A decade of running

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.

29048_427624055361_4550976_n.jpgAfter 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.

IMG_3157.JPGOnce 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.

31880916_1004097819714989_4681658212569579520_n.jpgFrom 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.

IMG_3228.jpgApart 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.

IMG_0495.JPGAs 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.

It’s just one foot in front of the other.

Lessons learned from a Tuscobia DNF

My plan was to pull my sled for 80 miles from Park Falls to Rice Lake. I made it 35 miles before I had to pull the plug, registering my first winter ultra DNF.

So what went wrong? It almost all came down to my back. I’ve never pulled a sled for 30+ miles before and despite switching out to a different harness this year, I still wasn’t able to take the pain. I have scoliosis which complicates my situation, as my lower back curves and twists off to the right. Normally it’s just an annoyance during a long run, but in this case, pulling a sled, it became completely unbearable. I’m not sure what this means for future attempts, but I know that I need to either figure out a way to strengthen my back for endeavors like this, or look at alternatives such as biking or kicksleding.

Despite having to register a DNF, I’m still incredibly happy with how much of the race went. My legs were a little tired, and my feet only had one blister. This is completely manageable and nothing more than I’d get in any other ultra. My clothing was dialed in, and my new Gore-Tex shoes were perfect for the incredibly wet conditions. When I came into the Ojibwa checkpoint people asked me what needed to be dried out. Amazingly, I was almost completely dry. That’s how well my clothing plan worked, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

img_0495My pace was right on track for what I wanted it to be as well. I was aiming for a 10-12 hour journey to Ojibwa, and I got there just slightly after 11 hours. I executed my pace precisely where I wanted it to be, which is phenomenal. The course conditions were wet and soft, which meant that as the race progressed I got slower and slower. The fact I was able to maintain as long as I did is a huge win for me.

So what other lessons did I learn to take into the future? One of the biggest was that I overpacked. I didn’t bother to weigh my sled until I got home, and then realized how much of a burden I was carrying. My pulk weighed in at 41 lbs. which is way more than it needed to be. I packed far too much food and water, especially since I had a 2 liter water bladder on my back. I also carried 2 more pounds of water that I never touched in the 35 miles I was out there. That was just more added weight on my back.

I also doubled up on jackets, and didn’t need nearly as many as I had. All total I had 4 jackets: my puffy for emergencies, a sweat jacket, a lightweight shell, and a heavy weight shell. I most certainly should have ditched the sweat jacket, and might have been able to get away with just the heavy weight shell. In addition to jackets I packed 7 pairs of wool socks. However, with my Gore-Tex shoes, I never changed my socks once in 35 miles, and my feet were dry at Ojibwa. Knowing how well my shoes performed I could have dropped the number of socks to 3-4. I also carried way too many shirts and tights.

I could have easily shaved 10-15 lbs, off of my sled, without even touching on a lighter sleeping bag or lighter sled. That type of weight could have relieved a lot more pressure from my back, and perhaps have made things slightly more tolerable. I don’t think it would have changed the overall outcome in any way, but it might have reduced my suffering a slight bit.

Yet, there was one piece of equipment that I wish I had brought along; a small pair of snowshoes. The trail got to be very soft, and my feet would often punch through the groomed trail. My regular snowshoes are way too big, but a small, lightweight pair of kid sized snowshoes could have been perfect. The snow was already well packed down, so I just needed a couple extra inches around my shoes to keep me afloat.

Finally, the biggest thing I could have done differently is simply not trying to accomplish SO much in a single calendar year. In 2019 I ran 6 ultra distances between races and pacing gigs. I’ve never even come close to that in the past. After my 100 mile race my training went into the crapper, and Tuscobia became “one more thing” that I really should have realized wasn’t going to work. My body needed time to heal, plus I needed more time to get in more specific training. I needed to figure out this back issue sooner, and determine if it can even be changed or worked around, of it I need to move on to something else besides pulling a sled.

