Saturday, March 18, 2017

Arrowhead135 2017 | An Unsupported Journey

I must have weighed the pros and cons a thousand times before deciding how to take on the Arrowhead135 this year. Early season training runs and tire drags had me feeling efficient, strong and fast. The temptation to go for a PR was high. Even plausible. Then, at the peak of summer Jeremiah & I launched a business…a grand adventure neither of us saw coming. In the whirlwind of months that followed it became an easy decision. Unsupported.  I craved the quiet of the north woods. Solitude over speed.

The morning before the race I make the drive to Fortune Bay (the finish line) where I will leave my truck for the duration of the event. Locking it feels so final…I hope I have everything.  I book a room for the day I plan to finish, further incentive to get myself here, then hop on the cab back to IFalls with other racers doing the same.

Ed Thomas, a brother in the foot-division, is on the shuttle with me. Catching up with him brings some much needed levity to the day even as my thoughts wander mid-conversation going over the many checklists dominating my mind.

Less than 30minutes into the trip back the shuttle breaks down… awesome. We’re all increasingly anxious to get to town and finalize race-prep, but I couldn’t have picked a better group of guys to be stuck with waiting for the replacement cab to arrive.  Imagine the stories, the rumors of Sasquatch on the trail & the laughter.

“Be still, and know that I am God:” Psalm 46:10a

What is left of the afternoon is spent checking boxes on the lists. Loading and then reloading the bloated pulk. I finally reach the point where I have winnowed away everything I can safely go without before heading to the trail for a quick shake-out run with Ed.  All of the added food and fuel is heavy, but I’m confident with my setup and it drags well.

Going unsupported carries new mental burdens and I wrestle with them going into the pre-race meeting. I’m afraid of forgetting something stupid that will have a profound effect on my race. I do my best to talk with everyone I haven’t seen in a year, but my mind has already begun blurring everything else out in order to focus on the task ahead.  This is going to be tough…

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9

Day 1
Race morning I wake up rested before the alarm goes off.  I go about checking off the final boxes on the lists when Jeremiah calls. I savor every word. This is the last time I will hear my Beloved’s voice until my race is over, wherever that may be. I pin the green ribbon that indicates a racer as unsupported to my race bib, then duct tape it in place as a secondary measure securing my commitment to this approach. We pray, say our I love yous and out the door I go.

If I’ve forgotten anything, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m all in.

Game face. (Photo Credit: Jason Johnson)

Fireworks send us off into the dark morning. Months of preparation finally put into motion. The glide of fresh snow is a blessing to my beast of a sled, but all day I struggle to settle into a sustainable pace. I find myself hustling between groups of friends attempting to soak in what I can of their sweet company and encouragement. Knowing it’s their voices I’ll want in my head when the going gets dark and I’m all alone.

Photo Credit: Maranda Lorraine

Sunlight begins to dwindle as I reach the last shelter outside of Gateway Store (Checkpoint  1). It is here that I have planned to stop to boil snow into water, get off my feet and make some hot food.  Racer after racer passes me as I gather snow and stick to the plan. I can see the doubt (or perhaps its pity) on some of their faces, but I’m happy here. The hustle of the day now hushed as I dig into my camp meal and soak in the silent beauty of snowflakes continuing to fall.

Michael appears outside the shelter just as I start on my final snow melt.  He’s unsupported too and has done a better job patiently pacing himself through day one.  I pack up and we travel the remaining miles to Gateway together. It’s like old times again. I’m so thankful.

It’s completely dark when we get to the first checkpoint, mile 35. Mike has some work to do so he stays behind getting set up for night. I’ve done everything I can do to avoid the temptation of going inside to warm up, rejoin my friends and eat that tasty cheese burger.  I am successful and quickly pass though.  

Night one is never ending as I make my way toward Melgeorge’s.  My legs and body feel adequate for the task but I am surprised by how tired I feel so early in the race. It’s only night one and I’m starting to fall asleep on my feet.  I’m forced to shiver bivy several times. Each time I unpack the down jacket I use as a blanket from my sled I’m greeted by the letter my husband sent with me the first time I attempted Arrowhead and failed. I never open it, seeing it is enough. The outside of it reads “when: the darkest hour before the dawn”.  I pass out and then press on as if I could somehow pull the sun over the horizon instead of my pulk over these hills.

The tug-of-war with fatigue is constant, so is the hunger.  Despite devouring countless 800 calorie bags of food, I can hear my stomach growling every time I stop.  Every.Single.Time. I’m reduced to a zombie walking food-shoveling Neanderthal when Lisa and I meet up on the trail. Grateful to not be alone I follow her as she gracefully picks her way down the trail to checkpoint 2.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23

Day 2
Day breaks and we trek across Elephant Lake to Melgeorge’s, mile 75. A kind volunteer meets me outside the cabin so that I don’t have to go in to check in/out. I’m better off not knowing what I’m missing inside.  Lisa goes in to sleep and resupply, I head up the trail another 3 miles to a shelter.  In the time-warp to the second checkpoint I’ve found myself looking forward to these 3 miles. My first time on the Arrowhead Trail was here, when the thought of running the race was this mammoth dream. I fell in love with it then and here on my fourth year racing it, that hasn’t changed. 

