January of 2010 was the start. It’s hard to believe that it was so long ago, but the end of 2019 also marks the end of my first 10 years of running. I could never have imagined when I started this journey how consuming it would become, and how much of my identity would be shaped by it.
When I first started running it was mostly to get in shape and lose some weight. In 2010 I was really struggling with my health and well being. All my friends saw it, and when my friend Michael finally pushed me over the edge to do something about it I wasn’t sure if I could actually stick to it. I picked up the Couch-2-5K program and hit the treadmill for my very first workout. It’s a simple alternating run/walk system that slowly, over weeks, built up running stamina until you could run 3 miles straight.
I’m not going to lie. That first week was brutal. So much so that I repeated week 1 a second time before moving on. It didn’t help that I still had a lot of weight to lose, as carrying around more than you need is never a good idea. I believe it was somewhere in week 6 or 7 when everything changed.
By this point I had moved to doing my runs mostly outdoors, with more spring like temperatures. I headed out on a run which was supposed to include my longest segments of uninterrupted running I had done yet. I did the warm up intervals and then looked at my watch before starting the continuous running segment. At the time I was still using headphones when I ran and there was music going on in the background. I remember zoning out while listening to a couple songs and before I realized it I had gone way beyond what I was targeting. I got done with the whole workout and was in shock. I had just run longer than I ever had before. That was the moment that sealed the deal. I was a runner. I could do this.
After that point, working up to a 5K distance wasn’t hard. I did my first 5K in May of 2010, and my first half marathon that fall. Running simply became a part of my life. Throughout those early years I did a lot of races in the half marathon range, and attempted one full marathon (that I hated). I got into a groove of doing a few repeat races each year, and was building up my collection of race medals and t-shirts. But running did more for me than just stuff my closets, it also gave me a connection to others via which my life was forever changed.
In 2012 I was still playing the online dating game, and when my (future) wife Lisa and I connected, one of the key things we bonded over was running. We had both come to running later in life and had transformed our lives in a positive way through running, weight loss, and fitness. Even though we ran different paces, we still enjoyed sharing our love of being runners and supporting each other.
A couple of years later we were both still running on roads, but we had started to become aware of trail running. My friend John had started dipping his toes into the trail and ultra world, and Lisa had been following the sport for a while. In the end of 2014 she encouraged me to join her for a small trail run at a farm an hour away. Trail running has an ethos of beer and beards, and so I immediately fit right in.
Once I had completed that race I joined up with a local trail running group at Elm Creek, and January 31st, 2015 started the next big change in my running life. I immediately fell into the sport and signed up for trail races beginning in April. However, I was also learning the ethos of the sport, and how you give back to the community, not just take. My first Zumbro experience involved volunteering the first day at the aid station in the woods before running the 17 mile the next day.
From there, things just progressed bigger and bigger. Since then I’ve run a multiple 50K’s, a 50 miler, a 100K, and a 100 mile trail race. It took me 5 years to work up to 100 miles on trails, but because of that it went amazingly. I’ve also become a part of the community, joining the board of directors for the Upper Midwest Trail Runners association, for which I’m just starting my final 3 year term of service.
My wife and I have also started a small company to put on events, and in a week we’ll have hosted our second edition of the St Croix 40 Winter Ultra. We’re also excited about putting on even more events in the coming years, and spend a lot of time thinking and planning about what we could do next.
Apart from events our running has also given us an opportunity to explore places all over the country. Every time we vacation, running is a part of it. I’ve run along the ocean in Seattle, through the desert in Vegas, and countless trails throughout the Midwest. I’ve had some incredible experiences getting lost in the middle of nowhere.
As I look forward to the next decade of running, I’m asking myself what’s next? I’ve picked up biking as a complementary sport, and I’m finding that trail running has been a great gateway to creating adventures outside. I’m not planning on giving up running, but I think I’ll be seeking a bit more balance in my fitness. I’m also considering adding in some run-commuting, as I’m keenly interested using many different modes to reduce my carbon footprint.
