A year ago a bunch of my friends decided to do something crazy… run a marathon around a baseball diamond. This breaks down to 384 times around the bases, which is the number of home runs that baseball player Harold Baines hit during his career. The entire event was just for fun, and because of an injury a couple days before, I decided to just go and hang out with folks.
Fast forward to 2019, and this is now a full fledged event. My friends put together a race directing team and turned their little idea into a big happening. This year 35 people signed up to run 26.2 miles in a small circle. Thankfully, they offered some smaller options for folks like myself who just weren’t ready to commit to that level of crazy, and so I signed up for the half marathon, only 192 times around the diamond. As an added bonus, I would get to do this on my birthday!
Even though my race didn’t start until 12:15, I showed up nice and early to hear my wife sing the national anthem and watch the craziness happening on the other other two fields. The entire event was an awesome, baseball themed party, complete with a 7th inning stretch where everyone had to stop for hot dogs. They gave out baseballs as the medal, and everyone got a commemorative baseball card for participating. The event garnered a bunch of attention that even a local news show came out to put together a feature on it.
I hung out with friends and tried to relax, but eventually 12:15 hit and it was time to start my journey. I started out with the pack, probably going just a little too fast, before easing into a nice steady pace. Rounding the bases didn’t seem too bad at first. I was able to chat with people and distract myself pretty regularly throughout the race. However, the real story of the day was the condition of the field. Our massive snowfalls had yet to melt, and so the path that had been cleared on the baselines was covered with water that had no where to go. Within 10 laps my feet were soaking wet.
Some of us tried to find ways around the puddles, and the grounds crew attempted to fix some problem areas, but when all was said and done… it was just going to be sloppy and wet. I moved as best as I could in the conditions, but towards the end I could tell that my legs were feeling very done with this constant turning to the left. Around the 10 mile mark I decided to walk a few laps and drink a beer while I did. This was one of my highlights as I got to enjoy some moving time, and a tasty beverage, in my own personal 7th inning stretch.
I lost track of my laps pretty quickly, and my GPS watch was destined to be dramatically off. These watches just aren’t meant to record data that precisely when your track is in the same place over and over again. Additionally, we were cutting the inside of the baseline pretty tight, to avoid puddles, and over 192 times around, this will heavily skew where the GPS thinks you are. Needless to say, I had no idea how close I was to finishing, until my friend Troy, who was helping keep track of laps, informed me that I had 20 laps to go.
I started counting them down, and when I hit 10 I breathed a sigh of release. After 192 laps I crossed the lap counter and was told I was done. My watch only registered 12 miles, but I didn’t care. I hobbled over to the main aid station and grabbed another beer to chug in celebration. My wife arrived and kindly brought me some dry shoes to put on. Shortly after, the entire event wrapped up and we all headed home.
In the following days I have discovered that I did injure my gastroc muscle in my right calf. There’s a tremendously tender spot, and running and walking has been a challenge. I’m spending a lot of time stretching and rolling it out, and it’s getting better, but it certainly shows the dangers of doing a crazy event like this.
Despite the lingering issues, I am happy I gave this an attempt this year. I had a great time with all my friends, and I know it’s an experience that I’ll never forget. However, next year, I think I’ll just volunteer!
This year was the 10th annual Surf the Murph races at Murphy-Hanrehan Park down in Savage, MN. All the way back in 2015, Surf the Murph was my very first 50K and ultramarathon race. Despite the fact that I’m not in love with the course, we’ve managed to make our way back every year since. In 2016 we signed up for the 50K, but only did one loop and decided to step down to the 25K. Then last year and this year we’ve simply elected to do the 25K and call it good. This year in particular required us to do a shorter distance, because my wife’s little brother was getting married that afternoon and I was the officiant!
We arrived to the park much earlier than we needed to for an 8am start, but parking at Surf can be a challenge. We decided to get there before the 50Kers launched, find a spot, and take a nap before we had to begin. The air was cold, in the mid-30s, but the real issue was the wind. It was blowing around 27mph with even quicker gusts. I chose to do two layers when I dressed, but then seeing the wind, I make a decision to toss on my sweat jacket. I needed something to add a layer of wind blockage for times when I’d be out on the prairie sections. The added layer made some of the forest sections a bit warm, but every time I hit an exposed path, I was grateful for the wind block. In future, I think I’d do well to pick up a small Houdini shell, or something similar to act as a wind block.
