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Monday, April 24, 2017

Isle Royale Runcation 2016 (Second Boat)




Isle Royale National Park can only be reached by boat or seaplane. This journey makes the destination more magical. For Tom and me, it first meant a long drive from Mankato, but it allowed us to stretch our legs with some trail miles on the Superior Hiking Trail. Since we are both used to running the Superior races, I wanted to show Tom the trail north out of Lutsen for some variety. We ran along the Poplar River but we didn’t make it as far as Lake Agnes, one of my favorite SHT spots. After the run we met up with Jason and Amy Husveth and their french bulldog Luna.




The next day (early May) we took the Voyageur II’s second crossing of the season from Grand Portage, Minnesota. It’s a three-hour boat ride to Windigo, the ranger station on the west end of the island. These early crossings are festive, with research scientists and volunteers, park staff and rangers and return visitors. It’s a reunion of sorts. Someone brought a cake with the Voyageur II drawn in icing and we all ate it. Once the boat entered the calmer water (and warmer air) of the harbor, we stepped out of the cabin to watch the shoreline. We were wondering if we would see much snow, and we only spotted a few patches near the water. After dropping us at Windigo, the boat circles the island, delivering mail and goods and passengers on its two-day circumnavigation. 


I was traveling with Tom Weigt and Jason Husveth. Tom’s recently retired and a trail running mentor. Jason’s a long-time runner and botanist. We unloaded our gear from the boat and, after the dockside Leave No Trace talk from Ranger Val, we carried our stuff the full half-mile to our base camp on Washington Creek. In normal tourist season, the three-sided and screened shelters on Washington Creek have a two-night stay limit. But there’s no limit during the early and late shoulder seasons, so this would be our base camp for the week. It’s a lovely spot beside the creek, where moose often appear. It’s also the place where all trails on the west side of the island converge, a perfect spot to spend our runcation. 


I’ve hiked and paddled this island many times, but our goal for this trip was to run as much as we could or wanted to. Or maybe we didn’t have a goal. Still, lots of people talk of running the island end to end, about fastest known times, say along the Greenstone Ridge, and how to coordinate with the Voyageur to move their gear around the island while they run (it’s early spring on Lake Superior—you need gear to keep warm, especially at night). By base camping here we dropped all those worries. It allowed us the freedom to run without pressure or destination or coordination. We wanted to run simple, carrying nothing more than a small amount of snacks and fluids and maybe a camera. And if we didn’t feel like running, if we woke and preferred to sit and stare at the movements of water or to lay in the grass and watch clouds and birds hover over us, we wanted that freedom too.






That first afternoon we loosened our legs around the Huginnin Cove loop, a nine-mile run around the northwest corner of the island. We ran through snowbanks. Jason pointed out plants with fascinating names, although he spit out the latin name first. Along the north shore the trail turns mossy and rootsy with dramatic overlooks. Our return trip had great views of Washington Harbor through fir and spruce and leafless trees. We had the campground to ourselves that night.




On our first full day Jason and I ran the Feldtmann Loop. Tom ran with us to Rainbow Cove. We stumbled through a lovely fog along the shore and up to Grace Overlook. We found moose antlers beside the trail. When we got to Feldtmann Lake the fog still whispered across the water. We took the spur trail to Rainbow Cove and the rocky beach opened up to us like a milky cathedral. Jason walked along the beach finding agates and Tom and I soaked in the eerie atmosphere, the fog, the sound of waves rolling rocks, the cold breeze, the overwhelming solitude. We hadn’t seen anyone all morning. It felt like we had the island to ourselves.




We left Tom at Feldtmann Lake. He would run back to camp, while we continued the loop. Climbing, we turned to see the smaller lake below us, the big lake in the distance, and a juvenile eagle on a perch near us. We were hot from the ascent but the breezes were cold and wet. By the time we reached the Feldtmann fire tower I needed food and I was happy to dig through my pack for some. I took my shoes and socks off and aired my feet. The temperature was so different in the inland forests and ridges than the shoreline areas. The descent toward Siskiwit Bay was cool and gradual but somehow I was shirtless when we reached the shore. We must have looked like fools to the campers pumping water by the campground and dressed in layers of down. They seemed worried about us. They kept a safe distance. We were fools. It was cold. We had been running over 20 miles. We filled our water bottles straight from the lake without filtering it. We ate more food. We moved along the beach. I reminded Jason that we were committed to the loop now, that turning around would take much longer than moving forward. I wondered why we were doing this. I was giddy and drunk with happiness. I questioned my place in the universe, asked if I was doing life right. We startled ducks. Loons wailed in the distance.






