Race report: Willow 20 mile

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.

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PC: Bob Marsh

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.

img_4408The 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!

img_4412Throughout 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.

img_4414The 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.

Shoe Review: Saucony Peregrine 7 ICE

This past winter I was looking for a new trail shoe for my runs on the local trails, as well as something that I could use on the roads around my house when they’re in sorry shape from a big winter snow or ice storm. I came across the Saucony Peregrine 7 ICE shoes when searching online, and since they were on sale, I decided to pick them up and give them a try over the colder months. Although this review is focusing on the version 7 of the shoes, there doesn’t appear to be many changes in the new Peregrine 8 ICE, so I would expect that everything I’ll say here applies, minus the rock plate that left the Peregrine for the v8 edition.

One of the things that appealed to me about the idea of the ICE shoes was the Vibram Arctic Grip outsole, which claims to be able to grip ice much better than a regular outsole. I got a chance to run on ice a little this winter, and found that the shoe performed OK, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations when it came to gripping ice. Maybe that’s because I never noticed the times when it added grip, but overall I still felt like I had to be somewhat careful, or switch over to using my screw shoes, for really icy conditions.

However, I did find one scenario where these shoes completely blew away my expectations… wet and slippery boardwalks. As spring dawned on the area, I found myself at a local trail that has many boardwalks along it. These were all soaking wet which usually means that they’re phenomenally slippery. However, the Peregrine 7 ICE shoes acted like sandpaper and gripped the wood amazingly. I still took my time and was careful on the boardwalks, but at no point did I ever feel even a bit of slippage. It was really amazing, although an unintended benefit of the shoe.

From a fit and comfort perspective, these shoes are what you’d expect from the Peregrine line. They’re soft and light, and feel nice and responsive. The standard lugs are well sized for light trails, and the shoes react well when climbing and turning around rocks and roots. With a 4mm drop, the shoes feel low, but still not zero-drop territory. I never had any ankle or Achilles trouble, despite being more of an 8mm guy.

I’m on the fence as to if I would buy these again. They got a lot of use this winter, and I loved wearing them, but I’m not sure the ICE technology was worth the extra premium (had I not gotten them on sale). If you can find these on clearance, you can’t go wrong, as they’re a solid trail shoe. You might get some benefit from the ICE protection, but even if you don’t, they still will give you many miles of durable use.

Race Report: Sandlot Minor League Half Marathon

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!

lrg_dsc09178Even 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.

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PC: Fresh Tracks Media

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.

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PC: Fresh Tracks Media

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.

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PC: Fresh Tracks Media

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.

Screen Shot 2019-03-20 at 3.58.32 PMI 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!

 

Starting the running year off well

One of the big successes I had last year was in my running. I managed to shatter my mileage from previous years and topped out at 1600 miles. One of the weakest areas of my 2018 though was my early training. It took me quite a while, last winter, to get back up to speed, and I hoped that this year I’d be able to reverse that trend.

However, what I’ve discovered is that isn’t really realistic for me. Coming off a big December means I need a bit of a rest before jumping right back in. I realize a lot of people might be able to go strong 12 months out of the year, but I’ve found that it just doesn’t work for me. Between the cold, the dark, and the general feeling of needing a break, the year usually starts off pretty weak for me.

I’ve also discovered, now that I’m heavily involved in the winter ultra scene, I just don’t have as much time as I thought I did in January. Tuscobia is at the end of December, the St Croix 40 is the second week of January, and then Arrowhead 135 finishes out the month. Toss in a potential trip to Vegas, and I feel like I need to change jobs to something where I can just take the entire month off.

It’s not all bad news though. I went back and looked at where I’m at this year, compared to last year. As of today I’m only about 13 miles shy of my 2018 running totals on this date. What that tells me is that I’m on the same trajectory that I was last year. With how good last year turned out, I have absolutely nothing to complain about. From a long term maintenance outlook, 1200-1600 miles per year is just fine with me. Maybe some years it’ll go higher, but I really don’t need to keep pushing for a new goal every. single. year.

There’s a phenomena that hits most trail runners. We accomplish something, and then we need to move on to the next big thing, and then the next EVEN BIGGER thing, and so on. Eventually, you reach a point where you come to realize that every year doesn’t have to be bigger than the last. You can run for the joy of running and go with whatever sounds interesting. Maybe there’s a year where you just do some shorter races, or perhaps it’s a big multi-ultra year. What matters is realizing that whatever you do, it should be done with joy.

I’m on the right track this year. I’m running happy and ready for whatever adventures await. Go out and experience life, and run with joy.

Arrowhead 135

This week I’ve been spending my time at the Arrowhead 135 winter ultramarathon. This is the iconic winter ultra in Minnesota, and it is known for being one of the most brutal and harsh races around. Participants much traverse (on foot, bike, or ski) from International Falls, MN to Tower, MN on the 135 mile long Arrowhead Trail. They have to be prepared to survive in any conditions, and therefore must carry mandatory gear including -20 degree sleeping bags, bivy sacks, and stoves with which to boil water and heat food. It’s a grueling event, and made even more difficult by this year’s extreme temperatures.

On the Sunday before the race, air temps hit -40 degrees F (well, and C at that point). Thankfully, by the time the race launched on Monday things had moderated to -10. Monday ended up being a good day overall with temps getting above zero for a large part of the day. I even managed to get out for a 4 mile run on the trail, and the conditions were amazing and perfect for a run. However, with nightfall came brutal cold.

IMG_0024As the temps dropped overnight, they stayed there. Ever since late Monday the temp hasn’t been above -15, and the mornings are closer to -32. Going out to start our car for 10 minutes every few hours has become a part of our regular routine. Thankfully, we have a nice warm hotel to sleep in, and when we’re working at the finish line we have a beautiful hot tent to keep us warm. Because it can sometimes be hours between finishers, we often get to relax in the tent and enjoy beer and whiskey and pizza cooked on a wood stove.

In terms of participants, this year looks like a very low finishing rate. The bikers are doing OK at 51%, but many of them were able to make solid progress all day on Monday and even finish the race before the temps got too brutal. On the foot participant side it’s looking like only 18% of participants will succeed. Most have (rightly) decided to end their race early, instead of putting themselves in danger. This year, not a single skier managed to complete the entire course, which was not ideal for skiing at all.

My wife and I have been lucky enough to have been able to work remotely for our jobs for a couple of days while we volunteered in the evenings. It’s been great to be around so many amazing people and see them achieve great things. It’s also marked with a bit of sadness, because one of our trail tribe lost his battle with cancer while we were here at the event. He was a frequent participant in this event, and his loss is keenly felt among the people participating. There’s a certain poignancy to his passing during an event that meant so much to him.

Tomorrow we head back to life in the cities, but for now, it’s nice to have been able to be a part of this amazing event, and the incredible people who are testaments to the power of human beings to survive no matter what.