Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Superior 100

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.  But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep-Robert Frost

Go slow, slow and steady, don't do anything stupid, remember to eat, to drink, just go slow and don't think about the big picture, just aid station to aid station...those thoughts were flying through my brain as I lay in the hotel room in Silver Bay the night before the Superior 100 trying desperately to fall asleep.
The following day I was going to embark on a journey of 103.3 miles that could take up to 38 hours (well the time limit was 38 hours, it could take longer I suppose) that meant moving all day, all night, all day and into the night again...it was a distance I had never attempted and had no idea what to expect.

No amount of planning could put it into perspective, I had gone through the maps and tried to guess how long each section would take but having only hiked certain sections, I really had no idea what I would encounter, it was all a guess, so much uncertainty, would my crew find the aid stations, would the food I packed be enough, do I have too much, what happens if I twist an ankle, wipe out, how do people run in the dark, how much will I be able to run...every time I let one question go three more popped up making the night before the start a restless sleep.

Finally at 6am my alarm went off, very late for a trail race, normally we are on the trail by this time but today we had an 8am start and since I was staying close to the starting line we didn't have to leave super early.  A quick shower (lord knows it would be a long time till my next one) bagel with peanut butter & jelly, Gatorade and next thing I know Big Tom is calling saying he and Little Sue are downstairs ready to roll.  My older brother Paul, Ali and I headed down, hydration pack filled with water and snacks, handheld full, visor, shades, ready to go.  When we got to the lobby there was a couple having breakfast they saw me and asked if I was running, yes I replied, so is our daughter they said and 'I hope she kicks your ass' they laughed.  I nervously laughed too, I hope she does too (Turns out Malory was her name and she won the women's division)

Off we went, winding down Highway 61 to Gooseberry Falls the start.  We milled with the other runners, met up with Paige who would be crewing for Aaron, Greg, checked out the falls, slammed a cup of coffee and next thing I knew it was time to line up.  I found a spot in the middle of the pack and listened to the last minute reminders and then we were off.

The first 10 miles to the aid station were uneventful, beautiful trails, some mud from rains earlier in the week and really just focusing on finding a pace I thought I could hold for a long time.  The trail is single track so you end up getting into these trains of runners which early on was fine with me, the group I was in had a pace I felt comfortable at and I could just settle in.  The first 9.7 miles few by and then we were headed down a long hill to aid station number one.

In those first 9.7 miles I had nearly drained my hydration pack & totally killed my handheld, it wasn't a hot day but I was drinking a ton of fluids for some reason.  Plus 10 miles is a long time to go without a fill up but I felt good, having made it there by 10:20, grabbed some food and headed out walking the long hill back to the main trail, another 10.3 miles to the next aid station.  This stretch was similar to the first, lots of people around, this time though I got caught in a train that didn't have the same flow as the first one, I got frustrated with how much walking they were doing on stuff that was runnable, and it took a while to figure out why, there was a guy with trekking poles everyone was trying to get by who was slowing things up, finally along a river we were able to move past him & get the rhythm back and next thing I knew we rolled into aid station number 2 where I saw part of my crew for the first time.  Paul and Ali were there, they helped me get water in my bottle and pack again, both of which were empty, and we chatted while I ate some food and they said my parents were five miles down the road in Silver Bay & I would see everyone there.

Off I went, into the woods again after saying goodbye to Paul & Ali, things had started to spread out and I found myself running alone for stretches, occasionally coming across another runner but not stuck in the crowds of the earlier portions.  The views were amazing and a short time later I made my way to aid station 3.
It was now nearly 2 in the afternoon and despite eating at aid stations and while running I was hungry!  The crew was there and I sat for the first time, smashed half a PB&J bagel, some homemade cookies, fig newtons and slammed half a bottle of naked juice protein.  It was awesome to see everyone and we laughed at how much food I was eating and they said they'd see me again at the next aid station.  I was excited because this next portion was one I had hiked and camped before and knew fairly well, I knew it was challenging but it was beautiful with Bean & Bear Lakes and I would be heading to Tettegouche one of my favorite state parks.