The climb to the Greenstone Ridge rises 800 feet in 3 miles. We took our time with it. We explored old mines. We discussed heavy existential matters that I’ll never remember the details of. We ran through muddy highways of moose tracks. Eventually, we ran through the Island Mine campground and thick and open forests of ash and maple. Once we reached the Greenstone Ridge, our final six miles was a gradual descent. It felt liberating to surrender to gravity and open the legs, a long slide on the soft spring ground.






The next day we went up the Minong, the primitive and rocky and achingly scenic trail on the northern part of the island. We lay down on ancient volcanic ridges. We pointed out Thunder Bay and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park across the lake. We bushwhacked through thick cedar swamps to the Greenstone Ridge. Fiddleheads grew beside a creek. We scared up a moose. It was a blur of brown and a drumbeat of breaking branches. Back at camp, Jason made tea from leaves and moss he gathered. Tom read a mystery novel and identified birdcalls. I sat beside the creek and watched the water flow in and out with the seiche. We may have napped. It was that kind of afternoon.





The following day Jason returned to Rainbow Cove. Tom and I explored the Greenstone Ridge, the spine that cuts across the middle of the island. We ran through birch forests carpeted by uncurling ferns and spring flowers. Once we topped out on the ridge, a lovely blowing snow softly pelted us. We ran boardwalks through swamps smoky with snow. The flakes seemed to sizzle as they hit their reflections on black water. At some point, Tom turned around and I continued east. The trail opened up on rocky ridges to views of inland lakes and Lake Superior on both sides and Canada in the distance. Everything was below me. The running felt smooth and effortless. Twenty miles in, I took the spur trail down to Hatchet Lake and from a campsite watched snow blow sideways across the water. I figured I would eventually get tired and slow down, so I decided to turn around. I hadn’t brought a headlight on this run and I wanted to beat the darkness back to camp.





The climb back up to the Greenstone was steep but short. Yet I couldn’t believe how good my legs felt. I was in no hurry. I was enjoying the movement, running, one of the simplest things a human can do, and I felt lucky to be doing it, blessed. My gps watch died. I didn’t need it any longer. The handcuffs were off. I had been running over six hours and time didn’t matter anymore. Perhaps it was bent, accordioning in and out with my breathing, just as the island breathed in and out with me, my oxygen running through it as its blood ran through me. I was physically tired and I was in total bliss. All my masks were falling away. I was doing this thing I was made to do. In this moment, on this run, I was completely free and weightless.



I was floating down a gradual descent toward a boggy swamp when a sandhill crane took flight ahead of me. I heard its unique call before I saw it. I stopped running to watch it circle. A steady wind whispered through the treetops, a wind you hear in layers, the kind of wind you only hear on an island. Just off the trail to my left, a bull moose stood from a wallow. He turned his head to look back at me. His antlers’ spring blooms were velvet knobs. When he seemed to decide I didn’t matter to his world, he bent his neck to eat, still watching me while he chewed the vegetation. I clicked a couple pictures. Then I moved on, quietly, allowing him his space, in his home. 


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bighorn 2016

I approach the Bighorn 100 having run only a couple times in the previous three weeks due to nursing a bad knee. Maybe that rest was good. I have an itch from poison ivy on both legs. And I'm intimidated by this race--I dropped at the turnaround last year. But I have a great base of winter miles, many of them hill intensive. However I'm a flatlander from Minnesota. No matter how many hills I run, I don't know elevation. Simple fact.

Start
The first 8 miles of the course are constant climbing. It starts in the Tongue River Canyon surrounded by rock cliffs and the higher we climb the more the canyon opens up into wildflower-filled meadows. Throughout this climb I visit with Scott and Holly Huston and Shawn Severson, fellow Minnesotans. A long line of runners strings out in front of us and behind us.
I yelled "Woo!" and scared this lady in front of me.


My goal is to play it safe and conservative, to get to the end. I know from last year that this initial climb can take a lot out of me. Play it safe. Do no harm. Enjoy the views. Enjoy the company.

Following Shawn as we work this climb together.