I am mentally in a good space when Kari catches up to me on the trail. She’s fresh off of Tuscobia and there’s a certain degree of understanding in the words we exchange. This is work, but that doesn’t keep it from being wonderful.

Reaching the shelter I pull off to the side and stick to the plan. This is the second spot I have plotted out to melt more snow and make warm food, but my need for sleep comes first. I don’t want to mess with fire when I’m this tired so I crawl into the oasis of my bivy.

All of the pain and soreness fatigue had drowned out getting through the night now has me paralyzed in a sea of down.  My left knee is swollen and the front of my right hip feels like a gnarly marble has taken up residence in it. Lying flat I can barely straighten out my legs…Don’t freak out, work the problem.

I roll onto one side and grab out the compression shorts I have stashed in my bag.  Maybe they can help… maybe I’ll get some sleep.

I sound like a grizzly bear getting frisky with a plastic bag trying to navigate my legs into these tiny spandex shorts inside my bivy. The thought of waking Helen sleeping 20feet away mortifies me as I fight to get them on. I set an alarm and nod off in a literal hurt bag. 

Camp at the shelter outside of Melgeorge's

Helen (unsupported on skis) is busy making food and melting snow by the time I wake up.  I hobble my way around filling bag after bag full of fine snow to melt down before making breakfast.  The compression shorts help hold me upright, but my movement is incredibly slow & painful.

How can I do this...should I do this?  I do a lot of math waiting for the pots of snow to melt and question whether or not turning back to Melgeorge’s is the wise move. There is no sag-wagon along with me this year if I’m forced to drop and Surly checkpoint is a long ways away. 

The thought of going forward at the pace I’m moving just doesn’t compute… then I hear Helen whimper. A giant blister has unintentionally burst as she was taking care of her feet.  She looks over at me & matter-of-factly says “well, I guess that was going to happen eventually anyway.” before pulling a sock and ski boot back over her battered foot.

Some of the most courageous and accomplished people I know pass by as I’m mulling over my options at the shelter. How can I not continue when I’m surrounded by badasses? I pack up my kit and hobble back on the trail following in their footsteps. My legs may betray me further, but mentally I’m still all in.

Daylight is swiftly fading as I’ve eaten up a good portion of it setting up for the next portion of the race. I made the call to start taking ibuprofen at the shelter knowing I’d need every bit of my legs for the constant climbing this section.  These hills are written on my soul, in all their toil, in some insane way, I adore them. Thank God by the time I reach them some pain has subsided and I’m ready to conquer.

…Into another night I go. 

Darkness falls and with it comes more snow. The flakes flicker in the light of my headlamp and it feels like I’m pacing my way through the heavens.  Man I love winter.  I close my eyes and just listen to it, this is what I came here for…then I hear the growl again & it’s time to go.  Back to this wonderful work. Neanderthal Zombie: Phase 2

“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 121: 1-2

I’ve fallen asleep leaned over my trekking poles waiting for my heart-rate to recover climbing up yet another hill when Lisa appears.  I manage not to hallucinate as we continue down the trail together a second night, but my mind repeatedly doubts whether her presence is real or just some fatigued flash-back to the previous night. Either way, I’m thankful she’s there.

Lisa (Photo Credit: Jason Johnson)

Keep your wits. If I drink this much water between this shelter & this shelter it will leave me enough to boil snow with at Surly…I reached this shelter at this time so that puts me at this pace, meaning if I eat this much food here I can safely take more ibuprofen now and again there. ..Fuck my legs, fuck this fatigue.
I do so much math attempting to plunder the fatigue and stay on track throughout the night. I’ve never been so tired on so many levels.

If you’ve ever been on a long road trip with your car window rolled down slapping your own face just to stay awake all while growing more and more frustrated trying to hold your eyelids open and focus on anything you know where I’m at.

“ I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” Psalm 130: 5 & 6

A cold snap nestles in like an icy hand over my shoulder as the wind picks up and we’re in whiteout conditions approaching the last shelter before Surly checkpoint.  Reaching it, it’s packed.  I’m so desperate to get out of the wind and get some sleep that I go in anyway. Lisa moves some gear out of the way on a shelf that’s mounted to the shelter wall to sleep on and I grab a spot underneath the shelving in the corner. Sitting down I know why this spot is the only one left. One butt cheek is propped up on a volleyball sized rock and the other is planted on a half dozen empty beer cans left behind by some snowmobilers. It sounds like an infirmary in here; everyone is coughing because of the cold and distance settling into their lungs. I want to send an SOS out to my family for prayer support knowing that this is the darkest before the dawn for me, but I set my phone alarm instead, pull my hood over my face and pass out sitting upright.

20 minutes later the alarm goes off just as one of the fat bikers lets out a colossal fart waking everyone in the shelter. The brutality of the state we’re in is broken as we all start laughing. I love this moment… these people. One by one they crawl out of their bivies and get back on the trail.