The first part of the course is quite hilly, which means that I get out of the blocks much slower than I would on other courses that have a warm-up section. In addition, I’ve been dealing with a flare-up of my general anxiety disorder this past 2 weeks, and it’s made me feel like crap a lot. I’ve talked a bit about anxiety here before, and once again I can affirm that it sucks. Strange sensations all over your body that come and go (and make you think you’re having a heart attack), along with a general sense of dread, really impede your ability to focus on putting in a good race.
Despite all of this, I made it to the first aid station feeling OK, and proceeded to start the Triple Hills (it’s just like it sounds, and they suck). In this section my wife Lisa caught up to me and we spent a bit of time together before I got a little bit of energy and moved on ahead to the horse camp aid station. I blew through the second aid station as quick as I could and started on the next section which is the first of the prairie areas. My wife caught me again, and it was then that I was probably at my lowest point. As we walked a bit together I contemplated quitting. I knew that if I couldn’t keep up with my wife, that it would be best for me to just stop. Especially considering our time crunch that we were under for the wedding later.
However, I decided to just stick with her as long as I could and see how it went. She’s been training incredibly hard this summer, and has been working with a coach. This brought our abilities a little bit closer together, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that she was doing as good as she was. We launched into a nice jog and distracted each other with some conversation.
I’m not sure if it was the endorphins, the company, or just my body being nice to me, but shortly before the Natchez aid station I felt my anxiety start to lift. Natchez is one of the aid stations that is REALLY hard to leave. The TRECs running group that we’re a part of puts it on and it’s filled with all of our friends. We spent far too long visiting and eating before getting back on the trail. Despite the delay, it was really nice to see everyone. Plus, it was nice to get a pick-me-up before the boring road section that leads to the second prairie area.
One of the things that bugs me about the Surf course is that it’s laid out so that three loops equals a 50 mile race. However, 25K times 3 does not equal 50 miles. That means that the Surf 25K and 50K are actually very long for the distance that they’re advertising. Each loop is about 1.2 miles longer than it’s supposed to be (16.7 vs 15.5). I’m a trail runner. I totally get that our distances are kinda squishy and that a 50K might be 29 miles, or maybe 32, but where Surf rubs it in is that they actually post a 16 mile sign on the course! That sign is a big slap in the face to remind you that YOU’RE STILL NOT DONE.
For some courses, it’s just the way that it goes. However, with Surf there’s actually a super easy fix that could change the course to make it a true 25K. In fact, the very first year I did the course there was a poorly marked turn and I missed a small little 1 mile side loop. I kept going on the path that was in front of me and very quickly reunited with the proper course. When I got done with my first loop my watch was a nice 15.7 miles. Right in that sweet spot for a 25K. However, that’s not the way that the course is laid out and so Lisa and I made the left hand turn on to what we’re affectionately called The Fucking Loop.
By this point I was actually feeling pretty good and I knew that Lisa was hitting her typical wall around mile 12. I also knew that she wanted to get a 4 hour finish so I started adjusting my thinking into pacer mode. As we turned onto the loop I started belting out a corny rendition of Home on the Rage with some truly amazing twang. Lisa joined in and we had a brief few moments of silliness before putting out heads down and getting it done. Our only interruption was when Mark M. suck up behind us and scared the shit out of us when he said ‘Hi’.
We arrived at the back side of Horse Camp and did a quick fueling before the final slog. It was I this section that I moved my watch off of its mileage-only screen, to my full data screen with time, pace and distance. I wanted to do what I could to make sure Lisa got her 4 hour finish. Soon we approached the dreaded beaver dam, and we were grateful to see that the park has started making a boardwalk over it. It meant that we were able to keep our feet dry and out of any beaver homes. In fact, the entire course was the driest I’ve ever seen it. My shoes had zero mud on them when I finished, which is a first with this course.
As we approached the mile 16 sign I gave it two middle fingers and we moved as quickly as we could to the final stretch. I was constantly checking my watch, and with just a few hundredths of a mile to go I yelled out, “two minutes!” Lisa found a second gear and we pushed as hard as we could to the finish line. We crossed just as our watches beeped 4 hours. Lisa’s watch even said 3:59:59.
