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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Why Run Superior?

The following responses are from finishers of the Superior 100. I am grateful for their generosity. This is a part of my forthcoming book about the race.

April Anselmo: My first 100 miler, Kettle Moraine, went so badly. I was ill prepared. But I finished. I knew I could do better at a 100 miler. I wanted to do better. I had heard from other runners the difficult nature of Superior, and the beauty. I was intrigued.  Plus I had run Afton Trail Run, and knew the kind of race John Storkamp puts on. I wanted to do more of his races.

Maria Barton: Why not? I wouldn’t even think about doing a hundred elsewhere until I got my finish at Superior. The SHT is my spiritual home. It’s beautiful, mystical, boreal forest views. The scenery, and of course, the people. If work told me I’d have to work that weekend… (looks down, shakes her head). It would be like them telling me I had to work when my kids are getting married. But my kids know better than to get married the second weekend of September.

Frayah Bartuska: My first two trail races have an unbelievable amount of elevation involved. When I did my first 100 (Kettle), I had the best experience. However, I missed the climbs, and I missed new scenery. I was so proud that I was able to complete a 100 miler, but I crave seeing a hill/mountain in the distance and knowing that I’m about to climb it. I was researching this race more than Kettle, and I was just fascinated by the scenery and the climbs that were involved.  I told myself that if I finished Kettle, I would add another 100 and it would be Superior. I crossed the finish line at Kettle knowing that I could tackle Superior the same year. It would be a lot for a rookie, and I would have to step up my training tremendously, but I was so ready to tackle that race.

Julie Berg: Because it is something I never believed I could do. Bonnie Riley was running her 100 there and I was running the 50 mile. When I saw how badly she looked I told myself I'd never do it. Ever. I then told myself after ten 100 mile finishes on other courses that I'd give it a try. Well, after ten 100 mile finishes I stayed true to my word and to myself. I gave it a whirl. It was beautiful, demanding, all encompassing. I only made it 77 miles. I knew that I'd be back.

Superior has a way of getting into my soul. I finished the 100 the following two years and again this year. My best friends run this race, volunteer this race, and direct this race. There is nothing like being among the people you care about the most while racing. It's the most difficult of my fifteen 100 mile finishes. It takes me the longest to finish. It beats me up the most. It's the most rewarding. The views are amazing. I've run the course a few times over a few days on my own—it’s beautiful, but not the same as the race. If I could only run one more 100 mile race in my life, it would be Superior.

Mike Borst: Superior has been deemed one of the toughest races out there and that means it is a beautiful and fun course to be on. If you have to run 100 miles why not do it on some of the most scenic trails around? Also John Storkamp is one of the greatest race directors ever.

Don Clark: It was my first 50, my first 100. It’s probably the toughest I could find. And there weren’t many 100s then. It was so personal to me, to do that one. And there’s that camaraderie that we share. What a glorious day.

JD Coolidge: Superior was purely opportunistic. Though I had visions of doing Superior at some point down the road, it was only after a failed attempt at the Leadville 100 that this vision became reality. I registered for Superior approximately 14 hours after I threw in the towel at mile 54 of the Leadville course. I was not totally disappointed with my efforts there, but I felt a need to redeem myself. My wife gave me the push I was looking for when I mentioned Superior the next morning. She said, "You should do it."

Susan Donnelly: Right time and right place. In my second year of ultrarunning, I found myself with a couple of early 40 and 50 mile races under my belt and saw a thin window of opportunity to jump up to the 100 mile distance. It wasn’t perfect training (I wasn’t even sure what that was), but based on what I’d done for the shorter races, I thought it might work. 

I had to decide whether to go for it, or wait until everything was more sure. I looked at the calendar in Ultrarunning magazine and found Superior Trail 100. I had run Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth several years in a row and had fallen in love with that part of Minnesota. A 100 miler there—on a trail—seemed too perfect to be true, so I took it as a sign that it was time to leap.

It also helped that this was 1997, before widespread use of the internet, and the Superior Hiking Trail was far enough outside my normal travel radius that my training partners in Tennessee wouldn't know if I didn't finish. That freed me from feeling extra pressure of external expectations. 

I sent my check, booked a flight, and trained as best I could guess how.

John Focke: I love northern MN, and the Superior Hiking Trail is one of my favorites. I've strung sections together hiking and the thought of spending a couple of days running for 100+ miles on it, while enjoying views of Lake Superior and seeing places I drove past but hadn't explored, was really enticing. Plus, it's known as one of the hardest 100's around that's not at altitude. If you're going to test yourself, really test yourself.

Stephanie Hoff: Kate Leis [running friend] actually picked Superior. I'm more of a go-with-the-flow kind of racer. She picked it because it was supposed to be one of the toughest 100 mile races in the country. I said, Sounds good! I really wasn't sure what I was getting myself into. I just knew I loved hiking the North Shore, loved the trail running community, and I'm always up for a challenge.

After running Superior, I would tell everyone this is the toughest, most scenic 100 mile race they will ever encounter. And the people, volunteers and community are amazing. Superior should be on every ultrarunner's bucket list.

