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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Arise: Superior 100, 2015

Photo credit Arielle Anderson

Tuesday after the race I'm in Old Country Buffet debriefing with TJ Jeannette, Tim Hardy, and Jordan Weseley. TJ had an amazing race and finished the 100 with an incredible time. Jordan finished the 50 and seems to be walking fine. Tim paced me from Crosby Manitou to the end, over 40miles, the farthest he's continuously run. TJ's telling us about racing to make it to the Finland aid station before dark because he had no headlamp with him.

"Dude, why didn't you just take one of mine at Highway 6?" I ask. "I had extra." We ran all the way to County Highway 6 together.

He looks at me like I'm the dumbest person on the planet. Maybe I am. There's something I'm not getting here.

"We talked about this," he says. "On the trail and at the aid station before I left."

Briefly, I'm thrown back to the days of my drinking, when blackouts were common and people often reminded me of saying stupid things I didn't remember saying.

This isn't like that. There's no shame here. No fear of what I may have said or done. Few apologies to be made. The masks are off now. But it's a warning for the rest of this report. Memory is a fluid and tricky thing in a 100 miler. I'll get some things wrong in the details, maybe mix up some names and locations, but hopefully, we'll discover that other--perhaps more real--truth of what happened out there.

Lisa and I hit the North Shore on Wednesday before the race. We meet Jason and Amy Husveth for dinner at the Coho Cafe and have such a lovely visit. They're back again for breakfast Thursday morning and so are we. Jason and I discuss the possibilities of a thirty hour race and as usual, he gives great advice about execution. Jason's chasing his fifth finish.

Then Lisa and I hike the Temperance River area. We see the marking crew planting reflective ribbons. I yell to them across the river but they can't make out my words. I throw out a simple Woo! instead. Mushrooms are everywhere. Sharing this trail with my love is exactly what I want to be doing.

We head to Grand Marais. I load up on tacos at Hughie's. This is my prerace nutrition and karma plan. I eat one while sitting here and will leave with three more. One will serve as a sacrificial offering to our race director. One will be tonight's meal, and the other will wait in the hotel refrigerator while I run. They are good cold. So good.

In Hughie's I make a list of my goals for the race. These goals have been in my head for awhile, but I need to write them down, to see the ink bleed into paper, to invoke them as real creatures walking the earth.

I've been thinking about thirty hours for months. Is it possible for me this year? I can't know unless I try. But how to try? Do I run safe? A finish is no guarantee. And what does it mean to run smart here? No matter what happens, I'll slow down during the race, especially at night. I accept that as part of the plan. Can I run assertively early without being too aggressive, without blowing up? And doesn't blowing up happen anyway in these eventually? Isn't suffering, or at least pain or discomfort, part of why we show up? To see what happens in the face of it all? So should I just lean into the pain and embrace it sooner rather than later?

I've thought too much about time, about when it might be the smartest to get to the halfway mark at Finland. I hope to make it there somewhere between 13 and 13:30. But ultimately I decide that time is a silly thing, that thirty hours is a completely arbitrary goal, that I need to run by feel, to enjoy the experience, every bit of it, the views, the burning feet, the night running, to absorb it and breathe it and bathe in it. To live it.

Still, it'd be nice to do all that in less than thirty hours.

I usually give myself loads of social anxiety at big gatherings. That doesn't happen at the prerace briefing. I get there early and bounce from friendly face to friendly face. It's fun seeing so many friends and also meeting people I barely know. I don't feel I'm good at that kind of stuff, I say awkward and uncomfortable and inappropriate things. But this is just a good time party going on tonight.

John has asked me to say a few words about Harry Sloan and Tami Tanski-Sherman during the briefing. They were the original race directors, the people who started this when Superior was one of only a handful of 100s in the country. My job tonight is to introduce them as part of their induction into the Superior Hall of Fame. What an humbling honor. I don't want to screw it up. It's important to give Harry and Tami the respect they deserve. I keep my filter on, don't swear, and get through it, although I forget to share an experience Dusty Olson told me about Harry Sloan. When Dusty was young, in sixth or seventh grade, he was at Harry's house watching him prepare for an ultramarathon. Maybe it was the Edmund Fitzgerald, a 100k along Highway 61. Maybe it was something else; after all, Harry has a dozen finishes at Western States (the race that was his inspiration for Superior). Dusty says he knew about marathons, but had no idea people ran longer than that. This opened his world up to possibilities, and in this way Harry inspired a future generation of top ultra runners. John gives them their awards and I step off stage. The awards John made have the original buckle design on them. I remind John to tell the crowd that Harry's running the 100 this year, for the first time, at 67 years old. I feel so much relief now that it's over.

