Ronda dels Cims – 2019 Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gothic Quarter
Basically everywhere we went had this much graffiti.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View from near the refugi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nice and twisty!

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

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

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

The Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bib eater.

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

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

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

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

View from Bretxa d’Arcalis looking South.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the best view I saw!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had just done what I had never done before.

I quit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sant Marti Church in Cortinada

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

Now I had cardboard for the fire.

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

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

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

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

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

Now I had sticks.

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

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

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

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

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

Sant Joan de Caselles Church in Canillo

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

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

Now I had dry, split pine.

Parking lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FANS 12 Hour Race – 2019 Chaperone Report

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

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

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

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

Before the race.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting his feet up and taking a break.

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

Yummy Subway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Ultrarunner!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zion 100k – 2019 Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

About half-way from Scout Landing to the top.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Road from Goosebump to Grafton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View from Grafton Mesa. Pretty sure looking West.

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

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

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

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

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

Slick-rock?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Near the turnaround spot.

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

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

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

Looking South from the turnaround area.

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

At least we went around this rock formation.

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

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

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

I hadn’t really thought about what to expect in this section once I got down the big hill. I was thinking it would be fairly flat since it was off the mesa. Well not really. The trail was a double track that went along the North foothills of the Gooseberry Mesa I was just on a short time ago. This meant constantly going up and over hills to get to the next drainage off the mesa. Sometimes we’d follow the muddy creek beds up a ways, crossing the water multiple times before finally leaving that drainage just to go down another one. This played out for quite a while. It wasn’t really all that bad but just wasn’t that fun with tired legs.

Well, it was pretty bad in one way at least. Remember when I was in that hot box from hell earlier in the race and didn’t apply lube appropriately? Now things were getting chaffed fairly good. Since it was so dry, all my sweat just dried in place. It never soaked to the outside of my clothes like usual. This meant all the salt was still on my skin. I always have Vaniply with and I just had to apply that every hour or so to keep it at bay.

The Gooseberry Mesa turnaround area is the high area in the top center of the picture.

I saw a few pacers running the other direction. I’m assuming they were going to meet their runners somewhere up on Gooseberry since crew weren’t allowed there. They made the trail look easy. I was running out of water when finally the trail left the foothill area and got on a more flat area. I knew the aid station couldn’t be too far away. I got there at 5:34PM still about 20 minutes off pace. This aid station is where the 100 milers split to a different course from the 100k runners. I think there were a fair amount of 100 mile runners that called it quits here. I told my wife I was expecting to get to the finish line later than expected as I didn’t think I would make up any time.

Soon after I left the aid station I saw a race worker sprinting down the trail yelling at the guy behind me that he was going the wrong way. He must’ve been a 100 miler but he told the worker that he knew it was the 100k course and that he switched races. I didn’t know that was a possibility but it’s not that unusual to be allowed.

There was about 10 miles left in the race and it was generally flat to downhill. The course was on bike trails once again. The trail itself was nice and easy. There were a few small hills here and there while going over small drainage areas. The next aid station was only 2 miles away called Virgin Dam. I didn’t see a dam anywhere. It was a fairly well stocked station and had helpful volunteers but I didn’t need anything this late in the race and had plenty of water.

I’d pass a few people here and there and get passed by an equal number of people as well. I saw quite a few people with pacers which seemed a little odd since it’s such a short race and we’d be done before dark. In fact, that’s one of the perks my wife and I were looking forward to in this race. We’ve never been done with enough time to go back to the room, take a shower, and go out to eat in the same day I started a race. We were planning on going to a BBQ place in Hurricane that closed at 9PM. Yes, you read that correctly; They close at 9PM on a Saturday, come on Utah!

Since I was behind pace, I was expecting to finish around 7:50 so we’d be cutting it close unless we left right away from the finish line. While this race is called 100k, it was advertised longer at 63.5 miles which isn’t unusual for a trail race.

All the signs at the aid stations, including the Virgin Dam station agreed with my watch for distance. The trail got close to the Virgin River but never really got to it until the end of the trail and a water only aid station called Sheep Bridge. It was supposed to still be 4.1 miles to the finish line from there so I filled up with some water and again wet my head to keep cool. The course was now on a somewhat busy dirt road that went toward the highway into town. It crossed the river and I was mostly walking up the road. Since I still had almost another hour left, I was saving some energy for the last push.

Turns out I should’ve been running the whole time. Once I got on the highway, I could see the town just ahead. Even now, I kept telling myself the turnoff for the finish line must be at the other of town or something since this is nowhere near 4 miles. Nope, I was letting people pass me for nothing as just a mile or so down the highway was the turnoff for the finish line. I was happy but also kind of pissed I hadn’t tried harder the last couple miles. There was no way to cut this part of the course so I know I was on the right path, plus there were lots of runners around me. I finished at 7:15PM, ahead of my original goal time and a good half hour sooner than I was expecting at Virgin Desert.

My placing in the race kind of depends I guess. On the official site I’m listed as 51st, even though I was the 50th person to cross the finish line. They have the official results listed by chip time which I’ve never seen in an ultramarathon before. DUV has me listed as 50th since I was the 50th to cross. Whatever, out of 331 starters it was about where I expected to finish.

I got my medal and was just turning to head to the parking lot area since I was so early. I saw my wife just walking into the park. She was just as surprised as I was to see me so early. I laid down for a bit and then used my food ticket to get some nachos since we had so much extra time now.

We did indeed have plenty of time to eat nachos while talking to a couple other finishers, take a shower, and go to the restaurant. We were in bed by 10PM! Weird.

The next day I got up somewhat early since I can never sleep that well after a race. I went to get my drop bag that we of course forgot to get the night before. Then I picked up my wife and we went to the other valley in the Northwest part of Zion National Park and did a shorter hike to some overlook that wasn’t worth the effort. The valley itself would be cool but not in the morning. The sun was in our eyes trying to see the mountains. Afternoon would be much better. Our plane left that afternoon and soon we were home.

Elevation profile and distance based on my gpx file in GPSvisualizer.

Runners only section: Not much else to say here other than the 5500 feet of elevation gain is way off. It was based on a watch measurement, and my watch actually agreed pretty close with that. Mine came in at 5700 I think but I did also do that extra hill in the beginning. My watch only records a elevation change if it’s over 5 meters and I’m assuming the race watch did as well. If you change the threshold to 1 meter to include all those little hills (mostly on Gooseberry Mesa) in the race, you end up with 7992 feet. I’m guessing it’s somewhat less than that but much more accurate to how the course “runs”. It’s fairly technical with plenty of rocks to trip you or slip under your feet.

I know a fair amount of people quit the 100 mile race in the night so I’m guessing those extra Mesas they run are fairly difficult.

If they continue with this course, expect that last section from the bridge to be shorter than advertised, otherwise everything was pretty spot on.

Follow the white dots or get lost.

Hurricane is quite close to Virgin, we stayed on the very Eastern edge of Hurricane and it only took 10 minutes to get to the start line.

It’s about as easy as a race can get for a crew. Very little driving and lots of time for naps.

Pretty much full sun exposure the entire race so if it’s sunny, use some protection of some kind.

I would definitely recommend this race just because of the beauty of the place. If you’ve had your fill of Southern Utah for some reason, then maybe not. I could see myself someday going back for the full 100 miler, not for a while though.

Race results here.

Lost in the Woods – 2019 Race Report

The 3rd rendition of the Lost in the Woods race took place April 27th in and around 7 mile creek park near St. Peter, MN.  Last years event was cancelled due to poor trail conditions.  I was worried this years’ might be cancelled as well since we had an April blizzard this year as well and the river was again flooded.  The forecast called for rain and snow, but whether it was cancelled or not I was going because I needed to get in some miles and hills for training if nothing else.  I received a confirmation email that the race was indeed still on a full 6 hours before the race was to begin. 🙂

This is the second time I ran the race although the course is changed every year.  This year was a 2 loop course with an extra aid station thrown in.  Basically you run up and down a bunch of hills off trail, tearing out pages of books similar to the Barkley Marathons, but much tamer.

Looks like a 3 year old just scribbled on a piece of paper and called it a map!

I got to the start line only about 30 minutes early this year which was basically enough time to get ready although I didn’t really read the whole directions sheet very closely since I was too busy talking and trying to figure out what I wanted to wear and bring with in my pack. It was already raining and about 38 degrees. It was going to get colder, windier and start to snow by 10AM as far as the forecast was concerned. I brought my poles with since I knew it would get muddy and these hills are steep!

Pre-Race Photo

We started off at 7AM on our clockwise loop if it could be called that. Pretty much a goofy figure 8ish type loop with an out and back in one part. Just look at the picture above and try to figure it out I guess. Since it just started to rain not long ago things weren’t very muddy in the beginning. I didn’t use my poles at all the first loop although there were areas they may have helped. In less than a mile I was sweating since I had too much clothing on. I stopped at a pavilion and changed out my thermal shirt for a regular long sleeve shirt.

Now I was way behind everyone which isn’t a big deal but it makes it easier to follow people so that they are the ones who have to figure out where to go. Eventually I caught up to a few of them at book 1 and was with them all the way to the first aid station. The downside of following people is of course following them the wrong way. We went right past book 6 and had to go back up and over a hill to get it. Ugh, there are enough hills already.

Aid station 1 was in the same place as last year. The short loop from there, which is basically just going down and up a hill for no reason other than to add a hill, was much more enjoyable this year. I’m not sure why but I think it was because there is landscaping which makes it more like steps up and down which made it much easier than the mud we were going on/sliding down everywhere else.

Now I was getting in front of the pack since I could actually bomb down that area and I didn’t stop long at the aid station either. It seemed like I had gone a long ways already but there was still around 9 miles left just on loop 1. I enjoyed the flattish trail running until it was time to go off trail once again for basically the remainder of the loop.

There were 15 books to find and 1 punch location where you punched the pages you had so far. These are the book titles I have from my pages: These Thousand Hills, Vertical Run, Impossible, Terminal Event, Personal Injuries, The Blooding, Breaking Point, Dead Run, Definitely Dead, Dead as a Doornail, Cause of Death, Death Qualified, Come to Grief. A couple didn’t have the titles on every page so I don’t know what the remaining ones are.

There was a point before the second aid station that was a new area for me. I’ve been to the park many times and always wondered what was at the bottom of the overlook area. It always looked way too steep to go down plus I figured it was private property. Well the map said to go down it so away I went. It is very steep! At the bottom was a creek. In fact with the rain, the bottom of every hill was basically a creek. The water was ice cold! The other water crossings weren’t near as cold as this one. On top of this the course, which was laid out with flags, crossed the creek multiple times. I think by the fourth time I was fully expecting there to be a sign that said “now lay down in the water for 10 seconds so you can freeze the rest of your body too”. Finally we went up the other side and a slightly less steep incline as going down. There was a beautiful path with lights strung up above it. I’m sure it’s beautiful in the winter.

The aid station was in a tent in a yard. I was the first one there! I haven’t really ever been in the front during a race. I ate some more candy bars and potato chips were just blowing my mind so I ate a bunch of those too. I had lost a water bottle somewhere after the first aid station but since it was so cold, just having 1 was enough for now. I left and then we went along some roads and through a plowed field. It was colder now and snowing mixed with the rain. The wind picked up as well. I finally stopped sweating. If you’ve never ran through a muddy field in the mid-west, just imagine tying bricks to the bottom of your shoes and that’s the kind of weight you experience with the mud stuck to them. I was definitely feeling tired now. Still 5 more books to go. After the next 3 books we went down to the main park area again.

Since the main creek in the park had flooded earlier, there was about 6 inches of new dirt laid down all over the grass and bridge in the East area. We had to cross this area which was interesting. If you ran fast you wouldn’t sink all the way into the new mud. I wish I had a picture of that area. It was kind of comical really. Tough Mudder would be jealous they don’t have an area of that size with mud.

There was an out and back which was new as well. With the constant rain, it was really getting muddy now and I knew I’d need the poles for the second loop. With the out and back I could see there was just 1 person close to me. This area as well as a few others had tons of wildflowers growing which made it enjoyable. I finally got back to the start/finish with the first loop in I think 4:12. I turned in my pages and got my new number to know which pages to tear out on the second loop.

The second loop was in reverse order which is good and bad. It makes it slightly harder since you could miss a book easier. It also allows you the opportunity to see where everyone else is. While I wasn’t planning on trying hard during this race because I just did the Zion 100k 2 weeks ago, I kind of had to try to win since I’ve never been in the lead before. I passed almost everyone by the first book so they weren’t far behind as far as distance goes. It would all depend on how much time they stayed at the aid station and whether they continued on the 2nd loop at all.

I don’t really have any pictures of the course since it was raining the whole time and I was pretty full of mud so I didn’t want to take my phone out. Unlike the race 2 years ago, the park was pretty much devoid of people not in the race so no one else took photos of us either. The plus side of no people is that no one messed with the books this year.

After I passed the last person I would only see someone at the aid stations. The mud made it go slow. My poles helped but when they sink in 5 inches they almost made it worse. I was hoping to get done in 9 hours total but that was getting doubtful since I had to walk down everything. Since everything was backwards, the 2nd aid station was now 1st. I wasn’t looking forward to the steepest climb of the course which was the part going up the overlook hill after the multitude of creek crossings. The water was still cold! I slowly made my way up and was glad I was the first to do it as it would only get worse with more people going over the same place.

I tried to keep the pace up but it wasn’t going to happen with the mud. I had to get my map out a few times since I kept convincing myself I missed a turn somewhere even though I never did. I think the course flags might’ve been placed while going clockwise with not as much thought about going the other way. Often a flag would be hiding behind a tree when going the counter-clockwise direction. I was going slow enough though that I wasn’t too worried about going past one without knowing it.

I found my water bottle just before getting to the last aid station. It fell out while I was ducking under a downed tree I suspect. When I finally got to the last aid station the race director was there and asked how it was going. I think I grunted and he responded “going well then!” He assured me it was all “downhill” from there. While there weren’t many hills left, the hills on the south side of the park seem to have more clay in them so they are much worse when it’s wet.

I wasn’t sure where anyone else was but knew there were 7 of us still on the course. I remembered it would be about 2 miles to the finish from the last book in this counter-clockwise direction. This was a fairly easy 2 miles. I was starting to get excited that I would finish first. With some irony, I got a text from my wife wondering if I was ever coming home. She was expecting me to be done a couple hours ago. I joked that apparently winning wasn’t fast enough. To be fair I was hoping to be done in 8 hours without knowing anything about the course.

I walked up the last big hill to the finish line and rang the bell to signify my finish. I turned in my pages and sat down. It had just stopped raining minutes earlier, so I can’t say it rained the entire race. I thanked them for a great course and ate the famous finish line chili.

The finish bell. The finishers names are engraved below it every year.
This was to make my friend Ed jealous since he didn’t show up this year.

Results

1.       Nathan Marti                     9:03

2.       Bryan Whitesel                 9:55

3.       Tyler Struss                         10:18

4.       Katie Looft                          10:19

5.       AJ Groebner                      10:19

6.       Paul Grimm                        10:19

7.       Jim Weart                            10:20

DNF

Josh Winkler

Lisa Bos

Gregg Lind

The course itself was around 14 miles a loop. I ended up doing 28.3 miles with the extra due to missing book 6 initially. The total gain only came out to about 7000 feet. It certainly seemed like more than that. I suspect it was due to the steepness of the hills this year. The last time I did it, there was more elevation but it also wasn’t muddy. That really wears on all the accessory muscles. I only biffed it twice but that was helped by the poles I’m sure. The good thing with the rain was I got to test out my rain coat in a race and it performed fine. The course always changes so we’ll see what next year brings. Maybe 3 loops of the same course. That’d be tough to finish in the time allotted.

A few hills would you say?

Arrowhead 135 Race Report – 2019

This was my third time starting and finishing the Arrowhead 135 (2017, 2018).  I had some lofty goals that needed to be changed based on the weather but I stuck it out and finished.  Really, I’ve never seen the trail in such a perfect condition.  It was smooth and hard packed the entire way except for a few snow drifts in the swamps at the end.  The wind was at our backs most of the time so that’s good.  My sled and gear only weighed 40 pounds this year at the start so that was much better than last year.

And yet, only 13/64 (20.3% finisher rate) foot division competitors finished this year.  The reason of course was the weather.  It was one of the coldest years and maybe the most consistently cold year.  Air temps have been colder at the race before and it was more than -40 both the day before and after the race (we lucked out?).  I think the main thing was that it just never warmed up.  It was relentlessly cold and it got worse as the race went on.  Colder and windier!  Even half the bikers quit and you couldn’t have had better trail conditions for them, plus it didn’t get really cold until some of them were done already.  No skiers and no kick sled guys finished.  It was a tough year all around.  I was more surprised how many people actually showed up to begin with.  It was pretty clear a week before, that it would be especially cold this year.

My goal for this year was to go for speed.  This did get changed once it got cold, but I still went ahead with that plan in the beginning to get as far as I could while the temperatures were still reasonable to limit the time I’d have to be out there in the severe cold.  I built a new sled for this year but ended up using my old one after a training run on Sunday morning (-44F) showed the new one wasn’t better in the cold on a hard trail and since it weighed more, I used the old one.  Neither sled gave much “run” due to the low temps.  Things don’t slide on snow and ice well at all once it gets so cold.  Also the surface snow consistency makes a big difference.  It pretty much felt like pulling through dry flour but not quite as bad as sand.  All I heard the entire first day was how hard the sleds were pulling so I wasn’t the only one.  Hills that during my first year at Arrowhead (20F) I could slide down with ease, I couldn’t even move an inch this year.

I’ll now go back to more specifics and a timeline format.  I drove up Saturday as usual and picked up my friend Ed at Fortune Bay where he left his car.  He’d bring me back to my car at the end like last year.  We went straight to gear check-in and got through quickly since we both have done this a few times and had everything laid out in a minute for exam.  A graduate student was doing a nutrition study so I grabbed a questionnaire for that as well as my bib and goody bag.  We then checked into our hotel, ate, etc.  I also did some final packing of my gear bag, drop bag, filled out the nutrition survey, and checked the weather forecast a lot!

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This years goodie bag. There’s a bunch of safety stuff too about how to not kill yourself, etc.

The next day I got the car started at -44F, barely, and went on a trial run with my 2 sleds as I stated earlier.  I ran near the Gateway checkpoint so I got gas there and checked out the store layout since I couldn’t go in there last year.  The lady explained where things would be tomorrow on race day which was helpful.  I then went back and turned in my drop bags for Mel George’s and the finish line.

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Everywhere was a fog cloud at -44 Sunday morning.

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Gateway store.

At 4pm was the mandatory meeting and supper.  I met a couple more people I knew there.  After supper I went back to the hotel room for serious packing, putting on my KT face tape, laid out my clothes after final weather forecast check, and Facetime with family.

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There were I think 3 film crews this year. I don’t know why.

The morning of the race I got up just before 5AM.  Probably wouldn’t need to be up that soon but that’s when I woke up.  I used the coffee maker in the room to heat up my 2L water.  I weighed my sled, gear, water, food, etc and it was 39#.

It was supposed to be -20F at the start but it ended up being only -12F.  I took off another jacket and got out colder gloves as well.  I had already planned on being cold on purpose since I overheated last year.  I wore cast stockings on my shoes but that was too much and took them off after 10 miles.  Otherwise I had on medium weight Injinji socks, Altra Olympus shoes, 2 pair of pants, 2 shirts, my breathable hooded jacket, fleece hat, and warmer fleece gloves.  I was only outside about 2 minutes before the bikers started.  Before that I just stayed in my car and took a couple pictures.

The race started on Monday Jan 28th, 2019 at 7:00 AM with the usual fireworks! https://www.facebook.com/140879779273203/videos/322266671727966/

We left on foot at 7:04AM.  https://www.facebook.com/140879779273203/videos/2176261242591187/

I had my clothes pretty much dialed in other than I didn’t need the cast socks.  I also quickly changed my fleece hat for a buff.  The groomer had been out about half an hour before the race started so everything was packed down nice and smooth.  I was kind of close to a few people for an hour and then it was more spread out where I’d only see them as we leapfrogged while stopped for water, food, or whatever.

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Sunrise the first day.

It was much easier to run this year due to the sled being so much lighter.  It still pulled harder than in training due to the cold and snow conditions but it didn’t grind me down to walking right after the turn onto the Arrowhead trail like last year.  This year I ran on and off all the way to Gateway.  Of course there are people that walk just as fast as my run/walk so it’s not like I was cruising along quickly either.

The trail was so hard and packed that it even has a camber on it similar to a road.  I had to occasionally room on the other side of the trail to keep my accessory muscles happy.  That’s the first time I’ve experienced that in a winter race!

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45 minutes into the race.

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I made it to Hwy 53 in 4 hours this year.

One thing that was kind of weird this year was that it always seemed to be snowing.  While it really only snowed for part of the first afternoon, there were always crystals the size of snowflakes falling down.  It’s normal when it’s this cold to have frost particles in the air but this time they were just so much larger than I was used to.  I’d have to brush layers of the stuff off my duffle bag every time I stopped.  The warmest it got during the first day was just below zero.  I was hoping to use my deep freezer thermometer but it kept giving me high readings.  I checked it before I left and when I came back with a calibrated digital thermometer and it read accurate.  My best guess was that since it was a spring coil type thermometer, that the constant twisting of it back and forth made enough heat to make it read wrong.  The things was shaking everywhere while I was moving.  When I’d stop for 10 minutes or more, it would show accurate to what volunteers had at check points but once I started off again it would read 5 degrees hotter.

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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt

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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt

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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt

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Somewhere near Gateway. Credit: Burgess Eberhardt

I was eating fairly well the beginning of the race this year.  Some things from last year tasted bad this year.  Some new things were awesome this year.  I knew it would be hard to eat later on in the cold so I tried to maintain some food intake as long as I could.  Again the faster I could go now, the less miles to cover in the cold later.

Finally I got to Gateway at 3:45PM, ahead of last year since I could run so much more.  Originally I had planned on only 20 minutes here but I took more time since it was already clear that the weather forecasts were getting worse not better for the next 2 days.  Basically it meant changing socks and drying out my shoes some due to wearing the cast socks when I didn’t need to in the beginning in the race.  I wanted a cheeseburger but they only had a hamburger that ended up being red in the middle.  I heard there were chicken tenders at one point which would’ve been good too.  Really there are tons of great options there but I’m partial to cheeseburgers.  I reloaded on hot water and left at 4:15PM.

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I always like wondering about this place on the way to Gateway.

It started getting dark soon after Gateway.  There was a biker still near me that I was leapfrogging with.  It was kind of fun since his headlamp must’ve been at least 400 lumens and lit the trail up pretty good.  This makes for awesome shadows.  I pretended to be a giant monster roaming through the trees.  My shadow was at least 50 feet long.  I do this sometimes with the kids at home on the side of the house.

Speaking of lumens, I thought I’d tell what I use.  I have a black diamond sprinter headlamp.  It maxes out at 125 lumens I think.  That’s enough to see down the hill when you’re sliding. Otherwise I turn it down to probably 40-50 lumens the rest of the race.  It’s got a nice feature that you just touch the side and it goes to max power and then when you touch it again, it returns to where you had it.  Very convenient for the hills.  Last year with the full moon I didn’t even need that much light.

I put on my headphones now but had to keep the iPod in my glove so the battery wouldn’t die.  I don’t understand how some rechargeable lithium batteries like my headlamp can last in -30F for 2 nights and yet an iPod dies in 15 minutes in -10F.  It got to about -15F by 11PM and continued to slowly drop from there until 9AM the next day when it was about -26F.  I put my second jacket on at some point after Gateway and a skull cap and fleece hat over that when I got the headlamp out.

The cold valley from last year wasn’t as bad since it was windy this year and the cold air didn’t settle in there very well.   It was -31F with the windchill slightly coming from behind versus the -35F last year.  I still should’ve put my googles and face cover on though.  My hands, feet, and body felt warm and toasty but my nose was getting cold without me knowing it.  I should’ve felt it with my fingers to confirm the temp instead of just thinking it felt warm.  Anyway once I put on my face cover, my nose felt hot so I knew I was later than I should’ve been.  Veteran making a rookie mistake!  I have always done a mental check at least every hour to see how things are going.  Most of the time it’s much more often, especially in a cold year like this.  I’ll obviously be adding a physical touching of the nose to confirm temp from now on.

This is the point in the race that the mental challenge really begins.  It’s cold, you’re tired, I hadn’t seen anyone for at least 6 hours.  I had only seen snowmobiles once from the race up to this point.  The race course itself doesn’t even get hard until after the half way point and since I’ve been on it twice before, I knew well what suckyness was coming.  I was able to check my phone again and saw the forecast for Wednesday morning was even worse, now showing -38F at sunrise.  Plus a windchill of “doesn’t matter at this point anymore, keep everything covered dumbass!”  The high for Tuesday was supposed to be -18F (it never got that hot by the way) which wasn’t great either.  I really had to wonder if I wanted to go all the way to Surly checkpoint at 111 miles just to have to quit because I didn’t think I could make the last 23 miles through the swamps in the cold.  I thought about this for hours and never really came to any decision.

I really didn’t know if people were quitting the race or not.  I never saw any snowmobiles filled with dropped competitors pass by me like I did last year.  I had no clue how many people were in front of me either.  The snow was so hard, it was difficult to make footprints or for the sleds to make tracks to count how many in front of you.  I found out later, people were dropping quickly behind me and a couple in front.

Going across Elephant Lake for the mile going into the wind to Mel George’s sucked as always.  The windchill was -39F at this point if you believe the official of 9mph wind.  It certainly felt faster than that on the lake but at least it wasn’t that bad in the trees.  I showed a biker where to go once I got to land.  There weren’t as many markings at this turn as in previous years.  In fact most years there was a volunteer there to point the way.  With the temp this year, it was understandable for no one to be there.  I checked in to the second checkpoint at Mel George’s at 3:15AM which was later than I had hoped.  I just always seem to think this section will take less time than it does.  I’m also convinced it’s 73 miles and not 72 miles to the checkpoint which accounts for some of that.