John Horns: Being a Minnesota kid I have to run it. It’s close by. My grandmother and grandfather had a place on Seagull Lake on the Gunflint Trail. My folks had a place on the North Shore. I can remember my mom (Mae Horns) doing hill repeats on Bridge Run at Lutsen, where the race finishes today.

David Infante: It was never on my radar. I thought Minnesota was flat. My friend Shawn Severson suggested it and I had a conference in town the following week so I volunteered to crew her. She said I should run it instead and we could pace each other. I needed to put something on my calendar to work for and that's why Superior was the race. I have to say that I did not adequately comprehend what I was getting into but I’m so glad I did it.

TJ Jeannette: That’s easy. I’m from Duluth. It’s home. It’s in my parents’ back yard. And it helps that their back yard is such a beautiful trail environment. That location makes it easier for family to be there. It makes it inclusive for my crew. It started with that convenience.

And after doing the spring run and the 50-miler last year (2013) there was no choice. In fact, I had asked my coach at the time (Chris Lundstrom) if he would train me for the 2013 100. He said no. He said I needed to build up to it. Give it more time. He was right. I did the 50 miler with negative splits, just flying at the end, feeling good and passing people. That really did it for me. It’s convenient, but it’s also awesome. It’s conveniently awesome.

Stuart Johnson: Why not? At first it was because it was a pretty place. Tough but not crazy hard. Then as it got tougher it was partly because of that. All 100s are hard. Superior Trail just ups the hardness scale a bit! People that haven't done it won't get it. 

Nick Koenig: was a few hours away. I was a newbie to the sport. I'd figured I'd rather fail a race closer to home than spend the money to venture out of state to fail. Quite the positive attitude. But hey, I’m often realistic with myself. Anything can happen out there on the trail. I’m glad Superior chose me to run with her. I will attempt a few more times to be sure.

Scott Kummer: Superior has a unique set of both beauty and challenges that no other race I have run provided. The beauty, the rustic nature, I love everything about the Superior Hiking Trail. I also think it’s one of the better put on races. John does an amazing job. It’s first class. He also keeps it small and intimate. It feels like family. It feels like a homecoming.

Kevin Langton: It's freaking Superior! When I was freshly sober, in 2006, I was backpacking the SHT southbound and came across the race, which was moving northbound, of course. Most runners went by while I was sleeping, but in the morning I met some runners on the trail. And I visited with the sweeps for a few minutes. I’ve always loved running, especially on trails, so I figured if I can hike it, maybe I can run it too. The SHT is a perfect playground for a long run. It’s truly magical. This race is special, from the directors to the volunteers to the rich history—when it started there were less than a dozen of these in the country. But there is always the landscape. It becomes a part of us. It shapes us.

Matt Long: It’s convenient. I live right here. It’s beautiful.

Matt Lutz: I got hooked on trail running when sometime in 2006 or 2007 I was hiking in Split Rock State Park on the SHT with two friends. We were way loaded down, nowhere near the ultralight set up I have now. And there was this dude who was just running up and over hills we were struggling to walk up. It was the end of the day, it was hot, and holy shit that guy was running where we were barely able to walk. 

I was already in love with the SHT at that time, and wanted to do a thru-hike (I did that in May 2008 with my brother). But Google and Dean Karnazes's first book led me to the Superior Spring Races, back when the Perbixes organized and directed them. And I was hooked. I'll always come back. Always.

I love this sign. And I hate it too.

Roberto Marron: It's a great local race, beautiful landscape, and a challenging course. Back in 2010 I showed up for the race as a first time 100 miler—without knowing anything about running a 100 mile and definitely unprepared! I had to drop at mile 74. It made me realize that I was weak.

Steve Moore: Superior was a Hardrock 100 qualifier and that is what drew me to sign up but the idea of a point-to-point 100 in a cooler-than-Texas climate solidified it for me.

Christi Nowak: I did Superior as my first 100 because I love the North Shore—I grew up visiting there—and I felt that the beautiful scenery would help get me through the challenges of the race. I was familiar with much of the course already, which made me more confident that I could finish. And on a practical note, the fact that I didn't need to travel far to get to it helped.

Larry Pederson: At the time it was the closest. Kettle and Rushmore were near too.

Scott Rassbach: Larry Pederson [Scott’s uncle and previous Superior race director] is the obvious connection. I was thrilled to finish my first 100 miler at his race.
As a child, my parents took my sister and me camping at Gooseberry Falls State Park several times. I have great memories of this place and love to return when I can. It seems like a very “Minnesotan” thing to do.

Jeffrey Rock: It's the most difficult course that I know of around this area. I'm sure no 100 miler is easy, but if I want to test the limits I want the most difficult I thing I can find. A lot of other reasons too. The beauty of the trail, lake, and woods. The people involved in this race are awesome, from the racers all the way to the race director. It's almost as if everyone is more concerned with your success than their own. Then you have the volunteers. I have no words to describe just how good they are.

