Fall Superior Trail Races 2018

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.

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Mike getting advice from Jim

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).

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That beautiful blue

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.

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Radek being tended to at Sugarloaf

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.

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Mike and Shannon after Sugarloaf

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.

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Tim was ready to MOVE

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.

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Getting ready. PC: Gwen K.

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.

IMG_3416Mike’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.

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The traditional selfie on top of Moose Mountain

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.

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The finish. PC: Gwen K

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.

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Done

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.

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The Superior sweatshirt

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.

 

Trail family reunion time

Today I head out for a long weekend on the North Shore. It’s Fall Superior 100 time, and around mid-day my friend Mike B. and I start our journey. For Mike, this is his first 100 mile race attempt, and I have the honor of pacing him for his final 13 miles of the run. For me, it’s a long working weekend doing photography, social media, captaining an aid station, and working at another, as well as chauffeuring people around to where they need to be. Despite all of this, more than anything else, this weekend is trail family reunion time.

Certain events have become the markers of the start and end of the race season here in the Minnesota. In the spring it’s the Zumbro trail race, kicking off the year in style with unpredictable weather. In the fall it all wraps up with the Fall Superior races, capping off long months of summer training as people try to achieve new goals, or simply repeat past success. It’s some of the times where we all leave behind the craziness of life, and come back together as a trail family for one big hurrah.

Fall Superior is also the kick-off to the autumn race season, which is a wonderful time of crisp air, falling leaves, and anticipation of finishing another year of great running fun. It’s a time where we gather, reminisce on what we’ve done, and look forward. We come together as a people of shared purpose, with a love of the outdoors. We do hard things because we love it, but we love being together in community even more. We’re a tribe of crazy people and no matter our differences, this is a time for us to be a people of the trail.

Race Report: Chippewa 50K

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.

IMG_2456.jpgA 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.

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PC: Greg Leciejewski

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.

IMG_2530.jpgOnce 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.

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PC: Mike Wheeler

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.

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PC: Mike Wheeler

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.

IMG_2533.jpgI 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.

The risks of trail running

One of the things that is different when you look at trail running (vs. road running) is that there is a second enemy in the mix. When you go out and run on roads or bike trails, the main enemy you face is yourself. Your body wants to rebel and make you stop. Your mind tells you that you should just give up and go home. You fight against it almost every time you hit the pavement.

However, when you hit the trails, you end up facing one more enemy… mother nature. Weather can always cause issues when you’re running. In general, when we’re running on roads, the weather is just an irritant. On the roads rain is annoying, and cold means we just wear more stuff. On trails, the weather can physically change the surface that you’re running on into something completely different, and then change it back, all within the space of a single run. It’s what makes trail running an adventure.

I want to be clear that what follows are my thoughts alone. When I speak below, it’s not as a board member of Upper Midwest Trail Runners, or a volunteer with Rocksteady Running. These are my opinions, and I’m sharing them as such.

This past weekend I volunteered at the Zumbro 100 Mile trail run. The weather was epic, and the conditions led to the highest drop rates of any race I’ve been at. At one point the race director decided to cancel the shorter 17 mile race before it began. The hope was that people would avoid trying to get to the area, in blizzard and white-out conditions. From what I’ve seen on social media not many people have complained about this, however, there are always those who will. To those people, I need to simply say… please chill out.

I spent my entire weekend at Zumbro helping to make the race happen. I was there, on the ground, and saw the carnage that was coming back off the trail, and the conditions of the roads around the area. Zumbro is in a remote and lightly traveled area of southern Minnesota. It’s only accessible by dirt roads that are minimally maintained, and once you get out of the immediate area, it’s all two lane country highways. This is NOT a place where you want hundreds of extra people to come and visit in the middle of a blizzard. I honestly don’t even know where anyone with a 2-wheel drive vehicle could have parked, and had any level of success getting out.

This was not a safe place, and as such, it was completely appropriate to cancel the 17 mile race. If even a quarter of the registered participants had attempted the drive it would have been too much. The infrastructure support systems are simply not there to support that many people during a weather event such as this. Even during perfect times, this is still a difficult place to get to. Cancelling this part of the event was the absolute right decision to make. Many of us were there as John struggled with this decision, and saw the anxiety and stress as he had to make the call to do the best thing he could for everyone’s safety.

