Monday, July 29, 2013

Voyageur 50

I was burned out from exhaustion buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile ravaged in the corn
"Come in" she said
"I'll give you shelter from the storm"- From Bob Dylan's "Shelter From The Storm"

The sky looked like cold, grey steel when we got to Carlton high school around 530 in the morning, the air was cold, right around 50, a wind blew through the trees and the smell of rain was in the air.  A week ago it was 90 and humid and on this morning it felt like we should be getting ready for Halloween not looking forward to the start of August.
Cano, who traveled in from Florida, and I shivered as we walked into the high school to meet up with the other runners for the start of the Voyageur 50 mile race.  We debated wearing pull-over's, or long sleeves but in the end decided we would warm up as we ran and the weather was supposed to get a little warmer, at least into the 60's...but it never did.
We met up with my buddy Greg who was running without any sleeves on (probably why he ran so fast) at the start line which I am pretty sure was just a crack in the road.
They sent us on our way and we were off, into the relative unknown for me (having only run a small section of the course in a training run) and the total unknown for Cano.
After a short section of pavement we hit the trail, scrambling slowly over rocks along the shore of the St. Louis River, after that found some level ground and our pace and the conversation turned to catching up on what was happening with the rest of our buddies from Ohio University.  We laughed about stories of our friends kids, who was married or gonna get married, weddings we attended or planned to, old stories from Athens, great memories.  Along the way we passed some gorgeous scenery, despite the dark clouds pushing down on us.  We picked our way through prairies, waded through shin-knee deep creeks, wound our way along a beautiful stretch of river and then hit the first of the power-lines.
It wasn't too bad, just two of them, very steep but the ground was still firm as the rain hadn't started yet so up and down we went then back to the rolling hills, eventually popping out on a long gradual downhill stretch of pavement. 
After that we had to climb to the top of a ridge, literally pulling ourselves to the top by grasping trees, digging our feet in sideways and finally gaining the ridge, calves screaming with the effort.  Now we were into it, ups and down, hopping over roots and rocks, walking the steep uphill's, opening up on the downhill's, picking our way over streams and eventually coming to the 16 mile aid station.  Load up your packs as the next 4.8 miles were gonna take a while, the real power-lines were ahead.
It had been misting on and off for much of the morning, and when we hit the first of the power-lines they were a little muddy but not too bad, we slowly made our way down, then power-hiked back up the other side, bending low into the hill to avoid falling, up and down we went, the section resembling the printout of an EKG. 
We finally made it through that section with the knowledge we would be going right back into it shortly after the turnaround.  

