 74 check points. I very likely used about 60 minutes total for the race. I won’t know exactly because of my watch messing up. I know 60 minutes still sounds like a lot, but that’s what I normally take in a 100 mile race even with a crew. This is including bathroom breaks, etc. Anytime I’m not moving is included in aid station time. If I didn’t have to remake the ice bandana I would’ve saved even more time but that was essential for me. The other ice methods just didn’t work well for me.

4mph is all I needed. That seemed easy. Then you remember you have to make up that 45 seconds at every CP getting ice and water. Then you remember the big hills yet to come. Ugh, stupid 13 minute miles are indeed what was needed and that required running almost constantly. This is where the run around the county helped out. It was there I realized that I could force myself to keep running almost indefinitely. It takes a lot of mental effort if there isn’t someone to run with, which there wasn’t. This is the only time in my life I would’ve loved a pacer. I’ve never used one, but here is where I would’ve finished at least 30 minutes sooner with one.

I wished I had the energy to catch back up to Will and see if that would get me going but that wasn’t going to happen. I could still see people but no one was close enough to talk to. I didn’t feel like talking anyway. I was pretty sure I would finish. No, I was somehow sure I would finish. I knew more things would go wrong but I knew I would just will my body through it somehow. That’s why waiting so long to do this race paid off for me. Experience has taught me that our bodies are capable of crazy things. Of course I had heard the same thing from other runners, but some things just have to be experienced on your own to fully understand. You think you can’t run another step, and then you see a competitor and you run to pass them. A great song comes on and you can push harder. So much of ultrarunning is mental, this race even more so. I’ve seen Andrei Nana (8 time finisher) write and talk about the mental part of this race in particular. In fact, his pre-race speech the night before the race was definitely unique. I won’t go into details, but there were some very odd things we could do to him if he didn’t finish the race. There is an attitude you need to have when going into this race in my opinion. I’m not saying people who don’t finish, don’t have the right attitude. Things can just go wrong with your body, same as with a car, and you just don’t have time to fix anything with the constant cutoffs every 30 minutes. I think though that this race is mentally and physically a “doctorate” level ultramarathon, you better study for both!

Running into Alea

CP60 (mile 122) I got to at 10:46AM. I don’t remember much about what happened here other than thinking to myself “there are 32 miles left and I have just over 8 hours”. I had used up so much of my buffer that I was now even with my slow pace side of my chart instead of the fast pace side of my chart like the day before. I started not even looking at my chart anymore. I just looked at the cutoff time for the next check point and used that as my gauge for how I was doing. The time cutoffs the rest of the race were very accurate for how long they took me to go that section. I was basically 8 – 15 minutes in front of the cutoff from here on out.

The last really big hill starts after CP61. It’s about 800 feet up a curvy, wide, busy road. It’s the road to Sparta. We’ll be on it for a long time before turning off onto an even more curvy but less used road on the downhill to Sparta. The addition in this years race is that the road was freshly tarred. As in, it was as black as possible and there wasn’t a line painted on it anywhere. Being in full sun on a completely black busy road at noon isn’t that fun, as you can imagine. So I hiked as fast as I could up this long hill. I was doing pretty well, even getting under 15 minute mile pace sometimes. Why couldn’t I move this fast when walking earlier? Oh yeah. because I was sleep walking then.

I never saw a single cow. I’d occasionally hear a cowbell in the dark but they were on sheep. I went past at least one larger goat farm at night based on the smell

I had some food in a drop bag at CP62 part way up the hill. Everything I ate tasted good. I was still eating gels even. Gels tasted good after 120 miles, crazy! Everyone had a clear sense of urgency in their face. Again the crew vehicles were doing some really stupid dangerous stuff. I guess since there weren’t any lines painted they thought they could drive wherever?

The wind had picked up a little. It was so hot with the hot wind off the asphalt that I started to carry an extra water bottle from each check point. I’d get myself soaked, fill up my water bottle and then take another half liter plastic water bottle to use along the way keeping myself wet. I would still almost be dry by the time I got to the next check point. At one point when I was almost out of water I saw a half full large water bottle in the ditch. I dumped it all over myself, it was indeed water.

For all the rules this race has, there is no rule against littering. There is a crazy amount of garbage along the roads in Greece. To Minnesotans and most Americans, with our adopt a highway program, and community service for criminals, the roads are very clean. There doesn’t seem to be anything like this here. You’ll even see a bunch of garbage along peoples front yard wall/fence. They don’t even clean up the garbage in front of their nice looking house. If it’s outside the walls I guess they don’t care.

Up to this point I had been collecting all my garbage like normal and dumping it eventually at a check point. Now things changed. I kinda feel like a giant douche but I started littering as well. Again, it wasn’t against the rules and there was already garbage everywhere. If I ever go back to Greece, I’ve already decided I’m filling up at least 2 giant garbage bags of trash from the road. I will only have to walk about 100 feet to do that. I’m not joking, there are spots I could fill 2 large bags in 20 feet.

Why am I telling you this? I don’t know. It’s the reality of the race and I’ve never read about it in a race report before. I’d use up the plastic water bottle within 5 minutes and in my current state it just seemed impossible to carry that empty bottle for another 30 minutes. Weird looking back on it. Like why didn’t I just crush it and put it in my waist belt?

I got over the top of the hill. The next section is kind of up and down through the trees. So it’s kinda walk run if I remember correctly. CP65 (mile 132) came and went. I could get aid here but I was trying to get through these things as quick as possible that I think I barely said hi as they helped with my ice bandana and got me water.

It’s mostly downhill to CP68 (mile 139). Things were hurting more now. I wasn’t cramping or anything but some muscles had certainly had enough of this whole “running all the time” thing we were doing. Problem was, the walking muscles were even more pissed it seemed. The downhills were hurting my butt muscles more than my quads which seemed weird. Sharp pains happened with almost every step. I tried lots of different gaits, seeing if anything would help. None did, and they all seemed to slow my pace a lot. In the very brief moments of time when things didn’t hurt, I could run 11 minute miles easily. I had the energy now as my mind was in “go time” mode but the pain was making me so conservative in my steps. I couldn’t fully trust that my leg wouldn’t buckle from the pain on any particular step and I’d fall. I’ve been in this situation before and just walked in the last 16 miles. That clearly wasn’t an option here.

There’s one more hill after CP68 that’s 300 feet. It really wasn’t that bad. It’s just a shorter version of the bigger hill earlier on the same road. It think it was along this section of road that I passed a man that was having a hard time of it going up a hill. He was frustrated and complained that it was impossible to finish the race in time. The cutoffs were ridiculous and it couldn’t be done! I just said we have to try. I knew I could finish and I wasn’t going to let the negativity get to me.

They like to say it’s all downhill after that “last” hill. It’s not. There are a couple undulations soon after the top of the hill so just know that going in. Soon enough though, it is mostly downhill. It’s about a half marathon to the finish and I had just over 3 hours to do it. Every mile I got done in 15 minutes was another mile I could take longer if need be since I still had a small buffer. I was getting so close but I knew I’d use up those 3 hours. No use getting excited just yet. Be smart and pay attention so something else doesn’t break.

My wife was now stopping to cheer at every check point like most of the crew had done the entire race. The rules say you’re not supposed to but of course how can they stop you and why would anyone follow the rules anyway? At least they’re all together and not strung out along the course like some do which is the dangerous thing to do. I did actually see the race officials tell one vehicle to move in the last couple hours of the race that was pacing their runner with the car down the curvy hill.

I had been seeing the bus that they put you on if you time out for hours. Basically I had seen it since the morning even when I was 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff. I never looked inside it.

I was still peeing a lot which it started to dawn on me was weird since it was so hot, although I was drinking a lot. I had taken a lot of caffeine so I was thinking it was from that. Then it finally dawned on me that I hadn’t been eating as much real food as I normally do and also hadn’t been drinking any electrolytes like usual. I realized then that I was probably hyponatremic for the first time in my life. The next check point was 71 which the crew can’t give aid at. I told them I was hyponatremic. I asked the aid station if they had salt. They did but it was just a big can of salt. I poured a big bunch in my hand, threw it in my mouth, and swallowed it down with water. It wasn’t too bad. When I was unpacking my waist belt at home after the race, I realized I had salt tabs in there the entire race. I had forgotten I put them in there just in case this happened. Another laugh out loud moment.

The crew could help at the next check point (72 at mile 147.4) so they gave me a couple salt tabs there to take. Within a couple hours everything was normal again. I wonder if this affected my performance or not? I’m not really sure but probably not that much in reality. Don’t get me started with the electrolytes prevent cramping myth. I never had cramps anyway.

Things really hurt after this check point. At least I think it was this one, it might’ve been before this. It took almost half a mile before I could try to run. It took a full mile to start running. Then things felt good and I cruised pretty well down hill. I was realizing that stopping even for 20 seconds was messing things up. I wished I didn’t ever have to stop again but I needed to get water at every check point since it was so hot. I got things down to 20 seconds or less at the checkpoints. I made sure to keep moving while at them other than the 5 seconds for the ice bandana. It seemed to help as it never took as long to get going as it did after that one horrible one. It was a good thing too as I was only about 8 minutes ahead of the cutoff based on my watch because of that section although the tracker has me even closer than that. I got a little scared there but realized that this close to the end, the officials would likely let me keep going as long as I was moving well and not crawling along.

I caught up to a couple runners here and there that were moving slow and then a race official would drive up to them and I’m guessing tell them to get moving or they weren’t going to make it. I never got talked to so I guess I looked good enough. I never really walked though either anymore.

We were on the smaller, more curvy road now. It seemed steeper now as well. I really wish I could’ve just opened up my stride and got this thing done but I just couldn’t trust my legs. I’d always eventually find the right stride length to keep things from hurting and just cruise along. I’d try to run in the shade as it was getting later in the day now but the race officials started yelling at people to stay on the same side of the road. I was keeping pace OK now and slowly building a buffer. More than that though, even with only 10 minutes of buffer I could walk a lot more now and still finish since there were only a few miles left.