I had never used the check-in cabin before so I certainly wasted some time here that I could fix in later years.  I ate about 1000 calories of food and tried to organize my clothes and such that I knew I’d change into after sleeping.  I charged my watch and headlamp up to make sure they’d make it through the cold to come.  I eventually made my way up to the loft to sleep.  All the beds were taken.  Somehow there were 8 competitors in the cabin but I only counted like 4 bikes.  Anyway it was hot enough to not need a blanket or anything.  I put in my earbuds and listened to white noise.  I was tired enough to drown out the talking and snoring with the white noise and slept for a total of about 50 minutes.  It wasn’t great sleep since I was constantly woken up but it’s all I was going to get and certainly better than trying to bivy up in the cold and wasting time with that.

I got up, checked the weather which was about the same and decided to keep going without really thinking about it very much.  I had more layers than last year with me.  It took me way too long to get out the door.  I had my stuff spread out over too many areas.  It was so hot in the cabin that I couldn’t really change into my clothes until I was in the breezeway.  I went back and forth a bunch of times getting stuff ready and packed and loaded.  I did finally leave at 5:45AM.  2.5 hours and not even an hour of sleep.  What a waste.  Plus my shoes were still by the door and I never got them in a place where they could dry out.  I had on 3 pair of pants now, including my windpants.  I had 3 shirts on and 2 or 3 jackets (I know by nightfall I had 3 on but I’m not sure when I put that one on).  Face mask, goggles, skull hat and fleece hat.  I now had on wool Injinji socks and also upgraded to mittens from gloves.

It was slowly still getting colder and windier.  The big hills after Mel George’s kept me warm and were steep enough to slide down.  I had poles with me this year for the first time.  They were a big help on the hills.  Not that I made it up them much faster, but I could keep my feet straight instead of pushing off the sides of my feet which prevented me from getting the hip pain I’ve gotten every other year.  By sunrise it was -26F and a 13mph wind.  That’s -50F windchill although I was protected from most of that wind by the trees and often going with the wind.

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Elbow Lake shelter.

This was a pretty lonely section.  No snowmobiles at all during the day except one at dusk.  I heard one bird and saw a small dead mouse.  Otherwise no wildlife at all.  The sun stayed out longer than it was supposed to which was nice.  It was rare that I wasn’t in a shadow though so it didn’t warm me up much.  I never bothered with the iPod (too cold) although it would’ve been nice to listen to some podcasts or something.  I pretty much just went into cruise mode and tried to eat and maintain speed.  The sled pulled so hard that I couldn’t run the sections I ran last year even though my sled was lighter and I had some sleep.  I had to breath in through my mouth and out my nose all the rest of the race to make sure I didn’t make my nose cold again.  It was annoying but I eventually got used to it.

I didn’t see things in the trees like last year.  I only thought there was something there twice and I knew right away I was wrong.  I made a game of guessing what it was in reality before I got there.  It guessed wrong both times.  It was always a tree that was horizontal with snow on it.  One time I thought I saw an orange streak go past.  In fact I did, it was a photographer walking behind a sign that I saw after a small bend in the trail.  I don’t know where that picture is.

Around mile 96 when I was taking a break, John Storkamp and Ray Sanchez caught up to me.  I thought Ray had left before I went to sleep at Mel George since he was packing up stuff as I went up to the loft but he hadn’t.  We were kind of together for 10 miles or so when I could no longer see John.  I absolutely hate the section after 99 miles.  Just non-stop STEEP climbs for 5 miles.  Ray and I pretty much went in together to Surly.  If not for my nose, I could’ve gone faster after those hills but there really wasn’t much point anymore.  I had given up on time long ago due to the cold.

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Going down the hill into the flats before Surly. Photo Credit: David Jess

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Going down the hill into the flats before Surly. Photo Credit: David Jess

There is a nice downhill to the flats before Surly checkpoint after you turn South East.  I couldn’t even tell there was an incline this year.  I knew were I was but I kept thinking it couldn’t be right since it didn’t seem at all like I was going down.  It’s even steep enough to slide down if it’s 20F.  I was pretty bummed when I realized we were down to the bottom land and indeed the downhill was rendered ineffective due to the cold.  The wind was behind me now for the rest of the race.  In the picture above you can see the cloud around my face.  It was hard to see since the headlamp would light it up no matter where you pointed it or how bright it was.  You couldn’t hold your breath long enough for it to dissipate either.  There was just a constant steam cloud in front of you.  It also started to fog up my goggles and they were useless by Surly.

We got in to Surly at 7:10PM which was much later than I wanted but again, time wasn’t of concern anymore, safety was.  I ended up staying an hour which didn’t seem that long.  I ate some food since I hadn’t had anything for a long time.  I dried my shoes over the stove in the teepee and changed socks one more time just in case.  The trail at Surly was like a wind tunnel.  Taking your glove off for a couple seconds made them cold.  I brought in most of my clothes to the teepee to figure out what to put on and what to put in my most accessible areas of my pack (what I call the on deck area) for easy access.  I knew there was essentially zero places out of the wind a few miles past Wakemup Hill so things had to be done now if possible.  I also put on the cast socks again in case it got down to -40F.  It wasn’t supposed to anymore but it’s just easier to put on now.  In the end I wouldn’t have needed them on.  I also put on the cold avenger mask I bought this year.  I had never used it before and wasn’t real keen on not being able to eat and drink with it on but with the cold and wind, it was a better protector than the other face mask I was using.  I put on a fourth jacket as well.  I hoped I wouldn’t get too hot since this is the jacket that likes to freeze shut and can’t be taken off easy.  I put thin running gloves on under my mittens so that I never had to have skin exposed to do more finer detail oriented things like drink or eat or pee.

They shot off some fireworks when people left which was kind of cool.  Of course I forgot something so mine went off before I actually left for good.  I felt great after the rest and ran pretty much the whole way to Wakemup Hill to get the blood flowing and since I felt good.  I couldn’t wear the goggles anymore since they just fogged up like crazy with the cold avenger.  My eyes were cold which made me somewhat cold but there wasn’t much to do about it until I figured something out later on.  The other thing the cold avenger does is put all the moisture directly at your neck.  All my zippers were frozen in ice in minutes.  Good thing I wasn’t planning on taking them off until the end of the race.

I was tired but not as bad as last year.  I was taking caffeine pills to help stay awake.  Really I mostly was just bored.  I knew it would be about 8 hours to finish this section and after the fun Wakemup Hill there is still 7 hours left of boredom going slowly uphill.  I tried to sing songs that I made up but even after a 10 minute long made up rhyming song, you still had hours left. There were no people at any of the road crossings.  The other years there was a car at almost every road crossing.  Really the entire race there were very few road crossings with people.

I’d get too hot if I ran, but slightly cold just walking.  I figured out it was because the back of my pants all breath and the strong wind behind me were going through them.  Also I didn’t have a wind proof hood or goggles anymore so my head was slightly cold.  I decided to take the time to put on my snowpants.  These are super warm and I had them basically in case I had to just stand still or bivy.  But they’re windproof as well.  I put them on and my legs were immediately hot.  My head was still cool so I took an empty zip lock bag and tore one edge to make it into a 3 sided hat.  I put it under my hood and headlamp and it worked great.  Within minutes I was overheated and had to slow way down.  Like 30 minute mile slow which was just dumb.  I decided to just take off the snowpants and deal with the wind.  It took a while to cool down but eventually I could walk fast again and had more normal breathing.

Sometimes I’d even have to take the zip lock bag off as well to keep cooler.  I’m thinking a thin wind pant and a poncho instead of the 4th jacket would’ve been better.  Plus not having to need the cold avenger mask.  With about 4 hours left to go I ended up taking the cold avenger mask somewhat off, just keeping it close enough to my face to help warm the air.  The other downfall was all the snot I was consuming.  The mask somehow made it all run or blow into my mouth.  The last hour of the race it was a struggle not to barf from the taste of the snot and having a belly full of it.

I ate some food thinking it would help, I felt this bump on my tongue start forming right after I ate it.  I think I froze part of my tongue with the -26F food.  Won’t be doing that again.

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See the white spot on my tongue?

Anyway it was still getting colder.  The wind seemed to die down for a bit but then really took off again more from the West instead of the NW.  The official wind speed at Tower was not close to what the trail condition was for wind in my opinion.  I was keeping warm enough and could always put back on the snow pants and wrap myself in the sleeping pad on top if I needed to.  Really I had to thermoregulate somewhat like last year by taking on and off my mittens (still had the thin gloves on) and hats.

I so wanted to be done.  I would look back every once and a while looking for Ray since I knew he would be right behind me.  Turns out he made a wrong turn somewhere and went 4 miles off course so he was no where near me.  I was miles from anyone in either direction.  I slowly started counting down the miles.  It was hard to see the trail through the swamps with the snow drifts blowing over it and the giant fog cloud in front of me.  I just looked down and followed the couple tire tracks I could see.  For hours!  I ran occasionally just to change things up.  I got out my poles again just to have something for my arms to do.

I thought I saw a UFO.  There was this light moving all around crazy in the sky.  Turns out I just was moving my head around in the wind and from being tired the fog messed with my perception of what was stationary and what wasn’t.

Finally I got to the last road crossing.  There was still more to go but at least my mind would be occupied with the multiple turns and twists to the finish line.  Up to now it was just miles of straight lines with an occasional 10 foot jog in the trail.  The hill to the finish line was easier with my poles.  I was surprised that I didn’t have to go into the tent at the finish line to find someone.  They somehow saw me coming or else they are really hardy to stand in a -54F wind chill waiting for hours at a time.  I finished at 3:54AM for a time of 44:50 and 5th place.  That was very similar to last year which wasn’t too bad.  It was -33F air temp.  We went in right away.  I would’ve liked a photo at the finish line but I couldn’t get my phone up from my chest very easy with the cold avenger having frozen everything.  They gave me the Minnesota nice gear check which was the first time I got that one.

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Bag works pretty good doesn’t it? Photo Credit: Paul Wilken

I went up to the deserted hospitality lounge.  Well, it was deserted other than the volunteers.  Volunteers are awesome at this race!  So few people were around since so many quit the day before and already went home.  I got some food and talked about the sucky last section.  I got to pick from a large selection of finisher trophies since not many bikers finished this year.  This is where I learned about Ray getting lost and my friend Ed dropping.  The next person to come in was almost 4 hours after me so I think they probably got a nap in after I left the room.  I was able to check in to my hotel room which is so nice.  I love the Fortune Bay Resort.  I paid them back by eating every buffet they had until I left Thursday.

I showered, slept for an hour, got up and ate and slept again.  The usual.  I posted pictures of everything I was wearing when I finished the race.  Here they are.

Here are the screen shots of the official NWS sites during the race along the trail.  Trail conditions certainly vary from this some.  I wish it would record the actual wind chills as well but you just have to calculate that yourself.  Overall a very cold year!  Maybe next year will be a huge snow year.

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Since people have been asking, and you made it all the way to the end so you probably actually care; here is the elevation profile and mileage chart I made based on the full gps track I made during the race.

Arrowhead mileage chart

Big’s Backyard Ultra 2018 Race Report

This is an event where failure and success are very fluid.  There is only 1 winner (sometimes no one wins) and everyone else is a DNF (did not finish).  There is no set end to the race, it’s all up to the competitors.

Why run a race with no chance of winning or even finishing really?

The answer is different for everyone I guess.  To some just a couple loops are a success. To others, 48 hours is a failure on at least some level.  This race has a way of making you contemplate many things.  The runner contemplates the reasons they run it – before, during, and after.  The crew contemplates their runner’s needs, mental and physical state.  The thousands of observers who follow the race online, staying up for hours to see just a once per hour update; they contemplate our sanity, how they’d stack up, the human spirit.

On such a basic level this is just a footrace like any other.  It’s a 4 1/6 mile long course on trail during the day and paved road by night.  You put one foot in front of the other just like any other race, perpetual forward motion.  Then it gets a bit wonky, as some of the foreign runners would say.  This loop must be run within 1 hour and the next lap started exactly 1 hour from the previous loops start.  The faster you run the loop, the longer you have to rest but the more energy you expended.  The other key difference is that it’s a last man standing format, meaning that the last person to finish a loop on their own wins the event.  This means every other person must have quit before there is a winner.  And ultrarunners don’t like to quit.

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I’ve known about this race since it’s beginning and even could’ve gotten in years ago off the waitlist but it was only a couple weeks before the race so I turned it down.  This year I applied again and was accepted right away.  There really isn’t much to prepare for this race different from other ultramarathons.  I usually have a fast turn around in aid stations and you just need to think through things before you get there.  It would’ve been nice to have a crew but I didn’t realize just how helpful one would be until the race started but I’ll get to that later.

I drove to this event since there was a lot of stuff to bring and I had no idea how long I’d be there.  I was trying not to get sick from my loving children the entire week before the race.  I went to bed 2 hours early every night, etc.  Sure enough though my nose was running by Wednesday and on the drive there Thursday my lymph nodes in my neck were swollen and I was just sore everywhere.  I hoped doing basically nothing that day and Friday would help speed recovery.

My legs were still somewhat off from Barkley Fall Classic which I was surprised by really.  Honestly though there have been very few races I started where I felt everything was 100% normal.  The races are held when they’re held, not when you’re ready for them.  Now you need to sign up almost a year in advance for most big races, so really you’re just betting on yourself to stay healthy when you sign up.

I arrived at the race site Friday which is the race director Laz’s property.  I would’ve been able to set up my stuff in the “contender” area since I was planning on over 24 loops but I had a 4×4 foot shower tent and that was too big for that area so I set up behind the flagged off area.  Also it wasn’t allowed since it had a rain cover and you couldn’t have tarps or coverings in that area.  It wasn’t that much further away, probably 20 seconds added to each lap total.  Plus even though I’d go over 24 hours, I had no chance to beat the people who did set up right next to the starting corral.  Everyone knew the 10 or so people that would still be going 36+ hours into this and let them be close.

We could walk the course that day as well.  Here are the pictures of the course I took.  These are in order of how the course goes but not all areas are represented.

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Big rocks right away to go up and down.

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All these leaves were trampled into slippery mud after the first loop.

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Isn’t it just easier to draw a smiley face than write it?

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Never saw this tree again during the race.

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Cave. Maybe saw it 5 times during the race.

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My favorite part of the course.  Like a giant molar.

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I guess Laz didn’t care about the French speaking runners.

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I called this run through rock.

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A bunch of curves right after run through rock.

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Osage orange or otherwise called a hedge apple. I haven’t seen these since I was a kid. My grandma used to say they kept insects away but I can’t remember where she would put them.

I left whatever I didn’t need at the hotel in my tent and took off to get supper and go to bed.  I stayed in Murfreesboro which is pretty close.  I taped my feet even though I knew it would be a little wet in the beginning of the race.  I’d never have time to tape them during the race and I didn’t want to have to make time to reapply lubricant every 12 hours during the race.  I decided on starting with my Altra Timps for the early wetness and mud.

The race starts at 6:40AM so I got to the parking area around 6.  Then there is the half mile hike to the starting area.  I haven’t taken an Imodium before a race for a while now but I did take 1 before the race just to make sure I didn’t time out in one of the first loops.  I wore my GPS watch even though I didn’t really need to keep pace.  Like most everyone else I just picked landmarks and what time it took to get there.  There were 70 of us that started the race.  Laz stated rules that we couldn’t hear because people kept on talking and then he painted a line around us which was now the starting corral.  I’m pretty sure we started a minute late so I’m not sure if we just started every hour after that late as well or not.  Since there were so many people, it took a good 10 seconds to even get to the start line.

You go on about a 0.42 mile road loop to spread people out a little bit.  There is a cone in the ditch you need to go around.  That got real old.  There was a do not trespass sign we all had to stomp over to get to the cone as well.  It’s all downhill to the cone and then back up a fairly steep hill to the start.  Towards the end of the day everyone walked this hill but most people ran up it the first hour.  Then you get to the actual single track trail and start the conga line for the next 3 miles.  It seemed everyone enjoyed walking downhill and running uphill.  Very frustrating for me.  I didn’t even see any of the landmarks I planned on using the first loop because all I saw were feet and butts.  Therefore the landmarks I did use were quite few and things I couldn’t possibly miss.  They were: End of rock wall 14ish minutes, split tree (1.5miles) 22ish minutes, walk-through rock 33ish minutes, end of loop 38ish minutes, rock wall 45ish minutes, finish 54 minutes.

My favorite portion of the trail was the section of walk-through rock which was immediately followed by the rocks you had to slalom through, and then the downhill prairie section.  I usually passed people on the prairie section to get out of the conga line.

John Price
Photo Credit: John Price

John Price 2
Photo Credit: John Price

I won’t go over how many were out every hour but 1 didn’t make the first hour and 1 didn’t the second hour.  Most of the initial day loops had drama every hour with someone either just making it in time or just coming up short.

It rained on and off the first few hours and the course got nice and muddy.  Joe Fejes fell down the first hour since he had road shoes on but never after that I don’t think.  The mud didn’t bother me too much although it does strain different muscles.  Really it was the constant conga lines down hill that drove me nuts.  Finally on the 4th hour I lined up towards the front and took off from the get go to get in front of most everyone by the time I hit the trail.  Oh what sweet joy it was to finally be able to have a normal stride length and to run downhill and walk uphill.  I certainly was using more energy than I’d like but I decided it was worth it to have extra time back at camp.  I had originally planned on changing shoes the next hour but thought it foolish to have 2 fast loops so I decided to change into dry socks and shoes that would last the rest of the race.  That loop took 49 minutes which ended up being plenty of time to do what I needed plus have some time to check my phone and take photos.

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The view from my tent.

So a couple funny things happened during those early loops.  On loop 4 there was a guy a couple people in front of me that slipped, which isn’t the funny part.  Just as he was about to land on the ground he farted and shot right back up.  Perfect timing!  The other thing which is probably a had to be there kind of thing was around the 6th loop a man asked Courtney (Dauwalter) if she changed clothes.  She answered with a confused “No”, which was immediately answered back from the man with “Well, I can see your knees now, you must’ve just hiked up your shorts.”  Everyone within earshot laughed pretty hard at that.  I probably have the exact words a little off but you get the gist.  Courtney is famous for not only being an awesome runner, but that she only wears long basketball shorts while running.  Like I said, you probably had to be there.

Eventually the group thinned out and I found the 56 minutes area to be less crowded where I wasn’t constantly on someone’s heels.  I had long discussions with Joe and Kelley Fejes, my favorite running couple.  They were keeping pace really well so it was nice to kind of let my mind leave the race and just have fun.  I even caught them holding hands during the race.  By this time my legs were getting kind of sore already.  My calves were getting tight.  Something with the constant slow uphills plus the mud just made my calves work harder than you’d think.  Thinking back on the race reports I’ve read, it seems like Achilles pain is one of the main reasons for people quitting, which would go along with tight calves.  Anyway, I didn’t ever have time to stretch stuff out so I just had to deal with it.  This is where having a crew would help.  It would save at least 2 minutes every loop with a crew which doesn’t seem like much but that’s 30 extra seconds a mile I could take, and that’s not nothing.

I was soaked from rain all morning and then soaked from sweat all afternoon.  It never got that hot really but it still affected me towards the end of the day.  That and I tend to slow down around 25 miles so loop 7 and 8 were kind of hard.  Chaffing was starting to set in as well due to all the salt.  I had to wash up and reapply lube often during the day.  I was eating and staying hydrated but I never got as hungry as I wished I would.  The course had 494 feet of elevation gain per loop which with the technical nature of the trail made it somewhat challenging.  By the end of the day I was having issues maintaining pace.  The last daytime loop was dark so you need a headlamp.  I finished that loop officially in 57:43 but I though it was over 58 minutes.  Either way I didn’t even go to the tent.  I just tried to catch my breath and was so happy that the night loop would be starting.

Day loop elevation profie
Day loop elevation profile

The night time loop is much easier.  MUCH easier!  If you’ve followed the race, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “If you make it to the night loop, you’ll make it to the morning.”  While not everyone who started the night loops made it to morning, that is still a very true statement.  It’s not flat by any means (165 feet) but it’s flatter and not at all technical so you can kind of relax a bit more.  That is as long as you don’t get scared of the screams and chainsaws you hear from the haunted hayride you pass by every loop.

I finished the first loop in 53 minutes and felt so much better.  It had cooled off a lot already and I was loving it.  The second night loop felt even better and I finished in 51 minutes without really trying to go fast.  Of course the leaders were still done 8 minutes before me.  It took awhile to figure out where exactly I would walk and where I would run.  There were half mile markers painted on the road which was really nice to help gauge your progress as there wasn’t much else along the road.  1 bridge, a couple turns, and 1 house.  The rest was just fields or trees.  The next day I drove the course and I was surprised how some areas I thought were flat where actually sloped one way or the other.

Night loop elevation profile
Night loop elevation profile. Isn’t it nice how you have to run uphill on the way back?

We got to hear cheers from what some of us called “doomleaders” since they weren’t really cheerleaders.  Here’s a clip from the start of I think loop 17.  I’m in the white t-shirt towards the back of the pack.  It was finally getting nice and cool.  The loop before this one the wind picked up a lot from the North.  By the time we got to the haunted hayride around 10pm it was shut down, I assume from the cold since it seemed pretty early to close on a Saturday night.  I think I finally put a long sleeve t-shirt on around loop 21.  I wore my gloves and buff into the wind and took them off on the way back as I’d get too hot.  Most others had on down puffy jackets.  Of course we had had 2 inches of snow at home just 6 days earlier so I was used to this weather already.

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There was a meteor shower that night.  Well certainly not a shower as I only saw 2, which is pretty much what you can always see on any given night.  The difference is that these were the nice long ones that explode at the end and give off some decent light.  Bits of Halley’s Comet ending their long journey for our enjoyment.  I suppose I would’ve saw dozens had I been able to just lay down and look straight up at Orion.

Throughout the night I was towards the end of the group.  Maybe 5 or so people behind me the first few loops.  Then 4, 3, 2 as people started to drop.  A few times I started to think I was the last one as few people used their headlamps with the bright moon.  I’d usually catch up to Marcy Beard just at the end of the loop.  Towards the end of the night, I’d see a few people that usually finished in front of me start to be running with me.  While I enjoyed the mostly silent company, it was a sign they were hurting and would soon be out.  I’m sure the people in camp noticed the decaying loop times as well but to see it out there first hand was interesting.  I had no clue what to say to them about their situation to help them.  Yes, despite this being a race, everyone wants the other runners to do well.  It’s odd really and I think has more to do with the fact that almost everyone there was a veteran of the sport and can empathize with anything someone might be going through.  Sure the competitor in me was glad there were people dropping, but for some reason I always wanted the person right there with me to succeed.  If I never saw the person all day, I didn’t care if they were out.

Really there is little to no gamesmanship until the end of the race and that’s just for the elites and I think mostly just for show to the spectators.  Having been out there now, it’s much easier to know how your opponent is truly doing if you are running together.  You can hear their breathing, cadence, foot placement, etc.  You can mask and fake those things at the end of the loop for the crowd and they’re none the wiser.  To look at all the comments on Facebook about how people looked when they came in at the end of the loop and making predictions based on that is kind of comical to me now.  About the only thing an outsider can look at is decaying finishing times and even that doesn’t necessarily show anything.  There are highs and lows in ultras and this race just makes them more obvious to an outsider.

Most of the night was silent for me.  I put headphones on and listened to music for the first time all day.  I actually got really hungry one loop and ate a fair amount but it did nothing to give me more energy even hours later.  I put on a thermal shirt on loop 23 in case I got hurt or something and had to walk back.  That was a bad idea looking back.  I got way to warm and sleepy.  I found myself sleepwalking and weaving all over the road.  I finished that loop in 57 minutes which is bad for the road.  Joe and Courtney convinced me to continue which was nice.  I decided I needed to just run faster and get colder to stay awake.  I took off my buff and gloves and I quickly changed my iPod to my 177 bpm playlist to quicken my pace and took off right off the line.  The other reason I was slowing was I was getting pretty sore in the quads and hips.  I ended up kind of straight-legging down the hills which I knew in the end wasn’t good for my body but I just wanted to go a bit further.  It worked and I finished in 55 minutes.  Enough time to change back into a t-shirt and get some fluids and fuel for the day loop.  I was surprised how many people changed shoes from road to trail shoes and vice versa.  I’ve never found a road shoe that I’m comfortable in for more than 30 miles so I just always wear trail shoes.

The other issue that cropped up the last few loops was the wonderful gift of sickness my children gave me before I left.  I was mouth breathing all day and night since my nose and sinuses were plugged.  That wasn’t too bad in the beginning, but now that the air was much drier and colder it started to take it’s toll.  My throat was on fire.  I wasn’t looking forward to how sick I was going to be after all this stress.

So 34 (out of 70) us made it through 24 hours and 100 miles.  No other year has been even close to that amount.  Some years going 100 miles made you close to winning it.  Getting under 24 hours for a 100 mile race is generally considered quite good.  Here it was just average!  Plus you couldn’t bank any time when you felt good like in a normal 100 mile race.  I’m not sure how many started the next loop.  I know only 30 of us finished.  Fairly often people would start the next loop and just quit when they got back from the short road portion of the loop.