I’ll be starting out my first year of my new decade of running with a bit lighter race schedule. I’m signed up for a lottery for a short 12.5K race (because I want to see the area), and will also be doing a trail marathon, along with my traditional Surf the Murph loop. I’ll plan one other big race for the year, but then try and focus on expanding my versatility. I’ve decided that I don’t want to give up on sled pulling in winter ultras quite yet.
As I look back, it’s crazy to think that it’s only been 10 years since I started this because it feels like this has been my life since I can remember. I’m hugely grateful to the folks who gave me encouragement when I first started out, and along the journey. Never doubt the power of influence, but more importantly, never doubt yourself and your capabilities. I was the poster child for “someone who doesn’t run”. Yet here I am.
Here’s a snapshot of the last 10 years:
Recorded activity count: 1,571 Total dist: 8,903 mi Total elev: 317,396 ft Total time: 1812:27:06 Total calories burned: 1,297,274
I couldn’t be more happy with where I’ve been, where I’m at, or where I’m going.
I’ve been in the trail and ultra running world for 5 years. In that time I’ve tried my hand at a whole host of different races, both in distance and format. However, I had yet to try a 100 mile race, and I decided that 2019 would be the year that I would consider giving it a shot. Despite not pulling the trigger on registering for the Savage 100 race until late in the summer, I had been planning for it most of the year.
Why the Savage 100 for my first 100? There were a few different issues at play. First, this was the site of my first ever ultra distance, the Surf the Murph 50K in 2015. Going back to that same spot and doing 6 loops, instead of 2, felt like a good connection to where I started.
Second, Surf was a local race, and didn’t require any type of travel logistics. I wasn’t sure how this race would play out, and if I’d even be successful. The idea spending a ton of money on a destination 100 mile race, that may or may not work, didn’t appeal to me. It also meant that I was able to keep my participation a secret for a long time, with folks not figuring it out until only a few weeks before the race.
I decided to keep this race quiet as long as possible because I wanted to focus on getting the work done in training. As awesome as it is to get encouragement from friends, it can sometimes sabotage us by giving us a premature endorphin hit. We feel great about all the kudos we’re getting from folks, that we forget we still need to put in the hard work. I’ve seen first hand how detrimental it can be when people broadcast their big plans, but then lose the energy to make them happen. Therefore, I told only a select couple of people about what I was considering.
I put together my training plan, and joined my wife on many of her hill and speed runs, and just buckled down to do what I could. I got pretty close to the mileage numbers I was looking to hit for the year, only down a few percentage points. When you add in mountain elevation last month, plus a massive increase in biking this year, I was about as ready as I could be for someone in my (non-competitive) physical shape. Now, all I had to do was execute.
Race day arrived much slower than I wanted it to. The leading up to it seemed to drag on like never before. All I wanted to do was just start going… or abandon it all. I was a mental wreck that week. Soon enough though it was Friday, and I was doing whatever I could to squeeze in some last minute sleep before the 1am Saturday start.
The Savage 100 is a once-every-five-years race at Murphy Hanerhan park in Savage, MN. It is held in conjunction with the Surf the Murph race which offers a 25K, 50K, and 50M distance. Whereas the 25K, 50K and 50M are 1, 2, and 3 loops of the course respectively, the 100 mile is 6 full loops of the course. They also offered a 100K option, though it was really more like a 108K route. This odd number is because the loop is 16.7 miles, which works great for 50 and 100 mile races, but makes other distances just a bit long.
Runners in the 100 mile are given the option of a 1am start or a 5am start. This gives you either 36 or 32 hours to finish the race (1pm Sunday finish), and you can decide for yourself what makes the most sense. Since this was my first attempt, I chose the 1am start. I arrived around midnight and deposited my drop box in the appropriate area by the Start/Finish aid station. I decided to use just one box at Start/Finish that I would return to in between each loop. There are 4 aid stations on every loop, which means you’re never more than ~4 miles from an aid station at any time.
One of the dangers of a looped course with so many aid stations is that you have an opportunity to stop and dawdle a LOT. One of the reasons I decided on only one drop box was to ensure I didn’t spend too much time anywhere except Start/Finish. I budgeted myself 20 minutes on each loop at Start/Finish, but no more than 5 minutes at other aid stations.