I saw Jessie for the last time at CP73. I told her to not stop at CP74 and just get to the finish line so you’d have time to get there and park. There were about 3.5 miles left. People kept saying only 5K left but I know it’s further than that. It took forever to get to CP74. I was even getting worried I had missed a turn somewhere. The road flattens out after CP73 and you’re on a busy road again. Everyone is yelling bravo, cars are honking. It’s so uplifting! I always read in the reports about crossing the river and then turning left. Well you actually cross the river soon after CP73 as well so I was starting to think maybe that was the bridge and I missed a turn. I was just following the people in front of me but that doesn’t mean I’m on the right path. I hadn’t seen a crew car at all and there weren’t any painted markers on the road for miles. I asked a car passing by, and they told me I was on the right path. Yay!

I had to walk some along the road. I was going to finish. I had time to walk. I crossed the river again (which was completely dry) and finally got to CP74. I filled up my water bottle again, though it was finally getting a little cooler as the sun was going down. I had a drop bag with my American flag in it. I grabbed it and put my hat and neck protector back in the bag since I didn’t need those anymore. It was 6:23PM and I had until 7 to get to the statue.

The last mile and a half is through the busy town. Everyone is cheering you on. I almost felt bad that everyone was having to cheer for us for so long. The winner had finished before the sun came up and now the sun was almost gone. I was just projecting though and they were very supportive and excited to see us running through town. I’m sure there’s a great pride for all of Greece that people want to come from around the world to run in the footsteps of their ancestors. The road has small ups and downs the entire way it seemed. It took a while but there was an officer that told me to “turn here” so I did. More hills and more road.

I was enjoying my walk with an occasional run and trying to soak everything in. This is where I got passed by a couple runners. Interestingly one of them was the same man that hours before was complaining that it was impossible to finish. I reminded him of that and he just smiled.

Another turn and now I was on the last leg to the finish line and the King Leonidas statue which you touch to finish the race. Of course he wasn’t king yet in 490BC but we ignore that little detail. I ran from here on out albeit slowly. It’s almost cruel that they make you run all through town when it could be a straight shot to the statue. There was a boy riding along side me with a bike. I’m sure there are usually more in a non Covid year.

I can hear faint music now and everyone is cheering. Kids are all around and I give them some fist bumps. I have my flag around me running down the path on the closed off, palm tree lined street. Tears welled up. I guess the realization that I was finally finishing this race that I’d been building towards for so long made me very emotional. I could finally let my mind stop being so concerned about the race and just…be. Joy is the best word to describe it. Pure Joy!

I could now see other Americans that finished cheering me on. I saw my wife just before the last block and she said she could run the last part with me. Now the statue was in sight. We stopped running when I got there. I walked up the steps, crossed the timing mat, and kissed the foot of the statue as is tradition. It was 6:47PM, 13 minutes to spare and almost exactly the time I had for my slow pace on my chart. I paused there briefly and then got a hug and kiss from my wife. We hugged and cried for a bit. I think we pretty much both said “that was really f-ing hard”.

I got a olive wreath put on my head and handed a finisher shirt and medal from the city of Sparta. Normally there are girls there that also give you water from the river to drink. I’m sure it’s just bottled water they pour in since the river is disgusting but regardless, this year they didn’t do it due to Covid. I didn’t even see any of the girls although they were there based on photos I’ve seen. We got some photos taken and then were brought over to a finishing area where they are supposed to check you over medically and such.

Ok prepare for lots of photos and videos.

The top photos are from spartavoice.gr which I think is a local online newspaper. The bottom one Jessie took.
Taken by my wife.
Taken by Amy Mower. Thanks.

At the medical area they seemed to be understaffed and inundated with runners. Someone was finishing almost every minute the last hour of the race. I had to flag someone down to give my timing chip and tracker to. There were 5 people to finish after me. Two of them were after 7PM but they were allowed as official finishers. I suppose with the detour adding distance, that was the reason? After the last runner came in of course we heard Zorba’s Dance. If that doesn’t sound familiar, trust me you’ve heard it. You hear it a lot in Greece and I don’t mind it. As you’ll find out later we danced to it even…poorly.

After about 15 minutes I started shaking like crazy from the cold of being soaking wet and no longer producing any heat. I got a blanket but after 20 minutes of not having anyone look at me, we decided it was just best to leave. They are supposed to clean your feet and pop your blisters, etc here. Some people even get IV’s and such. I didn’t know if we’d get in trouble but I didn’t care. We got up and I very slowly walked in my socks and slippers to our hotel 3 blocks away, shivering like mad. I guess a lot of people did the same thing and just left after waiting for so long.

Sitting down waiting to be looked over.

I wondered if I had the slowest American finish so I looked it up. Nope, I have the second slowest time ever by an American. I am the 65th American to finish this race. I guess since Scott Jurek was born in MN I can’t say I’m the only Minnesotan to finish. Speaking of Jurek, if not for Covid, I was thinking of seeing if Dusty Olson would want to help my wife crew me since he never got to go. We asked a few people earlier but in the end we were worried about someone popping positive for Covid right before the race (we weren’t sure if they’d test us right before the race or not at the time) and then having to quarantine instead of racing. The less people in my group, the less chance that could happen was our thought. My time of 35:47:42 is ranked 3472/3671 of the total finishes in the 39 years of the race. Pretty bad and yet still very good to me. I’m proud of it. Overall 167 of the 280 starters finished the race which is just under 60% I think that is pretty average now that the entry requirements are harder. It used to be less than half that would finish. 9/14 Americans finished which is 64%.

After a brutally slow walk we got to the Hotel Apollon which was the hotel that the Americans were placed in. We cranked the heat up in the room so I could warm up. The shower in this place is ridiculous. It was 2 foot by 2 foot square with a shower curtain for the walls. The water wasn’t even lukewarm which really sucks when you’re already shivering. I really wanted to have a tub to soak in and clean off but it was better than nothing I guess. I quickly posted that I finished the race. I simply wrote 2 words: Joy, Weary. I could think of no better way to describe it.

The bed felt like it was just a box spring mattress. You could feel wood and springs poking up through whatever cushion there was supposed to be. Good thing we were dead tired. Before sleep though, we needed to eat.

The food is served at a restaurant offsite. It was odd to get a voucher from the from desk and then go to another place to eat but that’s the way it works at least for this hotel. Luckily we were told this by some veterans or else we wouldn’t have figured it out. Communication in general is pretty poor with this race as I’ve mentioned before. Some people didn’t even have rooms set aside for them at the hotels and they had to find places to sleep. Usually you can figure something out with teammates but you shouldn’t have to. Plus with everyone finishing at different times, you never know if you’ll get a hold of anyone else on your team. We walked to the restaurant with my finisher shirt on and sat with a couple other Americans that were just getting done eating. The food was really good. You didn’t have an option what you got but it was good and enough to fill me up. We were of course wide awake now which always seems to happen so we talked for awhile before heading back to sleep.

Sleep came easily and lasted for about 4 hours for me. I was then up from the typical leg pain. I got online and sure enough most of the American team was up and online as well. It doesn’t matter how tired you are, you just can’t sleep for 10 hours straight after an ultra. Your legs won’t let you. Well in this case the bed sure didn’t help either.

One other weird thing about the entire time after the race on Saturday was that we had profound deja vu. I think I might have seen a photo of the courtyard of the hotel somewhere online at some point but otherwise that was it. We’ve never been to Greece let alone this hotel in Sparta. Everything seemed familiar. The toilet, the shower, the weird window vent in the bathroom going to the main hallway, the walk to the restaurant, the bedroom, the elevators, basically everything. We both felt it which was even more creepy. My only theory was that our immense weariness was affecting our brains to give us that feeling.

So a newer tradition to Spartathlon is the “Spartan Mile”. It’s called a mile but we just do one lap around the track that is directly behind the statue of Leonidas. There is an additional race right after where they do a full mile but not many do that. Both are open to every participant of the Spartathlon regardless of if they finished or not.

Here is the history of it as written online:

The idea was born on a bus towards the World Championships in Turin in 2015 … The Swedish runners Andreas Falk and Johan Steene wanted to find out who was the fastest to run a Swedish “mil” (10 km). “But…” Andreas said “… we have never equally good conditions! There is always one of us who just ran a race and that´s unfair…” A twinkle lit in Johan’s eyes … “Yes… we may never have equally good conditions… but sometimes we have just as bad! Let´s have a duel in Stockholm two weeks after Spartathlon!” Now Annika Nilrud got excited: “YES! I’m coming! I’ll support you guys! This is the event of the year!!” Six months later, just before Spartathlon, Annika was wondering “Well, what about the “mil” race!? I’ve already booked tickets!” Johan and Andreas twisted uncomfortably. Didn’t they have to do the laundry or some other necessary chores? And maybe feed the cat? Then Johan said: “Ok… now we’re here after all! We can take it right after Spartathlon – the very day after!” Andreas stared, but Johan continued: “Maybe a “mil” is too far… but how about a mile? There’s an athletics track just behind the statue of Leonidas! Everyone can join!” Collective anxiety… a mile the very day after Spartathlon? It felt extremely long! We all decided that after Spartathlon a mile isn’t a mile – then it corresponds to one lap of the athletics track. And, ideally according to ancient Greek tradition – all runners should be naked! Or at least very lightly dressed. A new tradition was born. From that time the anxiety before The Spartan Mile by far exceeded the nervousness before Spartathlon.

I was looking forward to this even almost as much as the race itself. I know that seems weird but I was really excited for it. Even if I was the only one that showed up, I was doing it. Just a perfect example of the stupid stuff we do as ultrarunners.

