Friday, September 8, 2012
I first fell in love with the North Shore of Lake Superior last year. There's something about that big lake that works its way into your heart; I can feel it calling me back continuously. So when Thom and Katie both decided to run Sawtooth Superior as their first 100 mile race, I was overly enthusiastic about coming along to crew and pace. I couldn't wait to head North and spend time with some of my favorite people in one of my favorite places. Not to mention getting to meet one of the people I've wanted to meet most from Runner's World -- Tracey aka RunsWithWolves.
Tracey flew in Wednesday night and we all left for Lutsen, MN (Practically Canada, eh?) Thursday morning, swinging by Eau Claire to pick up the lovely Miss Deana on our way up. I was not surprised that I loved Tracey instantly. I've always found these online friendships to transfer very easily over to real life. Tracey was exactly as awesome as I expected her to be -- smart, kind, funny, and damn good runner, of course. The more people I meet from our little group the more I am convinced of what a great community we have. I am so thankful for everyone who I have met and those who I will meet in the future.
The Sawtooth Superior 100 takes place on the Superior Hiking Trail, which runs along the North Shore giving you fantastic views of the lake. The slogan for the race is, "Rugged, Relentless, Remote." That pretty much describes it perfectly. I have never been on a trail more beautiful; I have never been on a trail more difficult. Even Tracey, our Colorado runner, described it as the hardest trail she has seen below 10,000 feet. It's not just the 20,000 feet of gain and descent over 100 miles, but the absolutely relentless technicality of the trail. You haven't seen technical until you've seen this trail. Roots that are almost as big as my body stretching across the trail. Roots that completely cover the trail and seem to never end. Big rocks, small rocks, pointy rocks, slippery rocks, loose rocks. A plethora of wooden stair cases and planks. It's definitely not a Hardrock qualifier for nothing. It's been called harder than Leadville, harder than Massanutten, harder than the majority of most 100 mile races and yet it's still relatively unknown.
|A sampling of the trail.|
Our first stop was the pre-race meeting and packet pick up. The more involved I become in the ultra community, the more I realize just how small it is, especially in these longer races. Standing around during the meeting, I recognized so many faces from my races and I have only been running ultras for a little over a year now. You don't leave an ultra without making a new friend or two first. I love the sense of everyone working together to get each other to the finish line in this sport. Ultra runners are a family and families don't leave each other behind. I was reminded how much I freaking love this group of people. I plan on doing this for as long as my body lets me.
|Hanging out by the lake before the pre-race meeting.|
Race morning was an early wake up call and I didn't get much sleep even though I wasn't even racing. I was worried about Katie, worried about my still semi-injured groin, and just worried in general about how everyone would fare, so I was up staring at the ceiling the majority of the night. We drove the two cars down to Gooseberry Falls and prepped for the start. Thom and Katie were both nervous, but who can blame them? Finally our runners were off and we watched them trot off into the distance. 103 miles left to go. Like I said to myself during the very beginning of my 100K....no problem? No problem. Get it done.
|Me, Katie and Deana in the cold before the start.|
|Katie and Thom before the race.|
|Tracey, our Colorado crew, and Thom.|
|About to take off.|
Tracey, Deana and I explored Gooseberry Falls for a bit before we took off, planning on hiking a spur trail to find Katie and Thom at a non-crewed aid station. (We couldn't offer them aid, but we just wanted to cheer to and say hi.) Unfortunately the spur trail ended up being a bit of a mess on our part. The race info told us that they would be 10 miles into the race, but it turned out that the spur trail was somewhere around 6 miles and the aid station was much further up the trail. So we hiked in, expecting to have a to wait for a bit, but completely missed our runners and watched as the sweeps went by. Huh?! WTF! 0/1 so far. Shit.