Because this is a local race, I knew a lot of people who were toeing the start line with me. It was awesome to get to hang out with so many of my running friends before, during, and after the race. We all gathered at the start line at 1am, and before we knew it, it was time to leave. I knew I needed to be smart and not try to go out too fast on the first loop. I left Start/Finish at a good hike, and only broke into a jog occasionally to give myself a nice long warm up.
Because I’ve run this course a lot in the past I had a lot of data to draw on. I spent a lot of time working out a pacing chart with some different options; some faster, some slower. However, “Option 1”, which was what I felt was the most reasonable, amounted to a 34:15:00 finish. I calculated data for every aid station (both in and out times) and total time for each loop. My goal would be to stick as closely to these times as possible.
As I approached the first aid station at just under 3 miles in, I recalled that it would be unmanned for our first loop. Therefore, I just kept on hiking and running right past it. This would be a common theme for the North aid station throughout my race. I just didn’t need that much when I had just left Start/Finish 3 miles earlier.
The first 5.5 miles of the course are the most brutal hills of the entire race, and you get to do them 6 times. There is one hill that is actually a set of three hills, all going up without descending in-between, which is particularly rough. I knew I’d have to see it every lap, so I simply put it out of my mind and kept focusing on my feet in front of me.
I arrived at the Horse Camp 1 aid station on schedule, and my friend Bob had volunteered to get it up and running for the 1am runners. He was an absolute godsend during the early parts of the race, making sure that we had everything we needed. Since it was my first lap I just grabbed a swig of Coke and moved on. The next ~7 miles of the course is a large prairie section that is mostly flat. Gone are the hills of the north section of the park, and they’re replaced with beautiful rolling fields of prairie grass and easy rolling horse trail.
In the middle is the Natchez aid station which was being manned (solo) by my friend Mark. He cheered me in, got me some more pop and sent me along my way. I then got to hit a small road section that is both a blessing and a curse on every loop. Sure you can run it hard, but you shouldn’t. After a couple times through, you start to get pretty sick of the harshness of pavement, and quickly start longing for more dirt.
Eventually, you enter the trails again and end up at Horse Camp 2 (opposite side of the previous Horse Camp aid station). The loop was going well, so I stuck to my quick visit routine, grabbed some pop and a couple snacks and just kept moving. From there you head into a small connector trail that has unfortunately seen better days. Over the 5 years of running this race, I’ve seen this trail go from being mostly OK to being taken over by a beaver dam that has forever changed the landscape. This trail hasn’t even been open this year to the public, so the fact that the race was able to use it was a huge favor. I’ll be curious to see what the park decides to do in the future with this area because I can’t see it continuing like this forever.
This short section eventually dumps out to a road crossing and back onto trails similar to the ones in the first section. However, these trails aren’t nearly as bad in their elevation change, and you can flow through this section much easier than the first one. Soon enough I found myself back at start finish, my first lap done in 4:30, just 3 minutes slower than my prediction. It was still dark (5:30am) so I set about getting myself ready for the next loop by the light of my headlamp. I had a clean pair of socks for every loop, and quickly changed those out. I stuffed more food in my vest, and got a refill of my Skratch drink, and then headed right back on course. I told myself, this was just going to be my life now.
The next loop would be the loop where the sun would come up. I was moving well and feeling good, so I once again decided to completely skip the North aid station. I announced my number as I walked in (the station was now manned), waved, said thank you, and walked right out. I wanted to get as far down the course as I could before the other races started. The 50 mile started at 6am, the 50K at 7am, and the 25K at 8am. I knew that the further down the trail I got, the more spread out these racers would be. The last thing I needed was to get trampled by a bunch of speed demons as I’m trying to wake up and start my running day.
I also had a mini-goal of reaching Horse Camp 1 before it was light enough where I could put my headlamp away. I grabbed a handful of bacon from Mark (who had moved to this aid station) and as I started heading down the trail the sun was just getting bright enough to ditch artificial light. Wow, does it feel great to put a headlamp away. Going from dull white light to the full light of day is a huge boost to the mental state.
I once again managed to run two key sections that I wanted to target for quicker paces: a large section of the Minnregs lake loop, and the road after Natchez aid station. In fact I managed to run these sections on my first four loops, and portions of them on my last two. Having small mini-goals like this are key to keeping mental sanity when you know you’re going to be out there for 34+ hours.