Todd Rowe: Running the Superior 100 was always about doing time on this trail. Before running the 100 there, I have loved every minute I have spent on the SHT. From running the shorter races to backpacking Bear and Bean Lakes to a winter camping experience at Bear Lake to camping trips along the North Shore with day hikes on the SHT. So I didn't want to run a 100-mile race and then pick one close or hard or any of the other things about Superior that also factor into the equation. It was always about running on this trail, in this place, in a mind-numbingly challenging way. I still have no desire to run 100 miles at Zumbro, as much as I love being there and running there and helping. There are some mountain 100s that intrigue me—Bighorn, Black Hills, Pine to Palm. But the place matters to me way more than the distance. It was never about running 100 miles for me. It was always about tackling this trail in a big way.

Jordan Schmidt: First, I had to for Gnarly Bandit. But when I was in high school, on our senior trip, I saw the race, saw people finishing, and I vowed to come back. I DNF’ed my first try and I thought about that every day for that year.

Helen Scotch: When I ran Superior in 2008 I'd been living in the Twin Cities for a few years and considered the SHT my home course so it was a natural choice for a first 100. The race organization and support is amazing but most of all the trail is a hidden gem. There are sections where you feel like you're in a fairy tale (even when your feet are screaming at you in pain).

Shawn Severson: It’s a Storkamp race. It’s local. It’s recognized as being difficult. It also counts as 4 points for UTMB qualification.  I knew the aid stations and safety would be top notch.

John Storkamp: Because it is one of the oldest/most historic 100 milers in the country—when it was founded there were only about a dozen 100 milers in the country. Because it takes place on the shores of one of the greatest, most powerful bodies of water in the world (Lake Superior) in some of the most diverse and fascinating forests anywhere. Because it is hard. Really hard.

Marcus Taintor: The first time I saw people doing Superior 100 was in the early 90's when I was out delivering papers. I just happened to be walking by as the race was starting in Silver Bay. I remember being 12 or 13 and going out in the woods behind Silver Bay and seeing the glowsticks still on the trees and being in total awe that these people were running all the way to Grand Marais. It wasn't until I moved back to Duluth after living out of my van for four years that I started getting into running again and realized I might actually be able to finish the 100 myself. Being it's where I grew up I guess the Superior Hiking Trail has always been my home.

Ed Thomas: I wanted to do a tough course. I heard Superior was tough. I just didn't know how tough until I ran it.

Jarrow Wahman: A few years after Harry Sloan started putting on the Superior Trail 100, I knew that I would one day do it as it was run on some very challenging but memorable trails. I DNFed at the 1994 race, making 85 miles, stopping while still in the lead, my biggest mistake being caffeine deprivation. I couldn't stay awake. It took me until 2011 to get back out there and finish the damn thing. It helps that they put caffeine in gels now. I'm glad I went back and finished it, although it was frustrating being so much older, slower and weaker than I was back in the 1990s when I could have perhaps won the race. But I knew I had to finish it even if I were much slower. It's great to be able to share the experience of finishing that race with others who have.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Superior 100 Frequently Asked Questions

Superior 100 Frequently Asked Questions
(with a lil help from John Storkamp)

1. How far is it?

Great question. Trail races are rarely standard distances, and the organizers like to make sure you get your money’s worth. The current course from Gooseberry State Park to the finish line at Caribou Highlands on Lutsen Mountain is actually 103.3 miles long. Don Clark and Bonnie Riley have measured this distance twice with a measuring wheel.

2. Do you run it all at once?

You run, walk, and crawl it all at once, if you are lucky. Many (usually 40 or 50%) will not make it to the finish line.

Runners have 38 hours to finish. In addition, runners must reach certain aid stations before cutoff times. The first cutoff time is at Silver Bay aid station at 4 pm on Friday. That means runners have 8 hours to cover the 25 miles from the start to Silver Bay. If they don’t get there by 4 pm, a course sweeper (someone who follows the race running/walking the course picking up markers, stray trash, and runners) will pull them out of the race.

The 38 hour cutoff is one of the more generous of 100 mile races. Cutoff times can be an indication of course difficulty. The Lean Horse 100, a relatively flat race on a former rail bed in the Black Hills of South Dakota, has a cutoff time of 30 hours, while the Hardock 100, a ridiculously mountainous Colorado run, has a cut off of 48 hours. With that said, any time someone runs 100 miles it’s difficult, and climbing and elevation are only some indicators of difficulty. Lean Horse is not easy—after all it’s 100 miles, in August, with little shade.

3. Do you run the whole way?

Most don’t. Many power hike the hills to keep their heart rates somewhat level (less energy expenditure). Some walk because it’s all their legs will allow them to do at the time. Forward progress and staying ahead of the course sweepers is key to finishing. “Run when you can, walk when you must,” is mid-race advice that helped me get through my first hundred.

4. But I don’t even like to drive a hundred miles.

That’s not a question. Many ultrarunners don’t like to drive that far either. Although they will to get to a race.

5. What is a pacer?

A pacer is a life-size, walking and running punching bag / glutton for punishment—not really necessary but runners are welcome to have them. A pacer can run with the racer after the 43-mile point (County Road 6 aid station) after 6 pm on Friday. A pacer gives company to the runner, keeps him or her moving, and can be an aid to safety if the runner is out of his or her mind and not paying attention to important landscape challenges like cliffs and waterfalls. Pacers have been known to fight off possums and other wildlife. Pacers tell stories and bad jokes and sing songs. They can’t carry, or “mule,” equipment, food, water, etc. for the runners. Some runners use pacers and others don’t.

