Thursday, December 13, 2018

Mines of Spain 100k, 2018

The decision to run 100k, 62 miles, was made the same day I completed the Zumbro 50 mile race. Well, maybe not the exact same day as I had no idea what time it was when I crossed the finish line and was immediately stuffed into the back of the truck and driven straight back to Iowa through a blizzard. When I came to the next day in my bed and before I had really anything proper to eat, however, I reflected that I could have done another loop, another 17 miles. It wouldn’t have been easy or pretty as I was just starting to hit some weird lows and I had some aches and pains that would continue to develop had I gone on but I could have done it. The realization came to me right before another wave of sleep washed over me.

For the past several years, there has been a half marathon, 10k, and 5k, in the Mines of Spain area of Dubuque, Iowa. A lot of runners come to the race not fully prepared for what the race has in store for them. It’s always held in early August and the good people behind the race have managed to find nearly all the climbs and stairs available and put them in a nice 13 mile loop. They make sure some of the downhills are technical and leave the prairie sections open so that you visibly melt in the Iowa humidity which they’ve specifically cranked to hearty dose. Most people call the race brutal and try to erase all memory of with the post-race party. So instead of leaving it at that, the race directors found a way to tack on more miles, more climbing, more prairie and more everything. Altogether they made a 20 mile course and called it the Mines of Spain 100 mile and 100k. The only thing lacking is the guarantee of 100% humidity since it is held in mid-October. Sign me up!

I spent the next four and a half months preparing for the 100k. I found a coach, Matt Randle, to help get me there in one piece and in good preparation, which he did. I had a magical, adventure-filled summer of running which pushed and pulled me in new ways and truly proved how much I’ve gained since I started my ultra endeavors four years ago. I ran a new personal best time at the 25k distance (15-ish miles), had my first adventure run in Leadville, Colorado with friends and ran my first 50k in Fairplay, Colorado after not thinking I could ever do a mountain race (a story unto itself). I put in more time and more climbing than ever at Ledges and ran with so many friends. When it came to tapering back for the race, I really felt it was too soon. How could the race already be here? 

At the same time I felt apathetic and tired. I expressed my concern to a friend saying all  I thought I would have at the end was a medal and that it would be over. He said it sounded like I was ready. When I told my coach, he said I was more confident than I realized and that was a positive for me. It turns out I was nervous because this was what I wanted but had shoved it way down. I had forgotten that this was my A race, my goal. This was what I had been working for all summer long. My perspective changed. 

The race started Friday morning at 8 am. The forecast was for light rain early then ending with overcast skies and temps in the high 40’s, low 50’s. Because of our unusual, or maybe usual unpredictable Iowa weather this Fall, I had a lot of practice trying out clothing combinations until I narrowed it down to shorts, t-shirt, gloves and a lightweight jacket. I ate my normal pre-run breakfast, forcing food down even though my stomach was in knots. We pulled into the race area and the nerves wouldn’t go away. I fumbled with pinning my race number to my vest and broke down crying about four safety pins. 

On the way back from the bathroom I saw my new friend Jeff and blurted out my distress. He has done dozens of ultras and assured me I would be okay. Then I saw Crystal who also has done a lot of ultras. And my mom found me.  Then I very briefly met Ann Trason as we made our way to the start. I was surrounded by ultra runners, all of us on the same conquest. My nerves dissipated into the morning rain as we took off.

Oh, you know, just casually walking to the start with Ann Trason 

No matter how old you are, your mom is always proud of you

Justin and I never plan any running together. You recall him for last year’s McNaughton 50 mile. We live in the same town. We have similar goals. We end up doing the same races and running together during the race but never outside of the race. We tried once this fall and it fell through. But here we are at Mines together. We catch up on life, family, and our running adventures through the miles. Honestly, its nice to have company you don’t have to start from introductions to have conversations. Justin has been pushing his nephew in a running chariot in races and had just pushed him in a trail race. It’s a story and an effort he might not make a big deal of but I gladly will. I knew Justin was in strong shape for this race and when he pulled away from me during the second loop, I was only sad to lose his company. 