I hit the trail more alive than I’ve been the entire race. My unspoken SOS heard.  The wind is still unrelenting, the slog to sunrise long and I have to lift my betraying legs with both arms onto the pulk every time I sled a downhill but, somehow, I’m happy.

A few miles later I catch up with my friend Jay going for the a`trois. Everything in his body posture reads pain, but he assesses the problem, ties a bandanna around his bum leg and continues down the trail.

How can I not be badass when I'm surrounded by badasses?

More miles and math in I’m finally at Surly, mile 108. Too pissed by the mocking signs leading up to the checkpoint to stay long I check in/out and stick to the plan heading down the trail to set up camp. Bivy before boiling.

I open my eyes and in an instant any doubt I had that this unsupported approach was worth it, is gone.  The morning sun glitters over the new snow and through the pine forest all around me. It’s cold, but that brings a perfect stillness, the stillness I craved when I signed up for this adventure.  I’m soaking it all in when a volunteer on snowmobile stops to check on me. I give him a run-down of my plan to get caught up on hydration and get a meal in before departing. I can tell he’s concerned that I won’t make the finish line before the cutoff and I know it’s tight but I’m confident. This section has been strong the last two years and for the first time in 3 days I can tell my body is finally healing. I just have to top off all the tanks before I can move on.

Beauty and brutality often travel side by side on the Arrowhead. That reality came crushing in when I grabbed the stove out of my bag to start on the snow melt. Sometime in the night my fuel tank had started to leak and the canister was now sitting in a pool of white gas….Don’t freak out, work the problem.

With my gloves off in the freezing cold I started wiping down and re-pressurizing the tank.  It worked, but there wasn’t a lot of fuel left. The ups and downs were harsh as I kept at it setting up for the final leg. One moment I was enjoying the first cup of coffee I’d had in 30days watching the sunrise and the snow melt in the pot. The next I was scrambling to save any clean water left when that pot of snow slid off the stove drowning out the flame and soaking my gloves. With fuel & time quickly vanishing I rushed to get back on track and on the trail.

Leaving camp I immediately start running. Fumbling with my stove has cost me most of the dexterity in my ring finger and I can’t let it (or the others) get any colder. Be the furnace. My once betraying legs are on now on board and I find myself at the base of Wake’m Up before I know it. A snowmobile volunteer comes by again, he asks how I’m doing, nods & turns back toward Surly checkpoint.  Its then I know… I’m the last one out here. This news is both heavy and an honor.  I press on.

“God, the Lord, is my strength; He makes my feet like the deer’s; He makes me tread on my high places.” Habakkuk 3:19

I see the foot prints of Ed’s mukluks in the snow as I make my way further down the trail. I think of the countless badasses ahead of me and how thankful I am to race among then. Then I’m reminded of the conversation Ed and I had on the shuttle. We talked a lot about finishing before sunset. I want that more than I want to be done, so I keep running, racing the sun.

The distance and effort catch up with me in the early afternoon. Exhausted and progressively more nauseous I keep plunking away when I meet Ashley, a Florida native and Arrowhead rookie. She looks the way I feel. We make tired conversation, but we aren’t in our own heads. How can we be so numb and so focused at the same time? Frustrated with my current condition I become paranoid that I’m radiating negativity and I don’t want to be “that guy” so I pull ahead creating some distance.

I’m comforted by the familiar landmarks I pass as I get closer and closer to the finish line. Then my foot slips off of the hard-packed edge of the trail and my Achilles is on fire. Fuck! 10 miles to go and I’m crawling deep into my pain cave. “Finish before sunset” I tell myself over and over as I bite my neck warmer, my wooden spoon for the pain and keep moving.

By the time I’ve started toying with the idea of duct taping a stick to my ankle for support Tod passes by on his snowmobile and shouts out “Enjoy your finish”.  Finish.  I’m overwhelmed and so excited at the same time…Just keep moving.

The sun is nearly set when I reach Fortune Bay, mile 135.  A crowd of people stand in the cold cheering me across the finish line and it’s actually over. The math I couldn’t compute at Melgeorge’s finally solved.

“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” Proverbs 21:31

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Arrowhead135 | My 2016 Journey on Foot

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken;” Isaiah 54:10a

As I sit here trying to piece together what I experienced traveling the Arrowhead this year I cannot help but feel that words fail. Like much of my trail family out there, I was broken down & rebuilt over the course of 135 miles. Fifty-four hours and fifteen minutes of forward momentum later, I know, sometimes heaven & hell aren’t that far apart.

Day 1 | Kerry Park to Gateway Checkpoint

My sled hits the ground early as I make the short solo-trek from the motel room to the starting line. An annual tradition to calm my nerves. It’s dark and the mist filled air blankets the morning in the kind of stillness only winter can manifest. I love this.

Arriving at the start the energy is an interesting mix of anticipation and heightened apprehension. With Minnesota experiencing another low snow year, we didn’t know what to expect of the trail conditions. Reports of the ungroomed route, pulks rolling onto their sides due to the uneven terrain and an “impossible” year for skiers daunted us in the weeks leading up to the event. The pre-race meeting did nothing to assuage this. Only caution that the trail is rough. What that meant, we’d find out as the day(s) went on.