Inducting Tami and Harry into the Superior Hall of Fame

In the hotel lobby at Caribou Highlands a golden retriever with a friendly graying face tries to hump my leg.

Before bed I hang out with my parents. They're staying in the room next to us at Caribou Highlands.

Race start is that usual blend of excitement, greetings, and multiple bathroom visits. I bump into Al Bohlke and Mike Johnson, both also former runners at Osseo High School. Our coach from those days, Jim Deane, passed away the week before, and I show them my picture of Jimbo laminated to the flip side of my pace chart. Coach Deane is running this with me. I think he's going to have a blast out there and I want to make him proud.

with Al Bohlke and Coach Jim Deane

The start is different this year, the first four miles or so are pavement. I like it. People can spread out and move around each other. There's no accordion lines at each hill, log and creek like there are on the single-track we'll follow the rest of the race. It's faster too.

When we cross underneath Highway 61 and leave the pavement at the Split Rock River wayside, TJ comes up behind me. At home TJ and I run together on his easy days. We do lunch and talk about Superior when no other people in our lives want to hear about it anymore. We ride to races together. We mark trails together. He's one of my favorite people. "Where you been?" I say.

I fly down the hill into the Split Rock aid station with complete abandon to gravity, drink a cup of water and grab a banana to eat on the uphill. At the top, Donny Clark and John Horns are directing traffic and handing out high fives and smiles and encouragement. John totally messes with TJ's head and when TJ asks me about it later, I can't stop laughing.

TJ and I know each other's running. In fact, TJ has already filled in my pacer, Tim, about my running idiosyncrasies (bombs the downs, gets quiet when hurting but likes to hear talk then, etc.). This familiarity means we fall into easy roles. I go ahead on the downs and move aside on the climbs. We pace each other through these early miles. It seems we have fallen into a natural and mutually comfortable tempo.

We get to Beaver Bay ahead of our wives and move through quickly with the help of Dusty and volunteers (thanks Kate!). We are far ahead of schedule but we take what the course and the day gives us. We are fresh and happy at twenty miles. The weather is perfect. It will be perfect all weekend. I think of this next section to Silver Bay as short and grinding and technical, but Silver Bay appears much quicker than I expect it to. It's good to see Lisa and my dad here. Kelley and Uncle Tony and others greet TJ.

Of course we slow down in the next section to Tettegouche. It's a lot of climbing. We often say "wow" at the expansive views. We point out mushrooms and I try to name some for TJ. Fly agaric. Lobster claws. Dead man's fingers. Hen of the woods. Corals. I get mixed up and wonder if I'm right on some of those names. TJ gets quiet. He's feeling some hurt. He's extra polite.

"Thanks for leading here," TJ says.

"You watch your own bobber," he says.

The vision from my right eye is fuzzy and vague. My contact lens has sweat cakes that I try to blink away, but they will still be there throughout the race.

We are both cramping by Tettegouche.

I fall and roll to my right with it. TJ and Dan Harke stop to help me up. I have to ride the cramp out before standing.

The climbing after we cross Highway 1 is miserable. It's what we're here for. We decide this climb to the Fantasia Overlook needs a legendary name. Our low spots overlap. For both of us, this is the lowest point of the race and the place where we will cramp the most. Hundreds seem to work this way for me, where the hurt comes early and I somehow punch through it, although the hurt never really goes away. It's as if we must convince our bodies to settle in for the long haul, or perhaps we are just fooling ourselves aid station to aid station. TJ seems to be rallying some while I'm sinking into it. I wonder why I'm running with TJ. He's a much faster runner than I am. Much faster. Maybe I don't belong here. I get overly polite.

"Thanks for leading," I say. "Watch your own bobber," I say. "Don't worry about me."

I slam three gels in a row.

"Dude," I say. "This is so fun running with you. It's still fun."

We both say several times: "Holy smokes! Isn't this a blast? We're so lucky and blessed to be doing this!"

