Thursday night (pre-race) we stayed at The Anderson House in Wabasha. This hotel is the oldest operating hotel in the state. A room off the lobby is filled with taxidermied animals. Porcelain dolls sit on benches in the hallways. An Australian lady showed us to our third floor room. Just before she left us, she turned around and said, “Did you know the building’s haunted?” She described the hotel’s two ghosts, one a man in top hat, the other a woman named Sarah who had jumped out of a window here a hundred years ago. After that, she left for the night, and it was just me and Lisa, alone, the building empty except us, for the rest of the night. Pipes clanged. Floors creaked. Windows rattled slightly. Pipes clanged louder. Somehow, eventually, we slept.
A light snow fell overnight. The race start was at a horse campground in the Zumbro Bottoms State Forest, about ten miles southwest of Wabasha. Soon after we left pavement for gravel, we passed a short school bus, trying to go uphill, but sliding backwards, a terribly frightening place to be for the driver, with such a long hill behind him. We were in Lisa’s Prius, and could do nothing to help. The road forked left and continued downhill, and we passed a SUV in the ditch. We slowed and spoke to the driver, a runner, and I told her I would at least let race officials know she was on her way. Other cars were sliding behind us, so we didn’t want to get trapped on this hill and it looked like it wouldn’t take much for her to be able to drive out (she did). At the campground, I checked in and found the location for my drop bag.
The course is a 16.7 mile loop that we would run six times, through bluffs and valleys of the Zumbro River, near its confluence with the Mississippi. The trails ranged from Jeep road to deer paths and the mix of winter and spring weather, with predicted temps in the mid-twenties to mid-thirties, would mean changing trail conditions of snow, mud, ice and water throughout the run.
What I wore at the start: Asics Fuji Gel Trainers (shoes), microfiber socks, compression calf sleeves, shorts, a technical short sleeve shirt, elbow sleeves, two jackets, a Nathan hydration vest, and a wool cap. I took off one jacket after the first lap. I put it back on after another. After the fourth lap (about 4 am) I added a pair of tights and switched caps. Because my feet would get soaked, I switched shoes every two laps.
The start was simple enough. Some instructions, a few jokes, a “Go,” and 69 of us were moving across the campground field, a couple dogs barking and running with us. It was finally here. I didn’t know what to expect—my longest run had been 34 miles, although I had been sandwiching triplets of long days together to teach my legs to run through exhaustion. I knew I could count on plenty of hills and rough footing. I knew I needed a positive and grateful attitude and that I would have to discipline myself to create that attitude even when I wasn’t feeling it. But a big reason I was doing this, aside from a general love of running, especially running trails, was curiosity. I wanted to see what would happen to my body, to my spirit. I wanted to see where this would take me. A longish climb ended with an overlook of the campground and river. Slowly, we spread out. We worked to find the right pace. We made small talk and introductions with other runners. We settled in.
|Zumbro River and campground below|
There were five aid stations per lap, two that we would pass twice, and one at the start/finish line. At each, we would tell someone our race number so they could track us. Because we saw the aid station workers so often, we developed relationships. They seemed proud of what they had to offer us: food (bananas, potato chips, boiled potatoes, Swedish fish, M & M’s, Twizzlers, cookies, Rice Krispy bars, grilled cheese sandwiches, peanut butter sandwiches, cheeseburgers, pizza, soup), drinks (water, HEED, Coke, Sprite, Ginger Ale), supplements (gels and Endurolyte caplets), chairs, heat (a fire that did wonders for cold wet feet), advice (“If you’re nauseous go with the ginger ale”) and physical and spiritual encouragement.
A few times I laughed out loud during that first loop. I laughed at the downhill shin-deep mud bog, and the endless climb in the second section, which got longer and taller each lap. I laughed at the long curving slide leading to the third aid station. I laughed at the downhill stretch called Ant Hill, with its rocks waiting for me to fall and chip my teeth. My time for that first loop was 3:45. I worried it might be too fast, and I safely assumed it would be my fastest of the six circles.
and I had talked about her camping at aid station 1/4 on the course, so she
could see me more often, because crewing an event like this must get horribly
boring. But the minimum maintenance road to the aid station was closed due to
the bad conditions, so she stayed at the campground, which was nice because it
would mean I could have access to the car between laps. Most likely it was good
for her too, more people for her to visit with there.
We had softened the ground for the second lap. This was one of the best laps for trail footing. There were still sections of ice and mud and water to jump over too. In the muddy section after aid station 1, I fell (for no apparent reason) and rolled in the mud and it looked as if I had pants made of mud. I ran with some fun, good people, but most of this lap was run alone. Sometime in the second half of this one, I started to feel down, tight. I knew I could run through it, as long as I could keep moving, and I did. At the start/finish line I changed shoes and socks. I drank some soup broth, which I would do consistently the rest of the race. Second loop was roughly 4:15.
|Beautiful snowfall at dusk|
From here, my memories become much more episodic and fragmented. In the third lap, I grabbed my headlamp from my drop bag at Aid Station 1/4. A fierce and heavy snow was blowing when I reached the ridge above Ant Hill—it was stunningly beautiful. I followed someone along much of that ridge, and just before descending, it became dark enough to turn the headlamp on. At the bottom of Ant Hill, I walked at least half of the flat road that follows the river to aid station 4. This was my first extended walk of the run, and it felt really good on my leg muscles. A man at the aid station there gave me some wonderful advice, “Walk when you must, run when you can.” I also discussed with him my nausea and swollen hands, and we both agreed I should back off of the S-Caps (salt and electrolyte pills) and water. I would be nauseous the rest of the night though, and my hands would be swollen until long after the race.