I was more awake now as the sun was starting to come up and I was back into cooler clothes.  I was determined to finish at least one day loop.  It was clear I wasn’t going to reach my ultimate goal of the race but I needed to see how I’d do on a less muddy version of the trail loop.  Basically I only ran this loop because of competitiveness and stubbornness.  It was surprisingly somewhat easy.  That’s somewhat easy.  I was having to straight-leg off the rocks and downhill which was a clear sign my race would soon be over whether I liked it or not.  The trail was much easier to run on today though, with nice soft non-muddy dirt.  There was also no one in your way to get slowed down by.  Towards the end of the loop I caught up to Marcy again and she had me pass her which was kind of funny.  I knew she was pacing herself perfectly and I was planning on just following her in.  Why pass someone anymore, they just catch up to you at the start of the next loop right?  I did indeed pass her and tried to enjoy the last portion of the trail.

I finished the loop to much less fanfare then the previous day’s finishes.  There were always people clapping and cheering you in to the finish.  Now many people were gone or sleeping.  The small amount was still appreciated though as it always is in an ultramarathon.  I crossed the line in 56:04.  Plenty of time to reload for another loop if I wanted to.  I did want to in a way but I knew the inevitable end that was to come.  If I continued, I could probably finish a couple more loops but would also make myself not be able to work for a week.  I immediately turned in my timing chip to a chorus of “Noooo”.  The crowd wanted more carnage.  Courtney and Joe tried to get me to continue when I came over to wish them good luck.  I had already turned in my chip because I knew they’d probably convince me to continue and I knew I needed to stop to prevent more damage.

I ran 104 1/6 miles in 25 hours.  The total time I was on the course was 22:38 out of those 25 hours.  That’s too little I think.  I’d much rather have just 1 hour of down time for that distance which means I could’ve ran about 45 seconds a mile slower the entire race.  That would probably only be possible with a crew but as this was just my first race in this format, I still have a few things to learn.

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Later in the day after a shower and packing up my stuff.  This is the shirt we got at registration.

I got my dog tag for finishing, quitting, giving it my all.  I took my blanket and made the painful half mile walk back to my car to sleep on a nice air mattress in the back.  I slept an hour or so with ice on my ankles to keep swelling from showing up.  I woke up and drove to town to take a shower at the gas station.  I also got some food there.  I parked back at the parking site and started to make the trip back to the race site.  I think it was Marcy’s crew that drove by and picked me up and drove me to the race which was awesome!  I ate some food and slowly packed up my things.  I watched one more start of the remaining runners but decided I wasn’t going to stay to the end.

I made one last trip to the timing tent to see if Big would finally say hi but he was still in hiding mode.  What a rude host!

I drove until I was tired and then would sleep in the car.  That was repeated until I finally got home.  I couldn’t talk anymore.  In fact I couldn’t talk somewhat normal for 8 days.  I could kind of whisper and then would squeak like I was in puberty.  Even 2 weeks out now I still have a stuffy nose.  My ankles swelled up on the drive home but I just stayed off my feet for a couple days and they improved.  I am happy in my decision to quit when I did.  Things would’ve only been worse had I not.

I kind of like this race format.  It seems geared just for me so if I don’t do this race again I will likely do another in the same format.  There are more of them every year.  I was already home by the time the race ended which is weird in itself.  68 hours was the winning time this year.  Humans are truly amazing!

Barkley Fall Classic – 2018 Race Report

This race was certainly the hardest “50k” I’ve done but probably not why you think it’s hard.  Sure, the distance was more than 50k since this race is sort of similar to the actual Barkley Marathons.  It was 34.1 miles long.  The elevation is also nothing to scoff at either with 11,220ft of gain with some portions being extremely steep.  No, the real killer for me was the heat.  It totally controlled my race and almost ended it.

I had been training for Spartathlon all year with the hopes of getting off the wait-list but I ended up being 11 spots too far down the list to get in.  So in August I finally accepted my fate of not getting in.  I had been training for heat and mostly roads so I had to quickly switch to getting lots of elevation.  Of course 4 weeks isn’t enough hill training but I wasn’t worried too much, I’d be sore but I’d survive.  I was doing great with heat training working every hot weekend doing landscaping and running on the hot weekdays similar to my training for Volstate.  Then we got a cold spell in MN for 2 weeks the beginning of September and it all went away.  The forecast for the race was hot and humid and they were correct!

I’ll step back a little just to mention that this is the first race I’ve ever flown to.  It just made sense it being such a long drive and such a short race with no need for many supplies or anything.  I flew into Louisville for super cheap and drove the 4 hours from there.  The packet pick up was in Coalfield, TN and I’d get there at 5pm.  I ended up driving through Rocky Top, TN to get there.  The old song about it came flashing back to me even though I hadn’t heard it for over 30 years.  If you don’t know it here it is.

That’s the version I always heard although there are others.  Unfortunately since I didn’t use any music during the race, it’s also about the only song I had in my head the entire day during the race!  If Rocky Top ever was a nice town, it certainly is past it’s prime now.  Every store front I saw was closed and most homes were trailers or pre-fab homes similar to parts of northern MN.

Anyway, I finally got to the packet pick up and the man checking names off the list knew my name from following Volstate.  That was surprising and kind of cool.  The packet had the map which is printed on cloth so it’s waterproof (and washer safe by the way), a booklet about the things in nature that can hurt/kill you in the county, compass, whistle, shirt, bib, Dum Dum sucker, fake Yellow Jacket, maybe some other stuff I forgot.  I didn’t stick around the school very long.  There was a crowd around Laz and I just let him be since I’ve gotten a selfie with him in the past.  I quick updated a few things on my phone since there was WiFi and then left for my hotel in Harriman.

I got something to eat and then got down to business studying the map.

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It’s covered up since you’re not supposed to put up photos of the map.  I’ll give you a hint though, some race reports are very detailed in the description of the course to the point that if you have a map in front of you, it is very obvious what the course was that year.  The race course is changed every year if you didn’t know and you don’t get the map until the day before the race at packet pick up.  Some I’m sure got there right at noon so they’d have the most time possible to look it over.  I had already studied race reports to figure out what most of the trails would be as some just can’t be changed due to this race having aid stations.  This year did surprise me with part of the course going on Fork Mt which I don’t think was ever done in previous years.

I spent probably 3 hours going over everything and looking at certain details on Google Earth.  I already had a good description of the Cumberland trail since that is on the Cumberland trail website.  Having been on the trails now though I can say that their description in one spot was not what I saw on the trail.  I can’t stress enough how helpful Google Earth was.  I suspect it will somehow be made illegal next year because of it.  Now might be a good place to talk about all the rules there are that most races don’t have.

No GPS, either from a watch or a phone.  You can carry a phone by the way but I didn’t since I didn’t want it getting wrecked.  I still have an old plain watch with a timer on it so I wore that.  I can’t believe how many people absolutely lose their sh*t on Facebook over someone using GPS and posting their track online in years past.  1. This isn’t the real Barkley, 2. All these trails are public other than the power line cuts and a short path from coffin springs to cold gap although I never saw a no trespassing sign on those either, 3. GPS was allowed for a large part of the history of the Barkley Marathons.  I honestly don’t know why so many people get bent out of shape, but it’s a rule so I follow it.

No gels.  You can put them in a flask though which is what I did.

You need to get your bib punched at several places along the course.  The bib already had a few letters on it so I was able to figure out what it would say if you made the Laz cut-off or not.  It probably didn’t hurt that I watched Wheel of Fortune with my in-laws the night before.

No poles until after the Laz cut-off.  I’ve never used them so it didn’t affect me.  I just used sticks the few times it was necessary (and there are times you will want them).

Stay under the power lines on the power line cuts.  This one is always broken by people including some of the people in the top 10 unfortunately.  It’s tempting to go in the trees as it’s much easier than going through thorns in the sun.

I think that’s all of the them.  The other rules are pretty routine, move over for faster runners, no cutting switchbacks, carry a whistle, headlamp after the Laz cut-off, etc.

Don’t worry, I’ll get to the actual race soon.  With all the resources available I made a turn/description sheet and laminated it with tape as it was supposed to rain in the afternoon.  That took most of the 3 hours I spent looking at the course but because of it I only took my map out once just to confirm something.  I figured out some estimates of when I’d get to the aid stations and a finish time of 11 hours.

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Turn Sheet

I got things ready for the race, put Vaseline on my feet since it would be a wet race going through water, set the alarm for 5am and went to bed.  I couldn’t sleep very well but got enough.

Race morning went fairly smoothly.  I got to the start line parking lot around 6am so I had an hour to put my drop bag in the trailer, talk to some friends, and use the port a potties.  They were in very tough shape and I assume Laz just asked for the worst ones possible.  Mine didn’t lock and had what I hope was paint all over the walls and door.

35 people didn’t show up which I was surprised by since there is a wait-list to take your place if you can’t make it.  416 of us started off at 7am.  It was still kind of dark but light enough to see somewhat.  We went on a road for about a mile before hitting the trail and it was light enough by then.  I went fairly fast so I wouldn’t be behind a bunch of people going up the hill.  A few people passed me as is usual for me going up a hill but I passed some as well.  It’s not super easy to pass on the single track trails but not as bad as other races I’ve been too.  I planned on it taking a long time to climb the first hill so I was surprised when I got to the top way ahead of schedule.  I proceeded to pass a bunch of people going downhill.  The trails aren’t very technical really.  There are occasionally rocks and boulders at the stream crossings but otherwise very few roots and rocks on the signed trails.  Most trails have different colored blazes on the trees so you know which trail you’re on which is nice.  Although the trees aren’t very old, they are old enough to be tall and have an open understory which made the scenery quite nice.

I made it to the first aid station in just over 2 hours which was over an hour ahead of what I thought it’d take.  The distance for this section came out to the same amount as listed on the map when I measured it on the map later at home.  That wouldn’t be the case for every other section after (hint: they were all longer than listed; surprise surprise).  I was feeling pretty good and refilled my bladder.  This was also the first bib punch.

The next section was 8 miles and the section that some people got lost.  Really I didn’t even need my turn sheet since the trail was marked much more than I thought it would be.  Even so, I saw someone miss a turn and had to yell at him.  The first part of this section was pretty much a continuation of the last section.  I tripped once on some unknown obstacle and cut my hand a little and ground my shoulder into the ground.  Nothing hurt so on I went.

Coal Ponds - Misty Wong
Near the Coal Ponds. Notice my nice dirty shoulder from falling. Photo Credit: Misty Wong

Eventually you got to a more open area out of the state park where you get your bib punched and then go to Fork Mt.  Going down Fork Mt was fast but not as fast as I wanted it to be.  It’s basically dirt roads with lots of rocks to pound your feet on.  There were plenty of areas of road under water so that slowed things down as well.  Finally I got down to a highway and to the church aid station (aid station #2) and another bib punch.  I crossed the timing mat in 4:01 in 47th place.  This was over an hour faster than what I thought I’d be doing so I was feeling good about that.  It was definitely starting to get hot now 86 degrees and dew point of 70 with full sun.  I reloaded with water and tried to drink what I though I needed but this is where I started to get behind on fluids.  The next 5 mile section (to aid station #4, there was an aid station #3 on the way) was the hardest for me.  3250 feet of elevation gain and overheating.

Next up was the power line cut called Testicle Spectacle.  It has a few false summits and goes down in a couple places which sucks as well.

Testicle Specticle from first false summit Jimmy Girten
From 1st False Summit. See the little tiny people? Photo Credit: Jimmy Girten

Looking down Testicle Specticle Jimmy Girten
Looking back down Testicle Spectacle. Photo Credit: Jimmy Girten

The leaders had made a pretty good path through the thorns and plants.  I wore my hat over my ears to help protect them from the thorns brushing by.  I also put on my work gloves.  Getting sliced on your legs and arm at the same time hurts but at the same time you get used to it.  I think the steepness just makes you hate that part even more than the thorns so you ignore them.  There is one spot of this hill that was the steepest part of the race.  Basically it’s best described as this;  Place the tips of your fingers on a wall and stand back as far as you can while still having your fingertips on the wall and your back straight.  Maybe move back a couple more inches and that’s what it was like.  Nothing like trying to climb dirt like it’s a ladder.  Ok, I probably didn’t have my back perfectly straight when I took that measurement but still it was very steep.  Luckily there were kind of toe holds carved into it, probably left overs from the mud at the Barkley Marathons this spring.  I had a dream about this race the week before where I had to climb a similar slope when it was muddy.  I still somehow made it up in my dream.

The only “nature” thing I was worried about for this race was snakes.  The friendly guide book in the drop bag said to never put your hand were you couldn’t see it so that you didn’t accidentally get bit.  There were certainly times I couldn’t see what I was grabbing going up those hills covered with vegetation.

Of course the only “nature” thing I needed to worry about was the weather.  I was getting overheated now and had to take a few 10 second breaks here and there.  Usually there was someone ahead of me taking a break as well so it’s not like I could’ve gone even if I wanted to.  Finally I reached the top.

Top of Testicle Specticle Jimmy Girten
Top of Testicle Specticle Photo Credit: Jimmy Girten

What goes up must come down so we kept on following the power line cut down Meth Lab Hill.  This hill has a path down it so it was much easier.  You could actually run down 90% of it.  There are a few super steep spots where you had to slide down.  Most people would go on their butt but I just put my hands down and slid on them and my feet.  It took more effort but I didn’t have rocks in my crotch the rest of the day either.

Looking down Meth Lab Hill jimmy girten
Looking down Meth Lab Hill Photo Credit: Jimmy Girten

At the bottom you have a short run on roads to get to the prison and aid station #3.  I was still in 52nd place at this point so not many people passed me going up Testicle Spectacle.  I reloaded on water but ended up not getting enough in the end.  There was also talk of there being ice at this aid station but I didn’t see any and wasn’t offered any.  The people I know that went through at the same time as me never knew about any either so I’m guessing it didn’t show up until later in the day.  Ice would’ve completely changed my race!  I lost an hour of time due to the heat the rest of the day and ice would’ve changed everything.  In fact, I brought my insulated bladder specifically to keep water cold if there was ever ice around.  You get what you get I guess.

After the aid station you run into the prison complex and into the prison yard.  One of the cool things about this race is getting to go over the prison wall and through the tunnel under the prison.

Wall - Lance Parry
Photo Credit: Lance Parry

On the other side of the wall was Jared Campbell punching our bibs.  He’s finished the Barkley Marathons 3 times if you didn’t know who he is.  It was a nice surprise to see him as I’ve never met him yet.  To get to the tunnel you have to go through some shin deep water and then there is also water in the tunnel.  Going from full sun to darkness really messed with my head.  I basically was running blind.  I could hear someone in front of me splashing but couldn’t see anything once we got in about 200 feet or so.  I just hoped I wouldn’t trip on anything.  It’s 840 feet long so it takes awhile to get through it.  Finally it’s blindingly bright again and now the fun really begins.

Rat Jaw is the name of the next power line cut we went up.  This hill has a much higher concentration of thorns than the others and it’s taller.  There was a sign at the beginning saying it was only .89 miles long but I suspect it’s longer.  It’s 1.19 miles long according to Google with 1825 feet of elevation gain.  I suppose it’d be even longer if you figured in that you’re climbing a slope instead of a flat surface but it really doesn’t matter, it’s steep and sucky.

Here’s what the beginning looks like.

For this beginning part I found a couple sticks and just went up the dirt part until it leveled out a little again.  I was hot!  The heat index was in the upper 90’s with a temp of 91 and the dew point was still in the 70’s.  The sun was also right on us now since it was just after noon.  I kind of broke this hill down into 2 sections.  The first is mostly straight with slight turns on it, basically just enough so that you can’t ever see the top to where it turns a hard left.  The second part is from that hard turn to the top.  The first part is .74 miles and 1300 feet of gain.  The second is .45 miles and 525 feet of gain.  There is great variation on how steep the hill is.  A couple very short sections are actually flat or at least flatish, the rest is steep to crazy steep.  A lot of it was hands and feet kind of climbing (scrambling).  Partially from the slope and the rest due to overheating.

Almost immediately after the “fun” beginning to Rat Jaw my face was tingling and I could see stars every once and a while.  I was breathing heavy constantly.  There were some more steep parts we’d go up and just hope there was something to sit on or for the ground to flatten out a little so you could stop to rest.  Stopping while on the steepest parts took almost as much energy as just continuing on.  I basically had to pull myself up by grabbing thorn canes as they were the only plants that could support the weight of being pulled.  I was very glad I had gloves on!

About 2/3rds of the way up the first part there is a old road cut and shade!  I laid down for 15 minutes to cool down and drank everything I had.  There were medics at that location and I must’ve not looked too bad off since they didn’t pull me off the mountain at least.  All hopes of a good race time were gone.  I knew I had plenty of time to make the cut-offs so I just stayed and tried to cool down.

Rat Jaw road - Carry Allen
Rat Jaw road. I didn’t see any people this happy when I was laying there. Photo Credit: Carry Allen

Finally I could breath somewhat normal but my face tingling never did go away until after I reached the top.  I had been eating pretty well and actually drinking a lot with adequate salt intake.  I drank 30 ounces of fluids every hour this race and I was still sweating, but it still wasn’t enough.  I’m guessing 40 people passed me going up Rat Jaw.  My friend Ed caught up to me and didn’t sugar coat the suckiness that was still ahead after that road cut.

One foot at a time is all I could think about.  I couldn’t even get that stupid Rocky Top song back into my head, even though it had been there all day.  Anything to take my mind off the heat would’ve been great.  Thorns did nothing to distract me from the sun beating down on me.  Everyone was encouraging each other but it just seemed to register to me as the muffled sounds of Charlie Brown’s teacher.  I was so hot and almost felt claustrophobic not being able to see anything due to the tall vegetation and steepness.  My face was tingling.  I was worried about passing out.  In short I was feeling pretty crappy.  There’s a reason you put a puppy halfway on a staircase to make it climb stairs; going down something that steep seems just as bad as continuing up.

So I continued up.

Going down and quitting would hurt just as much now and certainly much more later.  It seemed crazy steep the entire way from the road cut until the hard turn left.  I made the turn.

Then it seemed to get easier.

It is indeed less steep overall and it seemed a more consistent slope.  Really though I think all the water I drank started to get absorbed and I was just feeling better.  The only time I stopped on this section was because I got behind a group of about 10 people that would stop occasionally.  There is also a rock cliff you have to go around into the trees a little to get to this crack through and up it.

Rat Jaw - Misty Wong
This is on the second part of Rat Jaw just before the summit. I’ve got the white hat and blue chest in this photo. Good luck finding me. Photo Credit: Misty Wong

As you can see from the photo, the vegetation was quite high.  You pretty much can’t see where you’re going unless you’re really tall.  Also this last section was almost entirely thorns.  My shirt got torn enough that I threw it away once I got home.  I almost tripped a few times too since they’d wrap around your leg somehow.  My deepest cuts were from these on the back of my legs.  I think I just kept saying “ow” a bunch of times.  Not a very positive mantra I guess but it got me through it.  And I was just feeling so much better.  I know with cooler temps, I could’ve climbed much quicker.  I think it took me around 90 minutes to climb it and it should’ve been just an hour.

Top of Rat Jaw - Misty Wong 2
Photo Credit: Misty Wong

Top of Rat Jaw - Misty Wong 1
Photo Credit: Misty Wong

Those photos are taken just as you take the last step onto the road that’s at the top of the hill (what kind of race director doesn’t use the road for the course instead?)  There is an old fire tower that you need to climb up and get your bib punched again.  The view was quite nice and you could actually feel a slight breeze.  You had to follow the road down a short distance to the aid station where I got some water but I should’ve taken more.  I thought my overheating issue was fixed since I was feeling better.  Nope!

The next section was 4 miles all downhill!  And it was a nice and easy downhill and easily my favorite part of the course.

North Old Mac - Misty Wong
This is the trail down from the tower. Photo Credit: Misty Wong

I passed the majority of the people who passed me going up Rat Jaw which was nice.  But as I got down lower and lower I could feel the temperature going up and up.  Also it just seemed more humid, probably because it would rain in a couple hours.  I got to aid station #5 which is the decision point and where Laz punches your bib.  The drop bags are right before you get there so I re-lubed my feet and put on dry socks since they were still wet from the tunnel.  I got some more food and drank a breakfast shake I put in there as well.  I also got my headlamp which was required to continue.  I was hoping all the calories and fluids would help on the last big hill and 9.5 miles.  Finally I crossed the timing mat for my punch at 8 hours race time.  The cut-off is 9.5 hours at this spot.  If you are over that then you just run the road back to the finish line for a “marathon” finish instead of doing the last 9.5 miles and hills.  I was now only 20 minutes ahead of where I thought I’d be.  The downside is that there was a lot more hills than I thought left and the distance was further than I thought it would be.  I was now in 66th place which actually surprises me, I suspect there were people taking longer with their drop bags than I did so they just hadn’t crossed the timing mat yet.

The rest of the race was just me going painfully slow up the trail that really wasn’t all that steep but I just couldn’t cool down.  There were a couple areas where it went down and I wasn’t expecting multiple peaks (I didn’t study that section of the course enough I guess) so that was a spirit killer.  There was one point that people from up above me warned of a yellow jacket nest just off the trail.  Someone was passing me just as we got to it so we smartly went around and didn’t get stung.  The people we warned later just tried to run past it – they got stung.  The hill tops in this area were quite pretty.  I could tell that time was just slipping away from me but there was really nothing I could do, I didn’t want to get to the point of having my face go numb again and I never seemed to get an energy boost from the food I ate.  Finally there was a sharp turn where I knew it would be flat to downhill the rest of the way to the finish line.

The last aid station and bib punch was at the point where it would be all downhill.  It had started to rain and thunder now as well.  I welcomed the rain hoping it would cool me off, it didn’t.  The air didn’t get any colder at all.  It basically just made the rocks slippery and the trail slightly muddy.  Finally I made it to the last flat part of the trail and then the road back to the finish line.  I wish I could say I ran the entire road in but I didn’t.  I finished in 11:17 for 78th place.  Of the 416 that started, 84 didn’t finish, 127 had to settle for the marathon and 205 finished the 50k.

I just laid on the ground for 20 minutes drinking ICE COLD water and trying to cool down.  Awesome!  My quads hurt some since I didn’t get that much hill training in.  It basically was like running a 50 miler instead of a 50k as far as how it felt and how long it took.  There was food at the finish line so I got that and ran into some friends from Volstate that I talked to for awhile.

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I don’t know if the guy who punched my bib at the fire tower was Russian or not, but I got a cool backwards R (Ya). Oh and as you can see, I am a winner, not a whiner.

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The only finish line photo I have.

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Anything not covered with something was cut up.

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I had to get back to Louisville for my plane the next morning so I didn’t stick around too long and drove away.  The hotel I stayed at was a complete dump but I didn’t care enough to get a different room.  I basically just showered, packed, slept for 4 hours, and left.

The scratches on my legs and arms got more visible as time went on.  They started itching a few days later as the scabs were ready to come off.  I never got any poison ivy, or poison oak either.  I don’t feel left out at all though not seeing a snake, getting stung, getting chiggers, or poison ivy.  I much prefer avoiding all those things.

All in all I’m glad I ran this race.  I may go back again to see what I can do in better weather and the course always changes anyway.  There are lots of other great races that time of year as well though, so we’ll see.

FANS 12 Hour Race Report – 2018

This is a looped 2.14 mile course timed event.  It takes place in Fort Snelling State Park along the MN river and is mostly shaded.  But since it’s down by the river and in trees, there isn’t much wind and it’s quite humid.  Especially this year since it rained/sprinkled on and off most of the day.  The race website has quite a lot of information here.  I was thinking of doing the 24 hour race but decided on the 12 hour in order to not cause too much damage to myself if I was to get into a more important race for me in September.  The main goal with this race was to try out some new gear and to get used to an aid station every 2+ miles which Spartathlon has.

The other big thing with this race was it was my son’s first long race.  He’s done a few 5k races and seems to like it.  He’s also run some training runs with me.  He did the 12 hour event as well and was the youngest one there at 5 years old.

We got there and set up a tent and chairs so that Alex had a place to go when he wasn’t out on the course and for our crew to hang out.  Our crew was my wife and daughter.

The first loop here is longer than normal (3.87miles) since we run out to a point on the course and then run back before we run the complete loop.  I did this entire first loop with Alex so we took it fairly slow.  The trail is fairly wide so it wasn’t an issue with everyone in the 6, 12, 24 hour race starting at the same time.  The turn around is a big upright log placed in the middle of the trail that you run around and go back.  Everyone of course was interested in Alex and how he’d do.  I warned him ahead of time that he’d hear how cute he was a bunch of times and that he’d just have to get used to it (he doesn’t like it when people call him cute).  We also went over the amended rules as far as talking to strangers, etc compared to normal times.

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Cute little dude

We did pretty well and finished it in 41:22.  He walked the next loop with mom and I started running my planned pace.  Apparently he got tired of how slow they walked and started speed walking away from them.  He can really move when he walks fast.  I ended up catching up to him (lapping him) just as he finished his loop 2.  He then took a break in the tent and waited for our crew to meet him there.

My splits were pretty consistent and I’d eat small amounts each lap with things that would be at Spartathlon, or I planned on bringing with.  I ran with Alex on my lap 7 again.  This is when drama happened.  There is a steepish uneven part of the trail towards the end of the loop and Alex fell and got all scraped up.  There were some tears but I was able to convince him it would hurt just as much to walk than to run.  Luckily our crew was waiting at the lap counting tent so I handed him off to them and the medic.  They didn’t really do anything to him since it wasn’t that bad, I think that was the only thing the medic had to do the entire race.  I knew that would make him not want to run for awhile.

