Superior 50: Rugged, Relentless, Remote

As long as I have known about the Superior 50 I have held it in high esteem

I have been coming to the North Shore of lake Superior since I was young.

The North Shore of Lake Superior is a place that have visited since I was a kid. The Superior 50 mile race was the first 50 miler I knew about. My friend Steve Schuder used to run it back in the 90’s.  I had hiked enough of the Superior Hiking trail to know that it would not be an easy trail to run. I  remember thinking that it was something I could not imagine doing, so I suppose it is a little surprising that 20 plus years hence, I would be submitting my qualifying races and even more surprising is I would make it through the entrance lottery.

This was my 3rd 50 miler and it came at the end of a fairly ambiguous race plan:  two 50k’s, a 380 mile gravel bike race (that I called at mile 190), a 340 mile canoe race, and then this 50 miler with its well known roots, rocks, and 12,000 feet of vertical. The truth is I was a little off my game in terms of motivation by the time September and the race came around. Coming off of the MR340, my coach Scott Gall’s main concern was to get me adequately recovered in the 6 weeks between the canoe race and the run. This meant that there were less back to back long runs then had been in my previous 50 miler training plans.

Is it posible to train for a 1/2 marathon and run a 50?

The summer training group got started again this summer and so I tagged along with them as they were training for a 1/2 marathon, all the while wondering if this was going to be enough to get ready for what I knew by reputation was going to be a very hard 50! I added a couple longer runs in the 2 1/2 hour range but nothing like I had in my training plan for the last two 50’s.

The Superior Fall trail race comes in 3 lengths:  a 100 mile race, a 50 mile race, and a marathon length race. The moniker of the race is “Rugged, Relentless, Remote,” and with almost all of the race on the hiking trail it was true enough. At the pre-race meeting at the Finland Recreation Center, the race director pointed out that based on finishing times, the 50 mile race was one of the most challenging 50 milers in the country.

Just before the Start at Finland.

We started in the dark at 5:00 am. with the first couple miles down a gravel road and then a snowmobile trail in an attempt to sort the race field out by pace. We picked our way through rocks and roots, by the light of our headlamps. It might have been the energy that always comes at the beginning of a race, but apart from the relentless rocks and roots, it was not too physically challenging. This would be a theme for much of the race, plenty would be so technically challenging that it could not be run! The consensus was that this was a race where only 20% was truly runnable, I think that was a little low, but the truth is there was more than 1/2 was not really runnable.

I made it to the Crosby Manitou aid station (just short of 12 miles) ahead of schedule and almost ahead of Kathy! I was feeling pretty strong at this point.  After a short climb, the trail dropped steeply and crossed the Caribou river. For the next 14 miles the trail climbed, but what often gets missed in Sawtooth mountain terrain is that there were a series of climbs and descents.

Trekking poles are all about technique!

At about the half way point.

There is a whole secondary story that happens on races like this with your support crew.  Because it is a point to point race, people come and go at about the same time, as the runners. When I came into the Sugar Loaf aid station, Kathy announced “you should run with Fiona.” I was thinking, I do not know Fiona, or her pace, but she left the aid station about the same time I did. I was carrying trekking poles but had not yet gotten them out of my vest. It took about 50 yards for me to realize that Fiona really knew how to use poles! (She is a crosscountry ski coach from Thunder Bay.) I had been noticing that most of the people I was observing were using them as “walking sticks.” Honestly that was why I decided to bring them myself. But cross-country skiing was my first marathon sport, so I am quite familiar with poling! For the next 8 miles or so I followed Fiona as we poled past plenty of “runners.” Eventually after we had talked through plenty of US politics with Canadian insight, she poled off ahead of me.

The last 12 were the hardest

Climbing up Carlton Peak.

By the time I got through the Sawbill aid station my pace was lagging. In the last 12 miles of the race there are 8 steep ascents and descents, not counting the smaller climbs. For a while I was hoping to be in by dark, but that was increasingly becoming  unlikely.

I finished just before 8:00 pm, with just a hint of light in the western sky!

Kathy had given me my headlight at the Oberg aid station and I was needing it as the trail continued to be rough as the light failed. I finished while there was still a little light in the western sky. My time was 14:57:19, that was a pace of 17:57 per mile! It was my slowest 50 miler so far but also it was also the hardest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The MR 340!

Paddling near Sunset in the MR340.

I have been neglecting paddling in recent years.  So when my friend Kent suggested we paddle the Missouri River 340, I did not immediately say no.  However, it was a 340 mile non-stop canoe race (!) and whether it was something this 61-year-old body could accomplish was less than certain.

