My first thoughts about running this race occurred to me while helping pace my friend Meredith in 2014. After such an amazing experience seeing and being inspired by all of the runners, crews and volunteers, I remember thinking (and possibly sharing with a few other people) that I would give this race a shot in 2016. Granted at that point I had not yet run my first 50 miler, so in hindsight it seems to be a bit of an ambitious goal.
There is something unique about the energy of this race. The people involved are amazing and the landscape and trail are like no other I have experienced. I also have a personal connection to the North Shore as my wife and I have visited many times in the past and had finally taken our 7 and 10 year old boys this summer to experience it.
After crewing Meredith the past two years, I had decided that 2016 would be my year to give it a shot. It was to be a bit of a celebration before turning 40 a few months after the race. Going into the race I did not feel at all ready. If I had a chance to step it down to the 50 mile race I very likely would have. My training over the 4 weeks prior was virtually non-existent as I spent just over 3 weeks battling bronchitis which finally cleared up just days before the race. I confided with a few people that physically my training was not where it should be, but on the bright side I was just grateful to be showing up to the start line rested and healthy. I knew that any chance of finishing would be driven by head and heart. I made a pact with myself that I would not drop from the race. I would be fine with being timed out or pulled out, but it would not be my decision.
Before I left for Lutsen on Thursday, I was waiting at the bus stop with my kids before school. My 10 year old (Patrick) and I were talking about my run. He said to me “You’re going to finish, I believe in you Dad.” I leaned on this moment and what he said through many low points during the race.
I was extremely lucky to have 3 crew members with me on this journey. Running is typically a solitary activity. One of the things I love about this type of event is the opportunity to make it into a team sport. I enjoy crewing and pacing even more than running, it offers the chance to be part of the event and experience some of the highs and lows without quite as much of the pain and sacrifice. My team members for this run were my friend Greg McKinley who played the role of crew chief. Kevin DiBrito, who I had met as part of the Southdale YMCA run club, was planning to pace me for around 18 miles during Saturday morning. And finally John Weeks (someone who has truly inspired me by his energy, positivity, and running ability) who I also met through the Southdale YMCA group was planning to pace about 42 miles. I also consider Meredith a member of my team as she has graciously put up with all of my random questions over the past few years, right up until a few days before “do you use drop bags? which sections to pole?”, etc.
The pre-race meeting on Thursday night was a great experience. I sat at a table with Allen Holtz who at the age of 67 was the oldest starter this year. He has an amazing resume with 3 Superior finishes and 4 Barkely starts (finishing 2 loops on 2 of those years). I asked him if he had any advice for a first timer, he said “don’t stop”. There was great energy at the meeting and excitement for the next morning. Ian Corlass, known in ultra running circles for his Talk Ultra podcast was in town covering and photographing the race which added some additional excitement this year.
We went back up to our room and I managed to organize my equipment for the next morning, took a shower, fell asleep and woke up around 5:00am to get ready to catch my ride to the start. I managed to catch a ride with Meredith and Kiah to the start which was extremely helpful as it allowed my crew to sleep in a little (which ended up being really valuable later) as they didn’t have to meet me until around noon.
We arrived at Gooseberry Falls State Park about an hour before the race start which allowed for time to have some coffee, check in, talk to some friends, stare off into space contemplating why the hell I am even here, and retie my shoes about 30 times. Then we lined up at the start to get direction from the race director John Storkamp. “Keep the flags on your left, Lake Superior on your right, run to Lutsen.” Simple enough. At this moment I just felt so grateful to even be at the start that I had imagined two years earlier, it was a little emotional for me to be there in that moment. And with a quick countdown we were off.
The first section had been changed due to a closure on the SHT so it was run on a paved trail for the first 4.5 miles. It felt good to be moving and warming the legs up. I ran around a 10ish minute per mile pace until we ran under highway 61 and entered the trail. The first section to Split Rock was pretty uneventful although I kept looking out for the bees that had been reported. This section was nice, mostly runnable trail ending in some amazing vistas of Lake Superior before descending into the park. I was starting to notice the heat (which I typically don’t tolerate all that well and was sweating a bit much with a higher heartrate than I would have preferred).
