Superior 50 Miler.
A year ago a group of us (Merilee, Diane, Marty, Chae, Holly, Kari, Guy and I) did the Whistlestop Marathon up in Ashland, Wisconsin. It's on a gravel trail, completely in the forest. As we sat around at dinner, we drew up on napkins what we were going to do next. We talked about joining Marathon Maniacs (a group you can belong to if you do back-to-back marathons - I've done 4 in 5 weekends so I'm good there) or the 50-States Club (you can join when you've done 10 states). I still may join those groups but it's not "scary" for me; it's just fun.
Well, into fall and winter, my running partner Guy started trail running more with Helen and the Igors, Kami, Tanya, Normal Eric and Crazy Erik - all former marathon and Ironman friends of ours. He kept tellling me how much I'd love it. So as spring rolled around, he and I signed up for the Trail Mix 25K with Becca and Maggie. I've done it a couple times with those (super fun) sisters, and it's been hard for me. It felt like all my energy dissipated into the grass while I ran and I felt slow and weak. I was ready for it to be over long before we actually finished and --- wait a sec!! -- it was HARD for me -- I wondered if I could finish an even LONGER trail run.
And so began the quest to attempt long distance trail running. I started going to the Hyland ski jump to do hill training with Guy and the others. I could barely make it up the ski lift once. But we'd do between five and ten reps, just running as far as I could, then walking the rest of the way up (which I have to say was equally hard), run all the way down, then back up. It was GREAT training.
When Guy did the Chippewa 50K (31.5 miles) in the spring with Helen, Kami and Normal Eric (all of them seasoned trail runners), all I heard from Guy was "That was the single hardest thing I've ever done. I swear I could not have gone another yard. You've gotta try it"
That was all I needed to hear - sign me up for something!! So I signed up for the Afton 50K. It was local and many of my friends were doing it (or the 25K). Guy and I started out together, but it was 4th of July, and hot, and by mile 18 Guy was overheated and TOAST, so I ran ahead. (Love ya, Guy, but... see ya at the finish!) I felt great the whole way, negative splitting and finishing 11th overall woman, and 4th in my division (Masters - ok, now you all know I'm 47, not the 24 you thought I was).
Helen and Tanya and Crazy Erik and Kevin were all at the finish and they were so proud of me! I learned that Helen won - she wins a lot. Helen if you read this I have to tell you I am so proud of you, too! I remember way, way back in the day when you were slow as me and we used to run on the roads together back when Dan Finanger was our coach, and then I remember taking pics of you when you did your first Ironman, and how proud of you I was then... and now look at you - you are so inspiring and so strong and such an encouragement to everyone around you. You've become something of a legend in the ultra world, yet you are the same sweet, grounded person.
Anyway, I loved Afton 50K, but didn't get that "I-wonder-if-I-can-even-finish-this-thing" FEAR. So Guy and I signed up for the Superior 50 MILE trail run. When we went up there to do a 25 mile training run, boy did I have my hat handed to me. This is no normal, level, gravel trail. It's boulder scrambling, it's clinging onto trees, it's running through grasses that are as high as your underarms and you can't see the rocky terrain that your delicate feet and ankles are even running on, it's way up north in the middle of nowhere - no other humans, no cell service, sketchy-if-any Garmin reception, bears and other critters... if you sprained your ankle or got mauled by a bear, I honestly do not know how you'd get back to your car. It's scary. It was just what I was looking for. ;-)
So Guy and I arrive, check in, get our gear bags dropped off and head over to the Athlete Meeting the night before. As we are looking around, I do see a small number of people we know including another trail-newbie, former-Ironman named Chad Milner. We chat for a bit and I start to pick up on the fact that, Bored Ironmen Seek The Trails. Other than Chad, Vale and the rest of the former marathoner/Ironmen friends from home, I don't know anyone. (yeah - that's the hardest part to believe :-)). We look around and I KNOW we're not at Ironman or a road marathon. There is no sea of vendors, no expo, no sound system playing Eye of the Tiger, no shaved legs, no hotel banquet room with free food for the meeting, etc.