We choose a Wenonah Minnesota #
3 as our boat, at 20 feet long, it was enough for one of us to sleep while the other paddled (a feature we never utilized)!

We had made provisions for sleep. We chose a 20-foot tripping canoe, instead of a racing boat. We carried a sleeping pad and had practiced with one of us laying in the bottom of the canoe, while the other paddled.  In the end though, it became a flat out race, no sleep for the entirety, of the 42 hours and 55 minutes that it took to paddle from Kanas City to St. Charles.

My paddling partner has always been fond to tell me that there is no one who can beat him in a sprint, and I have seen him paddle enough to know that as truth. Still in countless conversations leading up to the race we had talked about the need to stay under control, especially at the beginning. Yet, I knew what was coming when we placed ourselves toward the front at the inside of the corner of where the Kansas River flows into the Missouri and as I might have predicted, we ended up sprinting off the line. One of the two fast 4-5 person racing boats hit us in the stern and spun us almost into the other.  Words were exchanged, the long and short of it was that they thought “we didn’t belong where we were.” I suppose it might have looked that way to a focused team who had just hit the sort of boat you might use on a trip to the Boundary Waters, however, what they did not know was that in the bow was a former USCA National Champion. So it became a flat out race… We judged each tandem team that passed us and decided we did have a chance—they were working too hard for a 40+ hour effort!

The MR340 starts in 2 waves, 7:00 for one person boats, and 8:00 for the rest.

We were hoping to average 7.5 mph (which is a fast pace), but by the end of the first day, we had established an 8.6 mph average. The river was not far below flood stage and the flow was exceptionally fast. When we got to the 3rdcheckpoint at Glascow (141 miles) we had stopped for a total of 2 minutes to switch out empty water jugs. As the day progressed there were 2 other boats in our class that we were trading the lead with. A couple guys in a wood strip pro boat the were switching between canoe and kayak paddles, and a couple of young guys in an aluminum canoe that were making up for the inherent slowness of their boat with an exceptional amount of power. By late afternoon we had dropped the pro boat but the aluminum guys were still in front, we passed them toward sunset and would hold that lead until the next afternoon.

We entered the first night of paddling.  The Missouri River is not without hazards. There are wing dams and floating debris. Because the river was high, submerged navigational buoys would pop out of the water at anytime. Reading the river, which was not all that hard during the day, became uncertain and as fatigue mixed with drowsiness and eventually in the early morning a light fog, gave everything an ethereal feeling. There was a kind of hallucination that all of this created as the intense focus that was required mixed with exhaustion mixed and darkness. We became accustomed to seeing things that were not there!

The checkpoint at Jefferson City was 223 miles into the race. we were there at 11:18 (a little more than 27 hours after he start).

By morning I was pretty certain that we were not going to finish this race. Kent had thrown up a couple times and was unable to eat or drink. Both of us were catching ourselves falling asleep in the middle of paddle strokes. We would paddle a few minutes and then stop for what seemed like longer. I was loosing both my focus and my desire to continue. At this point we were still the lead tandem boat, but I was fighting the thought that we should paddle to Jefferson City (mile 223) and register a DNF. Instead we stopped for a major resupply, got out of the boat for 15 minutes, and got back in feeling a little better. As we were pulling out, the second place aluminum boat was pulling in, they looked as spent as we felt.

We were very much in survival mode when we left the Jefferson City check point. With 120 miles still to go, we decide to focus on paddling in 15-minute blocks, which I promptly upped to 30. I am not sure if that helped Kent, but I did help my focus.

It took the aluminum canoe until mid afternoon to catch us and while we were not feeling all that competitive, both of us had kept looking behind us to see how much they were gaining on us. Eventual we decided to drop our pace and let them pass. After wishing them well, we were able to focus on what we thought was going to be the hardest challenge of the race. We reached the checkpoint at Herman (269 miles) at 5:45 pm. Projecting our time forward, we where looking at the 3-4 am finish and a second night of paddling!

Toward evening we decided to increase our intensity as a way to stay awake, and then as late as possible to take the caffeine tablets I was carrying and hope that would be enough to see us through to the finish, This started to feel like a race again as opposed to the death march that it had felt like for most of the day. Our pace and focus improved.  Some time around Klondike (mile 311) maybe 11:00 pm we took caffeine and also consciously kept our effort up.  Another factor that helped in the final stages of the race, was that once we got past the checkpoint at Hermann, where there was about 70 miles to go, and our spirits lifted as  we once again were able to envision finishing this race!

