My plan was to pull my sled for 80 miles from Park Falls to Rice Lake. I made it 35 miles before I had to pull the plug, registering my first winter ultra DNF.
So what went wrong? It almost all came down to my back. I’ve never pulled a sled for 30+ miles before and despite switching out to a different harness this year, I still wasn’t able to take the pain. I have scoliosis which complicates my situation, as my lower back curves and twists off to the right. Normally it’s just an annoyance during a long run, but in this case, pulling a sled, it became completely unbearable. I’m not sure what this means for future attempts, but I know that I need to either figure out a way to strengthen my back for endeavors like this, or look at alternatives such as biking or kicksleding.
Despite having to register a DNF, I’m still incredibly happy with how much of the race went. My legs were a little tired, and my feet only had one blister. This is completely manageable and nothing more than I’d get in any other ultra. My clothing was dialed in, and my new Gore-Tex shoes were perfect for the incredibly wet conditions. When I came into the Ojibwa checkpoint people asked me what needed to be dried out. Amazingly, I was almost completely dry. That’s how well my clothing plan worked, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
My pace was right on track for what I wanted it to be as well. I was aiming for a 10-12 hour journey to Ojibwa, and I got there just slightly after 11 hours. I executed my pace precisely where I wanted it to be, which is phenomenal. The course conditions were wet and soft, which meant that as the race progressed I got slower and slower. The fact I was able to maintain as long as I did is a huge win for me.
So what other lessons did I learn to take into the future? One of the biggest was that I overpacked. I didn’t bother to weigh my sled until I got home, and then realized how much of a burden I was carrying. My pulk weighed in at 41 lbs. which is way more than it needed to be. I packed far too much food and water, especially since I had a 2 liter water bladder on my back. I also carried 2 more pounds of water that I never touched in the 35 miles I was out there. That was just more added weight on my back.
I also doubled up on jackets, and didn’t need nearly as many as I had. All total I had 4 jackets: my puffy for emergencies, a sweat jacket, a lightweight shell, and a heavy weight shell. I most certainly should have ditched the sweat jacket, and might have been able to get away with just the heavy weight shell. In addition to jackets I packed 7 pairs of wool socks. However, with my Gore-Tex shoes, I never changed my socks once in 35 miles, and my feet were dry at Ojibwa. Knowing how well my shoes performed I could have dropped the number of socks to 3-4. I also carried way too many shirts and tights.
I could have easily shaved 10-15 lbs, off of my sled, without even touching on a lighter sleeping bag or lighter sled. That type of weight could have relieved a lot more pressure from my back, and perhaps have made things slightly more tolerable. I don’t think it would have changed the overall outcome in any way, but it might have reduced my suffering a slight bit.
Yet, there was one piece of equipment that I wish I had brought along; a small pair of snowshoes. The trail got to be very soft, and my feet would often punch through the groomed trail. My regular snowshoes are way too big, but a small, lightweight pair of kid sized snowshoes could have been perfect. The snow was already well packed down, so I just needed a couple extra inches around my shoes to keep me afloat.
Finally, the biggest thing I could have done differently is simply not trying to accomplish SO much in a single calendar year. In 2019 I ran 6 ultra distances between races and pacing gigs. I’ve never even come close to that in the past. After my 100 mile race my training went into the crapper, and Tuscobia became “one more thing” that I really should have realized wasn’t going to work. My body needed time to heal, plus I needed more time to get in more specific training. I needed to figure out this back issue sooner, and determine if it can even be changed or worked around, of it I need to move on to something else besides pulling a sled.
That’s the more detailed run-down of what happened at Tuscobia. Overall, I’m happy with it despite the result not being what I wanted. I can’t stress enough how much I love all of these people, and love seeing them ever year. Even if it’s just volunteering, I can’t wait to get to these events and spend time with people who love the same things I love. No matter what happened this weekend, or what may happen in the future, I know I’ve found a great community.
I’ve been in the trail and ultra running world for 5 years. In that time I’ve tried my hand at a whole host of different races, both in distance and format. However, I had yet to try a 100 mile race, and I decided that 2019 would be the year that I would consider giving it a shot. Despite not pulling the trigger on registering for the Savage 100 race until late in the summer, I had been planning for it most of the year.
Why the Savage 100 for my first 100? There were a few different issues at play. First, this was the site of my first ever ultra distance, the Surf the Murph 50K in 2015. Going back to that same spot and doing 6 loops, instead of 2, felt like a good connection to where I started.
Second, Surf was a local race, and didn’t require any type of travel logistics. I wasn’t sure how this race would play out, and if I’d even be successful. The idea spending a ton of money on a destination 100 mile race, that may or may not work, didn’t appeal to me. It also meant that I was able to keep my participation a secret for a long time, with folks not figuring it out until only a few weeks before the race.
I decided to keep this race quiet as long as possible because I wanted to focus on getting the work done in training. As awesome as it is to get encouragement from friends, it can sometimes sabotage us by giving us a premature endorphin hit. We feel great about all the kudos we’re getting from folks, that we forget we still need to put in the hard work. I’ve seen first hand how detrimental it can be when people broadcast their big plans, but then lose the energy to make them happen. Therefore, I told only a select couple of people about what I was considering.
I put together my training plan, and joined my wife on many of her hill and speed runs, and just buckled down to do what I could. I got pretty close to the mileage numbers I was looking to hit for the year, only down a few percentage points. When you add in mountain elevation last month, plus a massive increase in biking this year, I was about as ready as I could be for someone in my (non-competitive) physical shape. Now, all I had to do was execute.
Race day arrived much slower than I wanted it to. The leading up to it seemed to drag on like never before. All I wanted to do was just start going… or abandon it all. I was a mental wreck that week. Soon enough though it was Friday, and I was doing whatever I could to squeeze in some last minute sleep before the 1am Saturday start.
The Savage 100 is a once-every-five-years race at Murphy Hanerhan park in Savage, MN. It is held in conjunction with the Surf the Murph race which offers a 25K, 50K, and 50M distance. Whereas the 25K, 50K and 50M are 1, 2, and 3 loops of the course respectively, the 100 mile is 6 full loops of the course. They also offered a 100K option, though it was really more like a 108K route. This odd number is because the loop is 16.7 miles, which works great for 50 and 100 mile races, but makes other distances just a bit long.
Runners in the 100 mile are given the option of a 1am start or a 5am start. This gives you either 36 or 32 hours to finish the race (1pm Sunday finish), and you can decide for yourself what makes the most sense. Since this was my first attempt, I chose the 1am start. I arrived around midnight and deposited my drop box in the appropriate area by the Start/Finish aid station. I decided to use just one box at Start/Finish that I would return to in between each loop. There are 4 aid stations on every loop, which means you’re never more than ~4 miles from an aid station at any time.