I don’t recall much of seeing Lisa after the third loop, except that I told her it was a huge emotional lift every time I saw her. And it really was. I also remember her rubbing my quads, and how wonderful that simple human touch felt.
The fourth lap was done completely in the dark. Most of it was a power walk, although some of the walking didn’t have much power. The cold had iced much of the trail, and I took those steeper downhills very carefully. This was the slowest lap, and the most beautiful. My vision was limited to what was contained inside my headlamp’s circle. When I stopped moving to pee or stretch, I heard the eerie sound of coyotes and owls. It was amazing to look up at the distant ridgetops and see other headlamps moving across them. I sat down at an aid station, nearly toppled over in my chair, held my feet close to the fire and watched the smoke or steam pour out of them. I could throw up with each breath. I wanted to throw up, to get rid of the nausea, but was scared of losing all that fuel, scared the process might not stop and it might just put me out of the run. On the road into the campground to close this lap, I spotted someone ahead of me with hiking poles. Funny thing is, it looked more to me like someone running on stilts. When I caught up to him, I gave him a fist bump, happy to see no one was running on stilts. His name was Logan. My fourth lap took me something like 6:30.
I didn’t see Lisa in the car. I wondered where she might be at 4 am. I walked around the campfire and the aid station and saw no sign of her. Luckily the Prius was unlocked and when I opened the door Lisa popped up from her sleep in the trunk. I told her my plan. With my fat swollen fingers I needed her help to get my shoes off. Then I would sit under a blanket in the car, with the heat pouring onto my feet. I asked her to wake me in twenty minutes. When she did, I asked her to hit the snooze button. This was dangerous territory. Before the campground, on the trail, with cold and wet feet, I had been thinking how lovely a hotel with a hot tub might feel, say somewhere in Rochester. It had to have a hot tub. This nap was the alternative. After the snooze, Lisa was stern, and it was difficult to get moving, but we did, together, somehow. First some soup broth before the leaving. Lisa walked me through the campground and back to the trail. The sun would be back within the hour.
|Ready for lap 5|
This time, the danger was ice. I was able to run, but on the hills, my feet slid backward. I felt recharged for awhile. The sun came up shortly after the muddy section and stream crossings behind aid station 1. Both stream crossings had logs we could walk, and I bent over and grabbed other logs for balance, noticed what a thing bending over had become. At aid station 2 or 3, a volunteer named John told me over half the field had dropped by morning. “I’m not dropping,” I told him. “I might not make the cutoff time, but I’m not dropping.” And so for the next lap and a half, I was worried about making the cut off time of 34 hours. I knew I had time, but I was slowing down too. I made an effort not to linger at the aid stations. One lucky thing, now that we had daylight, my nausea had softened, but I was still drinking ginger ale and eating ginger snaps and candy at the aid stations.
Sometime in the 5th lap, the leaders of the 50 mile race, which had started at midnight, sprinted past me, both of them matching strides with each other at an unbelievable pace. I told them that pace really pissed me off, and I hope they knew I was joking, because I didn’t have time to explain before they were long gone. Toward the end of the lap, the winner of the women’s hundred passed me on her last lap. I congratulated her on being so close to finishing, and she turned to me and said, “You got this. You’re going to finish.” I had been telling myself the same thing, but it was nice to hear from someone else.
My stop at the finish was a short one. The man who served me soup broth told me to keep consistently moving to avoid that cut off. I was ahead of time but didn’t want to chance anything. Lisa walked me across the campground field again, and before I hit the trail, she said, “This is where the spiritual part kicks in.” A lot of those last couple laps were much like a walking meditation, where I focused on not focusing, where I would simply focus on my breathing, on my footsteps, on being alive and present in my body. That’s when I would notice awesome details like the sounds of birds and water. The overwhelming beauty of those moments. To me, a trail run is one of the most meditative things I can do, and it helps me stay centered in the moment, instead of worrying about the big picture. In other words, a hundred mile run is not a hundred mile run, but a series of many many steps (and falls). I can't look at the big picture.
I celebrated each climb on this last loop. A 17 mile race had started in the morning and this loop was by far the muddiest. I checked in at the first aid station and kept moving, thanked everyone there as I had each time. I could only run so many steps before walking, and my run felt more like a shuffle. But I kept moving forward. On the long downhill between aid stations 2 and 3, I fell. I got stuck trying to stand, and it was such a great stretching position to get stuck in. I heard someone yell behind me. It was Logan and his pacer, Roberto. I would follow them through the next aid station and on, and it was such a lift to have someone to talk to, or listen to. Someone nearby.
|My new buckle!|