Wildflowers
Tongue River Canyon below
The higher we get the more the views open up. The wildflowers are like fireworks exploding in my eyes. Finally, things level off (it's relative) and there are even short downhill sections we can run.


With about a quarter mile to go before hitting the first major aid station, Dry Fork at mile 13, I yell "Woo!" Someone immediately answers from the forest on my left. It's me. I've found an echo. I do it again. What a fun conversation with myself!

It's extra nice to see Lisa here because I don't see her often in this race. The next time will be at the turnaround. Most of the aid stations are hard to get to. Volunteers either backpack or ride horses into them. Maria and Doug Barton are here--Maria's running the 50 mile the next day. They have my gorilla mask! I switch water bladders and shove a handful of food into my face. I pocket chunks of crystallized ginger and leave.

Dry Fork aid station with my honey. Photo credit Maria Barton.
After all that climbing, it's fun to see more runnable course. The next 12 miles are rolling. I try to be careful, smart, conservative. I eat a handful of bacon at an aid station. I see Jordan Hanlon, another Minnesotan, on the trail. He's moving well and wise ahead of me.


I dip my hat and buff into every stream I cross to help against the afternoon heat.

The peace of the mountains and the immediacy of the wildflowers settle into me.


Eric Nordgren's sitting in tall grass beside the trail. He rolls over to stand and follow me.

"I can't stop puking," he says.

"That happened to me last year," I say. "It really sucks. Do you need anything? Salt? Water? Ginger?"

"I've tried everything."

"Let's work this together. Let me know if you're going to puke some more. I've got a camera."

Before I finish my sentence he's hurling.

I find the sound of vomit hilarious. 

"Dude," I say. "I just told you to warn me." I click a couple pictures. "Does that feel better?" I ask. 

He responds by hurling more. He just keeps spewing. His tap is wide open. Like a total dick, I laugh. I can't help it. The sound of vomit always does this to me. He's in trouble though. I'm looking into a mirror of my race last year, and I worry it could happen to me now too. There isn't much I can do for him. Shawn can't be far behind and she's a doctor. I offer some words of sympathy and apologize for my laughter and move on, although I recommend to the radio operator at the next aid station that they send help.

Finally I hit the steep drop down into the Little Bighorn Canyon. It's a 3-4 mile drop and when I surrender to gravity the running and pounding get violent. The cattle prints in dried mud slow me in spots. I'm grateful the mud is dry.

The views along this section are dramatic as I enter the canyon.

Top of The Wall

Footbridge crossing of the Little Bighorn River

The Footbridge aid station is a machine. Spotters have radioed in my number and someone greets me with my dropbag in hand. I take a seat under a shade tarp. It's hot. The afternoon has beat me down, although the breeze has been kind today. I drink lots of water here and eat plenty of melon. I try soup. I realize both the people sitting under this tarp with me are named Jordan, though one is a dude from Minnesota (Hanlon) and the other is a lady from Sheridan who has already asked what I'll do when I fall apart from the altitude. I try to think through my needs and address them. I dig warm clothes from my drop bag and put them in my pack. I change into a dry shirt. I load up on salt pills. The next 18 miles will be a steady climb of more than 4000 feet. It's where my race fell apart last year.

Little Bighorn
A couple miles out of Footbridge aid station I remember my headlamp. I remember that I forgot it. It's still in my drop bag at Footbridge. There's nothing to do but turn around and head back. On the way back, runners seem to think I'm leading the race. They cheer me on. I can't help but laugh. I say no. I shake my head. I say I forgot something. Some are kind enough to offer their extras, but I can't do that. A part of running ultras is about accepting the kindness of strangers, but I can't do something that could put someone else's race in jeopardy. Running ultras is also about self-sufficiency, about correcting mistakes so they don't spin out of control. I get my light. I start the climb again. I've lost an hour on this detour. I've added almost four miles to my run. It deflates me, and I've lost that racing sense of urgency, but the scenery is lovely. I love running through these lodgepole pines with the sound of the Little Bighorn rushing below.

This long climb is big in my head, but the reward is that I'll get to see my honey at the top, and then run downhill for 18 miles. For the most part, the climb is relatively gradual, but the air gets the thinner the higher we go, and it will end at the highest point of the race.