My heart is full as I greet so many familiar faces race morning. Faces illuminated by the shifting glow of hundreds of red blinking lights. I hug as many of them as possible before finding my place with Michael at the starting line.

Cheers and whistling break the morning stillness.
The hounds are released. The journey begins.

The trail is eerily well packed for the first ten miles thanks to snowmobile traffic from nearby towns. Is it all like this? Were the reports wrong? In 2013 I kicked myself for not running hard the first 35miles when the trail was still good. When it wasn’t covered in 10” of thick powder. I wondered if I’d be doing that again, but managed to stick with the plan and go out slow.

“But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:25

The constant struggle of patience and pace is hushed by the beauty of the pine flanked trail. The mist now glistening in jeweled ice coating everything around us. I glance over, Mike’s smile says what my words don't. I have been craving this peacefulness since last year. It has been worth the wait, for all of us.

The farther we get from IFalls the looser the trail becomes. Warm conditions and human powered traffic are slowly churning the trail into mashed potatoes. It’s subtle. But the increased thirst & hunger are telltale signs of the building difficulty.

Groups of racers space out as the hours pass, but I somehow keep yo-yoing back & forth on the trail with Bonnie Busch. Each time we meet she shouts out an encouraging “that’a girl”. Kind words that would lift me long after they were spoken.

We round a corner to the smell of sap and pine needles so striking that I’m forced to stop, allowing it fill my lungs in what can only be described as the freshest of air. Amazing yet conflicting. My invigorated breaths are the result of vast logging clear-cut that I can see as I peer deeper into the woods.

People ask what I think about when I run these types of events. I often tell them “everything & nothing” but at this moment on the trail I’m stuck on the impact of industry, man vs. nature. It’s heavy.

Mike and I arrive at Gateway (mile 35) hours behind schedule. Getting here has been work & I’m “hangry” but thankfully we aren’t spent heading into night 1. As we go about preparing for the dark miles ahead, other racers around us are already making tough decisions...To fight onward or return to fight another year. I hurt for them.

Earlier in the day we passed a wolf kill that had happened right on the trail. Snow sprinkled red with blood, tufts of fur and aggressive paw prints left as a testimony to the brutal takedown. In a race that can eat it’s young, sometimes the atmosphere at a checkpoint can feel like the wolf kill looked. That was Gateway when we arrived.

I will not be taken down, my hope will not be swallowed.

“For it is you who light my lamp; the Lord my God lightens my darkness. For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.” Psalm 18:28 & 29

After catching up with loved ones, some warm food and the usual shoe/gear changes, our fight continues. Into the night we go.


As the darkness settles in, the senses dull and give way to efficient routine. A metronome of one more foot fall & trekking pole planted in the snow covered trail.

Conversations dwindle as Mike and I make our way through the wee hours. Each of us slowly making peace with the fact that the trail conditions aren’t going to improve. The going will be slow, but for those brief moments we’re flying downhill sledding on the pulks, it won’t matter.

I haven’t bothered to look at my watch much, but my internal jukebox has “Africa” by Toto on repeat for the last three hours as the snow is coming down. Perhaps it’s my brain’s tired attempt at staying warm in the damp cold.

Eventually a group of us end up clustered together as we make our way past sheep ranch road. Tosh’s jukebox is stuck on “Papa loves Mambo”. His voice echos in the dark as he belts it out. Songs are traded in a short partying caravan in the woods.

Tunnel vision is deep in the hours before first-light breaks. I wake walking in my sleep several times. The promise of rest and a warm camp meal in my drop-bag at Melgeorge’s keeps me going into the morning.

Morning comes and Mike & I have a moment. Last year we were crossing Elephant lake as day was breaking, this year we were well into morning without even seeing it. I know the math of pace per hour isn’t good.

The stunning views of still rivers & trees dusted with fresh snow can’t silence the ringing reality as we finally reach the lake. The wind has kicked up and I’m quickly getting cold from the fatigue & added exposure. I purposely put my head down & trek hard across the open expanse, distancing myself from Mike. I have been traveling in horrible footing for 27hrs with no sleep. All I want is sleep. Rest.

Tears stream down my face as I cross the water praying/pleading for hope. All of the hours I planned for rest & to reboot were spent just getting here.


I check in then head to the cabin where my Jeremiah is waiting. Our eyes meet and the words escape him “oh my gosh, you’re so tired”. We hug. Every minute has to be intentional, but I’m in a daze. Just trying to get my camp meal down is a huge effort. Mike arrives at the cabin and I do my best to hide how broken I am, but I’m pretty sure I just come across pissed. As he gets things sorted I lie down for the shortest nap of all time.

The cabin is so cozy. If I quit my race right here I could get the rest I desperately need and have a really enjoyable weekend with my husband and friends in the northwoods. My alarm goes off & I just lie there yelling at myself to get out of the bed. COME ON! Then my internal jukebox flips on again, this time to a favored poem.