|Reflections in the early morning.|
Crewing involves a lot of downtime, so we decided to explore the Split Rock Lighthouse, which was on our way to the next aid station. However, a cranky employee informed us that you needed to pay for a wristband to see the lighthouse, so we decided to skip it. However, there was an open gate near our cars that we decided to wander through and found a nice view to take some pictures. We meandered around some more, noticing that maybe we could get close enough to see the lighthouse. I contemplated hopping a fence and bushwhacking through some weeds to get a picture (you know, being a trail runner and all), but was glad that I didn't, because the same cranky employee came out and found us and yelled at us that we needed to get out if we didn't purchase a wristband. Whoops. 0/2.
|Pretty views before we got the boot.|
|Queen of the world!|
|Deana didn't like having to get down.|
Thankfully, the rest of the day we managed to keep it together. I give credit to a hearty breakfast at the Northwoods Cafe in Silver Bay, which is a teeny tiny little mining town (no work boots in the dining room, please!) We all met Thom at the next aid station and since Tracey was his official crew, she took care of him. That was the last time Deana and I would see Thom as we needed to take care of Katie and they would slowly become farther and farther apart as the race went on. Katie's spirits were high despite a small downpour and she seemed to be flying through her beginning sections. We were slightly worried about her eating enough, but other than that she seemed to be building a nice cushion to fall back on. Between crewing, Deana and I did a little exploring on the North Shore. We climbed around Palisade Head, ate a veggie pizza at Jimmy's Pizza (not bad, actually), and finally I ended up changing into my pacing gear at a gas station in Silver Bay. (Locals didn't seem too phased by a person wandering around with a backwards hat, headlamp, and calf sleeves, although some teenage girls did give me a look.)
|Thom gets tended to at the aid station.|
|Rain was threatening in the distance.|
|Deana and I hike out to find Katie.|
|Here she comes!|
I would start pacing Katie at approximately mile 43 (County Road 6 aid station.) This aid station involved watching runners come in from a very short road jaunt (maybe a quarter of a mile.) Deana and I sat in the fading light, looking for Katie. Soon it was dark and the runners transformed into bobbing headlamps coming toward us. I was cold sitting there in the dark, despite being wrapped in my down jacket and a borrowed blanket from a friendly fellow crew. I was starting to feel tired, but hoped that running would perk me up. We kept a keen lookout for Katie, as it was difficult to tell runners apart in the dark. Finally we heard her voice from behind us, already at the aid station. "Deana? Mandyroo?" I don't know how we managed to miss her coming in, but we did. I leaped up and put on my pack and found my flashlight. Katie and I both ate a little from the aid station before we took off into the darkness on the trail. My plan was simple: pace Katie as long as my groin would let me. I figured the worst case scenario would be 20 miles, most likely scenario would be 30 miles, and if I was feeling really good, I would take her for 36 miles until the point where Deana would pick her up.
I say this every time Katie and I run together, but damn, that woman can power walk even with a lot of miles under her belt. Katie took the lead and I fell in behind her, climbing when she climbed, running when she ran, and walking when she walked. We had a nice little 500+ foot climb in less than a mile to start out this section. I warmed up quite quickly from my previously frozen state. Once we were on top, I could feel the wind whipping at my jacket. I'm sure there were amazing views of the lake in the distance, but I couldn't see anything but pitch darkness. We were living in the little circles of our flashlights and headlamps. I was starting to feel a little nauseous from the bubble of light emitting from my hand, in fact. I started out with my flashlight on high, but ended up dimming it to low to help with the nausea. That seemed to help a little, but I was still kind of queasy and had a headache. I relayed none of this information to Katie, of course. I wasn't about to worry my runner, after all. Katie got quiet at the end of this section, struggling with her potassium issues. I'd let her explain it if I could, but basically Katie's body is all sorts of screwed up regarding her potassium and she often has problems while running that result in paralysis, loss of vision and extreme swelling. I have seen it happen first hand before in previous races that we have done together, so I knew what to look for and what to ask her. We were told this was a hard section. The trail was ridiculous in places. I remember a lot of rocks. I took my first digger here, doing a tuck and roll and escaping with just a bruised and scraped up shin. We crossed over a very long wooden plank section that took us directly through some sort of lake, maybe? All I know is that I remember looking down and thinking, "You'd better not slip, because you'll fall into that water and who knows how deep it is." I was thankful when we came into the halfway point at Finland. We lingered a bit at this aid station and spent some time by the fire. Deana took care of Katie while I chugged at least 3 cups of Coke and ate a random assortment of whatever I could find at the aid station. Cheese quesadilla, potatoes, and Mike and Ikes? Yes, please.