Photo credit Lisa Langton

Just before dark a brief rain falls, only enough to make me pull out my shell, put it on, then take it off five minutes later. Enough to take some humidity from the air. After it moves on, we are left with a lovely lightning show. Once it clears, the solstice moon appears and stays with me the rest of the climb. It feels like someone is running behind me, shining a light over my shoulder. The moon glistens in the river and the streams feeding it. It shines off rocks walls. It's everywhere.

Photo by Lisa Langton

Mice scamper along the trail ahead of me. In the morning, on the way down, I'll notice many of them have been flattened by runners.

Somewhere nausea takes hold. I recognize this as the same area where I fell apart last year. I drink Tailwind and eat gels and try to move through it. Beck's song "Nausea" comes into my head and stays with me for hours. I sit on a rock for a few minutes and wonder if it's the same rock I sat on and heaved uncontrollably on last year. I get up and move on.

I hear a high pitched sound. Maybe it's a rabbit, or a coyote, or an elk. I hear it again. I have no idea what it is, but it seems to move with me, over to my left, on a ridge in the trees.

A few minutes later I pull off my pack and put my warm clothes on. I'm struggling. Runners are passing both ways. Shawn comes by and offers some encouragement and tells me to follow her. By the time I get fully dressed she is a distant moving light but something to chase. She's moving well, her light crossing the landscape quickly.

By the time I get to the next aid station Shawn's ready for a nap. We both sit by the fire briefly. I have to move on, I tell her. I have to get to the top.

The higher I climb the more mud I find.

My watch has fooled me. When I tell a runner I'm passing that I'm worried about cut-offs, he asks what time it is. When I tell him 4:10, he freaks out. From behind, he corrects me and says it's only 2:10. I apologize. Trail math is never a good thing, always unreliable, but my mind is off tonight.

A red light shines from a mountain above the turnaround aid station. It's like a compass point. The light is from the satellite station near Medicine Wheel. I had a strange and mystifying experience at Medicine Wheel a couple years ago. The energy there is ancient and strong. I let it pull me towards the Jaws aid station.

Runners coming downhill give encouragement. They say I'll love it when I turn around. Their lights guide my way.

At the Jaws aid station, runners sleep in sleeping bags on the ground, between cars, and out in the open. Bodies are spread out everywhere.

I find Lisa asleep in her car and tap on the window and wait for her inside the tent. I eat watermelon. Runners are laid out on cots underneath space blankets. Runners are hunched over in chairs. They come in and out. EMT's scuttle around. Lisa covers me in her Mecca Tattoo sweatshirt and a blanket.  She rubs my neck and shoulders.

Just a couple minutes more.
I've been here too long. I stand to leave and my legs lock up. Every muscle seizes. Even the muscles between my ribs. I fall back into my chair and ask Lisa for salt tablets. As soon as I eat them I know they're headed back up. This time I stand with more control and ask an EMT to point me toward a good place to throw up. She hands me a plastic bin with regurgitated ramen in it. One look at that and I'm headed out the tent and retching on my knees. Lisa's behind me, laughing and telling me the lighting sucks for pictures. I spew so much water and watermelon. It feels good. I think I'm laughing too. A couple feet away a body is sleeping on the ground. Or trying to.

I decide to sit a few more minutes. Let things settle. Jordan Schmidt's in there now and I sit beside him. Lisa hands me hot chocolate but my hands are shaking and it's hard to hold. The EMT's suggest I sit under the heat lamp but I'm having too much fun with Jordan. They're draining his blisters and cleaning his feet. He tells them he's ticklish. Shawn is in now and napping under a blanket.

I tell Lisa maybe I should drop. I'm doing bad math again and figuring out my time to Footbridge. It's way off in my head. If I drop, I tell her, we don't ever have to come back here. The idea of a hotel sounds lovely. Sleep. Rest.

But a couple minutes later I'm standing, rallying. Eighteen miles of downhill running is such a pure and fun thing. Why would I ever consider anything else?

Leaving Jaws
I greet the cowboys at the first aid station on the way down with a loud woo! Am I really already here? I ask.

I barely stop, just grab some fruit and keep moving. I pass people and throw out encouragement along the way.

At Jaws when I put my head in my lap, I had hit the button on my watch and it stopped. Now I've decided to just shut it off. There is liberation in running watchless, especially during a race. Let the miles flow out minus the constraints of time and cutoff worries. Let the legs do their thing. Let the body tumble forward.



