Sunday, September 27, 2015

Running with the Wolves: The Superior 100

Author's note: If you're curious how a California girl ended up at a race in northern Minnesota, you can read my love-affair-with-Minnesota preview-post here.

Checking out the views of Lake Superior (Photo courtesy of Superior 100)

The aptly named Superior 100 (Yes, it’s on the Superior Hiking Trail, and parallels Lake Superior, but it’s also just superior as far as most events go.) is a point-to-point course through the Sawtooth Mountains of Northern Minnesota. While the term “mountains” is perhaps a bit generous here, the race does manage to pack 21K feet of elevation gain and 21K feet of descent into its 103 miles. That, plus the highly technical nature of many of the trail sections, makes its tagline, “Rugged, Relentless, Remote”, more than accurate.

I had been intrigued by this race since the late 90s when I guided teens on rock climbing trips on the Superior Hiking Trail. I was strictly a road runner at the time with only three marathons under my belt, and I couldn’t fathom how one could run on such technical terrain, much less do it for 100 miles. The mystery enticed me, and I knew I wanted to run it one day. I was an ultrarunner long before I was actually an ultrarunner. 

In many ways, the race turned out to be exactly what I expected: beautiful and challenging. It also turned out to be so much more.

A typical view from the course.

It reconnected me with a time in my life when I had been more open to new experiences, more capable of embracing the unknown. It gave me some much needed quality time with my sister, who graciously agreed to crew for me. It reminded me that I have so much more support from family, friends, and even perfect strangers than I often remember. 

One of the hardest parts of the race was squeezing it into a weekend during the second week of school. When I got permission in July to take two days off for the race, I thought, “Sweet! It’s on!” But I almost pulled the plug on it so many times between that day and race day. The travel would be extremely tight, the whole weekend would be expensive, I couldn’t afford to fly out anyone to pace me, and I carried major guilt about taking time away from my students during such an important time in the school year.

Thursday morning I got up at 3:50 AM to catch the first leg of my flight. Four hours of sleep on the night before the night before race day. Dammit! I hadn’t been averaging much better than that all week because I was so busy with work and trying to take care of the dogs and house all by myself, but, hey, that’s life. I was only taking a carry-on because I was too worried about the airline losing my bag, and there simply wasn’t any room in my itinerary for delays. Who travels to a 100-miler with only a carry-on! A girl with no drop bags, that’s who.

I landed in Minneapolis at about 2:00 PM, got the rental car, met up with my sister Laura who also flew in that morning from L.A., and we drove straight to REI where it took me about 20 minutes to drop $200 on race supplies. (The race was serving Hammer products. I can stomach Hammer gels for a 50K or shorter, but definitely not for a 100, and I abhor Heed. I needed GU!) After that, it was straight Up North, and we arrived just in time for the 6:30 PM race briefing. Whew!

On the road to Two Harbors! (Photo: Laura Brugman)

Since I had Laura to crew, I didn’t need to take the morning shuttle from the finish line, and we stayed at a hotel near the start. This allowed me to sleep in to 6:00 on race morning, giving me a full 8 hours of sleep. It wasn’t enough to make up for the lack of sleep all week, but I was still incredibly grateful for it!

With Laura at the starting line.

The first part of the course had to be rerouted due to a trail closure. We would run on the paved bike path for four miles before jumping on the Superior Hiking Trail for the remainder of the race. This was actually fine with me because it gave us all a chance to spread out a bit before hitting the single track. It also gave me a chance to chat with other runners, which was a great way to start the morning.

Once we hit the single track, I felt warmed up and relaxed. I had opted to start with hand-held bottles for the first few aid stations. Even though many of the aid stations were 10 miles apart, I knew I would be moving decently in these early miles, and that the cooler temps meant I wouldn’t be drinking too much.

The trail was beautiful already, and I kind of enjoyed hopping along through the technical parts. Nearing the first aid station, I was running with another woman when a spectator told us we were the first and second women.

What?! Oh crap. This is absolutely not where I should be!

I consciously slowed down. If my training for this race had been what it should have, this wouldn’t have concerned me as much. But I had no reason to think I should be doing anything but surviving this thing. I certainly should not be thinking about the podium at mile 9!

Early miles. (Photo: Zach Pierce)

The other thing the bike path re-route did was make the first part of the race pretty fast. There was no crew at the first aid station at mile 9, and I had told Laura to be at Beaver Bay (the second aid station at mile 20) at 11:30 AM. I knew there was absolutely no way I would run 20 miles in 3:30 during a 100 mile race. Even I couldn’t be that stupid! But I guess I hadn’t fully accounted for the speed of the bike path portion. (Or for my own stupidity.)

About three or four miles out from Beaver Bay, I could see that I might come in very close to 11:30 AM. I started stressing that Laura wouldn’t be there yet. Dammit, why was I running so fast? But I felt great. Totally relaxed. I didn’t feel fast at all.

I did a little more purposeful slowing down. It wasn’t that I couldn’t get through that aid station without crew. I knew I would be totally fine with just the aid station supplies. It was Laura I was worried about, and the possible cascade of events that could occur if she arrived there after I did.  First, I would feel bad for giving her inaccurate info. Second, she probably wouldn’t realize she had missed me. She wouldn’t think to check with the aid station that early on to see if I’d come through already. Thus, it could be a LONG time before she figured it out, meaning she would likely miss me at the next stop, too, and maybe even the one after that. Third, if any of this happened, she would feel really bad about it, meaning, Fourth, I would feel really bad that she felt bad.

