Monday, September 14, 2009

How I Recaptured That Feeling.. aka the Superior Sawtooth 100 Race Report

Race Photos

Two years ago this past weekend I lined up with a group of people in the dark outside Caribou Highlands Lodge for the Superior 50 Mile race. I was as green as they come, having done two training runs over marathon length and not having even yet run on Afton type hills, let alone Superior type hills. Looking back, my race report from that day makes multiple mentions of "what the hell did I get myself into" moments.

My lasting memories from that day, and my first trail race, went something like this...

"A large group of my new friends cheering as I ran around the pool and my wife standing right at the finish waiting for me. Hands down the most heart felt finish I've ever experienced. Larry came over and handed me the finisher medal and shook my hand and just like that the amazing adventure was over."

"I've told many people when asked about the race that I felt it was 5 times harder yet 5 times more beautiful than I ever imagined. I really had no idea what I was in for, but it exceeded my wildest expectations."

"What can I say, this community is awesome and I am definitely hooked."

So this time, I had the added joy of Jen running in the last section with me and sharing the accomplishment that she was such a huge part of rather than just watching me finish, and most of the "new" friends are now old friends (but some important new ones.. more on that later).

The point being, that first race gave me an amazing feeling that is at the heart of why I do these races. It was about a feeling I get by getting into something way over my head and then actually pulling it off and realizing that my own potential was higher than I had ever thought. That's a rare feeling, and I believe it is what drives many people to do bigger and harder races and it's the reason that races like Hardrock, Badwater, Arrowhead, and others exist. For those that don't understand our sport, that is essentially the main reason I'm occasionally willing to suffer for far too many hours in a seemingly masochistic endeavor. There are many other reasons, but that's the big one. It is the feeling I got completing my first Grandma's Marathon in 1997 in 5:57, 3 minutes before the cutoff, after four months of running in my entire life. It's the feeling I got after that Superior 50 mile race two years ago this past weekend. It's the feeling I got after my first 100 mile finish at Zumbro this spring, and it's definitely the feeling I got again this weekend.

I have had a great season, completing seven races thus far that I set out to do. Those races were for two reasons.. Number one, they are a blast, 50k / 50 mile races are now very "comfortable" for me, and I love hanging out with all my friends and wife in the woods for a day. Number two, they were all in preparation for this race. As my good friend and mentor Carl Gammon and I have discussed on multiple occasions, it's more fun to do races for training then long solo training runs.

OK, enough of the nostalgia,let's get to the race at hand, the Superior Sawtooth 100 Mile Run. In a nutshell, this race boiled down to two elements for me. Number one, it was a crash course of trial and error on how to control blisters. Number two it was about dealing with heat and humidity on a LOT longer race than I'm accustomed to.

When we arrived at Gooseberry falls, many of my trail friends were already hanging out. We all stood around chatting, taking photos, laughing, it was a good way to reduce the tension before the race (tension that had just about eaten me alive in the week leading up to the race) It was already warm and muggy, a very bad sign for 7:30 in the morning on the north shore. We all eventually ambled over to the start area. It was almost comical, no one wanted to line up in the front and everyone was being fairly pokey, to the point that when Larry finally said go, no one was really even at "the line".
We took off and headed into the woods. The trail started out very easy, but quickly became the rocky, rooty beast that I was accustomed to from years past. When we finally arrived at the first aid station I had completely drained my 80 or so ounces in my Camelbak, another bad sign since there were several more equally long (9-10 mile) sections to be run and the temps were still climbing. Maria and Doug Barton were handling quite a crowd at the first aid station and Doug refilled my empty pack and I headed out.

The next section was equally long, but even more technical. There were several areas where the trail just turned into piles of rubble for a bit, and one section that could only be described as a long pile of boulders to climb or pick your way through. I had my first signs of hot spots on my feet during this section, an alarming prospect 20 miles into a 100 mile race. When I arrived at the second aid station, Jen and Helen sprung into action quickly helping me refill my fluids, food, and check out my hot spots. I had one small one on the front of the ball of my foot, which was very alarming since this was the same area that made the last 30 miles of my first 100 mile race pure hell, and this was coming on 50 miles sooner! I poked it as best I could, changed socks, and left it be as it wasn't in a place that was easily covered.