We weren’t able to stay and celebrate though because we had to get cleaned up and get to a wedding. Mike B. showed up and congratulated us, which was awesome. We had hoped to see him before his shift as the Horse Camp captain. Lisa did a quick washing of her hair in the parking lot and we headed up to Saint Paul. A quick change in the restroom of a Lunds grocery store and we were ready to be presentable for the evening.
Despite how crappy I felt for a large part of this race, and my current fitness potential to have crushed my old PR, I’m really happy with how the day came out. This was my second fastest time on this loop, only eclipsed by my loop where I missed a turn and missed a mile. Therefore, there’s a bit of an asterisk on that PR. I got to spend some great time with my wife, and helped her achieve her goal. By the end I was mostly feeling like my old self and was smiling. I know that things will get better, and I’ll be back to my old self soon enough. For now though, I’m happy with great days in the woods with great people.
Coming back to reality after a big trail race is a struggle. My social media feeds are filled with people talking about their post-Superior hangover. As I sit here typing this, I too am feeling sad, longing to be back among the hills, woods, and trail family that I adore. I’ve long since learned that when I return from weekends such as this, I need to take Monday off of work, if at all possible. This year I also went down to the truck unloading party at the race director’s house on Monday for a couple of hours, and that also helped to ease the transition.
It seems that every year at Superior is special, but this year was different for me. As usual I was captaining the aid station at County Road 6. This is a job that I enjoy, and am good at, so I love coming back to do it year after year. I’ve also ended up finding myself on the photography and social media team, therefore much of my free time was spent taking photos up and down the race course. What made this year different for me was what happened on Saturday.
This year I had the honor of being able to pace my friend and trail mentor, Mike B. to his first 100 mile finish. I offered to pick him up at mile 90 (of 103) and pace him into the end. I’ve paced this exact same stretch before with another runner, and it’s an area of the course that I know well and love. Based on how I’ve been performing this year I probably could have paced even more, but it’s always good to be conservative when your weekend schedule is already packed, and you don’t want to get dropped by a runner with a second wind at mile 95.
I got a chance to see Mike the day prior at County Road 6 and he was looking well. The section before my aid station is one that is frustrating for many people. It’s a long 9 mile section that ends with a beautiful view of the aid station from on top of a ridge line. The problem is that the aid station is still a good mile and a half away, down a rocky descent. Many people come in to my station feeling frustrated and annoyed. I could tell Mike was a little bit of both (though not too bad).
County Road 6 is also the station that sends you off into the long night. Almost everyone, except for the leaders, has to bring a headlamp with them when leaving my station. Once you pass through us, you know that you’re entering into the darkest stretch of the race. It’s also the spot where pacers can first be picked up (after 6pm), and so we sent Mike into the night with his first pacer Shannon.
Eventually Friday night ended and we broke down the aid station. I managed to head back to the house for a few hours of sleep, and then drove to another aid station to see how Mike made it through the night. He arrived at Sugarloaf smiling and happy, despite being solidly behind his “A” goal pace time. He was nowhere near hitting cutoffs, so there wasn’t much to worry about. It was also here that I got to see a couple other friends who were also putting down strong performances, and were recovering from a long dark night.
After checking on Mike, I headed to the Sawbill aid station to work for the day until my pacing duties started. Sometimes it’s nice to be the one in charge, and other times it’s nice to just do work and let someone else deal with being in charge. At Sawbill I got to just do work, helping runners, filling water, etc.,. Soon I got a message the Mike was leaving the previous aid station so I took some time to get myself ready and waited. He arrived right at 4pm, with his second pacer Heather, and my evening of fun began.
Mike was in great spirits. He was moving well, eating well, and power hiking with purpose. We left with just under two hours before cutoffs at Sawbill, and 3 hours and 10 minutes to get to the final Oberg aid station. The rule in the Superior 100 is that as long as you can get out of the final aid station before the station cut-off time, you’ll get an official finish (even if you’re slightly above the 38 hour time limit). However, I didn’t need to worry. The section from Sawbill to Oberg is only 5.5 miles long, and it’s mostly flat. There’s only one big hill, and one other climb that’s noteworthy. Otherwise, you can power through it without much issue.
