Somewhere around 9 PM a few miles from the Finland aid station, my right ankle became weak and floppy. It hurt on the front of my ankle when I pointed my toes, and the strength to support my weight on that ankle was waning. I was all-but sure I had suffered a high ankle sprain. (If only because I had recently read the linked article).
We had been running very well. The section from County Road 6 to the next aid has some of the longest, flattest, gentlest sections on the entire course and we had run them hard. Everything was going well - food, fuel, salt, pace, everything. I do not recall any specific, acute trauma that did anything to that ankle - no fall, twisting, or misstep. All was normal, and then the pain showed up out of nowhere.
What to do now? We were 48 or so miles into the Superior 100, a rugged 103.3 trail race. It was three-or-so miles to the next aid station (Finland) at mile 51.2. I could still run on perfectly flat and gentle ground, but running on anything else was a no-go. So we marched on.
I had taken a misstep and rolled my left ankle on the Tuesday before the race. That left ankle was supported with a compression sleeve on race morning, and I had been wearing it since Wednesday AM. Together with my pacer, we resolved to get a medical evaluation at Finland, tape the ankle, and continue. Barring that, we would move the compression sleeve over. The left ankle had been giving me no troubles and so I was comfortable with that plan.
We rolled into Finland at 9:50 PM, the party in full swing. I sent my wife to find someone who could tape an ankle. The aid station did not have anyone. They also did not have any athletic tape. The only tape we had was Leukotape, which I use for blister prevention. It has no elasticity and was not something I wanted to tape an ankle with. I also couldn't carry the roll with me should I later change my mind between now and the next time I saw her in 11 miles - my pack was full and my pacer couldn't carry it either. And so we switched the sleeve over and kept rolling. We walked, gingerly, out of the rocky spur trail that had lead to the aid station. I chalked my uncomfortable footing up to the chill that I underwent after sitting in the aid station for 15 minutes eating, drinking, and determining what to do with my foot. I did have a fleece hat and two shirts on. Once we hit the dirt road off of the spurt trail that leads back to the main SHT trail, we were running. All was again perfect with the world.
It lasted about four miles. The section to Sonju is notoriously rough, and it beat my feet into submission during 2013's event. And so we walked and maintained a decent clip. I expected to slow down if only because of the terrain, and we did. Whether the pain returned because of the terrain or not, four miles in I was back to the weak ankle and cringe-inducing steps. Again, how to fix it? I sat down on a rotted-out stump and laced up my right shoe to the top pair of eyelets - those one you never, ever use - and tightened up the laces as taut as I could comfortably manage. The additional lacing through those top eyelets provided additional downward pressure to the front of my ankle and stabilized the whole joint. And we kept moving.
We pulled into Sonju aid station, mile 58.7 at approximately 1:20 PM. Larry Pederson and his daughter were there, as were several runners huddled around the fire. I asked for medical assistance with taping the ankle, and they did not have any. They also lacked tape. I asked for some ibuprofen. No dice (and was later glad they didn't have any).
"You can't drop here," Larry said. Best to keep going to Crosby, they'll likely have medical staff and supplies there because, well, it's Crosby, we agreed. It had taken us 24 minutes per mile to get here, although my brain calculated our pace closer to 20 minutes per mile. That faster pace was sustainable at a walk, and running the math out - remember, it's dangerous to do basic math during a 100 miler - it was also a finishable pace, Larry and I agreed.
And so we hoofed off at 1:24 AM. The 4.2 miles to Crosby is actually closer to 3.66 because you need to get out of the aid station (~0.2 miles) and then once you get to the gravel road, hike up that gentle grade into the aid station (~0.33 miles). It was an easy section. At my erroneous pace guess of 20 minutes per mile, even on my now-supported ankle, we were going to shoot for arriving at around 2:50 AM.
But just like the compression sleeve, the relieve the additional lacing provided did not last and within a mile or two I started to hobble on the ups and down. I shuffled down declines sideways with my feet perpendicular to the trail. When the pain returned my pacer and I concluded that I was not going to
run another step. We determined that once we got to Crosby, we were going to get a
medical evaluation. If it was safe to continue, i.e. I wasn't running
the risk of a serious or permanent injury, we would tape up the ankle or
do whatever else was necessary and keep going at our power hike pace. I would hike to Lutsen if necessary.
But the ankle only got worse with each step. By the time we hit the road, I was in a full-on limp on the flat and hard
dirt. For a third time, we had reached the question: What to do now? I grimaced as we plodded up into the aid station. For the first time during the race, I did not run to meet my wife. I hobbled.
But there was no medical staff at Crosby. My wife asked the aid station workers for someone who could tape an ankle, and it got to Matt Patten - who was captaining party known as the aid station - who determined that he was going have to be the person, who despite a lack of medical training, upon whom the task would fall. He also lacked the medical supplies to complete the task.
