Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Superior Sawtooth 100

One of the benefits of not finishing Western States, the first of the three races that make up the Grand Slam, is that you are free from subjecting yourself to the pain of the Wasatch 100. The Wasatch 100 is run in the mountains east of Salt Lake City and considered by most to be the toughest of the four races that make up the Grand Slam, her 36 hour time limit would seem to support that claim. So with any hope for the Slam now over, I made the easy decision to steer clear of Wasatch and head north instead, to the Superior Sawtooth 100 (actually 102.6) I'm still not exactly sure why, but for some reason the 38 hour time limit, the 21:42 course record, or the fact that in the last three years only 4 people had finished in under 25 hours didn't seem to concern me, after all, this is Minnesota.

I knew the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT)was rugged from having lived up there, but it was the beauty of Minnesota's North Shore I had remembered. Picturesque rivers cutting their way through granite and birch on their way to Lake Superior, Loons, the Northern Lights! It is always amusing to me how the mind seems to hold onto, even embellish the good memories, but so quickly forgets those which were painful. Even after the reminders from twelve time finisher (the guy who took these photos) and fellow Kansan Stuart Johnson, I failed to fully recall the brutal nature of this trail, not to mention the 42,000 feet of elevation change and the impact that might have on pace.

Good buddy Dave Wakefield (who was running the 50) and I arrived Two Harbors Thursday night for the pasta dinner and pre race meeting, a low key affair after the Hoopla of Leadville. No weigh in, no med check, just a few comments from RD Larry Peterson followed by self introductions and we were back in the car, headed to Lutsen and the Cliff Dweller Hotel.

The SS100 is a point to point race. Most runners sleep near the finish in Lutsen, before being shuttled to Gooseberry Falls SP Friday morning for the 8:00 AM start. The 50 Milers start at 6:00 AM on Saturday at the half way point near Finland and will catch us (blow by us like we were standing still) one by one throughout the day on Saturday. The cut off time for both these races is 10:00 PM Saturday night...Piece of cake, right? In addition 100 or so Marathoners will start their race from around the 75 mile point later that morning. These are folks we will never see!

After a good night's sleep and a peaceful trip to Gooseberry Falls SP we were ready to go. Stuart along with wife Deb, were also running, Stuart going for his thirteenth finish at Superior and Deb, like me, her first. As we were all planning on running about the same pace, I hoped I would see quite a bit of Stuart and Deb throughout the race as I had no pacer and after the first few aid stations, no crew.

There were no shotguns, no rifles, to be honest I'm not sure if anyone even said go, but at 8:00 sharp we were off. No one seemed in a big hurry to be the first to the trail head, but one by one we all started moving down the trail anticipating what lay ahead for us over the next day and a half.

Ultra Marathons, especially hundred milers, are as much about enduring the distance mentally as they are about enduring the distance physically. Stuart had told me that at SS100 it was the mental aspect one really needs to manage if you want to finish. There is plenty of time to get it done but more than likely you're going to use most of it. As we made our way out of Gooseberry Falls SP I was still trying to come to terms with this fact and that I was planning on running (or whatever my movements might be called by late in the day on Saturday) for 36 hours when the longest I had ever run previously was 29:17 at Leadville.

While many hundred mile courses are broken up and remembered by distinctive sections of trail that are unique when compared to other sections of the same course, this one did not. The SHT keeps coming at you with a rugged consistency that for me makes recalling specific sections of the course difficult. Yes the course is beautiful and to a certain degree varied, there are lakes early and rivers late, but more memorable are the many characteristics of the trail that constantly annoy you, demanding your attention throughout, allowing you very few opportunities to relax once you venture beyond the friendly confines of the aid stations.
  • To say the course has rocks and roots is like saying the Sahara has sand. The roots that criss cross the SHT are more like the toes of some giant T-Rex, that in many cases don't allow your foot to find earth, leaving running on top of the giant roots, step by step as your only option. If this wasn't enough fun, it really got interesting once the roots got wet compliments of an afternoon thunderstorm.
  • The rocks that litter this trail are numerous, but even worse they are huge, often times used as steps to scale the steep ascents. When the ascents turn to descents the giant rock fields become downright scary.
  • Speaking of ups and downs, for some reason the SHT was built without the use of switchbacks, so most of the 42,000 feet of elevation change are either straight up or straight down....I know, I'm exaggerating again!
  • What else?... Oh yes, there are the 2x6 planks you get to run on throughout the race. Again very fun when wet, especially when falling off puts you in deep muck at best, deep water at worst.
It is hard to convey with words the "epic" proportions of Superior's rocks , roots and steep grades. Even individually these features would slow down the best runner's pace, but when thrown all together the result lacks proper adjectives, and when thrown all together in the becomes the stuff Ultra Nightmares are made of.