The next section to Silver bay was half as long but a bear. There was a notable rock climb to the top of a peak overlooking the city that was sweltering hot in direct sun. The air was just stagnant, not a breeze to be had, even on top of the exposed mountain, and the haze was thick. As it often does in extreme humidity, my stomach went to hell and the hot spots continued to grow. When I arrived at Silver Bay, my good friend Jim Wilson was there and I didn't even see him right in front of my face I was so out of it! I sat down, changed socks, put some foot lube that Jim had on my main hot spot, and headed out for another nearly 10 mile section to Tettegouche.

I was looking forward to this section before the race, having seen stunning photos of Bean and Bear lake and wanting to experience it for myself. I took my trail camera along hoping to get some good photos. Unfortunately my stomach and mood were at an all time low by the time I got there, and although gorgeous, I barely enjoyed the view, and didn't even have it in me to pull my camera out of my pack.

When I finally arrived at Tettegouche, I had a few serious blisters going, terrible stomach, terrible attitude, and was seriously considering calling it a day. I told myself "if it were just a 50, I'd push through, but there's no way I can keep on these already blistered feet for nearly 70 more miles". On top of those issues, I was starting to cramp due to lack of food most likely. Kurt Decker caught wind of my attitude and said "it's only a patch job, you'll be fine", and John Storkamp was standing around and gave me some classic John advice that went something like "just shove food in till you are uncomfortable, puke if you have to, you'll come around". As absurd as it sounded at the time, I didn't start feeling better until later that evening when I managed to get a lot more food in. I spent a good 20 minutes patching up my feet with tegaderm and bandaids and came around enough to pull myself out of my seat and on to the next aid station.

The sun started setting and the temp got better. I ran into Eric Skytte early in the section on the top of a climb sitting on a rock feeling worse than I did earlier. I offered what advice I could think of on how to get out of his funk, tried to get him to come along, but he needed to sit a bit longer. He ended up having a tough go of that section, but ultimately getting to Finland for 50 mile credit. The sun went down by the end of the section, I was feeling much better, and I ended up nearly sprinting down the 1/4 mile of road to the Co Rd 6 aid station.

Tom and Nancy were there with some awesome grilled cheese, and with the temps cooling it was time to catch up on calories. I ate one at the station and took one on the road, a HUGE help. I went through another 15-20 minutes of foot patching. As in previous sections, everything previously applied just sweated off in the humidity and heat. This time we added duct tape on top of the tegaderm and bandaids, finally this combination mostly held for a change, probably due to the cooler temps and less sweating.

Things turned around even more as I embarked on the next section. It had been dark for an hour or two, the temps were much better, and I was on the last section to the half way point at Finland. I knew my spirits would be better once on the back half of the course as well as it would be familiar ground. Reaching Finland, I was greeted by my friend Jesse who had made the trip up just to accompany me through a few sections. I told him I was doing pretty well and wanted to save him for the infamous Crosby Manitou section.

It was a great decision, because shortly after leaving Finland I ran into Daryl Saari and spent the next two sections hanging out with him. Daryl was having a similarly tough day and was great company to commiserate with. We had some laughs at our own suffering, and quickly passed the time power hiking the next 11 miles. Daryl was the lone "gnarly bandit" left standing at the end of the race, finishing a series of four 100 mile races this summer to earn the title. Daryl was great company, and shared his wealth of experience. I jokingly told him before the race that I was going to tie a rope to him to drag me to the finish. I think I did mentally tie a rope at that point. Once we parted company at Crosby, I attempted to catch up for the rest of the race. With his track record this season and previous years at Superior, I knew he'd finish one way or another. It's funny what mind games one comes up with to pull through the rough patches.