It’s supposed to be done completely naked like the Greeks raced. Well actually they tied their penis with a rope somehow but I’ve never seen a diagram or anything about how that was done so I couldn’t do that. Of course with all the cameras and stuff in the modern age we just go in our underwear. No shoes of course either. I’m sure almost everyone would be naked if it could be guaranteed no photos would be taken. My stories of bathroom breaks at ultras should show how little we care about what people see. I myself won’t put any photos or videos here either but if you really want, it shouldn’t be that hard for you to find them online. There’s even a Facebook page.

About 30 of us started at 11AM. Man did those first steps hurt! Everyone was laughing and having fun. It took a full 200 meters before I could start to run a little faster and open my stride some. There was nothing pretty about it that’s for sure. The vast majority of us were just happy we could move at all and weren’t trying to race. The people that didn’t go the full distance at Spartathlon of course had an advantage with not being as sore. The winner finished in 1:19. I got 2:42. I think I finished about mid-pack. I have to say “running” a lap with the podium finishers the day after a race is pretty special. Very few sports have that kind of camaraderie. I hope this sport always stays that way. The mile was won in 6:07 by the way.

We had gotten my drop bag before I did the spartan mile. It seemed no one knew where we were supposed to get our bags. Even some of the veterans didn’t know because someone else had always gotten them for them. Finally we found some Brits that knew and it was a bit of a hike. It’s the municipal gymnasium of Sparta. The coordinates are: 37.07686574185248, 22.43414709693198 They put all your drop bags in 1 bag for you. Or at least they’re all supposed to be in there. They didn’t have my headlamp in there so now it’s gone. Sounds like that’s not uncommon so don’t put anything in the drop bags you can’t afford to lose. That’s why I put my older headlamp in there to begin with. They made it sound like they would put all lost and found stuff in Athens but that was very vague. I assumed it would be in the hotel we stayed in Glyfada since that was the hotel we registered for the race at but there was nothing there. In an email the next week, it sounded like the lost and found was at the Hotel London. Whatever, it’s gone now.

We checked out of the hotel, checkout is nice and late in Greece, and took off in our car for Olympia. Many people go to ancient Corinth since it’s on the way back to Glyfada but we’d never be closer to Olympia than we were now. We went past areas that were burned out from the recent fires. It seemed like most of the olive groves were spared from the fire since they cleared the underbrush from those areas. There were lots of roadside stands with potatoes for sale in big sacks. We were always on the lookout for a grocery store so we could get some caffeine pop. Most were closed due to it being Sunday. We finally found one with reasonable prices and got a bottle. We also ate at a nice town square restaurant in some town I’d never be able to remember how to get to. It was very pretty.

Now where we wanted to go to was the place where the original Olympic games were held thousands of years ago. What we got was a tree lined pasture on both sides of a small road on top of a hill. We kind of suspected about a mile before that it wasn’t right. It was a pretty drive so we weren’t too upset. We figured it out and put in Archaeological Site of Olympia into google and we drove the 20 more minutes to get there.

It was pretty cool. I mean everything is pretty much in ruins like everything else but the stadium is in good shape. The one you see is actually the third stadium to be used for the games although all 3 were in the general vicinity since it all was done where they worshiped Zeus. It was a religious event and so any rule breaking was almost always met with death. The word stadium comes from the distance “stadia” which is the length of the footrace they had. The start and finish line are made of stone and are still there. The distance is 197.27 meters according to the sign there.

Entering the stadium.
That’s the start line and the finish is of course at the far end.

We saw a couple racing each other barefoot but not naked. We walked down to the other end of the track. Jessie didn’t want to but I wasn’t about to come all this way and not go to the other end. Once we were there, it was decided to race back to the start. No way was I going barefoot, the surface was not friendly looking. We took off and Jessie took a commanding lead. I think she thought she had it in the bag after watching my performance at the spartan mile and seemed to let up. I told her that I was starting to feel better and would be able to run faster soon. Sure enough I could start to get some speed and was now gaining on her. I passed her with about 20 yards to spare. The spectators complained we weren’t barefoot.

This is the spot that the Olympic flame is started for the current Olympics.
This is the mirror they use to collect sunlight to start the fire. Pretty cool it’s lit by sunlight.
Zeus temple.

We didn’t go to the museum there as it was getting late enough already. It was a long drive home, over 4 hours since traffic just sucks there. Even on the toll roads, it’s pretty slow. If there is any sort of highway type looking road in Greece, it’s a toll road. You don’t need to have a pass, almost all lanes are cash lanes. It’s fairly expensive. I think it cost 12 Euro for just this drive and not even half the distance was on toll roads. It’s faster than the non-toll roads though. It’s straighter too, so if you don’t like curves, take the toll roads as much as possible.

We weren’t too worried about missing supper. They don’t even start serving until 8PM so we were fine getting there around 9:30. We talked to some teammates about what we all did for sightseeing that day and then the hotel staff kicked us out of the restaurant and had us go to the pool area instead. I think we finally went to bed around 11PM

The next days goal was getting a Covid test so we could fly back. I would’ve rather got one Sunday but nothing was open not surprisingly. We got tested and eventually got our results. We were negative so we had to go home and not get a 2 week vacation from the government of Greece. Mostly we spent the day repacking everything for the trip home the next day. We did a little shopping, eating desserts at one of the many dessert/bakery shops you’ll see in Greece. Lots of ice cream places as well. I got a bottle of wine for the awards ceremony that night since I was told they tended to run out there. Plus I rarely like whatever they serve. It took a little bit to understand what the bottles were since it was all in Greek but I got something I ended up liking. Nothing had a screw top but I figured they would have a bottle opener at a restaurant that serves wine. Oooo, foreshadowing!

The awards ceremony was at an outdoor place on the shores of the Mediterranean a couple miles away. You don’t have to dress up, but most do so we got fancied up. We didn’t drive in case we couldn’t drive back safely. We should’ve just drove, or taken the tram. Instead we took the bus which was slow and we were warned it was slow so we felt pretty dumb. Anyway, the view at the place was great. It was an older run down place but in the dark you couldn’t really tell.

Sunset on our last night in Greece.

We sat at a table of Americans, some of which we hadn’t talked to yet. One woman instantly reminded me of one of my wife’s college friends. I knew they would get along great and called her “new Lanae” in my head until I learned her name (Erica). The food was served slowly and there were multiple plates. While that’s not surprising for Europe, we had no clue that’s what was going on. We all just got the same 1 plate at the beginning. Nothing else was served until after the awards ceremony an hour later. Some even left before the second plate came out. There was no vegetarian option. I’m not even close to being vegetarian but I was pissed for those that were. There are a lot of ultrarunners that are vegetarian, more than the general population. Probably almost as many as in the veterinarian community. I had seen some salads on a table so I went and got some (they didn’t serve them until the third plate) so they’d at least have something. I mean come on. Oh you ran this really hard race? Enjoy your crappy salad with no protein as your reward.

I’m getting ahead of my wine story though. I brought my bottle of wine and right away went to the bartender to open it up. Sure enough, all their wine had screw caps so they didn’t have one. Turns out this was just a catered event and there was no real bar or restaurant so they didn’t have a way to open the bottle. There are ways to open a bottle without a corkscrew but they are all a little messy and of course have the risk that you’ll break it. You can push the cork down or put it in a shoe and pound it against a wall. There really wasn’t a wall anywhere and that seemed the more risky of the 2 options. The knives were too wide for the opening to get the cork pushed all the way down. After much effort with a fork handle and completely bending it, I got it. Of course I also spilled on myself but it was white wine and dried quickly. It was very good wine so I guessed well at the store.

The wine and fork. Photo Credit: Erica Sietsma

The awards were given out by country so we had to wait a long time to get ours. The race just had the medals on a platter and you were supposed to pick one up yourself. For our team Andrei took them and put them around our necks like normal which was nice. Only 1 team member wasn’t able to make the ceremony so we were 8 strong up there instead of 9. I’d love to see 20 Americans up there someday as finishers.

The American finishers!

Once the awards were given out and a couple movies taken during the race played, the music started. It wasn’t very good to start with. We had noticed that the radio stations that played English music had a lot of Micheal Jackson and other 80’s music. This is what the DJ was playing here too. Certainly not the songs that an 80’s station would play back home. It was kind of funny to us. We kept wondering “Do they think we like this music?” Finally some Salt-N-Pepa came on which was all that was needed to get the American women out there. If you see videos of people dancing at the awards ceremony, I can almost guarantee you that the Americans are out there busting a move in it. After walking around and it having been 2 days since I finished the race, I was able to dance perfectly normal which surprised me some. It’s rare that my wife ever dances so I had to take advantage of it and be out there with her. The music was good from then on. There was even some new EDM that he played, the kids would’ve loved it.

Good thing the weather was nice.

At one point the Czech team brought out a wine bottle and then you jump over it. Seemed odd to us but we played along. Then they stacked another on top, etc. No one ever knocked one over. More food was served here and there. Some fruit and cheese, salad, dessert. Only 1 bottle of wine was ever brought out for a table of 9 so there was clearly no worry of getting drunk.

Finally Zorba’s Dance came on while my wife and I were out there and a Greek woman instantly grabs us and all of a sudden we’re in a circle trying to figure out what we’re doing and not to trip. It starts slow but we never got the hang of it so by the time it got fast we were doing pretty bad.

We are in the middle. It had gone on for about 2 minutes before this video started. We had to quit before it was over. My legs were on fire after dancing for an hour and then this!

We decided to leave after that. We asked the bus driver when he was leaving and he said he didn’t know. We ended up walking home which was dumb. The tram didn’t seem to be going the way we were going so we couldn’t take that either it seemed. We should’ve just waited for the bus. We did get to see a prostitute on the walk home though.