I then ran with Courtney Dewalter the next lap since we have a race we’re both running in October and I wanted to get to know her a little.  Plus she’s famous.  If you didn’t know, she has the American Women’s 24 hour record and the course record for this race and likely many other races.  She grew up in MN so that’s kind of cool.  She’s probably the best women’s long distance ultrarunner in the US.  I tried to impress on my daughter how good she is and that she can kick her dad’s butt in an ultra.  I think she was impressed.IMG_20180602_201016

I pretty much went into cruise mode for awhile.  Nothing was really hurting.  It wasn’t very hot and I wasn’t having any stomach issues.  I’m not sure if it was because it wasn’t that hot  (it only got to about 73 degrees but it was essentially 100% humidity in the valley) or if it was the omeprazole I was taking since there’s research from the Spartathlon race that it helps with GI issues.  Either way, not much to report for most of the race.

Well I guess I forgot one interesting thing.  There was what I believe was a snapping turtle laying her eggs right off the edge of the paved part of the path.  She had just started at the beginning of the race and someone had put cones around her so that people wouldn’t run her over.  It was fun to see her every 22 minutes having moved a little bit to lay more eggs.  She finally finished up around 1pm if I remember correctly.  I’m amazed she kept going like we weren’t a threat.turtle

About 5 people asked about Alex and I told him his fans were expecting to see him on the course again.  Jessie finally kicked him out of the tent in the afternoon and he speed walked 2 more laps.  I mean he can really move when he walks fast.  That got him to 12.4 miles.  I was hoping he’d do 1 more or a couple of the short loops you can do the last hour of the race to get over the half marathon distance.  Then he could brag he’s gone further than mom but that didn’t interest him so he just left it at 5 laps for the day.  Still not bad and it was what I was expecting him to do.  I think they just played outside by the lake for most of the rest of the day.

I changed socks and shoes at 42 miles.  It had mostly quit sprinkling and I wanted to get into dry socks.  The other issue was the trail part of this course isn’t dirt, it’s packed crushed rock.  My wife couldn’t understand why everyone was complaining about the course, but hitting those rocks without a rock plate in your shoes hurt after awhile.  I was running in Altra Escalante thinking that’s what I would use at Spartathlon.  Nope, just not enough shoe.  I switched to my Altra Olympus at that point.

I was hoping to get 50 miles in 8:45 but with the couple slower laps with Alex and the shoe change it ended up being 8:53.  Still not too bad.  I was mostly trying to go slow in the beginning and keep things under control.  Finally around mile 55 I started a run/walk strategy since I was getting low on energy and needed a change in stride once and a while.  It didn’t slow me down all that much, just 2 minutes a lap.  Still under 12 minute miles.

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After one of the rains.

I finished 29 full loops and I would’ve had time for 1 more full loop but decided to play it safe and start the short loops with 25 minutes left.  Some people started the short loops as soon as possible and I could see why.  It’s paved and fairly flat so even though you have to turn around every eighth mile, it seems faster.  I went back and forth 9 times for 2.25 additional miles.  Someone had a cone on his head at one end and you had to run around him.  It seemed like a joke but I think it was done out of necessity.  I suspect people kept kicking over the cone.  Either way it was fun.  I left about 9 seconds on the clock so not much wasted time at all.  The total distance was 65.9 miles which was good for second place male!conehead

I was sorer than I thought I’d be just doing a 12 hour race but then again I ran over 100k in that time so it makes sense.  My coach had me running again a couple days later but I think that may have been too early.

Alex got to pick where to eat, so of course he picked a Chinese buffet.  I found one on the phone and it wasn’t too bad.  The awards ceremony was the next morning at the finish line and included a breakfast.  I got my award plate and should get a special shirt for reaching 100k in 12 hours as well.  Everyone got a race shirt and finishing medal.  Even though it’s way too big for him, Alex wears that shirt all the time.  He doesn’t really talk about it, but I think he’s pretty proud of himself and his accomplishment.  That’s all I wanted for him by doing this race.  To see the fruits of hard work and to be satisfied with a job well done.

I would do this race again if it ever works out.  The timing of it interferes with a fair amount of races I’m interested in which is why I haven’t run it until this year.  It also has a fairly high entry fee since its purpose is to raise money for scholarships for kids.  Most timed races are half the cost but for me this race is so close that it’s really a wash cost wise.  You can get pledges to pay for your entry which is a nice option too.

Arrowhead 135 Race Report – 2018

“I’m never doing that unsupported again!” I said as I crossed the finish line just a few days ago.  Do I still think that?  Probably, but I’m still tired.  Let’s go back a bit first.  Here is last year’s race report for more details on the race itself, etc.  Ken the race director came up with the new category of this race called unsupported last year.  You have to do the race once before you’re allowed to try it unsupported and with good reason.  While it doesn’t seem like it would add that much more difficulty to an already difficult race, it does.  Since I finished last year, I wanted to try unsupported this year.

There aren’t really any unsupported rules written down in one place so I’ll summarize them as they currently are.  Basically all the rules are the same as the supported race except you can’t get ANY support from the race, the race volunteers, businesses at the checkpoints, in addition to outsiders that no one in the race can get aid from.  That means you don’t get to warm up at the 3 checkpoints, you don’t get any water or food at them either.  You are allowed to use garbage cans to throw away trash.  You can use a porta-potty if it’s outside.  You can use a fire if you find one along the way or make your own with wood you collect yourself.  You can receive aid from other racers as long as it doesn’t involve food or water.  That last one I’m not sure I totally agree with.  Any aid seems like it shouldn’t be allowed but that is also so against everything that ultrarunners believe in so I’m fine with it.

So what does all this mean for how I prepared for this year’s race?  Well to start with I got a white gas stove since I’d have to melt snow at some point during the race and it would take forever with the Esbit tab stove I had.  I heard from the unsupported runners last year that melting snow took forever for them.  Also white gas works at extreme cold.  On a side note (rant) I’m so sick of people claiming those butane/propane tank stoves work in the winter.  You can’t change the laws of physics people.  Just because you went winter camping once and your canister stove worked (because the tank was kept warm and it was 0 degrees out) doesn’t mean crap when it’s -35 and your tank got cold because your “foolproof” idea to keep it warm didn’t work.  Having a canister stove will pass inspection for the race but if you plan on going unsupported get a white gas stove.

I grew out a 5 week beard which I’ve never done.  Last year was only like 10 days and not enough.  I also got a better bivy.  I got a new -20 sleeping bag because the one I had was old and likely not as warm as it should be.  Based on my testing, I was right, the old one didn’t keep me as warm as the new one.  I wish I could afford a -40 bag, I’ll keep looking for a cheaper one.  I got down booties to wear in the sleeping bag.  I also got lightweight racing snowshoes that I saw someone with last year.

I changed my water carrying plan since my old method of a gallon jug in a cooler wouldn’t cut it this year.  I purchased a bunch of different thermoses and tested them outside.  I decided on a half gallon thermos from Walmart that worked better than most expensive ones.  I already had a 54 oz thermos that tested great as well.  I then took a 2L pop bottle and insulated it with bubble wrap.  I planned on using that last one to get me to Gateway (the first checkpoint) and then toss it in the garbage.  The other ones kept water warm for over a day in my tests.  The reason for carrying so much water from the beginning was to limit the amount of snow I would have to melt.  I expected I would make it close to Surly (3rd checkpoint) before I’d have to melt snow and I could use the fire there.  Maybe I’d even make it further if I could cut the hot water with snow along the way.

All together this added 10 pounds of gear to my sled I didn’t have last year.  10 pounds!  Ugh.  My sled, gear, and required calories weighed 37# race morning.  Plus 12# water and 5# food.  That adds up to 54# I was dragging behind me at the start and it would slowly get less as I went on.  I’ll add that my wife made the statement “It’s your own stupid fault for going unsupported.”  I was hoping for more of a response like “wow, you’re so strong, you can do it!”

The other thing I expected going unsupported would do was improve my finish time.  Yes improve.  Since you can’t stop at a checkpoint, you can’t stay there nice and warm longer than you should either.  I was hoping for 43 hours instead of 46 hours.  That was of course assuming conditions were similar to last year.

I guess I’ll add one more thing about this race in general whether unsupported or not.  The words Hope, Should, Usually, Worked Before are not helpful.  Thinking with those words will end your race.  Use words like Worst Case, Over-pack, and most importantly Contingency!

So if you’re not bored by now, I’ll get on with the race itself.

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Check In

I stayed at the Voyager Motel this year right next to the start line.  A friend left his car at the finish line and I drove him back to the start line.  That way he’d drive me back after the race to get my car and the gear he left there.  I ended up going to Canada this year since it’s so close and I wanted Poutine.  There was a restaurant that served it there that google said was open.  After paying the $7 to go across the bridge to Canada I found out it closed in December.  So back I went to the USA.

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View of Minnesota from the closed restaurant parking lot.

The race starts at 7am Monday morning for the bikers, here’s how it started.

 

 

We started at 7:06 with “release the hounds!”  I still love that.

It was -11 at the start and only forecast to get to about zero in the afternoon.  I wore my wind shorts, tights, and wind pants.  I had on my wool Injinji socks, Altra Olympus shoes and cast stockings on my feet.  I wore 2 compression shirts, my hooded jacket and wind jacket.  A fleece hat as well as fleece thinsulate gloves.  The sled pulled OK but it was obviously heavier than last year.  Also since it was colder the snow wasn’t as quick either.  I still ran to the turn onto the Arrowhead trail and a little further but didn’t run all the way to Hwy 53 like last year.

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I wore kt tape this year to help prevent frost bite. It made my face much warmer.

I talked to Pam Reed for a bit in the beginning but then didn’t really talk to anyone for more than a minute or so the rest of the race.  I just didn’t match up with anyone’s speed and since I was closer to the front of the pack this year it was just thinner in general anyway.  John Storkamp passed me a little later in the race than last year, still walking way faster than I can.

It never really seemed to warm up at all.  It was cloudy as well.  The main issue I was having was that I wore too much in the beginning and didn’t take things off soon enough so I got my second shirt layer and jacket somewhat damp.  I took off my hat and put on a buff.  I took off both jackets to start to dry out my shirts.  It was working and I was keeping warm for the most part.  I was mostly walking already by this point but that was fine, I was still keeping overall pace well since I was walking faster than last year.  I had trained a fair amount trying to get my walking speed up.

 

 

I got to Hwy 53 around the same time as last year.  There is phone service here so I texted my wife this good looking photo to let her know what she was missing.P_20180129_110843At this point I was starting to get a little colder and the shirt was mostly dried out now.  I put on my hooded jacket which was partly frozen from the sweat earlier.  It thawed out quickly but didn’t make me much warmer.  The whole reason I did all of this was to make sure it would be dry by the night.  It was supposed to get to at least -15 at night.  The problem was they kept changing the forecast to be colder and colder.  The clouds started to leave about 3pm so I was expecting at least -20 below in spots.  Therefore I knew I’d need all my jackets dry for this first night.  I did have an extra dry shirt but I might need that too later on.

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About mile 26 I think. Photo Credit Burgess Eberhardt

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Photo Credit Burgess Eberhardt

My hands started to get cold as a result of all of this unfortunately.  At one point after the turn south after shelter #2 I got real cold.  In fact my hands were colder than at any other point of the race.  It took forever to get my bag opened to get another jacket and warmer, dry gloves on.  I was so mad at myself for letting my hands get that cold.  I seriously just about had to call it quits.  It took me 2 minutes just to snap my running vest back on.  So many people seemed to pass me through all this.  This is all at about zero degrees remember and I had to go through much colder later.  It seemed so stupid at the time to risk my whole race just to dry out some shirts and jackets.  Of course later I would thank myself over and over again for doing just that.

A trail groomer went by I think around this time.  He only went on one side of the trail but the path he took went back and forth so I kept having to move around to stay out of the soft snow he made.  I was bummed to see one so soon as they make the trail much harder to traverse .  This year was different though.  Because it was so cold, the path he made starting firming up in just an hour.  By 2 hours it was nice and hard and smooth.  It ended up being better running on the path he made than anywhere else.

I still hadn’t bothered to try to play my iPod.  The battery would die quickly in this kind of cold and honestly for the next 20 hours or so I had much on my mind.  You’d think you’d get bored hiking through the woods for 2 days with nothing to listen to or people to talk to.  I can tell you there was no chance for that this race.  All I could think about was how to stay warm and survive the night to come.  What could I do now so that I didn’t have to do it later when it was colder?  Should I eat now or later?  When will I sleep?  And back to how will I keep warm?  The only thing I didn’t have to worry about was water.  My pop bottle was more than enough to get to Gateway and it stayed warmer than I though it would.  The thermoses still had water over 160 degrees so I knew I wouldn’t have to melt snow until it warmed up the second day.  The first place unsupported runner wouldn’t be so lucky and got frostbite on all his fingers melting snow when it was -30.

Now I make it seem like you could die out there and of course you could, but really we do have emergency gear to get into and keep warm while waiting for a rescue if it came to that.  Most of us have been in this kind of cold before as well.  There are also snowmobiles going by every once and a while to check on you.  I would never count on them to be there when you need them though and planned accordingly.

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Starting to clear up

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Warm enough for the ice beard to go away but still cold enough to freeze your hands if you’re not careful

I got to Gateway at 4 pm; the same as last year.  I had to open the door to the store to yell in, “#83 unsupported”.  Last year they were outside to get our numbers, but it was also in the 20’s last year.  On the way out the moon started to rise as the sun was setting.Jpeg

I threw away the 2L pop bottle and my cast stockings as they were getting full of snow.  I had been almost over-hydrated to this point since I didn’t plan on wasting any of the water I had in that 2L bottle before it froze so I drank more than I needed to.  Now I would go into my normal water use mode.  Since it was cold I only filled my water bottle part way most of the time and just had to stop to fill it more often.  In fact I stopped much more often this year than last due to all the water, food, and clothing stops.

The temperatures started dropping fast once the sun went down.  I texted my wife and shut my phone off.  I told her I’d try to message at MelGeorges but that never happened since it was so cold by the time I got there.  I didn’t have a thermometer but it is somewhat easy to tell the temp based on past experiences.  I was nice and warm at this point though.  I had got another jacket on when I got my headlamp out and put a fleece hat on again instead of the buff.

The ice beard was back big time now.  I was always breathing through my nose to conserve moisture and heat.  At times I would have snotcicles almost  2 inches long.  Gross and awesome at the same time.  I’d run to get my hands nice and hot and then break/melt them off with my fingers so I could open my mouth fully and open my nostrils again.  Then I’d warm my fingers back up in a minute or two.  At one point in the cold night my tongue froze to a snotcicle!  It melted off in a couple seconds but seriously it was stuck on it.  This was probably around -20 at the time.  I made sure to not let them get that big after that point.

I also put on my goggles as I was tired of my eyes freezing shut.  They make such a big difference in keeping my face warm.  I think I was the only person who wore goggles on foot and I’m not really sure why.  As long as you don’t mouth breath all the time they won’t fog up if you wait until you’re cold to put them on.  It’s weird how much heat you lose from your eyes and upper face.

I was expecting to get to MelGeorges around 3am if I didn’t stop before I got there.  This section is still mostly flat with areas of small hills.  I wasn’t as tired and run down as I was last year.  The full moon was awesome.  I never saw the northern lights and never heard any wolves either.

It was around -20 below by 9pm but at least there wasn’t any wind.  That’s both a blessing and a curse really.  Not having wind makes it not seem as bad as long as you can keep your gloves on and never touch anything.  But still air like that also allows the coldest air to settle in spots making it much much colder than the official temps.  I’ve tested things to -20 but it just doesn’t get much colder than that in southern MN so beyond that it was unknown other than what others have said.

I wasn’t tired at shelter #4 which was easier to see this year with the full moon.  I was kind of tired at #5 but there were already people sleeping there and I was starting to think I should try to stay awake until it warmed up the next day so I could sleep better.

It was at least -25 by now and still getting colder.  There is about a 2 mile section along lakes/swamps before the turnoff for MelGeorges that was absolutely brutal!  It was at least -35 in that area (it was officially -27 in Tower)!  I’ve never been in cold like that in my life.  The closest we got growing up was I think -34 the year that Tower got to -60.  I was at this time in the race playing leap frog with I think Ladislaus.  I didn’t take the time to talk really.  We would stop to put something warmer on and the other would pass.  I now had 3 jackets on and put on a second and third hat.  I had on my warmest gloves.  All there was left to put on was another pair of pants that would require taking off my shoes and outer layer of pants to put on.  That wasn’t going to happen in this cold.  I also had another shirt to put on but again that would require taking things off first.  I had more hats but really how many can you put on at once?  I was keeping everything warm including feet, hands, nose but just barely.  The next step for me would be to start stuffing everything else I had left in my bag into my jackets and pants to add insulation.  I also knew I could’ve put a couple pairs of thin gloves on under the thick ones as well.

There were still 4 more hours that it could get colder before it got warmer.  I really started to wonder if my race as unsupported would end at MelGeorges.  I was confident I could make it there without freezing to death as it would warm up once I got out of the swamps, or at least it wouldn’t be colder up there.  But I was worried what would happen if it got to -40 or -45 soon after I left MelGeorges.  This is where being supported in this race makes it so much easier.  I’d have a nice warm place to sleep while I waited out the cold weather or at the very least a safe space to remove my outer layers so I could add more inner layers.   I decided I’d look for a place to bivy after the turnoff to MelGeorges.  The plan was after I woke up, I’d have an hour or more to warm up before I got to the checkpoint.  If I wasn’t warm yet, then I’d go supported and go inside.  This would prevent me having to turn back if it got too cold after the checkpoint.

It did get warmer as we left the swamps and made the turn.  In fact I was going to have to start taking things off.  I don’t know if it really got that much warmer or if the climbing up just got the blood flowing better.  Maybe there was a slight wind I didn’t appreciate until it went away with the turn, I don’t know.  Regardless, I felt pretty good about bivying up now.  It was about 1:30am.  I packed some snow down in an area and even took my gloves off to finish putting it up with no issues (again if it was windy that wouldn’t have worked).  I needed them off to put the poles on the bivy.  Looking back I won’t use the poles again.  Not worth the weight, effort, and risk with taking gloves off.  I had everything (sleeping pad, sleeping bag, booties, bag for shoes) already in my bivy so all I had to do was roll it out and get in.  While I was warm putting it up and getting in, the second I lay down I started shivering.  The snow was cradling in against the bivy and essentially touching the sides of the sleeping bag.  While snow may be an insulator when you’re not touching it, it conducts a ton of heat away from you when you touch it.  I will never make the mistake of bivying in snow again.

I tried to sleep for about 20 minutes and maybe did for 5 between shivering spells.  I said forget it and got up and immediately felt warmer.  Warm enough to change my socks even.  I put some zinc oxide powder on knowing that with the warmer temps and snow that would start within 12 hours I’d get trench foot if I didn’t do it now.  I also usually put Vaseline on but that was much more challenging in the super cold.  It was almost as hard as a rock and I don’t know if I ever did get it to melt enough to cover everything.  I put a new pair of wool Injinji socks on again as it’d still be cold for some time.  Then I packed everything back up.  I spent about an hour of down time doing all this for maybe 5 minutes of sleep I think.

I got back to moving and it took no time at all to warm up.  Just standing up made me warmer it seemed.  It was about 4.5 miles to get to MelGeorges but it seemed to take even longer.  There were some hills which I almost welcomed just to make more heat.  I got there at 4:12am which was about on schedule due to the bivying time.  I again had to yell in the door, “#83 unsupported”.  I think everyone was a little groggy and it could be I wasn’t saying things right either but I had to say it like 3 times to get a response.  Someone then did come outside just to confirm who I was.

The next section is the longest and most difficult section.  The only good thing is I’d get to do a large part of it in daylight.  I still had a few hours till sunrise though.  The wind would be picking up as well soon from the South which was the direction I’d be heading.  I got to do those big fun hills in the dark this year!  I forgot to mention one sled change I did this year was to add runners to the bottom of my sled.  They made a huge difference in control on the downhills.  I think I might have gotten them just slightly off center as I always wanted to pull slightly left.  Either way it was worth the extra weight to not go crashing into the banks or go backwards down the hill.

So throughout all this bitter cold the sled seemed to pull about the same as it had earlier in the day.  It never acted like the Paris sled at Tuscobia 2 years ago where it pulled like it was in gravel when it got around -20.  The UHMW-PE just works a lot better in the cold than the linear-PE of the Paris sled.  Another reason to use it besides all the longevity and durability issues.  Once it finally got up to above 10 degrees the second day, it really started to move well and I could get a long run at the bottom of hills for once.  Then of course the new snow ruined all that but that’s getting ahead of myself.

The sun came up in glorious fashion (too cold to get my phone out to take a picture) as there were still no clouds and the wind came with it.  Just 5mph at first, then 10, 15, and close to 20 by Tuesday evening.  I kept the goggles on and put a fleece band over my nose when I needed it.  I could run some on the flat sections and was making decent time. Food was starting to no longer taste good or interest me. I so wanted real food but all I had was junk and that’s all that won’t turn to a brick in this kind of cold.  My mouth was getting damaged from eating all the frozen food and scratching the sides of it.

I tried to take off my outside puffy jacket that I just got this year and realized the zipper had froze from my breath.  I took out a chemical hand warmer (the only one I used) and got it going inside my mitten.  I then took it out and placed it on the zipper to melt a 2 inch section and zip it down.  Then back in the mitten to warm up again, melt 2 more inches, rinse and repeat.  Finally I had it down enough to get it the rest of the way.

This is also when I started listening to my iPod.  I just kept it in my glove to keep it warm.  It helped some with motivation.

I was constantly seeing things that weren’t there during the second day.  Rocks that I was convinced was a shelter from a distance.  I saw my dog once.  I saw people walking through the trees.  The snow and moving trees played tricks on me constantly.  I didn’t see things at night which seemed weird since I usually see things like that at night.  I know other people saw these things too so it couldn’t have just been the exhaustion.

One thing I know was real was the wolf poop.  I saw some twice the second day but they were already frozen so not that fresh.  I almost wanted to take some to examine later.  My kids would love it more than be grossed out by it.  Plus there was the extra excitement factor someone might have at gear check at the finish line.  Would they think it was mine?  Regardless I wasn’t going to dig through my gear to find an empty bag and haul around even a couple ounces more weight than I needed to.

I figured I would need more water and decided to melt snow before the 3rd checkpoint.  I decided to go to shelter #8 which is around 98 miles into the race and a few hours away from where I was at the time.  The snow then started around noon.  It came hard and fast.  With the wind it was hard to see at the tops of hills sometimes.  I finally made the shelter and it was facing the wind.  It still was nice though and the wind didn’t go through it.  It had a bench in it as well.  I got the stove going with a match since a lighter didn’t work in the cold.  It took forever to collect the snow to make 2L of water.  The 2 inches of new snow was fresh and pure but almost all air.  I didn’t dare take any snow below it since this was a shelter and we all know what guys do around shelters.

Once I got my water melted and it was heating up, I changed my socks again.  It was slightly easier to put the Vaseline on this time.  I put thinner socks on this time as it was warmer now.  I think it took around 45 minutes for all of this.  The water was boiling pretty fast and I didn’t have to wait around for it since I had a list of things to do on this stop.

Right after this shelter is the dangerous hills I went down in the dark last year.  I handled them much better this year.  I started seeing bikers at this point.  They must have slept at MelGeorges for a while and were out again.  Snow really makes it hard for them so they weren’t much faster than me.  The hills are steep and annoying for the next 8 miles or so.  Never ending really.  Plus with the new snow I couldn’t even go down all but the steepest hills with no run at the end.  I had already thrown away all the extra food I wouldn’t eat at shelter #7 to help drop weight but it was still heavy.

A couple women on bikes went with me for most of this section.  I must’ve looked pretty tired by this point.  I think they felt bad for me.  I had to decline all their offers of help of food since I was unsupported and really nothing sounded good other than hot pizza which was of course not going to happen.

Finally as it was just starting to get dark we got to the turn towards Surly.  It’s all downhill or flat from there.  The wind was really strong now when exposed.  It actually felt good.  It dried my feet out some and cooled me off.  I finally got to Surly at 6:30pm slightly ahead of schedule actually since I had already got my water done.  I walked past and called out, “#83 unsupported”.  I soon heard a response from a woman, “we support you!”  I laughed pretty hard at that one.  For some reason they don’t have me leaving until 7:40 but I never even stopped.

I should have though.  I was so tired.  It would’ve been much better to just sleep on my sled for 30-60 minutes right away to rejuvenate.  Instead I kept going.  Up and down Wakemup hill which was fun going down but harder going up.  In fact I ended up getting a huge cramp in my whole right hip/butt area after that climb.  It lasted for 2 hours and I could barely walk.  It hurt so bad!  Stretching did nothing.  Shoving my hand against it between my harness and butt seemed to help.  Finally I could walk somewhat pain free but I couldn’t push it for speed or run because it would cramp right back up.

I had done this section in 7 hours last year but that clearly wouldn’t happen unless I could run to make up the lost time.  About 5 hours into this section I started losing time.  I was falling asleep standing up.  I was confident I was still going in the right direction based on foot prints but no clue how fast or how far I’d gone.  My watch had died and the spare battery pack was basically froze.  My iPod had also died so I had nothing to help keep me awake.  I started just repeating the mantra, “walk fast, walk fast”, so I’d remember what I was doing.

Again I seemed to lose time and suddenly the 2 women on bikes who had gone the last section with me were there.  They had slept at Surly and were moving again.  They said the closest person to me was a ways back which was nice to hear as I was moving so slow.  I decided I had to try to sleep so I laid on my pack and set my phone alarm for 15 minutes.  I woke up shivering in 10 minutes.  I could actually run now!  I did for probably a mile and then had to walk again but I was definitely more awake now.

I crossed a road so I finally knew where I was.  I had 8.5 miles to go.  More than I wanted but at least I knew now.  I still had no clue how fast I was moving.  I tried hard and I felt like I was going 16 minute miles.  Turns out they were more like 20.  The wind had died down and I was getting hot.  I drank the last of my water but didn’t take anything off.  I just would take my hat and gloves off for periods of time.