And it is. And we are.

Apparently we talk about headlamps.

By the time we hit County Road 6 I'm in desperate need of soup broth and watermelon. Coby, TJ's son, runs through the grass to meet him. Coby's whole body is smiling. Dusty has been waiting here to pace TJ and I'm excited to run some with him but we're too early to pick up a pacer. It's a weird feeling and Dusty thinks it's funny. We all do. I don't feel like I should be moving this fast. I don't feel I should be here this early. But I am. I start to ditch my soup broth when TJ's ready to leave, then I remember the cramping. I need this fuel. "You go ahead," I say. "I'll try to catch up. But don't wait. Mind your own bobber."

Apparently we talk about headlamps again. Maybe I tell him I'll catch up with extras. I'm not sure.

I won't run with TJ anymore this race. The string is cut. I'm grateful for our time out here together. I hope he'll have an amazing race, the race of his life. And he will. He will move through the night with one of the best pacers in the world of ultrarunning. He will leave the halfway point in 36th place and finish in 11th, just under 26 hours, a time he hasn't even considered in his goals. He will tear that shit to pieces.

I move well to Finland with a bit of a slow start but I'm flying on the long downhills. The cramps are still whispering. I see TJ and Dusty leaving when I'm coming in. I'm so happy they're moving well too. Dusty turns around and follows me shaking his headlamp at me like a strobe light and laughing. I've been running 11:42 when I get into Finland, far ahead of the 13 to 13:30 I was hoping for. But it doesn't feel stupid yet. So far I've taken what the trail and the day has given me and I hope to move well through the night without my wheels falling off completely.

Lisa takes care of me at Finland. My parents are there. I pound some broth and watermelon. The cramps have mostly disappeared. Lisa tells me Joe Boler is out of the race with a twisted ankle. Drag! I'm sad for Joe. I've got a hot spot on my big toe but I don't want to take the time to take care of it. It's almost dark. I can't believe I'm here this early. I put on a dry shirt, a new buff, arm sleeves and a hat. I'm ready for the night.

When I move across the field I stop at a gate and stretch my quads before entering the woods. My hands are cold. Should I go back for gloves? I keep moving forward instead.

I'm with Eric Nordgren when we see Shawn Severson in the spur. She looks a little lost, a little confused. We tell her she's there already, at the aid station. It's just across the field. It's dark and our headlamps are on.

Eric moves ahead. The alone time on the trail is nice. I fall forward into my ring of light from my headlamp.

I'm greeted at Sonju aid station by Tom Kurtovich, who's worked this race since its beginning. My toe is on fire so I grab a cup of soup broth and sit, hoping a minute or two off the feet will reset it. After three minutes I pop up and ask where Tom is. I want to say bye.

"Tom who?"

"Tom Kurtovich, the radio guy. Did he leave?"

"No one left," they say. "There's no Tom here."

Will it be one of those nights where the senses play trick or treat? 

My feet are feeling better and it's not far to Crosby where I'll meet my pacer.

I know I talked to Tom.

I see faint traces of the northern lights through treetops. Green pulses.

An owl seems to follow me with its calls. Maybe it's more than one. Maybe they're talking about me. Maybe they're talking about the northern lights. Maybe they're comforting each other in a night filled with strange humans moving through their world.

Shadows move at the edge of my vision.

And then the sky opens above me and I'm out of the trees and on gravel running toward the Crosby Manitou parking lot
and stars dapple the night.

John and Cheri Storkamp greet me on the road. I tell them I've walked much of the last section but I'm feeling good and having fun, whatever that means.

Most everybody walks some at night, they say. Keep having fun. I can't tell if it's John or Cheri that said it. I wonder if they sleep this weekend.

I knock on the window of the Jeep and tell Lisa and Tim to meet me ahead at the aid station. I need to sit again. I'm greeted at the aid station with a hug from Kathy Jambor. And a chair. I'm nauseous and only have water and ginger ale here. It's too bad because the buffet is open.

Kathy and Maria and other volunteers rocking Crosby Manitou.
I'm excited about having a pacer. I've never used one before. I know Tim as a super nice guy. I've run with him some but he's also super fast so I don't run with him often. He's considering running the Mankato Marathon and has the title to defend there, so we've agreed to limit the pacing to around 30 miles. Our plan is for him to get me through this section, take a break and then pick me up again at Temperance to bring me home. We leave the aid station with Lisa telling us, "Don't be Sallys out there boys."