Get up.
The ground is your reward
It will hold you when you are done.
Cancel all forks you are not done.
Put a silencing finger to the lips of all singing fat ladies.
This is not over.
Reel in all finish lines,
Steal the sound of the metal ringing hanging in the air and put it back in the bell.
One more round we go,
Get up.

A Letter To Remind Myself Who I Am (excerpt) | By Shane Koyczan

We’re out of time as the cut-off for leaving the checkpoint comes crashing in. Despite the almost insurmountable struggle Mike & I manage to get out of there. 12 minutes to spare...12minutes. In a 60hr race.

The Journey to Ski-Pulk

The terrain only gets tougher from here as the climbs build as much as the fatigue does. My memory from this point on goes from blurred to crystal clear, then back again, but here is what I remember.

Michael and I stay paced together for a few hours after Melgeorges, but as day two goes on I can tell he’s working harder than he should this early in the race. It’s time to race separately and so it goes.

As sunset approaches I get to share some of the sweetest miles with Kari, an Arrowhead rookie whose countenance radiates joy no matter how sore or tired she may be. Somewhere in those miles I realize that my fatigue has turned to fervor. Another dark and lonely night is coming, but I’m ready for it.

Darkness falls and I can tell I’m making up time. Precious time that could allow for a nap at Ski-pulk, if I push hard enough. I cover my headlamp with my mitten and gaze ahead & then behind me hoping to see the light of another racer somewhere. But there is nothing. Absolute solitude for hours.

“And behold,I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20b

A few more hours pass and I start noticing that there are fresh fatbike tracks ahead of me. Signs of life.Then there’s the blinking red light. It’s Wilson! A veteran on foot racing on bike this year. This was not a good year for bikers, yet Jim was still laughing & making jokes nearly 100 miles into it. I count myself blessed for the short miles we shared together.

My spirits are lifted as I make it closer and closer to ski-pulk. Helen Scotch materializes out of nowhere behind me and after a quick greeting, just as quickly vanishes over an uphill.

Then the flux starts. I go from beastmode, to barely awake, to wanting to throw up. I need sleep & it can’t wait. Less than 40min at Melgeorge’s wasn’t going to cut it. With my head on the cooler in my pulk and most of my body trailing off of it, I shut my eyes. 15 minutes later I’m recovered enough to keep eating and moving again.

Every now & then I hear three children playing in the woods. Not wanting to use any music until after ski-pulk I do my best to logically talk myself out of their presence, but I’ve reached my limit. They are freaking me out.

Music is my company as I cover the final miles into ski-pulk checkpoint -mile 110.

Ski-pulk to the Finish

Ski-pulk is so tucked into the woods that it’s approach is deceptive, you just happen upon it. It is an oasis to my tired body. I’ve made up 4 hours since leaving Melgeorge's buying myself some time to sleep.

A short nap, some caffeine and a brief chat with my Sweetie later I leave ski-pulk revived. Into date three I go.

Another morning breaks, but this one is different. The sky is bright pink and it only gets better as time goes on. I’ve spent the last two days trekking in the gutter of the trail dragging my pulk over knee high sticks because that’s the only place where the snow was even remotely packed. Finally the temps and traffic have dropped enough to firm up the trail. It seems impossible, but I am somehow running. 115 miles into the race, dragging a loaded sled.

Todd passes me on snowmobile just as the weather begins to turn (red sky at morning) and lets me know Helen is just ahead. I got the update from the guys at ski-pulk that I was 3rd place for women. Meaning that if I could catch up to and pass Helen I can take 2nd.

I don’t want to be the best, I just want to beat my best. Since there would be no beating my time from last year with these trail conditions, the best I could hope for was a better placement than last year, so I kept pushing.

It’s taken awhile, but I pass Helen and immediately begin planning in my tired head what to say that will encourage her when she passes me again.

There is nothing sexy about the trail at the end of Arrowhead. It’s flat, mostly straight and mix of scrub pine in marshy areas or areas of tall pine forests. The effort and monotony really take their toll.

It is in one of these pine forests that the snow really starts coming down and “All the Heavens” by Third Day begins playing on my shuffle. Snowflakes fall as the lyrics talk about how the heavens cannot hold you Lord. I can feel the presence of my God so tangibly in that moment. My arms raise in praise, my pace quickens.

Then the wheels fall off. I reach a marshy exposed area and the wind begins pelting my face with snow. The exhaustion is mounting and eating has gotten tougher & tougher. I’m ready for it to be over. 

Then somewhere in the final struggle to the finish I’m reminded of the day my grandmother died. It was our first snow of this season and it pelted me in the face just like this as I ran into work that morning. Last year when her health was failing I named my pulk with her middle name because it’s white, just like her hair was and a silent strength, just like she was.

I looked behind me on the trail and the only thing that wasn’t fighting me was the tension of the sled,125 miles in, it now felt weightless. Like her, another blessing.

I did my best to suffer gracefully those last miles to the finish, but it wasn’t pretty. Reaching the finish line I collapsed, my yearly humbling complete.