Somehow, a crew member of another runner heard my plight and came over. Jen was a physical therapist and graciously agreed to examine my ankle. With my shoe, sock, and compression sleeve removed, she wrapped her hands around the base of my ankle and squeezed, putting pressure with a single fingertip.
"Does that hurt?" she asked.
I moaned, reared my head and thought I was going to cry. She moved her hands, and squeezed again.
I repeated my wincing, and announced to the world that I was going to throw up. The pain had sent me into shock.
You've definitely strained the ligaments on the outside of your ankle, she explained - likely by rolling it - and you likely pinched a ligament on inside of your ankle at the same time when it rolled. She could tape the ankle up and that would brace it very well, but she was unfamiliar with the Leukotape we had.
Now I have rolled ankles in the middle of races before. During the 2011 Superior 50K, I took a wrong step and a later fall rolled my left ankle. Obviously sprained, I could and did continue to run on it. I sprained the right ankle en route to finishing the Zumbro 100 in April 2012. But none of those affected my ability to maintain forward progress like this injury.
My wife asked the penultimate question. "Does he risk serious or permanent damage if he continues [with a taped-up ankle]?"
Well, she said in a tone that told me I wasn't going to like the news, you're risking a longer recovery from continuing. You're looking at eight to 10 weeks of recovery if you stop now, and longer of you damage it further. You could also tear the ligaments and risk immobilization, she said.
During the hike up and into Crosby, my pacer and also discussed the collateral effects of the sprain on other parts of the body. I would be compensating for the weakness and my gait was noticeably affected. It was all too easy to injure another body part as a result of my altered stride.;
I knew the trail that was coming next, too. I would need to descend over boulders into the Manitou River gorge and then hike up and out of the same. If something went wrong, I was toast and could need professional rescue. And other hard parts of the course remained - the Cross River and the hike up and down the hill prior to the Temperance River and then up to, around, and down Carlton Peak were primarily on my mind.
My pacer looked at me and all-but told me to turn in my number. You don't want to be out six, nine, 12 months because of this, he said. I knew he was right, and I told my crew, Jen, and Matt Patten that I was done. My wife removed my bib and took it to the radio operators and made sure I was properly DNF'd. I thanked Matt Patten, Jen, and sat there for a little while in warm clothes consuming soup and grill-fired pizza. I dragged my right foot as I walked to the car, dazed from the effort and what had just occurred.
Aftermath and evaluation
My injury-forced DNF has left me with an emotional emptiness, like a nagging Monday morning quarterback who has nothing critical to say about the prior day's performance. Just a shrug, a better-luck-next-time.
Why? Because everything went right on this race except that ankle, and everything continued to go well after the ankle injury (except of course the ankle). And even with the ankle injury, I still cannot point to a specific event which caused it. I did not fall, and none of my stumbles over roots or rocks were out of the ordinary. I do not remember rolling my ankle (which is why I thought it was initially a high ankle sprain caused by running down hill), or any specific point on the trail or event that was occurring when and where it first gave out.
So what did go well?
How often do you get three perfect days in a row on the North Shore? Almost never, that's when. The days lined up to be mostly sunny, temps in the mid 60's, lows in the low 50's/high 40's and a nice breeze. Zero rain was in the forecast, although we did get about five droplets hit us by a passing cloud en route to Sonju.
It did rain earlier in the week and so the trail was muddy in many spots, but that was manageable. I'd rather have water on the ground than it coming from the sky.
I went into the race planning on relying almost entirely on Clif blocks while taking a gel once per hour, salt tabs every 30 minutes, and taking two 225-calorie bars (made from this cookie recipe, which I have used in cookie form at prior ultras) at each aid station, and then consuming bananas, other fruit, HEED, Coke, ginger ale, and PB&J sandwiches at aid stations. My watch was set to a 10 minute timer so I could take a block, and everything was based off of that. My world was confined to 10 minute increments, and I had the timer field showing all the time on my watch. I only looked at the time elapsed (or the actual time) at aid stations, but never in between. I can do anything for 10 minutes.
In the end, I consumed 12 tubes of blocks (2,400 calories), four gels (400 calories), several bars, and other goodies at aid stations. I probably easily cleared 5,000 calories and felt great the entire time. When my brain did start to fritz out while walking to Sonju and then Crosby aid stations, I was easily able to recognize it, take a salt tab and get some calories in, and keep going.
Gels did not work so great because they were so sweet (I had a couple of ones from Clif), but they were a good pick-me-up when I knew I was low on sugar. Mix with some water and take it slowly and all was fine. As the race was progressing, my plan for them was to keep a couple on me to get me through any low-glucose-induced rough patches.
Fluids also went well, and was able to drink to thirst without worrying about draining my supply.
I went to New Balance 1010v2's for additional support and protection in this race. And they worked. My feet did not get pounded to a pulp, although I did end up jamming my big toe on my right foot and will lose the nail on my right big toe again. I don't think this is so much of a shoe issue as it is my own tendency to use that foot as my initial stepping-off foot, i.e. it bears the brunt of any contact. The shoes themselves also held up very well, and only one lug became partially detached my the aggressive trail. I'd wear them again.