Our flight home was delayed for over 6 hours but we had to return the rental car by 9AM so we ended up going to the airport before then anyway. We ate and tried to sleep in the airport. For some reason, the Athens airport must want everyone to join the mile high club. They played nothing but Barry White and similar music for 60 minutes straight while I was trying to sleep at the gate. The plane was pretty empty since most people could get on other flights. Everyone had their own row on the plane to lay down and sleep if they wanted. With the delay we missed our connection so we had to sleep in Chicago. The only good thing is that Europe has pretty strict laws about airline delays so we each got 600 Euros from the airline. You have to ask for it. They aren’t required to tell you that you are entitled to it. It took about a month for them to respond to our request but we’re getting paid without a lot of hassle so that’s good.

Once I started running again at home days later, the belly pain came back. I’m super bummed about it and not quite sure what to do.

If you want my wife’s perspective on all this, you can read her crew report. It’s pretty good and gives details on things I didn’t know during the race. In fact it’s probably best the runners don’t know what’s going on. Otto’s crew got a flat tire and he never knew about it since they got it taken care of between check points they could give aid at. I think he even had to run past the repair shop they were in and they were worried he’d see the van.

This is a short video of the race put out by the race itself. It’s not an American heard at the beginning at the race. Kinda funny though.

Thanks for reading and I hope it helps if you plan on running this race. Here are some links to get more information. There is usually good information in other race reports as well.

https://britishspartathlonteam.org/ Probably the best place to start. They are very well organized and have a lot of veteran knowledge on their team. Make sure to go to the resources section for a good excel spreadsheet planner.

https://spartathlon.us/race-reports Go to the bottom of the list for a good report for crews among other things on the website.

Bob Hearn has some good information including the best elevation profile I’ve seen, good race reports, he also has his runs on strava that give mile by mile pacing and elevation changes that helped me in my pace planning.

http://www.Spartathlon.gr The actual race website. Usually the information is very slow to come out. I’ve learned everything through other channels days before anything is published on the website. You’ll have to be more proactive with gathering information for this race than you’re probably used to. Don’t assume anything and document everything you send/receive from the race. They don’t send out confirmation emails that they received things from you generally. Bring all of that documentation with you to the race. You likely won’t need it but if you do, it will be so much easier. They didn’t have marked down that I had my doctors letter even though I sent it in to them months ago. I had it with so I just handed it to them and kept on moving.

A video showing the entire route in fast speed.

The following is the excerpt from Herodotus Book 6 Chapter 100-117 that talks about the run with some context before and after.

100.

When the Eretrians learned that the Persian expedition was sailing to attack them, they asked for help from the Athenians. The Athenians did not refuse the aid, but gave them for defenders the four thousand tenant farmers who held the land of the Chalcidian horse-breeders.1 But it seems that all the plans of the Eretrians were unsound; they sent to the Athenians for aid, but their counsels were divided. [2] Some of them planned to leave the city and make for the heights of Euboea; others plotted treason in hope of winning advantages from the Persians. [3] When Aeschines son of Nothon, a leading man in Eretria, learned of both designs, he told the Athenians who had come how matters stood, and asked them to depart to their own country so they would not perish like the rest. The Athenians followed Aeschines’ advice.

1 Cp. Hdt. 5.77.

101.

So they saved themselves by crossing over to Oropus; the Persians sailed holding their course for Temenos and Choereae and Aegilea, all in Eretrian territory. Landing at these places, they immediately unloaded their horses and made preparation to attack their enemies. [2] The Eretrians had no intention of coming out and fighting; all their care was to guard their walls if they could, since it was the prevailing counsel not to leave the city. The walls were strongly attacked, and for six days many fell on both sides; but on the seventh two Eretrians of repute, Euphorbus son of Alcimachus and Philagrus son of Cineas, betrayed the city to the Persians. [3] They entered the city and plundered and burnt the temples, in revenge for the temples that were burnt at Sardis; moreover, they enslaved the townspeople, according to Darius’ command.

102.

After subduing Eretria, the Persians waited a few days and then sailed away to the land of Attica, pressing ahead in expectation of doing to the Athenians exactly what they had done to the Eretrians. Marathon1 was the place in Attica most suitable for riding horses and closest to Eretria, so Hippias son of Pisistratus led them there.

1 For a detailed discussion of various questions connected with the battle of Marathon, readers are referred to How and Wells, Appendix XVIII.

103.

When the Athenians learned this, they too marched out to Marathon, with ten generals leading them. The tenth was Miltiades, and it had befallen his father Cimon son of Stesagoras to be banished from Athens by Pisistratus son of Hippocrates. [2] While in exile he happened to take the Olympic prize in the four-horse chariot, and by taking this victory he won the same prize as his half-brother Miltiades. At the next Olympic games he won with the same horses but permitted Pisistratus to be proclaimed victor, and by resigning the victory to him he came back from exile to his own property under truce. [3] After taking yet another Olympic prize with the same horses, he happened to be murdered by Pisistratus’ sons, since Pisistratus was no longer living. They murdered him by placing men in ambush at night near the town-hall. Cimon was buried in front of the city, across the road called “Through the Hollow”, and buried opposite him are the mares who won the three Olympic prizes. [4] The mares of Evagoras the Laconian did the same as these, but none others. Stesagoras, the elder of Cimon’s sons, was then being brought up with his uncle Miltiades in the Chersonese. The younger was with Cimon at Athens, and he took the name Miltiades from Miltiades the founder of the Chersonese.

104.

It was this Miltiades who was now the Athenian general, after coming from the Chersonese and escaping a two-fold death. The Phoenicians pursued him as far as Imbros, considering it of great importance to catch him and bring him to the king. [2] He escaped from them, but when he reached his own country and thought he was safe, then his enemies met him. They brought him to court and prosecuted him for tyranny in the Chersonese, but he was acquitted and appointed Athenian general, chosen by the people.

105.

While still in the city, the generals first sent to Sparta the herald Philippides, an Athenian and a long-distance runner who made that his calling. As Philippides himself said when he brought the message to the Athenians, when he was in the Parthenian mountain above Tegea he encountered Pan. [2] Pan called out Philippides’ name and bade him ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, though he was of goodwill to the Athenians, had often been of service to them, and would be in the future. [3] The Athenians believed that these things were true, and when they became prosperous they established a sacred precinct of Pan beneath the Acropolis. Ever since that message they propitiate him with annual sacrifices and a torch-race.

106.

This Philippides was in Sparta on the day after leaving the city of Athens,1 that time when he was sent by the generals and said that Pan had appeared to him. He came to the magistrates and said, [2] “Lacedaemonians, the Athenians ask you to come to their aid and not allow the most ancient city among the Hellenes to fall into slavery at the hands of the foreigners. Even now Eretria has been enslaved, and Hellas has become weaker by an important city.” [3] He told them what he had been ordered to say, and they resolved to send help to the Athenians, but they could not do this immediately, for they were unwilling to break the law. It was the ninth day of the rising month, and they said that on the ninth they could not go out to war until the moon’s circle was full.2

1 According to Isocrates the distance traversed was 150 miles.

2 This statement probably applies only to the month Carneius (Attic Metageitnion), when the Carneia was celebrated at Sparta in honor of Apollo, from the 7th to the 15th of the month.

107.

So they waited for the full moon, while the foreigners were guided to Marathon by Hippias son of Pisistratus. The previous night Hippias had a dream in which he slept with his mother. [2] He supposed from the dream that he would return from exile to Athens, recover his rule, and end his days an old man in his own country. Thus he reckoned from the dream. Then as guide he unloaded the slaves from Eretria onto the island of the Styrians called Aegilia, and brought to anchor the ships that had put ashore at Marathon, then marshalled the foreigners who had disembarked onto land. [3] As he was tending to this, he happened to sneeze and cough more violently than usual. Since he was an elderly man, most of his teeth were loose, and he lost one of them by the force of his cough. It fell into the sand and he expended much effort in looking for it, but the tooth could not be found. [4] He groaned aloud and said to those standing by him: “This land is not ours and we will not be able to subdue it. My tooth holds whatever share of it was mine.”

108.

Hippias supposed that the dream had in this way come true. As the Athenians were marshalled in the precinct of Heracles, the Plataeans came to help them in full force. The Plataeans had put themselves under the protection of the Athenians,1 and the Athenians had undergone many labors on their behalf. This is how they did it: [2] when the Plataeans were pressed by the Thebans, they first tried to put themselves under the protection of Cleomenes son of Anaxandrides and the Lacedaemonians, who happened to be there. But they did not accept them, saying, “We live too far away, and our help would be cold comfort to you. You could be enslaved many times over before any of us heard about it. [3] We advise you to put yourselves under the protection of the Athenians, since they are your neighbors and not bad men at giving help.” The Lacedaemonians gave this advice not so much out of goodwill toward the Plataeans as wishing to cause trouble for the Athenians with the Boeotians. [4] So the Lacedaemonians gave this advice to the Plataeans, who did not disobey it. When the Athenians were making sacrifices to the twelve gods,2 they sat at the altar as suppliants and put themselves under protection. When the Thebans heard this, they marched against the Plataeans, but the Athenians came to their aid. [5] As they were about to join battle, the Corinthians, who happened to be there, prevented them and brought about a reconciliation. Since both sides desired them to arbitrate, they fixed the boundaries of the country on condition that the Thebans leave alone those Boeotians who were unwilling to be enrolled as Boeotian. After rendering this decision, the Corinthians departed. The Boeotians attacked the Athenians as they were leaving but were defeated in battle. [6] The Athenians went beyond the boundaries the Corinthians had made for the Plataeans, fixing the Asopus river as the boundary for the Thebans in the direction of Plataea and Hysiae. So the Plataeans had put themselves under the protection of the Athenians in the aforesaid manner, and now came to help at Marathon.

1 In 519, according to Thucydides (Thuc. 3.68); Grote gives a later date.

2 The twelve gods were Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaestus, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Hermes, Hestia. The βωμὸς was a central altar in the agora, from which distances were reckoned.