That’s the more detailed run-down of what happened at Tuscobia. Overall, I’m happy with it despite the result not being what I wanted. I can’t stress enough how much I love all of these people, and love seeing them ever year. Even if it’s just volunteering, I can’t wait to get to these events and spend time with people who love the same things I love. No matter what happened this weekend, or what may happen in the future, I know I’ve found a great community.

 

A night in the bivy

In preparation for my first winter ultra I decided to try and sleep outside last night in my sleeping bag and bivy. I wanted to see what it was like, and what I needed to change. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it all night, as I did need to go to work today, but even a few hours would be a huge benefit.

Here was my equipment list:

  • Eureka Lone Pine 0 degree bag
  • Outdoor Research Helium Bivy
  • REI Flash inflatable sleeping pad
  • Two layers of clothing on the bottom, three layers on the top, heavy wool socks

I ended up being outside from 8:30pm to 1:30am. The only reason I got up was that I had to pee. If it wasn’t for my middle-aged bladder I would have slept longer. I could have crawled back into the bag, but decided that I could call it good and go inside, since I had been out there for a solid 5 hours.

So what worked and what didn’t?

First, my bag was amazing. The air temps last night were in the single digits, so it was right in the range for what my bag was made for. I was probably overdressed on top and could have shed a layer there. If anything I could have used another thin sock on my feet. My only complaint about the layout of my bag is that the storage pocket is in an awkward place on the inside roof. I wish it was closer to the side as I felt like my phone was in the way when it was in the pocket.

The bivy sack did it’s job and kept all my heat inside. It actually got to be a bit too warm and I ended up venting the opening a bit, despite it bringing in cold air. The main issue with bivies is the condensation. When I woke up at 1:30 the top of my sleeping bag was a combination of wet and ice crystals. The entire inside roof of the bivy was coated in water as well. Thankfully, it wasn’t dripping on my face or anything, thanks to the pole that holds up the bivy over my head. However, getting my sleeping bag wet isn’t ideal.

Bivies are also somewhat claustrophobic. They’re small cocoons that aren’t much bigger than your body. There were a few moments when I bedded down where I had a brief moment of anxiety, but it passed quickly. It also helped when I vented the bivy as it allowed me to see the outside a bit more. In the summer I could use the screen closure instead of the solid one which would help a lot more as well.

The final piece of gear was one that I wasn’t that pleased with. I love my REI Flash pad, and I thought that its R-value of 4 would give just a bit more insulation below me. However, I tend to sleep on my side which means that my hip compresses the pad completely in a small area. That also meant that my hip got colder than the rest of me. It wasn’t terrible, but I think for my race I’ll grab a foam Z-Pad instead.

Finally, I should have cleared out my sleeping space better. I just plopped everything down and crawled in, and that meant that the snow was a bit more uneven than it could have been. I could have made things more comfortable if I had patted things down with my boots a bit more before laying down the bag. Not a big issue, but something to consider for another time.

Despite a couple of annoyances, I’m incredibly happy with how the evening went. In a winter ultra context, I’m never going to be bedding down for longer than a few hours at a time anyway. Getting 5 hours of sleep, like I did last night, would be a luxury in a race. If I were to go winter camping, I wouldn’t do it in a bivy, but would instead bring along a tent, and additional equipment to make things comfortable. Therefore, I’m counting last night as a huge success. I have a couple things to adjust, but otherwise I feel in good shape for Tuscobia.

Taking the plunge at Tuscobia

I’ve gotten very involved in the winter ultramarathon scene, including putting on our own winter ultra. One of the reasons I started a small 40 mile race is because I wasn’t sure if I could handle doing the longer distances myself, and I figured there were others out there in the same boat. However, being the race director of a race means it’s hard to actually compete in the event yourself.

However, last year our dear friend Randy Kottke passed away from his battle with cancer while we were all up at the Arrowhead 135 race. Being among everyone up north, celebrating Randy’s life, was powerful. When I attended a small remembrance gathering for him there was a board where you could put up a note, saying what you would do to remember Randy. I decided that I would take the plunge and attempt the Tuscobia 80 mile race.

This morning I signed up and put my money where my mouth is. This one’s for you Randy.

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.