Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Rugged. Relentless. Remote. Home.

As I sit here on the couch, laptop in, well, lap, I find myself having a hard time putting down into words what has been running relentlessly through my mind for the past five days. So much information to process and organize. So much happened in such a short weekend. But the story of my Superior 100 doesn't start last Friday. This one started back in July. The 5th of July to be exact, as I was volunteering at another great Ultra, the Afton Trail Races.

Months earlier, I had made the decision to run the Hallucination 100. It was the "easiest" 100 I could find that was driving distance from home, and it would be the surest bet I had to qualify for Western States. The obvious choice for 100 mile trail races would have been the Superior 100, but this race scared me to death. More elevation gain that Western and more rugged, did I really want my first trail 100, my only Western States qualifier this season, to be the hardest race and most likely DNF out there? No, no I didn't. Registration opened for Hallucination, but unlike other races, I did not immediately sign up. "I have plenty of time" I told myself. "There's no hurry". Week after week went by and I continued this thought process, but the honest reason was that something else was holding me back. Unaware what that was, I continued in my procrastination well into the summer.
It wasn't until the Afton Trail Races that I would finally determine what these reasons were. I spent the entire day at the ATR, volunteering in various areas and talking with so many people, many of them good friends I have met over the past year at these exact events. This community of runners has literally become family to me over the past year, and I eagerly await these races as an excuse to head down and see them. And it was this family that made me realize what it was that was keeping me from signing up for Hallucination. Every one of them had their own effect on my ultimate decision, but it was John Storkamp, race director, friend and mentor (I doubt he knows this) that made the entire picture come together.
With the race in full swing and the volunteers working like the fine oiled machine that they always are at John's races, I found myself with a few extra moments to walk around and talk to some people. Taking a moment to watch the finishers as they began to make their way in, I began talking with John about the usual suspects; past and upcoming races. I began telling him about Hallucination and my reasons for choosing that race. I told him of my wishes to some day run Superior (also his race) and how I just didn't feel I was ready to take on such an endeavour. I told him that Hallucination would be my Western qualifier. "Well, if you change your mind and Superior is full or closed, just send me a message and I'll get you in".  Just a simple little statement, but in that moment I knew that I would be running Superior in the fall. Superior is where I belonged. Superior was my home. Superior was my FAMILY. Family takes care of you, and that simple little statement from John, along with all my other running family, had shown me why I had been avoiding registering for Hallucination. I wanted to be with family for this one. I wanted to run Superior.

So, fast forward two months.

Race day! To this point, I had been maintaining and eerie calm that I couldn't explain. I wasn't nervous, I wasn't scared, and I wasn't excited. I was...nothing. More than anything, I was ready for this race to start. Tapers are never fun and weeks leading up to races are long, but this time seemed to drag. JUST GET ME ON THE TRAIL ALREADY!  Fortunately, I didn't have to wait long and before I knew it, John's pep talk had turned to a countdown. I think this was were I realized that I was finally about to do this thing, because I looked at my crew member and pacer Sabrina and mouthed a "holy shit"!
Keeping things chill at the start

The first stages of the race were fairly uneventful. I think this holds true for many people. Paces are tested, rhythms are found, and conversations are struck as the crowds have yet to start to thin. I found myself just hanging with a small group of runners and feeding off them for the first 9.7 miles to Aid 1, Split Rock. I struggled to find MY pace, but was running comfortably and fairly effortlessly, and before I knew it, I was heading downhill to the first aid station. It was here decisions were made. Running down the spur trail to the aid station offered one of very few opportunities to see the leaders, and once the race spread out, probably the only chance. I was surprised at how close most of them still were and was excited about how things were going. I felt great, I was flying, and I was ready to do something foolish. At that aid station, I made the decision that I was going to go for a 24 hour attempt and would see how long it took before I regretted it. 

It was a little over 10 miles to the next aid station, Beaver Bay, and to be honest, I don't remember much of it. Now running mostly alone, I really settled down into a rhythm and started running my own race. It was in this section that I noticed a hot spot developing on my right foot, and I made a mental note that I was gonna want to take a look at that sooner than later. It wasn't long before I could hear the commotion and the cowbells of an aid station, and without warning I had exited the woods into what would become my favorite aid station. 
As most of you could have figured out from the beginning of this blog, I have never ran Western States. But just like any ultra runner who aspires to run one of the countries most prestigious 100s, I have probably watched every movie, youtube clip, and amatuer bit of footage out there on it. So when I say that running in to Beaver Bay felt like running into an aid station at Western, I honestly believe that's how it would feel. From the moment you exit the woods there is a tunnel of fans, 10 people deep, cheering you and leading you across the road to the actual aid station. From there its a sea of volunteers and crews running around and doing their things. The energy was so high, and so contagious, that I completely forgot about the hotspot on my foot, and after a Nascar fast pitstop and fueling, I charged down the trail. Fortunately, crew member and pacer Shannon had was there taking pictures, and I told her to have the chair ready to look at my foot at Silver Bay, some four plus miles away. 