Additionally, this entire event put a tremendous strain on the volunteer resources of the event. Many volunteers simply couldn’t show up because of the weather, and those that did, often had to work longer shifts to keep things going. As the storm got worse, many had to leave because they were ill-equipped to get out with their low profile vehicles. Simply getting around the course was difficult. ATVs were getting stuck, and some of the access roads were impassible.

We started encouraging people to DNF if they had any question that they might be struggling. There were simply no easy ways to get people evacuated from deep in the woods. If you fall and break your leg, getting you out will take a monumental effort. Subjecting the support systems of the race to this goes above and beyond what volunteers should ever have to deal with. Yet, we did the best that we could with what we had, and put on the best event that we could.

I realize people might be upset with not getting a refund as well, and although I understand that, every race you participate in can face similar challenges. Trail racing just happens to have a lot more complexity to all the variables that make up putting it on. There are things that simply can’t be controlled, like mother nature, and what she does to the trails and the surrounding areas. Putting on these events are not cheap, and race directors don’t get filthy rich off of these. Many races don’t even turn a profit, and so giving refunds, when equipment has already been procured, is impossible. All of the “stuff” of the race has already been paid for. There’s simply no money to give back.

I know people are upset, as they’ve trained hard for every race they do. However, in trail racing, sometimes we all have to DNF and let mother nature take the win. It’s not the way we want it to go, but it’s just how our sport functions. It’s what makes us unique and makes us love trail running. If we weren’t OK with dealing with this, then we would all just go back to running roads. We love this though, and sometimes, we just have to take the hit on the chin and look to come back bigger and better next time.

Arrowhead 135 volunteering

Our quest to learn and experience more about the winter ultra scene brought my wife and I to far northern Minnesota this week to volunteer at the amazing Arrowhead 135 race. As with many winter ultras, this is a multi-modal, survival-focused, event. Participants have the option to use a bike, skis, or their feet, to complete 135 miles along the Arrowhead trail. The portion of the trail that the racers follow is from International Falls, and travels to Tower, MN.

IMG_2188.jpgAdditionally, racers must carry enough equipment to survive on their own. That means loading up tons of bags on a bike, or pulling a sled if you’re on foot. You have to have enough equipment to be able to survive out on the trail until help can get to you. That’s why these races have strict entrance requirements, with mandatory gear that is checked both before and after the race. We had already spent time at the Tuscobia race, and were excited to see another winter ultra in action.

We arrived in International Falls on Sunday, and since we had a little bit of extra time, we headed over to Voyageur’s National Park. This is the only National Park in Minnesota (though I think we should fight Michigan for Isle Royale), and so we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to at least pay a short visit. We stopped by the visitor center and got our swag, and then went outside to look out over Rainy Lake at Canada.

DSC05989After a short visit we made our way back to the community center to attend the volunteer meeting, and soak in the atmosphere of the pre-race participant meeting and pasta supper. One of the things we love about these events is the ability to connect with people all over again. A large portion of the evening was spent catching up with people we hadn’t seen since Tuscobia, or longer.

We also got to see two of our friends, Kari and Kate, come in from their double Arrowhead adventure. They had started on Thursday, at the finish line, and then proceeded to hike the course backwards, all in time to be there for the Sunday night meeting, and then turn around and run the race back down to the finish. They are the first women in history to complete a double Arrowhead, and everyone there was in awe of their guts to try and do something like this.

DSC05996.jpgEventually, it was time to head to the hotel and get checked-in. We took advantage of some free time to his a brewery in Ranier, just down the road. I got to have some nice beers, and a couple other folks from the race were there as well to talk with. Soon though it was time to get some sleep for the long few days ahead of us.

The alarm went off early, and we made our way to the start line. All of the racers were twittering with nervous energy, ready to start their adventure. Adrenaline had taken over many of them, and they wanted nothing more than to just get out on the trail. For one runner though, other issues had suddenly appeared. Our friend Scott from Winnipeg had gotten his car stuck outside the parking lot area. He wasn’t sure what to do, so we happily told him to just give us his keys and we’d take care of it.

DSC06002At 7am the fireworks went off and the bikers headed down the trail, followed shortly by the skiers, and finally the people on foot. The quiet crisp air was suddenly alive with the sound of tires, skis, and sleds moving across firmly packed snow. Within moments the blinking lights that are required to be attached to every participant, faded into the distance, and we began the rest of our day. The first task of which was to get our friend’s car un-stuck. I won’t go into too many details, but it involved a tractor, which got stuck, and a truck that had to pull out the tractor, before we finally had his car safely in the parking lot. It was quite the adventure to start the day with, but we were more than happy to do whatever it took to make sure he was able to get on with this race he’s been training for.