Finally the turn to the casino!  I tried hard to run but I couldn’t.  The constant uphill for the last 20 miles wore me out and now it was even steeper to the finish.  I saw the snow fences and looked behind, still no one.  I enjoyed the last quarter mile to the finish.  I finished at 3:09am for a time of 44:03.  I had hoped for 42:30 but it was still better than last year!  I took pictures at the finish and then saw the next runner coming up the hill.  I had barely got there before him.

Jpeg
Yes!!!!

Jpeg
Exhausted

I had a gear check since I had finished pretty high up.  I didn’t know exactly where I finished.  I think they told me 6th at the finish line.  I was so stinking tired though so who knows.  It was a quick check which I appreciated since I just wanted to sit down.  I don’t mind the gear check, I just wish I could sit down somewhere.  They brought me up to the hospitality room and I found out I was 2nd place unsupported!  I was surprised.  I knew a couple of the guys who did it last year were doing it again and they were ahead of me the whole time.  I passed one somewhere around Surly or after.  The guy right behind me was unsupported as well.

P_20180131_073054
I think the coolest trophy I’ve ever gotten.

IMG_0796I got food and luckily they let me in my room early so I could shower, etc right away.  This was the first time in my life I had ever stayed awake for 48 hours.  I’ve done 38-40 hours many times but many of those weren’t while pulling a frickin’ sled in the woods.  I guess it was good training for a possible future race.

I slept 3 hours and found out my friend had dropped the day before.  So I was able to get my car that morning yet and my suitcase, etc.  The rest of the day was spent swapping stories with everyone who finished or didn’t, eating, and limping slowly around.  I was in love with elevators that day.

I left for home Thursday and was so happy to see my family again.

I’m glad I did this unsupported and finished it in decent health.  It was easily the hardest non-stop challenge I’ve ever done.  It’s hard to call it a multi-day since I never slept.  Certainly Volstate is longer but this is so much more isolating.  There is no where to hide from the weather when unsupported.  Having a warm place to go to change clothes, get food, sleep, etc is such a luxury really.

Arrowhead is hard.  Doing it unsupported is harder on so many levels.  I suppose there is always the option of doing the double arrowhead if I really want to make things hard on myself.

38 runners finished out of 64 that started (59%) which is pretty good considering the conditions.  Official results are here.

Today I Had A Great Run

Today I had a great run.

A 15 mile run that felt effortless.  A 25 MPH wind that pushed me one way, and made me work on the way back with dirt hitting against my face.  I laughed at some great podcasts and learned from others.

I planned the hikes I would take my children on in the mountains next summer.

I thought of my favorite hikes I want to take them on when they are old enough.

I hoped for a day when they ask me to go on their favorite hikes they discover as adults.

No wildlife made this run great, there were none to be seen.  No interesting scenes of nature.  No cars.  No people.  No crops.

Perhaps the nothingness was part of what made it great.  Getting lost in the constant effortless pace.  I didn’t need to look at my watch to know I would average under a 10 minute mile pace.

With just 1 mile left to go I almost felt sad.  I felt like going another 5 miles but knew I didn’t have the time.

I felt like a sled dog that wants to keep pulling the sled with the rest of his pack over the next hill.  Like a 12 year old that just wants another hour to play with his friends before going home.  Like a teenager wanting time to stop, so that his date can go on forever.  I felt myself pushing even harder into the wind and lengthening out my stride.  It felt awesome!

Some days I don’t want to run but I do.  Some days the run feels horrible.  But today I was reminded of why I run.  I run because someday I won’t be able to run any longer.  I’ll remember days like today for years.  A simple 15 mile run that made my life better.

Tunnel Hill 100 Mile – 2017

“Always remember our goal is Greece.  Don’t mess up and I’ll try my best to get us there.”  That was the final remark in the crew notes to my wife for this race.

So let’s get the main details out of the way.  This is a 100 mile race in extreme southern Illinois (Land of Lincoln!) on an old railroad bed.  It isn’t paved so it is still technically a trail but because it’s so flat and smooth, it is also a certified course for distance.  The course is an out and back from a central location; You end up doing a Southern and Northern out and back twice for the 100 mile.  It’s in November so the temperatures are near ideal and little chance for rain in November.  Basically it was designed for fast times and breaking records.  Despite being flat, it is quite pretty.  There’s a 543 foot long tunnel you go through 4 times, and lots of trestles.  Also, with 566 total starters there are plenty of chances to talk to other people.  I’ll detail the race results later.

This race required a 10+ hour drive from MN to get there.  That’s a long way for a race but the entire purpose was to get under 21 hours to qualify for a future race.  I further wanted to get under 20 hours so that was my goal.  It wasn’t just because under 20 hours seems cooler than under 21, but the race I was qualifying for has reduced their time cutoff in the past and I wanted to be under what I thought they might change it to.  While this race would be easy to do without a crew since it’s an out and back past the same drop bags multiple times, I brought my awesome wife to crew once again.  I had all of about 15 minutes of down time changing clothes, peeing, getting food and drink because of her.  The majority of aid stations I wouldn’t even stop as she’d just hand me water and gels on the move.  Not having her would’ve added 30 minutes to my time.

The drive was long and filled with “Land of Lincoln” signs all through Illinois which induced many inside jokes and  voices.  We got to the race bib pickup and supper before they closed. It is a good spaghetti supper with awesome desserts!  They also had sweet tea so you now you were in way Southern Illinois.  We stayed in a town to the North since Vienna doesn’t have much for hotel rooms.  It seemed like we had to drive uphill for a long ways which made me wonder what the climb to tunnel hill would be like on the course.

I got up at 4am for a 7am start.  The temperature was 28 degrees and zero wind so I had to start with a thermal long sleeve shirt, gloves and buff knowing I’d have to change after a couple hours when it warmed up.  Shorts were still in order though.  I saw runners wearing full jackets and long pants the entire race, I suspect they lived somewhere warmer.

There is a small warm building there at the start line you could go in and a good amount of porta-potties.  Even though the course is certified for distance they had us do this loop around the parking lot at the start.  I don’t know if this was required for the distance or just extra we ran.  With there also being a 50 mile race, it seemed odd since we never ran this loop a second time for the 100 mile distance.

I started somewhat up front, trying to leave room for fast 50 milers.  The race is chip timed but not from the starting line so your start time is gun time.  I wasn’t going to start 5  minutes in the hole lining up in the back, plus I thought a sub 20 hour time should be somewhat in the front.  Again, I really needed under 21 hours which is why I was so concerned with a few minutes here and a few seconds there, it really could make the difference.

I planned a slow degradation in my speed for the race with some adjustments for the incline and decline of tunnel hill.  Basically I started at a 9:10 pace and would finish with a 13:20 going downhill to the finish line.  I had been using Sword drink all year in preparation for this race since it would be served here and also I wanted to try something with fructose in it.  I’ve liked it so far this year.  BUT… I really don’t like the Orange flavor.  So sure enough, that’s all they had at the race.  Ugh!  I could only stomach it for the first 30 miles or so and then I was going to drink my limited supply of berry flavor I brought.  In the end though I only drank water the remainder of the race.

I’ll quickly state that while I’m confident the race course is indeed 100 miles (plus whatever fudge factor they always add for certified courses) I don’t agree with the distances between different aid stations.  Not a huge deal if you have a GPS watch but if you’re going with just a watch, you’ll be wondering why some sections are going faster/slower than you thought.  Also it’s hard to know what part of the aid station they are measuring from.  Often the timing mat isn’t at all near the aid station tent and Karnak and Tunnel Hill are very long areas.

My wife made it to the first aid station Heron Pond and I just did a Sword swap.  Next up was Karnak and here I changed into a T-shirt as it was above 40 now and still zero wind on the trail at least.  I had been talking to people here and there up to this point.  I had listened to a loud conversation about relationships by a group of women behind me for about 20 minutes.  Finally I ran with a woman named Abby going for sub 20 as well.  We stuck together for an hour or so but she ended up dropping to the 50 mile distance I found out later.

From Karnak to the Southern turn-around is almost 2.6 miles according to my watch and Google Earth and not the 2.4 miles listed.  To compensate for this Karnak to Heron Pond and Heron Pond to Vienna are both shorter than listed but mostly the Karnak to Heron Pond is shorter.  I’m going from tent to tent for measurements.

Abby and I got to the turnaround which has a timing mat but isn’t updated to the live results website as far as I can tell.  I assume it is there to make sure you didn’t cheat.  Soon after the turn I saw a friend of mine that I knew was also going for a qualifying time.  I had previously told her I’d slap her butt if she wasn’t keeping up so I started motioning as to get her back side as she passed me.  Of course I wasn’t really going to slap her, but in the process I scared the crap out of the woman running in front of her.  I yelled “sorry” over my back and hope she heard me.

So 14 miles down and a bunch more to go.  The trail is tree lined the entire way and very pretty, especially on the North section.  I went into cruise mode.  Eating gels and some ham and cheese sandwiches they had at aid stations, and Sword.  Still doing under 10 minute miles and banking some time.  I was up 10 minutes by the time I finished the first Southern loop and got to Vienna.

The photos are from somewhere around mile 20 I think.

I got my music out now as people were just kind of following their own game plan.  There is an aid station called Shelby Road just under 3 miles from Vienna going North.  I just got some more gels and Sword from my wife.  This is were I typically slow down in an ultra.  My stomach gets acidy, it usually is hot (not this race though), and I’m just out of glycogen after 30 miles.  I only drank water the rest of the race and didn’t eat much until I got back to Vienna at 50 miles.

I planned on 11 minute miles for this Northern loop but I was slower than that and I could feel it.  I had even done some math 20 miles into the race on what it would take to do sub-19.  Now I was hoping I could somehow hang onto sub-20.  I of course knew there are ups and downs and yet I’m always seemingly surprised when the first down shows up.  I had to start a running/walking pattern at Shelby Road that I maintained the remainder of the race.  Run 5 / walk 1.  The same I had done at my first 100 miler at Heartland 100.  My muscles were just tired of the same flat surface and the walking made a huge difference on things getting loose and normal feeling again.

The trail on paper starts to climb right away from Vienna to Tunnel Hill but to me it seemed like it didn’t really start until after Shelby Rd.  You go up almost 300 feet from Vienna to Tunnel Hill in 9  miles.  That certainly isn’t much but like I said it seemed to be more concentrated towards Tunnel Hill.  You can definitely see you’re going up during the daytime watching the trail cut into the bedrock in spots and seeing the people in front of you are uphill.  It’s harder to notice going downhill.  There is a  long trestle  before the tunnel that had gallon water jugs for an aid station.  I think it is about 400 feet long and 90 feet high.  You’re surrounded by hills though so there isn’t much of  a view other than looking down.

The tunnel itself is 543 feet long and after about 100 feet it’s completely dark.  You can see light at the end of the tunnel but that just makes it worse since the contrast is so high.  I just had to trust there weren’t any holes for me to fall into or twist an ankle on.  Even moving at a pretty good speed, it still takes a full minute to get through it.

tunnel
543 Feet Long Tunnel

I got to tunnel hill aid station which is a small town and a long parking lot along the trail.  I had lost 4 minutes of time already.  The Northern turn around is 2.1 miles away (not 2) and all downhill.  It’s pretty and curves a lot so you really never know when you’re going to get there.  Again you go over a timing mat and around a cone.  Then the uphill back to tunnel hill.  I saw Abby again about a half mile after the turn around so she was about 10 minutes back now and I knew behind her pace she wanted.  I still didn’t try to count how many people were in front of me at this turnaround since there were still 50 mile runners and way too many people to count accurately.  I didn’t see my friend Kimberly so I knew something must’ve happened to her.  She did end up going over 50 miles so I should’ve past her somewhere but it was likely at an aid station.  I saw some other VolState friends as well.

tunnel hill 5
I think along the Northern turn-around 40ish miles.

Back at tunnel hill it was all downhill to Vienna and I was looking forward to it.  I was still only 5 minutes in front of my pace.  I didn’t eat anything and only drank water.  Antacids helped some.  I saw people puking a lot.  I heard many runners telling their crew they had puked or saw other people puking.  I won’t go as far as to say it was like the Lardass scene from Stand By Me, but a case could be made that at least 10% of runners puked during the race.  In fact, that’s what my friend ended up getting pulled from the race for.  It wasn’t hot so that couldn’t be the reason.  I suspect there are a  LOT of runners trying for their first 100 mile distance at this race and inexperience was the cause for a lot of them.  It’s also probably part of why so many drop to the 50 mile distance.

I got to Vienna just 2 minutes under my goal pace now.  9 hours into the race and 4pm on the clock.  I was getting concerned but I was also happy that I stopped the bleeding now.  I was feeling better.  I had a breakfast shake, got my headlamp on and brushed aside the long sleeve t-shirt for now as it was still warm.  My wife seemed kind of grumpy with my loosing time.  I still technically had an hour buffer.  She was still doing a great job keeping things running smoothly though.

I now had a 12 minute pace planned.  I gained time again.  It was dark now and I kept going back and forth with this group of 4 guys.  Our run/walk patterns were different so I think we leap frogged a dozen times.  I had to charge my watch from Heron Pond to Karnak so I didn’t really know how fast I was going but ended up staying pretty much where I wanted.  My back started to hurt now and I could tell there was likely a blister on at least my left big toe but it only hurt if I purposely rubbed my toes in my shoes so I didn’t stop.  This time from Vienna I started counting people in front of me.  The leaders passed me still during the light.  The first place woman was gaining on the male leader from the last 2 times I saw them.  Then there was a long time before I started seeing more people in the dark.  I just counted everyone, not knowing if they were just a pacer or not.  I counted close to 50 by the time I got to the turn-around.  I wasn’t concerned about place, just time but I felt happy with the number.  In fact I was higher than 50th since there were a fair amount of pacers.

At Heron Pond the 4th time through, I stopped for the first time of the race and sat down.  My lower back was all tight and I was hurting.  I took an NSAID and had my wife massage me some.  She got the knots out in like 4 minutes,  awesome.  I put on a light long sleeve shirt.  With all this I also lost all my banked time.  29 miles left and no room for error.

I took some caffeine and got to Vienna.  My wife had a double cheeseburger waiting for me.  I knew the climb up tunnel hill would be slower so I planned on a 13:30 pace but even that was proving to be difficult.  The winners had already finished so I didn’t bother to keep track of how many were in front of me.  I started to get used to the idea of not getting under 20 hours as I just couldn’t get going.  I finally got to the tunnel and it was much less creepy now that I had a light in the tunnel.  I couldn’t believe there was no graffiti in it.  I got to Tunnel Hill aid station 7 minutes behind my schedule.  I drank some beet juice here and looked forward to the short downhill to the turn-around.

I cruised downhill but sucked going back up.  I was 10 minutes behind schedule and basically had 2 hours to get back to the finish in under 20 hours.  9.7 miles in 2 hours.  I had planned on a 13:20 pace back to the finish but would now essentially need under 12 to make up for stops and the lost time.  I soon decided after leaving Tunnel Hill for the last time that I’d go for it.  I took some more caffeine, ate a gel, and took off.

With the walking breaks I had to run under a 11 minute mile pace.  With the slight downhill, it wasn’t all that difficult to keep the pace.  I had to start mouth breathing again to get enough air and just concentrated on the 5 run / 1 walk timing and keeping the pace under 11 while running.  It was clear after an hour that I was making up time very well.  I would get to Shelby Rd back on pace meaning I had made up the 10 minutes already and just had under 3 more miles to go.  I got to Shelby and told my wife I was going for it.

It was nice those last few miles.  I knew I would make it but still kept up the pace.  There were a few hundred mile people still coming from the other direction with encouraging words.  I haven’t mentioned this before but there are mile markers along the tunnel hill trail and the finish line is just .15 miles after the nearest mile marker so I was constantly doing math on the way back in.  I finished at 2:54am, 19:54:05 after I started!  I think I made a whoo but there was basically no one there at the finish line to hear it.  The crowd to watch Camille Herron break the women’s world record 100 miles on trail with a time of 12:42 were long gone.  The aid station that had food before looked empty.  Really the only people there were pacers waiting for their runners to do the Northern loop with them.

I finished in 28th place overall, 22nd male, and 10th in my age division.

tunnel hill finish

I got a nice looking sub 24 hour buckle and running jacket.  I thought there was supposed to be finish line food but I didn’t see it and maybe it didn’t start until later.  Either way I wasn’t that hungry.  For the first time I realized how horrible I smelled.  There were supposed to be showers at the high school where we checked in the night before the race so we heading straight over there.

There were supposed to be signs where to go but we couldn’t find any.  The doors to the school were open so we just searched around and found a gym and then looked downstairs for locker rooms.  We could hear water running so we went in that direction.  This is the point where I was glad I wasn’t alone.  It’s 3am, we’re creeping around dimly lit halls in a school; Basically the beginning of every horror movie.  I walk into a locker room that is fairly well lit but the lights are blinking in that annoying fluorescent strobe effect.  No one answers my calls to “Hello”.  I get back to the shower area and can see almost half of them are dripping water at a steady pace with only 1 incandescent bulb working in there.  Luckily no one else was in there as I had no idea if this was a girls or boys locker room.  There were still a couple small rooms going off this locker room that I didn’t investigate for a murderer but really I wasn’t going to be able to fight one off anyway.  I had a hard enough time walking by this point.

I took off my shoes and socks and discovered a huge blister on my left big toe with the toe nail already lifted up.  I also realized that while I had brought a towel and soap, I had forgot clothes to change into.  So I went to the door naked trying to find my wife, and yelled at her outside.  Luckily she heard me and got my clothes and a safety pin to pop the huge blister.  We should’ve got a picture but whatever.  The left side of the nail had moved a couple millimeters towards the end of my toe as well.  I had always wondered why the left side of this nail wasn’t growing as fast as the right side of the nail from when I had lost it last year.  I think the tip of the nail was getting caught under the skin towards the end of my toe and now that the blister had lifted the nail up, it just went up and over it like it should’ve been.  That’s also the possible reason for the blister to begin with.  That or these shoes were doing something I wasn’t aware of in training.  Regardless, I’m starting over with this nail yet again.  I had zero blisters at Superior 100 just 2 months ago and now I’ll likely loose 3 nails from this easy flat race.

The shower was nice and quick.  It took some effort to get my compression tights on but I got them on with my wife’s help.  She wasn’t super tired so we started the drive home right away.  I tried to sleep in the passenger seat but it’s so hard to get comfortable with my feet and legs being so painful and not being able to put them up decently.  I wasn’t that tired mentally either.  I couldn’t keep my eyes open but I talked to my wife to keep her up and company until we stopped at a rest stop around 5am.  She got the air mattress out for me and we both slept for about 80 minutes.

I then drove for a few hours until we were both kind of hungry a few hours later.  There was a Jack in the Box and we always love those so she got gas while I went in to order.  Afroman’s “Because I Got High” was playing loudly from the kitchen.  I started laughing since most of the workers were in the single digits old when it came out.  Also a totally inappropriate song to be playing since this was the unedited version.  Anyway, I asked if they had burgers and the response was a glorious “we have a full menu all day”!  I got the big double bacon burger combo and another sandwich for my wife.  Only $5 for the same thing Hardee’s charges $8 for.  Man I wish we had Jack in the Box in MN.

The rest of the trip was fairly benign.  A good night’s sleep was had by all and we both had the day off work the next day as well.

The stats for this years race: 314 started the 100 mile race.  15 DNF’d, 119 dropped down to the  50 mile distance, which leaves only 180 to finish the 100 mile distance.  That’s only a 57% completion rate.  You’d think by the statistics that this is a super difficult race, it’s not.  I really wouldn’t recommend this for someone’s first 100 mile race unless you are the type of person who would never quit or you really don’t care if you actually finish the 100miles.  You need to know yourself that well, not just hope.  Otherwise you’re very likely to quit by dropping down to the 50 mile distance since you still get a buckle and go right past the quitting point halfway through the race.  37% did just that this year with absolute perfect weather and conditions.  They were no where near the time cutoff either.

I’d suggest a point to point race or long distance out and back where the only way back to the start line is to finish for your first.  The only way you’ll see if you can do it is to force yourself by not giving yourself an out.  You will hurt no matter how “easy” of a course a 100 mile race is on.  I don’t recommend going for Superior as your first either as that one is quite difficult but there are lots of races in between the two.

The race itself is well run.  I didn’t really make use of the aid stations since I had my wife to help.  While there was plenty of food at the beginning of the race, it was basically all gone by dark.  Even water was in short supply my wife said at times.  I’m not sure if people ate way more than they expected or if crews were eating aid station food or what.  Maybe a bunch more food showed up at 5am when I was already done, I guess just be prepared like you always should that there might not be food at an aid station.  I would probably only run this again if I needed another fast time in November since it’s a pretty long drive for me.  I don’t think you could find a better race as far as setting a personal best at the 100 mile distance.

Superior 100 – 2017

I’ll just start by saying I’m pretty excited about my performance because it’s going to come through in my writing that way anyway.  Not that I won by any means or even placed for my age, but I did really, really well for me and a great improvement from last year.  I got 20th out of 237 starters, that’s huge for me in a summer race!  My time was 27:26:24, almost 4 hours off last years time!  It’s pretty safe to say I won’t have a performance like that again so I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

So why did things go so well?  The main thing was the temperature.  The high was in the 60’s instead of high 70’s last year.  The low got down to freezing in some locations which was awesome.  Probably at least 90 minutes of the improvement was just because I didn’t get overheated for more than 30 minutes the entire race instead of the entire day last year.  Some improvement was because I didn’t run Vol State this year.  The rest…I’m not entirely sure.  I certainly didn’t train better or harder.  I planned things a little better with my crew maybe and changed some nutrition stuff.  I think mostly though I just kept feeling pretty good and as long as I felt good, I pushed it.

The Race

Absolutely beautiful!  No clouds pretty much the entire race.  Northern lights the night before.  The Superior Hiking Trail just gets better every time I run or hike on it.  I’m so glad it’s still a pretty good secret.  Here’s an example of the beauty you’ll see along the race route.  This is just after the Split Rock aid station so very early in the race.

Anyway just go to the race website for tons of awesome and scary photos if you want.

The race itself in on the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota.  We go from Gooseberry Falls to Lutsen Ski Resort almost completely along the superior hiking trail which is pretty technical single track.  21,000 elevation gain packaged in both large and many small doses.  The course had an additional change this year since the bridge over Split Rock Creek was out so we had to ford the river 7 miles into the race.  So guaranteed wet feet pretty early on.

I brought the whole family this year.  My awesome wife/crew, my children, and my parents/children watchers.  My parents have never gone to one of these events yet so I decided it was about time they came and saw what it was about.  I don’t think it hurt that it was on the north shore either.  We brought 2 vehicles so my wife could concentrate on crewing during the race and my parents could do whatever they wanted with the kids.

The night before the race is the pre-race meeting with spaghetti dinner.  We all went and ate before the meeting.  I talked to a couple people before the meeting started and got registered after I ate.  My parents stayed to listen to the meeting as well since they didn’t know much about the race.  It was shorter this year which I appreciated.  I didn’t stick around to talk to people since I had the family with.

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My pre-race photo.

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The start line if you couldn’t tell.

We stayed at a hotel near the start line again and got there about 20 minutes before it started.  I saw a few people I knew would be there but didn’t have much time to talk.  I was busy explaining things to my parents and wrangling children.  I lined up at the starting line and made sure to be up further this year as I didn’t feel like being slowed down again once we got to the single track.  I placed 37th last year so I lined up in about 30th place  knowing I’d do better.

And we were off at 8am.

The first 4 miles are on a bike path similar to the last 3 years and in my opinion will always stay that way from now on.  It’s the only way to spread the field out.

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Me running with the eventual female winner.

Next we turn onto the single track and start climbing up along the shore of the river.  We crossed the river about 0.2 miles from the old bridge spot so the course was shorter than normal (and even shorter because of the bike path, basically 1 mile shorter total but still 102.3 miles long)  Here’s a video of the crossing.

Split rock river - cole peyton
Photo Credit : Cole Peyton

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Photo Credit : Cole Peyton

It wasn’t bad but the first 2 steps were impossible to not get wet.  I wore my new Altra Timp for the first 20 miles of the race.  I didn’t have any time to break them in but they drained water like a dream.  I purchased them specifically because of this crossing and the next one coming up after Split Rock aid station.  My Lone Peak and Olympus both hold a half inch of water so they are useless for water crossing on trails.  I got into the Split Rock aid station at 9:28 am, 20 minutes faster than I expected for my 30 hour goal time.  That’s almost 9 minute miles but I still felt great and it was sure nice not to have to go around anyone on the trail.

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Some good views of Lake Superior early on in the race. Photo Credit – Amy Broadmoore

The mud the first 20 miles of this race wasn’t totally ridiculous but it was more than usual.  It’s not near as slippery as it was at Bighorn since there must be a lot less clay in it in northern MN.  Here’s a good photo of what the muddy portions are like.

Mud - zach Pierce
Photo Credit – Zach Pierce

Next up was Beaver Bay 10.4 miles away.  I tried to pay more attention to the trail this year so I could remember it better.  About half way to Beaver Bay is where the rocks begin.  Oh sure there are plenty of rocks before but you will understand what I mean when you run the race.  These rocks don’t stop basically until Tettegouche, and then they just go down to the normal amount of rocks.  Oh and there was lots of mud as well.  The entire trail was fairly wet the entire year according to the hiking trail website.  Finally about 7 miles from Split Rock you get to the beaver dam crossing.  I had read about it on the hiking trail website but I didn’t know how big it was going to be.  It was pretty deep and smelly and you couldn’t see where you were stepping.  Oh and the orange scum on top of the water was an extra special touch I thought.  Here’s a video of most of the crossing.