Tim's right behind me. His light over my shoulder opens up my world. 

We drop down to the Manitou River and shine our lights on it as we cross the bridge. It's alive beneath us. It's roaring. It's rushing water is a brilliant white in our lights. It's beautiful.

This is Tim's first time on the SHT. He has trail experience. He ran the Leadville Marathon this year. He's won the Zumbro 17 miler a couple times. I'm a bit surprised a guy with Tim's speed would be willing to do this with me. Several times in the past weeks I've told him, You know we'll be crawling, right? I've had this fear he'll get frustrated at the slowness of it all. But it's fun to introduce someone to this trail, even at night. Especially at night. "It's a couple false peaks on this climb," I say as we make our way up the gorge. We stop briefly and turn off our headlamps. I reach my hand out to palm the stars, to grab a handful and wipe them across my forehead. They're that close. Then we're climbing again, Tim's light lighting up my world, widening it, his voice carrying me over these ancient volcanic rocks.

The second half of this section is runnable, but I have no idea how much of it we actually run. My goal is to move well through the night and we are moving well, keeping our stops brief, charging forward. My walk is a good one and my climbing is still strong.

When we see the lights of Sugarloaf aid station through the trees, I thank Tim for getting me through one of the tougher sections of the course and tell him he's earned his rest.

"I'll keep going," he says. "I'm sticking with you. Your pacer's no Sally."
He's been stern and has convinced me to change shoes. He probably just doesn't want to hear me whine about my toe anymore. I switch from Hoka Speedgoats to my Salomon Speedcrosses. Lisa wipes my feet clean and helps with the switch. She's amazing and her touch is soothing. 
I'm nauseous and can't eat. I'm having a hard time drinking the Tailwind in my bladder. I slam fresh water and Coke at the aid stations though. I tell Tim it's just my body's sleep cycle messing with me, that I'll move through it. I pee often through the night so I'm not too worried about it.

My memory from Sugarloaf (3:50 am) to sunrise is fuzzy at best and pops up in patches.

Tim's been watching Rocky movies for inspirational quotes, and he keeps yelling out as if he's Apollo Creed, "This ain't so bad, Rock." It's what Apollo says when Rocky's beating the shit out of him.
I often hear Tim whisper, Jesus Christ. He prays in this way often.

We turn the lights off and look at the sky. We see stars in the big lake.

His voice and light and humor and company carry me through Cramer Road aid station, through the night and into the daylight. We cross a ski or snowmobile trail and notice the colors on the horiz0n.

This ain't so bad, Rock! 
After leaving Cramer, I wish I had taken a cookie or two, but the stomach says no. Still, the idea of the cookies is a great one.

The Cross River whispers and roars at us with the trail's subtle climbs and dips along its banks. 

My big toe is on fire. The bone is burning. I try to lean into its flame.

With the light comes new energy, new laughter, a bit more speed, and Tim's aviator glasses. He can't decide if they would look better with a buff or a beanie. 

Tim's brother-in-law Aaron is running the 50, and his sister and her kids are here too. 

I'm spotting people at the edge of the trail. Just fleeting glimpses of people who aren't there.

I'm doing math in my head, thinking about the distance from Temperance to the finish, thinking about thirty hours.

At a road crossing, a volunteer tells us both Jake Hegge and Mike Borst finished under the course record. What freaks! He tells us Jake finished around 3:30 this morning.

Temperance aid station is rocking when we get there. The day is in full swing now. I'm so happy to see Lisa. The pancakes smell amazing and they're a great idea, but I'm still nauseous. Lisa says maybe I should just make myself retch. She's probably right but I don't want to spend the extra time., don't want to start something that might keep rolling. I drink water and Coke instead.

Photo credit Kelcey Knott

It's the most beautiful morning ever.

There's more people at the edges of the trail. Kids. Parents holding cameras. Then the kids return to their true forms, a stump maybe. The parents are fallen trees bunched together. They seemed nice enough while they were there. They were a good idea at the time.