6. What’s a crew?

A crew is the runner’s posse. A crew is like a pacer but they get abused by their runners just once every few hours, at the trailheads. These people drive from aid station to aid station, wait and wait, and then when the runner comes through, they experience a couple minutes of chaos, then drive to the next aid station and wait some more. During the chaos period, crewmembers may provide emotional support, cowbell, foot rubs and blister drainage, food, a change of clothes, a much-needed pep talk, sympathy, and Facebook updates. My wife tells me not to be a Sally. She unlaces muddy shoes at 3 am when my fingers won’t work and the smell makes her gag and she puts fresh socks on my swollen feet. She refills my hydration vest with Tailwind and Gu packets. Then she tells me to get moving and sometimes offers a kiss (or maybe I ask for one), unless I’ve been puking in the woods. The emotional benefit I get from seeing her at aid stations is priceless.  

Lisa's instructions

7. People run marathons in just over two hours. Why is the pace so much slower for this?

As the race director says, “It’s a little hilly and the terrain is not what most people would consider ideal running surface.”

Wynn Davis once said that running the Superior 100 is like trying to solve a puzzle with your feet for two days straight.

Aside from the obvious (it’s longer), trail running is a much different beast than road running. Road running is about repetition, putting many quick strides together over an even, paved surface, while with trail running every step is different and unique. The Superior Hiking Trail is a challenge not only with its constant climbing and ascending, but also with the roots, rocks, and mud that runners dance through. Running or hiking it helps a person find humility. And blisters and broken toes and lost toenails. When people unfamiliar with this trail experience it with a runner, the first question or comment is often, “You really run on this?” Adam Schwartz-Lowe’s winning pace in 2014 was just over 13 minutes per mile. That’s beast-mode fast on this trail.

8. Do you eat while running?

Fueling is key to a successful finish and that means eating. The body burns an incredible amount of calories in these events. Aid stations are buffets.

9. What do you eat?

An easier and simpler question to answer would be: What do you not eat? Visualize army ants eating their way through the jungle. They eat what you put in front of them. Hopefully most of it stays down. Standard aid station foods are boiled and salted potatoes, cheeseburgers, pizza, quesadillas, grilled cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bacon, pancakes, cookies, potato chips, oranges, bananas, grapes, Gummy Bears, Twizzlers, Coke, Ginger Ale, chicken noodle soup, potato soup, energy gels, electrolyte capsules, and so on. And runners bring their own variations too. Salts and simple sugars that the body can easily break down are popular. Some odd favorites are Pop-Tarts, burritos, Ramen noodles, even Spaghetti-Os and chocolate milk.

10. Where do you sleep?

Most runners don’t sleep. Some do, usually out of necessity. It’s possible to see runners dirt napping under tents in aid stations, on rocks on the course, on gravel parking lots, etc. Some runners claim to have slept while actually running. The lack of sleep can cause emotional roller coaster rides and hallucinations.

11. What are the hallucinations like?

They can be nonexistent, fun, or irritating. Mostly they’re irritating. They usually aren’t the kind of cartoon-like hallucinations one might experience when tripping on LSD. They’re softer than that. They might begin with auditory hallucinations—I often think someone is running behind me only to turn around and see no one. Then the visuals might kick in, maybe after a full night without sleep. In the 2014 Superior 100, tree stumps, rocks, and branches were dogs for me on first glance. Since I’m a dog person, it was a good thing.


12. Do you get lost?

It’s possible, but the Superior Hiking Trail is one of the best-marked long trails in the country, with regular signs and blazes (a blue paint stripe on rocks and trees). In addition, before the race, markers walk the course, placing an incredible amount of orange ribbons on the trail. At Superior there are at least ten ribbons per mile. These ribbons are reflective and easy to see at night, based on a marking system that Don Clark developed. In the early years, these ribbons were placed on tree limbs. Don realized that most runners have to keep their eyes focused on the ground, so the race switched to a system of ribbons attached to metal wires (originally clothes hangars that Don, Bonnie Riley, and Maynard Lagace cut and straightened) that are placed in the ground.

Still, it’s easy to get confused when you’re tired. Runners have gotten lost, but they have all been found. Eventually.

Remember Storkamp's pre-race instructions to “keep Lake Superior on your right.”

Race Director with blue blaze marker on tree

13. How do you train for such a long race?

Lots of time spent on the feet. Long runs are a must, sometimes in daily succession, what is called back-to-back or even back-to-back-to-back (say Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) long runs. The goal is to teach the legs to run when they are tired, when they don’t think they are capable of running more.

Lots of hills, or hill repeats, help. Some do speed training as well, but the strength training of running hills is a necessity.

Because trail running is such a full body sport, cross training is helpful too. Cross-country skiing, biking, yoga, and swimming are all popular.

The idea of training specificity, of emulating course conditions, is especially important, and one of the only ways to emulate the unique nature of the Superior Hiking Trail is to run the Superior Hiking Trail. When they can, runners will try to invest some miles on the course itself.