We also didn’t need to worry because Mike was on fire. He kept a solid 18-19 minute hiking pace through the entire section, and any little hill we came across wasn’t even an issue. Part way through the section I asked Mike, “So how do you feel about running?” He said he felt fine, and so we decided that we would try and run through the final half mile in to the aid station. This section is flat, buffed out trail, and goes through a beautiful pine forest copse. As soon as we hit it we started picking up the pace and before we knew it we were rocking a 10 min/mile jog into the final aid station. We arrived at 5:45pm, LONG before the final Oberg cutoff at 7:10pm.
Despite being well ahead of cutoff, I was also aware of Mike’s “B” goal, which was to come in around 8pm, or slightly after, during the award ceremony. It’s an awesome time to finish the race as the finish line is packed with people, and every time a runner headlamp appears from around the building the award ceremony stops and everyone goes bananas. I did some quick math in my head and knew that if we could keep moving strong, and maybe get in a bit more running, this goal was completely attainable.
Mike’s crew took care of a couple of his quick needs. Due to the massive energy boost we got from the crowds, we RAN out of the aid station. Mike is chugging along the road out of the station (uphill) and I turned to him and said, “You know we don’t have to run this, we can start hiking again.” He wasn’t hearing it though and kept moving. The road into the station is only 100-150 yards, so soon we were back on real trail, which forced us to move back down to a solid hike. The energy boost coming in to Oberg was intense and we were still talking about it the next day.
The final segment of the trail is 7 miles, and it is one of the tougher parts of the course. It includes climbs up Moose Mountain and Mystery Mountain, before dumping on to the final road sprint to the finish. Some of the trail in this area is very, very technical, and so we moved as fast as possible, considering Mike in his very depleted state. However, something that kept Mike fresh was coming across other 100 milers on the trail. He seemed to feed off of their energy, and as we approached each one he got a burst of speed. In this final 13 miles I think we passed over a dozen people on the trail, not counting folks that were taking longer to leave at the Oberg aid station.
Finally, the long climb up Moose Mountain was upon us, and we powered up with as much determination that Mike could muster. In the end, we managed to climb faster than I did when I did the marathon a couple years ago. We arrived at the top, in pretty good shape. It was here that we took the requisite selfie over the big lake before tackling the mile long spine of the mountain. We had talked previously about this section, and decided that we would run it as much as Mike was able. We got in some solid jogging time before reaching the other side and the technical descent.
At this point in the race downhills were much, much tougher for Mike than uphill or flat. It took a little bit of work to surmount some of the large steps down the mountain, but soon we reached the valley below. Due to the perfect weather conditions there was virtually no mud anywhere on the course. This meant that the boardwalks in the valley were dry and not caked with slippery slime from hundreds of runners walking over them all day. It made for a quick passage before coming up to the switchbacks of Mystery Mountain.
By this point it was starting to get dark and somewhere on the mountain we had to turn on headlamps. Every 100 miler hopes to get in before darkness sets a second time, but I don’t think it phased us much at all. Mike was feeling great, and had managed his race well. The previous time I had paced someone on this section they came in before dark, but they also were pretty trashed and couldn’t move nearly as fast as we were going this year. These events are about being smart about your endurance.
Although we had held a conversation during much of these sections, the final pull to the finish was done quietly. The night was dark, and the air was filled with the sound of the Poplar River, and the cheers from the lodge in the distance (2 miles away). The Poplar is the final marker that denotes that you’re done. From there, it’s a quick climb up off the trail and a run down a road to the finish. We hit the start of the road and Mike started running. We were actually hitting a sub-10 min/mile pace at times and I could tell that his energy and adrenaline was spiking. I cranked my headlamp up and ran along side Mike to give him more light on the road, as this was a very unfamiliar surface for him after 36 hours. We rounded the final path to the lodge and I fell back behind to make sure Mike got a great finish line picture.
We crossed the finish line at 8:23:02pm… right in the middle of the award ceremony. Mike briefly sat in a chair before the overwhelming desire for the coveted Superior sweatshirt made him walk a few more steps to the tent to receive his prize. The rest of the evening is a blur of people congratulating him on his finish and stories of hardship and struggle on the trail. We stuck around to the end, and got to see other friends cross, many of them finishing their first 100. Soon though the finish line was being broken down and it was time to get Mike to bed. Though, not before a quick stop off at a local hotel bar that was still serving food so that we weren’t going to bed hungry.
The next day we began our journey back to civilization. We opt’d for a quiet breakfast at a local bakery and hitting the road sooner rather than later. A nice meal at OMC Smokehouse in Duluth capped off the adventure of the weekend. Mike had done something incredible, and I was humbled to have gotten to be a part of it. He’s been a key part of my trail running journey, and I feel like I maybe was able to pay him back, just a little bit, in this last 13 miles.