Justin and me again at the start of another ultra

During the first loop the rain drizzled on and off for about half of it. I kept my jacket on, took it off, zipped, unzipped, carried it balled up in my hand, or draped over my arms until I could finally take it off and put it away. I learned I can take my jacket off while not completely removing my vest. I’m sorry if this is utterly boring but these are the things you think about and obsess over when attempting long distances. You keep tuned in to everything that could make or break your body. You try to keep eating food and drinking water and balancing electrolytes. You manage heat and sweat. There is time to think about other things but these basic things are never far from your mind.

Crystal and me hopping creeks (Mile 90 Photography)
An exceptionally rainy fall made all of Iowa was squishy. The week before the race things tried to dry out although there was still some rain. I prepared mentally for the inevitable mud, low spots in the prairie, or obvious runoff and for the little creeks to hold more than a little water. I slipped and fell a couple of times on muddy banks. The race directors had told us there would be some water on the course ahead of time by way of a fun little video. Cool. Cool. Cool. However, after we descended the Calcite Trail (the section with the steep stone steps), we were greeted to squawks and hollers from runners crossing a very, very flooded trail. Shock crossed all of our faces. Even though we were to turn left to head to the third aid station before coming back to cross it, runners were still drawn to the flooded trail like sirens luring sailors to their death. 

Knowing that trail was not ours for the moment, we turned away and headed out to the third aid station. A ways in we were greeted with those already coming back giving us a heads up that there would be a stretch of trail under water about ankle deep. Onward we pressed, diverting around some watery sections and of course thinking, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” Oh no! Just a bit further, around a corner was the section they had been talking about. Again, before we could see it, we could hear it coming from the shouts. It was about 30 yards long and more than ankle deep, and cold. At first the idea was to high step it as much as possible but that ended kicking up water either onto yourself or the runner ahead of you so we shuffled as fast as we could. My feet were numb by the time I was through it. And lucky for us, we got to go back through it in just a couple of miles. My feet were no less numb the second time through.

We hadn’t forgotten the flooded section but only temporarily pushed it from our memory. That is until we were face to face with it. Foot to flood with it? It came to my mind that this was like the “Going on a bear hunt” song. I can’t go around it. I can’t go over it. I can’t go under it. I’ll have to go through it. In we stepped. In we sank as the water rose higher and higher and I honestly wondered how high it would rise on me. Would it be waist high on me while only thigh deep to Justin? This time it only went to mid-thigh on me. We pressed through the water, guessing as to what was the trail beneath us, out of sight. Our yelps and cries dwindled to nothing as we traversed the three hundreds yards of cold, cold water. 300 yards later, we merged back onto dry land shocked, stunned and numb. 

As we finished the first loop, the flooded trail consumed my thoughts. How could I manage to keep my feet dry for as long as possible? What shoes should I wear? How could I keep warm when each time I came out of the water my feet were nearly numb? What would it be like at night? I needed to assess my gear and what I would need for the next loop as I came into the start/finish area but I could not stop thinking about the water. 

Finishing the first loop

Getting the royal treatment from my crew
Back on the second loop it occurred to me that I was letting one 300 yard section of the trail dictate my miles so I forced myself back to being present for the moment. I had miles to go before I came to that again. The stretch between aid station one and the far turn around seemed to stretch on longer than ever and we ran for endless miles before we were able to get to the heart shaped hole punch that was tied to a tree branch so we could prove on our race bibs we hadn’t skipped that section. At aid station two I ate a couple of pirogies and some Coke. The sun tried to break through the cloud cover but couldn’t get a hold so we stayed in mild, cool temps that were perfect. 