I ask Guy if I should ask for a show of hands of all the Republicans. He laughs. It's just a different crowd. Not a bad crowd, just kind of a Bohemian crowd. I may be totally off on that, but it's the impression I got. I've never seen beards that reach your chest at Ironman, and that is definitely common on the trails.
We learn that there are 75 people registered for the 50 mile race and that there is one bus (capacity 42) to drive us all to the start. We sit two and three to a seat and some people had to stand for the 50 mile ride in the morning. I was thankful that some people decided to drive themselves to the start. Guy and I sleep some more on the early morning drive. When we get to the start line, it is 6:00 a.m., pitch black, there is no artificial lighting, there are two ancient outhouses without toilet paper, and that's it. I don't want to sound all high maintenance and stuff, but, well... maybe I am a little high maintenance.
There is no singing of the National Anthem, there is no announcer getting us all pumped up... it's just the race director in his foot-long beard and headlamp telling us, "OK, Go!"
And we were off. That's it. Very simple. Very different.
The trail was single track the whole way, so we started in trains of runners. But everybody was very friendly and every now and then the front runners would shout out, "anyone wanna pass?" and then you had an opportunity to say, "yes, please." Everybody is very polite and welcoming to newbies.
The first aid station was at the 8 mile mark. I'm only carrying one bottle because in my mind I'm thinking that's about an hour or so. Uh, no. It takes about two hours or so to cover 8 miles of trail. Guy had two water bottles, one in each hand, and I was thankful for that because he shared his second bottle with me. (Those of you who remember that I had heart surgery in October of 2007 know that I can't get dehydrated or else my heart starts freaking out. I still have a spot about the size of a quarter on the back wall of my heart that interrupts my electrical system and rhythm. I've learned that keeping well-hydrated at ALL times has improved the situation. Anyway, I'm not sure if Guy's just really nice, or if he figured sharing his water with me was a better option than having to wait for paramedics in the middle of nowhere for a few hours until somebody missed us.) So back to my story, I was glad to see the aid station. There were fabulous volunteers with sandwiches, potatoes, chips, candies... I totally wanted to stick around longer! But we changed into dry socks and we were on our way.
When we started on our second leg, we were either ahead of or behind our long train of runners and found ourselves alone the rest of the day. It was beautiful and peaceful. And hilly and rocky and craggy! By about mile 15 (about 4 hours into the race) Guy and I are both struggling. His hamstring was pulling really badly, and my knee is KILLing me on the downhills, which by now we are walking sideways. I was wondering why I felt I needed to test myself. Wasn't I a good enough athlete already? I cry "uncle!" and wonder what the HELL I am even doing here.
And then I realize I have THIRTY-FIVE more miles to go.
Look at this pic to the left - Can you see how steep these climbs are?? This guy got here by climbing the rocks on the left side of the picture, not that grassy place on the right... you climb over the boulders. I'm completely serious.
At mile 17 Guy knows he has to DNF. I know he has to, too. This is a guy who never feels any pain, and I can hear him behind me quietly grunting from time to time. And did I tell you the terrain was rocky? Well, we both repeatedly fell. When he'd fall and then take a long, long pause before getting up... well, I just knew (for a couple hours by now) that he was in serious trouble.
At the 21 mile station he reluctantly pulled out of the race. He gave me his extra water bottle (I canNOT even tell you how I would be grateful for that the rest of the day.)