When I explained this to my husband after the race, he just laughed and said, “You guys are hilarious.”

When 11:30 came and went and I was still running toward Beaver Bay, I was immensely relieved. 

Just before the aid station there was a little boy with his mom, and he was handing out those rubber band bracelets that kids make. He gave one to each runner as we came by, and you can bet I slowed down long enough to get one from him. Good luck charm for the rest of the race. What an awesome kid!

I arrived at 11:40 AM to Laura, completely prepared for me, saying, “Wow, you’re way ahead of schedule!”

Yeah, apparently I suck at predicting my own splits.

But Laura totally does not suck at crewing, and she mixed my electrolyte drink and refilled my pockets with GU while I ate real food from the aid station. It was a quick stop, and I was off for a short five miles to the next aid station at Silver Bay.

Last year Laura had her first experience crewing at an ultra when she and Jamie came down to support me at the San Diego 100. Before Jamie started pacing me, she crewed with Laura through the day and clearly helped turn her into an expert crew captain in a very short amount of time!

Laura is ready and waiting for me! (Photo: Laura Brugman)

At the pre-race briefing, I had seen one of the cooler things that I have ever seen available for purchase at a race. They had black rubber wristbands listing all the aid stations, total mileage at each one, and mileage to the next aid. This was so helpful for someone like me who was not familiar with the course, and totally worth the $5. I consulted my bracelet before coming in to each aid station so I would know the distance to the next aid. This allowed me to know just what I would need from the aid station – how much water, how much food I should bring with me, etc. I also consulted it upon leaving each aid station. There were some long stretches between aid, and it would be easy to feel like they were taking forever. I calculated my approximate arrival at the next aid so I would not fool myself into thinking I should be there any earlier than my pace would indicate. I loved this bracelet!

I think it was through this next section that I ran for several miles in between two men. We were all first-time Superior runners. The man in front of me was from Iowa, and we discussed the challenges of training for a race with so much climbing when you live somewhere with approximately zero hills. Fortunately, I did not have that problem in my training. It was awesome running and chatting with these guys, and I was sorry to separate from them when we reached the aid station.

At Silver Bay (mile 25) I dropped my hand-helds and picked up my hydration pack. During the week before the race, I had spent some time reading race reports from past runners and looking at race photos. It was quite effective in scaring the piss out of me, but one thing I learned was that most people carry hydration packs in this race. This makes sense with a lot of 10 mile stretches between aid, plus the possibility of bad weather.

(Photo: Zach Pierce)

I spent most of the day loving the scenery, remaining well ahead of predicted pace, and just feeling happy. With all the stress about travel and my, ahem, less-than-superior training, I was so happy to be simply running the race. There was absolutely nothing to do now but keep putting one foot in front of the other, and that single-minded simplicity is probably my favorite thing about trail running. I am responsible for nothing except forward motion.

Looking down on Bear Lake

I passed a runner with flaming red hair coming in the opposite direction, (She wasn’t a racer.) and she called out, “Gretchen?”

“Yes!” How could anyone out here possibly know me? She reminded me that we had met at Sonoma, and gave a few words of encouragement before we parted ways. It wasn’t until after she was gone that I remembered our conversation after the race at Sonoma. I was so excited that she remembered me!

Trail markers blowing in the wind.

At Tettegouche (mile 35) Laura informed me that I had a pacer! This is a case of the Minnesota network coming through. Also a case of “my husband really didn’t want me to run alone through the night.” Andrew had contacted a couple friends of his who lived in Duluth. My pacer would be Andrew’s friend Abby’s friend Shirley’s friend Mary. Woo hoo! In a flurry of last minute texts, I had only texted Mary that morning on the drive to the start. I had left her Laura’s #, and said, if she could make it, great, but if not, no worries. She would run with me from Finland (mile 51) to Cramer Rd. (mile 78). This had been my best prediction of what would be my “late night” stretch – where a pacer would be most valuable.

Happy at Tettagouche! (Photo: Laura Brugman)

Changing socks. The only time I sat down at an aid station. (Photo: Laura Brugman)

I had picked up my small headlamp at Silver Bay because I was paranoid. Also because the race director told us to. When he had said, “Only the faster runners can make it to County Rd. 6 before getting their lights,” I had not included myself in that category. I guess I should have, but ultimately there is nothing wrong with carrying your headlamp for a few extra miles. Or 25.

A "plank bridge" across a swampy section.

Coming into County Rd. 6 (mile 43), I was ready for dinner. All I could think about was a ham sandwich. I wondered, could they possibly be serving a ham sandwich here? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? That was the first thing I asked for upon arrival.

“No, I’m sorry, no ham sandwiches.” They felt genuinely bad about not having ham sandwiches. But the offer of chicken noodle soup was met with excitement by me. Apparently I was in need of salt and protein. Yum!

I talked to a volunteer here who, I was told, had been asked by someone in Andrew’s Minnesota friend-network to pace me. Even though he hadn’t been able to pace me, it was great to have someone at the aid station looking for me and offering support. 