Now we’ve arrived back at reality and the cold harsh world of work and responsibilities. I’m still having some type of allergy or cold issues bugging me, most likely from depleting my immune system over the weekend. I’m anxious to get out and run more, but can’t really manage more than 3 miles right now with my head stuffed. I know that there are still more races this fall, and that I’ll be a part of many of them. But, there’s something special about Superior. People talk about how amazing Western States 100 is, or Badwater 135. Yet, much of what makes them special is the community that surrounds them. Superior is like that. It’s a community that comes together to experience the best “Minnesota mountains” we can muster.
In the end, it’s not the height of the mountains that makes for a memorable trail race. It’s not the insufferable mud, the ankle bruising roots, or toe-stubbing rocks. It’s the act of being present with those roots and rocks, surrounded by nature and those that love it as much as you do. We learn about ourselves, and how to accept ourselves in success or defeat. We learn what we’re capable of and how much we can overcome. Being a part of the Superior tribe isn’t about just finishing a race. It’s about being the best that we can be, both on and off the trail. Discovering the beauty of our world, and of humanity, one small mountain at a time.
Ever since I changed my running philosophy this year, I’ve been much happier with where I’m at. I’m not stressed about “the next big race” because I don’t actually have any races planned. I’m just doing things when I feel like it. Case in point, the Treasured Haven Farms 12 Hour Run that I did on Sunday. My wife had signed up for this run a long time ago, so I knew I would be there, but I didn’t decide to join in until 9 days before the race. It was another moment where I said, “what the heck, that sounds fun.”
Treasured Haven Farms is one of the hidden gems of the trail race world here in Minnesota. It’s a small organic farm that opens up their property to trail races a few times throughout the year. We’ve done a 7 mile race there before and it’s a lot of fun. This is old-school trail racing at it’s finest. No chip timing, no big fanfare, just a bunch of land with trails on it, and a clock at the finish line.
When we arrived we were greeted by a few other UMTR friends who had also made the trek. They had opted to do the 3 and 6 hour version of the race, which was probably smart given the predicted high temps for the day. This was going to be one of the hottest days of the year with temps reaching into the 90s. We also found out that besides my wife and I, only one other person had signed up for the 12 hour race. This factor would be key later in the story.
At 7 am the race launched and I started out at a decent pace figuring I should, carefully, bank some miles while the air was still cool. I locked in to an 11:30 pace, which under most, flat, circumstances is my “go all day” pace. The loop that we were running was 3 miles long around the edge of the farm fields, with a couple jaunts on to some beautiful wooded paths. These wooded areas became sanctuaries throughout the morning as the temps started to climb and the sun started beating down hard.
The first couple of hours melted away pretty quickly for me. Just over two hours in I had a solid 10 miles on my legs and was feeling pretty good. After three hours I decided it was time to move to a run/walk strategy to help conserve energy and survive the climbing temps. By this point the 3 hour runners were finished up, however our amazing friend Ann, and another friend’s husband DuWayne (she was running the 6 hour) decided to be our crew for a while.
Every time we came in from a loop they were right there making sure we had everything we needed, throwing away our trash, and generally taking care of our every need. They stuck around for a lot longer than they needed to and treated us amazingly. We were humbled and grateful for how wonderful they were to us. Another friend of ours, Bob, showed up with trail running fixture, Pearl the dog. He lives near the farm and so he stopped by a couple times to encourage us. That was a huge surprise and really lifted our spirits as the day wore on.
As the race continued I caught up to my wife who was a loop behind me. We would occasionally stick together but usually one of us would move ahead of the other as we were feeling good. As the loops wore on I ended up spending a lot more time at the main aid station, taking my time as I felt like it. I went in to this race with very minor goals, and so I wasn’t pushing too hard to do anything phenomenal. A few days before the race I thought it would be amazing if I could get 100K or 50 miles, however as the weather report got hotter and hotter, I decided that if I could bang out a 50K I would count that as a success. By 5 hours in I was already at 20 miles, so I knew a 50K was pretty much in the bag.