14. Do you take bathroom breaks?

Yes. Runners will pee, shit, and vomit in the woods. If they’re smart they carry toilet paper too. Knowing how to go in the woods is a critical skill in any long ultra.

15. What happens to your feet?

Few runners leave the course with perfect feet. They will hurt. They will be swollen and blistered. The amount of rocks and roots at Superior triggers broken toes, ankle sprains and so on. Some people lose the skin under the heel pad. After the race, toenails continue to turn black or purple, and eventually fall off. Some runners like to share pictures of their post-race feet on social media like a badge of badassery. Please don’t do this.

16. How long does it take to recover?

Few runners cross the finish line thinking, “I can’t wait to do this again.” Some may take a blood oath right there to never run again. Conveniently they may already have plenty of available blood spilling out of them. Some runners are back at it within a week, while others might take a month or more off. During the week after running a hundred miler, I often experience increased appetites, fatigue, and an inability to focus, but a runner like John Taylor spends that same time packing for his next hundred-mile race.

17. What is wrong with you that you would run 100 miles?

Plenty. Obsessiveness helps a person get to the finish. While there might not be anything “wrong” with people dealing with mental health issues or recovering from alcoholism/addiction and eating disorders, higher numbers of us seem drawn to ultrarunning. A long run in the woods can be good, cheap therapy.

18. What’s the deal with belt buckles (or, Whose idea was this anyway)?

In 1974 Gordy Ainsleigh completed the Western States Trail Ride in California on foot. Buckles were given to finishers of the horse ride, and Gordy got one too. His feat evolved into the Western States Endurance Run, and the idea of awarding buckles to finishers stuck.

In 1983 Harry Sloan, the original Superior Race Director, completed his first Western States Endurance Run (he now has 13 finishes there) and Western States became his model for Superior 100. The first Superior buckle was awarded to Bob Stavig in 1991. That buckle was the shape of a wolf’s face, with a runner’s profile between the wolf’s eyes.

Tom Weigt's buckle (left) and mine.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Zumbro 2015

I was scared of Zumbro this year, more scared than usual. I came limping into it after a winter of calf issues, IT band issues, and a downhill fall at Seven Mile Creek that I still feel sometimes in my left knee. I didn't have the amount of winter miles I had hoped for, but I did have a few confidence boosting back to back long runs. The IT band was still an issue a week before the race, but getting better with lots of rolling and stretching and yoga. My expectations for the race kept changing as it got closer, and the ultimate goal was to finish and have fun. Still, I was more worried than usual about not finishing. I even considered not running it, but this is Zumbro. I love the race. I have that owl tattoed on my leg, after all.

Photo credit: Zach Pierce

Another intimidation was that last year I dropped at mile 80 with hypothermia (but I finished on the icy course of 2013). Somehow I worked the worry out of my head before the race. I love the week before a hundred. I focus on mental and spiritual preparation. I walk through my rituals. It would take a gorilla amped on methamphetamines and a baseball bat to knock me off my beam or get me worried about something.

It rained Thursday. At race check-in that evening, it poured and pools of mud puddled in the fields at the campground. It snowed Thursday night. This is simply how Zumbro works.

My wife, Lisa, is my secret weapon at these things. She really knows how to take care of me, even when I don't. Most people agree that I'm pretty lucky that way. Someone I met running at night, in the dark, asked, "Oh are you with Lisa? She's awesome."

Photo credit Zach Pierce
John Storkamp got on his ladder and told us some things and then told us to start running. Because there would eventually be multiple races happening on the same course, we 100 milers were given pink ribbons to tell other runners that we were dizzy, deranged, and stupid people. It's a wonderful idea and it encourages others to egg us on in our stupidity. I feed off their encouragement.

We started running, onto the trail and up to the bluffs overlooking the campground of the start/finish area.

My first goal of the race was to do no harm. I learned the phrase as it applies to ultrarunning from Jason Husveth at Superior. But I actually learned the lesson from Zumbro last year, when I started with a 3:15 first loop (Zumbro is a six loop course; each loop is 16.7 miles.), way too fast for me, and I suffered because of it. Do no harm to the race. It's so simple. But I'm excitable and impulsive. So for the first three loops I tried to nose breathe with my mouth closed in order to keep my heart rate from red-lining. Unless I was talking to someone, or occasionally climbing some of the steepest hills, my mouth was closed and smiling. It put me in a blissful meditative state. And it kept me from running too fast. If I needed to open my mouth for more oxygen, it was a reminder to slow down.

My hope was to be consistent with those first three loops, to keep them somewhere around 3:40 to 4 hours. Really to keep them around 4 hours, but I allowed myself a little bit of excitability room on that first loop. My splits were 3:42, 3:58, and 4:00. I was happy with that. I knew I wouldn't maintain that pace in the night, in the darkness, in the time when the body says sleep, when eating seems impossible, when the cold moisture creeps into the bones and on downhill stretches the rocks shine like dangerous traps calling to take your teeth on a fall and the sticks and mud move beneath your feet like living animals. In the daylight I wanted to be assertive without being aggressive, to lay down some healthy miles, to do no harm on day one, and somehow I found that place.