It was also at this aid station that Anthony’s wife came up and said hello. I had met Anthony randomly on a training run in July, and we had been stunned and delighted to learn we were both running Superior – two of only three runners from California in the race.

Sometimes one of the mentally challenging things about traveling to a race outside of your own running community is that everyone there seems to know each other, but you don’t know anyone. When I’m at Tahoe Rim Trail, or Western States, I feel like I know everyone. Even at Hardrock, I always have a lot of friends. At Superior, it was just a nice surprise to have one or two people with even a remote connection say hello. Yay, Minnesota!

I arrived at Finland (mile 51) still in the daylight and still feeling great. I was two hours ahead of my fastest prediction, but I knew that I would be slowed by darkness and by some notoriously technical sections of trail that were coming up in the next 20 miles. Think steep, rocky descents; think tree roots a la Hurt 100; think mud.

A typical stretch of technical trail. Going up these was not nearly as bad as trying to get down them.
I still wanted dinner, and I was thrilled to be offered beef stew at this aid station. While I was inhaling my stew, another volunteer offered me a hot dog.

“Sure!” Why not, right? It was delicious!

My stomach, obviously, was doing very well. I also partook all day long in what I had taken to calling “dirty candy.” On a brutal but beautiful 48 mile training run through Yosemite and Hoover Wilderness in August, Jamie and I were hitting “zombie mode” with 8 or 9 miles still to go when Jamie had abruptly stopped to inform me that someone had dropped their candy in the trail. We hadn’t seen a soul for at least ten hours, but the Mike & Ikes scattered in the dirt were temptation incarnate. A little dirt never hurt anything! We picked them up and brushed them off, and they were SO AMAZINGLY DELICIOUS! Mike & Ikes will now forever be “dirty candy” to me.

A guy with a mustache and goatee and wearing a Superior sweatshirt (indicating he had finished the race before) told me how great I was doing.

“You’re on 25-hour pace!” he enthused.

“Ha!” I rolled my eyes. “That will change, trust me.” I told him I was keeping my fingers crossed for 28 hours at this point. Still, that was two hours faster than my original prediction.

Heading out from Finland with Mary. (Photo: Laura Brugman)

This was also where I picked up Mary, my pacer. She hadn’t done any 100-milers herself, so she asked me what I needed.  I was comfortable with my abilities on both pace and nutrition. Truthfully, all I needed was distraction and entertainment, which is exactly what I told her. This was perfect, because it turned out Mary was a talker. Hooray!

I know I could have finished this race without a pacer, and part of me was curious to try it. I don’t know if I would have been any slower without a pacer, but it definitely would have been a bigger mental challenge. As we trotted along, Mary and I exchanged life stories, and I basically did not have to think at all. I think this was a best-case scenario for me as far as what kind of pacer I could have ended up with. Thanks, Mary!

The night, in so many ways, is just a blur. I slowed down as predicted, but not much more than everyone else. Upon leaving one aid station - it might have been Sugarloaf – Mary had paused to fix something with her shoe, so I was running alone. I heard this odd noise in the distance which I thought must be a wolf howling. Was I making that up? In my three summers and one winter living in Northern Minnesota, I had never once heard wolves howling. I kept hearing the noise. Perhaps it’s just a really strange owl? Truthfully, I wanted it to be a wolf. I found myself wondering, if I didn’t have a pacer, would I be scared to be out here with the wolves? 

When Mary caught up, she confirmed. Yes, it was a wolf. Amazing! Soon we heard more. Wolves talking to each other in the moonless, Minnesota night. The temperature had dropped into the low 30s, and I occasionally turned off my headlamp to admire the insanely bright stars packed into the vast, dark sky. This moment right here – this is why you want to travel somewhere new to run a 100 mile race. They kept up their haunting song for another half hour, and I couldn’t imagine any better soundtrack for running through the woods at night than the howling of those wolves.

I had sent Laura off to get some sleep while Mary ran with me. I really wanted one of us to be operating with some sleep on Saturday! Laura met me at Cramer Rd., where Mary would stop. When I had last seen Laura at Finland, I had told her 5:30 AM at Cramer, but she said, “No, I think 3:30!” So my 3:50 arrival made her, again, more accurate than I. 

I wasn’t too worried about running for another two and a half hours alone before the sun would come up. I still felt pretty darn good. I bid Mary farewell, and set off into what would turn out to be the hardest section of the race for me. 

I was 78 miles in, it was after 4:00 AM, and I was totally and completely falling asleep on my feet. I mean it was bad. SO. BAD. My eyes wouldn’t focus, and I kept veering off the trail. I had sipped half of a 5-Hour Energy at Cramer, and now I took the other half. Not only did it not help, but it made me feel a little loopy. Usually I know better than to drink more than half of one of those things, but I was desperate. Three separate times I had to stop and sit down to close my eyes and put my head down. I think I only stopped for a minute each time (who knows!), but even when I was moving, it was pathetic. I totally suck with sleep deprivation, and now my week of very little sleep was catching up with me.

At some point, a woman passed me, moving me from second to third female. I just couldn’t summon the energy to care, and I had known it was inevitable anyway. The only thing I cared about at that moment was sleep, and I knew the only way to get any was to get to the finish line. Just keep going, just get there. I imagined crossing the line and promptly laying down in the grass to sleep for 10 hours.