We made it to Charles City just before 3:00 on Thursday, 43 hours and 55 minutes after we had started.

At 2:55 am on Thursday morning, we arrived at the finish in St. Charles.  42 hours, 55 minutes after we began.  We were the 14thboat over all, 2ndmen’s tandem, and probably the first boat in without a rudder.

We had chosen a Wenonah Minnesota 3 as a boat.  It was probably the perfect boat to finish this race with.  It was super stable, had the most comfortable canoe seats I have ever sat in for a extended period of time, and it was an efficient design – our average over the entire race was 7.9 mph! a racing boat might have been faster, but we would not have been able to sleep in it (something we thought we would do, but didn’t), and perhaps that was our only significant miscalculation, we had a bigger boat than we needed!

 

Why?

There were 7 starters in the 2018 Alexander 380. 3 would finish.

Earlier this spring one of my 7thgrade confirmation students upon learning that I was headed to Arizona to run a 50k, asked the question few ask me out loud. It was a one-word sentence: “Why?” I am not really sure there is an answer, at least not an answer that many would understand.  People might exercise for their health, they might try to break some record, personal or otherwise, but at age 61 I have pretty much given up on either.  The truth is I do ultra-distances simply because I can, but I am not sure that really is an answer to the why question.

I had a late start into the world of endurance sports. I was not a kid who was interested in sports in high school. My family didn’t pay attention to traditional sports, and I frankly was not good enough. When I attend high school track meets I always feel empathy for that kid who is so far back they look like they must be in another race. I was that kid, in track, the only sport I ever even attempted. I was in my 30’s when skied my first 50K, 44 when I ran my first marathon, and 60 when I ran my first 50-miler. But it was different.   Those were never races I was going to win; those were races where I would never even get noticed. As a result, I have tended to find groups that would notice: Skiers doing the same races; bike groups that gather to ride together; a group doing the same race. There might be some shared training, but more there was a shared focus, a tribe of like-focused folk.

For whatever reason, I don’t really have a tribe right now, and I am old enough and experienced enough to know that tribes of this sort are a gift in the present that tend to disappear. Most endurance sports are solitary in a way, but oddly for me, it is being a part of a group that has always drawn and grounded me in endurance sports. Perhaps because there are so few people who understand, much less relate to this sort of endeavor. Having a group that understands has always been an important aspect of this for me.

Perhaps it is related to not having a group to focus my efforts, but being alone in this has meant that setting the bar higher and further was almost impossible not to do this year. I was almost bound to find my limit. Two 50k’s so far this year, the Alexander 380 gravel bike race, the Missouri River 340 mile canoe race, and the 50 mile Superior Trail race. Something on this list was certainly bound to bring me close to what I could physically and mentally be able to accomplish.

Alexander 380 Wisconsin
At 2:30 am, 190 miles and almost 21 hours after beginning I stopped my attempt at the Alexander 380

I found that limit this weekend.  At 2:30 am, 190 miles into the 380-mile gravel race, I decided it was time to stop. It was dark, and wet, the steep down hills were increasingly looking like a crash waiting to happen.  My focus, balance, and small muscle motor skills where failing, after 21 hours of pretty much continuous effort.  I stopped knowing and learning from poorly made choices in past similar situations: There was the cross country ski race where I froze a couple fingers so badly they turned black and I thought I would loose them. There was the marathon where I ran 13 miles after I felt my tibia break. Deciding to stop was sort of remarkable for me.

I wonder if there isn’t a difference in stopping and quitting.   I have to admit, during the 20 miles I had to ride to get to Prairie Du Chien after I decided it was time to stop, I was asking myself the why question, I was considering if I should not just give it all up and be like your

Crossing into Wisconsin at mile 126 or so.

average 61 year old, and lower my activity level to short walks and occasional bike rides on paved trails. To me, that would be quitting.  Stopping was a matter of deciding if the potential damage was worth the risk.  For me on Saturday morning, it was not, but it was also not a place to quit.  I was stopping, not quiting.

Can I look back and figure out how this might have unfolded differently?  Of course! We could have found a place at sunset and slept for a few hours (we had the gear along) but that is surprisingly hard to do at 1:00 am when it is dark and raining.  I could have better thought through my rather ridiculous weekend schedule (I had to preach on Sunday morning). It is always amazing how clearer things are in hindsight.

I had been posting my progress on social media, and that meant I needed to let folks know that I was stopping. The first of many supportive comments came from Gary Jones: “With age comes wisdom. Live to race another day my friend.”  Perhaps I have more of a tribe then I think.