We headed back to the hotel, and then proceeded to make our way to the finish line in Tower, MN, at the Fortune Bay Casino and Resort. We arrived safely, got checked in and then helped set up some of the finish area before trying to get some sleep before our first shift at the finish line started at midnight. Neither of us have worked an overnight job in many, many years, so it was certainly interesting trying to make it all the way to 6am, but we got through it. Frankly, it went really fast until about 5am, when everything seemed to slow down and take forever.

IMG_2190.jpgHowever, it was a ton of fun taking care of all the bikers who were coming in during the early morning hours. The temps were hovering around -25F, and they were all grateful to be done, and that we were there to help them. For every racer that came in we had to get their gear stowed, and do a quick gear check to make sure they had everything they were supposed to. Then we got to bring them upstairs to the hospitality area and get them checked in with the folks working there. They got their award and some nice hot food, and a chance to rest and recuperate a bit before trying to get some serious sleep.

Once our shift was over we also tried to get some sleep. I managed a solid 4 hours, and then went outside to see how things were going. More bikers were coming in, and we were tracking the progress of all the people on foot. I helped for a little bit and then headed inside to get myself ready for a short run.

I headed out on the trail for a 5 mile jaunt, and when I left I realized I had overdressed. I felt great so I took off my jacket and tied it around my waist. I was surrounded by tall pine trees, and the trail was nice and hard-packed. When I reached the 2.5 mile mark I had moved into a young growth forest, so there wasn’t as much protection from the wind. I didn’t think much of it until I turned around and realized that for the past 2.5 miles I had a SOLID tailwind. When I turned I was blasted in the face by a massive amount of blowing snow and blustery wind. I pulled my jacket off my waist and proceeded to get it on. However, the wind was so strong that it was blowing like a flag, and it took me 3-4 minutes to get my other arm into the sleeve. Needless to say, the run back was much slower and colder.

IMG_2186.jpgOur next shift was the 6pm to midnight shift, so I wanted to get in one more nap before we headed back out. We arrived a little before 6 and continued to help with a steady stream of bikers. The first skier had already arrived before we got there, but the lead runner was still a little further away. Our friend John Storkamp had left the last checkpoint with a 45 minute deficit behind the lead runner. However, knowing John I knew that this was going to be one battle he wouldn’t give up easily.

At one point we were suddenly inundated with 4 bikers who arrived one right after another. Myself and another volunteer got them all settled and up to the room, and as I returned outside I come to find that John had just finished. He crushed the final segment of the course and came barreling in so fast that the other volunteers first thought he was another biker. Myself and two other volunteers watched as we did a full gear check to make sure he had everything, and then he was brought upstairs to celebrate. It was an amazing accomplishment to witness for his 10th Arrowhead completion.

Returning outside we also got to help the second place runner, as well as the first unsupported runner. Racers can elect to do the race completely unsupported, which means they can’t even take water or warmth from the checkpoints. They have to go completely on their own. Parker Rios was that first unsupported runner and he did an amazing job. He came in right after midnight, so my wife and I brought him up together before ending our shift. He was hurting, but in good spirits and was an amazing inspiration to everyone.

Due to work commitments we couldn’t stay long on Wednesday, and so after getting some rest we went and hung out for a bit with folks before packing up and heading home. We were both a bit bummed that we had to leave so early because we missed out on seeing so many of our running friends. One of the things we want to change for next year is to make sure we can be there till it’s all done.

IMG_2185.jpgWatching these competitors complete Arrowhead, like Tuscobia before it, is so incredibly inspirational. The sheer determination and grit that was on display this week makes you feel like you can accomplish anything. These are ordinary folks who choose to put themselves through horrendous conditions to achieve amazing things. They test their limits and learn what they’re made of. Even people who drop early are powerful examples of what you can do when you put your mind to it. Just being willing to toe that start line, in the cold Minnesota wind, and see if you have what it takes, is amazing.

Arrowhead 135 was an amazing event to be a part of, and I can’t want to go back in future years. It’s a wonderful community, and I feel honored to be able to play some small role in it. When you’re surrounded by such incredible forces of nature, you can’t help but be inspired to do whatever you can to overcome the challenges you have before you, and conquer them.

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