Other issues with my feet I am chalking up to the loss of form caused by the ankle sprain.
I planned to take the pace slow an comfortable. Apparently my reputation - earned or not - of blowing up in races precedes me, and there are a few people who have scrapped my butt out of an aid station and pushed me to the finish. I chalk most of these prior errors up to plain inexperience, and I was going change that rep at this race.
I hope I have. I arrived at Split Rock, mile 9.7, at approximately 10:10 AM. I had run with a group of people, the leader of which was taking the pace gently and making sure to walk and go slow over technical sections. The transition was quick, and later I shortly caught up with T.J. Jeannette as we walked out of the aid.
T.J. and I ran to Beaver Bay together, again, going nice and slowly. We let a few groups go and T.J. kindly let me lead. We pulled into Beaver Bay, strong and comfortable, at 12:30. The exchange was quick, and T.J. later caught up to me after I stopped to urinate. We hit the dirt road and he left me, but I kept going slowly.
Somewhere prior to Silver Bay Kevin Langton caught me and I told him we were going to hit Silver Bay at 1:45. I had been running 15 minute miles comfortably, and he gave me a Woo! as he passed. I hit Silver Bay right on time, 1:45 PM. I had passed Kevin during the transition, and he would later catch up to me just prior to the Drain Pipe in Tettegouche.
Next was Tettegouche, a 9.9 mile section. That 15-minute pace would mean 2.5 hours on a generally difficult section. I pulled into the aid station at 4:30 PM, a 2:45 split for 16.5 minute miles. I was pleased, as I was still running very well and not slowing noticeably on the flats or down. I still had plenty of legs on the ups.
I did forget to grab something solid to eat at Tettegouche, and by the time I realized it I had made sure I wolfed down half of a bar. The climb from Highway 1 past Tettegouche to Inspiration Point is slow and shallow, but it also is not runnable. I had my first bad patch here, and I fought through it with a gel and determination. I hit County Road 6 at 7:10 PM, again comfortably running everything runnable after I fought through the low spell. The section was done at about an 18:12 pace and I was in over 20 minutes ahead of where I had been been in the past. Of course things then went south after mile 48 en route to Finland with the ankle injury, but we did the next 7.7 miles in 2:20 (18:18 pace). Even after the ankle injury I was consistently moving at 24 minutes per mile for 12 miles.
Had it not been for the ankle injury, I have no doubt that I would have finished.
Could I have finished, and if so, what would it have required?
I doubt it. Looking back, it would have required the ankle to be evaluated and taped at Finland. I could have also taped it myself at Finland. I also think poles would have helped, although I made the conscious decision while packing for this year's race not to bring them because I felt I had relied on them too much with too little gain at last year's event. And even then, it was a big unknown.
Very simple. Recover, and recover well. Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation. I'll be back next year.
In 10 days, the wheels roll north to Two Harbors and then Lutsen for Superior for my favorite running weekend of the year.
I am ready, despite my YTD mileage - which will be ~625 since May 1 as of race morning, which includes a pitiful June - being a good 150-175 miles short of where I would like it to be. But the long runs have given me confidence. I ran a solid slow-and-easy pair of loops at Afton ten days ago, coming in at 3:01 and 3:09 for a 6:10 solo 50K. Together with my 5:27 50K race at Afton, I have had 11 solid long runs this summer time, including one six-hour, 20-mile jaunt in the mountains of Breckridge, CO (Main Street elevation of 9,600', with peaks just under 13K).
I am changing up a couple of things from last year's race to better ensure a finish in these fickle things known as 100 milers. First, I am switching up my fueling to increase my caloric intake to something closer to a semi-arbitrary 300 calories per hour. I know that 200 calories of gels per hour, plus aid stations, is insufficient. And my stomach bailed on gels at Afton in the heat somewhere around mile 20, and so that gives me pause to not rely on them entirely. The plan will be to move to Clif Blocks, one every 10 minutes on a timer with gels taken every hour on the half-hour. Timing the gels will be easy because when there are three and zero blocks left in their six-pack tube, a gel goes in. That will get me to 300 calories per hour right there (blocks are 33 calories each; gels are 90-100), and that plus real food at aid stations with something to take with will put as much hay in the barn as possible on race day.
Second, I went to a beefier shoe after my feet were beaten into submission last year. As much as I love the New Balance 110's, they are really a racing flat designed for less rugged courses and shorter races. Although NB is re-tooling them into the 110v2's (and curiously NB has them listed on their website as "cushioning" shoes...), I went with the 1010v2's earlier in the year and have run all but one of my trail runs in them. Preliminary results are that there is a lot of cushioning and room to stretch as feel swell, and the the tread is designed to tackle most anything. My feet have not been sore after any of my long runs (only Afton and Breckridge had any real gnarliness to them - running at Elm Creek is more of a 10-mile track loop on compacted dirt with no hills steep enough to require a walk), and so I am confident in my ability to keep the soles of my feet intact to Lutsen. The race will hurt, no doubt - there are gaps in the lugs where something could hit my arch or the rockplate hard - but the suffered will be greatly minimized.