Bluffs up, thumbs up (Mile 90 Photography)
After aid station 3, my body started complaining and I couldn’t keep up the downhill pace I had been doing. I started walking 30 paces then running 30 paces. If anything the counting kept my mind occupied. I was by myself now and looking back on that time, bonking a bit. I hadn’t been diligent with eating and stubbornly didn’t take care of myself like I know I should. I didn’t want to be doing this so soon but eventually let myself hike almost completely. I was happier and was not fighting myself for what I should or shouldn’t be doing. I can hike very quickly even on the uphills. As Melinda remarked later, I just need an uphill race. Crossing the low water section again was neither warmer or easier. It was just as cold and maybe a little deeper although I found if I stayed to the edge is wasn’t quite as deep.  On the way back from aid station 4, the evening sun cast its glow across the top of the autumn trees. It was such a stunning contrast to a grey day. I drew it in, knowing that the next time I was that way it would be dark. 
At the high water crossing I appreciated the humor someone had placed out there for us. As I crossed, floating sticks and small branches banged against my legs under the surface. It occurred to me that there could be more than those things in the water but I quickly put it out of my mind. I couldn’t let those kinds of thoughts take hold. The water was no less cold and was slightly higher than the first pass. To keep warm I had to keep moving. I was driven to get back to the start/finish. 

Here for the trail humor (that's not Justin) 

My crew was waiting for me. At the start of the race was Bill and my mom, who was so excited to finally be able to come to one of my races. Between loops 1 and 2 our friend Joe had stopped by and my pacer, Melinda, had just made it there with the best pb&j sandwiches. Then between loops 2 and 3, another friend, Kevin, came over to say hello as he was volunteering overnight. I had met Chuck during the course preview run a month before and even though he was volunteering at aid station 2, he was still all over the place and called me out every time he saw me. During my summer mountain race, I felt the loneliest I’ve ever felt during a race but at this race I never felt alone. All of them were bright spots in my race.

Possibly faking this smile finishing the second loop

During the second loop I thought about what I would need for the third loop which would be almost completely in the dark. I had been wearing shorts and t-shirt and it wouldn’t be enough once the sun went down. I needed to change into capri tights but not wanting to walk out of the way over to the bathroom or try to balance on wobbly legs in a small porta-potty, I had Mom and Melinda hold up a beach towel around me while I backed myself against a brick wall of the shelter and changed. Listen, there’s just a lot of little things like this that happen on the trail. We end up sharing experiences that bond us into best friends with inside jokes which no one gets a chuckle over except us.

Mom figured out crewing duties quickly

I changed my socks and shoes, threw on a light long-sleeve layer, grabbed my hiking poles, headlamp and Melinda and I set out for the last loop. I want to say I headed out to crush the last lap but it was still 20 miles long and I wasn’t in a crushing in type of mood. Although it was light out when we started, by the top of the first climb I had to stop to put on my headlamp and extend my poles. As the day faded, I wondered how long it would take for the darkness to fill in around me, the shadows grow to their fullest. The bluffs put on a beautiful play of grey. The sky remained clear and gradually the tiny lights of stars appeared as a not quite full moon found its mark on the night stage. New to me was experiencing the temperature changes along the trail. Most of the trail felt cool as I expected it to be in the evening but in some sections the temperature was colder and frost covered the ground while every once in a while a warm spot rose up. Even when you are limited to a circle of your own light, your other senses have not stopped working.

When we started out together I gave Melinda updates on how I was doing and so on. But the cheer and energy of the aid station soon faded and I was starting to dip back into a low level bonk. I’ve never really experienced this kind of energy swing before in a race and can only see what is was now with post-race perspective. I gave Melinda the unenviable task of trying to converse with me without talking about anything sad, gross, reminiscent, or really all that happy. I was on the verge of breaking down. I missed my boys terribly and thinking of them was too much. I could hear all about what was going on in Melinda’s life- what books she’d read,  movies she’d seen, new hobbies she’d started and where she’d hidden her energy gels at in her house to keep her boys out of them but then couldn’t find them herself- but in my life nothing was going on other than I was trying to get through one mile after one mile. For me, life was whittled down to a very small circle, focused on what was required to do right in front of me. 

What does a pacer do? Mine made me eat the extra pirogies she had stashed away from the aid station. She made me a killer pb & j sandwich and kept asking me if I was eating it. She made sure I had some broth when I would have just left the aid station without any. She told me I was doing well and moving strongly. I hardly believed her because how could I be doing so well when I knew I was slowing down and everything was hurting? But she kept encouraging and cheering me. She was there for me and believed in me.