Towards the end of loop one, while I was coming down Ant Hill, a puffy snow fell and soon turned to rain. All those around me pulled out rain shells. I did too. We were carrying memories of last year's rain. It lasted a short way into loop two. Otherwise our day was beautiful. The trails were in good shape, muddy but soaking up the water. It was a perfect day for running here. The rain and mud were just enough to keep us from getting bored.

The day was a blast. I ran with lots of fun people. I saw so many awesome and helpful friends (old and new) at the aid stations and all over the course, people who fed me and hugged me and teased me and kept me moving. The aid station dogs were out and I got to see Winston and Tucker and Pearl and an adorable German Shepherd pup.

I carried a two liter pack with a Tailwind mixture and drank from it consistently. In fact, I've never peed so much in any race. I bet I peed once every hour. That's a lot of time. I was peeing so much that I tried to do it moving once. I also tried to consistently eat real food at the aid stations, and that wasn't a problem in the day.

The leaders came by to lap me in loop three. Jake Hegge and Mike Borst were running relaxed and having fun. I told them they were only allowed to lap me once. I gave them a few big loud Woos. I really like both of these guys, having gotten to know them some for a writing project. They're good people, so it was a real lift to see them both running so well and relaxed.

I was getting sore by the halfway mark, feeling it in my hips. I was surprised that my knee was holding out so well, although it whispered its presence to me on the downhills. It was near dark when I left the campground for loop four with my headlamp around my neck. I tried to cover the remaining daylight miles as well as I could. But loop four snuck up on me. Then it pounced. I felt the cold and wet burning in my feet. The climbs grew taller. My quads ached. At Picnic Rock, I sat down and turned off my headlamp, soaked in the stars. I put my head in my hands for a few minutes. Runners moved by me. I was looking for a reset button and wasn't sure where it might be, so eventually I got up and kept moving. It's all I could do.

The night was filled with the constant songs of coyotes, frogs and owls. 

From a bluff I heard sandhill cranes in the river below.

My headlamp reflected the eyes of mice and rabbits.

Half a moon rose over a ridge. It was the color of grapefruit.

Aid station volunteers stoked a fire and warned me of its power to hold runners too long.

Food was not easy so I drank more and ate only a couple bananas. And pancakes with chocolate chips.

I wanted to send my parents a note saying how much I appreciate them.

I climbed into the moment, into the breathing.

Somehow I stumbled into the campground and got into the Jeep and turned the heat on. I was a mess. Lisa helped me change my wet socks and shoes. She's amazing. My feet were white raisins. Lisa rubbed my ears and neck and hands. I stayed in that Jeep a long time, 45 minutes. I tried to drink a Coke, but jumped out of the Jeep and threw up on my shoes. I left with warm feet and dry clothes and felt a lot better.

I moved better through loop five.

I wished I had poles.

I decided I wanted to learn to make artisan breads.

The leader of the 50 mile race came by. A minute later my friend Kurt Keiser came by and asked how far ahead the leader was. Kurt caught him soon and eventually broke the course record. Both of those runners own running stores, one in LaCrosse and one in Mankato.

I remembered something another runner had barked at me last year at the Black Hills 100, when she saw me walking downhill. She said, "Use the downs!" At every downhill, I remembered her snapping this at me and I moved a little quicker. In my mind I pictured her saying this as Large Marge from PeeWee's Big Adventure.

I was far away from the start/finish area when I heard a huge celebration. This must have been Mike Borst finishing, smashing the course record. Jake Hegge finished his first 100 only 15 minutes behind him. 

I saw my friend Tom Weigt at Aid Station 1/4. He was running the fifty. It's always great to see Tom on the trail.

I found some strawberry Huma gels Lisa had put in my pocket. These went down well. I made an effort to eat more of them through the end.

The horizon began to lighten on the ridge just after Aid Station 4, off to my left. By the time I got to the campground, it was day again. My feet were wet and cold so I sat in the Jeep to warm up. I shivered and watched runners cross the field. Eventually I climbed out of the jump and left the campground around 7 am. My feet felt so much better now. I lost a lot of time with those two stops in the Jeep, but maybe they helped me finish.

I moved well through this lap, ticking off the miles as best I could, either running, shuffling or walking. I said goodbye to each landmark and obstacle. This lap is really a celebration, when I think, Well I don't have to do this hill again. I don't have to walk through that sand again. At the top of one climb, without thinking about it, I flipped off a simple sign nailed to a tree that said, "Picnic Rock."

Every hundred miler I saw had some complaint about their quads aching, blowing up, falling apart. Mine were screaming too.

I really wanted to finish before noon, below 28 hours. The numbers 2747 kept popping into my head when I thought about this.

Climbing away from Aid Station 3, I looked down and saw my friend Shelly behind me. She was running the fifty. We often run together. I yelled at her and kept climbing. I didn't know how this hill had grown so much. She caught me on the climb and I followed her to the top. Then I told her we could visit later, that she was the first lady her age that I had seen, that she could move a lot faster than I could. As she often does at these things, she won her age group, fourth lady overall.

I walked some of the down on Ant Hill. I was trying to be careful with my knee and quads. I wasn't sure how far I had to go but it felt like 28 hours was out of reach. Still, 2747 popped into my head.

I walked some of the flat river road. I would run as far as my legs would let me and then I'd walk a stretch. Then try running again.