Although the day was getting brighter, it also brought along with it the threat of rain. The forecast had predicted a couple small showers around 8am, but there were also occasional sprinkles starting earlier. It actually annoyed me because I kept pulling out my shell to stay dry, only to have to take it off 15 minutes later when the sprinkle didn’t develop further. Eventually though the rain hit, and we got a good hour of a nice light shower. It wasn’t very bad at all, and it provided some variety on the day.
I don’t really recall much else about loop 2, except that I finished it in 5:14, 7 minutes faster than my predicted pace of 5:21. Considering I was now a full 50K into my run, this was pretty much spot on.
When I got to the aid station to begin loop 3, my friend Shelly was there and she jumped in to action to help me out. She took care of my bottles, getting my drop box organized, and drying out my shell. She was a huge help in making sure I didn’t spend any more time than I should. I debated changing into a short sleeve shirt for the third loop, but in the end decided to just keep going with my long sleeve. I wouldn’t say I regretted that decision, but I probably could have enjoyed the heat of the day a bit more with a different shirt.
I once again blew through North aid station and put my head down on the triple hill. The day was getting warm, and the sun had emerged from the clouds. The heat was particularly noticeable on the prairie sections, but I managed to move really well despite it. It was a bit surreal to still be out on the same course in so many different conditions. I got to see the trail in lots of different conditions, from wet and muddy, to dry, to covered in frost.
At the Horse Camp 2 aid station I met up with my friend Troy who offered to pace me on my 4th loop. I hadn’t planned ahead for any pacers, but gladly welcomed him to join me for the long hike into uncharted territory. In my pacing chart I overestimated how much I would fade on my third loop, and so I came in 12 minutes under my goal at 5:42. This was only my third time at the 50 mile distance so my data was a bit weaker for this loop.
While I was on loop 3 I got to have a phone call with my wife and got to hear about how she just PR’d the 25K! She asked me what food I wanted at the end of loop 3 and for some reason I decided a vanilla milkshake sounded good. After hanging up, I texted her that some chicken nuggets sounded good too!
I’m not a McDonald’s guy, and I rarely ever eat there. But for some reason, chicken nuggets and a milkshake seemed like the most appealing thing I could ever hope for. When I arrived at Start/Finish she brought me the food and it was instant heaven. I have no idea why it tasted so good, but it was perfect for what my stomach wanted. I scarfed down a 10 piece and a milkshake and just reveled in a nice full belly that wasn’t aid station food.
Despite being ahead of schedule Troy insisted we don’t take too long to get moving onto loop 4. I begrudgingly put myself back together, packed my shell for the transition to evening again, and we headed out on the trail. The sun wouldn’t set for a few hours, so we savored in the final light of the day.
One of the biggest surprises of the 4th lap was when I showed up at Horse Camp 2. My friend Michael surprised me there with beer and chicken fingers. I was shocked that he drove all the way down to Savage to sit at an aid station and wait for me. I was almost in tears as I headed out from the aid station, munching my chicken fingers (I saved the beer for after the race).
I’ve known Troy since my very first trail run at Elm Creek. I’ve been there to witness many of Troy’s adventures into the 100 mile racing realm. Unfortunately, Troy has a bit of a reputation because it took him quite a few attempts to get his first buckle (despite being such an accomplished runner). When I put together my plan for Savage 100 I said that if I could make it through lap 4, I knew I would get it done (barring serious injury). We had a good chuckle at the irony that Troy was going to be the one to help me get through this tough lap, but his experience with so many struggles was huge in helping him motivate me and keep me mentally focused.
Troy even got me back to jogging some portions of the lap, despite feeling like I was done running and wanted to stick to just hiking. He helped me work through that mental hurdle and soon enough I was moving with purpose again. Despite hitting a new all-time high mileage (67 miles) I managed to come in 6 minutes early on my pace chart for loop 4, in 5:48. By this time the sun had set, and it was time once again for a long journey through the night.