Temperance (mile 85) was the first aid station where I came in behind Laura’s prediction. A full hour and 20 minutes behind. Twenty-eight minute miles will do that, I guess.

Sleepy-eyed, with sister. (Photo: Laura Brugman)

I have experienced the “horrible sleepies” once before in a hundred – at the TRT 100 in 2010. During that race I had sat down at every aid station during the night and fallen asleep for a few minutes. I had enough experience now to know that kind of thing wouldn’t help, and unless I was truly falling off the trail, I just needed to keep going. The aid station workers, God bless them, told me how great I looked. Hilarious, but that’s also exactly what a runner needs to hear. 

I still felt horribly sleepy running along the Temperance River, even though the sun had come up. I was still operating on Pacific Time, and 6:00 AM felt like 4:00 AM. I distracted myself with taking pictures of the river, even though there wasn’t enough light. After a few more miles, I finally woke up. Hallelujah! The climb up Carlton Peak was almost enjoyable because I felt so much better!

It was also through these last 20 miles that I began playing leapfrog with another runner. He would pass me, I would come through the next aid station not realizing he was there sitting down somewhere, I would leave the aid station, and then a mile out, he would pass me again. With each of these passes we exchanged very brief words of encouragement. I think he was the only other runner I saw between mile 85 and the finish.

I think this was Sawbill AS, at mile 90. I don't know; it's all a blur. (Photo: Laura Brugman)

Laura said I seemed super focused and fired up at the last aid station at mile 96. This is probably because I knew I was just that much closer to getting to sleep! I picked up the pace to 17 minute miles, which actually isn’t that bad considering there are a few solid climbs on this seven mile stretch. It was certainly a huge improvement over my nighttime slow down.

When I suddenly realized that the course markings had led me to a spur trail of the SHT, I knew I must be getting close to the finish. OhDearLordThankGod! Looking at my watch, I realized I might actually make it in under 28 hours. I was stoked! We had to run through the Lutsen ski resort, and I had no idea exactly how much farther the finish line might be. I felt like I was flying – probably 15 minute miles.

When I crossed the line, the guy I had been leapfrogging with was right there, and even though I had never gotten his name, I ran straight over to give him a big sweaty hug.  We did it!

Finished! (Photo: Laura Brugman)

The finish is at Caribou Highlands Lodge, and one of the great things about this is that there were real showers there for us to use. The other great thing is that we could buy beer.

Laura and I sat at a table with the second place woman and her crew and basked in the glory of being done and having such amazing weather. Lows in the 30s at night, highs in the low 60s during the day, and a sparkling blue sky.

“You mean it’s not like this every day?” I joked. Apparently earlier that week it had been 90F and humid. Ugh!

I got my finishers sweatshirt, and Laura got me chili and a beer. Heaven.

And there was the goatee guy from Finland again, who I think I had also seen at some aid station in the middle of the night. Maybe that had been a hallucination though? His real name was John.

“I saw this girl eat a hot dog at Finland!” he declared to the crowd. They were duly impressed. Only at a 100-miler is the act of eating a hot dog a reason to brag.

Laura took this photo of my trophy before I had even finished!

We needed to start heading south again, but before we left, I knew I had an award to pick up. I’ll be honest; I’m not much for trophies or finisher swag that’s not useful. I have been known to throw trophies in the trash. I didn’t even buy the finisher’s buckle at Hardrock, because you know what? I have plenty of buckles, and it’s just stuff. But when we were at the pre-race briefing for Superior, I saw the trophies, and I loved them. It did not escape my notice that Masters Champions would get one. I may have finished 3rd female overall, but I was the first of the old gals. (Also, 23rd overall, out of 248 starters.) The beautiful howling wolf was cut from a flat piece of steel and welded onto a metal base. This is my favorite trophy ever!

I interrupted RD John Storkamp just long enough to thank him for an incredible event before jumping in the car and heading back south for the trip home. Superior is one of the country’s oldest 100-milers, and they have clearly learned how to put on a top notch event. (And incidentally, if you missed Alex Kurt’s July article in Trail Runner about RD John Storkamp, you can read it online here. It’s a great read that you shouldn’t miss.)

When I first signed up for this race, I’ll admit, I really wanted to go out there and nail it. By the time August rolled around though, I knew I would be lucky even to finish. I realize I have a reputation of being The World’s Biggest Sandbagger, and it is not wholly undeserved. But my training was truly so poor that, in the end, I felt audacious even for attempting Superior. 

Maybe muscle memory deserves more credit that I gave it because I honestly couldn’t be more thrilled with how my race turned out. The climbing, in truth, wasn’t that bad in my opinion. The only real climb I even remember was Carlton Peak. It was the 21K feet of descent, much of it technical, which was so hard. That part was brutal.

The mud, I am told, could have been much worse. And of course, the 4 miles of pavement at the beginning definitely contributed to faster times this year. Still, I was not expecting to be much faster than 30 hours.

In discussing my surprise at my performance with Jamie the week after the race, we had the following exchange:

Me: I really don’t know how I could have run so fast with such crappy training!

Jamie: Did you read that article about Rory a few months back?

Me: You mean the one in Outside where she basically said, “I don’t train”? 