Seeing Ann during the race was always a bright spot no matter how dark the night was

Every section of the course had become familiar to me. I knew where to turn, where to look for the next flag, when to cross the bridge and all the nuances of the trail. I called them out to Melinda to let her know where to step at each mud pit or how this was only a fake water hole, not the real one. Finally we came to the low water crossing and as much as I tried to suck it up and endure without much thought, it nearly broke me and I cried out a little. I did not want to go through that again! It had gotten longer and deeper as the day had progressed. 

We made it to the last aid station and while I usually celebrate things such as last time through aid stations, I did not this time.  Nothing was funny, nothing was amazing. My friend, Nate, surprised me by driving over and was there. He was live streaming on Facebook and my sister had joined in. I got to see her and hear her love although I was in dark spot and didn’t really respond to her. At this last aid station I wasted a bunch of time on figuring out how to carry a handful of gummy bears and Skittles along with my poles in my gloved hands. It was just the dumbest thing to spend time on when more importantly I needed my jacket on and something warm to drink. Melinda forced a cup of broth into my hands and we left. As it turned out, the Skittles were too hard for me to chew and I ended up getting rid of them. So fueled on a cup of chicken broth and a handful of gummy bears, we left for the last miles of the race.

The water was inevitable. We made it through the low section for the last time and I sighed only a bit. With the night fully dark now, I shuddered at the thought of the long stretch of water. Standing at the edge of it, I directed Melinda to move as quickly as possible and to not fall down. I gritted my teeth and stepped in. I wanted it over with. Floating in a kayak was a race volunteer, watching to see that we made safe passage. The water crept up higher and higher on my legs, falling just short of my waist but I just kept going. At the end of it, I gave a long shout. I should have felt like a conqueror but instead I was relieved to be done with it for good. 

Melinda and I finished up the last sections, the last miles. Nothing had stopped me so far and nothing was going to stop me from finishing. Except for perhaps that skunk we saw in the middle of the road which thankfully scurried away before we got too close. Going up the final sidewalk, crossing the road for the last time- the last time- it felt surreal. I had gone further than I had ever gone and in almost the same time it took me to finish Zumbro. But I didn’t think about any of those things. I thought about the finish line and crossing it and being done.

Finishing with Melinda by my side

When I finished, I felt a bit dazed. Everyone was cheering for me and I was enveloped in a hug from one of the race directors and given a finisher’s medal. I looked up for the first time in a long time and tried to recognize who was there. Bill and my mom came up to me for hugs. Not having to think about anything was strange. I was overwhelmed with not having to make any more decisions for any more miles. I had finished.
Kevin brought me over a couple slices of plain bread. It’s a weird food to want at the end but I find the plainness with no flavor, salt or sugar, is settling for me. I ate one piece and shoved the other one in my pocket to eat as we stood around a fire and recounted our day, exchanged battle stories and such. Slowly we dwindled away, everyone to their cars and hotels and such. Bill drove me out of the park. I could not get my head around what I had just done. It felt like he had just driven me there and now I was leaving the shelter of the ultra-world. The race was still going on for many runners in both the 100k and the 100 mile distances but I was done. I felt like I was deserting them even though my body raged and ached with every move. 

At the hotel, I somehow managed a shower and came back out to Bill sound asleep. It was, after all, 2:30 in the morning. I propped my uncovered feet up on a pile of pillows and draped my campfire smelling coat over my upper body but barely slept as my legs were on fire and my mind refused to turn out the lights. I decided to get up at 6:00 since I really wasn’t sleeping and shuffled to breakfast. Mercifully, we were on the first floor. Once they were open, I put a few things on my plate then forced the food down while propping my head up with my hand. I looked like I just had the best worst night of my life. 

Later that morning, we started for home and talked about my race and how it went. And with a breakfast sandwich in my lap, the tears rolled. I couldn’t grasp the enormity of what I had just done. Bill broke down my performance lap by lap a little bit and I was overcome with how I had met most of my goals. I was a little disappointed with the breakdown of my body sooner than I felt it should have happened. I couldn’t believe it was literally just yesterday, really less than 24 hours ago. I wished to be back at an aid station just to see some runners, just to be there. I muttered about how dumb it is that McDonald’s refuses to sell lunch items at 10:25 a.m. but will magically have a cheeseburger available at 10:30. I cried because it hurt to stand and walk or sit and be still or have socks and shoes on. I cried because I already missed running.