While I had been out on loop 4, my wife had talked with our friend Kate and found out that Kate’s runner had dropped and she was looking for another pacing gig. I told her I’d be more than happy to have her join me on loop 5. After my traditional change of socks, and a bit more caffeine we headed out into the dark for what would be one of the harder loops of the race.
Going in to a second night is really tough on the mind. Especially when you know that you won’t finish until the light of day again. The exhaustion was setting in big time, and Kate had her hands full keeping me moving at a steady pace. This time we did manage to stop at North aid station for more pop, and to ensure I was getting enough calories.
I did manage to jog the Minnregs section again, but I just couldn’t do it again on the road. Everything in my body was tight, and every step was a step further than I had gone before. That’s not to say that this was a terrible lap. Far from it, there were still many good sub-20/mile hiking sections. It was great to chat with Kate and get to know her more, and she was an amazing motivator, especially later in the loop. She really helped get me just a few extra steps of quicker movement periodically, which was what my body probably needed.
I don’t recall if I had told her my pacing goal for the 5th loop (6:15), but she managed to get me to the Start/Finish area in 6:14, which was pretty dang amazing. Once there I bid her farewell, and thanked her for sacrificing her night to get me through. My wife had also returned to the course and brought me a breakfast sandwich. Her plan was to meet me at Horse Camp 1 and take me through to Horse Camp 2 before heading back to the Start/Finish to see me at the end. That meant that I would be doing the first 5.5 mile section alone again, in the dark.
On loop 5 I had started to get really cold. We had encountered icy frost and bitter temps in the low lying areas. I had done whatever I could to stay warm but knew I’d need something more for my final lap. I changed into a warm merino wool shirt, and put my shell on over that. I also slipped on some pants over my shorts to help keep warmth in my core. Properly bundled, I headed into the cold, dark morning.
I’d heard about 100 milers and hallucinations before, but had no idea what it would be like to experience them myself. During this first section, the hallucinations came fast and furious which was one of the most surreal experiences I ever have had. Every rock I saw had a face of some kind on it. Branches and leaves turned into weird Halloween lawn decorations, and logs were transformed into animals of the forest that I expected to see. Despite knowing, cognitively, that these were not real, they just never stopped. The light of my headlamp intensified the misdirection, and by the time the sun came up again I was feeling pretty loopy.
The exhaustion was hitting a tipping point. I put on some music to help keep me awake, as my mental state had deteriorated to the point where I was shouting at the hills I was climbing. At one point I started yelling, “I’M GOING TO MESS YOU UP YOU M****** F***** HILL!! YOU’RE GOING DOWN YOU G** D** SON OF A B***!” I kept yelling it into the darkness, but maybe I wasn’t yelling it that loud. I honestly can’t remember.
Right around first light, I got to Horse Camp 1 and met up with my wife. It was such a relief to see another person again. By this point all the other races were done and all that was left on course were 20 or so 100 mile runners. We were all spread out over a 16.7 mile loop, which meant that seeing another person outside of an aid station was rare. My wife helped me refill my bottles, and we headed off into the morning.
As we headed into the prairie we got to talk and I got to share the night’s experiences with her. Despite the company I was moving really slow, and was bordering on sleepwalking. As we approached a small hill with a picnic table on top of it, I decided I needed a short nap. We agreed to let me lay my head down for 5 minutes to try and get some recovery.
I sat at the table, laid my head on my arms, and within 30 seconds was out cold. My wife gave me 6 minutes because of a barking dog just as I laid down, and then gently woke me. I sat up and looked around. I had entered REM sleep almost instantly, and after getting my bearings I realized I felt amazing. Six minutes of sleep, and all of a sudden I was a new person.
We moved through the next aid station quickly, and next thing we knew it I was running on the road section. I hadn’t run a step in hours, but here I was jogging along. My wife would be leaving me at Horse Camp 2, but I was feeling so good that I knew I’d be able to tackle the last 4 miles with no problem. When we arrived, I stripped off my shell, and the pants I had put on, and headed right back out into the woods.
The newfound energy of the day, and my short nap, had created a new possibility for me. I could move with purpose once again. I headed through the beaver dam section with with a mix of jogging and hiking, and as soon as I crossed the road I decided to pop a gel and try and run as much as I could to the end. I don’t think I ever got faster than a 13 minute mile, but it felt like I was flying. I yelled at my legs that I was in charge and that they were going to run the downhills no matter what. I jogged the flats, and hiked as quickly as I could up the hills.