I’ll just add it here that I wish there was a compilation video of all the major spills people took during this race.  I saw/heard 2 of them just behind me during the Split Rock to Beaver Bay section.  One guy totally fell in the mud after slipping and one guy made a huge sound when he slipped on a boardwalk and I think landed on his back.  Both were fine.  I only fell once but it was from a rock in the Beaver Bay to Silver Bay section.  I just tripped and caught myself with my hands but I also hit my knees on the rocks while going down.  Somehow I was OK.

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This is what it looks like for a good portion of the section.  Notice how bent my left foot is?  You need flexible feet for this course.  Photo Credit – Zach Pierce

Finally I got to Beaver Bay and the first place you can meet your crew.  I got in at 11:38am which was only about 6 minutes ahead of my expected time.  Dam beavers slowing my down, get it?  My whole family was there.  My crew was efficient.  My children were not.  They kept wanting me to come see these rocks, as if I hadn’t seen a million in the last 5 miles already.  I took off my shoes and socks and applied my wet foot mixture.  I would’ve kept the Timps on but they were giving me a hot spot in the heel since they were so new.  I put on the Olympus knowing they should do OK since there was only mud from now on and they could handle that most likely, plus they were broken in.  I told my wife I would try to slow down.  Next stop was Silver Bay just 5 miles away.

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Nice runnable section from Beaver Bay. Photo Credit : Fresh Tracks Media

I didn’t slow down at all.  In fact I sped up.  I felt great in my new dry shoes and the mud was gone.  Still rocks, lots of rocks but a couple flat open runnable sections too.  I got to Silver Bay at 12:40, 20 minutes ahead now.

The next section was a long one again at 10 miles so I loaded up on gels and ice water and Sword.  It’s one of the tougher sections but I think easily the section with the best views.

The first video is bean/bear lake overlook and the second one is my favorite view point which is before Tettegouche and as far as I can tell unnamed.

 

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Yes that’s a straight drop off and an awesome view.

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As you get towards Tettegouche, you can see the lakes of the park with the cabins in between them.  You can rent them even in the winter but we still haven’t done that.  Finally you start going downhill, down the Drainpipe and to the Tettegouche aid station that your crew has to climb up a third of a mile trail to get to. The bottom half of the drainpipe.  There are bigger boulders at the top.  This part you can run down if you're brave, I almost ran into the photographer.

I was looking forward to an ice cold breakfast shake here and was going to grab my emergency flashlight in case things went real bad before County Road 6.  I got in at 3pm which was 50 minutes ahead of schedule now.  That’s what cool weather does, makes me go fast.  I looked around and didn’t see my wife anywhere.  I yelled out “bananapants!”, and got no response.

Well, on I go to County Road 6 for another 8.6 miles with no electrolytes or my yummy shake I had been looking forward to.  I started to slow down since my nutrition plan was now shot and I needed to conserve a little bit.  Plus it was actually kind of hot for me now.  There are a fair amount of ups and downs this section and not much for views.  People started passing me but at least I had someone to talk to.  Up to this point I had actually saw very few people since Split Rock.

I wondered if my wife got a flat tire and I’d never see her the rest of the race.  I could probably make it to Finland before dark and beg someone for a headlamp so I wouldn’t have to quit.  Finally I got to County Road 6 at 5:23pm an hour ahead now.  The first words out of my wife’s mouth were, “You were an hour early so it’s your fault!”  Whatever, we had a lot of stuff to do.  Got my headlamp, emergency flashlight, watch charger, finally my shake, etc.

There was a very real chance I’d get to Finland before dark.  It was nice seeing everything in the next section.  It looked different in the dark last year.  This is really the easiest section of the course.  There are a couple miles of real rocky trail and hills but the last 5 miles are either completely flat or slightly uphill.  Oh and essentially NO rocks either on the last part.  Much of it is on boardwalks (superior expressways) too.  Not much else to report on this section other than I finally started to get a little energy back.  The nutrition problems from Tettegouche had lost me some time but I knew the energy was coming soon.

I got to Finland at 7:30pm an hour ahead of schedule and more than 2 hours ahead of last year.  The race splits has me coming in almost 20 minutes later but maybe that’s of me leaving.  Anyway, my socks were kind of damp so I changed socks here.  I also packed a long sleeve shirt, gloves, buff and put my headlamp on.  I wouldn’t see my wife until Crosby which normally would take 3 hours but she knew better at this point not to follow the schedule anymore.

Sonju Lake aid station was next and 7.5 miles away.  It seemed to take forever this year even though it wasn’t too bad.  I had my gloves on to help keep my hands warm.  It was getting colder now that the sun was gone and the moon was rising.  It fooled me a couple times thinking the aid station was coming up.  I started worrying about missing the spur trail turn since my watch showed I should’ve been there already.  Finally I saw the lights strung up.  It was a 60’s love themed aid station.  The best part though was the cheeseburgers.  I swear that’s my new favorite aid station food, move over bacon!  I got there at 9:47pm.  I didn’t stay long as I didn’t want to get cold.

4.2 miles to Crosby and I’d see my wife there.  Finally a short section but a very technical one.  Lots of roots and rocks in the dark.  I got to Crosby at 11:02pm 80 minutes ahead.  At this point my wife knew she wouldn’t be getting any sleep since I kept getting to the next aid station too soon for her to rest.  I don’t even know what I did here really other than load up for the next long 9.4 mile section.

Crosby to Sugarloaf is never fun.  This is the type of trail section that if you asked a friend to hike it with you, you would probably no longer have that friend.  If I ever wanted a divorce, I’d take my wife on this section.  It just seems pointless.  Lots of steep climbs and descents filled with rocks and mud.  I doubt it’s even pretty in the day.  At least it was cool and it didn’t rain this year.  I think I passed a few people and got passed by a few people.  By this point I was listening to music.  I had heard some coyotes early on in the night but by this time nature had pretty much let me down aurally.  I also put my long sleeve shirt on during one of the non-climbing sections.

I got to Sugarloaf at 2:08am.  I think I had some beet juice here and some chips.  Night time was kind of  a haze this year since I didn’t have lightning  and rain to keep me focused like last year.

Sugarloaf to Cramer Road isn’t a long section at 5.6 miles but it has some fairly steep hills and overall is uphill to Cramer Road.  My watch died along this section due to the cold.  This section I also ended up putting on my buff for the first time.  It was only for about 5 minutes and then I warmed up going up a hill again and took it off.  I got into Cramer at 3:55am an hour and 45 minutes ahead of schedule.  Last year it was already light out when I got there.  Now I was starting to think I might see the sunrise at Carlton Peak but that was a pipe dream.  I didn’t do anything special at Cramer as far as I can remember but probably had another breakfast shake.

Cramer to Temperance is 7.1 miles and the last long section in my mind.  I took the normal amount of water since with the cold weather I was plenty hydrated.  I always think this section should be fast.  It’s overall downhill but the issue is the technicality of this section I think.  Also, I always get fooled thinking the Cross River is the Temperance River.  It messes with me mentally.  It was almost as slow as my Manitou section.  You can’t really fly down the hill on the Temperance River either.  There are lots of rock and root sections that aren’t too hard on fresh legs like the marathon people have but hard on tired legs.  Towards the end it seems like you start going away from the aid station you can hear as well since there are kind of long switchbacks.  Plus this year my headlamp died.  I had it on too bright a setting with the colder temps.  So I had to get my flashlight which gives off plenty of light but then you can’t swing your arms very much.  This drastically slowed down my power hiking capabilities.  This section is pretty in the daylight though.

I got to the Temperance River aid station at 6:15am.  It was just starting to get light so at least I could unload a bunch of stuff here.  Gone were the headlamp, flashlight, battery charger, etc.  I changed back into my t-shirt but kept my gloves.  I changed socks for the last time here.  They weren’t wet but moist enough to change one last time.  I didn’t put anymore wet foot mix on though.  They have pancakes here so I had a couple of those with bacon to help fuel me to the finish.  I could see a lot of 100 mile people taking a long time here, it’s just a nice place with good food.

By the time I left I only had 10 minutes until sunrise so no way to make Carlton Peak for sunrise.  The next section is one of the prettiest but also the section I least look forward too.  You start off going further down river until you cross it and then start back up the other side.  Thus begins the 800 foot climb up to Carlton Peak.  It’s the longest climb on the entire superior hiking trail if I remember right.  It’s at least the longest of the race.  It starts out with pretty views of the river and it’s even runnable.  Then it’s just up, up, up.  Oh, you think that’s the top?  I mean you can’t see any trees higher than you right?  Nope just go around a little bit and then you see you can still go up more.  Anyway, the last bit is boulder climbing and actually kind of fun while still sucky on tired legs.  Your split for the entire section usually won’t be too horrible actually since the beginning isn’t too hard and once you get down the initial steep part off Carlton Peak, it’s smooth sailing on boardwalks for a bunch of it.  This year there was a fair amount of mud on the non-boardwalk sections as well.  I met a few people on this section.  I think it was a pacer/runner combo.  They caught up to me on the climb up and I passed them on the way down, the usual for me.

I arrived at Sawbill at 7:56am!  The marathon hadn’t even started yet.  I was being passed like crazy at this aid station last year.  I was so pumped to not have to deal with any people flying past me until at least after Moose Mt if at all.  This was pretty much an in and out stop for me.  Less than a half marathon to go and almost 2 hours ahead of my goal pace for 30 hours.  I decided I needed to try to get a little buffer to stay 2 hours ahead.

This is one of my favorite parts of the course.  There are a couple steepish climbs but the rest is open maple forest and you can see so far compared to much of the course.  It’s always muddy in spots on this section, even in drought years but they are still mostly runnable.  The main thing really with this section and the next is that it isn’t technical at all for the most part.  You can just run and not have to have your brain in what I call terminator mode all the time.  You know in the movie when you’d see the POV of the terminator and all you saw was a bunch of code and things being highlighted in his path?  That’s what it feels like in the technical sections, especially at night.  All you can do is keep your head down and concentrate on every object on the ground in your headlamp’s field of view flying past you and making sure your feet land either on or between those objects depending on what they are.  It’s kind of exhausting and I think the reason many people walk at night.  They’re too tired mentally to handle it.  I passed a few runners walking this section.  I’m pretty sure they were hurting in some way or another.  I heard one telling his pacer he just couldn’t figure out what happened to his quads.

I got into Oberg at 9:33am.  Over 2 hours ahead so I had my buffer and could just relax and enjoy the finish.  No second afternoon for this guy this year.  The only real reason I tried to push this section was just to not get passed by anyone like last year.  The climb up Moose Mt. sucked as always for me.  There is a great overlook just off the trail at the top but I didn’t stop to look.  I somehow caught up to a couple people at the top of the mountain so now I couldn’t let them catch back up.  I flew down the mountain as best I could which wasn’t that graceful.  The food from Temperance was starting to run out but I could smell the barn.  I only power hiked the majority of Mystery Mt. this year as I didn’t have the energy to run it.

I started to get excited at doing so well this year.  I had virtually no clue what place I was in but I know it was around 29th at Temperance.  I hoped my family would be ready at the finish line as I knew I was going even faster than last year and would be under 2 hours for the section which I’ve never done before.  I took off my headphones in preparation for the decent to the finish line.  Finally after running what always seems like the entire surface of Mystery Mt, the trail starts to descend.  It’s just the kind of steepness I love.  Not so steep it’s impossible to run but steep enough to make it on the edge of being scary at full speed.  I flew past 2 more runners who luckily heard me coming as one of them was just around a corner I flew around and couldn’t stop if I tried.  I ran that mile in under 9 minutes which is an awesome feeling after 100 miles.  Then the river crossing which is pretty but you can’t stop that close to the finish line.  There’s a small little hill and then a more gentle decline to the road and then the finish line.

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Coming around the turn… Photo Credit – MG Wheeler

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Down the straight a way… Photo Credit – MG Wheeler

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And across the finish line!  Photo Credit – MG Wheeler

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Celebratory Woo!  Photo Credit – MG Wheeler

I finished at 11:26am and never did get passed by any marathon or 50 milers.  That’s 27:26:24.  Most of my family was there.  My daughter felt it was more important to play on the playground and my mom was going to get her camera so she missed it too.

I got my medal, buckle, and star to add to my sweatshirt sleeve I got last year.  I ate a couple bowls of chili and my crew helped me wash my shoes and take my gear.  I slept for a little bit but I hurt too much and so I went swimming with the kids and tried to find out when my friends would be coming in.  We ate supper and then I was just too tired to stay and watch people finish.  I wanted to just kind of sleep and watch from my balcony but I couldn’t since there was all this smoke coming from the cook tent they had set up.  One friend missed the last time cut off but everyone else finished which was great.  Southern MN had a decent showing this year.

I only stubbed my toe about 5 times the entire race but they were doozies.  No toenails were lost from this race either so that’s always good.  No blisters at all but I changed socks more often than most races and that likely helped.

The finishing rate was 71.3% this year so above average which I’m sure was due to the nice temperature and no rain.  Plus I think there were a fair amount of people avenging themselves for quitting in previous attempts that weren’t going to quit no matter what this time.  I hope all my future races can go this well but of course that won’t happen.

We drove North to Naniboujou Lodge for their Sunday brunch the next morning since my parents have never been there and to challenge my daughter to a rematch waffle eating contest.  She said she didn’t feel like having an eating contest.  I think she just wanted to retain the title.  For the record though, I would’ve won.  I did just run 100 miles; you tend to be hungry for the next week.

Pity Party During An Ultramarathon

I’ve noticed in every 100 mile or longer race that I’ve done that there is a definite period of mental negativity during the race.  What  I mean is that there is a point where your brain tells you that you should stop because of X.  Then Y. Then every other excuse it can come up with.  To me this is the hardest part of a longer ultramarathon.  It used to show up towards mile 80 or so of the race when I was physically in pain.  Lately though it’s been showing itself sooner.  Both seem like logical times.  You are tired and hurt by 80 miles.  You still have a long ass way to go at 30 miles of a 100 mile race.  I basically just call these times, my pity party.

I don’t really know how I get over these negative times other that to just keep going.  I know some people have a mantra they recite but I’ve never done that.  I guess the best thing for me is to KNOW that things will get better.  I’ve been through this before and got through it and I WILL this time too.  At my first 100 mile race I just listened to the advice I got from others which was basically the same thing.  Don’t dwell on any pain you have because something else will take it’s place in 5 miles.  Just accept that it hurts and then move on and ignore it.  Sure enough they were right.

Your body can handle the effort!  Seriously, even if you think it can’t, it surely can.  Your mind is what will  stop you.  This has been proven by research.  A person will say they are completely drained to the point of collapse and if enticed properly, they can go longer still.  Even without research you should know this as common sense.  Go run some long distance to the point you can barely shuffle along.  Then add a pit bull chasing you.  You will be sprinting, I guarantee you.  You’re body can handle it.  Ready your mind.

Something will surely go wrong during an ultramarathon.  You’re out there for a day or more so there’s plenty of time for things to fall apart.  The point is to plan for as many contingencies as you can so that you’re mind is already in what I call McGyver mode.  Even if you don’t have what you need, there is likely another racer who will help out.  That’s one thing our sport has going for it more than most.  Volunteers are awesome at aid stations as well and willing to help.

Everyone can find the will to finish the race if they want to.  And you should want to.  Really, why the hell else are you signing up for a 100 mile race.  If you just want to see the course, save yourself the $250 entry fee and go hike or run it yourself.  Quitting unless truly injured I think cheats yourself.  By the way, I’ve seen very few DNF’s from true injuries.  Most people who have DNF’d will admit this, at least to themselves, if being honest.

One of the best things about ultramarathons is seeing how much more capable you are than you thought.   I still to this day am amazed that I can run 100 miles in a day.  It just blows my mind the human body can do that.  Nothing about my body is special.  Nothing.  If you’ve been to an ultramarathon, you’ve seen that any body type can finish one.  Not all are fast, but all can finish.  Of course you need training but it isn’t as much as you think.  If you can finish a marathon, you can finish an ultramarathon.

I guess the whole point of this is to say it’s worth the effort.  It really is.  Yes you get a belt buckle to remind you of the race.  But, it’s reminding you of how awesome you felt.  Not necessarily just when you crossed the finish line, but the memory of when you KNEW you were going to conquer the distance and the course.  That might be mile 99 or 39 of the race, but there will be a moment of clarity that you just absolutely know nothing will stop you from finishing.  And that moment is amazing.  If you quit, I don’t see how you could get that feeling of accomplishment.

I love the feeling the whole week after a long ultra.  Not the physical feeling, cause that kind of hurts.  It’s the emotional wonderment of the feat you accomplished.  “How the hell did I do that?”  “Yes, I trained and planned, but still how did I do it?”  “100 freaking miles!”  “And the winner did it in like 18 hours, humans are amazing!”  Those are the usual things I say to myself.

My new favorite song relates to this all somewhat.

 

Bighorn 100 Race Report – 2017

I’m not sure how to start this one so I’ll start with the basics.  The Bighorn 100 is a 100 mile trail race that takes place in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming the 3rd weekend in June which this year meant the race started Friday June 16th.  It started at 10am this year which was an hour earlier than most years but still 2 hours later than I’d like it to.  This was my first mountain ultramarathon and a qualifier for both Western States and Hardrock which was part of the attraction for me.  Honestly I probably wouldn’t have even considered it if not for some friends that have attempted it in the past.  Most of the information I got from them and previous race reports helped a lot, some of it was just plain wrong and so my original game plan had to be changed.  The main game changer in this race though wasn’t the course, it was the weather…

Before this race the whole family went to Yellowstone.  I figured it’d help out with the elevation  adjustment and it’s only 3 hours from Yellowstone so you might as well go there too.  The race peaks out at 9000 ft.  I live at 1000 feet.  I’ve never had an issue when I go hiking in the mountains, even to 14,000 feet but it never hurts to give yourself time to adjust.  Other than breathing faster than normal, I never had any issues during the race.

On a side note, Yellowstone was awesome.  I did a few training runs in the park (one on which I had to wait on 6 elk that wouldn’t get off the trail).  We saw 6 geysers going off in one day.  I saw bison, elk, mule deer, pronghorn, bighorn, a wolf, a brown bear, a black bear, 2 osprey nests, marmots, and all the smaller things you see in the woods.  Do you want to know how many animals I saw the entire race?  5 small mice at night on the trail.  That’s it!  Lots of flowers though as you can see in the photo at the beginning.  Tons of lupines which I love.

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The elevation profile with my notes of how steep things were to help determine my goal paces for each section.

So based on the above elevation profile, race reports, etc I set a race goal of just over 27 hours.  It was pretty aggressive for me but it seemed very doable.  It would’ve been doable save 2 things: those apparent straight lines aren’t, and it rained, for a long time.

The pre-race meeting was at 8am in Dayton, WY which is where the finish line is.  After the meeting they had buses to shuttle us to the start line.  It was a pretty long wait for the race to start and it was clear there were a lot of people.  Turns out 373 runners to be exact plus their crew.  I brought a chair to relax in since I knew it would be awhile.  Normally this race is really hot so I decided to use my 2L bladder and made an insulated pocket out of mylar bubble wrap to keep the ice in it cold.  Also I had a bad reaction to having ice straight against my skin at vol state and this prevented that.  Even though the temperatures weren’t very high, I still was sweating a lot during this race so I was happy with my decision to bring the bladder.  I was able to skip most aid stations as well this way and save time.  I also had taped my feet since the race was starting dry.  I planned on changing over to my wet feet setup later.

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Chillin’ out with my kids playing behind me.

Finally we got into line just before 10am.  It was crowded!  We started on a dirt road but there were so many people that you really couldn’t even pass anyone on it very easy.  Plus everyone was going fast already.  I started towards the back middle and should’ve started way further up or just sprinted the first mile.  After the 1.3 miles of road, we started the conga line up the mountain.

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Conga line.

3200 feet in about 6 miles with most of the elevation gain in the last 4 miles.  The trail doesn’t open up again until almost 7 miles into the race so any passing done in the beginning is hard fought.  I’d have to save energy and then run full speed uphill around the 8 or so people in front of me to get anywhere.  Then I’d catch up to the next group of people after power hiking for 5 minutes.  There was no way to get a rhythm at all since your speed was determined entirely by the person in front of you.  I was assuming the trails in this race would be similar to trails I’ve hiked in the mountains where the grade is pretty consistent with switchbacks in the steepest areas.  Not so with race.  The trails pretty much go straight up and down similar to back home in MN.  Not a big deal but it keeps you from being able to get a good rhythm going like I was counting on when I set my goal paces.  Especially when in a conga line.  At times there was completely still air.  I imagine this section really sucks with a cloudless sky above you and warmer temps.

The nice thing was all the flowers and since we were going so slow up the mountain, talking to people was easy.  Here are the pictures I took on the way up.

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Lots of false summits on this climb.

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Flatter section

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Nice view at least.

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Looking back.

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Notice the clouds?

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The valley in the distance is where we started from.

At last you get to some dirt roads and more open pasture areas where you can go your own speed.  Then you go down a steep hill to upper sheep aid station.  From here to dry fork aid station (mile 13.5) is almost entirely on good roads, meaning a hard packed road with some rocks and not just clay.  You go uphill and then back downhill into the station.  This is the first big aid station where your crew can meet you.

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Road to dry fork.

On the way there was a spot I had to duck under a tree.  I thought the path was clear but then something threw my head back and I almost stopped cold.  There was a branch that hit my head and slid down my face.  It hurt and was burning since all the sweat was going into whatever wound I had.  I took a picture of myself to see what it looked like and I couldn’t see anything.  By the time I finished the race though, it became clear.

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Looks good somehow.

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Nice big scratch. Look at that 5 O’clock, I mean 100 mile shadow and sunburn.

The family was there with the cowbell cheering me on when I got in at 1:16pm.  I got more ice water and Sword in my bladder.  There wasn’t much else to get here but I took some time to make sure I had everything I needed since I wouldn’t see them until the turn around at jaw’s trailhead (mile 48).  The kids still seemed in good spirits.  This was the first 100 mile race they were helping crew so it was going to be a good test of my wife’s nerves.  I bought some toys they didn’t know about to have her hand out throughout the race to help out with boredom.

From dry fork to cow camp aid station is about 6 miles all on dirt roads.  It was also downhill overall but still lots of ups and downs in between.  I did this section fairly fast since I love downhills and had plenty of energy from going so slow in the beginning.  I passed a few people on this section.

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Typical section from dry fork to cow camp.  Look at that nice dry clay road.

Cow camp to bear camp was back on trail with lots of ups and downs but overall the elevation doesn’t change from aid station to aid station.  It’s 7 miles long.  This is where I determined it would be difficult to keep my 27 hour pace up.  I was keeping it up so far but it was clear these up and downs would slow my expected pace on the way back to the finish line.  28 hours still isn’t bad and I was still having fun.  Now, with the elevation I was pretty much open mouth breathing all the time since I’m from the prairie.  Soon after cow camp I breathed in a fly.  It went full on into my trachea and I could feel it’s wings buzz a little.  Luckily I had my lungs half filled with air before he went in so I had something to immediately cough him out.  He buzzed around my mouth before I could finally spit him out.  Then I proceeded to cough for 30 seconds straight.  Good times!

There are 2 water pipes with drinkable water coming out of them along this section.  The first is almost exactly a mile from cow camp.  The other is about 3 miles further.  I washed my face in one of them and it felt amazing.  It was cooler at the higher elevation but still hot for me so I was still sweating a lot.

Bear camp is a limited aid station since they have to hike in the supplies.  Basically water and some food choices.  The next section to footbridge is a large downhill.  Don’t worry, there’s still a couple hundred foot uphill you get to do as well.  This section is known as the wall.  It’s not really a wall, just very steep at about 750feet a mile drop.  Steeper in sections and flatter in others.  Awesome views of the valley you were going to drop down into though.  I put in my headphones here for the rest of the race and started down.  I wish I could say I flew down, but you can’t go fast when it’s that steep.

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Looking down into the valley where footbridge across the river is.  It’s past the next ridge and way down.

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Looking back up while part way down the wall.  Believe me it’s much steeper than it looks.

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View just to the left of the last photo.

This section was pretty rocky which would help some in my determination of if I’d be able to get up it in the rain later on.  I’ll add that while running from cow camp to bear camp there are basically views of the cliffs down to the river.  You’re never close to them so you can’t see the river, but it hints at how steep of a drop the wall will be once you get there.  It got warmer as I went downhill and my ears were constantly popping.

Footbridge (mile 30) is a major aid station with drop bags.  Your crew can meet you there but you have to drive through a couple streams and it’s a long drive so I decided it wasn’t worth my family trying to get there.  Plus they make you park a mile away and there’s no way she was going to carry stuff a mile to me and a mile back.  I got in at 4:34pm which was still on pace for me.  I got my cold weather gear out to put in my pack.  Also my headlamp as it’d get dark before I got to jaws trailhead.  I put on a long sleeve tech shirt since it suddenly got cold with the large clouds and wind moving in.  I left my hat in the drop bag as well.  It looked like there was a campground near this aid station so the road in must not be as bad as I thought.

The next 17 miles is all uphill with a mile of pretty much flat after that into jaws trailhead.  But, as before, the uphill is not constant.  There are lots of ups and downs, especially in the first section to cathedral rock.  This section was right along the river and kind of loud because of it.  It was all pretty much rocky with a sharp drop off into the river on your left side and a steep hill on your right.  As usual I was hitting my first wall of the race which I usually hit around mile 29 but since that was downhill, it came now.  I could see up the valley that it was raining there already.  By the time I got to cathedral rock aid station it was raining.  I got my cheap Walmart poncho out and put it on.  I’d have it on for the next 12 hours.

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A blurry view of the river.