I hugged him good-bye very quickly, and ran ahead before he could see that I was crying, and thinking, "How am I going to finish this by myself? He's the one who knows where all our gear is, he's the one who knows what I should change into, he's the one who read the map and knows how far to each aid station and how long it will take to get there and where the big climbs are and how many miles between them, etc. Besides, I am truly, truly terrified of bears (honestly - I have reccurrent dreams of bears jumping out of forests and pushing me off my bike or cornering me in places I can't escape from) and there are millions of them in this forest and I am completely alone now and if I get mauled, no one, no one will ever know. I will just be dragged off the trail and eaten and I hope I bleed to death with the first swipe so I don't KNOW I'm being eaten and won't my kids miss me terribly and will they be OK growing up without a mom, and will the members of Medina Country Club forever talk about "poor Jenny Moore who was eaten by a bear and how her poor kids grew up without a mom." (UGH!!! Could you imagine having these kinds of thoughts for the rest of the day???? Or worse -- running with someone who's having these thoughts all day?? Guy was LUCKY he pulled out of the race! Someone save me from myself and my silly phobia!!! ;-)
Anyway, I hit the fourth or fifth aid station in the late afternoon and saw a familiar face - it was Steve Quick who is a friend of Guy's. I met him at the Afton 50K. He remembered me and was asking how I was doing and he was getting me food and filling my water bottles - Thank you Steve!! - and I was telling him it was harder than I thought and I was asking him if he thought I was going to make the cut-off and he was confident I would and I really can't remember anything else other than I felt less alone because I actually recognized somebody. It had already been a long, long day, alone out there. And now it was raining and it was muddy and there was no where to run but in the muddy singletrack, in soaking wet muddy feet.
I made the cut off at 5:45 p.m. At 7:00 p.m. they pull you from the race. From this point on I knew I was golden. Heck, I could walk the rest of the way if I wanted to. I had stubbed my left big toe no fewer than 30 times at this point so I DID consider walking in, but it was going to get dark soon, and in the dark I wouldn't even SEE the bear before he grabbed me off the trail. So I ran.
I ran, and ran, and ran.
As dusk approached every tree trunk or shadow was a bear. In front of me, to my left, behind me, to my right. I was seriously making myself crazy by now. I was re-stubbing my left toe repeatedly and ... well, let me explain it this way -- the first time I stubbed it, it completely lifted the nail from the nail bed. I wanted to scream. Now try to imagine how that toe felt all the subsequent 45 times I stubbed it. But I scrambled on. Stumbling, stubbing, falling, getting back up... I am certain I looked crazed but I just had to get to the finish line. It was completely pitch dark by now and I'm tired and I'm crying and I'm trying NOT to cry because it just made it hard to breathe and I was figuring Oberg mountain had to be about a 40-50 degree climb -- all I know is it's much steeper than the stairs in my house -- and it just went on, and on, and on, and on.
When I saw a bonfire in the distance I knew that had to be the hotel. That had to be it. It had to be over. I hit a gravel trail and suddenly a body appeared in front of me and it was not a bear - it was a friendly man whose voice was telling me it's between a quarter and a half a mile. I sprinted. I sprinted right past the little turn to the finish. (Remember how I told you earlier that trail races are really low key and I'm really high maintenance? Well, I kinda need a volunteer or somebody to tell me in the darkness where to turn.) I was following some guy who kept assuring me we were going the right way, even as the hotel bonfire got farther and farther away until I couldn't see it anymore. I finally turned around and headed back. This guy and I ended up running an extra mile or so.
But when I realized I was back on track and it was REALLY almost over, he and I both sprinted to the finish and ended up with a 13:50:00. It was over! I saw people!! Suddenly Helen (who won the marathon after staying up to 3am pacing Normal Eric in the 100 miler - Helen you are truly amazing) was there hugging me and taking my picture and there was Crazy Erik and Laura and Vale (who won the 50 miler!!), and the race director's wife was giving me my medal... and then finally I saw Guy who hobbled over and gave me a big hug. I was so happy to see him after separating in the forest in what seemed like DAYS ago.
I had a sandwich and a beer and then later found out that I finished 2nd in my division (Masters) and got a plaque. Finishing was enough - podium was just icing.
We watched the other finishers come straggling in for a little while - let me tell you most of the people who did the 100 miler looked like complete zombies. I absolutely cannot fathom how they did that. Crazy Erik did it in 36 hours. I was so proud of him! Although I can tell you that he later woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, passed out and hit his face on the sink or the toilet. He struggled to drive home the next day. Laura (his squeeze) escorted him home safely though.
So there you have it. Ultra trail running is NOT road marathoning. I'm glad I did it. I will do another.
October 31st there is a 50 miler here in the suburbs. With cell service, and medical professionals just a phone call away, and no bears.