 

TNF 50

Waiting for the start at 5:00 am.

Last May I ran my first 50 miler. It was sort of a personal challenge to commemorate my 60th birthday. This last weekend I completed my second 50 miler. I remember listening in on a conversation during a marathon I was running years ago that went something like this: “Some people run one marathon and then they check it off their bucket list and move on to other things, but after 3 it becomes a lifestyle.” The North Face Endurance Challenge was my 3rd ultra distance run…

I registered for this race knowing that it would be a challenge. In fact, a month or so out I was thinking it was perhaps too much of a challenge! The California version of this TNF Endurance Challenge is located in the Marin Headlands north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it has what Iowa does not really have: “drastic elevation changes,” as the race description says, along with views of the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco Bay Area, coastal scrublands, redwood trees and eucalyptus groves. The good news is that while there would be a lot of climbing and descending, there would not be much altitude to contend with because the race literally begins and ends at sea level. That said there were 9 major climbs and descents of 500 to 1,900 feet and the race ended with a run across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sunrise at mile 12

My coach Scott Gall had been out here a couple times for this race and so I relied on his recommendations. The race started at 5:00 am so the first couple of hours were run in the dark on fire lanes in the Marin Headlands. The Petzal nao+ headlamp I used was fantastic, and starting early meant that we started a couple hours before the sun rose. Because it was a clear day, we got to experience the sunrise in all of its glory! The fire lane portion of the run continued for most the first half of the race, ending with a section of single track switchbacks up to the high point of the course, an aid station appropriately name Cardiac.

My plan was to run this race based on heart rate staying in stay in zone 2 or lower at least for the first 2/3 of the race. That meant that I walked up plenty of the hills. Scott had told me that the hardest part of the race came in the second half and that was true enough! Leaving the Cardiac aid station at mile 23 the trail switched to a steep downhill single track. This was a 1,900 ft descent to the Pacific ocean with most of the slope in the last mile and a half. I found myself appreciating the downhill treadmill workouts that were the focus of much of the last month of my training, as I was able to maintain my speed downhill through some fairly complicated single track.

Running through the redwoods after mile 30.

The Stinson Beach aid station was at the bottom of the hill and my support crew was there to meet me. I was feeling strong and exhilarated at this point. That was good because the climb back to Cardiac from Stinson Beach was even steeper than the descent. The second time through Cardiac brought me to a little more than 30 miles and to that place where I might start to fade. Leaving Cardiac, the trail was mostly single track through some beautiful old stands of redwood trees. By this point in the race I was hanging with pretty much the same people and probably because we had all been doing this for 8 hours at this point, we started to pace each other. So thanks, Cassie from Brooklyn NY. Your conversation and the 400 mg of caffeine I took at mile 30 made that next 10 miles among the most enjoyable of the race.

The trail went to another aid station we passed through in the morning, Muir Beach, and then up a steep fire lane we had run down in the morning, before coming back to the Tennessee Valley aid station where I again saw my support crew. From there, it was a climb back up the headlands to the Alta aid station and from there a more-or-less down hill single track to the parking area on the north side of the Golden Gate bridge, a run across the bridge, and then another mile or so to the finish at 50.8 miles.

The final single track before the bridge.

There were some I heard on the trail that thought finishing a trail run with a run across the Golden Gate Bridge was not really in the spirit of trail running, but I thought it was great. You could see the bridge come into and out of view, growing larger and larger each time until the trail became a wonderful side slope single track that brought you down to the bridge filled with all sorts of people doing the things that people always do on the bridge, walking leisurely, taking pictures, standing in the way of others, almost none of them knowing that we just ran 50 miles to get there.

12 hours and 5 minutes and more than an hour longer than the time I completed my 50 miler this past spring, still, its was a race that was planned and executed about as well as I could hope and leaves me thinking there will be more…

Coming into the finish of The North Face Endurance Challenge after 12 hours of running.

50 at 60

On Personal Challenges and How High to Set the Goal

I am not sure that my renaissance interest in running is related to my aging, but it might be. Today I am 60 and I realize just how privileged I really am. I am privileged in a lot of ways, but I am especially gifted in being physically able. When I was young, I was not particularly fast or strong. When I ran track in junior high, pretty much everyone was faster than I was. When I raced cross country skiing in my 30’s, I was far from exceptional. In my mid 40’s when I ran my first marathon, I was a finisher. But lately, and I think it is a kind of attrition, I have been finding myself moving up among my peers, I think that is partly because I am still doing it while others have given it up and partly because I am pushing myself more than I once did.