But things weren't so great as I started one of the climbs, I ate too much and my stomach wasn't happy.  I slowed my pace but the climbs were tough and taking my breath away as I worked to get up them, things weren't going too well but I thought it's way too early for the wheels to come off, gotta be a way to pull it together, I started to focus on my breathing, find a rhythm, slow down more to let my food digest, finally after what felt like a long time of ups and downs trying to feel better I hit a runnable section and my body was feeling better so I opened it up a bit and made it to the next aid station where the whole crew plus Mitch was.

It was nearly 5 but I was in great spirits as I ate a little and chatted with everyone.  By this time Ali realized when I got to a station she would take my pack & bottle right away to get it filled, Big Tom had the chair out, I would sit while Little Sue handed me cookies, and Paul and Mitch kept up the convo.  It was great, I didn't talk much out there so seeing people and talking to them was a blast.  We laughed, they gave me a great vibe and then I was off.  I wouldn't see them again until mile 51 when I would pick up Ali to pace me for a bit.

The next stretch was tough, very challenging and long, another 8.6 miles, not much runnable if I recall.  I just put my head down and only thought about the next stop, wanted to get there before dark, didn't want to use my headlamp until I left that aid station.  I rounded a bend and stopped at a cliff, beautiful view of Superior, the Sawtooth Mountains and then I could hear and see the aid station...it looked impossibly far away, but as I would find time and time again in this race, the trail had a way of dropping off quickly and getting you where you needed to go and after a quad busting descent I popped out on highway 6, the first bit of pavement I had seen in ages and was rumbling towards aid station just as the sun went down, making my goal of not having to use my head lamp. 

It was just before 8pm and getting cold and dark as I left.  Tough to hit an aid station and not see my crew but Paige was there so at least I saw a familiar face and she did a great job cheering me on.  I put on my jacket and head lamp and headed off into the dark, 7.7 miles till I would see Team Foke again.

I attempted to run early on this section but my headlamp didn't seem bright enough and some of the sections where frightening so I slowed to a power hike, made my way up to one ridge and saw the most beautiful sunset ever.  The last golden rays were going down in the west while to the east over the great lake it was reflecting purple and a near full moon was already in the sky dotted with stars.  I paused for a moment before moving on.

During this section I fell in with a kid named Jeff who was having a tough time, his stomach had gone south and he was throwing up and couldn't keep anything down.  I lead as we power hiked and talked our way to the next section, he was attempting this race alone, no pacers though he had a crew made up of his family.  I didn't want to leave him on this stretch as I was nervous he would have a really hard time getting to the next station.  We talked about everything from running to baseball to his job as a teacher in Central America and finally we got to Finland at 10:19 where I am pretty sure he dropped.

Ali, Alex and Nicole were at Finland in great spirits, first time I saw Alex & Nicole and it was awesome have all three of them there and know that from here on out I would have company on the trail.  I changed my socks, shoes and shirt, filled up and off we went, Ali and me into the woods for the next two aid stations.

We kept up the steady power hike I had started in the last section, navigating up and down until hitting Sonju aid station where I was offered a pancake by the aid station workers.  "Are you for real?" I asked as Ali laughed, a pancake with maple syrup in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere after moving for over 58 miles, I couldn't think of anything more perfect!  The workers were great; I had some potatoes, sat for a few minutes, avoiding the warmth of the fire as I read it can be too tempting to leave.

We loaded up again and set out for the next stretch still power hiking at a good clip, mentally feeling good, physically not bad just focused on the next stop where I would pick up Alex.  The previous stretch had been longer than we anticipated and I got a little frustrated but was able to let it go and once I knew how many miles to the next stop I could do the math to figure out how much longer till we go there which helped me pace my hydration and eating.

We hit Crosby Manitou at 315 in the morning, laughing as we hiked up the road to Alex and Nicole.  We were behind schedule but they didn't seem to mind just spending the time in the warmth of the car.  Alex hopped out ready to roll, I got loaded up again with food and the two of us set off.  When I picked up Ali she was all coffeeied up and talking a mile a minute which was great I just focused on hiking and listening, Alex though was trying to find his stride hiking in the dark and we moved silently for a while before I finally had to say 'You really should start talking'...he picked it up from there and the two of us powered through a really long section of 9.4 miles, power hiking until the sun came up and then running stretches to make it to Sugar Loaf at 740 in the morning. 