We were both in better moods leaving this aid station and Katie's potassium issues were slightly better, or at least that's what it felt like because we were laughing and talking again. The caffeine from the coke that I downed seemed to help my headache and I was feeling a lot better. We were chattering away and having a lot of fun on our way to Sonju Lake, which was an uncrewed aid station. The trail in this section was more runnable, although we both took spectacular falls here. It was the middle of the night and the rocks and roots were all horribly slippery, wet with dew from the damp air. Katie was first, slipping on a rock, flying comically in the air, landing on her ass and then sliding down the rock. Her headlamp flew off her head and we started laughing hysterically as we tried to collect the headlamp and realized that it had actually sort of fallen apart. I preformed minor headlamp surgery and restored it to working order. Score one for the pacer! Not too much later, we were running on rock again and I took a flying Superman-esque fall, sliding on my stomach down the rock. Both of my legs and an elbow got bruised from that one. Occasionally I would stop to pee, and then turn on the jets to catch back up to Katie. This was sort of a fun little game for me. At one point, she was ahead of me on a winding part of the trail and her flashlight was so bright that I thought she was a porch light from a house in the middle of the trail. Oh no, were the hallucinations happening already? As we neared the aid station, I asked Katie what she needed here. We planned for a quick little stop -- Katie was more concerned about getting back out on the trail and getting to Deana at the next crew accessible aid station. We both ate soup here and I chugged even more Coke. I also remember being excited about the Fig Newtons and took two to gnaw on while out on the trail.
This next section was only 4.2 miles and would put Katie at the 100K mark when we were done. The problem I have with these shorter sections is that my mind says, "Oh, it's *only* 4 miles," and thus I think that it shouldn't take too long. But somehow these short sections always feel longer than the long sections because my brain messes with me. Katie was really starting to struggle here. She told me that she was going to have a potassium dump at the next aid station. She couldn't see out of her left eye and her right eye only had partial vision. Her hands were swollen up to Michelin Man proportions. At one point, she started talking about how the trail markers were "Wisps", which apparently is a reference to some Disney movie that I'd never seen. She started rambling on about how we needed to follow the wisps and then would whisper to herself, "Wisp, wisp, wisp, wisp..." For a while, I had no idea she was doing this and I thought I was hearing things or we were being followed by a ghost.
During the "wisp" section, we both managed to miss a marker and got off trail next to this loudly babbling creek. We continued on until we hit water and no way around it. Uhhh, this can't be the trail. Back track. Oh, here's where we lost it. Katie asked me to lead her into the aid station from here since her vision was so bad. I asked her if she wanted me to shuffle a little bit on the flats and she said yes, but I was losing her when I did that, so I slowed back down. I was really worried at this point. We decided that she had enough time to take an extended break here and she would nap for an hour. After what felt like forever, we finally came into this aid station. Deana and I got Katie settled into a chair by the fire with sweatshirts wrapped around her legs. (Note to self: pack blankets next time.) I got her some hamburger and she ate that and I think might have fallen asleep. I took care of myself then, changing my shoes, eating a lot of quesadilla again and resting by the fire. However, despite my down jacket and heating packs in my gloves, I was quickly losing the battle with the very cold air. I was shivering non-stop and finally retreated to the car with the heater on full blast while Deana stayed with Katie. I relaxed in the car and finally started to warm up. I don't know how long I was in the car before Deana was tapping at the window. "Katie's up and she's leaving in 2 minutes!" Oh, crap. I was instantly up and fumbling out of my jacket and getting my pack ready.