As the 6 hour run was finishing up a huge blessing rolled in, in the shape of clouds and a light rain. Suddenly everything started to feel right in the universe again. There was a breeze with the clouds and the temps dropped in to the 70s. It was a little bit of heaven. Granted I had still been running for 6 hours and was feeling all that pain on my legs. I had a major blister on my right big toe that I got covered up, but it still was an irritant. As the hours wore on it also became apparent how lonely the rest of this day was going to be. After the 6 hours folks finished up, the only people left were myself, my wife Lisa, and another runner named Eric.
Eric was crushing the course, lapping us repeatedly as he racked up miles. He was a solid runner and a super nice guy, however, it sounded like he was just doing this for a training run and that the only reason that he bumped up from the 6 to the 12 was because only my wife and I had signed up for it. One of the times he was passing us he mentioned, “Hey if you guys want to call this early just let me know, I’m cool stopping whenever.” At this point I think we were all feeling a little silly having just three runners keeping a race open for an extra 6 hours.
My wife and I talked about it and decided to keep going for a bit longer, but that if any one of us decided to drop that we’d all probably call it a day. At the eight hour mark I took a solid 15 minute break as my wife and I talked about things. She was hurting bad and just wasn’t feeling confident that she wanted to go on any further. The rain had stopped a long time ago, and the sun was coming back out. The temps were predicted to climb back into the high 80s before we would be done. She decided that she was done. I looked down at my watch and realized I was at 30 miles, so I opt’d to go out for one more loop and knock out a solid 50K.
As I headed out for this final loop I found my body working really, really well. Maybe I had just adapted to the pain, but I felt like I could run again. I ended up running almost all of that final loop and knocked out a 35 minute 3 miler. That was almost as fast as my initial loops early in the day. Since this was going to be my final loop, I decided I had better leave everything out there on the course, and so I pushed myself to sub-11 minute pace as much as I could and crossed over the finish line with a few minutes before the 9 hour mark to spare.
With ~33 miles and 9 hours under my belt I decided it was a good day, and I was more than happy to join my wife in calling it done. That’s the beauty of a timed race like this. You can stop whenever you want and if you decide you’re done earlier than the bell, that’s totally up to you. I clocked in my second 50K of the year, only 4 weeks apart, which is light years beyond where I’ve been in previous years.
I probably could have gone on another three hours and finished out 40+ miles, but I wasn’t out there with anything to prove. I kept moving for 9 hours, completed a solid distance, and even found a second wind late in the day that propelled me to some solid running on tired legs. That’s one of the biggest ‘wins’ that I took away from the whole day; proving that just because you’re in pain at one point in a long race, doesn’t mean you’ll be in pain the entire race. Pain is temporary, and our bodies are often able to do a lot more than we think they can.
I’m incredibly happy with how this race turned out. I don’t know what is next for me, as I’m not doing any long term race planning this year. I’ve got my favorite 5K (Endless Summer French Park 5K) coming up soon, but other than that it’s all up to whatever I feel like. That’s one of the best feelings I’ve had as a runner in a long time, and it’s made all the difference in my attitude and enjoyment of running overall this year. Low pressure and running for fun. It’s what trail running is supposed to be about.
One of my goals for 2018 was to get back into shape enough to tackle an ultra distance race again. I had a great streak of races at the end of 2015 and into early 2016, but then everything fell apart, and in 2017 my longest single run was 19 miles. I knew that part of it was needing a mental break, but I also needed to focus on running smarter and making sure I kept myself from getting injured.
I approached 2018 with the idea in mind that I would not sign up for anything until I was ready. I have given a lot of money to races in 2016 and 2017 that I never even started because I was sidelined, and I didn’t want to repeat that this year. I started out my year with a typical training plan for a 50K, but wasn’t able to follow it exactly because of illness and weather. Eventually though, the miles started to rack up. I decided to target either Chippewa 50K or Chester Woods 50K as my return to ultras, but didn’t commit to either until I felt like I could be successful.
A few weeks ago, my friend Mike and I went out for a 22 mile run around Elm Creek, and at the end of the run I felt great. That afternoon I decided to take one of the few remaining spots in the Chippewa 50K. I knew that if I was feeling that strong after 22 mile, I could tackle 9 more. Despite this confidence, I found myself approaching race day with anxiety and dread. For some reason, I was irrationally nervous about this race, and I couldn’t figure out why. Even my friend Matt told me that I looked like s*%! at the start line, completely wrapped up in some mental struggle.