109.

The Athenian generals were of divided opinion, some advocating not fighting because they were too few to attack the army of the Medes; others, including Miltiades, advocating fighting. [2] Thus they were at odds, and the inferior plan prevailed. An eleventh man had a vote, chosen by lot to be polemarch1 of Athens, and by ancient custom the Athenians had made his vote of equal weight with the generals. Callimachus of Aphidnae was polemarch at this time. Miltiades approached him and said, [3] “Callimachus, it is now in your hands to enslave Athens or make her free, and thereby leave behind for all posterity a memorial such as not even Harmodius and Aristogeiton left. Now the Athenians have come to their greatest danger since they first came into being, and, if we surrender, it is clear what we will suffer when handed over to Hippias. But if the city prevails, it will take first place among Hellenic cities. [4] I will tell you how this can happen, and how the deciding voice on these matters has devolved upon you. The ten generals are of divided opinion, some urging to attack, others urging not to. [5] If we do not attack now, I expect that great strife will fall upon and shake the spirit of the Athenians, leading them to medize. But if we attack now, before anything unsound corrupts the Athenians, we can win the battle, if the gods are fair. [6] All this concerns and depends on you in this way: if you vote with me, your country will be free and your city the first in Hellas. But if you side with those eager to avoid battle, you will have the opposite to all the good things I enumerated.”

1 One of the nine archons, all chosen by lot.

110.

By saying this Miltiades won over Callimachus. The polemarch’s vote was counted in, and the decision to attack was resolved upon. Thereafter the generals who had voted to fight turned the presidency over to Miltiades as each one’s day came in turn.1 He accepted the office but did not make an attack until it was his own day to preside.

1 Each general seems to have been head commander in turn.

111.

When the presidency came round to him, he arrayed the Athenians for battle, with the polemarch Callimachus commanding the right wing, since it was then the Athenian custom for the polemarch to hold the right wing. He led, and the other tribes were numbered out in succession next to each other.1 The Plataeans were marshalled last, holding the left wing. [2] Ever since that battle, when the Athenians are conducting sacrifices at the festivals every fourth year,2 the Athenian herald prays for good things for the Athenians and Plataeans together. [3] As the Athenians were marshalled at Marathon, it happened that their line of battle was as long as the line of the Medes. The center, where the line was weakest, was only a few ranks deep, but each wing was strong in numbers.

1 There was a fixed official order; but Plutarch’s account of the battle places certain tribes according to a different system. Perhaps the battle-order was determined by lot.

2 e.g. the great Panathenaea, and the festival of Poseidon.

112.

When they had been set in order and the sacrifices were favorable, the Athenians were sent forth and charged the foreigners at a run. The space between the armies was no less than eight stadia. [2] The Persians saw them running to attack and prepared to receive them, thinking the Athenians absolutely crazy, since they saw how few of them there were and that they ran up so fast without either cavalry or archers. [3] So the foreigners imagined, but when the Athenians all together fell upon the foreigners they fought in a way worthy of record. These are the first Hellenes whom we know of to use running against the enemy. They are also the first to endure looking at Median dress and men wearing it, for up until then just hearing the name of the Medes caused the Hellenes to panic.

113.

They fought a long time at Marathon. In the center of the line the foreigners prevailed, where the Persians and Sacae were arrayed. The foreigners prevailed there and broke through in pursuit inland, but on each wing the Athenians and Plataeans prevailed. [2] In victory they let the routed foreigners flee, and brought the wings together to fight those who had broken through the center. The Athenians prevailed, then followed the fleeing Persians and struck them down. When they reached the sea they demanded fire and laid hold of the Persian ships.

114.

In this labor Callimachus the polemarch was slain, a brave man, and of the generals Stesilaus son of Thrasylaus died. Cynegirus1 son of Euphorion fell there, his hand cut off with an ax as he grabbed a ship’s figurehead. Many other famous Athenians also fell there.

1 Brother of the poet Aeschylus.

115.

In this way the Athenians overpowered seven ships. The foreigners pushed off with the rest, picked up the Eretrian slaves from the island where they had left them, and sailed around Sunium hoping to reach the city before the Athenians. There was an accusation at Athens that they devised this by a plan of the Alcmaeonidae, who were said to have arranged to hold up a shield as a signal once the Persians were in their ships.

116.

They sailed around Sunium, but the Athenians marched back to defend the city as fast as their feet could carry them and got there ahead of the foreigners. Coming from the sacred precinct of Heracles in Marathon, they pitched camp in the sacred precinct of Heracles in Cynosarges. The foreigners lay at anchor off Phalerum, the Athenian naval port at that time. After riding anchor there, they sailed their ships back to Asia.

117.

In the battle at Marathon about six thousand four hundred men of the foreigners were killed, and one hundred and ninety-two Athenians; that many fell on each side. [2] The following marvel happened there: an Athenian, Epizelus son of Couphagoras, was fighting as a brave man in the battle when he was deprived of his sight, though struck or hit nowhere on his body, and from that time on he spent the rest of his life in blindness. [3] I have heard that he tells this story about his misfortune: he saw opposing him a tall armed man, whose beard overshadowed his shield, but the phantom passed him by and killed the man next to him. I learned by inquiry that this is the story Epizelus tells.

Some more history on Hippias:

The name and family of the mother of Hippias are unknown.[2] He succeeded Peisistratos as tyrant of Athens in 528/7 BC. His brother Hipparchus, who may have ruled jointly with him, was murdered by Harmodius and Aristogeiton (the tyrannicides) in 514 BC. Hippias executed the tyrannicides and it was said that he became a bitter and cruel ruler, executing a large number of citizens and imposing harsh taxes.[3] Hippias’s cruelty soon created unrest among his subjects. As he began losing control, he sought military support from the Persians. He managed to form an alliance by marrying his daughter, Archedice, to Aiantides, son of Hippoklos, the tyrant of Lampsakos.[4] This relationship with Hippoklos helped facilitate Hippias’ access to Darius’ court at Susa.[5]

The Alcmaeonidae family of Athens, which Peisistratos had exiled in 546 BC, was concerned about Hippias forming alliances with the Persian ruling class, and began planning an invasion to depose him. In 510 BC Cleomenes I of Sparta successfully invaded Athens and trapped Hippias on the Acropolis.[6][7] They also took the Pisistratidae children hostage forcing Hippias to leave Athens in order to have them returned safely.

The Spartans later thought that a free and democratic Athens would be dangerous to Spartan power, and attempted to recall Hippias and re-establish the tyranny. Hippias had fled to Persia, and the Persians threatened to attack Athens if they did not accept Hippias back. Nevertheless, the Athenians preferred to remain democratic despite the danger from Persia.

Soon after this, the Ionian Revolt began. It was put down in 494 BC, but Darius I of Persia was intent on punishing Athens for its role in the revolt. In 490 Hippias, still in the service of the Persians, encouraged Darius to invade Greece and attack Athens; when Darius initiated the campaign, Hippias himself accompanied the Persian fleet and suggested Marathon as the place where the Persian invasion of Attica should begin.[8] According to Herodotus, the night before the Persian fleet reached Attica, Hippias dreamed that he had sexual relations with his own mother, a dream which encouraged him greatly, since he took it as an omen that he would regain possession of his native land. But when he set foot on Greek soil, one of his teeth, which was loose due to his advanced age, fell out on to the beach. Hippias was dismayed, believing that this fulfilled the real meaning of his dream: he would only regain this bite of his native country.[9]

Hippias had five sons, all of whom along with other Peisistratids joined the invading Persian army of Xerxes in 480 BC. Never again would the Peisistratids have influence in Athens.[10]

Hippias is said to have died on the return journey from the Battle of Marathon, at Lemnos.[11]

Hippias was one of several Greek aristocrats who took refuge in the Achaemenid Empire following reversals at home, other famous ones being Themistocles, Demaratos, Gongylos or Alcibiades.[12] In general, those were generously welcomed by the Achaemenid kings, and received land grants to support them, and ruled on various cities of Asia Minor.[12]

Spartathlon Crew Report – 2021

by Jessica Marti

I don’t normally write crew reports, because, let’s face it, I’m a lazy person. But I feel that this experience needs to be written down not only for me to remember, but to possibly help others that may want to attempt this race in the future.

Nathan had applied for this race for the past 3 years and finally got in in 2020! However, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, we were both holding our excitement close to the vest. We were right to do so, as the borders to Greece were still closed in late summer and then finally a few weeks before the race, the officials canceled it. There were a few hardy souls from Europe that decided to do it on their own and deal with a 2 week quarantine, but since they allowed all the runners to defer until 2021, we went with that, hoping that our dreams of being able to go to Greece would happen.

Now it’s 2021, the Pandemic is still ongoing, but now there’s vaccines and Nathan and I got ours as soon as we could. We were all vaccinated and ready to go. There was still a small part of me that was worried it would get canceled again, but in mid May, Greece opened their borders to Americans so we got our tickets and started planning.

We arrived Sept. 18th in the AM, 1 week before the race. We wanted to do all the walking around before the race since as you know, after running over 100 miles, doesn’t always make for easy walking the days after. I have wanted to go to Greece since I was a kid, having been obsessed with mythology as a youngster. Nathan said the only way we would go is if he got into this race. I had told him that I really didn’t care if he finished this race; I was going to enjoy the hell out of this trip no matter what. I would come to regret this statement as the race progressed however…

We stayed in an Airbnb that was just amazing. Less than 10 minute walk to the Parthenon, very quiet, comfortable bed, all the things I wish for. We did a lot of walking- close to 10 miles each day, but it was easy as we enjoyed Athens and all the amazing ruins. It was worth it for the 30 Euro pass to all the sites in Athens. I will say, if you’re able to afford a guide for most of the archaeological sites, do it. The only things the signs talk about are the architecture and don’t really talk about what happened there and what the buildings were used for. I can see from the pictures what it looked like. I want to know the history about how it was used! I digress…

So Wednesday Sept. 22 we got our rental car that we would use for the race. As we were in downtown Athens, we had to try and navigate through the city to get to the highways. We wanted to visit Marathon, so we put it into Google Maps and away we went! The first challenge was navigating our street to pick up our luggage. People park on both sides of the road, and just getting a larger MINI Countryman car down there was a challenge! We found a spot and loaded up. Then navigating the streets even with Google was a challenge! Since the city is so old, there are literally like 3 streets that always intersect and trying to figure out which right turn Google wants you to take was extremely stressful! As neither of us deals well with stressful situations, a lot of yelling and screaming took place until we finally got out of that damn city!