When we finally reached Crosby, I spent another 20 minutes or so patching up the damage of the last 11 miles. I parted company with Daryl, who didn't need an extensive pit stop like me, and picked up Jesse for company. Jesse has done little running and no trail running in his career but is a strong biker. I pulled him into one of the toughest sections of the race and he was a total champ, power hiking the entire 9.4, and stayed on for the next 5.6 mile section! We saw the sun come up in the typical eternity it took to get through the Crosby section. It was great having his company at a critical time in the race, and I'm extremely grateful for the 8 hour round trip he made to help me out. We shared some laughs, talked about what he might post on Facebook the next day as he was freshly exposed to many of the less flattering aspects of trail running all day and all night. I educated him on the trail running credo "what's heard on the trail, stays on the trail", and so far he's spared me the exposure :)

My feet were completely trashed again by the time we hit Cramer Rd. Jen happened to meet a person with some extra tegaderm and tincture of benzoine (the missing ingredient to make the stuff stick!) I spent another 20 minutes or so carefully cleaning, applying benzoine, tegaderm, and duct tape to my very raw feet. It worked very well for awhile. It worked well enough that I resumed running to Temperance. I figure I pulled 25-30 minutes off my time. Mid way through the section Duke Rembleski flew by me with some upbeat encouragement, I figured he'd go on to win the 50 with the positive attitude he had that far into the race! As for myself, I was feeling on top of the world, power climbing out of the Cross river gorge. I was in the final 1/4 of the race, into the sections I know very well by now from previous races. I had about 20 minutes of off and on emotional moments as I knew at this point, for the first time in the race, that I was going to finish. I was moving well for the first time in many hours and on very familiar territory.
I found Jen sleeping in the car at Temperance river. I later found out that she had just arrived minutes before after driving all over to get Jesse back to his car. I opted for my 6th or so large coffee drink of the day, grabbed a sandwich and headed out. At this point, my feet didn't feel any better or worse so I left well enough alone having already spent way too much time patching them. I headed out in good spirits, ready to make Carlton Peak my bitch. It started raining briefly, a nice respite from the heat, but it only lasted 10 minutes or so. By the time I got up on the climb to Carlton Peak, it was sunny and HOT, there was no breeze whatsoever. The energy I had to attack Carlton was gone half way up when I figured I should have been at the top. I forgot how much more climbing there is coming from the south! Every time I thought I was at the top, it would turn and go up a bit more, maddening. Coming down the back side was almost worse on the sore feet. I ran into a confused rock climber that was asking directions to the rock climbing at Carlton, I think he was more confused after he left me. He seemed determined to get the answers he needed out of me, as I was trying to explain where I'd seen climbers once 2 years ago.

Finally, rolling into Sawbill, I decided to do one last maintenance on the feet. The improvement I had gotten from the patch job at Temperance had worn off and they hurt like hell. I'd hoped I could just leave them be, but there was still 13 or so miles to go, too far to just let them go to hell and deal with the pain. Helen and Eric were there looking fresh as daisies, considering Eric ran 50 miles the day before, and Helen ran and won a marathon, and they were both operating on 3 hours sleep. I guess fresh is all relative! As I took my time on my feet, Steve Q filled me up and hung out, and Eric casually offered to join me on the next section. He seemed surprised that I took him up on it, but I was VERY happy to have the company, enjoying the peace and solitude of running solo on the trail had run out some time the day before :)

The next section went by pretty quickly. Having someone new along to chat with gave us a ton to talk about. We had both used similar approaches of doing a bunch of races to prepare, but a lot of different races, so we swapped stories and had a good time.