By this time I had been moving for nearly 24 hours, that last stretch was much longer than I thought and we pushed hard at the end, maybe a little too hard I thought.  I mentioned that to Alex and we agreed to use this next shorter stretch to hike hard but recover.  The sun was up, we were in good spirits chatting away just like we do when hiking at the cabin, having a ton of fun, making each other laugh and planning what I would change when we go to the next station and picked up my brother Paul.

At 935 we walked into Creamer Road aid station and I scanned the faces looking for my crew, everyone was going to be there, Mom & Dad, Paul, Ali, Nicole, the whole group but I didn't see them, I walked further and they were nowhere to be found, I turned to Alex, my heart rate picking up, I couldn't stay here and wait for them, would he be able to take me another leg, how would we tell them we had come & gone, I tried to find someone with cell service but no one had any.  Alex told me to sit but there was no chair so I sat on the ground, he said he'd handle it grabbed me a plate of pancakes and glass of water, I sat eating, asked Paige if she had seen them but she said no.  I tried to calm down and just focus on eating and what we had to do next and when I looked up there they were rounding the bend.  Had gotten a little lost but they were there.  I switched shoes (the mud was intense) Paul was ready to roll and Paige told me if we averaged 30 minute miles the rest of the way we were fine.

I had turned the gps function on my watch on during the last stretch to keep me updated to our progress, Alex & I were averaging about 16-20 minute miles and it was nice to know how close we were getting to the aid station, Paul and I had 7.1 to the next one and off we went.

It was so great to get these sections with everyone, spending time hiking at night with Ali, sharing those moments, pushing from night to day with Alex and now Paul, who lives in Portland and traveled back to help.  We talked about everything as you always do with Paul.  As he talked I drifted back to the times I used to visit him in Madison and always left feeling like I had spent a weekend with a philosopher, and how visiting him and his family in Portland felt the same way.  The two of us kept up the power hiking though I was slowing down a bit as blisters started to hammer the balls of my feet.  I told him I needed to lay down & put my feet up for a few minutes at the next stop to drain the blood from them, he said he'd hold them up for me and at 1244 we did just that making it to the Temperance aid station.

By now the crew was like clockwork, Ali did a great job loading me up with fluids and finding food I was willing to eat (pretty much nothing but boiled potatoes dipped in salt, pancakes, cliff bars and fig newtons) Big Tom was helping me with my shoes and socks, Alex, Nicole and Momma Foke with everything else from glide to sunscreen, bug spray etc.  I felt like a race car (albeit a very slow race car) hitting a pit stop as they changed me out and kept me moving.

Leaving that aid station I could tell my feet were in a bad way, huge blisters formed on the balls of my feet making it feel like I was walking on golf balls.  Paul and I had 5.5 miles to go and just over a mile into this section I stepped down and felt the blisters pop...my socks and shoes were suddenly soaked in blood.  I stood for a second the pain just excruciating, Paul tried to keep my spirits up but this was really painful, every step I took a rock or root felt like it was going straight through my foot.  I cursed, changed my stride and finally went deep inside myself to let go of it, just let go.  Stood for a moment trying to do that and then we carried on.  Gone though were the days of 20 minute miles, we were now around 22-24 and that was over relatively flat (for this course) and the wet sections where my foot would slip hurt even worse. 

We made it to mile 90.7 at 3 in the afternoon, I took off my socks and shoes, a worker looked at my feet and said there was nothing they could do, she helped me clean them off and my crew got me new socks, loaded me up but wouldn't let me sit too long and now we were off again, this time Ali joined Paul and I as we made our way to the next station.

This section brought some dark times, the mud was intense, my mind was going a little bit, I had been up and moving a long time and was starting to get spacey.  Paul and Ali talked, kept me moving, Ali making sure I picked up my feet, didn't spiral too far down a dark path.  I didn't talk much just kept moving trying to block the pain out, focused only on getting to the next stop.

My spirits came back as I got closer to the aid station, my buddy Mitch was running the 50 mile race and caught up with us.  I just heard a 'JOHN FOCKE!' bellowed from behind and there he was, just like in the Grand Canyon, with a great attitude.  We chatted for a bit and I was so excited that he was having such a good race, we joked for a few minutes then he went ahead for what I hoped was a great finish.