With the power-lines behind us our next challenge was Jarrow's Beach, a section of massive up-turned rocks you had to slowly pick your way across, they were covered in moss and thanks to the mist, which was slowly turning to a rather steady rain, we took our time being extra careful through that section, making sure we had solid footing before making the next step, the rocks just punching through your shoes making your feet feel like they had been blasted by a hammer over and over and finally made it to the turn-around.  Out in 5:22, we gave ourselves a chance to crack the 11-hour mark, which was one goal, but our main goal was make it through without blowing up, so far so good. 
Between our hydration packs, salt tab's and each of us making sure the other was eating, drinking and taking gels, we were both feeling pretty good.
Turned around and were out at 528, made our way back through Jarrow's beach (which seemed faster this time) and to the aid station prior to the power-lines.  When we got there it was really raining, we stood under a tent and ate the food we stashed there and then began to pick our way down to the lines. 
I remember stopping before the first one and turning back to Cano, we two-belled and said 'Let's do this!' having no idea what we were getting into.
The trails going up and down had turned into mud slicks, there was no footing at all, we slid down the first one got to the bottom and caught up to a group of people slowly crawling up the next one, on their hands and knees, pulling at the small trees and roots sticking out, taking one step then sliding back again.
We made it to the top, shins and knees covered in mud only to have to go down again.  This time we pretty much glissaded down, crouched in a seated position with your butt a few inches off the ground, arms out to balance we slid to the bottom, waded across a stream and went back up again it was slow going, constantly trying to find footing, or a hand hold, hands covered in mud, palms bleeding from getting caught on a tree or root, shoes so caked in mud they felt like lead weights.
Get to a stream and try to wash them off but knowing you were going right back into it.  I was laughing the entire way; it was like being a kid again, running in the woods in the rain, playing in the mud.  Like back when we used to play army, yes it was hard and at times frustrating but that's all part of it.  Trail running is all about embracing the trail and the elements.  There is nothing you can do so you accept them, enjoy them and know everyone is going through the same thing.  The others scrambling up the hill with us were making cracks and laughing at times, slipping and sliding all over the place.
Not sure how long that section took  but eventually Cano and I made it to the final uphill and celebrated (somewhat restrained knowing there were still two more ahead) and then ambled down the trail to the next aid station.
By now it had been raining pretty steadily for quite some time and the trail had turned to either a deep, shoe-sucking mud, or a hard-packed slick mud that would just throw you right on your ass if you weren't careful with your steps.
We slowly picked our way along, holding trees to stay upright, leap-frogging this dude Mike who was struggling with IT issues and running in minimal shoes which just looked miserable.  We kept our spirits up with stupid jokes, running when we could, walking when needed, and personally fueling myself with nothing but cookies over the final 3-4 hours. 
We had lost a lot of time trying to navigate the power-lines and the goal of an under 11 hour finish was gone but we were having fun and the goal of not blowing up was still alive and well.  Took our time at aid station chatting with the volunteers, who were the real badasses for standing out in that weather all day making sure we had water, food and anything else we needed.
Smiles all around as we headed into the final aid station.  Just 2.9 miles to go, the last section along the river, we were still running along the gravel road to the trail and once we hit it had to slow as again we picked our way over slippery rocks.  I got a little frustrated here, my feet were killing me and I wanted to just keep moving but the rocks wouldn't allow any sort of momentum so we were reduced to just walking until the trail finally turned away from the river and we could get some traction and run.
The last section was on pavement again and we power-hiked it (or just walked, it felt like power hiking but really I think it was more of a stroll) turned onto the street and began to run finishing together.
50 miles in 12:28, we never blew up, never cramped, spirits high the entire time, loved it, just running and playing in the woods.
I feel like every time I run one of these events there are lessons learned, last year I had a great year of running, the weather was perfect for every race, I set new personal best's each time out and things were easy.  This year, I have run a 50K through a couple feet of snow, another through 90 degree heat and humidity and another through the cold, wind, rain and mud of Northern MN. 
Learning to accept the conditions, work with them, enjoy them even, helps make things so much better.  Yeah it's harder and at times can be frustrating but you have the ability to make that decision, do I let it get to me, or do I embrace and attack it with enthusiasm?  Pacing and taking care of yourself is huge too, there were many an older man or woman who passed us and finished ahead because of their experience.  They don't push, they flow along the trail, never doing too much or too little, just steady, all day every day.  They just dial in and get it done, then hop in their cars and head home to get ready for the next one.  Those people are an inspiration to me, people who are passionate about trails, embrace the conditions, dial in and just get it done.
12:28 is the longest I have ever run, but it's also the best I've ever felt after a 50 miler, so proud of Cano for battling through the conditions to complete his first ever Trail Ultra.  He picked a tough course, with tough conditions and rolled with it all day long.  Great to see the smile on his face when we crossed that finish line.
So far I've seen the snow, the heat, the rain, who knows what Patagonia will throw at me in September. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Flow Rida

"Flow occurs when you're in a situation where you're doing something extremely difficult & have the skills to meet the challenge & focus to ignore all else."