So hour after hour we all do our best to just keep moving forward as one by one runners drop from the race as a result of Superior's brutal nature and above average temperatures.

At some point on Saturday Dave was the eighth 50 miler to come by me. I remember asking him how he liked the course, and as he quickly moved down the trail I heard him answer back "it's kicking my ass." Later that afternoon Dave would finish the 50 miles in 10:02, three hours slower than his usual 50 mile pace, but good for an impressive third place finish (and third fastest time ever recorded on this course) against some of the best ultra runners in the upper Mid West.

My race continued on throughout the day on Saturday very uneventfully, very few highs or lows, just the never ending work and concentration associated with staying vertical on this trail. I had lost touch with Stuart and Deb but I was doing well both physically and equally as important mentally. My only scare came late in the race at the final aid station which I arrived just before sunset of the second day. Stuart had warned me to put a headlamp or flashlight in this final drop bag, knowing from experience it could be late in the day when you arrive, and with over seven miles to go, it could be dark before you finish. I was smart enough to heed Stuart's advice but not smart enough to hang on to my regular glasses earlier in the day when I swapped them out for my prescription sunglasses. So after 97 miles and almost 33 hours, it was once again dark, and although I had a light, I literally couldn't see more than about three feet in front of me. Ironically, although I love running at night, I am as blind as a bat without my glasses so this little lack of foresight was going to cost me some time as I was reduced to a fear induced shuffle, afraid that if I pushed too hard I would risk twisting an ankle or perhaps a face pl Not long after dark as I was feeling my way around Moose Mtn, much to my surprise I ran into Stuart and Deb. We were all glad to see each other and glad we were all still "in it". As the three of us were making the final push into Lutsen I started to get some anxiety about how little time I felt we had, and what would happen if I did injure myself in someway...not finishing at this point was not an option. Somehow my mind concluded the best way to deal with this fear was to run, never mind the fact that I couldn't see, just I did. Soon after that, and again due to my lack of vision, I somehow convinced myself I was lost, or in some way running in circles. This little personal freak out session lasted for maybe a mile before I came up on another runner who assured me that right around the corner was a bridge and once across that we were less than a mile from Caribou Highlands Lodge and the finish line. Once I actually crossed the bridge, eliminating my concern the other guy was delusional, all my fears lifted and I was able to run most of the dirt road into Lutsen to become the 29th runner to finish. When all was said and done 33 of the 70+ runners finished in under the 38 hours allowed. The winner, Angus Repper, crossed the line in 26:31:47. Just five runners finished in under 30 hours.

As I ran the entire race using only the time of day feature on my watch, the race clock hanging near the finish line was the first time I had really thought about elapsed time since Friday morning. So almost instantaneously as my eyes connected with the numbers 37:13:56 the tears began to flow. It had been a long race and representative of what had been a long year. The finish at Vermont had been little consolation to the near miss at Western States, and another DNF at Leadville had hit me hard. The economy had been hitting retailers hard for a year now and we were no exception. Personal issues had been weighing heavy on me and spiritually I was angry. Everything about this year has been tough and for the most part unresolved. So to reach the end of the race for me was hugely symbolic. Something in me needed to see a battle won, a conflict resolved. The resolution that has been so elusive in other parts of my life had presented itself on the Superior Hiking Trail and deep inside it was more than I could bear. As I sat there with my face in my hands I could only hope that perhaps this might provide me with the courage and motivation to keep up the fight and see through to the end the other battles that continue to rage.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Leadville 2009

It was a month ago today and it's still hard to find words. Last week's finish at Superior took the edge of the pain but did not eliminate it. The thing I find hardest to move beyond is that it was 100% avoidable, all I had to do was drink. To do poorly here hurts. Leadville has always been, and I suppose will always be that "special" race, the one I really focus on, every runner has one, for most it's probably one they do well in... as for me, I am 1 for 6 at Leadville? But it's that one finish, just weeks after my Dad had passed away, that I suppose keeps me coming back. While in someways every DNF makes that finish, and the memory of my Dad carrying me through the night, that much more special., it is more than just a little frustrating to come here year after year and go home empty handed. Until this year my only DNF's came on these trails. And so I finally bring myself to document this year's effort if for no other reason than to move on.

In 1969 a young Mario Andretti won the Indianapolis 500 and for over 40 years now he, his son, Michael and his grandson Marco as well as nephew John have tried to get the Andretti name back to victory lane. Every year they come with quality cars and high hopes that this will be the year. Every year they go home frustrated, certain there is some sort of "Indy" curse that has been cast on their family.