I entered the aid station at 10:17am feeling great through the first section. I refilled my hydration pack with Tailwind and was off again to the next station. Similar to many others, I was trying to bank as much time as possible during the daylight hours since things slow down quite a bit at night. I don’t recall too much of this section other than the heat really starting to affect me. I managed to use all of my water (70 ounce hydration bladder and 20 ounce bottle) also noticing other people were running out of water before the next station. I hit the Beaver Bay aid station at mile 20.1 around 12:37pm and finally met with my crew on the trail for the first time. Greg met me and helped refill my Tailwind, John took a couple pictures and I was off again.
The section to Silver Bay started to feel a bit tougher. It was during this section that I went off the path to use the “bathroom” which didn’t seem to please some ground hornets. They swarmed after me and pushed me to one of my faster miles of the race. Heat was really starting to take a toll on people and my sweat rate and heart rate were way too high for my comfort. I came through the Silver Bay station at mile 25 at 2:01pm. I refilled Tailwind and took a few S-caps (electrolyte capsules) that I carry with me even though Tailwind should be enough. I knew with my sweat rate that I would need a supplement today and I think this was one of my better decisions during the race. I picked up my poles (per Meredith’s suggestion) and was off to the next station.
The section to Tettegouche was one of the more challenging sections I encountered. Poles were a good idea and allowed me to use more of my body to power up the inclines and save my knees on the declines. This section was really hard on people and I saw quite a few runners in distress. I was feeling the terrain and the heat and was grateful to pull into Tettegouche at mile 34.9 at 5:10pm. Tettegouche is a bit of a crowded aid station and was probably the first time I felt a little irritated. I was not feeling all that well from the warmer temps, was a bit slower than I wanted and got out of there and on to the next station.
Tettegouche to County Road 6 is one of the most amazing sections of the trail. Incredible views of the surrounding landscape provided a nice lift to a tough part of the course. The “drain pipe” definitely didn’t disappoint and I was able to navigate without messing up my face or snapping an ankle. It was right around miles 35-38 that things started to fall apart. I was getting passed by a lot of people, my mind went to a dark place in the pain cave and I had thoughts that this wasn’t my day. “I believe in you Dad” went through my head and I said it aloud over the course of that period. I remembered what I was doing and that it was all out of my control.
All I had to do was get to County 6 and John would meet me and start of process of my crew dragging me across the finish line. It was easy. To finish all I had to do was get to County 6. Toward the end of the section I had to turn on the headlamp as it was getting darker. Running along the ridgeline I could hear the aid station even though it was still about 2 miles out. I descended toward the highway and hit a dead end. This seemed strange since there wasn’t anywhere else to go. I dug through some bushes looking for the trail with another guy before we turned around and headed back down the trail. At the bottom of some stairs we ran into a larger group coming up the trail so we turned around and all looked for the trail. It turned out there was a switchback we didn’t see behind us at the dead end so we went up that route and finally descended onto the road and made our way to the County 6 aid station. I was just starting to feel a little revitalized by the idea of running with John so this was a huge lift for me. I arrived at County 6 (mile 43.5) at 8:30pm about two hours ahead of the cutoff. It was dark now but I was looking forward to sharing the trail and night running experience with John which gave me quite a boost of energy.
We took off out of County 6 and navigated the various climbs and boardwalks associated with this section. My energy level was up running with John and we managed to get into Finland at the 51.2 mile halfway mark at 11:33pm. At this point I was feeling great with the cooler temperatures. I managed to eat a bit at this aid station and talk to some friends crewing another runner. It was nice to run into a lot of people I knew and with the fun atmosphere of this aid station it was a bit hard to leave. We had decided to let Greg and Kevin go back and get some sleep at this point, having them meet us at mile 72 (Sugarloaf) sometime after 7:00am. I was originally planning to switch to my Altra Olympus at this aid station, but with all of the mud we had encountered on the course I wanted to keep my Lone Peaks on since they had much better tread for the conditions. I paid for this decision much later as the rocks and roots took a toll on my feet due to much less protection with the Lone Peaks. We said good night to our crew for the evening and took off to Sonju Lake.