One of the dangers of a looped course with so many aid stations is that you have an opportunity to stop and dawdle a LOT. One of the reasons I decided on only one drop box was to ensure I didn’t spend too much time anywhere except Start/Finish. I budgeted myself 20 minutes on each loop at Start/Finish, but no more than 5 minutes at other aid stations.
Because this is a local race, I knew a lot of people who were toeing the start line with me. It was awesome to get to hang out with so many of my running friends before, during, and after the race. We all gathered at the start line at 1am, and before we knew it, it was time to leave. I knew I needed to be smart and not try to go out too fast on the first loop. I left Start/Finish at a good hike, and only broke into a jog occasionally to give myself a nice long warm up.
Because I’ve run this course a lot in the past I had a lot of data to draw on. I spent a lot of time working out a pacing chart with some different options; some faster, some slower. However, “Option 1”, which was what I felt was the most reasonable, amounted to a 34:15:00 finish. I calculated data for every aid station (both in and out times) and total time for each loop. My goal would be to stick as closely to these times as possible.
As I approached the first aid station at just under 3 miles in, I recalled that it would be unmanned for our first loop. Therefore, I just kept on hiking and running right past it. This would be a common theme for the North aid station throughout my race. I just didn’t need that much when I had just left Start/Finish 3 miles earlier.
The first 5.5 miles of the course are the most brutal hills of the entire race, and you get to do them 6 times. There is one hill that is actually a set of three hills, all going up without descending in-between, which is particularly rough. I knew I’d have to see it every lap, so I simply put it out of my mind and kept focusing on my feet in front of me.
I arrived at the Horse Camp 1 aid station on schedule, and my friend Bob had volunteered to get it up and running for the 1am runners. He was an absolute godsend during the early parts of the race, making sure that we had everything we needed. Since it was my first lap I just grabbed a swig of Coke and moved on. The next ~7 miles of the course is a large prairie section that is mostly flat. Gone are the hills of the north section of the park, and they’re replaced with beautiful rolling fields of prairie grass and easy rolling horse trail.
In the middle is the Natchez aid station which was being manned (solo) by my friend Mark. He cheered me in, got me some more pop and sent me along my way. I then got to hit a small road section that is both a blessing and a curse on every loop. Sure you can run it hard, but you shouldn’t. After a couple times through, you start to get pretty sick of the harshness of pavement, and quickly start longing for more dirt.
Eventually, you enter the trails again and end up at Horse Camp 2 (opposite side of the previous Horse Camp aid station). The loop was going well, so I stuck to my quick visit routine, grabbed some pop and a couple snacks and just kept moving. From there you head into a small connector trail that has unfortunately seen better days. Over the 5 years of running this race, I’ve seen this trail go from being mostly OK to being taken over by a beaver dam that has forever changed the landscape. This trail hasn’t even been open this year to the public, so the fact that the race was able to use it was a huge favor. I’ll be curious to see what the park decides to do in the future with this area because I can’t see it continuing like this forever.
This short section eventually dumps out to a road crossing and back onto trails similar to the ones in the first section. However, these trails aren’t nearly as bad in their elevation change, and you can flow through this section much easier than the first one. Soon enough I found myself back at start finish, my first lap done in 4:30, just 3 minutes slower than my prediction. It was still dark (5:30am) so I set about getting myself ready for the next loop by the light of my headlamp. I had a clean pair of socks for every loop, and quickly changed those out. I stuffed more food in my vest, and got a refill of my Skratch drink, and then headed right back on course. I told myself, this was just going to be my life now.
The next loop would be the loop where the sun would come up. I was moving well and feeling good, so I once again decided to completely skip the North aid station. I announced my number as I walked in (the station was now manned), waved, said thank you, and walked right out. I wanted to get as far down the course as I could before the other races started. The 50 mile started at 6am, the 50K at 7am, and the 25K at 8am. I knew that the further down the trail I got, the more spread out these racers would be. The last thing I needed was to get trampled by a bunch of speed demons as I’m trying to wake up and start my running day.
I also had a mini-goal of reaching Horse Camp 1 before it was light enough where I could put my headlamp away. I grabbed a handful of bacon from Mark (who had moved to this aid station) and as I started heading down the trail the sun was just getting bright enough to ditch artificial light. Wow, does it feel great to put a headlamp away. Going from dull white light to the full light of day is a huge boost to the mental state.
I once again managed to run two key sections that I wanted to target for quicker paces: a large section of the Minnregs lake loop, and the road after Natchez aid station. In fact I managed to run these sections on my first four loops, and portions of them on my last two. Having small mini-goals like this are key to keeping mental sanity when you know you’re going to be out there for 34+ hours.
Although the day was getting brighter, it also brought along with it the threat of rain. The forecast had predicted a couple small showers around 8am, but there were also occasional sprinkles starting earlier. It actually annoyed me because I kept pulling out my shell to stay dry, only to have to take it off 15 minutes later when the sprinkle didn’t develop further. Eventually though the rain hit, and we got a good hour of a nice light shower. It wasn’t very bad at all, and it provided some variety on the day.
I don’t really recall much else about loop 2, except that I finished it in 5:14, 7 minutes faster than my predicted pace of 5:21. Considering I was now a full 50K into my run, this was pretty much spot on.
When I got to the aid station to begin loop 3, my friend Shelly was there and she jumped in to action to help me out. She took care of my bottles, getting my drop box organized, and drying out my shell. She was a huge help in making sure I didn’t spend any more time than I should. I debated changing into a short sleeve shirt for the third loop, but in the end decided to just keep going with my long sleeve. I wouldn’t say I regretted that decision, but I probably could have enjoyed the heat of the day a bit more with a different shirt.
I once again blew through North aid station and put my head down on the triple hill. The day was getting warm, and the sun had emerged from the clouds. The heat was particularly noticeable on the prairie sections, but I managed to move really well despite it. It was a bit surreal to still be out on the same course in so many different conditions. I got to see the trail in lots of different conditions, from wet and muddy, to dry, to covered in frost.
At the Horse Camp 2 aid station I met up with my friend Troy who offered to pace me on my 4th loop. I hadn’t planned ahead for any pacers, but gladly welcomed him to join me for the long hike into uncharted territory. In my pacing chart I overestimated how much I would fade on my third loop, and so I came in 12 minutes under my goal at 5:42. This was only my third time at the 50 mile distance so my data was a bit weaker for this loop.
While I was on loop 3 I got to have a phone call with my wife and got to hear about how she just PR’d the 25K! She asked me what food I wanted at the end of loop 3 and for some reason I decided a vanilla milkshake sounded good. After hanging up, I texted her that some chicken nuggets sounded good too!
I’m not a McDonald’s guy, and I rarely ever eat there. But for some reason, chicken nuggets and a milkshake seemed like the most appealing thing I could ever hope for. When I arrived at Start/Finish she brought me the food and it was instant heaven. I have no idea why it tasted so good, but it was perfect for what my stomach wanted. I scarfed down a 10 piece and a milkshake and just reveled in a nice full belly that wasn’t aid station food.