Since my only Leadville finish in 2005, I have been back four times, each of those times my race against the clock in the mountains near Leadville came to an early end. This year was perhaps the most disappointing of the four. Struggling from almost the very first step, running out of water twice and eventually watching my wristband get clipped along the Winfield Road at 6:05 Saturday evening. It was perhaps the least enjoyable race I had ever run. A day that lacked everything I enjoy about this sport. A meltdown that could have been avoided.

The race started at 4:00 AM, the same as every other year, the only difference was this year we started in short sleeve shirts. This was a stark contrast to last year when runners lined up with sleet falling and 34 degree temps. The unusually warm weather we were enjoying had been forecast all week giving all of us ample warning to re think our gear selections and fueling plans. Despite the forecast I decided to stick with my plan of carrying two bottles, providing me with 20 oz of water and 20 oz of electrolyte (NUNN) drink every 2.5 hours or so. (One of the complexities of Leadville is the distance between aid stations. With aid stations distanced every 10 miles, there is little room for error)

The day started off like most other "Leadvilles" however it was even before the sun came up I could feel the impact of the warm thin air on my respiratory system, none the less I arrived May Queen just five minutes behind schedule.

Now heading up Sugarloaf with the sun overhead I began drinking more than normal but found it hard to keep my breathing under control (this aspect of my day frustrated me enormously and really began to work on me emotionally. At great expense I came to Leadville two weeks before the race, hoping the extra week would prove significant in my bodies ability to acclimate to the high altitude of Leadville's 10,152 ft. when it became obvious that the extra week had meant nothing in terms of my bodies ability to adapt I could feel myself grow agitated) I struggled more through this section than any previous attempt and arrived the Fish Hatchery aid station 25 minutes behind schedule and very down with myself.

The next 17 miles really became the race, or should I say the end of the race, for me. I became so hot and so dehydrated through these two sections I could hardly even run the downhills without feeling like my chest was going to explode. I ran out of water 45 minutes outside of Twin Lakes and arrived at the aid station a complete basket case over an hour behind schedule. I really felt bad for my crew. Karen, Zach, Dave, Jessica and Anthony did everything they could do, but I was a mess. It took medical personnel over 20 minutes to get my respiratory rate down as they pumped over a half gallon of liquids down my throat. I now had cut offs creeping up on me and had to get moving, unfortunately the only direction to go out of Twin Lakes is up, 3,500 feet straight up Hope Pass to 12,600 ft, not the best environment to recover in.

I headed out of Twin Lakes now with 70 oz of water on my back and another 20 oz in my hand. It was obvious this was the set up I should have had since May Queen if not the start. Had I gone with the Camelback the entire way how would I feel now? This is obviously a question that can never be answered, but I would have to think I would be far better off and much farther down the trail. Instead I was dragging my overly depleted carcass up a mountain. A mountain that usually forces you to bundle up a bit, but not today. The climb was hot and steep and dry, with not even a slight breeze offering relief. Although I drank almost the entire 90 oz between Twin lakes and the Hopeless aid station, I was too far behind with my hydration and my body was slow to catch up. Although I made it through Hopeless ahead of the cut off it had become obvious I wasn't going to be so lucky at Winfield. I struggled over the top of Hope and down the other side. It was here, as I made my descent off Hope, passing friends that were on their way back up and then on to Leadville, that I finally started feeling better. Too little, too late as they say, but still, it felt good to breath. It also felt good to see so many people I knew.

Congratulations to Paul Schoenlaub on his seventh Leadville finish and to Greg Burger on his first. Congratulations also to Coleen Voeks on a "gutsy" finish, persevering through the night, overcoming her demons and crossing the finish line with just twelve minutes to spare, and to Nick Lang who came back from the dead, sneaking out of Winfield just before the cut off, then finishing in a strong 28:51. And a special congratulations to Gary Henry who is now one up on me, collecting his second Leadville buckle with a sub 29 hour performance. All in all seven Kansans finished this year's Leadville Trail 100. I believe that's a record!

So another Leadville has come and gone and left me empty handed and broken hearted. This should have been the year. I was in great shape and injury free. I had two full weeks to acclimate and plenty of time to get focused on the task at hand. I had a decent weather and a great pacer (Dave Wakefield) waiting for me at mile 50...I never got there! I made a stupid mistake on something as basic as hydration, and while there are races where you can make a mistake and still sneak by, Leadville is not one of them. Leadville has a way of making you pay for you mistakes.

As I allow myself to think about 2010, a hiatus from Leadville is probably in order. Perhaps this race has taken on an unhealthy importance in my life. Perhaps a year off might bring perspective.

So on to Minnesota where I started running trails. Northern Minnesota has always been the place I feel most at peace. Although I know the Superior Hiking Trail is brutally rugged and times at this race are slow (The Superior Sawtooth has a 38 hour cut off), it will be good to be back home.