A 430 alarm clock, followed by a 5am bus, flight at 715, finally back in the cities and headed home by 930 but the urge to keep moving was strong.
Dropped off my suitcase, grabbed my backpack and tent, threw some food in a cooler, packed trail running shoes and gear, back in the car, heat pounding the tan leather.  Windows down, radio up, navigate through the Sunday afternoon traffic, find the highway, point the Silver Fox north, cruise control, tension leaves the temples & shoulders as rubber meets the road with the right rhythm.
After two and a half hours, the big lake comes into view, no matter how many times I see it, that first view always stuns me.
The road begins to wind down toward the lake, out of memory pick my way along to the campground along the St. Louis River.  Check in with the hippie guy who runs the joint, grab some firewood and head to my site, a little walk in spot close to the river, away from the giant RV's that are tethered to their power supply's.
Within moments the tent is set up, and I realize I need bug spray stat.
Back in the car & headed to downtown, wander around the waterfront for a while, watch the ships, walk to the lighthouse, observe the tourists, of which I guess I am one.
The sky  gray and hung low in the sky over, dark clouds spilling over the hill and tumbling towards the water so close that looking up it was like looking at the underside of a giant ore ship.
A table for one on the balcony, strange look from the hostess, but the view was perfect.  Eavesdropping through dinner... people have a lot of complain about.
Apricot wheat at Fitgers, pickup bug-spray, build a fire despite the fact it was in the high 80's, just seemed right.
Eventually fell asleep on top of my sleeping bag to the sounds of the slow moving river.
Birds, lots of loud birds, better than an alarm clock, more sound, light rain peppering the tent, pack quick as I can dodge drops & mosquitoes.
Cup of coffee, follow directions to the trailhead.  Shoes, hydration pack, visor, food, drop into the woods on the trail.
Quickly find the rhythm, the flow, let myself go to the trail, it carries me south, hopping rocks to cross multiple streams, finally path flattens out.  Follow signs to Superior Hiking Trail, lots of climbing, smiling, power-hiking.
Tall, wet grass cleans my shoes, cleanses my mind, picking up the feet to avoid tripping, views of nothing but trees, broken only by small lakes or streams.
Skies clearing, temps rising, pop out on crest of a hill, nothing but woods in every direction, body feels strong, energized, drink, eat, drop back onto trail, fall into the flow.
Loop around, look at watch, been two hours, where did the time go?
Begin journey back even though don't want to...find power lines, up then down, then up goodness they weren't joking these are going to be a challenge, but man right now they are a lot of fun.
Trail ejects me out onto a paved bike path; look around confused in search of where it picks up again.  Get weird looks from middle-aged tourist bikers.  Realize how dirty I have become in past two and a half hours, laugh, find trail and now power back up to the Silver Fox.
Find it, not ready to be done yet, cross road, roll along trail over old railroad bridges, find an old railroad tunnel through the rock, remember it from a race last year, hike up to the top of Ely's Peak.
Sit, I am at the same level as the hawks floating on the wind gusts, far to the east Lake Superior, to the south St. Louis River, 360 degree view, woods broken by the occasional road, turn north, sun on my face and skin relaxes every ounce of my being.
Sun, silence and scenery, mind clear, body relaxed yet energized. 
Can't wait to be back here in two weeks for the Voyager 50miler.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Death Before DNF

 The weather hit me as I walked out my front door, it was 5am and already it was warm, bordering on hot. There would be no cool start with the temps rising; it was going to go from hot to hotter at the Afton 50K. The first loop went relatively well, I could feel the heat, my shirt and shorts already soaked through just six miles in, I was drinking constantly and taking in water and Nunn at aid stations hoping that I could stay even, but when I ran down a hill and could hear my shoes squeaking with sweat I knew I was already behind
Slow down I thought adjust your pace to the environment, going into this race I felt I could crack 5 hours, I knew it was going to be a challenge but my training on the course had me thinking that was possible if I had a great race, this was not turning out to be a great race. By mile 13 at the top of the 'meat grinder' I was already starting to feel the cramp in the back of my hamstring that I normally don't get until the last few miles of a 50-mile race, I contemplated dropping at the halfway point. I hammered up to the 16mile halfway mark and talked to another runner who said 'This is the hardest race I have done, I think I'll quit.' Sounded good to me but I had just finished that loop in 234 and thought there was still an outside chance I could get close to 5 hours if I held that pace on the second loop...I didn't.