Despite being ahead of schedule Troy insisted we don’t take too long to get moving onto loop 4. I begrudgingly put myself back together, packed my shell for the transition to evening again, and we headed out on the trail. The sun wouldn’t set for a few hours, so we savored in the final light of the day.
One of the biggest surprises of the 4th lap was when I showed up at Horse Camp 2. My friend Michael surprised me there with beer and chicken fingers. I was shocked that he drove all the way down to Savage to sit at an aid station and wait for me. I was almost in tears as I headed out from the aid station, munching my chicken fingers (I saved the beer for after the race).
I’ve known Troy since my very first trail run at Elm Creek. I’ve been there to witness many of Troy’s adventures into the 100 mile racing realm. Unfortunately, Troy has a bit of a reputation because it took him quite a few attempts to get his first buckle (despite being such an accomplished runner). When I put together my plan for Savage 100 I said that if I could make it through lap 4, I knew I would get it done (barring serious injury). We had a good chuckle at the irony that Troy was going to be the one to help me get through this tough lap, but his experience with so many struggles was huge in helping him motivate me and keep me mentally focused.
Troy even got me back to jogging some portions of the lap, despite feeling like I was done running and wanted to stick to just hiking. He helped me work through that mental hurdle and soon enough I was moving with purpose again. Despite hitting a new all-time high mileage (67 miles) I managed to come in 6 minutes early on my pace chart for loop 4, in 5:48. By this time the sun had set, and it was time once again for a long journey through the night.
While I had been out on loop 4, my wife had talked with our friend Kate and found out that Kate’s runner had dropped and she was looking for another pacing gig. I told her I’d be more than happy to have her join me on loop 5. After my traditional change of socks, and a bit more caffeine we headed out into the dark for what would be one of the harder loops of the race.
Going in to a second night is really tough on the mind. Especially when you know that you won’t finish until the light of day again. The exhaustion was setting in big time, and Kate had her hands full keeping me moving at a steady pace. This time we did manage to stop at North aid station for more pop, and to ensure I was getting enough calories.
I did manage to jog the Minnregs section again, but I just couldn’t do it again on the road. Everything in my body was tight, and every step was a step further than I had gone before. That’s not to say that this was a terrible lap. Far from it, there were still many good sub-20/mile hiking sections. It was great to chat with Kate and get to know her more, and she was an amazing motivator, especially later in the loop. She really helped get me just a few extra steps of quicker movement periodically, which was what my body probably needed.
I don’t recall if I had told her my pacing goal for the 5th loop (6:15), but she managed to get me to the Start/Finish area in 6:14, which was pretty dang amazing. Once there I bid her farewell, and thanked her for sacrificing her night to get me through. My wife had also returned to the course and brought me a breakfast sandwich. Her plan was to meet me at Horse Camp 1 and take me through to Horse Camp 2 before heading back to the Start/Finish to see me at the end. That meant that I would be doing the first 5.5 mile section alone again, in the dark.
On loop 5 I had started to get really cold. We had encountered icy frost and bitter temps in the low lying areas. I had done whatever I could to stay warm but knew I’d need something more for my final lap. I changed into a warm merino wool shirt, and put my shell on over that. I also slipped on some pants over my shorts to help keep warmth in my core. Properly bundled, I headed into the cold, dark morning.
I’d heard about 100 milers and hallucinations before, but had no idea what it would be like to experience them myself. During this first section, the hallucinations came fast and furious which was one of the most surreal experiences I ever have had. Every rock I saw had a face of some kind on it. Branches and leaves turned into weird Halloween lawn decorations, and logs were transformed into animals of the forest that I expected to see. Despite knowing, cognitively, that these were not real, they just never stopped. The light of my headlamp intensified the misdirection, and by the time the sun came up again I was feeling pretty loopy.
The exhaustion was hitting a tipping point. I put on some music to help keep me awake, as my mental state had deteriorated to the point where I was shouting at the hills I was climbing. At one point I started yelling, “I’M GOING TO MESS YOU UP YOU M****** F***** HILL!! YOU’RE GOING DOWN YOU G** D** SON OF A B***!” I kept yelling it into the darkness, but maybe I wasn’t yelling it that loud. I honestly can’t remember.
Right around first light, I got to Horse Camp 1 and met up with my wife. It was such a relief to see another person again. By this point all the other races were done and all that was left on course were 20 or so 100 mile runners. We were all spread out over a 16.7 mile loop, which meant that seeing another person outside of an aid station was rare. My wife helped me refill my bottles, and we headed off into the morning.
As we headed into the prairie we got to talk and I got to share the night’s experiences with her. Despite the company I was moving really slow, and was bordering on sleepwalking. As we approached a small hill with a picnic table on top of it, I decided I needed a short nap. We agreed to let me lay my head down for 5 minutes to try and get some recovery.
I sat at the table, laid my head on my arms, and within 30 seconds was out cold. My wife gave me 6 minutes because of a barking dog just as I laid down, and then gently woke me. I sat up and looked around. I had entered REM sleep almost instantly, and after getting my bearings I realized I felt amazing. Six minutes of sleep, and all of a sudden I was a new person.
We moved through the next aid station quickly, and next thing we knew it I was running on the road section. I hadn’t run a step in hours, but here I was jogging along. My wife would be leaving me at Horse Camp 2, but I was feeling so good that I knew I’d be able to tackle the last 4 miles with no problem. When we arrived, I stripped off my shell, and the pants I had put on, and headed right back out into the woods.
The newfound energy of the day, and my short nap, had created a new possibility for me. I could move with purpose once again. I headed through the beaver dam section with with a mix of jogging and hiking, and as soon as I crossed the road I decided to pop a gel and try and run as much as I could to the end. I don’t think I ever got faster than a 13 minute mile, but it felt like I was flying. I yelled at my legs that I was in charge and that they were going to run the downhills no matter what. I jogged the flats, and hiked as quickly as I could up the hills.
Throughout this 4 mile section I texted my wife that she better not dawdle as I was feeling great, and I would be way ahead of schedule. Sure enough I nailed the final four miles, and broke into a “sprint” to the finish line, crossing in 33:48. A full 25 minutes faster than my goal time. I was only 2 minutes faster than my lap 6 goal time, but it’s obvious that I would have missed that by a lot, and eaten into all the time I had built up on previous laps, if it hadn’t been for that nap.
I collapsed into a chair, took a selfie with the buckle, and cheered in the next few runners behind me. As expected, my blood pressure dropped after about 10 minutes and I had to lay down on a bench. I relaxed for a few minutes before we began the drive home to start my recovery, which so far has gone pretty well except for an infected toenail.