photo by Ian Corless

Silver Bay came in a blink, and I quickly made a change of socks and checked my foot. No blister yet. In and out in minutes, I headed back out to the trail towards my next stop, Tettegouche, some 10 or so miles away. This was probably the first time all day that I started feeling tired, and I conservatively left Silver Bay, knowing fully what was ahead of me (a month earlier I had previewed Split Rock to Tettegouche on a training run). 
Climbing out of Silver Bay

Knowing fully what to expect the next 10 miles, although still well on pace to run a sub 24, I needed to start conserving energy, so I settled in a picked away at the various climbs and cruised what was runnable. It was also in this section that I took the time to take in what was around me, and forfeited a few minutes to take some pictures. I had my GoPro packed in my vest, and this was the section that had my all time favorite place on the planet, Bean and Bear Lakes. 
To date, the most beautiful place on the planet that I have been
Photo by Ian Corless

Again, the past five days has been a blur, and it's been hard to recall specifically every mile of the race. Especially those early miles that weren't as eventful (aka painful). I do know that sometime between Silver Bay and Finland, the halfway mark, my blister had formed and been treated. I flew through Tettegouche so fast that I literally ran right past my good friend Kate and didn't even notice her (still feel pretty awful about that one), and I caught and passed Joe Boler, but not after running a while with him and having a nice little conversation about hurting vs finishing and when one draws the line. Joe had made the decision that he was tired of suffering for a top spot continually, and I envied him for that. I've been walking that line now between competing and just experiencing races for a while now, and truly look forward to the day I just enter to run and enjoy the trail. However, on this weekend, I had made the choice to suffer. 

The miles clipped off and before I knew it, I found myself flying into the Finland aid station. The excitement of being half done, the atmosphere of another large aid station, and the fact that I was now picking up my first pacer, and I was feeling great and moving quickly. It was here I made a major gear change and changed shirts, dropped that hat and grabbed my headlamp, and restocked my pack. I hit up the food table as my rock star crew took care of my gear, and in no time, Shannon and I were flying out of Finland. Once again I let myself get caught up in it all, and took off way to fast. Within a half mile I had actually dropped Shannon behind a little! Fortunately for both of us, a fallen tree had crossed my path, and she was able to catch back up and I was able to settle myself back down. 
Flying in to Finland. Can't get the pack off fast enough!

It was such a relief to get some company finally. The voices in my head were starting to bore me, and if anyone can talk, it's Shannon! She was the perfect choice for my first pacer, and we made our way towards the next aid station, Sonju Lake, quite uneventfully. This was a good thing, because just a few miles before Finland, and information I would keep to myself until after the race, another runner and I had encountered a bear on the trail! It was gone before we knew it, and I think it added about 30 seconds to my race, but I know my pacers, and I think I would have been down two of them had they known about the bear! 
A few miles from Sonju and I had to finally sucuumb to the dark and turn on my headlamp. Shannon and I picked our way through the trail and I adjusted to running in the dark. It was definitely slower, and planning my footing had to be more precise and deliberate than ever. Through the dark and the trees, I spotted lights up ahead, and was greeted by the coolest guide of christmas lights to the aid station ever. Sonju Lake was a crew access-less aid station, so I knew that this would be a quick stop. I had grabbed extra fuel at Finland, and between that and a cup of soup at Sonju, I didn't linger long. I was quite surprised however to find John Horns hanging out at this aid station when I arrived. For those of you who don't know, Mr. Horns WON last year. What the hell was I doing running near John Horns?! Jacked up on rest and adrenaline, I once again bolted down the trail. It was at this point that Shannon decided that she wasn't keeping up, and yelled at me to get my ass moving and she'd catch up. She never did, but I being the conversationalist that she is, I could hear her the entire way! She had joined up with John and his pacer, and the three of them, from what I could hear, had some excellent conversations. Less than five miles to the next aid station of Crosby/Manitou State Park, I settled in, found a rhythm and picked my way onward. It wasn't long before I exited the trail to the state park road, and had a nice half mile stretch of gravel to open up the legs on.
Photo by Ian Corless
A welcome oasis of light at Crosby/Manitou

As part of my training weekend one month earlier, I ran a good portion of the section between Crosby and Sugarloaf, so I knew what was coming. Add on to that the enthusiastic run up the gravel road I just overdid, and I was in no hurry to get moving out of Crosby. But I quickly found my crew, grabbed a coat, and refueled for the pending climb. It was here that I picked up my next pacer Greg. Right on cue, John Horns, his pacer, and my pacer Shannon came storming in to Crosby as well, and a few laughs about the last section and well wishes and Greg and I were off. 