Pro tip- do NOT get a car if you’re staying in Athens. Walking, public transportation, or taxi is the way to go. It’s not worth the stress of driving! Plus the gas prices are equivalent to around $8 a gallon. Anyhow, we made it out of Athens into the countryside, sigh; it felt more like home.

Marathon is a sleepy town just Northeast of Athens. Only 26 miles, it took over an hour to get there due to the above horrible streets and traffic that is a constant in this country. We stopped by the museum first and took a look around. The area had been inhabited from like 3000-5000 BC! Of course, there was a lot of pottery if you’re into that, but a lot of pretty intact statues which was cool to see. It’s a small museum, but had some history of the area, so it was worth it. Then we saw the burial mounds for the dudes that helped the Athenians fight the Persians. We then drove to the area where the battle took place and saw the mound that the Athenians ashes were buried and read more about the battle. It was a good in-depth history of the battle with a topographical map of the area to show what happened. Then on to the Marathon running museum. It was cool to see the different Olympics Marathon races from the beginning and who won and the course. We got to see a video about the runner that ran from Marathon to Athens to tell them of their victory.

We then made it to Glyfada, where we’d be staying before and after the race with Team USA! Nathan always talks about these amazing runners, and I think of them up as superstars, but they’re all just super cool people. We met most of the team and crew at the various meals and felt welcomed into their tribe. Since I hate running, I thought we’d have nothing in common, but all the runners and their crew were so awesome and welcoming, I really felt part of something amazing. Plus crazy people that do ultras are the same kind of crazy people veterinarians are, so we had that going for us! I was the most worried with crewing that I’d get lost in Greece and just freak out and cry for the whole race, but with making connections with the different crews, I felt we were all in this together. I made pretty good friends with M’Lee Jackson. She was in the same boat as I since were were both single crews for our husbands and they ran about the same pace, so I always had someone to commiserate with.

Friday Sept. 24th- race day. We got up early, around 4:00am to get ready to go. I didn’t sleep well of course, which I knew would only hurt me more during this race. We wanted to get to the start line early so we’d get a great parking spot and so Nathan would be able to use the restrooms before the race. We got there plenty early as with no traffic at 5am, it only took 15 minutes instead of 35. Just find the parking lot near the amphitheater and use that location to get there with Google Maps ( XP9F+Q7 Athens, Greece is the google plus code). There’s plenty of parking even if you don’t get there until after 6am.

There were NO bathrooms. The race officials were still setting up the starting area! I mean, in the US, that shit is done at LEAST the day before. There were also no port-a-potties and the restrooms were locked. Eventually, we did find a port-a-potty right next to where our car was parked, but come on, 2 stalls for like over 300 people? And we all know how many times runners need to poop before a race. Just ridiculous. So we made our way to the start and found our teammates. I hung out with M’Lee and we watched our crazy husbands and teammates start this epic race at 7am. Got back to my car and loaded up Google Maps. We did have WiFi near the Acropolis so I used that to get my route. Since the first check point where we could help was #12, I put in #11 Magara into the map before it in case I needed to get gas or supplies. I took the route with the least amount of turns even though it took over 1 hour to get there, the less turns, the better. And hey, I had almost 4 hours before Nathan was scheduled to get there anyways. My goal was just getting out of Athens, then I figured the rest would be a piece of cake. I used the GPS coordinates for all my spots and I have to say, Google never did me wrong then entire race. I was a little worried in a few spots, but I got there all the same.

I didn’t think I’d be able to follow the runners after the start anyways, so taking the tollway was much less stressful. There’s also restrooms and gas stations with plenty of food that are easy to get on/off on the way. I stopped and got some food, ice, and a gross baguette sandwich which I got like 4 times over the course of the race, and a cookie, because, hey, I deserved it! I made it out of Athens! I stopped in Megara at the My Market and stole some WiFi to find out where Nathan was and check my social media and e-mail. Then I went to #12 to wait.

Being a crew affords me plenty of time to read, which I love. I can take naps, read my books, then jump out, help Nathan, then on to the next stop. This race, however, didn’t afford much of this. Only the first 2 check points had any appreciable down time. The first stop is just over Marathon distance and the second is around 50 miles, after that, we’re stopping every 10 miles or so. We had a total of 16 check points where we could help. You could stop at all of them, but could only assist at 16 of the 75. I found M’Lee and we hung out. It was around 9:00 am at this time, and the sun was getting HOT. I swear it felt like 10 degrees cooler in the shade in Greece. So I changed into shorts. We all wore our American Spartathlon tech shirts during the race, and needed to wear lanyards identifying us as crew. It felt pretty special to have a shirt like our racers; I felt like I was also part of this amazing team. We watched as the runners started coming in cheering for them as they came into the check point. Then our guys came in.

The main thing Nathan needed during this race was an ice bandanna. I practiced while I was waiting and was able to get it on him, fill his bottle, take his trash, give him more gels, and he was on his way. Then it was on to #22, Hellas Can Factory. I followed Google and there was a detour with a cop and barricade. There were always cops at intersections where the race course was and it was very helpful to know where to go. Apparently, the road was washed out. I followed a few cars with the Spartathlon crew car stickers on it, but they pulled over where Google told me to turn. I listened to my Google guy and turned left. It took me through a very busy area with oil refineries and workers. I was a little concerned as no one followed me. But I got to where I needed- Corinth. I stopped just past the canal and turned into a strip mall like area so I could check it out. It’s such a narrow strip of dug out earth, I don’t know how container ships fit! The water was a beautiful aqua blue and was SUPER deep. I didn’t want to drop my phone, so I took 1 picture and had a death grip on it, then got out of there. It wasn’t as awesome without Nathan to appreciate it. I went to the restaurant where I parked and sat down. Took forever for someone to take my order and the club sandwich was subpar.

I drove to #22 to wait. I parked on the side of the road across from the check point. It was a little sketchy as there were times where 2 semi’s were driving past and I was worried I’d get side swiped, but they’re all pros there and no damage occurred. At this point, I found more crew and hung out with them. Jurgen, Elaine, Rachel, and Dave were all super cool people and we talked as we waited. We found out that Amy and Steve had timed out and they were waiting for the bus to bring them. It was a huge bummer that we were now 2 runners down. Nathan showed up and good thing I cart around all his stuff in a carry-on suitcase, because he had blisters and needed a shoe and sock change. He was going to cut the toe box, and wanted ME to do it! Um, no way dude, I don’t need to do it wrong and have you yell at me. So I recommended he just change his shoes. I got out his trail shoes and gators, cut off the timing chip, and put it on the other laces with zip ties and he was on his way. This was the longest time he spent in a check point, but I got him up and on his way. At the next stop, he’d give me the gators as he was too hot with them. At this check point, they had “meals” which I say in quotes, because it was literally a small bowl of spaghetti and cheese. There was literally no protein at like any of the check points, no yogurt like they said they’d have, nothing. I took one for Nathan for later, and I did eat some of it. The crew can eat at some of the check points that’s laid out in the race book. I didn’t want to take food for the runners, so it was rare that I partook.

It was on to Ancient Corinth. This is the first spot I thought Google had done me wrong. I was initially following the runners, but at an intersection, I couldn’t see anyone anymore. So I went right were Google told me. He led me under the highway 3 times, then onto a narrow road. I was getting worried that it was leading me to my death. But alas, Google got me to where I needed. There were times where Google was like “turn left” and I was like, “dude, the map clearly shows me turning right. So I’m following the map dumb ass”.

Ancient Corinth was so cute. There was a huge area of ruins I really wanted to explore, but I only had like 1 hour until Nathan was due, and knew that wouldn’t be enough time. The town was super small with the check point being down a small cobblestone street in the square. We had to drive through there to get out and on to the next check point, and it felt like I was driving on a sidewalk. I got some ice cream after Nathan went through. He was doing great and keeping up with his time on the fast side so far. I didn’t give him a head lamp at this time, and as I drove past him, he gave me crap about it. But I knew he’d make it to the next check point with plenty of daylight. Besides, he said he didn’t need it unless it was after 6pm… I’m just listening to your notes!

The next check point was in another town square. Google wanted me to go down a one way the wrong way, so I just went the correct way and parked. It was a few blocks walk, and I could’ve tried to get closer, but it was fine.

I will say, that all the parts of Greece that I drove through, I never felt unsafe. Even in Athens, I never felt like we’d get attacked, robbed, or be in danger of any kind. I still locked everything and hid my purse, but I didn’t have to worry about breaking out my Krav Maga skills at anytime. It seemed that all the Grecians were very supportive of this race and many times, the entire town seemed to come out to support us. Even in the middle of the night, there were locals milling about, cheering, and the kids were up at all hours cheering on the runners.

I stopped at one of the small groceries to get another gross sandwich (ok, they’re no that bad, but I could’ve used more mayo). I never felt like I had enough time to actually go to a restaurant. Since I’m always paranoid I’ll miss him, I didn’t want to take the chance. However, most of the places we ate in Greece were really quick serve as most of the meat is already made and just needs to be put together. If you’re not paranoid like me, you’d definitely have time to eat a real meal.