Throughout this 4 mile section I texted my wife that she better not dawdle as I was feeling great, and I would be way ahead of schedule. Sure enough I nailed the final four miles, and broke into a “sprint” to the finish line, crossing in 33:48. A full 25 minutes faster than my goal time. I was only 2 minutes faster than my lap 6 goal time, but it’s obvious that I would have missed that by a lot, and eaten into all the time I had built up on previous laps, if it hadn’t been for that nap.
I collapsed into a chair, took a selfie with the buckle, and cheered in the next few runners behind me. As expected, my blood pressure dropped after about 10 minutes and I had to lay down on a bench. I relaxed for a few minutes before we began the drive home to start my recovery, which so far has gone pretty well except for an infected toenail.
There are a few key takeaways that I got from this race. First, it’s the knowledge that I can actually do this. I put in the work as best I could, and I managed to be successful on my first try. This wasn’t because of some magic mantra, or how badly I “wanted” it. It was because I trusted in the process, and accepted that this would take discipline. I simply had to believe that I had done what I needed all year, and so there was no reason I couldn’t accomplish what I had prepared for. Hard work yields results.
One area that I was really pleased with was my planned pacing for this race. I had a lot of prior knowledge of the course to draw on, which helped tremendously. I also knew my abilities, and I planned accordingly. It would have been easy to shoot for the moon with some unrealistic goals that I would never achieve. I’ve learned that a more conservative approach is best, especially when trying something so new that I’ve never done before. All of that paid off tremendously, as I was able to stay really consistent with my plan all throughout the race.
I’ve also learned a lot of lessons about how to handle pain. At a certain point in the race, it just didn’t get any worse. Once I reached that point, and acknowledged it, everything got better. That’s not to say things stopped hurting, quite the opposite. It means that I was mentally able to accept the reality of my situation, and stop dwelling on how to change it. My feet were going to hurt. That’s just how it would be. Just keep moving.
Learning how well a power nap works for me was another key takeaway. Being able to stash that knowledge away for future adventures will be key to more successes. Knowing that 5 minutes of REM sleep is all it takes for me to reset, is a huge tool in my toolbox. With an 80 mile winter ultra coming up in December, being able to manage the sleepies will be tremendously important.
As I continue to process this over the coming months, I’m sure there will be more that I’ll discover. This was something that will stay with me for a long, long time. It took me 5 years of trail running before I took an attempt at the 100. That’s because I wanted to give myself the best chance of success, and I couldn’t be happier with how it worked out.
I should also mention a huge thanks to all of my friends who helped make this happen as well. In particular the TRECs crew who were my role models in how to get this done. Watching them and listening to their advice showed me what I needed to do to really be ready. I also need to say a special thank you to my wife Lisa and acknowledge how wonderful she is for standing by me and supporting me through lots of crazy adventures.
I’m not sure when, or if, I’ll do another 100. I have a couple in mind that I’d like to do, but I also need to balance that with my desire to do other things. Training for a 100 mile race takes a lot of time, and there’s a lot of things to do in life. Realistically, I’m sure I’ll do more in the future, but for the immediate moment it’s time to relax and recover before making any big commitments.
My Savage 100 was an incredible experience, and I’m truly in awe that I got to be a part of it. It tested me in ways I’ve never experienced, and showed me that I’m capable of doing what I set my mind to. I couldn’t be happier.
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.
On Thursday, mid-way through the day, I got a wonderful surprise. An article that I had written for the Superior Fall Trail Race blog had been picked up by Ultrarunning Magazine. I’m assuming my friend, the race director, sent it on up to them, and I’m incredibly honored. It was an article that I had written, summarizing the weekend of races last Fall on the North Shore.
I’ve only been published in online zines once or twice before as I can recall, so this was exciting for me. I kinda wish I had more time to write for publications like this more often. Maybe next year I’ll scale back the blogging and try and get a few more bigger pieces out there with my name on them. For now I’m just pleased that I got to share my thoughts about this race with the broader world.