The next section to spring marsh is 6.5 miles long.  This is where you start to pull away from the river some and are more in pasture land again.  It was already muddy and I hit my low point in the race.  I still had 66.5 miles to go!  The most logical place to quit in this race is at jaws trailhead since your crew can easily get you there.  I started worrying about getting up the wall in the mud on the way back.  I didn’t want to quit at footbridge and then have to wait forever to get a ride back to the finish line.  Plus the kids would now have to wait almost all of the next day for me to finish as I’d be way behind schedule.  Food tasted gross, gels would almost make me barf.  Etc, etc.  All negative all the time for the next 6.5 miles.

Finally spring marsh aid station.  This is where I instantly felt better and knew I’d finish the race.  I wasn’t sure how I’d make it without poles but my mind was made up I was going to finish.  It was 3.5 miles to the next aid station.  The mud just made it impossible to move fast.  I had to shorten my stride way down and use all my accessory muscles to stay upright.  There is a constant slight slope which normally you wouldn’t even notice but when the trail is thick clay mud, it slides you around.  People started making new paths through the grassier areas which helped some.  It ended up easier when the trail had standing water in it since the mud didn’t grip your shoes as much while running through that.  My shoes shed the mud on the sole but it was deep enough that it started building up on the sides and tops of my shoes.  I’d run straight through any creeks to wash them off.  I took a picture during one of the slower rain periods before dark to remember the trail conditions.  They got worse in the dark after this was taken.

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How I missed this “easy mud” later on.  This was at 8:55pm

At elk camp aid station, I got my headlamp on since It’d be dark before I got to jaws trailhead 4.5 miles away.  This is the section I suspect the moose like.  Even when it’s not raining, you will get soaked on this part.  It’s pretty swampy and there were spots the muddy water would go half way up my shin.  I never lost a shoe though.  I was kind of glad it was dark.  I didn’t really want to know how bad it looked.  The rain seemed to be letting up some finally.  This is where I routinely saw the leaders coming back at me.  I had seen some since spring marsh.  I lost count of how many were in front but it seemed like only 40.  It obviously was more than that since I was supposedly in 115th place at jaws.  The last mile or so was on fairly flat pasture and road into jaws aid station.  The wind had picked up so it was the first time I actually felt good temperature wise.  Of course everyone else looked freezing cold and were huddled around the heater in the tent when I arrived at 10:48pm.

Jessie was waiting outside the tent since crew were only allowed in with their runner.  It was crowded but they found a chair for me.  This was going to be a fairly long stop since I had a lot to do because of the rain.  First was to get out of my wet clothes.  My long sleeves and gloves were soaked since the poncho only goes to my elbows.  I also left my phone since I didn’t want to land on it since the chance of me taking a spill was pretty good.  I had to take my shoes and socks off to start applying my wet foot powder and Vaseline mixture.  No blisters yet but my shoes were already pretty trashed.  I started this race with just over 600 miles on my Altra Olympus 2.0 shoes.

I got more water although I didn’t need much anymore.  I was peeing all the time now since it cooled off; at least I was well hydrated.  I just used soft body water flasks instead of my bladder from here on.  I changed into another dry long sleeve shirt.  The only dry gloves Jessie had were my warmer fleece gloves so I took those too.  I put on a buff too.  The aid station people were great here.  It took some time for them to get a few things but I was amazed how cheerful they still seemed as it was clear this was a hectic time for them as well.  I think I tried to eat half a quesadilla but I still wasn’t that interested in food.  I’d just have to go off fat power for awhile.  I was chilled by the time I left since it had been 25 minutes.  Way longer than I wanted but as fast as it could’ve gone without 2 more crew members doing my feet for me.  I told Jessie not to bother to get to dry fork until at least 2 hours later than my original time as I knew it would take awhile to get down the long hill in the mud and then back up the wall.

Jessie had to have the car jump started since the battery died.  They slept in the back of the car at the aid station for the night.  The kids were already sleeping when I got there but that was for the best.

The rain had stopped for now and the fog rolled in as I left the aid station.  It was hard to see anything due to the headlamp reflection coming back at you.  I warmed up after a mile or so and stopped shivering.  I still had my poncho on to help stay dry.  I decided to use it instead of my rain jacket because I knew that would be too warm and the poncho covered my shorts as well which my jacket didn’t.

So now I saw the course in reverse.  Back through the swamp to elk camp.  Back down the now very slippery mud to spring marsh.  Even the new trails people had made going up were slop now going down.  I met about 40 more people still coming up to jaws and then no more people.  Either people hit a time limit cutoff at that point or they just quit while they were at footbridge.  Either way I started wondering when the time cutoffs were.  I hadn’t even bothered looking at them since I wasn’t planning on being anywhere near them.  Well, nothing else to do but keep going I guess.

After spring marsh was more mud.  It started raining again.  Now the trail sloped to the right so I got to use all new accessory muscles on the other side to not fall with every step.  Every once and a while I’d spin out and go down a hill backwards.  I never totally fell but I’d have to catch myself a few times.  About 2.5 miles out of spring marsh there was a fairly side sloped section that I slid off trail about 4 feet.  Once I stopped I realized my foot felt weird.  Well that’s because it was now half way out of my shoe!  The right side of my right shoe had tore open about 4 inches long along the sole.  Now every step I took my foot would slide out of my shoe.  This is while going down muddy slopes mind you.  I mentally thought of everything in my pack and how it could help me.  I wish I had an extra shoelace like I had at vol state.  Finally after about a quarter mile I kind of figured out how to mostly keep my foot in while running.

After 2 miles I saw a fence line.  I was going to use the barbed wire if I had to but luckily there was just regular wire rolled up hanging on a post as if left there just for me.  I bent the wire back and forth a bunch of times to break a piece off, almost burning my fingers off even through the gloves.  It was some seriously strong wire.  It was hard to bend in the perfect shape since it was so thick but I got it good enough to keep my foot in and not completely dig into the top part of my foot.  Then I started worrying about slicing my other leg open with the sharp edges of the wire.  It’s not uncommon to hit your leg with your feet, especially in uneven muddy conditions so it wasn’t a totally unfounded fear.  I could kind of turn the one edge back which I hoped would prevent that and just paid extra attention to my foot placement.

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My shoes after retrieving them from the footbridge drop bag.

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I should’ve got a picture with my foot in them.

Finally I got to cathedral rock again.  I still had 3.5 miles to go in my sweet McGyver shoes.  On steep downhills the wire would move back a lug or 2 and dig into my feet so I’d have to slide it back in to place.  Other than that it held up pretty well. This is the section with the steep drop off into the river.  Basically if you slip you’ll either die from hitting rocks or drown in the swollen, fast moving river filled with boulders.  But don’t worry mom, the trail was rockier here and not very muddy at all.  Of course I wondered how often the cliff just gives way and falls in the river, especially when wet and after 400 people have been jumping on it.  Well it didn’t give way and I made it to footbridge at 5am (66 miles).  I was now 2.5 hours behind schedule but I wasn’t surprised.  Despite it sucking, I had still managed to pass about 20 people on the way down from jaws.  Many people just walked the whole way down.

I was glad I had a pair of shoes waiting for me in my footbridge drop bag.  This is the first race I’ve ever left a pair of shoes in a drop bag thinking I might want dry shoes if it stopped raining before I got there.  My race might have been over if I hadn’t done that as I don’t think I would’ve gone another 34 miles in them.  I put more wet foot paste on and new dry socks and dry Altra Lone Peak 3.0.  My feet felt like heaven for a moment.  I put on a dry t-shirt and dry gloves.  I still had to have my headlamp since it wasn’t quite light out enough yet without it although it would be in 20 minutes.  I found out the race time limit was 34 hours so I had plenty of time even if it totally sucked.  At least 4 runners quit just before I got there since there was a car of them leaving.  I still wasn’t sure if I’d make it up the wall but I left with an egg mcmuffin in hand.

It quit raining, but it would sprinkle here and there from now until about 9am.  I left my poncho off most of the time since it wasn’t worth putting it on and off a bunch of times.  The hike up the wall wasn’t that slippery at all.  Previous footprints had made sort of terraces in the trail and there were lots of rocks to step on to help get traction.  It still sucked going up over 2000 feet in a couple miles but I made it to bear camp.  I even passed a few people going up.  The volunteers here said the guy who was leading by 30 minutes quit at dry fork but they didn’t know why.

Bear camp to cow camp in the reverse direction seemed much easier than I thought it’d be.  It was muddy yes, but the side paths were still in pretty good shape.  Every once and a while I’d pass another person so I felt pretty good about that.  The longest I went without seeing anyone was during this section.  A whopping 10 minutes where I didn’t see another runner.  Again this race is crazy crowded even after half the people quit.  I’m used to at least an hour being the longest time I don’t see someone.  Towards the end of this section the 52 mile leaders started passing me.  I was slowly eating food and gaining energy.  I actually ran this section faster than I had planned on initially even with the mud.

Cow camp finally came and now it was the road section for the next 6 miles.  At least there was bacon at this aid station so that was good.  This section absolutely sucked.  Thick mud with no rocks to gain traction on.  The side trails were just as bad.  The road was rutted so even running through the thickest mud in the tire track section didn’t help because the side walls were so sloped you’d constantly slide and get off balance.  Walking and running both were nearly impossible in sections.  I didn’t think the roads would be so bad.  In fact they were the worst section of the whole race.  The sun came out so now I was getting sunburned.  The road was SLOWLY drying out which made it worse at this point since it just made the clay even more sticky and shoe sucking.  52 mile people were passing in big groups now.  How could they run in this crap?  And how was I still slowly passing 100 mile runners here and there?  The last hill up to dry fork took forever since you can see the aid station miles before you get there.  I just decided to look at my feet and not look up to make it not seem as bad.

I got into dry fork at 11:02am (82.5 miles).  2:40 behind schedule which I thought would’ve been 3 hours so I felt good about that.  They had sunscreen for me there at least.  I had left my hat at footbridge so I still would get sunburned on my face.  Putting sunscreen on my face is pointless as it just gets in my eyes and I wipe it all off after 20 minutes.  They also had double cheeseburgers!  Yum.  I knew 2 hours from now I’d have a bunch of energy and it tasted sooo good.  The aid station worker kept asking me questions while I was talking to Jessie.  I figured later she was probably checking my mental status or something.  I didn’t bother changing my socks.  My shoes wouldn’t get any wetter since the grass had finally dried off but I didn’t want to take the time and I didn’t have any hot spots yet.  I told Jessie it’d be 5 hours until I finished so she should just go to the cabin and I’d call when I finished.  She handed me my phone back.  I dropped as much weight as I could with her and left.  17.5 miles left to go.

I found out later it was a pretty interesting drive for the cars to get to dry fork in the mud that morning.  Jessie said she saw some tire tracks go off the road at a turn on what looked like a steep drop off.  She made it down OK but the car looked like it had 3 inches of concrete on it at the finish line.

The roads from dry fork to upper sheep were in good shape.  The sun was getting hot and I was back to sweating again.  Constant runners from other races were passing me.  The hill seemed to last forever.  I saw the stupid tree that hit me yesterday and stayed away.  Finally the run down into upper sheep.  I filled up with water there and continued on.

It’s there that I could see the one last big hill to climb before all the downhill to the finish line.  How did it grow so much?  I don’t remember going down that big of a hill yesterday while running into upper sheep aid station.  It’s steep and about 500 feet high.  Finally I got to the top and started slowly running down.  It felt pretty good.  My shins had been hurting for hours due to all the walking in the mud.  I hadn’t planned on walking so much so they were sore.  But now things felt pretty good going down.  I started going faster.  My cheeseburger 2 hours ago was now hitting my system.

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Lots of flowers to look at on the last climb up.

Down, down, as fast as I could with the steep terrain.  I’d have to walk in sections since it was too steep with too many round rocks to slide on.  I was going even faster than I had planned on initially.  I soon realized that a sub 30 hour finish was still possible.  I was expecting 31 hours.  I just kept pushing it down the hill.  Now I started seeing a bunch of 100 mile runners just walking down.  I started passing them right and left.  It felt awesome for so late in a race.  I finally got to lower sheep aid station.  I tried to get a rock out of my shoe but another one seemed to find it’s way in.  Looking back I think it was all the mud from my gaitors falling off as they dried.  There was 7.5 miles left to go!

It wasn’t great having a couple rocks in my shoe but I wasn’t going to stop when I was passing so many people.  The next section down to the road was so much more fun than yesterday’s conga line march up it.  It was hot but I just had to hold on a few more hours.  A 29 hour finish briefly came into thought but the math just wouldn’t work for that.  I probably passed 10 people from upper sheep creek to the road.  I generally never pass people at the end of a race.  Just another sign I started way too far behind in the beginning.

I made it down to the road.  Just 5.2 miles more to the finish line.  The river was right next to the road and loud.  It was so tempting to just jump in it and float on down to the finish line.  The road was dry now and even though we were following the river downstream it sure didn’t seem to go downhill.  I ran as much as I could but would have to take walking breaks here and there.  I got a popsicle from a kid handing them out which helped some with the heat.  Oh that road seems to last forever.  It has a bunch of small curves that never let you see how much further it is to go.

Finally I got to town where you have to run around the park to get into it and then run back around the park again to get to the finish line.  There were bleachers along the path through the park with people cheering.  I think the whole town was either there at the finish line or volunteering somewhere on the course.  Pretty awesome!  I even saw Jessie and the kids about 100 yards from the finish line.  Turns out they never went to the cabin.  Finally, I finished strong at 3:34pm for a total race time of 29:34.  2 hours 20 minutes slower than I wanted but I did that section from dry fork 16 minutes faster than I had even planned on.  I suspect without the mud 28 hours would’ve been pretty doable.

They had food at the end which was great but the line took over 10 minutes to get the food.  I had to have Jessie stand in line for me since my feet hurt so bad and I was getting nauseous standing.  You get your buckle and swag at a different area of the park so I got that.  I then looked at the results and found out I was 62nd overall.  I thought for sure I would’ve been in the 40’s since I had passed over 40 people since jaws, but I was obviously way further behind at jaws than I thought.  I’d later find out only 175 of the 373 starters would finish.  That’s pretty bad and shows how difficult the course was even though it wasn’t as hot as it can get.

I’m sure in dry conditions I would have a much faster time but likely my placing wouldn’t be any better.  Other people usually do better in heat than I do and less people would drop out.  I’m happy with it since it’s better than my usual 20% placing.  I was told that recovery from this race is pretty quick compared to midwest 100’s.  I would totally agree.  I suspect with all the walking you just don’t trash your legs as much.  My quads didn’t hurt in the slightest during or after this race even with very little hill training.  My butt and feet were sore but I could run 3 days later and I usually take a week off.

I should’ve taken a picture of my legs when I was done.  There was a thick coating of mud everywhere.  During the last 20 mile of the race it would occasionally feel like I was getting bitten by something only to find out a chunk of dry mud had broken loose and was only being held by a leg hair.  I’d brush that chunk off and keep going.  Even after all the stuff I brushed off there was still almost a half inch of mud covering my calves and even my shins were covered.  My Olympus shoes are now in a landfill somewhere in WY.  I wonder what future archeologists will think about the wire shoes they find someday?  The newer design of Altra trail shoes all have reinforced sides to prevent this sort of failure.  The problem is that they hold almost half an inch of water in them now.  If water gets in, they basically never dry.  The lone peaks were still wet at the finish line 6 hours after the last puddle and when I washed them, they held a half inch of water with the insole removed.  Never drained even after a couple minutes.  Ridiculous.  Figure it out guys!  Now I’ll have to drill holes in the sides to make drain holes.

By finishing this race, I completed 786 race miles in the 6 ultramarathons I ran as a 40 year old.  I didn’t really intend for that to happen but it just worked out that way.  Vol State last July started it off and Bighorn was just before I turned 41 (Facebook doesn’t have my real birthday by the way).  I don’t know if I’ll ever do that many race miles in a year again or not.  I don’t regret it at all but 786 is kind of a big number and probably hard to repeat unless I just do a bunch of short 50k’s as training runs.

Thanks again to my super awesome wife and crew!  The kids didn’t drive her completely crazy!

Results are posted here.

Lost In The Woods 2017 Race Report

This is a small local baby Barkley type race that took place April 29th at 7 mile creek park near St. Peter, MN.  It’s around 30 miles long with an advertised elevation of 8000 ft of gain.  There are 11 books we had to collect pages from on each of 3 laps.  We were given a different page number to get each lap.  The first lap was counter-clockwise, 2nd was clockwise, and 3rd alternating.

The race started at 7am but registration started at 5am so you’d have time to look over the map and written directions of the course.  The course was about 2/3rds on trail, a short bit on a road, with the rest on deer trail or no trail.  I’ve been to the park before so I knew about what to expect as I love to go off trail in this park.  There are many unofficial trails that we routinely run on.  This is about the only place in southern MN to get over 200 ft steep hills.  Along the Mississippi river is steep too but that’s hours from where I live.

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One of the steeper hills.  Photo credit: Kevin Langton

At 7am 20 of us started off with only 14 finishing.  I wasn’t at the first running of this race 2 years ago but I was told it was easier and the race director was “disappointed” that everyone finished.  This year he wasn’t disappointed.  It was 38 degrees so I started with a long sleeve shirt knowing I’d be hot by the end of the lap.

I stayed back a little from the front group to let them figure out where to go off trail to find the books.  Everything was well marked but that doesn’t mean you can’t run right past where you’re supposed to turn.  Plus, since we were so close in the beginning you ended up waiting for the person in front of you to tear out the page in the book anyway.  Why run fast just to wait at the next book.  The first book I ended up tearing the page horribly, so I ended up with 3 pieces to get it out and make sure I had the page number on it, all the while people waiting behind me.  I guess the lesson is to learn how to tear really brittle yellow paper out of books in the woods with gloves on.

The books aren’t really hidden which is good and bad.  Good since it’s easy to find them, and bad because the park was pretty popular that day with mushroom hunters and other people doing some sort of naturalist type things (I never asked what they were doing) off trail where we were.

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Can you see me?  Somewhere on lap 2. Photo Credit: Kevin Langton

The first 2 books felt great climbing up the hills.  Basically go up find a book and come back down, just to do it again.  The only out and back uphill was book 3 which I think everyone dreaded by the 3rd lap.  I’m not sure if it was just the steepness or the fact that it was an out and back, but no one liked it.  It seemed like it took forever to go up and only 20 seconds to get down.  That’s probably not reality though.  The books all had great titles to them which I have mostly forgotten.  But I remember book 3’s title: Dead End

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Still early on so it’s easy to smile.  Photo credit: Kevin Langton

So continued the seemingly endless task of climbing up a hill just to go back down again.  Like you constantly keep forgetting something downstairs at home and have to keep going back down to get it, except the stairs are 200 ft hills.  There are a couple longish flatter sections to break it up a little bit but for the most part you’re either ascending or descending in this race.

There is a aid station out of the park between book 5 and 6 that you have to climb up to get to.  They had awesome candy bars, pop, water, etc there.  The race director said there is a short loop to do at the aid station.  Well yes it’s short, but also straight down and then straight back up just to go back down to get on the course again.  The section back to the course did have my favorite tree on the entire course though.

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Favorite tree.  Photo credit: Kevin Langton

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First time through so I wasn’t quite sure where to go.  Photo credit: Kevin Langton

Then on to book 6 where some barbed wire sticking out of the ground almost got me.  Speaking of thorny things, I got somewhat scratched and cut up from this race.  There are plenty of thorny bushes, berry patches, and shrubs to get you on this course.  I wish I would’ve taken a picture of my legs.  I had cuts everywhere but really only remember 2 of them happening.

There was a punch after this book to punch the pages you had so far.  This was to determine which direction you had traveled the course.  Next was a longer flat section before turning uphill to book 7.  Then between 7 and 8 gets sucky again.  Scott the RD was sitting along the course making sure we all made the turn straight down a steep rutted out path.  I enjoyed it the first lap, not so much the 3rd.  Basically you go down this hill just to come back up it in a different spot and end up about 20 feet from where you started down the hill.  All of this to get book 8.

Book 9 was fairly straightforward.lost in the woods 5

Book 10 I almost ran past or was that 11.  It’s already becoming a blur after only a week.  After 11 you go back to the start at the RD house.  This is the only other aid station.  I changed into cooler clothes as it was warming up some.  First lap time was 2:25.

The next section was clockwise.  I had got to talking with Ed who I hadn’t met before but we both did Arrowhead this year.  I always love meeting new people during the race.  We were talking pretty much non-stop the second lap and before we knew it, we were at the aid station.  Oops.  We missed book 6.  Back we went to get it and then finally noticed the 3 foot long pink ribbon showing the turn off for it.  Guess we got talking too much.  He had to do the aid station loop twice since he missed it the first time and so I didn’t see him until the end of the race.

I missed the turn to book 1 as well but I think a lot of people did.  Finally I got back to the start.  5:14 total time so far so that lap was about 2:45 without the stop time.  I was happy with this as I had to leave by 4pm to pick up the kids so I was on track to get done by then.  I definitely wasn’t in condition for this much elevation so I was starting to feel it.

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This was there at the end of lap 2.  Photo Credit: Kevin Langton

Since the leader picked clockwise (thanks TJ, NOT) and I was in 5th place, I had to go clockwise.  Off I went.  I had been eating the entire race and drinking what seemed like a lot but my stomach just didn’t feel quite right and I wasn’t really peeing any so I suspect I was somehow dehydrated.  It slowed me down.

Right away I saw one of the leaders coming back up the hill to the start due to injury.  Now I was 4th I guess, but still had to go clockwise.  I didn’t miss the turn to book 6 this time since I was by myself.  Ed had started the mid-way aid station loop just before I got there so I never ended up seeing him.  I never saw the other counter-clockwise leader  either and found out later he dropped at the aid station.

Finally it dawned on me to take some antacids as this wasn’t my first time down full stomach lane.  In fact it happens almost every race, just not in the first 20 miles.  They kicked in around book 4 (counting down book numbers now since clockwise lap).  The last 3 books I felt great (still hated book 3 but felt better at least).  Too bad I didn’t think of taking them sooner.  I saw some people looking kind of sad while looking for mushrooms.  I told them some people were already in that spot 3 hours ago with bags full of them.  They seemed somewhat relieved.

I even made the turn for book 1 this time but when I got to where the book should’ve been, it wasn’t there.  3 people coming from the other direction on the start of their lap 3 also couldn’t find it.  Remember all those people in the park?  Turns out someone must’ve taken it as no one ever found it.  I took a picture with them to prove we all looked together and hoped for the best.

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I’m still smiling so it couldn’t have been that hard of a race.

I got to the finish line and rang the bell at 8:12 for 4th place.  Ed had beaten me in which I wasn’t surprised by.  So that lap took about 2:50 with the down time and looking for book 1 taken out.  Scott allowed my finish without book 1 since it was gone and someone had texted him.

I had some time to eat the great finish line food they had for us before leaving to get the kids.  They even offered the shower which was awesome.  Thanks!

This race would be much harder/scarier/more fun if it was raining the whole time.  There are some steep slopes on it.  The conditions on race day were pretty good.  The mud was firm enough to get a grip on and not slip.  I usually use gps visualizer to make an elevation profile of races.  I find it to be much more accurate than google earth.  It came up with the race having more elevation than advertised.  Almost 10,000.  Who knows?  I can assure you it wasn’t under 8000 total.

Into the woods Elevation Profile
Clockwise lap 3

This is a great race!  I hope Scott continues to put it on.  I wish I could’ve stayed to watch everyone else come in.  I’m sure there were great stories.  We all got an email of the official results and there were some pretty good comments on why people dropped out.  My favorite was someone wanted a burrito.  I’m sure there’s more to that story.  I wished I would’ve taken a picture of the bell we rang when we finished.  Guess you’ll just have to run the race to see it.

Advice for Vol State

I realized during my run tonight that Vol State is about 4 months away.  I thought I’d jot down a few words of advice to people who may be running it this year.  These are in no particular order.  Also I only had a 3 mile run to think about this so this is by no means an exhaustive list.

  1. Read race reports!  Like A LOT of them, including mine:).  You may not know the places they are talking about but you will learn tricks about how to get through the race.  Last year I just jotted down notes as I read all of them.  I thought about how I’d handle those situations.  Certain bad sections of the race will show up continually in race reports, heed their warnings.
  2. Your feet will hurt
  3. Get the GPX file of the course if you can.  I’d still carry a map in case your phone dies but I found it  much more convenient to use my phone since it was more accessible.  Buy the book and check for the updates on what stores, etc are still open.
  4. Train on roads.  I don’t care if you have a hilly trail race in May.  Start running roads now.  Your body needs time to get used to the camber of the road.  Your mind needs to get used to cars whizzing by, dogs running after you.
  5. Get your night time visualization plan figured out.  Either light yourself up like crazy or go totally dark.  I don’t care which but figure out what works for you.  You’ll find both plans are used during this race when you read the reports.
  6. Take an afternoon off work on the hottest days if you can and do a long run.  I ran probably 80% at night but you will get caught in the heat of the day at least once during the race even with great planning.
  7. Get a base tan going.  Sunscreen will come right off with sweat.
  8. Get a sun hat or something like that.  I just safety pinned a handkerchief to my visor to cover my ears and neck.
  9. Think about how you’ll sleep outside and try it out.
  10. Your feet will HURT!
  11. Bring extra socks so you can always dry one pair hanging on your pack while wearing the other pair.  I brought 2 different sizes as well since your feet will swell.
  12. Train with the gear you plan on using during the race!!!!!!!!!
  13. Watch MacGyver.  Or find a way to be more like MacGyver.  You will need those skills if you are running screwed.
  14. Put your feet up every time you stop.  Also take off your shoes so things dry out.
  15. There will be a point the second or early third day that will test your determination.  You will be slow and in pain.  I can’t tell you how to deal with it, everyone is different.  I learned I had to put my feet up for X amount of time every X hours to deal with it.
  16. Join the google group to keep in contact with people before and during the race.
  17. Join the facebook page.  Lots of locals post on there places that they leave out water, etc.
  18. Your feet will HURT!
  19. I took voice recorded notes during the race with my phone so I’d remember things later.  You may think you’ll never forget that one cool thing you saw on day 2 but you might.
  20. Help each other out.  Seems kind of obvious but I’m telling you, by the end of the race you will feel a closeness to all the other racers, even the ones you didn’t meet.  What I’m saying is they’re already your friends, you just don’t know it yet.
  21. Don’t talk about politics.  Even if you agree on stuff, you’ll get each other all worked up and distracted.  You can’t be distracted during this race.
  22. Again.  You can’t be distracted during this race!  There are cars filled with dipshits texting.  Don’t run side by side when there’s no shoulder, unless it’s the middle of the night with no traffic.
  23. Your feet will HURT!!!
  24. The detailed past results and lists of race reports are posted at tinyurl.com/volstate2016   For each other year just change the 2016 to whatever year you want.  For example tinyurl.com/2014 for 2014 results and race reports.  There are tabs on the bottom of the spreadsheet with the reports, etc.