On to #32. This one was at night of course and we’re getting into the mountains. I recommend parking either before or after the check point. There’s not a lot of roads in this town. Luckily, I found a spot just past the check point on a hill. This is where it started to get chilly, so I changed into my long sleeve t-shirt, jeans, and Altras again. There was some soup here I stole for myself after Nathan went through, and it wasn’t so hot like it is at most races. He had some soup as well at this time. His time was still good and he took some time to sit and eat some real food. His stomach wasn’t feeling the best, and I think the soup maybe helped some. He wasn’t wanting much water at this point, but I didn’t push it since I didn’t want him barfing later.

Ancient Nemea. This is in a flatter area after some twists and turns. I could follow the runners at this point and could finally see the arrows on the road. I still put in my coordinates into Google, but it was nice to have another point to follow along the way. We were now in a small town and check point was in the courtyard of a small church. I parked before the check point (the check point is just after a right turn) but I parked where the other cars were parked. There were a lot of tween boys riding their bikes, doing tricks and checking people out with flashlights. It bothered me a little that they’d get in the way of the runners, but they were pretty respectful I guess. Hooligans. It was here that Amy and Steve came to support the other runners. They had gone to Sparta and checked in but decided they wanted to support the other Americans and it was great getting to know them and their crews. They were super supportive of me and Nathan during the remainder of the race and had offered many times to drive with me. Since it was getting late, I wanted to try and sleep if possible, and didn’t want someone I felt I had to stay awake and chat with, so I declined. I wasn’t getting sleepy driving, it was when I was waiting. Since there’s so little time between, it’s very hard on a single crew person during this race. Unlike Superior where I usually have a good 1.5 hour nap around 1am, there was really no time to nap at this race.

I’ll take time at this point to tell you that the port-a-potties are disgusting at this race. They are in enough places for you to use, however, there’s usually urine and sometimes feces on the seat and floor, almost never any TP around (Pro Tip- bring your own TP!). I didn’t care that much, as when you have to go, you go, so I just wiped off the seat each time and perched as I’m no good at hovering. TMI, I know. Even the check points at restaurants were gross as the runners and crew just destroyed them by the time we got there. So you may want to dig deep if you’re grossed out by this if you’re crewing and just suck it up, or get used to peeing on the side of the road like our runners!

After this stop the next 2 stops, Malandreni and Lyrkia have very narrow roads and can be pretty sketchy to park along the side. There’s a bunch of locals that will be up in Lyrkia. I followed the race course through here mostly as it was easier than listening to Google.

After Lyrkia, you’re getting close to the mountain. Putting in the coordinates for the mountain base is NOT advised. It will have you go all the way around the mountain. I put in the coordinates for the 2 stops before that we can’t assist at and that helped. I did get a little turned around at #45 as the runners went right and I went left where the brown Spartathlon sign was. I wound up down a very narrow road and then Google told me to take a very steep gravel road down. Um, no thank you. There was another car on the narrow area that I think was in the same predicament, so I followed them when they turned around, went back down where I came up, and was miraculously back on the way where the arrows were lighting my path! I continued to follow it under the highway and up the mountain. There’s a check point about half way up from the mountain base check point, so I knew I was on the right way. I loved watching all the headlamps light my way up the mountain. I’m somewhat happy I was driving this at night as I’m terrified of drop offs and there’s of course no guard rails. Why would there be?? There were cars parked on both sides of the road. Since I’ve lucked out each and every time at the check points with great spots, I tried my luck again. Success! After turning around at the barricade, a person pulled out and I was like 4th car from the barricade facing down the mountain! At this point, I could’ve napped. I wish I would’ve napped. I was worried that Nathan would be along within an hour, but it took him about 30-45 minutes longer at this point since it was such a steep uphill. I kept forgetting that he was nearly 100 miles in and this wasn’t just a hiking excursion where he can bomb uphill at 4 miles an hour. At this point, it was around 3am I think when I got there. I spent time with Chris’s crew member at the check point. I waited over 1 hour in the wind. I had put on my coat along with Nathan’s as he had a hood. It wasn’t cold per se, but the wind made it colder. Wish I would’ve brought my hat, but it was fine, if you’re from Minnesota and are used to windy and 55 degrees. Nathan took his cold gear at this time. Since he revels in the cold, he didn’t put it on, but I gave him his poncho and arm sleeves. He put them on later, just to remove them. I’m unsure how much he used them. I think he was so hot hiking up the mountain that they were unnecessary for him. Most runners were wearing longer sleeved shirts, hats, and some had coats on. The main thing for Nathan at this point was he was so darn tired. He said he felt fine, he just couldn’t stay awake. If the cutoffs weren’t so crazy, he could’ve just slept for like 20 minutes and been golden, but he was starting to lose time at this point and couldn’t make any mistakes. He started taking caffeine regularly at this point. I as well had been slamming the Pepsi Zero I had with me a few hours ago. Rachel had continued to offer me energy drinks, but they always make me feel like my heart is going to explode, so I declined.

After the mountain, you drive back down and get on the highway. There’s a cop where you’re not supposed to go, so even if you’re tired, you’ll find your way. You will have to pay the toll despite others saying that if you’re with the race, they’ll let you through free. Since it was close to sunrise, I didn’t stop at the way station as it looked closed and just continued to Nestani. Take the exit for this town and you’ll be back tracking. There’s a cop blocking the wrong way, and you’ll be going against the runners at this time. This is in front of a restaurant. I parked and realized I had over an hour. Time for a nap! I put on my sleep mask, put the sound machine app on the phone, and was out in a few minutes. Only to be woken up by some dude talking on his phone outside my car. I mean, come on! I was parked next to a truck that had obviously been there for months. You couldn’t go elsewhere?! I at least got a good 20 minutes of rest and was looking forward to the sunrise to help restart my Circadian rhythm and keep me going.

At this check point, they had gross, bland meatballs for the crew and runners. I had one because it’d been so long since I had a good amount of protein. Nathan came in just before sunrise and was still keeping to his estimated times, although getting closer to the higher end. Still plenty of time. Since the sun would be up soon and today was looking to be a bit hotter than Friday, I lubed him up with SPF 50 while he took off his gators and ate some food. I took all his warm stuff from him and head lamp, and gave him back his hat and neck protector thing and he was on his way.

After this check point, since I was so tired, I was looking at his chart with his times and check points instead of my notes I wrote out. Mistake. Before the race, they’d changed what check points crew could help at. It went from 16 down to 11. Just 2 days before the race, they decided to go back to the original 16 check points, so of course, no time to reprint and laminate the sheet. And why wouldn’t you just change stuff a few days before? I had some major beef with the way this race was set up. They never give you a confirmation that they received your payment or documents, so make sure you bring a copy of all your health stuff you need. There was supposed to be a wave start, but I assume they needed to say all these things to the government so the race would be allowed. There was also widespread cheating going on. Around this time I saw a crew member in a car driving along side a runner that gave them a new shirt. I also saw someone grab water from an unaided station and bring it to a runner on the road. I mean, I don’t really care, but if there are rules, they should be followed, otherwise, why have them?

But I digress. Lets just say I went to the wrong check point. I got to #60 and was like, “man, I have like 2 hours here! I can totally sleep!”. Then for some reason, that didn’t sit right, and I checked it again. Damn! I forgot about #57! I followed Google that lead me back on the race path going against the runners. There are a few sections of road where it’s like 1 lane and guard rails. I don’t know why there are guard rails here as it’s flat farm land, but I think I maybe scraped the car on a rail as another car was going by the opposite direction. I got to #57 with enough time thank God and was able to help Nathan. Then I went back to #60 and took a nap since I just couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. I passed out for a good 30 minutes until my alarm went off. At this time, it was getting close to 10:30am and I changed back into my shorts again. This is where Nathan started chasing the cutoff times and shit started to get real. There was just over 8 hours left of this race and about 32 miles left. I got another baguette sandwich and some cookies just past the check point at a small bakery. No caffeine pop, however, I had to stop at the next check point at the BP for 2 cans of Pepsi Max to keep me going.

At this point, the race continues on a highway. Not a huge highway, but still very busy and I was pretty concerned about the racers as the remainder of the race is on somewhat busy roads. These racers are tired. They’re weaving all over, it’s hot, and cars are whizzing past. Most of them are super supportive honking their encouragement and with enough of us crew going slowly, hopefully helped out some.

The next stop was a restaurant on the left side of the road with a very large parking lot where I parked. Some people parked on the highway, but the restaurant had WiFi I stole to update my e-mail and check on where Nathan was at. The trackers were really amazing at this race. They showed where he was in real time and if you hit the number, told you when he passed the last check point and ETA of when he’d get to the others. It was pretty close actually. It helped me time when to get out there to him. I did use some data here and there and M’Lee was gracious enough to let me use her phone as a hot-spot since she had gotten unlimited data for this trip. I took a nap here. Pro tip- steal the pillow from the airplane. It worked perfect to sleep on in the car. I slept a good 20 minutes here and it was getting HOT. It was now around 1pm. The only downside of parking in the lot is there’s a wall separating the parking lot from the road. You have to jump the wall with all your stuff to get to the pagoda where the check point is. It was fine as the wall was only just over waist height for me, but if you’re short or unable to jump up, you may want to park on the road instead.

Nathan was getting pretty hot and dehydrated at this time and was starting to get in about 15 min before the check point cut off. I was starting to get anxious that he may not make it. I knew he had had it in him and it was only like marathon distance left, he could do that in his sleep! Got his ice bandanna for him and water and he was gone!

I didn’t bother to get more ice on the second day. I had a soft sided cooler we bought in Glyfada and had some ice left over for the second day. All the check points have ice anyways, so it’s not truly necessary to have ice with you. But it was nice to keep my beverages cool.

The next stop was down in a valley where there was no cell reception and I was starting to get nervous. Where was Nathan? Would he time out? Then I saw him! With 15 minutes left, he was coming down the hill. I got his ice bandanna ready, filled his water, and he was off!