Third, my entire family is coming. This will exponentially increase the experience level of my crew, as my wife will he acting as Field Marshall to make things go smoothly. This will be her first time at Superior since 2009, my first ill-fated, inexperienced attempt at a 50 miler. My parents are coming up to watch the little guy, and one of my wife's best friends is coming to keep her company in the woods during this mad excursion. Pacing me on the overnight is a partner at my wife's office, a 3:05 marathoner who has run with me several times, is very talkative and easy going, and will be good company through the overnight. He is more than stoked to be pulling that shift, and was blown away simply by running a loop with me at Afton. Superior is on another level my friend - prepare to be amazed.
Fourth, this is my third go-around at this race while I seek a second buckle (and a new sweatshirt!). I know the trail well and am determined to play the experienced racer. I will go out calm and cool, keeping a steady pace throughout Friday while managing the afternoon heat for the first third, running as smoothly through the overnight for the second third, and pouring on the gas to push through the sunrise and on to Lutsen for the final third of the race. I'll minimize my time in aid stations to keep the downtime to a minimum. Mentally, I am much stronger and ready to grunt myself to the finish ahead of cutoffs, damn the time, than I have been in the past.
The goal? As always, I want to finish above all else. I would love to run 32-34 hours, and anything less than 30 hours would juts be amazing. I believe I am capable of such a time, but everything has to go right, weather included. Cool and calm, overcast, and a warm night. Come into Finland at about 10 PM and just hammer the overnight while not flagging dramatically in the morning. But I'd like to finish, to cheer and whoop and holler across the timing strips, the cathartic release palpable to all present. I'd take that.
Afton 2014 was an exercise in running comfortably. I had no expectations other than finishing, and intended to use the event as a training run for Sawtooth more than anything. I thought on a great day, I could run sub-5 hours. But I also understood that was an unrealistic expectation. a 5:30 finish was much more reasonable.
The basic plan was to go out relaxed, hang back and not get tangled up in the downhill start or get worked up expending energy on uphills or pounding downhills with impunity. My quads post-race, with only a slight twinging on my left sartorius, show that I followed the plan.
I came through the first loop in 2:26, essentially right where I wanted to be. Fueling and fluid intake had been good, as I had generally set (and followed) my watch's 25-minute timer for regular intake. I knew the second loop would be exponentially harder - it always it. Add to the fatigue the excessive heat and a majority of runnable sections and it's a recipe for disaster.
This was the third time I have run Afton: 2011, 2012, and 2014. During the 2011 event, held at Afton Alps due to the MN state government shutdown, I fell when my right calf cramped badly midstride. The race left my with a golf ball sized knot of continually contracted calf muscles for several days after the race. I suffered a similar fate in the 2012 event. I was twinging with cramps on the straightaway leading up to Meat Grinder, and then I was reduced to the ground during the Snowshoe loop and likely killed my chances of running sub-5 hours. Again, I had knots in my right calf from where the cramping occurred.
This year was different in that I never had a full-on cramp that immobilized me. I did have occasional cramping on that straight away and the final loop, but it was always manageable and controllable with water and salt tabs. But the post-race knot was as worse as ever, and hung around until the Friday after the race.
My stomach failed me just after the first aid station on the second loop. I couldn't stomach another gel, and I went to Coke and ginger ale at every aid station after that. The sugar high kicked in to perk up my senses and I never felt taxed for calories for the remainder of the race despite not ingesting any other solid food until after I crossed the line.
Now eight days post-race, I feel back to 100 percent and ran a decent 16.6 mile long run this morning. Of course the way our saw slow and sloggish, but a 5 AM start does that to a body. I should have done the lunge matrix, but decided against it. As a result, the run back was significantly faster (and were the way out should have been).
Next on the docket is a 20-mile run every weekend from here to Sawtooth. I have no races scheduled until Sawtooth, but I will be in Breckenridge, CO at the end of this month for a family wedding (and will run in the mountains every chance I get) and two weeks later will be running 50K on the Superior Hiking Trail. I will be doing the overnight section with my pacer so he is familiar with it and I get to experience it outside of a race and on fresh legs. I'd like to bang it out in under six hours of easy running, so we'll see how that goes.
DNF stands for “did not finish.” It also stands for “did
It was just before 2 PM on Saturday, and the
Temperance River Aid station was chock full of runners. 50 milers had started
to come through, and I had been passed by more than my fair share. En route to
this oasis by the river, I had been seen the first 20 or so runners throwing
down in a race half the distance of mine. It was odd how much distance was
between each runner, far more than I had ever seen at the front of that event.