The sun creeps up. This is why we do these things. We do it for the loneliness and beauty of the night running, for the bottomless lows and for the resurrection of the dawn. We do it for the people we meet along the way, the shared suffering with runners and the kindness of strangers. We do it for the pure pointlessness of it. All I can say is that it's a lovely morning, slightly warm, and the light sneaks over the mountaintops and plays in the flowers and grasses and streams. It might just be the most beautiful morning ever. As they all are. As this one is.



The slide down the mountain is a sacred blur and then I'm staring at the volunteer at Footbridge aid station at mile 66. She's offering me an Egg Mcmuffin. From McDonald's.

Maybe a quarter of one, I say.

I'll hold the rest of it if you want it, she says. She has angel wings. I take off my pack and ditch my light and my warm clothes in my drop bag. I refill on gels.

I'm intimidated by this next section. It's called The Wall for a reason. I lean into my poles. I lean into the discomfort of the climb. There is little shade here and the sun is doing its thing on me too. This climb takes place one simple and slow step at a time. Fifty milers come by. They're running up this. I stop and breathe and allow my heart rate to drop. I wonder if I should go back to Footbridge and pull out. That's ridiculous. The only way is forward. And up. Survive this climb, I tell myself. There is nothing else. There is only this climb. These steps.

The cold spring water at the aid station is wonderful. I sit and drink. Perhaps sitting is a mistake. The legs feel it when I stand.

I move on and there is still climbing to be done. It's not as steep. But things are happening inside me. This is why I'm here. To see where the legs will take me. To play with limits and boundaries. I'm tapping on walls now. Listening to what might be on the other side.


I'm slowing down. The heat is messing with me. It's tough to eat. I've ditched my Tailwind for straight water. I douse myself at every spring and creek to regulate the body temps.

An aid station has pop tarts crumbled in a bowl and I shove them in my mouth. The sugar hits my blood in a cool rush.

I'm having fun, but moving forward is difficult. Dust is kicked up with every footstep and it all seems to settle in my mouth. The kindness of strangers at aid stations moves me forward.


I run with a lady named Reilly. No, we're power walking. We both admit how happy we'll be to see our partners at Dry Fork. It's been forever since I've seen Lisa. Let's try to run the downs, Reilly says. I take a few steps, but it's not happening for me. She moves ahead, and gets smaller and smaller in the distance.

A lady's sitting in a creek. It looks like a great idea. I sit down slowly. My legs tighten. My ribs and hands cramp. I'm not able to keep up with all the salt leaving my body. The lady's gone and I'm alone in the stream. Another lady comes by and asks if I need help getting up. I do. We struggle together but then I'm up, moving forward, slowly, walking.

Search and rescue guys on ATVs are a regular sight now, rolling past with runners loaded on the back. Their dust settles in my mouth.

I want a ride.

It feels like I'm walking backwards.

Rocks sparkle and I pick them up and put them in my pockets. Later, I'll look at them and wonder what it was about them that made me want to keep them.



Dry Fork aid station comes into view, in the far distance, high above. By the time I see it, I know it will be my final stop. I'm content with that. I'm happy about that. I can't wait to be done. Although I've been having a blast. I'm just done. I don't know how else to say it. There is nothing in me that wants to move on to the finish, not in my legs, not in my head. I can't find whatever it is that will move me forward, and I'm okay with that. I'm in a beautiful place. I'm really really happy. But it will take me an hour to reach Dry Fork. I'm so grateful and happy to see Lisa when I arrive. She's pink from so much sun.

View from Dry Fork aid station. Photo by Lisa Langton

I try not to use my running as a measure of self-worth or ego-stroking. I try to run for the pleasure of running. I've gotten to do a lot of that in this run. Sometimes we can beat ourselves bloody with a DNF, but for me, it's a part of ultrarunning. The beauty of this stuff is that there are no guarantees, especially for a finish, not in hundreds. That's why we do these. Among other reasons. Sometimes a race drop is a great reminder to run for the pleasure of running and no other reason. Because it's what we are made to do. Because we don't need reasons. Because it's pointless anyway.

I celebrate ten years of continuous sobriety at this writing. I'm grateful I get to do these things. Some days I'm surprised I'm alive, much less able to run ultras. Yes, I'm alive. I'm breathing. I'm still here.