I thought I was exhausted when I finished last year, this year ratcheted that up another level. I can’t wait to go back. :)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Superior 100 Race Report | 2012

Over the course of two sunrises & sunsets my life was changed. I am humbled. Jubilant. And still 2 weeks later...somewhat dazed. There are numerous sections of the race that I can't for the life of me remember and others whose details I will never forget.

Here is what I can/wish to recount of the amazing journey...

37hours: 30minutes: 12seconds | 41,000ft of Elevation Change | 103.3 Miles

Standing at the pre-race meeting race director John Storkamp jokingly plunks away at a piano. The dreary single key tune drones out in what can only be described as a death march. This, he tells us, is what the race may become to some of you, that is, if you're "one of the lucky ones". He goes on to explain/encourage/warn us...In the past we have had between a 50% and 60% finishers rate... Reflective XXXs mark cliffs, be careful.... We'll do everything we can to help you be successful, but don't be stupid or hate the reeper should he have to end your race early...Good luck! All healthy doses of reality met with laughter and a general understanding of what we're facing come morning.

At dinner my awesome crew (hubby &  his parents),pacer (ultra buddy Rick) and I talk race strategy. Stay as little time as possible at the aid stations, beware of the chair, put one foot in front of the other until they cross the finish line, hopefully within the time constraints.

I toss, I turn, I try to think about everything else but starting a 100miler in the morning. At some point I fall asleep and wake 15minutes before my alarm goes off. My pre-race nerves now at the surface are met with a God-sent calm. I give my Beloved a kiss before boarding the bus to the starting line...I won't see him or any of my crew until I'm 20miles in.

On the bus I manage to eat all of my breakfast without much trouble, I trade words with Ray the well accomplished ultrarunner seated beside me. I confess to him that this is my first 100. He reminds me to start slow & slow down, something Rick had already urged. I take note. As the sun begins to rise over Lake Superior, my eyes close and I somehow snag some Z's before arriving at Gooseberry State Park.

Rick graciously meets me at the starting line. We go over a few more race logistics. His words, encouragement & pacing advice help me to focus. I am at peace. I am ready.

The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord. -Proverbs 21:31

We're off... and from that moment on I no longer think of the 103.3 miles ahead of me. Just one aid station at a time until there are no more left or I have nothing left.

The morning sunlight sets the hills & changing leaves aglow. I settle into what I feel is a smart pace near the back of the pack being mindful to keep my heart rate as low as possible. The terrain is like candy to me, but if I eat it too soon or too quickly it will only bring trouble.

Mile 9.7 - Split Rock aid station comes & goes. I decide then that even though my hydration pack can typically last me 20miles I will refill it at every AS. Part of my early race strategy is to keep my pace in check by hydrating when I want to be hauling and snapping pictures. Eye candy.

Being conversational is a solid method to keep tabs on your exertion level and I am blessed to be paced with a handful of well humored & talkative ultra loving crazies. Over the course of the race these wonderful crazies would become my comrades.

After scanning the woods for a few miles I find a lady approved place to wee, I leave the pack and trek off into the sticks. My shorts hit my ankles then I hear shouts of "hey, you're going the wrong way!". As I glance back thru the woods expecting to see other racers I see a several people carrying flags and it dawns on me, I am dead last. These are race volunteers clearing the route. Start slow & slow down...Check?


A little concerned & not about to be last after the first aid station I allow myself to run in order to catch up with everyone else. I inform them of my DFL status and the flag bearers swiftly behind us, they are as shocked as I am, but we quickly get over it and onto the ruggedness...

We make our way toward the Beaver Bay aid station and the superior hiking trail starts to display some of her jagged ways. Every toe stubbing root or rock, every hill climb, erased by beauty.

Reaching Beaver Bay I am met by the smiling faces of my loved ones. It's invigorating. We stumble thru trying to refill my pack with water and fuel efficiently, but by next aid station that is already fixed. This is the joy of having a crew full of analytical thinkers, fixers.

Leaving BB Tony is leading the pack. He is more full of life at 65 than most people I know half his age. As the terrain becomes more technical he shares with me what he loves about ultra running. The sounds. Up until this point I had been running music-free, but not really listening. After his comment the symphony of the trail comes alive and so do I.

The roots underfoot lift up the soil making a hollow and as our feet fall upon it, it sounds like orchestrated taps on a bongo drum. The slivers of rock that have broken off of cliff walls, while horrid footing (especially for a minimalist) enchant us. They sound like seashell or bamboo chimes blowing in the wind. The breeze fills the trees and the forest has breath. With each note I know my Creator lives and I can feel Him there.

A few aid stations tick by, my crew finds a rhythm and each time the pack is refilled (added weight) I focus on keeping good form. So far so good. All of my training to get here is the perfect fit and smiling comes easy. I continue to eat before I'm hungry, drink before I'm thirsty & while this has me feeling somewhat full, I'm on track.

Between miles 24-30 the wind begins to build, the air temp starts to drop and I hear thunder off in the distance. It's tough to get a feel for the wind direction in the woods. I am reminded "give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." -1 Thessalonians 5:18 The rain may come, I have no control over it, but the only thing that matters right now is making it  to the next aid station. I keep charging on.