The first portion of the section between Sugarloaf and Crosby is a steady to steep drop down to the river, mostly unrunnable in the day, but near impossible at night. By now, the legs are getting tired, I'm 63 miles in to the race, and the downhills are not agreeing with me. Needless to say, I was slow and cautious. It was nice getting a fresh pacer and a new set of conversations to keep me distracted, and Greg provided excellent distracting. He's got a similar sense of humor to me, and we laughed and joked our way down to the river. Soon our voices were being drowned out however, as we reached the river crossing and the roar of the Caribou River. There had been many climbs leading up to this point, but this is what I considered the first of the "just plain stupid" climbs we'd encounter all day. It doesn't show it on the elevation map, but the climb seems to go straight up out of the riverbed, and follows the rockiest, roughest path imaginable. Brian Woods has said it best about sections like this: "has no one ever heard of switchbacks?" 
A brief pause near the top of the climb to decide how we were going to avoid the skunk in the path, and we were moving again. Moving, but not very fast. It was here that the legs started their revolt, and with the aid of an unforgiving trail, the sections that I could run were getting fewer and farther between. I still found myself able to hold a run however, so when the trail deemed me worthy, I opened it up, even if it was sometimes 30 seconds at a time. 
Rolling in to Sugarloaf, I was getting tired and frustrated. The lack of runnable trail was starting to get to me, and now more than ever, I did not need my mind getting anything but focused. I made another gear change and changed in to my compression 3/4 tights and some new socks, grabbed some food, and grudgingly continued on our way. Slightly cheer up by Robyn Reed, aid station volunteer extraordinaire, I was ensured that the next section of trail was far more runnable as the last. And on most any weekend, I'm sure this would have been true, but by the time the legs loosened back up enough to start running again, the SHT had made it quite clear that I would not be running much of anything. Although we were blessed with absolutely perfect weather for the race, this was not quite true for the days leading up to Superior. A week of rainy weather had bogged the trail in many sections, and Sugarloaf to Cramer Rd seemed impacted greatly. 
It was here that it appeared my day had come to an end. No, I had no intentions of quitting, but with unresponsive legs, in a wet, foul footed section of trail had claimed the most important muscle in my body; my brain. Up to this point, a slow down was inevitable. It was expected. It was planned for. My motto during the miles from Crosby to now had been "move with purpose". But my mind was finding no more purpose. There was no more 24 hours. The trail had proven itself unrunnable. I had been defeated, and all I had now was a walk to the finish. I had put myself in a position where at this point, I could have crawled to the finish before the cutoff. I was also fortunate enough to need a battery change in this section, and after putting in fresh batteries, my headlamp decided that it too was going to team up with the SHT and throw everything it had at me. A feature of my headlamp is that it will blink when the batteries are about to die, then dim, then die. So you can imagine my delight when a fresh new set of batteries led to my lamp immediately blinking and dimming. After multiple attempts and sets of batteries, I gave up and conceded, finishing that section with a dim lamp. I was also passed by John Horns and his pacer at this point, so my night was just going fabulously. 
Not finishing was never an option. I'm too stubborn to not finish. Greg did his best to keep my spirits up, but he also knew better than to fill my head with false promises. I was smarter than that. I know a lie when I hear one. And I also knew I would pull out of this. I just needed time. And a little help from the SHT. Time I had plenty of. I still had 50k to go. But would I get the help? 