Everyone was by themselves, slogging along in the relentless afternoon heat.
Me? I was about to all-but collapse in Bill Pomerenke’s arms as I hobbled
into the aid an incoherent mess. My 1,000 yard stare looked for my crew, but
all I could do was raise my eyes the to height of Bill’s chest. "What do you
need?" Bill said. I was ready to cry. I said nothing, instead mumbling
something and waving my hands horizontal in front of me like I was done or that
I was refusing what he was offering. Bill ushered me over to a chair in the shade of the aid station’s canopy. I
fell into the canvas seat as I let my body ease up. I rolled my head back to
the headrest, then leaned forward. Head in hands, tears coming to eyes. Bring me water, Bill asked the station workers. You need to get your core
temperature down, he told me. Bill handed me a Dixie cup of water. I grabbed it
gingerly in my hand without looking up and took a sip. And sobbed. All the
while, Bill tried to get information out of me and my pacer. How much had he been
drinking, eating, taking salt? he asked. The section to Temperance has routinely, regardless of race distance, been the
hardest section for me. Once you hit the Cascade River, the root- and rock-lined
single track wends forever and by that point you’re still a few miles from
hitting aid. And between that river bottom and the next, you’ve got to make it
up and down the largest climb and descent on the entire course. That elevation change is exposed, dry, deceptive and relentless. I had taken it and its
river route gingerly, carefully taking baby steps while holding firm to my
poles and just trying to keep moving forward. Bill summoned bags of ice and workers rubbed them over my back and held one
under my armpits. My running companion’s parents assisted with this process,
and his father modestly declined with a southern drawl to place the ice near the femoral arteries in my
groin. My head was still in my hands. I kept sobbing. Step one was lowering my
core temperature, and we were well on our way to inducing some chills. And then they started in on the food. Orange slices times two. Watermelon, a
slice so perfectly cut like an oversized Scrabble piece. Banana. Grilled
cheese. Two pb&j's. Soup times two, the first with an extra bouillon cube.
At least four salt tabs. With hot soup in hand, I started to shiver. Here I was, 80 degrees out in
the shade, and I was trembling. Slightly at first, then more violently. Always
uncontrollable. Bill brought me a blanket and a medical-type person (nurse?) come
over to check me out. Should they take my core temperature? The worker said no,
it wasn’t necessary – persons exerting themselves to exhaustion often shiver
when they stop because they’ve used up all of their fuel and the only thing
keeping them warm – the exercise – has now stopped. I kept consuming the soup, sipping at first and then by the spoon and
pourful. It was extra salty. That it didn’t taste repulsive was a sign to me
that I was deficient on NaCl. On any other day or in any other race, I probably
would have spit it out or vomited. I gradually came around. It started in steps. First I was able to lift my
head up. When I came in, I could only look as high as someone’s knees while
sitting. Then my eyes could rise to someone’s waist as the inflow of calories
started to take effect. Then to the workers’ shoulders. Finally I could look
them in the eye. Joni, my pacer for the last loop of Zumbro 2012, was there.
Eric, who also paced that last loop, was running the marathon that day and had
recently pulled into the aid station. Then I started talking. Words came individually at first, but clearly. Then
in complete sentences. "What's wrong with your body," the medical
staff (maybe a nurse?) asked. My feet are sore – pounded to a pulp, really – and I have dead quad, I
responded. Every time I took a step my thighs wanted to collapse out from
underneath me. She asked me if I had ever had dead quad before under
circumstances where I ate something and it went away. I told her no, but that I
was willing to try, if only to believe I could be revived. By this point I had
been shoveling in everything they had given me. Would solid food cure my quads? At this point I want to thank Ian Torrence for his article on Troubleshooting
on the Run and especially Western States director Craig Thornley for the
section on Troubleshooting in his article on preparing
for Western States. Instead of looking at my feet and quads as a problem
that could not be overcome, I looked for a solution. It is a mindest I am
convinced is necessary to get through a 100 miler. “But what are we going to do about my feet?” I asked her. She suggested a
fresh change of socks. The only pair I had left in my bag were some ankle-high
cushy running socks that I had never worn with these narrow shoes. My MT 110’s,
long expanded with my swollen feet, would be stretched further. The hell with
it, we’re going to try. I eased off a sock, and tried to rub some dirt out from between my toes. Ever
so gingerly, I rolled the clean cotton on and loosened the laces on my MT110’s
to accommodate the extra bulk. Repeat. Tight fit, I thought. My pinkie toes