There are a few key takeaways that I got from this race. First, it’s the knowledge that I can actually do this. I put in the work as best I could, and I managed to be successful on my first try. This wasn’t because of some magic mantra, or how badly I “wanted” it. It was because I trusted in the process, and accepted that this would take discipline. I simply had to believe that I had done what I needed all year, and so there was no reason I couldn’t accomplish what I had prepared for. Hard work yields results.
One area that I was really pleased with was my planned pacing for this race. I had a lot of prior knowledge of the course to draw on, which helped tremendously. I also knew my abilities, and I planned accordingly. It would have been easy to shoot for the moon with some unrealistic goals that I would never achieve. I’ve learned that a more conservative approach is best, especially when trying something so new that I’ve never done before. All of that paid off tremendously, as I was able to stay really consistent with my plan all throughout the race.
I’ve also learned a lot of lessons about how to handle pain. At a certain point in the race, it just didn’t get any worse. Once I reached that point, and acknowledged it, everything got better. That’s not to say things stopped hurting, quite the opposite. It means that I was mentally able to accept the reality of my situation, and stop dwelling on how to change it. My feet were going to hurt. That’s just how it would be. Just keep moving.
Learning how well a power nap works for me was another key takeaway. Being able to stash that knowledge away for future adventures will be key to more successes. Knowing that 5 minutes of REM sleep is all it takes for me to reset, is a huge tool in my toolbox. With an 80 mile winter ultra coming up in December, being able to manage the sleepies will be tremendously important.
As I continue to process this over the coming months, I’m sure there will be more that I’ll discover. This was something that will stay with me for a long, long time. It took me 5 years of trail running before I took an attempt at the 100. That’s because I wanted to give myself the best chance of success, and I couldn’t be happier with how it worked out.
I should also mention a huge thanks to all of my friends who helped make this happen as well. In particular the TRECs crew who were my role models in how to get this done. Watching them and listening to their advice showed me what I needed to do to really be ready. I also need to say a special thank you to my wife Lisa and acknowledge how wonderful she is for standing by me and supporting me through lots of crazy adventures.
I’m not sure when, or if, I’ll do another 100. I have a couple in mind that I’d like to do, but I also need to balance that with my desire to do other things. Training for a 100 mile race takes a lot of time, and there’s a lot of things to do in life. Realistically, I’m sure I’ll do more in the future, but for the immediate moment it’s time to relax and recover before making any big commitments.
My Savage 100 was an incredible experience, and I’m truly in awe that I got to be a part of it. It tested me in ways I’ve never experienced, and showed me that I’m capable of doing what I set my mind to. I couldn’t be happier.
It’s about time I put pen to paper and wrote this report, while I still have the memories in my head. This is the third year that I’ve signed up for the Marquette 50K. The previous two times that I’ve registered, I’ve ended up not running it. Either I wasn’t in shape for it, or scheduling conflicts got in the way. The tough thing about registering for this race is that you need to commit on Black Friday the year before the race. They open up a sale that day, and on most years it completely sells out. They do keep a waitlist, but I think they need to do a better job of publicizing that, because according to the results over 100 people of the 350+ registered for the 50K, didn’t start the race.
As appears to be the custom for my races out of town, my friend Mike B. and I traveled together. However, unlike Badger, this was a guy’s weekend, as Lisa was staying home for a relaxing time on her own. I got up very early on Friday to get in a 2 mile shakeout run before cleaning up and waiting for Mike to show up in his minivan. I opt’d not to bring my trailer for this one, and just share a giant tent that Mike has. He also brought along a couple of cots so neither of us had to sleep on the ground.
The drive to Marquette is around 7 hours, mostly through rural northern Wisconsin. As we got over the boarder into the upper peninsula of Michigan, we ran into a serious amount of rain. This ended up slowing us down a lot, but we were comforted by the fact that this storm was going to mostly miss the Marquette area. It’s never fun to set up a tent in the rain, so we wanted to do whatever we could to get to the campsite ASAP and get things buttoned up before any rain started to fall. Our timing was great and we were set up and ready to head to dinner before any serious moisture hit. Our friend Greg pulled up into the campsite next to us, and the three of us headed into town to meet up with Lynnea and Heather for food.
We had a nice dinner at the Iron Bay restaurant, along with a couple drinks. However, we all realized that our wake up call was 3:45am, and we needed to hit the sack. Gratefully, the campground was mostly quiet that evening and I was able to get a fitful 5 hours of sleep. Too soon though it was time to get up and start getting ready.
Because I had just done a 100K two weeks before, I had no intentions of racing this 50K. There is a generous 12 hour cutoff for the 50K, and I knew that I could completely hike it and still have time to spare. We arrived at the start, and started getting ourselves ready. Mike was running the 50 mile version of the race, which is the opposite in terms of cutoffs. He would need to push hard to make the initial 50K cutoff in 8.5 hours, and then turn around and hit a solid final 20 miles to get in before the 15 hour total limit.
Starting a race in the dark (5:30am) gives you the advantage of seeing the sun rise. This is an incredible mental boost when running, and getting to experience it in the first ten miles of the race really makes the time fly. Those miles before the sunrise feel like a different race, contributing a small bit of mental trickery to help you cope with the notion of being on course for many, many hours.
The race course is divided into a 10 mile loop to the south, that everyone starts on. Then you return to the start/finish area and head out on a 20 mile loop to the north. The 50 milers come back to start/finish a second time and head out on a second 20 mile loop, but this time they do it the opposite direction. I really liked having the clear demarcation between the first 10 and then the 20. It created a nice breaking point where I could adjust strategy and approach the second 2/3 of the race with a different view.
In fact, that had been my plan all along. I would go out strong on the first 10 miles, and then just hike the 20 as a tourist. I figured that would be all that my legs would be good for. Despite being the easier section, I wasn’t able to run quite as hard as I wanted to on the first 10, due to a couple of very technical sections that required slowing down. This was complicated by some bottlenecks of people who were still bunched up. None of the climbs in this first 10 miles were that bad, but there were enough sections of rocks and roots that I wasn’t able to go flat out. I managed to finish the first 10 in under 3 hours, and was feeling really good. I was well on track for a potential 10 hour finish.
I got back to the start/finish aid station and found my drop bag. My plan was to grab my hiking poles and use those for the next 20 mile section. I was feeling pretty good though, so I just attached them to my vest and headed back out on course (after fueling up). As I left, I got to run a bit with Wayne Nelson, who’s a bit of a legend in the Minnesota ultra and trail scene. It was fun to meet another Minnesotan on course, and we shared a mile or so before he managed to leave me behind. Despite feeling good, I knew I shouldn’t push it too hard. There were still a LOT of miles to go.
The first big climb of the race is actually not one of the “four peaks” that are advertised. The Sugarcube mountain (as I came to find out) is right before the Sugarloaf aid station. It’s a rocky peak that requires a bit of scrambling to find your way up. It’s not terribly tall though, and when I got to the top I was treated to a semi-decent view, in light of what I was about to experience. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to hit the first of the four peaks until after the next aid station, so I didn’t spend much time on this “little” mountain.
