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 of 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.

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Yes!!!!
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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.

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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.

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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.

Ultrarunner vs Ultra runner

I’ve seen so many different words to describe what we do and who we are that I thought I’d start this blog out with what words are correct or at least likely correct.  You see, many dictionaries only have the word ultramarathon in them and I have yet to use a spell checker that even has that word in its list.  My book form dictionary from 1994 has ultramarathon defined as any footrace of 50 miles or more and that the word was invented between 1975-80.  It also lists ultramarathoner as the noun form.  Nowadays, most people would say any footrace longer than a marathon is an ultra, but I tend to agree with the original definition.  A 50k race is just a long marathon, 50 mile and higher is where you need to train at least a little differently in my opinion.  So it seems there is some doubt as to the definition of the word ultramarathon, but not that it is indeed the correct spelling.

So here are the lists of words I’ve seen: Ultrarunner, ultramarathoner, ultra runner, ultra marathon, ultramarathon, ultrarunning, ultras, crazy/stupid people (OK that last one is what my wife calls us)

The New York Times has published articles with ultrarunner, ultramarathoner, and ultramarathon.  So even they can’t quite decide if it’s ultrarunner or ultramarathoner.  I would assume they would use words that are at least possible of being grammatically correct so anything they don’t use is probably wrong or considered slang.

So since we are the ones who actually do this crazy thing, we get to decide what the words are, or at least we should (ask Steve Wilhite how the whole GIFF pronunciation is going for him, by the way I agree with the masses that he’s wrong even though he invented it).

The sport itself is called ultrarunning.  As in “Wow look at this ultrarunning craze taking over the country!”  You will never hear that by the way unless people start including walking/gimping to their car after a marathon as being an ultramarathon.

I have never heard an ultrarunner use the word ultramarathoner so I think it should be ultrarunner.  One word, not split up.

It’s ultramarathon, not ultra marathon, and always has been according to my old school dictionary.  One word, not split up.

But I have to say most often, I and the people I know use the term ultra to describe a race.  As in  “I ran an ultra last weekend and I’m starving now!”  If the distance is involved we usually don’t even say ultra, “I ran a 100 miler last weekend”.  Note you need to say miler to separate it from a 100k race.  I just had a flashback to the old “How to talk Minnesotan” book as I’m typing now.  Perhaps how to talk to an ultrarunner should be in the works?

So to summarize these are the correct or soon to be correct words:  Ultrarunner/s, Ultramarathon/s, Ultra/s, Ultrarunning.  I’m eagerly awaiting my spellchecker update so I don’t see so many red underlined words anymore.