With proper preparation and determination you will finish this race.  I truly believe that.  You have plenty of time to finish if you choose to use it.  You don’t need to be a super athlete or even an ultrarunner to finish this race.  Non ultrarunners have finished although they usually had a large amount of “preparation” in that they ran it with someone with lots of ultrarunning knowledge.  I consider training on roads and in heat to be included in the proper preparation.  Mostly though I consider preparation to mean knowing your gear, having a plan (even though you will change it during the race), use your brain, know your body, listen to your body on some things but also when to tell it to shut the hell up (your feet will HURT, expect it and deal with it).

Good Luck!

Arrowhead 135 Race Report – 2017

So 5 years ago I started running for the first time in 15 years.  I ran poorly in track in high school and only a little in college while on the crew team; so even when I ran it wasn’t with much purpose.  5 years ago I had a purpose to do a Tough Mudder with my brother and brother-in-law and I started running again.  I was out of shape, had a dad gut, and had my second child due that year.  Within 9 months, my purpose was trail ultrarunning.  Soon after, a major goal was to finish Arrowhead 135.  I think I first heard about it on the ultra-listserv 4 years ago and knew immediately that I had to run this race.  I went the slow route and made sure to get a couple winter races in and enough 100’s to not be afraid of the distance.  My application was accepted last fall and I left for International Falls Saturday morning.JpegJpeg

I did my check-in Saturday afternoon to get it out of the way.  It’s at the Backus Community Center which I assume was the old school building.  Door #3 is the closest to where you need to go for check in by the way.  I was told there that I’d need to have packaged food to prove the caloric content of the food for my emergency food requirement so I had to go to the store to buy a pound of butter since my home made brownies wouldn’t count.  I even laminated the ingredients with all the calorie information and stuff but it still didn’t matter.  Otherwise I passed on everything else.  For those unfamiliar with this race, here is the required gear as taken from the website.

MANDATORY GEAR from race start to race finish.

  • Minus-20F degrees sleeping bag or colder rating. Colder than -20F almost all previous races. If you skimp here you are foolish. And we will not allow you to skimp. So do not skimp. Fool. 2011 it was -42F on trail.  Be able to prove your bag is a -20 bag.  Don’t cut off the tags to shave weight.
  • Insulated sleeping pad – minimum 20″ by 48″
  • Bivy sack or tent (space blankets/tarps do not count).  We don’t like seeing new bivy sacks that have never been tried.
  • Firestarter (matches or lighter).
  • Stove.
  • 8 fl. oz. fuel at ALL times (either gas, alcohol or 2 canisters of propane/butane 100 g. each or 12 Big Esbit tablets). 1 lb propane tanks, white gas, and Heet are available in Int’l Falls – propane/butane and Esbits are available from RD with advance notice.  Please plan accordingly.
  • Pot (min. volume is 1 pint)
  • 2-qt (64 fl. oz.) or just under 2 litres, insulated water container. (Yes, Camelbacks count).  Not freezing your drinks in a cold year is a real challenge.
  • Headlamp or flashlight. Suggest minimum ~100 lumen good for 12 hours/bike or 20 hours on ski/foot.  Bring a spare, the cold eats batteries.
  • Flashing red LED lights (and spare batteries), both on front and back of sled or bike or racer – Don’t show up with single LED key chain lights…bring real safety lights or you will not pass gear check and they may not be available at local stores. Keep ON 24/7.  HIGHLY IMPORTANT….THIS MAY WELL PREVENT YOU FROM BEING A HOOD ORNAMENT ON LARGE FAST-MOVING SNOWMACHINES.
  • Everyone must have at least 10 square inches of reflective material on front and 10 square inches on the back of the person for this race.  If you don’t want to put holes in your $200 jacket bring a reflective vest.
  • Whistle on string around neck to call for help, because your mouth is too numb to yell.
  • 1-day of readily edible food at ALL times (3000 calories)
  • You will be given 2 bibs.  We must be able to see your bib number on the front of your body (outer layer) at all times!!!  Post the 2nd bib where it is easily visible.

YOU CAN STILL BE STUPID WITH ALL THE GEAR, KNOW HOW TO USE IT.

The race itself is 135 miles from International Falls, MN to Tower, MN along the Blue Ox Grade and Arrowhead snowmobile trails.  You can go on foot, bike, or ski.  I of course went in the foot division.  It’s basically flat for 30ish miles, then hilly for about another 40 miles, then really hilly for 40 miles, and then pretty much flat the rest of the way except for the biggest hill of them all at mile 113.5.  The trail is wide and all the snowmobilers I saw were driving appropriately and safely.  More details on the trail to follow but that’s the overview.

I went to the hotel after I ate and organized my gear and started making decisions on what to leave behind.  The forecast was for snow but no one really knew how much it would be.  It definitely wasn’t going to be a cold year.  The temperature wasn’t even forecast to get below zero the entire race.  That’s really warm for this race.  I almost felt like it was cheating having it so warm.  There are just so many things that you can get away with when it’s this warm.  You can take your gloves off to open things is the biggest “cheat”.  Seriously, if it’s -20 and you take your gloves off for even 20 seconds, it takes a long time for them to warm back up if at all.  I didn’t even run with gloves on most of the first day.  So you worry and plan for all these scenarios where you have to do things with big gloves on and now none of that mattered since it was so warm.  Anyway on to the story.

I slept quite well for having a constant pipe banging sound in my room.  Apparently it was the boiler and the sound was heard in every room so switching wouldn’t matter.  I could see Canada out my window since it was just across the river.  I brought my passport but didn’t need to go over to purchase any last minute items so I never went.

My plan for Sunday was to go and check out the trail and my fully loaded sled.  Here is what the sled looks like.  This was taken the first day out on the course.  d7k_6734

Just a side note on my sled.  I used a Paris sled at Tuscobia last year which had holes in it by the time I finished.  So this year I made my own sled out of Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene.  It has a coefficient of friction near Teflon and is very durable and can handle extreme cold.  It’s the only material to use for winter ultras really.  Yes it’s easier to just put a rope on a ready made sled from the store but it won’t last, and if you make one yourself it’s cheaper.  This sled cost me $40 of materials and I’ll never need to make a new one if I don’t want too.  I think the Paris sled with poles was closer to $70.  My main worry about it was I was only able to test it 3 times since we didn’t get much snow down in southern MN this year.  I learned a few things during the race that would make a better sled.  One is to put runners (just a couple thicker strips of UHMW-PE on the bottom) on to make it track better.  It will add weight but I think it’s worth it.  It would also pull easier if it was narrower.  I’m not going to do that though since my gear fits just right with this width.  But if I had to start with nothing, I’d go narrower and longer.  That’s enough help on the sled, to me that’s part of the learning process and it’s more satisfying to do that on your own.  There are a few people that make them but with shipping it’ll cost you around $250.  Really depending on the snow conditions it would make sense to have a couple different sled styles to chose from.  Mine would do well in deep powder, and the narrow ones with no sides to them would likely do poorly since they’d be swamped and cut in too much.  But those were the best for the race this year.

So I stopped along the trail at road crossings a couple different places on Sunday morning.  I ran a couple miles with my loaded up sled to make sure it held up.  The trail was very hard due to the melting they had had the last week.  Also nice and fast.  The new snow coming would slow that down though once it got deeper.

I got back to International Falls and dropped my drop bags off at the Community Center.  There was a mandatory meeting there at 4pm and then a meal after that.  The meeting filled in a few questions I had as a rookie.  The race is about 2/3 veteran and 1/3 novice.

After the meal I headed back to check on the weather and do my final packing.  I took out a few things and decided to leave my snowshoes as well as it wasn’t going to get over 6 inches of snow and they weigh 3.5 pounds.  I saw some people with much smaller and lighter snowshoes so I may need to look into those.

Race Day:

The race started on Monday Jan 30th at 7am for the bikers, 7:02 for skiers and 7:04 for us on foot.  I got up around 5am.  It was about 10 degrees when I woke up but kept getting warmer by the time the race started.  There was a 10mph wind from the south that we’d be going into for the first 9 miles of the race.  I wore tights, thermal shirt, wind jacket, gloves, and buff for a hat.  181 were accepted for this race but only 156 ended up starting.  59 runners started.

The bikers started off with fireworks going off.  Then the skiers 2 minutes later, and then we started 2 minutes after that.  I didn’t hear anyone say anything for the start but just saw people leaving so I followed.  They say “release the hounds” to start us off but I must have been too far away to hear it.

I started running and eventually ran with Breanna from Arizona and talked for about an hour.  Then John Storkamp caught up and I talked to him for awhile as well.  He was just power walking and I had to run to keep up.  He’s done this race a dozen times so he knows it very well.  Of course every year is still different because of the weather and snow conditions.

The course follows the Blue Ox Grade snowmobile trail from Kerry Arena in the middle of International Falls until it meets up with the start of the Arrowhead snowmobile trail 9.5 miles later.  There is a shelter there but no one stops that early I’m sure.  There are 10 shelters along the course but I missed one or two of them during the night.  We then headed East.  This entire first section is flat.  It started snowing soon after the start.  It looked very pretty but my shoes were getting wet already.  Once I turned I took off my buff and gloves since without the wind in my face I was getting warm.  I talked to a few other people here and there until things started spreading out more.

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Mile 16 Photo Credit: Jason Johnson

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The next landmark is crossing Hwy 53 at 18.75 miles.  There are train tracks there and I could hear trains but luckily they were past by the time I got there.  By this time there was probably a couple inches of snow that had fallen.  It of course didn’t look that deep since it always settles.  After Hwy 53 the sled started pulling harder so I started walking around mile 24 where shelter #2 is.  The small hills start around 26 miles.  I think this is around where I met a guy that was running this for the first time.  He had done it with a bike I’m pretty sure but he hadn’t really run an ultra before.  Meaning each step was a new personal best distance for him on foot.  I don’t think he finished the race this year though.

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Just before Gateway. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson

There is another shelter around mile 30.  Then the hills start to get a little bigger.  Enough that you could ride down them but there was only 1 that I rode down just before the first check point which is Gateway Store.  You have to do a short out and back to get to it.  The store is 36.7 miles into the race.  There is food, etc to buy there.  They had I think 5 kinds of soup to buy as well.  I changed my socks and noticed my feet were already getting wrinkly from being wet all the time.  The usual stuff I do wasn’t keeping them dry.  I suspect the warm temps and the constant snowing was the difference.  I spent 25 minutes here, it just takes a while to get things done even with a efficient plan.Jpeg

I left at 4:26 pm and it would be getting dark soon.  There were 8 people in front of me when I left but I didn’t know that at the time.  I knew of at least 4 due to tracks in the snow but there were people so far ahead that the new snow had totally covered up their tracks.  And so began what felt like the longest night ever.  The hills keep going and get bigger as time goes on.  There are several roads you go across that people tend to drop at and I could see why.  It just seems like it will never end.  Plus, it does really just keep getting worse for the next 70 miles or so.  There are brief easy sections and then more hills.  I met a few people and talked to them for awhile.  I was never this tired so early in an ultra before.  I was only 14 hours into this thing and could’ve slept instantly just laying down.  My next goal was the second checkpoint at MelGeorge at mile 72 of the race.  I was hoping it would take 11 hours to get there from Gateway but ended up taking 12.

I know many who said they heard wolves along this part.  I didn’t.  The snow had finally stopped and around 9 or 10 I saw the clouds part for a short time and tons of stars.  No northern lights this year.  There also was a very slight crescent moon that gave a nice eerie touch once the clouds started coming back in and covered it up.

Since I hadn’t seen anyone in a long time, I put on some music to try to lift my spirits some.  It didn’t help that much really.  Even though I tend to slow down when talking to people, the time flies by so much faster I wished I would find someone.  I know of 2 people that I caught up to that said me talking to them made a big difference in their spirits.  That’s the solitude part of the race though.  You could choose to stay with someone the entire time but it’s kind of against the point of the race.  You should have thoughts of loneliness, boredom, etc that come into your head.  That’s the test, to push them out and focus on the ultimate task of finishing.  There are plenty of physical reasons to quit this race, all of them are reasons to not even start.  But the mental reasons are what stop most people, even the ones who have finished before and know better.

Along the way are shelters 4 and 5.  There were people sleeping at shelter 5.  I had a room reserved at the MelGeorge resort which is legal for the race.  I figured since this was my first year, it would be a good idea in case things went bad.  I couldn’t get there soon enough.  I was so tired and just tired of the hills.  The trail changes directions so many times, I had no idea how much further the check point was.  My GPS had to be recharged so when I turned it back on I could see my pace but really had no clue how long was left.  The last shelter is 13 miles from the resort which is hours for this race.

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Elephant Lake Crossing

Finally I got to the lake that you cross over on for 1 mile to get to the resort.  We were supposed to check in first before going to our room so that added a quarter mile of back tracking from where the check in cabin was.  I checked in at 4am and 9 people had checked in before me.  It was worth it to have a room.  I sent a Skype video message to my family since there was no phone service but did have WiFi.  My feet were all trench foot.  I slept for 2.5 hours with my feet uncovered to dry them out.  My shoes dried some but not completely.  The new forecast called for -4 degrees Wednesday morning.  I finally left at 8:15am after getting ready and going back the quarter mile to the check in point.  16 people left before I did since I was there so long.  I knew some would have to bivy again before the finish, but how many?  So overall I spent 4 hours there which was longer than I’d like but I needed it due to my feet.

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The Resort

As usual, sleep had wondrous healing powers for me.  My feet hurt but looked normal.  I kind of had energy but the best thing was the sun was up!  Day 2 would be MUCH better than Night 1.  There were 2 people who started seconds before me.  One was a skier Jerritt and the other was Jeff Firkus who I ran with some at Tuscobia last year.  He knew this trail pretty well.

I wish I would’ve taken pictures during the second day but it was a big hassle getting it out of the pack where it was staying nice and warm in case of emergency.

There are the usual hills for the next 2 miles.  At exactly 2 miles from the check-in cabin is the turn that can be difficult for some.  It’s where you get back on to the main combined arrowhead trail.  It was well marked.

Sledding!

2.7 miles from MelGeorge check-in cabin is where my day got amazing!  That was the start of a huge downhill that I seriously thought about climbing back up to go down again it was so fun!  It’s 150 feet high and I got going up to 13mph according to my watch but it felt like 30.  Remember the first time you ever just bombed down a ski hill and felt the wind pushing hard against you and absolutely loving it?  Yep, just like that.  Felt like I was 13.  Some of these downhills would have bumps in them from the snowmobiles so I’d get air on them.  Awesome!  Remember I had no way to keep this sled going straight other than my hands and feet.  That just added to the excitement!  There were kind of snowbanks all along the edge of the trail since it’s packed down but I didn’t want to test if they would keep me from flying in the trees.  I told Jeff I wish I had a GoPro for that hill.  He did have one but didn’t think of it at the time.  For the next 32 miles minus about 5 miles of flat towards the beginning of that section, it was nothing but sleddable hills.  I was having so much fun.  Jeff would bomb down head first to steer with his feet behind him.  He left me behind on the flat part section.

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About 5 miles after MelGeorge. Day 2. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson

I changed socks again since I could feel them soaked again.  They didn’t look as bad as yesterday and I was hoping to keep them that way.

That’s when Jerritt and I kept crossing paths.  He’d have to take off and put on his skis constantly because of the hills.  It didn’t look fun.  I was still having fun.  Just before 26 miles from the cabin is the start of 2 hills that looked like every other hill we had gone down.  The difference was they go way steeper as you went down and had a fairly sharp turn part way down you couldn’t see from the top.  I ended up testing those banks on the side of the trail and bounced back and forth spinning and going backwards down the hill.  I thought for sure I’d hit a tree but never did.  Then right after is another one where I had to really dig my shoes in to not hit a bridge post.  I was yelling at Jerritt to get out of the way since I couldn’t stop and he was at the bottom.  He told me he ended up in the trees on that first one but was OK.

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A tree cutter.  I saw these the second day as they used the trail as a road in a few spots.

It then got dark and it started to snow for the second day in a row.  Then the hills were kind of scary because you couldn’t see anything with the falling snow reflecting in the headlamp.  You never knew where the bottom of the hill was, how steep, nothing.  So I ran down a lot more of them.  I became bored of hills and was starting to count down the miles to Surly Tee Pee checkpoint at mile 111.  The wind really picked up and you could feel the temperature dropping fast for the first time in the race.  The forecast was -4 which isn’t bad at all.  The wind was mostly at our backs the rest of the race so even the wind wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been.  Finally I hit the turn to the Southeast towards the checkpoint.  I started seeing smart ass signs reminding us we’d signed up for this, etc.  The usual ultra humor.  At least I knew I had to be getting closer.

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Checkpoint #3 Photo Credit: Jason Johnson

I got to Surly Tee Pee checkpoint at 9:30pm Tuesday.  14 people checked in before me.  I didn’t need to do much and had a plan in my head.  I changed socks again (on my 5th pair now).  Since it was now colder they would likely stay drier but I had to get the wet ones off.  I put on another layer of pants.  I got out my second jacket.  Got a fleece hat instead of a buff.  I put on warmer gloves and got out the next warmer pair and put it in my backpack as I knew the trail got more exposed later on and would need them.  I put some more hot water in my cooler and was out the Tee Pee door.  It only took my 22 minutes but it didn’t even feel that long.  I had no wasted time in my mind.  It just takes a long time to get new socks on it seems.  They were steaming when I took my shoes off.  I left some people behind at the checkpoint that were taking a break as only 10 left before me.  I had started to take caffeine at this point but there was no chance I’d have to bivy.  I ate the rest of the food I planned on eating so that I’d get an energy boost around 2 or 3 am.

There is one more big steep hill called Wakemup hill after the checkpoint that starts about 1.6 miles out. You go up about 100 feet but get to go down 150 feet.  I didn’t know if you could sled down it safely so I dug my shoes in until about the half way point down.  Turns out you could just fly down pretty easy as it’s a gentle turn and it slowly flattens out.  You go a long way with this hill.  From there on out it’s a very gradual uphill to the finish line about 21 miles away.  There are some turns here and there but most of the time you can see over a mile in front and behind you at all times.

This next part I wasn’t sure I’d put in here but my wife said I should so I will.  About 4 miles in I could see someone ahead of me and I caught up to him soon after sitting on a tree on the side of the trail blankly staring.  All his lights were on as I passed him (important for later).  One on the back of his sled and one I think on his chest.  So he only had 2 but that was all that was required.  I said “Hi” and he said nothing in return which was odd for this race or anytime really.

I looked back a minute later and I could see he was getting ready to start up again since lights were moving everywhere.  About 10 minutes later he passes me with only his headlamp on super low.  All his blinking lights required by the race were turned off. I also couldn’t see his bib number anywhere to know who he was.  Obviously he was trying to not be seen by me after he passed me as there is no other plausible explanation.  I’ve seen this many times before in summer races.  The difference is that it is required during this race to have them on at all times, even in the day because we’re on a snowmobile trail.  I was pissed so I sped up and followed him for probably 5 minutes until 2 snowmobiles that were associated with the race came by.  I tried to stop them to tell them about his lights but they must have assumed I was saying I was OK and just kept going.  They didn’t stop him which I was surprised by.

You see during check-in they were very anal about the blinky lights as really they probably should be.  People had already contacted the DNR about being surprised by us being on the trail in years past.  If anyone ever gets hit during the race I think we can safely assume the race is dead.  At Tuscobia, it’s part of their permit from the DNR that you need at least 3 lights on at all times and at certain heights, etc.  I had 3 lights on my head, and 3 more down my back and sled.  I also had one in front.  I asked several people during the race if they could see my lights and they said they were real good.  Really everyone I saw had good lights, assuming they were ON!

I followed him closely as I could only see him by his reflector and had to be fairly close for that.  I had planned on doing 20-22 minute miles until the end but was now doing 18 minute miles.  It took about 20 minutes and then I caught up to him while he was stopped.  As I was coming up to him, I asked him if all his blinkies’ batteries had died.  I then got in front of him and could see a faint red light coming from under his duffle bag at the front of the sled.  He had hid them in there.  Remember I saw them on the back of his sled in the beginning where they should be.  I said, “Oh, there they are, just as I thought” and left him.  He didn’t say anything but sure enough they were on again later on when I looked back.  He tried to keep up and it did take me about an hour before I couldn’t see him anymore but for all I know he had turned all his lights off and was still just behind me. I refilled my water bottle for the last time after I turned a corner as fast as possible.  Basically I spilled water everywhere but got enough in my bottle.  I never stopped again.

I was on a mission to not let a cheater beat me.  17 minute miles were common now.  I kept thinking about the character Crusher on Blaze and the Monster Machines cartoon I watch with my kids.  He always cheats to try to win the races but he never does.  In fact, if he wouldn’t cheat he’d likely win some of the races because he’s so far ahead.  Sound similar?  My kids loved this story when I got home by the way.

I ended up seeing another light up ahead and caught up to him in about 30 minutes.  It was Jeff and I had caught back up to him.  I briefly told him about the guy behind me.  I told Jeff I didn’t care if he (Jeff) kept up and beat me, just as long as I beat the cheater behind us.  Jeff did keep up for a while but stopped somewhere and I never saw him again.  The trail seemed to go along swamps a lot in this area so I ran anytime I was on icy looking stuff since the sled pulled so nice.

It was colder now and I put on my warmer gloves from my backpack while still moving.  I knew we had to turn off the arrowhead trail somewhere and I thought it was soon after crossing CoRd 77.  I crossed a road but it never seemed to me that we turned off anywhere.  I could see tracks and footprints in the snow and the course was well marked so I knew I was still on the right course but really had no idea how much further it was.  My watch had died from the cold.  I didn’t want to stop to take my phone out which had a gpx file of the course on it.  I’d get there when I got there I told myself.  I could tell my speed was slowing now. I was getting tired and it seemed like all I was doing was making turns in the woods.  East then South then East then South.  Other race reports made it sound like you could see the casino long before you got there but I never did.

Finally I heard some noise.  I got to the snow fence area which I thought meant I still had a couple miles left to go.  Nope, it means you have like 0.1 miles.  I asked a guy how much further to the finish line and he pointed to the top of  the hill he was standing by and I could see the banner.  To say I was happy is an understatement.  Not even so much that I finished the race (I knew that would happen back at Surly), but that I didn’t have to go 2 more miles and I had beaten my new Nemesis.  It was 4:56am Wednesday Feb 1st.  I had finished in 45 hours and 52 minutes.  I proclaimed I’d party till the sun came up which was only a couple hours away.

finish
All Done! Photo Credit: Jason Johnson

I told them Jeff should be coming shortly.  They take you inside and I had to pick a number from 1 to 10.  I don’t remember what number I picked but whatever it was meant I had to do a full gear check so we did that and I passed.  I got brought up to the hospitality room in the Fortune Bay Casino and I got my trophy, some food, pop, and my clean clothes bag.  The volunteers really are amazing at this race.  Jeff came in I think 10 minutes later.  My feet looked better than they did at Surly.  The cold and wind had dried out my shoes and socks.  I got my picture taken with the trophy. trophy-photo

I took a shower and changed.  I tried to sleep some but mostly just talked to other racers.  Some were just coming in, others had already slept and were getting up to see the new finishers.

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My first Arrowhead trophy.  I added my name, time and placing on there.  Pretty cool looking I think.

I couldn’t wait to get home to my family so I slept some once I got back to my car in International Falls and then drove home.

Afterthoughts

The cheater was Italian I found out as he came in.  That’s maybe why he didn’t say anything to me.  But as my wife said, it’s no excuse for cheating and putting himself and the entire race in jeopardy.  You need to know the rules no matter what, especially safety rules.  There’s no way he accidentally took his lights off and hid them.  Her argument made sense to me and that’s why I even put the story in here.

There are some who don’t agree with the sledding aspect of this race.  From what I’ve been told it’s always been allowed and I love it.  Even if you took every step down a hill you could easily lower your sled in front of you with a retractable dog leash and not have it pushing you down the hill negating the main argument most have against it.  I think people should take advantage of it.  I don’t think it makes you go much faster as most hills you could run down faster and it takes time to get on and off your sled.  There’s only about 10 hills that you really cruise on.  The main advantage is the fun factor and the fact you’re off your feet for 10 seconds.  I was seriously thinking I would never do this race again until I got to the sledding portion of the trail.  That first night for me just kinda sucked.  Now I plan on doing it again if I gain entry again.

The headlamp suggestion for 100 lumens or more is a good one.  You don’t need more than 50 on the flat parts but if you want to see the bottom of the hills and not overrun your light then you wa