I came into the Sugarloaf aid station and realized I needed to empty my shoes of rocks. They didn’t have any chairs for runners, but I managed to find a nice rock to sit on. I got my shoes emptied, and my stomach full of food and headed back out for what I was told would be a long stair climb to the top of Sugarloaf. Sure enough in less than a mile I came upon the first of the wooden staircases that would bring me to the top. I actually don’t mind stairs, and many times prefer them to climbing up rocks. They just take a certain mindset and understanding, and once you get your mind away from the monotony of them, they’re actually quite easy.
I crested the peak of Sugarloaf (along with a boatload of tourists) and was treated to what would become my absolute favorite view of the race. The view from on top of this mountain is spectacular. You’re near the shoreline, and so on one side you have the expanse of Lake Superior. On the other side is the rolling hills of the U.P. I spent a bit too much time up here taking photos, and savoring the view, but soon enough I knew I had to start the decent down.
The path down the other side wasn’t nearly as nice as the stairs going up, but it wasn’t terrible. I also knew that after Sugarloaf I would be treated to 5-6 miles of relatively flat terrain along Lake Superior. I was starting to physically tire, so despite being on very runnable terrain, I had a tough time actually moving quickly. Instead I enjoyed the beautiful scenery, and at one point I headed down to the shore and dipped my hat in the water. The water was still cool enough that it was incredibly refreshing on my head.
It was in this area that I started to realize that I might need to poop. I didn’t remember seeing a bathroom at the last aid station, and I started to worry that none of the aid stations had porta-potties. I hadn’t packed any toilet paper, and even if I had, the area I was in seemed like a very developed park. I didn’t want to risk getting caught by day use visitors with my pants down off the side of the trail. After a couple of miles I spotted my salvation. A parking lot was about 100 yards off to my left, and there was a vault toilet there. I ran over and as I approached the door a lady jumped out of her car and ran to the door of the bathroom and started knocking, and telling her young daughter to hurry up, because a runner needed to use the toilet!
The young lady left the toilet and I did my business, and sure enough that made everything feel a lot better. As I hit the trail I started feeling my legs under me again, and I broke into a jog. I was feeling great, and decided that my plan for the mile 21 aid station would be to change my socks and enter the final 10 miles with a good head of steam.
I did make a crucial mistake though at that aid station. In addition to changing my socks I also needed to refill my water, and make more Skratch electrolyte drink. In my ultra-brain I started doing everything myself. Instead, I should have been relying on the volunteers to fill my bottles while I dealt with my socks. I wasted WAY too much time futzing with packages of powder and bladder closures. It’s a good lesson for next time… let people help!
I headed out on the next section and came on the second “peak” of the four. Called Bareback, this mountain was mostly a long slow climb up granite boulders, with little to mark the trail except for some ribbons hanging from trees. On more than one occasion I had to take a moment and look around hard, to see where I was supposed to go. It was on this peak that I pulled out my poles. Yet, by the time I got to the top I decided that they weren’t actually helping, and that they were slowing me down. So, I put them away and never used them the rest of the race. Another interesting lesson learned.
Coming down the hill I managed to get in some running again. I had been leapfrogging some folks (who I think were from Illinois) and with my new found energy, I was able to finally pass them for good and get in some solid miles of jogging. It was only 4 miles to the next station, and I was feeling really good. The miles were clicking away, and my legs were holding up way better than I expected. I came into the final aid station raring to go, and so I didn’t take a lot of time. I ate a bunch of food, and downed a lot of pop before making my way up the third of the notorious peaks… Top of the World.
Despite the ominous name, this climb was absolutely most enjoyable of the entire race. It was a LONG climb to the top, but the trail was nicely buffed out and there was nothing technical about the ascent. These are the kinds of climbs that I can really rock, and before I knew it I was on… top of the world. Because of all the intersecting paths, there was a timing mat on top of the mountain. I crossed over it, took a couple of photos of the amazing view, and started the, equally, buffed out descent.
The fact that the 3rd hill was so mild put me in a tremendously good mood. I looked at my watch and started doing some math. I realized that a sub-10 hour finish would be easy at this rate, and I might even be able to get close to 9:15-9:20. But then I encountered… Hogsback.
I’ve climbed a lot of Lake Superior mountains, from Moose Mountain, Carlton Peak, and Mystery Mountain. None of them compare to Hogsback. As I was running along I looked to my left, and there was a couple of people slowly making their way up a steep and technical ascent. I steeled myself for what was to come and tried to climb as best I could. Part way up the hill I came across Heather, who was having a rough time on this mountain. I gave her some words of encouragement (I think… I may have just complained about his mountain needing to eat a bag of d**ks), and then passed her by.
The final section to the ascent goes from a marked path, to a sheer granite rock scramble. The next thing I knew I was on my hands and knees, trying to find anything I could grab on to, to get me to the top. It felt like it took forever, and the entire way my mood soured. By the time I got to the top, I didn’t even care that the view was the most spectacular of the entire course. I didn’t care that I could see forever, and that I only had 2.5 miles to go. Hogsback had broken me.
After spending a few minutes being way too grumpy to the awesome volunteer on top of the mountain (sorry!) I went to head back down. The volunteer directed me where to go and as I looked over the edge I realized that there was no path. Just a steep granite rock face that you slide down on your ass. I muttered more curse words under my breath, and began to crab walk down this rock face, praying that I didn’t rip my nice PATH Project shorts.
Once I got down the rock face I came across Mike, who was making his way up the mountain on his second time around for the 50 mile race. He was hurting bad, and I was in a bad mood, but I tried really hard to be encouraging. I knew that he had a really easy stretch if he could just make it over this damn mountain, and I told him so. We parted ways and I began the slog back to the finish line.
At this point my left knee was feeling twingy from the climb (I might have banged it on the rock), and I was still grumpy. I looked at my watch and realized 9:15 wasn’t going to happen. My mood did lighten as all of the 50 milers passed me, and I was able to give them some encouragement, and cheer them on. They had a tremendously hard day, with a race that has very difficult cutoffs. It made me pause and remember that I had the easy task.
Soon enough I was down the mountain and on the final stretch to the finish. The last mile of deer trail took forever. I was ready to be done, and I swear I could hear the finish line music from miles away. At one point I came across the campground and I knew that was the final quarter mile. Soon the fence appeared that would guide me to the finish. I ran as best I could and crossed the line in 9:38. Not my best time for a 50K, but a marked improvement over my 10 hour estimated finish.
I headed to the finish aid station and grabbed some food before joining a bunch of the other Minnesota folks who were reminiscing about the day. We all hung around for a while before I decided to head out and wipe down before changing clothes. I knew I had quite a few hours before Mike would finish so I took the opportunity to hit a local brewery in town, Blackrocks.