were jammed into my fourth toes and my arches were a wee bit wide for their
narrow accommodations. But it had to do. It was my solution. If it didn’t work,
my feet would be numb soon enough not to care. By this point, I had spent nearly 50 minutes in the aid station and was now coherent
enough to congratulate Misty Swanson nee Schmidt on her nuptials after the
Spring superior races, and to correct her when she confused Kevin’s wife and
parents for mine. And then I rose and turned around. My quads, previously destroyed, felt thrashed
but springy. I gave commands about gels and could reasonably calculate how many
I would need for the next section up, around, and down Carlton Peak. I made
sure I had enough salt tabs. I had never felt so successful doing basic math. I
asked about headlamps, and got Bill’s when mine came up AWOL. I changed shirts
to my bright green Mankato Multisport. I lept out of my stance. “122 out!” I shouted. “Hundred miler!” Bill and the
rest of the aid station crew cheered. I was running again, motivated and
determined. It was all that mattered. “You’re fucking amazing,” my pacer Russ said as we bounded toward Lake
Superior adjacent to the river. I would never feel that good again for the remainder of the day. Mistake One and through the night. I arrived at Temperance in my sorry state because I made two mistakes. One
of these was a minor pre-race error which requires the benefit of experience
and hindsight. It alone would not torpedo a race or prevent a finish. The
second was a critical error of focus, a rookie-type mistake for which I should
have known better. In contrast to mistake number one, it could independently torpedo
a race and prevent a finish. And worse yet, it aggravated the effects of
mistake one and made them much more significant. So what were the mistakes? Mistake one was shoe choice. I wore my New
Balance MT 110’s, the second pair I had gone through. They were untested by me
in any ultramarathon and so I really had no idea how they would perform as the
race ground on. I had been extremely impressed with them on trails, and they
are basically mountain racing flats with very aggressive tread and a rockplate under
the forefoot. They were much more protective than my old Asics Hyerspeeds that
carried me to Lutsen in 2011, and more protective than the MT 10’s that I beat
up and wore through Zumbro in 2012. But they weren’t enough. Everything had gone perfectly – absolutely
perfectly under the circumstances – until about mile 55 and Sonju Lake area. I
had come through Finland at 10:30 PM, had been eating and drinking well on the
run despite the heat and managing to put down real, solid food at aid stations.
After that, I had run hard through the forested single track that was the start
of the 50 mile race. And then my feet got chewed up. I ran through a section that was solid
knobby rocks and came out of it feeling like someone took the multi-pyramided
side of a metal meat tenderizer and banged the soles of my feet repeatedly. I
started running tenderly and gingerly, wincing at every step. Add to that a
little bit of sore quads and life becomes a plodding mess. It took me 2.5 hours
to go from Finland to Sonju. I spent another 30 minutes in the aid station recognizing my plight and
doing everything I could fix myself. My world fell apart at the Sonju aid
station in 2011, and I wasn’t about to allow it again. I had arrived in much
better shape and spirits this year. One volunteer recognized me from my
sufferfest, and I ran into Scott Mark again. This time, I was much more
coherent and on my game, but my troubles really started in earnest here again.
My appetite was down even though I was eating, and the quad soreness and foot
tenderness that would eventually finish me started here. I walked most of the four miles to Crosby, and was slightly incoherent when
I arrived. I didn’t recognize Russ or his voice even though he was standing
next to my crew, Lisa. I ate three pieces of quesadilla. Coke and ginger ale
had lost its flavor, and I spent another 30 minutes trying to bring myself
back. It was 3:30 AM, and I was rolling out. I took my poles and headed into
the depths. My gingerly walking continued as I descended into and out of the Manitou
River, and leaned heavily on my poles. The sun gradually started to peek its
head out and I crawled on as fast as I could, yearning for the last few miles
of the section where it’s flat running and I have burned the sunny side of my calves
hiking. Those came and went, and so with it the sufferfest of finishing the
overnight. And then I made mistake two and destroyed any chance of finishing. I just
didn’t know it yet. Discovering the irreversible error would take several more
hours. Mistake two. I had gone into this race planning to do it sans crew if necessary. As such,
I had put together a handful of drop bags to be sent to key locations. For
example, County Road Six – where I planned to and did enter the night – I
stowed a long sleeve shirt, hat, gloves, headband and some gear to make sure I
got through the darkness. I would not endure a hypothermic shiver walk again.