On the second loop I started taking S-caps (like salt tablets) but the cramps kept hitting my hamstring, and moved into my calf by the time I got to mile 20. They weren't debilitating, just enough to force me to slow down even more and adjust my stride to make sure I didn't irritate them. Around mile 20 I realized that I had been so focused on hydrating that I had hardly eaten anything all day, but looking at the spread of food nothing looked good, my stomach was turning sour but I just couldn't bring myself to eat.

I stumbled into the mile 22 aid station, sat down, drank ice cold water, stretched my leg, calmed my stomach, thought about dropping but talked myself into 4 more miles, I would end up at this same aid station and if I needed to drop it was fine & closest place to walk out. As I left there I walked up a long dirt road, stomach flip-flopping, hoping walking would calm it down and allow the little food I did eat would be absorbed. At the top of the hill I felt better rolled along the ridge & down to the river only to start back up a massive 2-part hill. It was here the wheels totally fell off. I trudged up with some guy, complaining about my stomach, the heat and told him I was done at 26, this was stupid, the air so hot and humid it was like walking though soup. At the top of the hill I found a bench, lay down to settle my stomach for a bit then kept moving, marching, just one foot in front of the other. I attempted to run but my left leg wouldn't allow it. I marched through the camp grounds and then down a massive hill to the 26mile aid station. I sat and drank ice cold water, held ice on the back of my neck. Ate some food, not enough I am sure, but all that I felt comfortable with. I talked to a worker about how I drop, they would need my chip and my race number then I would have about a half mile walk out to my car. A girl rolled in a few minutes after me and just handed off her chip and number just like that she was done.

Here I was debating the question over and over in my head. I had never walked off the course before, and couldn't really imagine just quitting. I knew I could, I wasn't out to prove anything, I have run this distance many times, and today was just a bad day. But there was something in the back of my head that just wouldn't let me go. Physically I felt fine (In that I had the strength to go on, my legs and feet felt good, outside of the cramps hitting from time to time) mentally things had been tough from the get-go, the heat always does that to me but I am stubborn enough to handle that. It was my stomach that was the concern, just couldn't seem to get it to settle. I sat, thought about leaving and whether I would be able to handle that.

 Then I stood up and just started moving, I walked out of the aid station, I picked up my feet into a modified run (think Fred Sanford shuffle) a line from a DMX song played over and over in my head 'Hard-headed mother f--- always get it'. Made it running to the 'meat grinder' hill, then my running days were over. I hoofed it up there, pausing to sit and settle my stomach, got to the aid station there, less than 3 miles to the end. I sat in the shade while a young 6-year old worker helped me with ice, water and encouragement, I walked out of there, attempted to run and decided it wasn't happening, so I just marched. It took forever but I just kept marching, up the last hill, around the bend and finally off in the distance saw the tents of the finish line, with about 50 yards to go I went back to my Fred Sanford shuffle, crossed the finish line and laid down in the shade. 7:14:33...the first loop took 234; the second loop 4:40...yikes.

It was not my best race, probably one of my worst, did I go out to fast, should I have been drinking more, eating more, maybe just skipped it all together? Maybe, but in the end I finished. Nearly everyone I talked to out there that day had a rough one, I was no exception, and I need to learn to adjust to the environment. As The Dude said in the Big Lebowski, "Sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you" the bar ate me at Afton but I made it to the finish line and learned some valuable lessons along the way which I will apply to future races.

 At the finish line-