Before the last lap of the Runners Flat 50k, Fall 2016.

I am registered for the Ice Aged Trail 50. It is a 50 mile trail race in La Grange Wisconsin. I have never ran that far… ever. Back when my friend Steve Schuder was running 50 milers, I was both in awe of his abilities and convinced that I would never attempt such a feat! So here I am a couple weeks out with my training on track and on this day of my birth I find myself wondering why I would consider such a thing at 60? I am not the only one. A couple weeks back we were in the Runner’s Flat in Cedar Falls. One of the owners, Scott Gall is my coach. As I was looking at something, I could hear my wife Kathy pull him aside and quietly ask him if he thought I could really do it.

I think in the end, I keep increasing the physical challenges because I can. My father died when he was 45 that left a mark on me. I remember being about 42 and simply assuming I better get my life in order because I might only have a few more years to live. Well 45 came and went and while I don’t really think of it all that much, when a friend mentioned that 60 was the new 40 a few days back, I have to admit that is what came to mind… my mortality, the fact that eventually my health will decline and eventually I will not be able to continue to raise the bar of the physical challenges that I place in front of myself.

For me, physical challenges give me life and motivate me to stay physically active, that provides the life and the energy that sustain me. Because of the general oddness of how life has worked for this 60 year old, I am still setting personal records when most of my peers have already entered the stage of diminishing returns.

So on Mother’s Day weekend in Wisconsin, probably for most of the day, I’ll be running for the joy of it, and because I still can.

Running In The Gray Area

For a bunch of reasons, I started running again this past fall. True to how I usually start up this sort of thing, one day last September, I was having a bad day (actually I had been having a bad month) and I decided to do something that I have done before. I started running again, and before I was done that day I had run 10 miles. It was further than I should have run. The next week I logged over 50 miles. I know this is the way runners injure themselves, but still given my mental state, I was needing to push beyond what was reasonable. There is one thing about being bipolar that has become clear to me over the years. There is precious little that is reasonable in my life.

Coming into the finish at the Madison 1/2 marathon in November 2015
Coming into the finish at the Madison 1/2 marathon in November 2015.

Maybe it is because I am interested in too many sports—paddling kayaks, canoes, and stand up board, skiing, swimming, and biking in 4 different varieties—road, mountain, gravel, and fat. Running has always been there too, a few marathons but mostly in support of my other athletic pursuits I usually need to have a goal to keep me running or riding or paddling or whatever the current sport of interest might be. Unless there is some race in my future I just don’t prioritize my training. This fall was different. Never have I trained this fast, never this far, never this much, all without a race in mind. The Madison half marathon that I eventually did decide to run in mid November was the fastest I have ever run. The fastest ever! And at 58, no less! I have never been fast especially as a runner. In fact I have always had to define my races by my own standards, the middle of the pack athlete that I am.

It is a strange thing to be 58 years old and trying to run faster than you once did. I have entered the age of diminishing returns when it comes to athletics. I have been bucking that trend just lately. I have a coach and a plan, looking for PR’s wherever I can find them. I am not sure why actually. Maybe it is some deep-seated denial that I am in the midst of a ¾ life crisis, when I look at pictures of high school class mates on Facebook and I see images of senior citizens. I am not ready for that.

The world has changed. I recently found an old training log of mine from the 90s. What I noticed was that the entries were much more subjective. Now, when I hit a button on my GPS watch and all the data, heart rate, speed, elevation, grade, all go directly to my phone and from there is directly emailed to my coach. So pretty quickly when I sent him my data last fall he pointed out—too much of your training is in the “gray area,” my slow paced runs were not slow enough and my high intensity runs were not fast enough.

I think the reason I ran that fast did not have much to do with training. It was because that is how fast my training partners were running and I had to stay with Ally and Michelle. But maybe even more than that, it was because when I run in zone 4 or 5, I am able shut down the flow of feelings that so often side track my life. The flow of feeling that was really sidetracking my life last fall.

I am 2 ½ months out from my next marathon. The fancy graph that TrainingPeaks produces to show my general level of fitness indicates that that I am not in quite as good of shape as I was last November, but the graph is headed up. The probably not so good estimate of my VO2 max that my watch calculates based on who knows what, has been climbing as well.

I have no idea how the marathon will go this time around. The last time I trained for Grandma’s Marathon, I came up injured a month or so before and had to abandon it. After that, I pretty much assumed I was done, but here I am again with a 20 mile run scheduled for Saturday.