Maybe not so graceful

In this story, the conclusion ranks most important—I went for a run in the woods on one of those few magical days in a person’s life when the world is only beautiful, people inspiring, and failure inconceivable. Finishing the race ceased to be a consideration and I spent the day blissfully immersed in an experience that is among the best I can recall. I finished the race in 16th place overall in a time of 12:10 and felt great for 99% of the day. I never felt queasy, tired, injured, thirsty, sad, unsure, unbearably hot, or unhappy. I got to see a friend live his dream of finishing the Superior 100, while also spending time with my parents and Michelle as they helped support me in my race. I really couldn’t have asked for a better experience. The following paragraphs will serve more as personal edification—like a giddy pig rolling in the mud—than to give more dimension to the experience.

Lutsen to Finland to Sonju Lake

I woke up at 3:15 to get ready, eat breakfast, and then find the bus. After spending twenty minutes dedicating myself to the successful navigation of the bathroom line, I found myself at the start with 150+ other runners listening to John Storkamp giving the usual pre-race briefing—“It’s going to be hot but don’t ask me about the weather…if you didn’t bring two water bottles it’s going to suck…have fun…you’re awesome and you can do this.” We were off. We started down a gravel road and I immediately began scrutinizing my position. On one hand, I didn’t want to be stuck trying to make frequent passes in one of the more runnable stretches, and on the other, I didn’t want to doom myself to going too hard early. I had a couple minutes to re-position before hitting the singletrack. By the time we funneled on to the trail, I felt good about my choice. I was 40-50 runners back, and moving only slighter slower than my over-excited temperament desired. Eventually I moved up a few runners and found open space. Perfect.

Sonju Lake to Crosby Manitou

I rolled into the aid station feeling fantastic, but knowing that I needed to be on top of food and water. Temperatures were rapidly rising, and the section from Croby Manitou to Sugarloaf would be the longest trek between aid stations at 9.4 miles. On the SHT, that can mean two hours, even this early in the race. Heightening the drama, was the fact that I was also on trail that I’d never run or hiked before, so I had no idea if it was going to be difficult. Some sections of the trail that look easy on the map can be cruel and difficult in real life due to poor footing and other obstacles.

My nutrition strategy for the majority of the race was simple:

  • Clif Shots between aid stations
  • Bananas at aid stations
  • Drain both water bottles between aid stations, and refill with:
    • Water in bottle #1
    • Nuun grape in bottle #2
  • 1 glass of water or Coke at each aid station
  • Bread if available after 20 miles

Crosby Manitou to Sugarloaf

I remember looking at my watch and thinking, “Wow, that’s a half marathon already.” I still felt great. Perspective is a funny thing—the next aid station would come well after the 20 mile mark, but it still felt early. This theme would continue throughout the day—rather than the race seeming particularly long, it seemed that my day was compressed. I expected to meet my parents at Sugarloaf to resupply Shot Blocks and anything else that I needed. A couple miles into the section, I was stung by a bee right where I was warned that I would probably be stung by a bee. I scampered quickly through the next stretch trying to avoid multiple stings and soon found myself on a steep climb up from the Manitou River. This was the first real climb on the course. I tend to hike faster than other people who run around the same pace as me. Perhaps it’s my cycling-dominant quads, but I can usually make up ground during climbs. Consequently, I passed some people here and actually started thinking about both my time and position, if only vaguely. I ran out of water about a mile before the aid station, but was pleased to still arrive feeling like a human being.

Sugarloaf to Cramer Road

The section to Sugarloaf was a huge mental hurdle successfully navigated. After this, I was able to resupply, ditch my shirt, get some ice water, and leave the aid station knowing that it was only 5.5 miles to the next aid station. When I reached that point, it would also mean that I’d surpassed the marathon distance. Honestly, Sugarloaf to Cramer Road is foggy. I think it was all quite runnable. Looking at my splits, I moved quickly through most of it, arriving at Cramer road grinning (despite what photos suggest) to be feeling awesome and to be back on familiar terrain. Michelle had originally planned to meet me at the Cramer Road aid station, but since I was moving faster than expected, I asked my parents to call her and tell her to meet me at the next one.