Sugar Loaf Road, the aid station at the end of the Crosby-Manitou section, is
where my race started to end. It was also a planned gear stop, complete with
post-overnight clothes. Mistake two was hardly consuming any food or non-water beverages at Sugar
Loaf. Although my appetite had waned at the prior two aids, I chalked that up
to exhaustion and normal circadian rhythm. Now it was bright,
not-a-cloud-in-the-sky sunny, and I hardly mustered anything in my stomach. And it wasn’t even for lack of trying. At Sugarloaf, I changed socks and
shirts, and I spent an exorbitant amount of time popping and taping heel
blisters. I was focused, in a get-it-done mode and basically failed to eat much
more than a little soup (I think?), a chunk of a banana, and a sip or three of
Coke in my hurry. That’s it. That was breakfast. And I packed up with gels and
water and went on my way toward Kramer Road. I managed the route to Kramer Road well enough, and I was still well under
cutoffs when I arrived at the next aid. I had left Sugarloaf at about 8 AM, a
full 3.5 hours under cutoff and about 2.5 hours earlier than 2011 and was well
under cutoff at Kramer. And Russ started to come with me, pulling pacing duties
for the last marathon. Looking back, I didn’t sit at Kramer and I think I ate standing at the aid
station tables. Did I eat enough? I don’t think so, but I know I did try to get
solid food in me there. Did I continue mistake two? Maybe. I was just hurried,
unfocused. As I have written in the past, the section to Temperance is my least
favorite in the entire course. It’s 7.1 miles split into three sections –
wooded single track (simple), rocky, up-and-down river running (very hard), and
exposed climbing out of the Cross River and down to the Temperance River
(adding insult to injury). About halfway through the Cross River section, I
started to falter hard. My steps got shorter, my mind got fogged and out of
focus, and everything became infinitely more difficult. It was like I was
watching myself from a bird’s eye view, watching me walk at a snail’s pace, and
be completely unable to do anything about it. I ran out of gels, drank lots of
water by my perception (but not enough), ran out of salt tabs, etc. It was
complete exhaustion. The Fuel Tank read empty, and the effects of Mistake Two
were rearing their head. But I go into these races with a simple rule, a basic mindset. I leave the
course under three conditions: I finish; I suffer a serious medical injury that
physically prevents me from continuing; or I miss a time cut off. I do not
quit. And that’s what kept me going, even if I was confused that there was a
1:30 PM cutoff at Temperance and I had thought I missed that (there isn’t a
cutoff, but aid closes at 4 PM). Endgame The running high from Temperance River lasted a while, but not too long. Once
we started in on anything with a moderate incline on the north side of the
river, I started walking what I could probably could have run with a smidge
more effort. The hike up to Carlton Peak has three or so good climbs, and every time I
have come at it from the south, I look up and all I see is the tops of trees.
Are we at the top yet? And every time, I have to think, “No, we’re not –
Carlton Peak is a huge boulder that comes out of the middle of nowhere.” Like
other landmarks, it just appears. I fully expected to hike around the Peak and then start running when we hit
the board walks, which is what I was capable of doing – running at mile 89 into
a mile 90 aid station. Cut off was 5:30. We rolled in about at 5:17, and Matt
Long in his Grim Sweeper’s shirt was sitting there with two of his crew. “This is the easiest section,” he said, referring to the trip to Oberg. I
knew he was right. It’s 5.6 miles of rolling hills, with one decent climb and
nothing too technical. “You’ve got 13 minutes to get out of here,” the Grim Sweeper said. I asked
him for some slack in jest, but he and I knew the cut offs were hard this year,
especially at the end of the race. In 2011, we got into Carlton/Britton Peak
aid station at 4:45 PM, a full 45 minutes under cut off, and hit Oberg at 6:30
PM an 1:45 later. Here I would have to hit that pace and then have no cushion to get to Lutsen by 10 PM. It was going to
be close. And so we rolled out after I pounded down some soup broth and potatoes.
Running what I could, walking what I couldn’t. We had taken food with us again
to make sure that if things started to go south we could attempt a rebound. But the pains in my quads and feet came back, slowly at first and then it
became debilitating. Nowhere near the sufferfest of Temperance, but also not
even close to the pace I needed to maintain. It was deadquad, and my feet were
too tenderized to land on what pounding my quads could put on them. When John
Taylor passed me, I knew I was in deep trouble. And then I looked back and saw
two fistfuls of orange flags. Sweeps. Game over. Or so my brain thought. I picked up the march but the problems continued.
Pain kept me from running, and my faulty memory – I couldn’t place where in the
sequence Leveaux Mountain came around – gave me a false senses of hope. All I
could think about was watching Christi Nowak take a digger and scrape up her
side in the 2011 Spring 50K. I knew where that occurred was close, but I needed
to get there. Patches of the trail were flashing back to me, but I was unable
to connect the dots. I started running hard when I saw the beaver ponds, thinking that I was
getting close – more like about three quarters of the slow slog through. Once I
realized I wasn’t even close, I backed off, and we kept walking. My watch read
7 PM, and I was done. All that was left to do was get out of there. And that was the cruel irony of the situation. Ultras are not races where
leaving the race is easy. Aid stations are often the only access points to the
trail from which to exit the course, and missing a time cut off is the cruelest
of ways to leave. You must finish the section to get out, but you can’t go on
when you get there. I timed out at mile 95 at Oberg Mountain when I rolled into the vast parking
lot at 7:45 PM, a mere 45 minutes tardy. Only Matt Long and the TCRC RV
remained. Everyone else was gone. On the drive back to Lutsen, I was happy and had no feelings of regret. By
this time I had long reconciled with myself over the race. Did I make any
mistakes? Yes. Having made those mistakes, did I do everything in my power to
finish? Yes. Did I leave anything on the course? No. Any lack of production was
not for a lack of effort. I did not quit, as much as I wanted to be done with
it while trudging to Temperance. I did not finish, but I did not fail in
putting all of my effort into finishing.