Jamie: Yeah. I have to think that there’s something to that. Doing other things can count as training, and we don’t even realize it.

Me: So, sitting on the beach for a week during what should have been my most important training block, running only 12 miles, and drinking wine every day probably helped?

As happy as I am with this experience at Superior, I would still really like to come back and nail it. I think this is a course that suits me fairly well. Obviously I have some advantage living at 6,000 feet. I think if I managed something closer to my standard 100-miler training and worked on my descending, I could probably run something in the 25-hour range. And remember, you’re hearing this from The World’s Biggest Sandbagger.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if I will get back to Superior any time soon. It is just a tough time of year for a teacher who lives so far away.  For the time being, I can accept that. 

I really couldn’t ask for anything more than the opportunity to be there this year, to spend time with my sister, and to run through the starry night with the wild wolves.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Highway 61 Revisited

At the Java Moose, in Grand Marais, MN, circa 1999

"How does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?" 

- Bob Dylan, "Like a Rolling Stone" (From Highway 61 Revisited)

In the fall of 1996, after I’d finished hiking the PCT, I moved to St. Paul, MN, taking up residence outside of southern California for the first time in my life. I was 22 years old.

The beauty of being 22 is that you have enough life experience to give you some confidence and determination without saddling you with the fear and hesitation that age can sometimes bring.

I was an Orange County girl who was a little afraid she would never get out.

Even by the mildest of standards, Minnesota would not be considered by most to be a hotbed of big adventure. (Most people just don’t know!) I’d had a roommate my freshman year of college who was from St. Paul, and she was living there and in the market for a roommate again. Lacking any other plan for my life, it was an easy sell, and I was off to Minnesota, just like that.

Though my roommate was a dear friend, our lives somehow did not intertwine much that year. Here’s what I did my first year ever of living in a city:

(1) Quickly got a job at a gear store called MidwestMountaineering. I’m not sure the Minnesota natives who worked there fully understood the irony of that name. Their store t-shirt depicted someone portaging a canoe. (On the other hand, I guess that did show that they knew what "mountaineering" in the Midwest really meant.)

(2) Learned to navigate the bus system. Don’t laugh. Before the internet era of easily accessible maps and timetables, this was not easy. Especially for a girl who’d always had a car.

(3) Adjusted my “It’s too cold to go for a run” standard to anything colder than -20F.

(4) Attended “employee only” parties with TNF athletes like Conrad Anker and Lynn Hill. OMFG!!!

(5) Got another job as an assistant teacher at an elementary school.

(6) Got another job as a middle school track coach. (See any patterns emerging here?)

Incidentally, it was tough making it to all my jobs on time with an unreliable bus system. That summer was when I bought my little red pick-up truck. Such a symbol of adulthood and independence!

Flash back to a couple years earlier when I was in college and just discovering the world of outdoor sports, falling in love with being a rock climber. Here are a few things that happened at that time:

  1. I read a book called Annapurna: A Woman’s Place by a woman named Arlene Blum. In addition to being an accomplished climber and guide, Arlene Blum was the director of an organization called Woodswomen. They led all-women adventure trips in the outdoors. They were located in Minneapolis, MN.
  2. I read another book called Leading Out: Women Climbers, Reaching for the Top. I adored this book! Its dog-eared pages and underlined passages still grace my overcrowded bookshelf. It was a collection of essays by a variety of women climbers, many of whom, as it happened, were from Minnesota, some of them former guides for Woodswomen. (Why were so many amazing women from Minnesota??)
  3. I distinctly recall sitting in my dorm room reading an article in a magazine profiling three different women and their unusual careers. One of these women was Beth Wald, a climber and professional photographer. She traveled all over the world taking pictures of incredible climbing feats and other outdoor sports. I was a sports photographer for my college paper at the time and an aspiring climber. This woman, I knew, had my absolute dream job. I cut out the article and saved it.

Back in Minnesota, and the track season was over. School was out for summer. With Midwest Mountaineering as my only remaining source of income, I applied for, and got, a job at, … where else? Woodswomen. I was a summer intern.

Now I was guiding women in adventures all over the state, doing sports I’d never tried before. I learned to paddle a canoe. I taught women and kids how to rock climb. I drove the support van on a week-long horseback riding trip. (There was no way they were getting me on a horse!) I was giddy with the brilliance of it all. "Look what I’m doing!" was a daily exclamation I made to myself.

One evening, I was having a beer with a couple friends I worked with at Midwest Mountaineering. One friend was trying to give some moral support to a friend of his, Beth, whom he’d invited along. She was apparently in crisis about what direction to take her life. We’d been chatting about this for nearly 40 minutes before I caught her last name.

“Wait!” I said loudly, slapping my hand on the table, drawing everyone’s attention. My jaw had dropped. “You’re Beth Wald?!” I didn’t know what to say. Here I was faced with this real-life, every-day, normal person, who also just happened to be my personal role model.

Of course, I told her the story of the magazine article. I don’t know if this helped her with her life crisis at all, but I like to think that it did.

That winter, I moved to northern Minnesota to take a job as a dog handler for a musher guiding dogsled trips for women.

Kisses from Wasimo, a badass lead dog on the dogsled team.

Running dogs is still one of my favorite things I have ever done.

That covers my first 18 months in Minnesota.