 Finally the three of us emerged from the woods a round of applause from the spectators there waiting for their own runners.  It made me laugh as I gave them the parade wave I had perfected during last year's Lynx Championship Parade, raised the roof a little for laughs and then sat down to get loaded up for the final section.

Paul once again decided to stay on, it was quite impressive, I had him marked down for the 77-90 section but he wanted to go the distance so the three brothers set out, for the final 7.1 miles and for the first time since I started I allowed myself think about the end.  My feet were like ground beef, every step painful, any slipping felt like the bottoms were coming right off, I tried to stay dialed in, I knew we had two climbs and two descents left and then it was over.

The first climb was a beast, felt like it went straight up and wouldn't end, Alex was behind me encouraging me to keep going, almost to the top, but we weren't, every time it looked like we were there the trail would turn then go straight up again.  Finally it plateaued, there was little spur trail I noticed that looked like it would give us a pretty good view of the lake and area so I suggested we check it out.  I think Paul and Alex were shocked that I wanted to add on to this but we went down it and there and I sat on a tree stump (like the guy in the book Giving Tree Paul said) and the three of us admired the view before moving on.

We meandered around up there for what felt like a long time, my mind was going to mush; it all looked the same were we going in circles?  No the guys said just keep moving.  I thought I was sort of running but really it was like a jig I was going because I couldn't stop myself on the down hills, Paul and Alex were strolling behind me at a leisurely pace while I felt like we were working pretty hard.

This whole section was really hard, I was slowing way down as my feet continued to deteriorate but what sticks with me the most was how awesome it was to be out in the woods with my brothers again.  It has been a while since the three of us went on an adventure and it was just great to have one in front of me, one behind listening to their conversations while feeling the love and support they were wrapping me in.  At one point as we moved into the final descent I said 'Guys want to just keep going?  I don't know if I want this to end.' They laughed and kept me moving towards the end.
Mentally the last stretch was the hardest I just wanted to be done, people were passing us, my feet hurt worse than I ever imagined and I wanted it over.  Those guys kept telling me how amazing it was, how happy I should be but all I wanted was to be done.  Then suddenly there it was, just run through that chute and its over!  I shuffled across the line, saw Ali standing there trying to take a pic, Mom, Nicole, more familiar faces, a handshake from the race director, a huge chunk of wood on a string (my medal) handed to me, a long kiss with Ali, it was over, 37 hours and 8 minutes after it started.

People were moving me down from the finish, loud music, camera flashes, Mitch, Ryan, Dad, all shaking my hand saying congrats, what do you need, what do you want, they kept asking.  All I wanted was a chair, so I was moved towards one and sat down, done.  I know from the pics I looked pretty out of it, and trust me I was but there was this amazing feeling at that moment, to be surrounded by all that love.  All these people who helped get me through it, I felt wrapped in a cocoon of love, everyone so excited, happy, just what I wanted.  I hoped that this would be something that would get our whole family together for a fun adventure, we would get to spend a lot of time together not at a holiday but working together, bonding, not really a vacation but sort of a working vacation.  As I sat there, arm wrapped around Ali to keep from tipping over, watching them all laugh and talk and share stories I knew it had happened.  We had done it, all of us banding together to get through it.  Yes I crossed the finish line but I never could have done it without them without all the support from all over the country.  Pulling into aid stations to hear them read text's and messages from family and friends who were following along, calls to my Gramps who was trying to keep up on it, it nearly overwhelmed me and I started to feel light headed. 

I had to lay down, wrapped in a blanket, collect myself.  The finish line doctor came over we talked I was fine, he said just take your time.  I needed food, real food, put on sweats, sweatshirt to ward off the cold and then we were on our way back to the hotel.  I ate a veggie sandwich, and then just passed out.

The next morning Team Foke went to breakfast, we laughed about tales from the trails and old stories, at different points the table was in tears laughing so hard at old memories it was the perfect way to end the weekend and while the buckle, sweatshirt, medal and other finisher prizes are great what I'll remember most is that breakfast surrounded by so much love and laughter.

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