New Balance 110 The trail shoe. Slim fit, super grippy, and no frills - this next evolution from the MT10's is perfect for grabbing a hold of dirt, mud, roots and rocks and not letting go. OK, but not great on roads. I'm trying out the MT1010v2's whilst New Balance re-tools my favorite trail flat (and for better protection during 100's). I don't recommend using these for races over 50K or 50M.
New Balance MT10 The everything else shoe. Technically a trail shoe, but it's really a road shoe given the relative lack tread compared to the 110's. But this shoe is the best fitting kick I've ever worn. Its wide toe box, low ride, and slim fit everywhere else force good mechanics. Be wary of taking a semi-worn pair of these on rough trails - it'll chew your feet up in time. All these really lack is durability on their mesh upper toe box.
New Balance 1010v2's The rugged trail shoe, much like a 110 on steroids. Higher ride, deeper lugs, more cushioning, and firmer rockplate all make this my go-to for rough-and-tumble trails. Not great in mud, as the deeper sections of the tread (where the plate is exposed) hold dirt and gunk.
Patagonia Capilene 1 shirts I own three - short sleeve, long sleeve, and stretch long sleeve - for spring, fall/shoulder seasons, and winter. With these three, I don't use or need anything else. Can't bust them and my oldest, the S/S, is still going strong after four-plus years.
Patagonia Strider Pro 5" inseam shorts The perfect trail running shorts. Five pockets, including one zippered on the back, make these the perfect shorts for carrying gels, blocks, salt tabs, and other good and goodies. The waist band is thick to give the shorts a good hold on your body (they ride low) and the inseam is long enough to minimize chafing. I still wear Body Glide, though.
Fox River X-Static liner socks Thin, simple, and basically can't kill them. Won't fossilize like a wool or Coolmax sock can. Been running in these for years and will never look back. Great for shoes that demand a tight fit, like the 110's and MT10's.
Fitsok Isowool Trail Cuff socks Combine merino wool and decent elasticity and you get these numbers. Worn with the 1010v2's, these numbers have the bulk and cushioning to fill up the volume of a trail shoe. I also like the minimal compression and tight fit. A bargain over all other wool socks in that they come in packs of three for $25.
Nathan HPL #020 The hydration vest. Used only for the longest of trail runs or races where sections require more than a hand bottle. Carries 70+ oz of water, extra clothes, gels, chafe lube, extra shoes, etc. Solidly adjustable to ensure a good fit for all. Make sure you practice with the fit and dial this one in before race day. Mine is still going strong after many years and races.
Nathan Streak Vest A must-have for nighttime/early AM running. I closepin in the sides to shorten the bottom straps around my true waist, and the whole thing stays put.
My favorite hiking gear
Granite Gear Vapor Trail I wouldn't call the VT ultralight, per se, but it carries weights under 30 lbs exceptionally well. The secret is the exceptionally padded hipbelt and backpanel, coupled with the polyethylene frame. The pack is bellowed at the bottom to accommodate a winter-weight sleep system, and the exterior straps allow you to attach your sleeping pads and tents. If only they would cut down on the strap lengths so you don't have to do it yourself.
If you only want to one pack, this is it.
ZPacks.com Z1 This frameless suspect is exactly what I look for in a frameless pack. It is a simple rucksack with two side pockets, one rear billowing pocket, and straps. No bells, whistles, or doodads. Bonus points for other hikers confusing me for a so-called "dayhiker," or worse, a "fastpacker."
Ask for this custom made, as apparently ZPacks now features more complicated offerings.
Tarptent DoubleRainbow This 40 ounce shelter is fantastic for two persons, and it is my go-to shelter when I'm with another person and there is no snow on the ground. There's everything to like: vertical walls, low weight, usable vestibules and massive usable space. Even the venting is decent. One caveat: I almost need to carry my Vapor Trail if this tarptent goes along.
Integral Designs eVENT Shortie Gaiters If BACKPACKER magazine were going to give awards for simple gear instead of over-worked gear, these gaiters would in an Editor's Choice Gold Award. They are the right height, weigh almost nothing and have a smartly-placed instep patch to prevent abrasion while not skimping on breathability. As their website says, perfection comes not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.
Patagonia R1 Hoody The best base/midlayer when the temps are south of 40F. Here's what you get: an integrated, balaclava-type hood that holds tight to your neck, long arms with thumb loops to cover gaps, a deep neck zip for venting, an off-set zipper so you don't freeze your chin on the pull, and a long bottom hem to tuck in. And the fabric: it is Patagonia's Regulator Fabric (made of Polartec fleece), which has a gridded interior to facilitate moisture transfer and ventilation.