After that, I got a summer job guiding teenagers on climbing and canoeing trips up in the Boundary Waters. I met my husband there, and we got married in the fall of 2000 on the banks of West Bearskin Lake in the Boundary Waters.

Returning from guiding a 30-day canoe trip, and Andrew swam out to meet me.

The place holds incredibly potent and significant memories for me, but I haven’t been back to northern Minnesota in the 15 years since I got married there.


Last month was the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s seminal album, Highway 61 Revisited. Highway 61 runs down from Canada, through Duluth, MN, where Dylan was born, all the way to New Orleans, connecting him, Dylan felt, to the blues music and musicians he loved.

“Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I'd started on it, always had been on it, and could go anywhere,” Dylan said of his choice for the album title.

My own kinship with Highway 61 goes north from Duluth along the shore of Lake Superior to Grand Marais, rather than south to New Orleans, but I’ve always felt similarly to Dylan in terms of the path it held in my life at one time. From dog sledding, to canoeing, to backpacking and rock climbing – Highway 61 led me to so many new adventures. Let’s not forget falling in love!

Wedding in the Boundary Waters, October 2000.

This week, I’m finally headed back to Highway 61 for another adventure. I’ll be attempting to go 100 miles on the Superior Hiking Trail in the Superior 100 which begins on Friday.

I’ll be trying to tap into that 22-year-old version of myself. That girl who had never been in temps below 30F but decided -20F was acceptable running weather. That girl who thought driving a team of huskies across a frozen lake was a perfect activity for someone born and raised in Orange County.

You see, lately I’m feeling a bit of that “on my own” spirit I had in my 20s, and finding a little of the “on my own” strength that being 22 provided. 

It’s been one year since my mother passed away, and it is not an understatement to say I still feel devastated by this loss every day. 

For complicated reasons, my husband took a job out of state (ironically, in Minnesota, though he will have to work while I am out there for my race). I miss him desperately.

I started a new job last week, and I go back and forth between being incredibly excited and incredibly overwhelmed. 

So many new things.

And this race? I am definitely afraid.

Of course, it’s not my first 100-miler, but let’s face it – muscle memory can only get you so far. I am under-trained, and I’m going without a pacer. "On my own," as it were. A rolling stone.

This thought both thrills and scares me. And that, I think, is a good thing.

And yes, here is where I’m going to put that famous Eleanor Roosevelt quote. Sorry if you’ve heard it too many times to count. It still speaks to me.

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

It’s not that this thing is really going to be a horror. The death of a loved one puts that kind of thing into stark perspective. It is, after all, just a race. Just a run.

But, still.

My running club, the Donner Party Mountain Runners, has the tagline “Unafraid.” It is taken directly from words about the real DonnerParty. In talking about it with a fellow club member the other day though, we both admitted that we are plenty afraid. The important thing isn’t really to be fearless, it’s to go forward in spite of your fear. That is where real strength lies. That is how you grow.

I definitely knew that when I was 22. This seems like a good time to remind myself.

With that in mind, perhaps T Swift’s “22” is a better theme song here than Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” With apologies to Bob for the major shift in musical genre, that’s the direction I’m going.

“Yeah, we’re happy, free, confused, and lonely in the best way! Yeah, it’s miserable and magical, oh yeah!” – Taylor Swift, “22”

See you soon, Minnesota!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Lake Sonoma 50 - 2015 Edition

The finish line at Lake Sonoma 50: Truly a special place. (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

In its 8th running this year, the Lake Sonoma 50 has already become a Nor Cal Spring Classic. Boasting excellent trails with beautiful views of the lake, a relentless course, and some of the fastest trail runners around, it’s a race I hope to come back to every year. This was my 3rd time running it, and it’s hard to believe, but it just keeps getting better.

Heading into race week, where I definitely tapered, I had pretty conservative goals. As mentioned in my Way Too Cool report, I have not been a highly motivated runner this year. I had two great weeks of high volume training in March, but otherwise, it’s been pretty low grade. Thus, I had my sights set closer to last year’s Sonoma time of 9:19, rather than the 8:59 I had pulled off in 2012.

“You always do that,” Jenelle accused me, two days before the race. “You say you’re not going to do well, and then you run great!”

I digested that for a second, thinking about how much faster I’d run at San Diego last year than I had said I would.

“I know.” I sighed. “I’m a total sandbagger. I don’t mean to be though; I just don’t want to be disappointed.”

I decided to quit worrying about my race, and just have a good weekend. Jenelle was coming out to watch, and my husband Andrew was coming too, which is a very rare treat! I had reserved two nights at the hotel in Healdsburg, and our other friends Andrew and Yvette would come to the finish line and then hang out for the rest of the weekend. It really didn’t matter how well my race went – it was bound to be a fun weekend!

I rode to the start with Chaz, and we lined up together in the early morning light. We greeted many friends and enjoyed the pre-race nerves and excitement that we all felt. I was excited to see my friend Jenny Capel because I hadn’t realized she would be there.

On the starting line with Chaz. I swear it wasn't foggy out. This is just Chaz's idea of cool photo filters.

Starting off on the pavement, I soon found myself in a small friendly group of runners that included Erika Lindland, Scott Mills, and Kevin Skiles.