I ordered up a flight of beer, and as I started sampling, my friends Carrie and Rob came in. We all got a table together and started chatting about the day. Greg, Jake, and another guy who’s name escapes me, joined us, and before long we had filled one of their picnic tables with runners. At one point in the evening I checked the live tracking and realized that Mike would be finishing soon, so it was time to head back.
I grabbed the camp chairs from the van and went to watch Mike finish. Greg went to get pizza with Heather, so it would be ready at the campground when he was done. Soon enough Mike came across the line, beaten up, but successful. Some of his first words to me were, “Never let me do this again.” Marquette 50 Mile is a beast, but Mike finally had redemption on his DNF from many years ago.
After a quick recuperation we headed back to camp and enjoyed some quiet time with pizza, beer, and friends. Sleep was sounding better and better though, so we soon hit the showers and then called it a night. We had a long 7 hour drive home the next day, and a good night sleep would mean the difference between an easy ride, and suffering. Despite some neighbors deciding to play their guitar late into the evening, sleep took me quickly.
The next morning we packed up, and then all met up at Cafe Bodega for breakfast. I thought I was hungry for biscuits and gravy, but really, I should have just gotten the eggs and bacon. Soon enough though it was time to leave, and we began the journey home. Google routed us around some storms, and before we knew it, we were on I-94 into the Twin Cities. All in all, a nice easy ending to an amazing weekend.
Marquette was a very different race than Badger, but equally as challenging. It made me work in a very different way, and having the two back-to-back, made for a wild couple of weeks. I’m not sure if I’ll be ready to tackle the hills of Marquette right away again next year, but I can certainly see myself returning someday. It’s a beautiful race in a wonderful town. The atmosphere is pure trail running, and I felt like I was among family. I’m grateful to the folks who put this race on, and would recommend this to anyone looking for awesome views and technical terrain. You won’t be disappointed.
A couple years ago I heard about the Ten Junk Miles podcast. This is a fun show out of Chicago that bills itself as a “runners” podcast, not a “running” podcast. They talk about running all the time, but the focus isn’t on elites, or trying to make you a better runner. It’s about hanging out with all your running friends and talking about the things you’d chat about on a ten mile run. They have two show formats; a gang show that’s more akin to a morning show, and a long run for the one-on-one long format interviews.
I had gotten to know Scott Kummer through promoting my race, the St Croix 40. Scotty is a big winter ultra guy and when he heard about what we were doing he was excited to jump on board. I got to meet many of the other hosts, including Adam and Holly, when I sat in on a gang show a few months ago. The TJM crew were huge supporters of my race, and so when they announced that they were going to put on a race, I knew I had to be a part of it.
I wasn’t quite ready for my first 100 mile race, but I wanted to do something that would challenge me. When I heard that the 100K race would have a very generous cutoff of 33 hours, I knew I found what I wanted to try. This would be my first 100K attempt, and my longest distance race ever. I signed up, and then realized that I also have Marquette 50K two weeks later. This was going to be a crazy training block, but throughout the year I was feeling good and running strong, so I tried to put any doubts out of my head.
A few weeks before the race we were informed that we could camp at the park where the race HQ was. This was an awesome perk as my wife had decided to run the 50K which started a day later than my race. We wouldn’t have to worry about shuffling any vehicles around, and could just make ourselves at home for the weekend. My good friend Mike B. agreed to come and pace me for the second half of the race, and so around lunch time on Friday we headed out of town for southern Wisconsin.
It’s about a 5 hour drive to Belleville, WI so we arrived just before dinner. After getting settled, picking up our packets and chatting with folks, we headed in to this quaint small town for a nice dinner. My race wasn’t starting until 9am, so I wasn’t worried about how soon I got to bed. I decided to hang out at the Race HQ for a little bit in the evening, and hit the sack around 10pm.
I actually slept really well that first night, which is odd considering I don’t sleep well the first night in a new place. However, I was feeling really calm and confident about this entire weekend. Perhaps ‘confident’ isn’t the right word, but I wasn’t having any anxious feelings or sense of dread about what was to come. I got up and had some breakfast and fiddled with last minute things to get ready. Having such a late start means that you’re ready to go a lot earlier than you need to be.
Eventually it was time to start. Scotty gave us very simple instructions… “When in doubt, what would a train do?” This is because the Badger State Trail is an old railroad trail that has been converted to a dirt and gravel path. It also means that it’s straight and flat. Hence, if you ever think you should turn left or right, ask yourself if a train would make a 90 degree turn, and you’ll figure out the answer. Because of the flat nature of this course, I set my sights on beating my Zumbro 50 mile time of 15 hours and 45 minutes. I had nothing to gauge my goal on, but I figured I should put something out there to shoot for.
At 9am we launched. After a quick bit of pavement to get out of the park and under a bridge, we were on the path that we’d be on for the rest of the day, and into the night. I decided to go out slow and easy, setting my sights on a 12:00 to 12:30 pace. Adrenaline took over and my first mile was a bit quicker, but I was able to recover nicely and ease into what I wanted to be my all-day pace. I ran into a couple folks in the first miles, Suzanne and Tyson. We chatted away the time until the first aid station. This was after the biggest feature of the course, the Stewart Hill Tunnel.
This quarter mile long tunnel was built in the late 1800s and has a slight curve in the middle. This means that when you’re at the center of it you can’t see light from either end. It’s a huge tunnel, and I loved getting to run through it. I smartly packed my headlamp, and so seeing my way through wasn’t an issue. The tunnel had an added bonus of being 10-20 degrees cooler than the surrounding air temperature, which was quickly rising. It was going to be a hot one, but the respite of the tunnel provided welcome relief.
After the first aid station I ran some more with folks on and off, but eventually people spread out a bit. The Monticello aid station was run by Holly and it was tempting to stay and chat for a while with her and Dusty, but I knew my plan required only aid station stops of 2 minutes or less. I grabbed some food and headed back out into what was becoming a hotter and hotter day.
It was in this section that I encountered a couple issues that would start to define my first set of obstacles to overcome. First, although being mostly flat, there is a 1% uphill grade heading south. It goes on for 9 miles, and despite being very shallow, your legs feel it. I know that when I hit mile 18 and the path leveled out again, the relief was noticeable. A 1% grade isn’t much, but over 9 miles you certainly feel it. It also didn’t help that this was some of the hottest running of the day, and some of the most exposed portions of the trail.
The second issue I faced was the need to poop. I almost NEVER have to poop in a race. Yet, today, my body decided that I would poop 4-5 times through the first third of the day. I have no idea what caused it, but it certainly made life difficult for quite a while till it settled down. Thankfully, there we’re porta-potties at all the aid stations. This need to poop, along with the slight uphill, made miles 9-18 really, really hard.
At mile 18 we got to a detour in the trail due to some bridge construction. We had been told about this going into the race, and it didn’t change the overall distance in any meaningful way that I could tell, but after a beautiful soft trail, a mile of road was not a welcome relief. It was hot, busy with traffic, and completely exposed to the elements. After this short detour I was elated to be back on gravel.