The section from Finland to Sonju is where we first started to encounter the Sonju Lake root monsters. This section and the next are really rooty and we were cursing the roots a bit early in this section. We were moving along quite well on the way to Sonju Lake (mile 58.7) and managed to arrive around 2:00am Saturday after crossing over into the new day during this section. Sonju Lake aid station is pretty deep in the middle of the woods. They had a great station setup and we probably stayed the longest of any stop at this station, maybe 12 minutes. I ate quite a bit of watermelon and soup at this stop which gave me quite a burst of energy. We took off out of Sonju and were on our way to Crosby.
On the way to Crosby we navigated more of the Sonju Lake root monsters and also began to hear some thunder off in the distance (after John had mentioned to me there was 0% chance of rain after 1:00am), but such is weather on the north shore. It was during this section that it started raining a little bit, although not heavily. We were still moving quite well with good energy. I was probably the most worried about the 3-4am time frame and how the lack of sleep would affect me but I was still feeling great at this point, pretty high off my earlier lows and still moving well. We arrived at Crosby Manitou after coming up a fairly long gravel road at 3:48am at mile 62.9 on the course. Crosby Manitou is another great aid station. I was a little apprehensive about the next section because I knew what was coming having paced it on fresh legs the year before. This is the section that many people dread on the way to Sugarloaf. I knew if I could power through this one I had a decent chance of finishing given the time buffer I had. With that we were on our way to Sugarloaf.
The Sugarloaf section is known for some pretty tough rocky terrain with some difficult climbs and descents thrown in for good measure. I had about a 4 hour time budget for this one to cover about 9.5 miles. I was still feeling pretty good and powering up some harder climbs. During this section the rain really started to come down and I could feel the trail getting muddier and muckier in spots. The mud had definitely been making it slower going than I was planning for and this started to get me down a little. The sun came up on us during the end of this section and the added daylight kicked in some additional energy. This could be the day, but it was really too early to think about a finish. Too much ground to cover with too many things that could go wrong. We made it into Sugarloaf (mile 72.3) at 7:37am. I was really feeling good about arriving there at that time, things just kept falling into place for me. The rain let up when the sun came up, Kevin was ready to switch with John and we were off again to take advantage of the light of the new day.
The section to Cramer road is actually quite runnable, so we picked up the pace a bit and knocked down a few miles. Toward the end of the section I started getting a little quieter as I went into a bit of a dark mental hole around mile 75. This continued for quite a while. Kevin definitely got the short end of the stick with me. While running with John I was feeling great, in high spirits, and somewhat talkative. There is a saying that while pacing a 100 there are points you will want to push your runner off a cliff, I’m sure Kevin had those thoughts although he is far too nice to admit it. It was during this section that I got really agitated about thinking we missed a turn on the way to the aid station. I thought we were a mile overdue and I was starting to get a bit frantic which almost caused me to actually miss a turn before Kevin pointed me down the right path. In hindsight I believe I miscalculated the distance on my watch. I managed to suck it up and continue moving forward, drawing on positive words and thoughts and remembering what Patrick said to me. I arrived at Cramer road aid station (mile 77.9) at 9:40am. Only a marathon left to go in under 12 hours. Still making good time and ready for another challenging section to Temperance.
The section to Temperance was not all that memorable for me, probably because I was moving slow and just trying to slog through it. It felt long and tough, but we managed it just fine. Just before this we had decided to have Kevin pace the rest of the way if he was willing. John had tweaked some tendons in his knee a bit and didn’t want to risk pushing his mileage on some tough climbs. Kevin was open and I’m glad he was, even though it would be farther than he had gone before (approximately 30 mile distance PR). We arrived at Temperance (mile 85) at 12:38pm, less than 20 miles were left. It was starting to seem like a real possibility to finish even though there was still a lot of work to do. I picked up my poles again and started the trek to Sawbill via Carleton peak.