This next section was a long one at 10 miles. It was somewhere around 6am at this point and the sun would soon be rising. Katie's break had breathed new life into her and we were off and moving well. Katie had an aggressive time goal in this section and we hauled ass on a long, long climb. The kind of climb that left us both gasping for air with our hands on our knees. The sun was coming out and we packed away our flashlights and turned off our headlamps. Katie took off her jacket and we packed it away on the bungee on her pack. I followed suite shortly after. This was my first time starting to run in one day and continuing on running through the night and into the next and with the sunrise. Cool. This was good practice for when I finally run my 100 miler. I was very happy about daybreak and getting to shut off that damn flashlight. We were moving so well in this section that we started passing a bunch of people. Katie came alive every time we spotted a glimpse of a shirt in the distance. She mumbled something about hunting and I asked her, "Are we hunting for wabbits?" And she replied, "No, we're hunting for wunners." In our sleep deprived state, this struck us both as the funniest thing we'd ever heard, because we started laughing and couldn't stop. There's nothing like giggling down the trail pacing your friend to her first 100 mile finish as the sun rises. It was a great moment. We both started to get quiet after a while, however. I was tired. My running has been basically non-existent since my Kettle Moraine 100K in June due to a groin injury. I wasn't trained enough, my groin was starting to ache despite the two doses of ibuprofen I popped during our time together, and exhaustion was starting to kick in. I desperately wanted to continue on with Katie and take her for another section. I debated it internally for a long time, trying to figure out what to do. Then all of a sudden I felt a sharp pain on my upper arm. "Mother fucker!" I yelled. We had both gotten stung by a bee, Katie getting hers on a sensitive spot on her hip. YOWCH. I have only been stung once before in my life and it was a long time ago. Not an experience I want to repeat.
The bee sting added to my doubts about continuing on for another section. Then the hallucinations came. I realize I was only running for 30 miles, but I had been awake all night and sleep deprivation was starting to kick in. A hobo in the woods ended up being a tree stump. Not too much farther along my dad's white tennis shoes were sitting along side the trail (birch bark.) I saw a train depot. I saw a closet full of hangers. "Trees, Mandy, everything is just trees," I kept reminding myself. I was feeling queasy again and my pack was low on water since I completely forgot to fill it at the last aid station. I sucked down a gel and ate a ginger chew, which helped a little. I was really lagging though and the hallucinations made me decide that I needed to stop at the next aid station. I had it my head that the next section was 8 miles, when it was really only 5.6 Had I known that at the time, I might have continued, but Katie didn't seem to daunted about having to run a section by herself. A testament to how strong of a runner she is. I was slowly falling apart behind Katie and was more than relieved to come into the aid station and hang up my hat. I had run for 12+ hours, outlasted my Garmin for the 3rd time ever, had completed an unofficial ultra, and most importantly had gotten Katie through the night.
We sent Katie off onto the trail alone for a short section. I was so grateful to have Deana there to drive as I collapsed in the car. (Deana has essentially crewed me twice now and I definitely need to return the favor at some point.) We decided we had enough time to head back to the condo where I would take a shower and Deana would look for Thom at the finish line. The shower was a success, but Thom and his crew were nowhere to be seen, so we buzzed back to the next aid station to wait for Katie and where Deana would begin pacing. It started to downpour on our way to the aid station and I freaked out, thinking that Katie would be cold. (Because I, again, could not get warm.) We clambered around, trying to find her cold weather gear to bring to her and just barely made it to the aid station in time for her to come through and say that she was hot. Whew. Deana took off with her and left me alone to limp back to the car. I hung out at the next aid station, Temperance, and had some downtime in the car, snacking on whatever I could find because it was probably wise to eat after running for 12 hours. Katie and Deana came through and didn't need much. I was trying to get Katie to eat more at this aid station and she got upset with me and looked me dead in the eye and said very sternly, "I ATE A COOKIE ON THE TRAIL, OKAY?" Katie's patience was wearing out and at mile 84, she was "ready to be fucking done." Amen, sister.