At this point in the race, I’m tired, emotional, and I feel like I was just as part of this race as Nathan was. I can’t really describe how emotional this race is for a crew member. I don’t know if it was because I was on my own and sleep deprived, but I knew that Nathan needed me and my support and love more than anything at this stage in the race. He was also tired, sore, hot, and painful. Knowing that you have that much to do with how well your runner is doing is eye opening. I decided from this point on that I was going to all the remaining check points just to cheer him on and be there for him if he unfortunately had to drop due to time. I wasn’t going to let that happen. I didn’t stay awake for almost 40 hours crewing for him to time out! We were making it to that damn statue if it was the last thing we did!

At #69 he was looking painful. I kept my hands to myself as I couldn’t help him. The bus started showing up from here on out to collect the runners that timed out. We were all cheering for all the runners at this point. Everyone wants everyone to finish this race! There’s no winners and losers, just warriors that finish or not. After Nathan went through, I lost it and started to cry. I wanted him to finish so badly and knew that he’d be devastated if he timed out. I had Ellie help me pray for him to stick with it and finish. Only about 12 miles left!

I was able to help him again at #72, a gas station going down the hill into Sparta. Amy and her crew helped as she was helping Will who was about 10 minutes ahead of Nathan at this point. We had about 10 minutes to spare. I got him some salt tabs as he was hyponatremic at this point and still dehydrated, threw his ice bandanna at Rachel and he was out in less than 15 seconds! This portion is all downhill for the last 12-15 miles or so. I thought he had this in the bag as Nathan excels at downhills. Not true in this race! He was hurting and downhill was a slow go. He was also worried about all the cars zipping past that he’d get hit.

The last check point I stopped at was #73. He told me to just meet him at the finish as he was still about 10-15 min before the cut offs, so he thought he’d be good. I elected to go find the hotel as I knew there wouldn’t be any parking at the finish line and our hotel was just 2-3 blocks away. I found it and got a pretty good parking at the Apollon hotel. I got all 3 of our large bags into the lobby with help from a friendly Latvian runner. This hotel has a lot to be desired. The locks are straight up old school keys from the Victorian era and I couldn’t figure out how to unlock the damn door! The front desk lady helped me, but of course didn’t give me any pointers. I unloaded the bags, used the restroom and followed the music and loudspeaker to the finish line!

The finish line is simply amazing. It’s about 3 blocks before the end where there’s barricades keeping back the town people that are all there in droves cheering with music! This is like the Olympics to them I think! I walked down to try and find some American teammates as Nathan was the last American to finish. I found 2 of the Brits crewing and chatted with them for awhile. Their last runners were just ahead of Nathan by 5-10 minutes so we waited together.

It was awe inspiring to watch the runners run in with their respective country’s flags draped over them and their loved ones running to the finish with them. Then I saw my amazing warrior husband and Old Glory over his shoulders. He was fist bumping the kids on his way to the finish. I joined him at the last runway area and was able to run with him. I recorded him running to me, then of course messed it up somehow and didn’t record the running into the statue. He climbed the stairs, and kissed Leonidas’s foot. We hugged and cried that we did it!

He was immediately given an olive wreath on his head and a large medal and finisher shirt. Got a picture taken with some race officials and guided off to sit and take off his shoes. It was in a bombed out building to the side. He was waiting forever. No one seemed to care however. So we waited and waited. Finally, after about 20 minutes, I stole some slippers and a blanket and we started our long shuffle to the hotel as Nathan was shivering violently from cold and shock. The hotel at least had aircon and heat so I cranked up the heat while he took a lukewarm shower in the smallest shower stall known to man. We got changed and made our way to dinner where we chatted with some American teammates about the race and congratulated all the other finishers along the way. It was such as team atmosphere with all the countries. All of us feeling fulfilled that we finished this crazy hard race.

I felt like I accomplished something amazing with crewing this race. I know I was just the crew, but this race really tests your tenacity and emotional strength to finish this race with your runner. I’ve never felt so connected to so many other people; all of us trying to accomplish the same goal- finishing Spartathalon! I’m so blessed that I was able to do this race, and I’m so glad that I went back on my initial smart assed comment that I didn’t care if he finished. I was as invested in this race as Nathan was. It feels like I made life long connections with these other runners and crew members. We all went through this crazy experience and made it out the other side. I will never forget this experience and will be forever thankful for being able to help my husband accomplish this amazing goal.

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

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

Judge John Hodgman

This podcast is in the Comedy genre. In it John Hodgman acts as a judge to settle disputes between friends, family, etc. The topics are pretty mundane but so are the usual arguments people have. He does a pretty good job of making it enjoyable to listen to but for me it’s just too slow. I stopped after 8 episodes over different seasons.

Rating: 3

Soft Voice

This is a pretty good podcast. The premise is a woman that has had a voice in her head that’s directed her life since the age of 4 and then suddenly the voice is gone. Things start spiraling pretty quickly. It got good again towards the end of the season. I don’t know if there will be another season or not. While there is room for more episodes, it totally stands on it’s own with the ending it has. It very much seemed like a movie to me while listening to it. I don’t want to give too much away so I’ll leave it there. I’d recommend it.

Rating: 4

Science of Ultra

This is absolutely the best podcast about ultrarunning if you want to learn something and not just be entertained. It’s hosted by a Physiologist that is also an ultrarunner. The early stuff is all great with tons of information all based on research. To hear the researchers themselves is great and he does a great job interviewing them to get the answers needed to make the research findings useful to ultrarunners. The last couple years weren’t as informative. The episodes with the trainers were pretty boring, repetitive, and not that useful. He also gets more political the last few years as well. Most recently it’s been back to more useful information again. No commercial which is great. Give him some money if you enjoy them like I have.

Rating: 5

Children Of The Stones

Another BBC podcast. The accents are a little bit harder to understand at times than the other stuff I’ve listened to from the BBC. Probably not an issue if I didn’t listen to them at 2X speed. It’s set up as a girls science podcast for the most part. It goes back and forth from “real life” to her recorded podcast. Her dad gets a job to examine these stones in this rural town and so they have to move there. The townspeople all act very happy…too happy. I enjoyed this quite a bit. At times things were confusing because there were too many different people talking and lots of stuff happening at once. This would be an awesome movie or mini-series where you could get the visual effects they try to describe in the podcast. In fact, it was a mini-series in the 70’s but I wouldn’t watch it even if I could find it since the effects would be atrocious in the 70’s.

Rating: 4

Archive 81

I’m really torn on this one on how to rate it. There are currently 3 seasons with some extra episodes thrown in throughout as well. Some of the extra ones are great and some are just interviews that drag on forever. All 3 seasons are related but also very different. The first season is about a guy who gets a job digitizing old tapes out in the woods in what I believe is an old asylum. It’s really good. Somewhat predictable but also just enough surprises. It’s set up that it’s found footage kind of deal. The creators and their family do most of the voices. The second season takes place after the first as far as time goes. Beyond that, it is very different and very weird. You keep thinking it will somehow tie back to the first season but it doesn’t for the most part. I was fairly disappointed with the second season. The third season was again very different from the first 2. It was very good though. It ties to the second season several times which is the only reason I’d recommend listening to that season. Very much a science fiction / magic kind of podcast. It’s now on Netflix but I don’t plan to watch it.

Rating: 4

Science Vs

So this is a podcast that tries to be impartial and give answers to different controversies and topics. They do a pretty good job it seems. The nice thing is that they post their citations on how they got their information. I have to say that they do get things somethings wrong though. There are a couple topics that I know a great deal more than they do and they did a mediocre job at best. It wasn’t that they were totally wrong, it’s that they failed to ask the right questions in the first place. They fail to ask the researchers and scientists what questions about the topic they should be asking and just go whichever way they want to. I certainly learn things from this podcast but I wouldn’t consider any of the answers they give to be the final truth. They themselves know they don’t have all the answers. Listen skeptically, but because of the citations, you can be assured they are trying to get to the truth at least.

Rating: 3

The Adam and Dr. Drew Show

It’s kind of like the old Love Line show they did on the radio when I was in college. There are much less callers now though and it’s more a discussion of recent events. It’s informative at times, and usually entertaining. Lots of commercials. If you liked Love Line, Adam Corolla, or Dr. Drew, you’ll like the podcast. Probably best to just start listening to the current show. I don’t see how you could ever catch up on the old episodes.

Rating: 4

Ronstadt

This is a pretty fun podcast I’d put in the Sci-Fi / Mystery category but I laughed quite a bit as well. Ronstadt is a 911 operator but he is only allowed to answer the calls that are about strange and weird things. It goes from there in interesting ways. I’m looking forward to more seasons of this one for sure.

Rating: 5

Forest 404

This is a BBC podcast with the same commercials over and over again. That was annoying but more so because the story itself was quite interesting and the commercials were so distracting from the story. It’s a one season story which I always enjoy as they can’t ruin it with a crappy second season. It’s set in the future with a woman who’s job is to listen to audio files of the past and determine if they should be kept or destroyed. I won’t tell much more since it will spoil things. Overall, I liked it but it’s not perfect either.

Rating: 4

The Grift

This podcast is about grifters surprise surprise. Each episode is a stand alone show so some are better than others. They aren’t making them anymore so I think there are only around 10 of them.

Rating: 3

Bad Vibes

This is also a podcast with stand alone episodes. It’s in the horror genre but they aren’t that scary or creepy. Some are good and some are kinda boring. I guess the closest thing I can compare it to is Twilight Zone episodes, creepy in an interesting ways.

Rating: 3.5

In Our Time

Nerdist Podcast

You’re Dead To Me

Ten Junk Miles

How Did This Get Made?

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape

The Dr. Drew Podcast

The Ultra Stories Podcast

Ultrarunning History

Lore

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.

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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