Once again I felt pretty good starting this section. I recognized the area really well from previous trips we’ve made to Tofte/Lutsen. I remembered the trip I was on with Christina and the boys just a few months earlier in which we hiked this section of the trail. This lifted my spirits and gave me a boost of strength. I plowed up the east side of the river, running into Steve Connelly and Kevin Chem again (I had run into Steve during my low point at 35). Steve was looking strong through this section and it was a lift to see him doing so well also. After the relatively easy section we moved onto the technical climb up Carleton peak. I struggled a lot on the climb and made my frustration known to Kevin. He offered me encouragement and managed somehow to have the patience to not push me off the cliff, probably better than I would have handled myself in his position. We came down the other side, moved over the boardwalks and down to the Sawbill aid station (mile 90.7) at 2:46pm. At Sawbill John was a little worried, I had been a bit slow in a couple of the prior sections and he told me I needed to really move on this section or I may not be able to make the 10:00pm cutoff. This freaked me out and sobered me up enough to get out of that aid station in a hurry. My feet were really starting to give me problems so I took the calculated risk to change shoes in the hope of relieving some of the pain from the bottom of my feet. I was able to make the painful shoe change and get out of there relatively quick. With a half marathon to go things were getting serious.
Looking back I think he was mostly saying it to motivate me a little to push now and give me plenty of time for the last section. It is what a good crew does and I am grateful for the push. Sawbill to Oberg was a decent section and I remember being able to run for stretches of it. The change of shoes was helpful and it gave me a little boost. I don’t remember all too much from this section other than coming into the aid station slapping my trekking poles together and yelling at John “how was that for you!” to which he calmly replied “just fine”. I was at the last aid station, Oberg (mile 96.2) at 5:00pm. I had 5 hours to make it the final 7.1 miles. I spent a few minutes at Oberg, fist bumped Kevin, Greg, and John and said “let’s finish this”. Off to Lutsen.
This final section is just a bit sadistic with two large climbs. The first was the most technical up Moose Mountain. It just went on forever, up and up with no relief. It was also during this section that I was getting really irritated with the 50 milers passing through. The path is narrow and I constantly had to move over to the side which was not giving me very nice thoughts toward them. Of course they are also doing something extremely difficult so it really wasn’t fair of me to fantasize about tripping them with my poles. Then again it gave me something else to keep my mind occupied. After Moose ascent the path floats along the top before descending down the other side. Then the second ascent begins up Mystery Mountain. This one is mainly switchbacks so not quite so bad. At this point I am moving downhill very slowly, like glacially slow. I had made the decision to take this section extremely conservative. Being so close to the finish, I didn’t want anything to tragically end my day early. I came down the other side of Moose Mountain and desperately listened for the sound of the Poplar River. Finally I started to hear it and after a little while we were on it. I crossed the bridge, enjoyed the view (although it was dark again now) and headed to the finish. I passed my trekking poles to Kevin to carry in at this point since I thought I was right around the corner. I forgot that there was still a little bit of trail to the road and for some reason the road itself seemed to go on for longer than I remembered. I had started seeing people along the road cheering now and they gave a little extra encouragement when they noticed I was a hundo. Right down the road, then coming up to Caribou Highlands where the path went around the back through the grass and by the pool area. It was here I saw John again. He yelled when I went by and I proceeded around the pool and through the finish with a little yell. I got my belt buckle and 100 mile wood award. At the finish I was met by some friends (Meredith, Kiah, Wendi, Adam, Jason and probably others I missed in the commotion) and my crew (John, Greg, and Kevin). I thought about Christina and the boys back home and silently thanked them for willing me through. Then I sat down, was brought a plate of food, and a beer (thanks Adam!) and started eating and shivering. Then I managed to move inside where it was warmer. During this time Greg was able to get Christina and the boys on the phone, it was great to hear their voices and congratulations at the finish. After waiting there and warming up a little bit we made the trek to the car and headed back to the room. I think I sat in the shower for a good 30 minutes when we got back attempting to clean off the mud and warm up a bit.
Reflecting on this experience a few days after, I’m still not exactly sure how it all came together. Some days things just go your way. I can’t say I prepared any better or was any tougher than others out on the course that day. All I can come up with is just an analogy for life. Sometimes all it takes is a phrase or a kind word from family or friends to get you through a tough time. A helping hand from a friend. Someone to talk you through the rainy night. Somebody to push you back out when you’re too comfortable. Tell you that you’re ok, that things are not really as bad as you think. Someone to believe in you. To all the people in my life that have given me these things. Thank you. Nobody accomplishes things solely on their own.
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