The Monroe aid station was hopping, and this was the last spot I would get to see my crew until the turnaround. I made sure to fuel up, and despite being in good spirits, I was feeling pretty crappy physcially. I knew my time goal was almost gone at this point, and I even probably said something about it to my crew, but, I hadn’t really dealt with it yet emotionally.
It was 5.75 miles to the next aid, and it was at a slight (maybe .5% grade) downhill. Walking came easy, but my stomach wasn’t done being a problem. I came into the Town Centre Road aid station and saw Dan Slater and Rachel and all I wanted to do was collapse in a chair for a while. I knew I was only supposed to take 2 minutes at each station, but I needed a reset. I spent some time in the toilet and then let Dan cool me down with some wet towels. While in the porta-pottie I felt a little like puking, and contemplated if I could turn myself around quick enough to get it into the proper receptacle. I really wanted to avoid puking into the urinal, as I had no idea if there’d be chunks. Thankfully, everything was a false alarm and I made it out of there with no upchucking occurring.
After spending a bit of time getting cooled down I had to come to grips with the fact that my original time goal was way too optimistic. As I headed back out onto the trail I spent a bit of time hiking it out and letting my mind be at peace. I hit an incredible low just before the last aid station, and came as close to dropping as I would the entire race. I was mentally beat up and emotionally drained from the day in the heat. As I moved closer and closer to the turnaround I took a mental inventory of everything going on. My stomach was coming around and starting to feel better. The heat was decreasing and I had the evening to look forward to. My legs felt good, and despite some hotspots, my physical inventory seemed positive.
After about 5 minutes of taking stock of the situation I started to feel better both mentally and physically and got my first “second wind” of the day. Soon enough I was crossing into Illinois for the final 2.5 mile stretch to the turnaround and as I looked to my right, there was a herd of cows. I took note of them, as these would be the cows that would welcome me back to Wisconsin (the dairy state) in just a little while longer. With my spirits lifted, I started some running. Just a half a mile at a time, but it was enough to manage some solid miles.
Soon I saw the turnaround and ran myself in to the picnic shelter a good 15-20 minutes earlier than I had told my crew to expect me. Despite all my problems, I was doing really well. In my plan, I had scheduled to be at this station for 20 minutes so that I could do a full sock change, as well as assess any lingering issues. By this point my mood was flying and I was excited to spend the night traveling back to the start with Mike. I also got to see a couple of our friends, Travis and Steph, arrive at the turnaround just before I left. They were having a rough day, but I knew they’d pull through eventually.
Soon enough Mike told me my 20 minutes we up and it was time to go. I strapped my vest back on and we began the journey back. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to run a lot at this point, but hiking felt good. We passed the cows quicker than I recalled, and moved back over to the Wisconsin side of the race. We kept up a solid 16:30 hiking pace (roughly) and ran occasionally when I felt good. One of the places I was feeling the best was back at Town Center Road. As I got closer I saw Dan Slater and let out a howl. I had been running for the past half mile and the adrenaline was flowing strong. I’m pretty sure I talked briefly with Rachel again too, but at this point I was starting down the path of ultra-brain.
We got in and out of that aid station efficiently and kept up our solid hiking pace, with occasional running, all the way back to Monroe. This was the last time I would have my wife there to crew me, as she had to get back and go to bed for her race. It was here that I tried to address a problem that had been nagging me for far too long. I had developed blisters in a spot on my foot that I don’t normally blister. For a long time I wasn’t even sure it was a hotspot. Eventually I knew I had to do something, despite the fact that I had probably waited too long. We sat down and begged folks for some duct tape to put over the area of my feet where the toes connect with the rest of the foot. We managed a couple strips, but it was unclear if they were going to hold long.
I started mentally kicking myself for not planning ahead for this better, packing better tape and supplies, and for not dealing with it sooner. As we left the mile 40 station I knew that I was probably going to be in a lot bigger world of hurt than I needed to be because of this. Despite my worries, I wanted to make the next few miles count. We backtracked along the road detour and met up with the trail once more. After a few minutes I felt another “second wind” and told Mike that we were going to run for a while.
And run we did. I didn’t stop at a half a mile, but cruised along for 1.5 miles, at a pace faster than I had done all day. I was feeling great, and the fact that I could do this at mile 44 was amazing. Soon though I knew I had to ease down or I’d completely blow up. We reverted to walking, but I could tell that the wheels were starting to come off the bus. The blisters on my feet were getting worse, and I had to stop to take the tape off, as it was starting to wrinkle.
We kept up as good a pace as I could muster until we hit the 50 mile mark. I looked at my watch and saw that I had bested my 50 mile time by 1:54. I was excited about this, but couldn’t muster the emotion to show it because I was hitting a new low. As I hit the second to last aid station we encountered some rain. It was very light and refreshing, but it was over much too soon. I was still feeling warm from earlier in the day, and I regretted not packing a second singlet (I changed my shirts at mile 40 from a singlet to a t-shirt).
The food at the Monticello aid station was glorious with bacon and hash browns. I ate way too many hash browns before we set out, but I could tell that I was losing my appetite and probably wouldn’t be able to stomach any more food later on. As we plodded into the night my pace got slower and slower. My muscles were completely worn out from running on a flat surface all day long. Unlike many of my other trail races, there were no big hills or curves to change up the pace and engage other muscle groups. My two choices were run on a flat surface, or walk on a flat surface. Because of the blisters, I couldn’t run, leaving me with only one option.
It was only 3.5 miles to the final aid station, but I was entering a dark place. I was tired, my legs didn’t want to move, and my feet were in excruciating pain. We arrived at the final aid station and I decided I needed to use the bathroom. I sat down for a moment or two, but nothing was moving. I was thankful for just a couple minutes off my feet though. I remember getting a bit more frustrated at this aid station, thinking about taking a break, but Mike asked me if I still wanted to try and beat 18 hours. I told him I didn’t care anymore, so let’s just keep going. Ya… runner logic at that time of night doesn’t make sense.
We kept walking and soon we were at the tunnel. It was a cool, moist, respite from the remaining heat of the day. However, after we left the tunnel, the earlier rains had added a thick humidity to the air. I tried to move as best I could, but was barely able to keep a 21:00/mile pace. I was getting whiny and tired, and at one point I told Mike that I just needed to sit down for a moment.
I lowered myself the ground and sat cross-legged with my head in my hands. I don’t think I was there for more than a minute or a minute and a half, but it was what I needed. I got back up and still felt like crap, but in my immature state of mind I told myself, “Ha! I showed you! I sat down even though no one told me I could!” I don’t think it helped me in any way, but I don’t regret doing it.