I drove back to the condo (which was in the same place as the finish line) again after this aid station and met Dan (aka Metal, Cupcake, Big Boi, and Thom's pacer for 53 miles) hauling beer to the trunk of the car. Turns out Thom and Tracey were running Thom's last 7 miles and would be finishing any minute. Perfect! We stood out in the rain at the finish line and chatted and watched a bunch of marathoners finish. Come on, Thom, hurry up! I wanted to be there to see him finish, but I also needed to get back to crew Katie and Deana at Sawbill (mile 90.) Finally I had to leave, so I didn't end up seeing Thom finish. Back to Katie and Deana I drove. I hiked out on the trail to run them in. Katie was slightly punchy here, yelling at some guys at the aid station about "female problems." This was apparently after she has visited the outhouse that had a "lava lamp" of poop on the floor. Um, yummy? I soothed her by reminding her that she had oodles of time on cutoffs and so they took off onto the trail again. And back to the condo I went again, hoping to find Thom finished. Success! Thom had finished in 31:22 and everyone from his crew was back lounging at the condo. We shared some beer and some stories about his race before I needed to leave again for my last aid station.
I arrived at Oberg, the last aid station at mile 95.5, and decided to immediately hike in and find my girls. It was a nice walk during that time right before the sun starts to set on trail that I had run twice before (during the marathon last year and on my pre-marathon trail scouting), so I felt like I knew where exactly I was. I probably hiked in a mile before I saw Katie and Deana. I gave Katie and hug and walked them back into the aid station. Katie had 4 hours to go 7.1 miles to the finish. Granted they were probably the toughest 7 miles of the course, but she had 4 hours to do it in. I was 100% confident that she would finish. I showed her pictures of Thom finishing his race and she got a little teary eyed. I was hoping that would give her a little extra strength for the last stretch. I walked her and Deana out of the aid station and up the trail for a while before I left them, promising to back track from the finish and come find them.
|Letting Katie go off to her final 7.1 miles.|
And so I drove back to the condo for the last time. The sun was setting and soon Katie would be entering her second night and her last few miles. I geared up with lights and a Garmin again. Thom and Tracey would be waiting at the finish line for everyone. So I took off into the dark and ran the course backwards, expecting to find Katie and Deana shortly. A lot of 100 and 50 milers were coming near the finish and almost all of them wanted to know how far they had left to go. I was happy to provide mileage and descriptions -- some met the info with enthusiasm and others with despair. Soon the trail started to climb and I realized that I was headed up Mystery Mountain. I had to be running into my girls shortly. And finally I did. Katie called, "Is that you, Mandy?" Because who else would be wandering up the trail with a headlamp and flashlight in the dark at 9pm? "It's me!" I called back. Katie was pretty broken down at this point. Every rock was a mountain, every root evoked a "fuck me", every stumble was a whimper. But damn, she was doing it. I told her, "Come on, let's get you off this mother fucking trail already." We picked our way down gingerly, talking, them telling me how their last few miles went. I told Katie once she could hear the waterfall, we were almost there. Soon the roaring of the near-invisible-in-the-dark waterfall could be heard in the distance. Just cross over the bridge and you're off the trail and onto the streets of the ski resort. And Katie started to run again. I was proud of her for starting to run then, with almost a half mile left. That's a damn long way to run at the end of a 100. But she ran and we didn't stop running. We ran into a pair of slower moving racers just before the finish line and I urged her to pass them. I didn't want her to slow down behind them, let's finish this strong! And so she ran around them and through the finishing chute and directly into Thom. 103 miles done. 37:21 and well ahead of the cut off.
|The finish line.|
I am so proud of Katie for enduring and finishing her first 100. And not just any 100, but Sawtooth. You just can't begin to understand that course until you've ran at least part of it. Katie is too humble about her running; she's a damn strong runner and I was confident in her ability to push through and finish from the very beginning. I feel honored that she wanted me as part of her crew and I hope that she knows how much I admire her. Me, Katie and Deana met just a little over a year ago at DWD - Devil's Lake in 2011. Since then, we've crewed each other, run races together, paced each other, and I couldn't be more grateful to have such good friends. The turtle trio holds a special place in my heart and I know the three of us will continue to have many adventures together in the future. I'm pretty sure it's Deana's turn to lube up next, however.