Cramer Road to Temperance River

My recollection of the stretch to Temperance River also being easy proved accurate. I was moving well and had started passing 100 mile racers in the previous section. It was in the back of my mind that one of these people might be Bunda, but I almost passed him before my brain processed visual cues such as, “Hey, that looks like Deb…Hey…that looks like Bryan…Hey, nice backpack, guy!”. He was in great spirits, displaying optimism and coherence that I didn’t see in a lot of the runners I was passing. I walked with him for a couple minutes before wishing him luck and taking off. It was a huge mental lift for me to see him and the Bunz crew. I’m not sure what it is about trail racing, but at some point a person just gets emotional, appreciating friends, camaraderie, sacrifice, and all of the noble qualities that go into the seemingly strange activity of running long distances in the woods. I came into the aid station in high spirits and found my parents, the Bunz crew, and Michelle with a special smoothie surprise. Michelle has read a lot of the stuff that Brendan Brazier has written about plant based nutrition for athletes. I tend to get really good results from her concoctions, and was also delighted to stop eating bananas and start drinking them (along with a bunch of other stuff that my body needed). Her smiling face didn’t hurt either.

Temperance River to Sawbill

Leaving the aid station, I promptly fell on my face looking for the bridge that crossed the Temperance River. I quickly inventoried the damage. I was thankful to be using handheld water bottles as they took the majority of the impact. One of the caps cracked, but it seemed to be solid enough to lose only a small amount of water from sloshing, and because this day was perfect, I was completely uninjured from the somewhat dramatic fall. Whew. I got back up and began the easy, runnable part of the climb to the peak. I remembered two things about the climb: there’s a long build-up during which you continually wonder, Is this the climb? …and when the real climb arrives you think, Holy shit, this is a climb! Those two things happened. After the brutal final push to the top I was greeted with one of the most stunning views that I’ve encountered on the trail. Despite having been to the top of Carlton peak at least a couple times, this was the first time that I had the opportunity to do so on a bright and beautiful day. I took a moment to savor it, and ran well to the next aid station, thrilled to still be running even as I was closing in on 40 miles.

Sawbill to Oberg

At Sawbill, I asked my parents&Michelle to have a few things ready for me at Oberg:

  • Headlamp: I didn’t think I would need it as a I well ahead of the “no headlamp” cutoff, but it’s required if you leave Oberg after 5pm
  • Trekking poles: since I had no idea how long I would be able to continue running, I wanted to have poles ready. If I was primarily walking by the time I reached Oberg, I planned to employ the use of “wizard sticks” on the final section for a boost up Moose Mountain and Mystery Mountain. If I was still running, I wouldn’t take them.
  • Hydration vest: I didn’t want to take a chance with a slightly broken bottle on the final, difficult section, so I planned to ditch the bottle and switch to the hydration pack.

I spent most of my time running to Sawbill planning my strategy for the last miles, enjoying the breathtaking beauty, and reflecting on the fact that things were going better than I would have ever thought possible.

Oberg to the Finish

I was still running by the time I reached Oberg at 4:23pm. This meant that I would skip the poles, skip the headlamp, and just switch out hydration systems. I refueled with more smoothie, grabbed some shot blocks for the vest, and took off after lingering for just a couple minutes. I tried to make a point of not wasting time unnecessarily at aid stations. I was giddy. Sometimes I have dreams where I am running, weightless, and I feel as if I will never get tired. I felt like I was living that. Sure, I wasn’t the fastest person on the course, and there were difficult sections that I couldn’t run, but there was never a point during which I wanted to stop. To run 52 miles in rough conditions—finishing times were much slower and DNFs much higher than normal due to the heat—and not experience a low patch is mind boggling. Ha! It was only a couple weeks ago that I puked during a twenty-eight mile training run on easy terrain. Anyway, I cruised through the first part of the section before reaching Moose Mountain. It was hard, but I felt fine moving up it at a determined hike. Soon I was at the top and descending to the base of Mystery Mountain, the final climb. I’d grossly exaggerated in my mind the difficulty of the final climb, and soon found myself within earshot of the moving water that signals an end to the trail, and a final one mile stretch on dirt road and then pavement. I finished the longest race of my life with an admittedly taxing 9:19 mile.

It is difficult for me to express exactly how wonderful this day was for me, how great I felt, how much the beauty of the woods touched me, and how inspired I was by the efforts of the people around me, both participants and supporters. I always tell people that it is the lessons of the low moments on the trail that teach me the most, but on this day gratitude for all of the good things, all of the successes, and all of shared beauty elemental to our existence defined a moment that will be with me forever.