“Whatever you do,” I warned everyone, “don’t get in front of Erika. You’ll regret it later!” There was general agreement on this point, as Erika always runs a killer pace late in her races. She accused me of mowing her down in the final miles of this race last year, but I finished only a couple minutes ahead of her.

The awesome Erika Lindland, with Kevin and me back there trying to keep up. (Photo by Chris Jones)

We hit the singletrack, and everything was lovely. Our group stayed more or less together all the way to the first full aid station at mile 11. We joked so much about not wanting to get in front of each other, lest we get our butts kicked later in the race, that when Erika dropped something and had to pull off to pick it up, letting us all pass her, Kevin and I had to give her grief about it.

“Nice race strategy!” Kevin teased. Now I was suddenly leading the group. Noooo!

Eventually I found myself running up front with Scott. Looking back, Erika was nowhere to be seen.

“How is it that I broke my own rule about not getting in front of Erika?” I asked Scott. He laughed as we ran along together. The day was warming up beautifully, and I felt great. So far my splits had been pretty close to last year’s, as far as I could tell. I figured I was on pace for something in the 9:10-9:20 range.

After the Madrone Point aid station at mile 19, I was still running with Scott when we started one of the bigger climbs on the course. We had moved from singletrack onto a dirt road. The next ten miles back to this aid station are some of the most exposed on the course, but fortunately it wasn’t yet hot out, and there was a thin cloud cover.

The out-and-back course around Lake Sonoma

When we saw the first men coming back toward us, Scott and I could only laugh.

“That’s just not right,” he said.

“They make it look so easy!” I agreed. We were running downhill, and they were running up at the same pace. Actually, they were probably faster.

We both noted that we saw the first men much sooner than we had last year, but were undecided about whether that meant they were running faster than last year or we were running slower. I chose to believe the former.

Eventually I left Scott behind and moved through the next miles feeling strong. I enjoyed cheering for friends like Meghan and Pam who were already on their return trip.

I hit the aid station at No Name Flat (mile 25) in 4:20, which I had a vague idea was somewhere between my split from last year and my split from 2012. (Turns out I was right – it was 3 minutes faster than last year, and 5 minutes slower than 2012.) I was pretty happy to be faster at this point than last year because I knew I was feeling much better. I recall thinking at this point last year that it was going to be a painful slog back to the finish. By contrast, this year I felt great, and my spirits were high.

Seeing so many friends on this section certainly contributed to my fun. Smiling faces and many cheers and greetings filled the miles and kept me cranking along.

The only mistake I made was topping off just one bottle at No Name instead of leaving with two full bottles. Rookie move. I hadn’t realized how much warmer it had gotten. As mentioned, this section of the course is exposed, and there are some solid climbs. The cloud cover had vanished. I ran out of water. Stupid me.

I know this course fairly well by now though. When I came to a familiar singletrack climb, I knew it would soon pop out at the top onto a dirt road, and from there it was less than a mile of downhill to the aid station. Eric Schranz had long ago departed and taken his Golden Shower with him to follow the fast guys to the finish when I arrived at the dirt road right behind Craig Thornley and his green truck and followed him all the way in.

Although I was a little on the dehydrated side, I could tell it wasn’t bad. It’s a quick two miles until the next aid station, so I left Madrone with two full bottles and spent most of that time taking in fluids. By the time I reached Wulflow aid station at mile 33, I felt fully back on track with fluids and calories.

I was running alone at this point, although I had glimpsed Erika at the turnaround. The hardest part of Lake Sonoma is the return trip, and for me it has always been a huge mental struggle. Both of my previous runs here had me feeling slow, unfocused, and depressed through the lonely miles from Madrone (mile 31) to Island View (mile 45.5). The scenery is incredible – glimpses of glittering turquoise water in the lake below, grassy hillsides dotted with wildflowers in pinks, purples, oranges, and even a few reds, big shady oak trees interspersed with redwood glens and cascading creeks. But the hills are relentless, and it can be hard to keep a good rhythm. Somehow, miraculously, this year I completely found my mojo on this stretch. I felt great!

The beautiful trails of Lake Sonoma. (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

Somewhere between mile 33 and 38 I caught up to Chaz, and we ran together for the rest of the race. I discovered that I was still totally capable of running hard on the downhills, which I think is part of what had me feeling so good. Typically I become a gingerfoot on the downhills when I get tired. Although my training mileage had been low, I had spent much of it in the canyons of the Western States trail, which will certainly help your downhill running ability.

I was in my groove and focused on the trail when I glanced up to see where Chaz was just in time to avoid a hard collision between a tree and my forehead. Phew! A little while later though, there was another one, and this time I wasn’t so lucky. Fortunately, this tree was hanging just enough higher to do little more than scare me and steal the hat off my head. I love running in my Big Truck trucker hat because the big brim provides good shade (or rain protection, as the case may be), but it definitely has its drawbacks. I guess I need to look up more.

As we headed in to the Island View aid station, Erika was right behind us, and I could see that we were on pace to finish in under 9 hours. I couldn’t believe it! I still felt strong, although I knew that wouldn’t last a whole lot longer. I rushed through the aid station and yelled to Chaz to hurry.

“We’ve got this!” I encouraged. With 8:04 on the clock, we had 55 minutes to finish in 8:59. Exactly 12 minute pace. I knew we’d been averaging close to 11 minute pace for the last 14 miles, but I also knew these last 4.5 had a lot of climbing.