The race is about 2 hours away, so we had to get up very early to get there on time. We arrived about 50 minutes early, and started checking in and talking with friends. My wife would be volunteering for part of the day, after she went out for a solo run herself. We also had the UMTR banner with us, and had to make sure we got some shots of the series participants to post on social media. Soon though, it was time for me to line up and get to it. I was still nervous, but getting in to the start corral seemed to help a bit.
At 8am we launched and proceeded to work our way down the huge hill that starts and ends the race. The Chippewa 50K is an out-and-back course that begins with a toilet bowl spiral around the trail visitor center You then do some miles on some spur trails, before joining up with the main Ice Age trail for the majority of the race. As luck would have it, weather conditions were perfect on Saturday. The sun was out, and the temps started in the 30s and climbed into the 50s. I wore a light long sleeve shirt and shorts, and was completely comfortable.
As we rounded around the backside of the visitor center, 2 miles in to the race, I handed off my gloves and buff to my wife, as I already knew I wouldn’t need them anymore. The trail was in pretty good shape and I felt like I was making decent time right off the start. I had been on this section of trail a few years ago when I did the Chippewa 10K, and my memory reminded me to watch my feet, as the first couple of miles are very rooted and rocky.
I hit the first aid station at mile 3, grabbed a small bite to eat and hit the trail again. I locked in a really good pace and found the miles ticking by easily. Eventually I got to the section where the 10K splits off and began a journey on trails I had never seen before. One of the more interesting things that I saw, just after the split, was that someone had vandalized the course the night before, and posted hardcore porn on some of the trees. Someone actually wasted money on a porno magazine and ripped out the pages to tack them up on trees. My wife, who was just doing a casual run, managed to clean up a bunch of them so the runners didn’t have to see them coming back. Apparently there was also a note about some local sports shop with all kinds of lewd comments, so this must have been some kind of local grudge.
Once the “entertainment” was out of the way I noticed very quickly that the Ice Age trail is really well maintained and built. This particular section of trail is amazingly runnable, with clear paths and only small rolling hills. You pass by beautiful lakes and prairies, which distracts you from the fact that you’re involved in a long footrace. I managed to lock in a solid pace, that in retrospect was faster than I should have gone, but felt completely comfortable on this terrain.
One of the first cutoffs you encounter in this race is the turnaround at mile 15.5. You must be through that checkpoint in 4 hours. This is despite the fact that you have 9 hours to do the entire race. I think that this cutoff time got in my head a bit more than it should have, and I ended up pushing harder than I should in the first half. However, the first 10 miles were really pleasant and runnable, so I didn’t think much about it.
I hit the second aid station at mile 10 determined to get moving quickly so that I could hit the turnaround with plenty of time to spare. However, what I didn’t know is that the middle 11 miles of this race are the toughest. Right out of the aid station I discovered the muddiest portion of the course. There was absolutely no way to keep your feet dry and clean in this section. The mud was relentless for almost a mile. Eventually, you get back to dry ground, but with that dry ground comes a lot of climbing. Chippewa doesn’t have any big mountains, but it has a relentless up and down of smaller hills that shreds your muscles without you even realizing it.
Despite this difficulty, I pushed hard and made it to the turnaround in 3:31. My last 50K race I completed took me 7:40, and so I was feeling really optimistic that Chippewa could be a PR. I even thought that perhaps a sub-7 hour race could be in the cards. It was at that point that I started doing math. Never do math during an ultra.
I headed back on the trail, saying hi to friends as we passed each other, and thinking about what lay ahead. Almost immediately after thinking I could pull off another three and a half 15.5 miles I calculated what that meant. There was simply no way that I could pull off that type of speed (13:30 min/mile) on the way back. The torment of the relentless hills, and the thought of the mile-of-mud, started to beat me down mentally.
I managed to catch up with my friend Erik and we ended up spending a few miles together. He was coming off of Zumbro 100 a few weeks earlier, and so he was moving at a similar speed to me. We chatted about life for a while and then eventually he caught a second wind and started to move stronger, pulling away from me. I started doing more math. I thought that if sub-7 couldn’t happen, I could at least try for 7:30. Then my watch beeped and told me I just did a 17 minute mile through the mud section. 7:30 was probably out the window.
