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.

One thought on “Brown County Circumferential Run – 2020 Report

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