I can’t remember the last time I felt that pumped up leaving an aid station. I was on the verge of a PR, but I knew I was really going to have to work for it. I had Chaz there to run with, and I knew he was gunning for it too. Erika was right behind us, and I was sure all three of us could work together to get that sub-9. Maybe even faster.

This mindset lasted for about a half mile.

Holy crap there are a lot of hills in the final miles of that race! I remembered running this section with Chris last year, and I tried to push my pace like I had then. I was breathing so hard on the climbs that I was kind of scaring myself. I worked and pushed and scraped every last ounce of strength I had, and around every corner was another goddamn climb.

I'm not sure this elevation profile does it justice.

 “Beer!” Chaz yelled back to me in encouragement. Hell yeah; that first Racer 5 was going to be heavenly. But there was work to be done before that. Painful work.

I watched the minutes slowly tick by on my watch. Chaz eventually pulled away as I faded, and I crossed my fingers for him.

Erika came up behind me for the last time right as we hit the “one mile to go” sign. I looked at my watch. 8:50.

“Crap!” Erika and I almost said it in unison. I let her go by and completely accepted my fate. There would be no PR today. And honestly, that was okay. I’d had a better day than I could have possibly hoped for, and now all I wanted was to be done running. That last mile took forever.

(Photo by Andrew Crisp)

High-five from the hubby on the way in! (Photo by Andrew Crisp)

The finish chute at Sonoma is long, but that gives you plenty of time to bask in the cheers of your friends and family. Andrew was there, along with Jenelle and our friends Andrew and Yvette.  I crossed the line in 9:03. Tropical John was there with a hug, and I was full of joy and relief to be done running.

Finishing strong and happy! (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

My first order of business was to find Erika and Chaz, give hugs, and find out if they had made it in under 9 hours. I knew it was possible, and I still had hope for them. But they both finished in 9:01. Gah! So close.

Thirty minutes, a recovery drink, and one beer later, and I felt worlds better. Now all that was left was to bask in our achievements in the beautiful spring day and cheer for more finishers. My definition of a perfect afternoon.

There’s no denying this race is hard. But there’s also no denying that I love it. Even though I was 4 minutes off my PR for the course, I still feel like this was my best Sonoma yet. I feel like I paced it perfectly. I felt absolutely great right up until those last 2 or 3 miles, (when I suddenly felt like I wanted to die). I think I just ran up against the limits of my training, and I am grateful that I made it all the way to mile 48ish before I did. I just needed a little more gas in the tank, and I came up short.

From mile 31 to mile 45.5, I was 4 minutes faster than in 2012. But from mile 45.5 to the finish, I was 6 minutes slower than in 2012. God only knows how I ran that section in 53 minutes that year.

The rest of the weekend is really what it was all about. Andrew, Jenelle, Chaz, Drew, Yvette and I had an amazing dinner out in Healdsburg that night. We followed it up with beer tasting at Bear Republic. We were taking a certain amount of pride in shutting down the brewery when I looked behind me to see that Bryon Powell’s table was still going strong outside. Those are the true professionals.

Enjoying my amazing trout and a sangria at Bravas (Photo by Jenelle Potvin)

With Yvette, Drew, Andrew, and Jenelle. Andrew said Jenelle had enough hair for both of them. (Photo courtesy Jenelle Potvin)

Taster sets at Bear Republic. Yum!

This was someone at Bryon Powell's table at Bear Republic.

And if you have a spouse or significant other who just isn’t into the whole ultrarunning thing, I highly recommend you bring her or him to a weekend at Lake Sonoma 50. First, the prerace dinner at Spoonbar was fabulous! Then, a Saturday night out in Healdsburg is guaranteed to be delicious. And totally hip. (Something we dont get a lot of in small mountain towns.) Sunday always features wine tasting at a vineyard, arranged by John and Lisa. I have never stayed for the wine tasting portion of the race before, but I am here to tell you that I will never skip it again. Andrew assures me that he is coming, too. 

The view from Pezzi-King vinyards.

Enjoying Sunday wine tasting at Pezzi-King with Andrew and Drew.

A huge thanks, as always, to John and Lisa and their team for putting on such an incredible event. This one is top notch in every way and provides such a quintessential slice of our little ultrarunning community. 

Tropical John gives thanks. Gordy and Craig do their best to imitate his wardrobe.

Thanks especially to Chaz, Erika, and Scott for sharing so many miles on the trail with me. That was such a huge, wonderful part of my day. 

Thanks to Andrew for doing all the driving on Sunday!

I have been a thoroughly uninspired runner all season. Sitting here with a case of poison oak (boooo!), a case of wine (yaaaaayy!), and a case of full-fleged post-race glow, and I think, I hope, that time has come to an end. Sonoma is an incredibly challenging race, not just because of its 10K feet of elevation gain, but also because I always seem to push myself so hard there. 

I’ll save you the emotional sermon about why I’ve been in such a slump, but I will say this: There’s nothing to help you out of such a space like pushing yourself, making yourself hurt, feeling surprised at your own abilities, doing it all with friends, and celebrating afterward.

Thank you so much, Lake Sonoma. I needed that.

Two people who ran awesome at Lake Sonoma. (And one bull.)