Greg and I did cruise in to Cramer road on a plus, as the trail opened up to a nice smooth path and allowed us to run for the first time in hours. I was even able to comfortably get to a 9:20 pace at one point, telling me that behind all this mess I had become, the legs were still there. I had made the decision coming in to Cramer that I was going to commit the #1 don't an ultra runner could commit. I was going to sit down for a bit. There comes a time where one just needs to admit defeat and regroup, and mile 78 was it for me. I probably still only totaled five minutes at Cramer, but it could have been longer. I had lost track of time, and my Garmin had long since died. As I sat there and rested a bit, I enjoyed probably the best chili ever (everything that didn't sound disgusting was the best ever) and allowed my next pacer Sabrina to get ready. We shuffled some headlamps around and Sabrina and I headed out of Cramer in full glow and ready to move. 
I filled her in on my status, told her of my low, and that although unsure of the when, that I would be pulling out of it. The chili really did seem to work wonders, and at times a actually attempted to run again. But the SHT is a cruel mistress, and she didn't let me run for long. The trail was unforgiving, and if it weren't the roots and rocks, it was a fallen tree. If it weren't a fallen tree, it was another boggy section of mud. We reinstated my previous motto of "moving with purpose", which Sabrina quickly renamed "moving with porpoise". The mood began to lighten, and I actually did begin to hike with a purpose. I was hiking a 15 minute mile and starting to feel good again. 
The saying goes, that hindsight is 20/20, and this holds extremely true what I'm about to tell you. Looking back, I can without question pinpoint this next moment as the exact moment I pulled out of my low and found my spark. As I mentioned before, I needed time and a little help for me to bounce back, and it appeared the SHT had bigger plans for me that to claim another victim. Sabrina ran the next two sections from Cramer Rd to Sawbill, and I can't recall exactly where this happened, but while we were hiking along, moving with purpose, I managed to do something for a split second I hadn't done much of all day. Something the trail, in all its rugged glory doesn't allow. I looked up. Without notice I stopped cold, turned off my headlamp, and told Sabrina to do the same. Confused, she followed instructions. 
"Look up". I don't live in the city. I see the night sky on nearly a daily basis. But I have NEVER seen the sky like this before. There was no ambient light. There was no sound. For those brief moments, the only thing in existence were Sabrina and I and the heavens, shining brighter than I have ever seen. Straight ahead, towering over us and everything else, stood Orion. Like a watchman over us, a sense that THIS is why I was out here flooded over me. I felt safe. I felt energized. I was ready to take this thing home. 
Sabrina and I made our way through Temperance, refueled with some pancakes and some bacon, and even paused for a photo opp with Bob Marsh. It was good to see my friend holding down the night, and I'd been looking forward to it all day. But the race called, and I knew what was looming ahead of us. We had to get moving. We had a peak to conquer. 
The next mile, maybe two I ran, and I ran hard. I was renewed by Orions light and ready to pull this thing together.  I tempered my legs a bit, knowing what was coming, but I felt good. I carried this all the way to the climb up Carlton's Peak. It was just as rugged and ruthless as I expected, and judging from the sounds coming from Sabrina behind me, she agreed. But I pushed on, and I pushed hard. I clawed and climbed my way up that peak, and at reaching our summit, I did something Sabrina wasn't expecting. I stopped again. Sabrina had some reservations about the sections she would be running. Night running was not her thing, and her pacing could have gone one of two ways. I could either have ran for the finish, probably putting me hours later in the day by the time she began her duties, or I could have done exactly what I was doing. Pushing hard, running fast, and putting together an ultimately great race. The latter however, placed her on the trail in the dark, and as excited as she was to get back on the SHT, she was going to miss most of it to darkness. However, as the night gave way to daylight, we reached the summit of our climb at the exact moment the sun began to rise. Yes, I was in a race, and yes, I still had goals, even if they had been adapted throughout the day. However, as my friend Kate says, and something I often need to remind myself, if it's not fun, its not worth it. I mean, if we can't appreciate what's around us, then why are we here? So without a second thought, I stopped, and once again told Sabrina to look up. If you've never watched the sun rise over lake Superior from the near top of Carlton's Peak, I recommend you do it sometime in your life. You won't be disappointed. 
Finally moving on, we reluctantly left our overlook and began the trek back down to Sawbill. It was quite uneventful, and to be honest, another low spot in my race. The climb had wiped me out, and after relinquishing the last two places I'd allow to a couple runners, we ran our way in to Sawbill. 