We rolled into Oberg in good spirits, and there was Jen in running gear ready to head out with me on the last section. This was a surprise to say the least as she had come down with a nasty stomach bug the night before, the magnitude of which she had, mercifully, kept me largely unaware of. Had I known how rotten she was feeling, I probably would have felt very compelled to pull the plug earlier in the race, instead she soldiered on and did a stellar job of keeping me going. The back story on this was that a week before the race I had casually (at least so I thought) thrown out the notion that it would be really cool that if she was feeling up to it she could join me on the last section and finish the race with me. After all this had been a huge journey of many races of which she had been a steadfast teammate at every one. However, in the back of my mind I knew crewing this race solo would be very hard on her, and I wasn't expecting her to feel up to it. Turns out, Jen took it as a much stronger suggestion than I intended, and thought I'd be disappointed if she didn't so she suited up despite her condition, a gesture I will never forget, this is how great my wife is! (thanks Kel for the photo)
I left my feet alone, they hurt like hell, but with (as the sign said) 95.5 miles down and 7.1 to go, it was time to just go for it and get it the hell over with. Helen and Eric graciously offered to take our car to the finish and we headed out into the last section. This section was tough as always, in some ways tougher than I remember. It seemed more over grown that usual, and for the first time in any Superior race, there were bugs! I think it was the unusual temp, wet ground, and slow pace that let them catch up with me a few times. We took the section very slowly. My feet hurt with every step and Jen was struggling with her stomach, especially when exerting up the hills. I had grabbed the lights just in case, but really wanted to make it in before dark, I REALLY didn't want to see it get dark again. After what seemed like an eternity, we popped out of the woods, and did some light running down ski hill rd. I had to keep reeling Jen in as she was losing me on the road.

We rounded the lodge and, after nearly 36 long hours on the trail, came in to the finish with the biggest cheering crowd I've seen in my three years of doing these races. I don't recall any particularly strong emotions, just complete exhaustion, however the photos confirm there was a range of emotions in the minutes following the finish.. and confirm the exhaustion (thanks to Guy and Helen for snagging these)

The Finish 35:45:52

Seconds later... Extreme exhaustion

Yet a few seconds later... Elation!

And lastly, a surprisingly normal looking picture...

I'll post more on lessons learned down the road, this is enough for this post. I'm still trying to digest what happened throughout the race. However I was thrilled to be among the 36 of 70 starters to finish on a tough day, completing a several year old goal. Although things certainly didn't go perfectly, I was very happy that I was able to adapt and make it to the end, with lots of help from Jen and friends.


Adam said...

Nice work, well done.

Scott said...

That was a crazy tough day out there with so many drops. You seriously toughed out the blisters, great job. As Matt says, there is little margin of error on the SHT, you managed to stay on the right side of that line.

Londell said...

WOW... Nice post. I think I will print this and if I ever get blisters, sit and read it. YOU ARE AN INSPIRATION! Congrats... And I think it was so great Jen did that last leg with you. Perfect.

Anonymous said...

Great Job Zach, It was nice meeting you there.

Carl Gammon said...

Nice, report Zach. I especially liked your intro, where you captured one of the reasons we do these things. However, in additon to realizing one's own potential, I know most of us also run ultras because of the others we meet along the trail. Folks like you.

Anonymous said...

Great report, Zach. Way to stick with it!!! Great way to struggle and overcome!


Wayne said...

Congratulations, Zach... way to stick with it! I enjoyed this report.

SteveQ said...

My original comment never posted! I was here. Really.

Except for the blisters, you looked pretty good at Sawbill, especially for having done Lean Horse 3 weeks earlier. Then again, you've been looking pretty good in these things all year; I could learn a thing or two from you (including which Eric is which. I think there were 4 there). And needless to say, Jen is great - running the last section with you was probably no harder than crewing AND entertaining the kids at the same time at Lean Horse.

Anonymous said...

Zach it was nice running with you at the start. I was so nervous. I know you pace yourself well and that settled things down for me.
Along the way, Jen mentioned you were having blister issues, not the other stuff. But I figured it was a just a matter of time before you would reel me in as I was having ITband issues.
I guess that's one of thing kept me going on Sat..
I am glad to see you finished and Jen was able to join you.
I am still trying to digest what I did.....Nice job .......stew

Anonymous said...

Genial fill someone in on and this fill someone in on helped me alot in my college assignement. Thanks you seeking your information.