We leave the Temperance aid station at 8:03 am. It's roughly 18 miles to the finish. Simple math says if we can cover that in 6 hours, we can hit that 30 hour goal. It could happen. Anything could happen. It's still about possibilities. My heart says to enjoy it all no matter what. Having not eaten anything most of the night, except broth and watermelon, I expect to crash soon. The crash is likely to happen. The body needs fuel. But it doesn't happen. I eat a gel when I can. I sip at the Tailwind. I'm still burping soup broth and watermelon and drinking lots of water at the aid stations.

We leave the Temperance River and start the longest climb of the race. 

"This isn't Carlton Peak, not yet," I tell Tim. 

"Jesus Christ," he says quietly.

His prayers seem to help.

I tell him about the sundance last month that Pat and I helped prep for. Pat asked one of the dancers to pray for my son, and to pray for me in this race. Thinking of what those dancers go through makes this simple and easy. And it is simple, really. We just put one foot in front of the other. We keep moving. Like the dancers, we might be on some kind of spiritual quest or journey of self discovery, perhaps performing some form of extended prayer, but we are also just running through the woods. That's it. We're dancing around one of my favorite playgrounds. Today we are simply playing, and hopefully the rest can come through that play if it's necessary.

At the base of the mountain, I put my hands on my knees for a brief moment, then say, "Let's go."

And we go. My heart races in my head. It's lovely. My hands pull me up the rocks.

This ain't so bad, Rock! 

And then the long gradual downhill takes us to the Sawbill aid station. A half marathon left.

Tim's won Zumbro 17 miler a couple times, but he didn't run it this year due to injury. This year Wynn Davis won it with a course record. So when Wynn comes flying by us in a solid marathon lead, I get scared I might lose my pacer, that Tim's competitive instinct might kick in and he'll follow Wynn without thinking. But he stays with me. Eventually more marathoners come by, but no one's going to catch Wynn. Sometimes I try to adopt their pace for five or ten steps, just to mess with Tim. I'm surprised I'm able to run at all but we are moving well. We have steady momentum and we are having fun. We are having a blast.

We hear a loud Woo! behind us and it's our friend Josh Henning running the marathon. He's doing great. His energy gives me energy. He looks strong.

At some point I say, "We must be into single digits now."

Thirty hours is still a possibility, but we have Moose and Mystery Mountains ahead.

We keep moving. One step at a time. We are lucky and blessed to be doing this. I do not have a big toe. It does not exist. 

Tim whistles. He sings the limbo song. How low can you go?

At Oberg, the last aid station, Lisa gives me a kiss. "See you at the end," she says. Did she really kiss me? I must stink. We hardly stop. We walk through the parking lot and up the hill while I drink water and Coke, then we're running again. We're running! We're still in the window of possibility for thirty hours. We're still having a blast. Tim hasn't gotten sick of me yet and ditched me or pushed me over a cliff yet. We're doing this. We're going to finish. I am filled with luck and gratitude.

At the base of Moose Mountain I put my hands on my knees, looking for some kind of reset button, and then start uphill. I want to keep moving to the top. People are stacked up along the climb. Rob Henderson comes by us like a boss. He owns it. At the top, I grab a log for balance, dizzy, my heartbeat filling my throat.

"Just give me a sec," I say.

"That was somber," Tim says. "Kinda like a funeral."

Tim's thinking about thirty hours and he knows when to poke me, when to be subtle, when to throw out gentle reminders. We keep moving along the ridge, along the massive views of the big lake. I'm spent from the climb, still trying to recover. I'm stumbling forward. Running the downs. Running what I can.

We create a steady momentum on Moose Mountain, grateful for switchbacks.

"When we see the group campsite, it will be in hand," I say. "It's all downhill from there."

This ain't so bad, Rock! he says.

But as always, the group campsite eludes us. Maybe it's around the next curve. Or the next. Just over this hill maybe.

"I know they put it somewhere," I say.

"There's a car over there," Tim says. "Is that the campsite? See? The hood's up."

There is no car. Tim hasn't slept all night. The light plays tricks with us. He's a great companion out here. The best. But somehow he's right. We're at the group campsite. We're running down the mountain.

"Do you hear that river?" I say. "It's the best sound ever."

We cross the Poplar River bridge.

I don't want this to end. It's been so damn fun.

We're on pavement.

"This is getting long," I say.

I tell Tim to stick with me through the finish but he disappears. And then I'm hugging John, and Lisa, and my mom and my dad.