I was very disappointed with this aid station, as although they had been out there for hours, I was only the 11th runner through, and they weren't even completely set up yet. Not to mention the volunteers seemed tired and confused, I just bypassed the table and quickly made my way out of there. Sabrina turned over her pacing duties to my final pacer Justen, and we headed back up the trail. 
I have seen this section of trail before as I have ran the Spring Superior 50k, so I knew what was coming, and I almost allowed myself to become excited. I knew that this was some of the most runnable trail the Superior 100 had to offer. I also knew, however, that this potentially would be some of the wettest trail the Superior 100 had to offer, and it didn't disappoint. I briefly made attempts to avoid the mud, but the legs just weren't cooperating, and I found myself slipping right in the deepest sections. So it was here, with 12 miles to go, I started my charge and took everything the trail could throw at me. 
Sawbill to Oberg proved to be a difficult section and didn't move fast, but I was still moving with porpoise. It was also here that I took advantage of a trait that I have that most people 94 miles in to a run do not have. I have an uncanny ability to do math, and do math accurately! And according to my math, I could still pull off a sub 27. A sub 27 also happened to be my B goal, and a fire was lit under my ass. We ran in the last mile to Oberg, and if one hadn't known better, seeing me come out of the woods one would have a hard time believing I was 95 miles in to a race.

And here began the beginning of the end. In the full glory of the morning, I walked up to the TCRC aid station, where Kurt Decker offered me the best, still warm, chocolate chip pancakes I have ever eaten! My sudden high was quickly brought back down however, as I looked to the left and saw one of my new friends Aaron Ehlers sitting by the fire. This shouldn't have been a disturbing sight, but Aaron was in this race, and after getting so close last year, I was really hoping this was the year. I had been following his training, and he had been training hard. His IT band had other ideas though. 
I had a hard time leaving Oberg as I was in the company of two extraordinary gentlemen and a great set up. But a 27 was 2.5 hours away, and I would need every minute of it to finish the last 7.1 miles. 
At this time, I also changed shirts for the last time, and made the decision to drop all my water. Yes, you heard that right. 96.2 miles in to a race, I dropped ALL my water. I wasn't drinking it anyway, and I was only carrying around dead weight. I had the biggest of all the climbs ahead of me and wanted my hands free. So I hydrated heavily at the aid station and headed out for the final push with just a shirt, my shorts, and my shoes. 
This last section went by in a blur, and I honestly don't remember much of the details other than the climb up Moose Mountain and the final descent down Mystery Mountain. The climb as the hardest I've worked in my life, and I had all four cylinders pumping, hands on knees and one foot in front of the other; no stopping until we reached the top. I felt a little bad for Justen, because this climb was tough, but unlike Sabrina, I didn't allow any time for slowing down once we reached the top. I was a man possessed, and I would drop my pacer if I had to. I ran as much as I could and walked the descents when they became too steep for my quads. By the time we hit the switchbacks back up Mystery Mountain, I knew exactly where I was in terms of mileage, and if my math was correct, and I knew it was, I was going to cruise in to the finish with no threat of 27 hours. I am not one, however, a man to take things to chance, so when we started the descent down Mystery, I started running and I never stopped. It hurt. It hurt bad. I didn't care. I was less than two miles away from nothing hurting. From the hardest thing I have ever done being just that...done. 
One of the greatest sounds I have ever heard happened in the spring of 2013, when I came out of the Superior Hiking Trail and crossed the Poplar River. The roar of the rapids over the falls welcomes runners to Ski Hill Road, and the final downhill, paved mile to the finish at Caribou Highlands. The second my feet hit that pavement, and everything came together. All the pain went away. The fatigue, the sleep deprivation, the blisters. It all went away. I came through that last half mile in sub 8:00 pace, and when I rounded the pool to the finish, everyone who helped me get there was waiting. 
103.3 miles later. Let's do it again! 

The rest of the weekend went by too fast. My crew and I enjoyed some showers and some well deserved rest on the lawn of Caribou Highlands as we cheered in the other runners finish their own battles of endurance and self. I could have stayed there forever, and honestly, wanted to. Had I been alone and our cabin closer to the finish, I would have stayed until the end. But four other people had given up their lives and their families for four days to help ME accomplish my goal, and it was time for them to enjoy their spoils. We went back to the cabin and shared our war stories. We ate. We laughed. We had a beer. When the sun went down, we followed the live tracking and cheered when our friends came through. We lit a fire. We ate. We laughed. We had a beer. The next day we got up, met down by the lake one last time, and put an end to a perfect weekend. But as all good things must come to and end, so did this. It was bittersweet. We had set out what we came here to do. We conquered the SHT, and now, we had to head home. 
Not a goodbye, but an "until next year"

To all my friends back home. To all my friends in the UMTR and the ultra world. To all all the amazing people I met over the weekend. To the hundreds of volunteers who make this race happen. To John and Cheri Storkamp. I could not have done this race without you. I WOULD not have done this race without you. Thank you for showing me what's important. Thank you for being there for me. Thank you for being my family. For four wondrous days on the North Shore, I was home.