I hit the 4th aid station and did what I could to get some calories in me. Unfortunately, the race had decided to stock this product called “Silver Star Nutrition” which is some weird milk protein based energy drink. It tasted blah and felt weird on my gut (I know many people complained of stomach issues later on), so I ended up just sticking with water. This is one time in my life I actually craved HEED.
I got in and out of the station and started the plod back to the finish. It was in this section that I really got beaten down mentally. Ultras are just as much a mental challenge as a physical one. You have to keep moving forward, despite everything your mind tells you about how you should quit. As I passed mile 22 and entered the “easier” portion of the trail I attempted to run, but struggled to keep moving faster than a hike. All I wanted to do was lie down and take a nap and call my wife to come pick me up. As the miles clicked by, I realized that even a sub-8 hour finish would be hard to accomplish. I got sad.
I had been feeling so strong in my lead-up training that I felt like I should be able to tackle this with ease. In retrospect, my nervousness at the beginning of the race was most likely due to my mind knowing that this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park, but wrestling with the denial of it all. I wanted this to be easy. I wanted this to be “just another long weekned run”, but in the end, it wasn’t and it couldn’t be.
When I look back at the elevation data from Chippewa 50K I realized just how tough this race actually is. My 7:40 50K at Surf the Murph was 50% of the elevation of Chippewa. The 22 mile training run I did was 50% of the elevation of the first 22 miles of Chippewa. Nothing I had done yet this year had the level of mud that I encountered in mile 10-11/20-21 at Chippewa. This wasn’t just some random Saturday run. This was a race, and a challenging one at that. However, that’s way more math than a person can do at mile 25 of an ultra, and so I just had to deal with my disappointment.
Since I knew I was going to come in after 8 hours, I decided to take care of myself a bit more. At mile 26 I stopped at a bench and pulled out my clean socks. I could feel my feet starting to have bad things happen to them, and decided a change of socks would feel good. It didn’t matter that I only had 5 miles to go, I wanted some comfort. Needless to say, the new socks felt heavenly. It was well worth the 5 minutes it took to put them on.
I hobbled around the final 3 miles after the last aid station and discovered that this section had become a mud bath as well. All the traffic from all the racers had chewed up the trail in the warm sun. I ground up and down the final hills until I reached the prairie near the visitor center. I ran as much as I could, but anything faster than a 15 minute mile was just not happening. I practically crawled up the final hill to the finish and did my best interpretation of what a sprint should should like as I crossed the timing mat.
I was beaten, in pain, and depressed. But then, as I crossed the finish (8:08:41), there was Wendi and Matt. They were cheering and congratulating me as they handed me my award print. I went over to the grass and laid down as my wife got me some food. Everyone around me smiled at me and told me how great a job I had done, and within moments, it was all OK. I stripped off my muddy shoes, drank a warm beer (that tasted like perfection) that Erik gave me, and savored the moment.
This certainly wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My 50 mile at Zumbro was objectively more difficult. However, this race had such mental baggage associated with it, that overcoming that was the biggest victory. My last real 50K attempt was the Spring Superior 50K, where I DNF’d 7 miles from the finish. I signed up for Marquette 50K twice and never ended up going because I knew I wasn’t in shape enough to do it. Chippewa signaled my return, and I wanted it to be glorious.
In reality, Chippewa was exactly what it was going to be, a tough 31 mile race. From a physical standpoint I ran it well. I was nowhere near last place (159/195), and now, two days later am able to run just fine. Perhaps I should have controlled my pace a bit more on the way out, and taken the section to the turnaround a bit slower to conserve some energy, but it probably only would have saved me 10-15 minutes or so. Considering my abbreviated training through the winter, and how quickly I ramped up for this race, I have nothing I should be complaining about.
This race was mainly a mental test for me. Going in I thought I needed to prove my physical toughness. In fact, what I needed to prove was that I could handle the struggle with my own mind. I had to prove to myself that I could overcome my DNF and DNS’s. I had to engage that inner struggle between the part of me that wanted to stop, give up running and go back to just playing video games on the couch all night, and the part of me that knew I was better than that. Running, and specifically trail and ultra running, has had such an impact on my life that I can’t just walk away. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
I feel that I still have more to prove to myself, and Chippewa 50K was the first step towards discovering more of who I am and what I’m capable of. I’m in this for a lifetime, and sometimes we forget that life it hard. Chippewa 50K was tough, but maybe, just maybe, I can be a bit tougher.