Hugging my honey.
Is there anyone else I can hug? There has to be someone. I wish my dogs were here.

We finished under 30 hours. That's a big "we." It includes Lisa and my parents and Tim and TJ and all the other runners we started with at Gooseberry yesterday morning. It includes John and Cheri and their army of volunteers, the aid station cheerleaders and chefs and medics and the course markers and sweepers and the radio operators and the people I never even saw but who helped make this happen. It's the marathoners who came by and said, "Good job, Hundred." It's Shelly, who ran hill repeats with me every week. It's Tucker and Winston and Pearl and all the other awesome aid station dogs. It's a wide net. It's not just me out there. One would think that doing something like this puffs the ego out, but it has the opposite effect on me. It humbles me. It makes me feel like a small piece of something much bigger. It connects me to others.

I'm in a chair by the finish line. I get my shoes off. Maybe someone helps me with them. Lisa's gone after something, maybe a soda. My mom is asking what she can do to help me. I want to ask her for a serrated filet knife to cut my big toe off, but I would need something to grind down the bone too, anything to make it stop hurting. The hurt is deep in the bone, very concentrated. I don't think that's what she has in mind. Chalayne Palmgren is in front of me with her medical bag. My face must have told her something. She says it's a burn and she wraps my toes. She gives me a baggy of ice. She floats off with her angel wings.

Joon Bermudez sits beside me. He's happy to be finished. He has tears on his face. He says this was much harder than Wasatch.

I eat some chili. I sit on a blanket. I visit with friends. I fall asleep with Lisa's sweater over my head. I wake up and look at Josh Henning and say, "Lisa, did you get me some ice cream?"

Josh is not Lisa.

"Don't worry," he tells his kids. "He's okay."

I wake up and check the phone. The online tracking system is great this year. "Jason will be in soon," I tell Lisa. "We have to look for Jason."

TJ calls and I tell him, "Yay! way to tear that shit up man." He finished in 25:55 and is calling from their rental cabin where he just showered.

From a seat on the back side of the hotel Lisa and I watch Tim's brother-in-law, Aaron, finish.

"Do you mind if I vomit?" I ask Lisa. I turn away from her and retch.

Jason comes in with Amy pacing like the boss runners that they are. Lisa stands to watch him cross the line. "He's walking," she says. "He's walking before he hits the finish. What the heck?"

He later tells us he finished in 33:33:33. When he saw the opportunity to line those numbers up, he had to do it.

Boss runners
I watch other friends finish. I sit. I stand. I stretch. I cramp. I eat. I congratulate. I hug. I thank. I laugh.

Eventually I head upstairs to our room to shower. First, I just stand there, alone in our room. The window is open and faces the finish line area and I can hear each incoming runner announced and the crowd raise its collective voice in welcome.

I get the hiccups. I vomit. I shower. Pieces of trail spin around the drain, dirt and leaves and sticks and grit.

After the shower, I lay back on the bed. I don't know how long I'm there. It feels like my body is still hurling itself forward, like some piece of my brain that determines motion has worn through its gears and can't recognize that I've stopped moving. I hear friends' names announced and smiles wash through my body. Jason Mullenbach. JD Coolidge. The list grows.

Lisa brings pizza in. "The restaurant downstairs is pure chaos," she says.

The awards ceremony starts. I'd like to go down there, but I'm not moving yet.

"Shelly just finished," Lisa says. "Wait, they're announcing her name for an award!"

Shelly Groenke is our friend and is sharing our room. In two minutes she is upstairs showing us her trophy for the 50 mile, first female grand master. John Storkamp has told me, "Every time I see her I'm putting hardware in her hands."

We all have some pizza and visit. Mine comes back up a few minutes later. We're exhausted and turn the lights out. The window is open and we hear the cheers of friends coming in. I wish I were down there but I don't feel I can move. My body is floating on the bed. Just before ten o'clock, as the cutoff time approaches, the crowd gets louder and louder. We hear Harry Sloan's name announced. The first Superior director, the guy who started the race when there were only a handful of hundreds in the country, the guy with a dozen Western States buckles, the guy who inspired so many other runners, is crossing the line out there in exactly 38 hours, finishing his first Superior 100, a race that would not exist today without him. There is so much cheering, so much electricity, the window pane is vibrating. I swear my bed moves across the floor.