As we approached the town of Belleville everything was still and quiet. It was 2:50am and no one was stirring outside of the park. I got passed by a couple of ladies who were going really strong. I also managed to pass one person in the last third of a mile, which gave me a little emotional boost (they were peeing… I didn’t have some sudden burst of speed). As I saw the turn to the park the adrenaline kicked in and took away my pain long enough to do a solid jog in to the finish in 17:57:25.
As I approached the finishing chute Mike ran ahead to get a picture of me crossing the line and falling into a big bear hug from Scotty. I held on to him for a moment and told him that was the hardest thing I had ever done, but that it was amazing. He offered me food and beer, and wanted to hear the war stories, but I needed a nap. I told him I’d be back, but that I needed to lie down.
I headed to the camper and crawled in to bed, sweaty and stinky. My wife had just come back to bed after a restroom visit and so she helped me get settled. I kept my promise though. After a couple hours of rest my wife got up to get ready for her race, and I was wide awake. I helped her with a couple things and then hobbled over to the finish area. There, I sat down with Vincent, who had just crossed shortly before I got there, and we enjoyed some breakfast beer out of the keg of New Glarus Spotted Cow.
As others crossed the finish we swapped stories of how the race had gone. We talked about the oppressive heat of the day, and how much we loved the tunnel. We shared funny stories from aid station visits, or silly things we had seen along the trail. We savored our victories, hard fought, and justly earned. It didn’t matter how long we took, but that we shared the bond of traveling the same 62 miles together. A shared journey, undertaken in almost 50 different ways.
Trail races that allow camping at the start finish are magical places. They embody the spirit and community that makes this sport so unique. We gather and share our tales, cheer on our friends, and comfort those who were defeated. It’s about more than just challenging ourselves and our physical abilities. It’s about challenging ourselves to be good people to one another.
I got to see my wife take off for her race, and then I went back to bed for a bit. Around lunch time we headed out to see her at the Monticello aid station, and while there we got to hang out with Holly and her team. We saw Lisa crushing her race and then headed to a brewery for a quick beer before getting ready to head home. Unfortunately, because it was a Sunday evening with a 5 hour drive ahead of us, we needed to get on the road shortly after Lisa finished. But we still got a chance to hang out just a bit more and revel in this awesome community.
The story of the Badger, for me, is a story of trying something new and difficult, and persevering. I’m so thrilled and grateful that I got to hit a new milestone, and make so many amazing memories, surrounded by so many generous people. The Badger came about because of a loyal podcast audience. It was founded on the idea of a community of people who all shared a love of running in the woods and hanging out. That sense of community and caring is at it’s core, and it shone brightly on it’s very first running. Hopefully, I’ll be able to be back in the future, but I know that for everyone who toes the line, a little part of all of us still inhabits the spirit of what it means to be trail people, on a little rail trail in southern Wisconsin.
Last year a new race burst on the scene from veteran race director Chris Swenke. He wanted to introduce everyone to one of his favorite parks, Willow River State Park in Wisconsin. To do this, he devised a 10 mile loop around the park that takes you past waterfalls, along a beautiful river, and challenges you with some truly steep climbs. To top it all off, the entire course is beautiful double-wide trail that is 99% devoid of root and rock obstacles.
I decided to give this race a shot this year, and since I had an 18 mile training run on my schedule, the 20 mile option seemed like the best way to go. I hobo’d my way to and from the race, getting rides from friends, and was ready to toe the line for the 7:30am start. Since I had never been to this park before, I tempered my expectations. This was supposed to be a training run, so I knew better than to lay it all out there in the first loop. I knew I’d like to get the first loop done in 2 hours, and then hopefully I could hang on for a finish in under 4:15.
The race launched and I hung out with my good friend Mike Barton for the first couple of miles. When we hit the first big climb I decided it was time to lose the shell I was wearing. As I slowed to take it off, Mike took off for what would be a truly great race for him. The first climb gives you a taste of the handful of hills that you’ll encounter on the course. The nice thing was that in between these hills the course was incredibly runnable and easy. The rolling gravel along the river valley (or on top of the bluffs) was comfortable and fun. The lack of difficult footing meant that you could look around and see some of the park. I got treated to some graceful turkey vultures circling a prairie, as well as multitudes of songbirds.
There is one climb that does deserve its own moment of recognition. Right before the 7 mile aid station you travel along a section of asphalt. Unfortunately, this section of pavement is also the steepest (and felt like the longest) hill of the course. At 15% grade, it was a complete quad buster, and on my second loop it took everything I had to get to the top. For the casual people visiting the waterfall, this path has multiple benches to stop along the way. Personally, I would have preferred a nice staircase!
Throughout my first loop I felt good. I laid down some solid miles, and managed to get over all of the climbs still feeling pretty decent. My goal for lap 1 was two hours, and as I stood at the mile 10 aid station, my watch beeped 2 hours exactly. I knew I couldn’t do lap 2 in that same amount of time, but I was happy with my effort so far. I headed out on loop 2, and within a mile or so I came across Luke Thoreson who had just finished his shift of volunteering and was out to get some miles. We ended up spending the majority of the second loop together, chatting and getting to know one another. It made the miles melt away and before I knew it we were back at the asphalt climb to the mile 17 aid station.
The final three miles to the finish were a bit slower than I had wanted, but once my watch beeped 18 miles, I had a bit of mental wrestling to do to keep pushing. This was supposed to be an 18 mile training run, and I still had two miles to go. My brain decided that it would rather walk more in this section than I probably needed to, but this is why running is as much a mental game as a physical one. I managed to push through the final miles of rollers and crossed the line in 4:10, well within my goal of 4:15.
The greatest takeaway though is how good I felt at the end. I put out a solid effort, and I probably could have pushed just a little bit more, but I was able to walk around the finish line, talk with people, eat food, and overall act like a normal person. When I come in from a race and feel completely trashed, I end up not enjoying the experience, even if I manage to lay down a PR time. However, in this case, I feel like I put down a good performance, and yet still felt good at the end. This is a testament to where my training is at right now, and for me, this is a huge accomplishment from where I’ve been in the past.
Even this morning after, I’m doing great. I spent this morning biking down to Eastside Co-op and I’ll be going for a casual 6 mile run with my wife later. My legs aren’t protesting nearly as much as they have in the past, and there’s only a couple of small pains left on my feet. Overall, a resounding success.
This will probably be my last big race before my 100K in August. I need to get back into my routine and focus on laying down the time on feet, as well as getting my nutrition right, and upping my bike cross training. I am really happy that I did The Willow 20 though. The park was beautiful, and I can see heading out there in the future for some training runs. It’s a great alternative to Afton, and with the well groomed double-track, could be a great option for muddy mornings.
In regards to the race itself, Chris puts on an awesome low-key trail running event. The volunteers were great, the course was marked perfectly, and I got treated to slices of banana, with peanut butter and M&Ms on them at the 7 mile aid station! The hat that Chris designed is simple and clean, just like all of the signage around the course. This is certainly a race worth doing, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for a nice early-May race.