The torrent wind makes tornadoes out of the dusty soil on the bluffs. It's obnoxious. Then I catch up with Shelly just as the skies open pelting us with cold rain. She is a graceful runner, easy to follow and the time passes quickly. We're both able to laugh off the North Shore's unpredictable weather before the skies clear again.

Next up the Tettagouche aid station. Steve Q. had mentioned to me that he'd be volunteering there and that I'd see him right after The Drainpipe. I didn't know what he meant by drainpipe, but I knew where Tettagouche was.

Now I know...
Fiercely pitched, worn dirt patches now slicked by rain with the sporadic gnarly boulder or log protruding thru the surface in feeble hopes of keeping you from toppling over on your way down. It, along with many other areas along the SHT was  ridiculous. Logic tells you this shouldn't be a trail, but the markers assure you it is. This kind of terrain really gets me going. I love being the plinko chip and I can't really explain why.

Coming into the Tettagouche AS (Mile 35) I was stoked and nearing cloud 9.

Exiting it the sun was starting to set, I mentally tried to prepare for the coming darkness and battle with fatigue. The symphony quieted by the falling dusk is accentuated by the fact I am primarily alone now. But it was here that I would summit cloud 9.

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Psalm121:1-2

Technical terrain doesn't lend itself to a lot of looking up. When I did my eyes were delighted with the familiar. I was in the middle of nowhere but knew exactly where I was. Growing up my parents had taken me to this state park and section of trail many times. I was comforted by the sights and overjoyed by the flashbacks of memories. 

Rick had warned me that the highest highs are often followed by some of the lowest lows and it is a challenge to meter them in order to keep things level. He was right. I knew I had let my high moment peak too high when it happened.

Thankfully when I approached the corresponding low was also when we were allowed to pick up a pacer. Rick was such a blessing here as I struggled thru feeling overwhelmed. I remembered Maggie hitting this point when I crewed her thru her 100. At some point the rest of the race is going to feel vast, like more than you're ready to take on & that just drags you down. Physically I felt great for being 45ish miles in, sure things ached off and on, that's just part of it, but mentally it was time to go to war. With myself.

"but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." Isaiah 40:31

I pulled thru that just as we pulled into the Finland aid station. The night darkness now blanketing everything turned cold. So I went steazy. I'd officially reached the point of not caring what I looked like. Comfort reigned supreme & this is what it looked like.

Remember the candy? It was time. I had been holding off on my treats knowing that I'd need the boost later in the race. 50miles in...time for music & a little running. Past the low and somewhat still good humored sandwich in hand I headed into the darkness. Alone. I would do my best to cover ground well in the next 13 miles before picking up Rick again. Jeremy had selected Promontory as the track for my first steps back on the trail and from there it was on and my brain was off.

This is where the blur begins and my timeline starts to get fuzzy. From here I mostly just remember shorter & shorter snip-its.

Like arriving at Sonju aid station with what was left of the aforementioned sandwich tucked between my ta-tas. I like running with free hands & that was the only available pocket. I laughed at myself before the aid station worker laughed at me and kindly refilled my pack.

I also remember the reflective XXX's. It's a little unnerving to cast your headlamp out into the distance only to have it met with pure blackness. Cliffs. The risk kept me vigilant and that helped keep me awake the first night. An unexpected blessing.

For eons I could hear the cheers from the Crosby Manitou AS. The feeling of being so close, yet so far away. The switchback down to it took forever, but reaching it was sweet.

Rick took the lead as we departed Crosby and it didn't take long before we came upon this... 

This is the start of a very long boardwalk that would take us thru an open water marsh area. When we reached it we both stopped. Half of it was completely broken and to add insult to injury the remaining board was wet. It looked to be waist deep below the plank and all we could see beyond that was our breath mingling with the fog hovering over the mirky water & the occasional fringe of swamp grass. Rick looked back at me and I could tell he was unsure or less than thrilled. Perhaps both. I offered to go first, but he was a good pacer & tactically trudged on.

Night one was beautiful in its simplicity. Follow the halo of your headlamp, stay warm, stay fed, stay hydrated. Stay awake. I did.

Though I questioned myself once when I thought I saw a runner less than a hundred yards away before he disappeared right before me, for 1/2mile I was freaked out & convinced I'd had my first hallucination. I eventually caught up with him and thanked him for being real, we had a good laugh about that.

And I questioned myself again when Rick & I found ourselves on a pine choked trail. I hadn't seen any trail markers indicating a turn, either had he and the SHT is obnoxious so even though this section had me wanting a machete I didn't think we were off track. In fact I was just happy the pine trees made me smell better. Rick decided to go back and see if we had missed any flags, we had & back on the proper route again we went.

Day Two

There is something special about seeing two sunrises during the same race. I had been looking forward to & waiting for this moment for a long time. It brought with it new hope, some energy & more rain.