I saw Lisa before the bridge. She had come down to meet me. What an emotional bump seeing my honey was!

Photo credit Todd Rowe

I told the fine folks at Aid Station 4 I appreciated them very much, but I was glad I didn't have to see them there anymore. It was a happy farewell but I think they were getting tired of seeing me too, as nice as they were.

In those last miles a couple 17 miler friends came by and lifted me, Jim Kalina and then Josh Henning yelling Woo! from far back. 

I told everyone who passed me to enjoy this moment.

Just before the campground, a lady passed me. I don't remember if she was running the 50 or 17. I said to her, I'm going to put myself in your back pocket if I can. I didn't make it ten steps before I was walking. Shuffling. Seizing. Then it was just a field to cross. To finish.

Ed had to tell me to keep going to cross the line.

Signing the banner!

The boys guarding the wooden finisher's medallion.
My time was 27:47, the same number that had been popping into my head. Yeah, that's weird.

It was a perfect day to plant myself in a lawn chair and watch friends come in. My dad had driven over to see me finish. Lisa found me a cold root beer.

These things always teach me humility and gratitude, an appreciation of all the people in my life. Sometimes it's like that Talking Heads song and I'm surprised to find myself in this life. I ask, How did I get here? Especially after all the things I've done to this mind and body, stuff that happened years ago now. I feel truly blessed to be able to do this, visited by grace, truly blessed to be alive.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Saint John USVI Runs and Hikes

Over half of Saint John's land mass (and two-thirds of the island if you include water) is US National Park. That makes it a trail runner or hiker's dream.

The book Saint John: Feet, Fins and Four-Wheel Drive is an awesome guidebook.

For maps, the Trail Bandit's is best when considering trails. You can find it at some shops on the island. There are different versions, but the maps on each are the same. Ask for the Trail Bandit map. The NPS office sells one version, and I found another at a local dive/snorkel shop. There's no difference between the maps or trail descriptions that I can tell. You can download it for free at Big props to this guy for all he's done to discover, maintain, and map trails. He's got a fascinating history with the park.

Most of my runs on Saint John were done on trails. These trails are often old ox roads from the sugar plantation days. On almost all of them I stumbled across ruins and many of those are marked on the Trail Bandit maps. My runs were 6-8 miles and I connected several trails together. After all, it's a small island. The roads are curvy and mountainous, not runner friendly, considering the traffic--and by the way, all driving is done on the left). I saw people running these roads and wondered, Why? There are amazing trails here. Maybe some people just prefer pavement. And I did sometimes run short portions of pavement to connect trails. We stayed on the south side, between Chocolate Hole and Hart Bay, and it was some road distance before I could find trails. In order to lessen impact of my running time on the rest of my family (we were sharing a rented Jeep), I dressed in my running clothes whenever we went to the beach and ran from there. The bonus to this was a wonderful swim at the end of each run.

Leinster Bay/Johny Horn Trail
I started this run at Maho Bay Beach and ran about a mile on roads to the Leinster Bay Trail. On the way I saw ruins of the Annaberg Country School and passed some cool mangrove trees.
Rainbow from end of the road
Near the Annaberg plantation ruins, the road ends and I followed a flat and scenic Leinster Bay Trail (an old road from the owner's house to the plantation) around the water's edge to Waterlemon Beach. We came back to this beach another day for snorkeling and it was our favorite snorkel spot with lots of fish, corals, and even a Spotted Eagle Ray. The Johny Horn Trail starts at this beach and passes several ruins right behind the beach, then goes up the mountain.

Pipe organ cactus on Johny Horn Trail
Waterlemon Cay from Annaberg owner's house
Eventually the trail becomes a gravel road and tops out. The view here was nothing spectacular, surrounded by trees, and a family with kids sitting around the trail. I turned around. On the way down, I took an unmarked spur trail and came out at what someone told me had been the Annaberg plantation owner's house. It was mostly foundation and steps and some walls, all overrun by lovely wildflowers. Back on the road, with Maho Bay Beach in sight, I took a fall, a real grinder that dug pebbles and pavement into my knee, back, shoulder and hands. Maybe this is why I like trails--I bounce better  there. A car stopped to ask if I was okay, and when I asked if the fall looked good, they asked if I would do it again so they could see it better. I limped into a beach chair and washed off in the soothing salt water. So many lovely views on this run. There are parking lots at the end of the road/beginning of the Leinster Bay Trail so one could easily make this run all trail, and you could continue down the hill where I turned around, on toward the Moravian Church and Coral Bay.

Reef Bay Guided Hike
We made reservations for this one (and the Full Moon Guided Hike) through the Friends of the Park office. I didn't know if I would like hiking with so many other people, and it could get frustrating adapting to other people's pace, but there were plenty of advantages here. First, the guide, a volunteer named Kent, was amazing, and freely shared his wealth of knowledge about plants, animals, history, etc. The group met at the Park Service building in Cruz Bay, where two taxis took us to the hike's start on Centerline Road. Kent led us slowly down the hill to Reef Bay, through four different ecosystems, and on the way we visited different ruins, ancient petroglyphs, and an old sugar mill. We learned so much more than if we had done this hike on our own (in fact, we have done this hike on our own on a previous trip), and at Reef Bay, instead of turning around and hiking back to the top, we rode a dinghy out to a boat that took us around the island back to the Park Service building, a fun way to get a different view of the island.

Buttress root system (see, I was listening)
Petroglyphs. Closest figure is a representation of a bat. Bats were important to the Taino, message carriers to their ancestors.
Sugar mill ruins
Grave of W. H. Marsh
Sugar mill ruins

Bordeaux Mountain/Yawzi Point
This run starts at Salt Pond Bay, but it can be shortened by driving to the trailhead just beyond the end of the road, but be prepared to bounce around in your vehicle and get some mud on it, which is fun too. While my family settled in at Salt Pond Beach, I ran back to the parking lot, and to the end of the road.
Mom settling in at Salt Pond Beach while I play in the mountains beyond
The road curves up and down some switchback hills, turns to gravel, turns to mud, and passes the Great and Little Lameshur beaches.
At some cool ruins overlooking the beach, there's a small parking area and both the Lameshur Bay and Bordeaux Mountain trails begin, as well as several spur trails. 
The Bordeaux Mountain Trail starts as a Jeep road to the turnoff to the Ranger Residence. Then it steeply climbs along a ridge for over a mile.
The trail comes out on the Bordeaux Mountain Road. I followed this road to the right, but I now see if I would have gone left toward Centerline Road I would have hit the highest point on the island. I topped out near a house with views of Coral Bay, turned around, made friends with a dog protecting his driveway, and went back down the trail.
The way down offered many nice views of beaches and bays. I met a lady I had seen going the opposite way earlier. We both agreed it would have been a good idea to bring water along. She had been up much of the previous night drinking tequila.
At the bottom, I took the short Yawzi Point Trail to add a bit of mileage. It went through some huge pipe organ cactii to a point between Great and Little Lameshur Bays.
Pipe organ cactii
Yawzi Point
Yawzi Point
The road back to Salt Pond got warm, but the swimming and snorkeling were, of course, wonderful. It's our favorite beach. Later, Lisa and I did the short walk from Salt Pond to Drunk Bay.

Drunk Bay 
Apparently drunkin or something similar means drowned in Dutch and that's where the name comes from. Walking from Salt Pond Bay, turn left at the salt pond and follow its shore to Drunk Bay. Drunk Bay is full of coral people and animals, and we left one, just as we did last year.
Drunk Bay
Drunk Bay mermaid
Drunk Bay
Drunk Bay dog or pony
Drunk Bay cairn
Catherineberg Road/L'Esperance 
The rest of my family was hitting either Trunk Bay or Cinnamon Bay, depending on crowds and parking, so I asked Lisa to drop me off and pick me up at the bottom of the Catherineberg Road, which is between those two beaches. I asked her to pick me up in two hours and I started my watch. The Catherineberg Road isn't much of a road, and it's listed on the trails map, so traffic wasn't an issue. The road is dirt/gravel, but the switchback curves are paved. It climbs steeply at first and goes by some fancy gated homes. After 1.5 miles of steep climbing, I saw the ruins of a sugar mill, and shortly after, Centerline Road.
Sugar mill near Centerline Road
I ran a short distance east on Centerline, less than a hundred yards, and found the L'Esperance Trail that goes down the south side of the island to the Reef Bay Sugar Mill. The L'Esperance Ruins are worth checking out, and there is a grave behind the house.
Louise Sommer, DOD 15 Sept 1864
The way down toward Reef Bay was lovely single-track trail, mostly mellow descent. I missed the spur to the Sieben ruins, which is where you can find the only Baobab tree on the island. I could hear the waves of Reef Bay when I decided to turn around. I had been running 1h 10m and had 50 minutes to make it back.
L'Esperance Trail
The L'Esperance Trail connects to the Reef Bay Trail at Genti Bay, and one could easily make a big loop that hits both the north and south shores using the Cinnamon Bay and Catherineberg trails on the north side. This gives me one more reason to go back.

Ram Head Full Moon Guided Hike
This is another hike we arranged through the Friends of the Park. Our guide, Jennifer, is a landscape architect and her knowledge and passion for local botany is impressive. The hike to Ram Head isn't super long, about 3 miles round trip from the Salt Pond parking lot where the group met. We had been told to bring flashlights, but they really weren't necessary.

Ram Head is the southeast tip of the island, a place escaped slaves came to hide out and live. It was a lovely night with a bright moon and views of the south shore and many other island and I tried to imagine what this place felt like to those people, living by the light of the moon and stars, living in fear of being recaptured, holding tight to this momentary freedom.
Lameshur Bay Trail
This run began just like the Bordeaux Mountain run, starting from Salt Pond Bay (I told you it's our favorite beach) and going past the end of the road to the trailhead. This trail goes all the way to the Reef Bay Trail and connects near the spur trails to the petroglyphs and Reef Bay Great House. The climbing here is mostly gradual, the views amazing.
Going up
Bromeliads are everywhere
Going up
Lameshur Bay Trail
Great Lameshur and Little Lameshur Bays
Badass tree
Nice view, Lameshur Bay ruins