I remember standing under an aid station tent, grabbing a cup of soup, burning the heck out of my tongue. Soaked & burnt I must have looked rough because one of the aid station workers came over to inform me that the next section is a little more technical with some good climbing & I needed to decide if I could continue or not. She seemed shocked when I immediately laughed at that & said I'm going. She had just described the Superior Hiking Trail. It's all like that and the thought of dropping was never an option to me.

The grey skies continued.

I could feel the blisters, but they didn't seem like something that needed to be taken care of yet and I didn't want to lose any time in the aid stations so I ignored them for a long while as I splashed thru unavoidable puddles in the pouring rain on my way to Temperance River aid station. Here I would get a sock change, a view of the damage & the best foot rub I've ever had from my mother in law.

After removing my soggy shoes and socks I was surprised at the condition of my feet. They had gone from the been in the bathtub too long pruney stage & right ahead to trench foot. The crease lines were deep, the blisters barely visible thru the pale white skin, yet very much there. Sitting in the chair felt amazing, fresh socks felt amazing, getting out of the chair & back on the trail again, not so amazing. Beware of the chair.

The sun broke way and we were on the climb up Carlton Peak. This side was...difficult. Between the exertion of scaling the countless boulders on the way up and no sleep I was starting to see sparkles. Getting past the peak I refocused working on fueling/hydration to help with the glitter, it helped some, but then I became distracted by my feet. They had begun to feel every little thing and wouldn't stop for the next 20miles.

At the next aid station I grabbed a set of trekking poles, something I had never trained with, but I was desperate to distribute some of the pressure on my soles to anywhere else. This worked for a while and I was able to keep a more consistent however slow pace.

Sooner or later it didn't matter what I did, it just hurt. With each footstep the deep creases in my soles pulled away at the blistered beneath them. Then came the death march. My battle song. In second Corinthians it says that my King's power is made perfect in I planted trekking pole after pole literally lifting my body off the ground over countless roots & rocks, I was weak, but His strength was sufficient for me. 

I am still humbled by how Rick took care of me while pacing those miles. It takes a special person to keep a suffering one company. To listen to their grunts, groans & f-bombs of discomfort. And to not be offended when you suddenly stop talking and put the headphones on in an attempt to try to numb out. He is that person and everything I had hoped for in a pacer.

Night 2 fell on familiar territory, 15miles of trail I had covered in a 50k two years prior. This was a double edged sword. Comforting to know where I was. Discouraging to know what climbs & switchbacks were yet to come. Looking at my watch time & time again I was convinced I wouldn't make the cutoff. The thought of not getting the belt buckle or finishers sweatshirt was so frustrating. I knew I'd finish, but that didn't keep me from doubting/believing I'd make it in time.

My brain now deteriorated to that of a 4yr old repeatedly asking "why?",  I asked Rick again and again if we'd make it on time. He estimated we'd be there at 9:30. How the man can do that kind of math given the varied terrain & pace is beyond me, but he was right.

My ipod died just as we caught up to a string of other runners, by then I had discovered that I could stay quieter by biting my neck warmer, my wooden spoon for pain. Their determined pace kept me going. I waited for the boardwalks on a downhill, I knew that meant I was in the last mile. It took forever but we finally hit them.

Everything in me wanted to sprint all the way to the finish when we got into Lutsen, but that was too far for this tired body. When I got to the corner of Caribou Highlands (the finishing "chute") I said aloud "okay my God & King let's do this" and forced my battered feet to run before jumping up & down on the timing pads at the finish line. Something I'm still not sure how I managed to do, but I did it and my race was done. Bliss.

To my Beloved, Family and Friends who came out to support me I am grateful beyond words. You have seen me as a sheep shorn and still supported me the whole way thru, this blows me away.Thank you!

Finishing something like this opens up the doors of what I had limited on being possible and that encourages me to dream big. So I am.

Next up... Arrowhead? I hope!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


It's spring. The trees blossom, fresh blades of grass make their way thru the leaf covered forest floor & as the weekly mileage amplifies in preparation for summer running so does the calling of the trail. If you are a lover of single-track you understand.

Somewhere between the first blizzard and the final thaw I became innately familiar with the city again. This happens every year. I leave my front door and know how to route 6,10 or 20 miles in pretty much every direction. 

There is a certain degree of comfort that comes with that. Comfort in knowing what pace it takes to avoid a string of red lights, which gas stations sell the best granola bars & chilled water by the gallon or the steepest cloverleaf to pound out some hill repeats in.

The sound of traffic, the chirp of street lights & the constant whirr of wind the symphony for my feet. I love the city I live & run in. I love that each spring the streets come alive with people training for the marathon. But eventually those very conveniences, those symphonies, begin to wear making me feel trapped and crowded. 

I long for silence where the only man-made sound I hear is my footsteps in the leaves. To smell the green prairie grasses instead of gas or fast-food greases. The chance to actually get lost, to discover something new. To go on an adventure in any direction, then find that familiar trail that leads you back to where you started.

Last week I went back to where it all started. Well, back to where all of my trail-running started. After four hours of mostly single-track, some strategic fell-running around flooded areas and stopping to take pictures instead of for a stoplight, I was free.

"Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance. Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me.” Song of Songs 2:12 & 13