The reality of me completing 100k continues to slightly overwhelm  and undo me. I know I did it but it’s such a big thing that I can’t quite get my arms around all the time. Every once in a while a surge of “Heck, yeah!” rises up in me when I think of what I accomplished. I remember this same feeling after finishing my first 50k 4 years ago. I remember feeling empowered and strong, capable of more than I gave myself credit for. In pushing myself further, I have found cheerleaders and encouragers who may shake their head at my crazy but also tell me they believe in me. I am grateful for all of them. I continue to be grateful and amazed that I can do these things. It's all grace, all gift.

All hearts for the Mines of Spain

People always ask me similar questions. Here are some answers.
Do I eat? What do I eat? How do I eat while running?
 I’ve practiced eating and running at the same time during my training. It is harder to eat the faster I run, so I mostly try not to run that fast. (Mostly kidding.)
 The aid stations have a normal assortment of foods and drinks to choose from: fruits like bananas and orange slices, candies like gummy bears, Skittles, M&M’s, other sweet items; chips, pretzels, pickles, other salty items; hot foods they make such as quesadillas, grilled cheese, burgers, and whatever else they want to provide; hot broths and soups and mashed potatoes.
 Along with aid station foods, I bring my own kinds of food and calories- pb&j in a ziplock bag, Clif Bars- the peanut butter or hazelnut butter filled ones are my favorite, and all kinds of energy gels and chews. I eat all the brands: GU, Clif, Spring Energy, Huma, Honey Stinger

Do I drink anything? How do I carry it?
 I drink water and usually carry it in a hydration bladder in the back of my running vest. I also drink an electrolyte drink, which is currently Tailwind Nutrition, similar to iocane powder, minus the deadly consequences.
 Aid stations also have water and some kind of electrolyte drink plus Coke, Ginger Ale, etc. 

These are specific products I love, love, love and are the things I would recommend if someone asked me. 

Jacket: Patagonia Houdini Jacket- This thing is super lightweight, protects well from moderate wind and rain, rolls up super fast and zips into its own pocket. It’s like the hedgehog of jackets. 
Shorts: Oiselle Rogas- I have so many pairs of these shorts. They lay flat against my backside (not poofy), has a liner that has yet to cause me chafing, and fits so well. There’s not a Roga I don’t love.
Socks: Injinji toe socks- These look weird but work great. I can’t explain it.
Foot Protection: Trail Toes- This anti-friction cream is my go to foot protection and has protected my feet in all kinds of weather and terrain. I don’t use anything else. 
Hiking Poles: Black Diamond Distance Z trekking poles- The carbon fiber makes these half the weight of normal poles. They fold up or unfold and lock into place easily. And they are magic.

The beauty of the bluffs and a peek at the Mississippi river

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Inside the 50: Zumbro, 2018

“Between here and the first aid station, you will have a life-altering experience.” This is the beginning of race director John’s pre-race briefing to us 50 mile runners. After strong words of warning and resolve, I overheard another runner say “That’s not John’s normal speech.” and it isn’t. 

Life changing experience in 5 minutes! (photo credit- Paul Nye)

But this is Zumbro. 

Since my first run here four years ago I have had the map and elevation profile taped to my wall next to my desk. I’ve compared this course to every other course I’ve run. I didn’t know when I would be back and what distance I would do but I’ve wanted to be here since I left. Zumbro will not leave me.

Zumbro will not leave others as I know from conversations with my friend Julia, who ran it in 2015 and with Melinda, who ran it in 2017, all of us the single 17 mile loop. In the fall, we discovered our life schedules were clear for us to do the race again. As we ran one of our Friday Adventures, we decided the 50 mile distance was for us. That is, Julia and I talked and Melinda listened but within a week or so Melinda was on board as well. We each picked our own training plans and set to the work of getting to Zumbro. 

Two weeks before the race, Julia and I headed up to Zumbro to join a group for a training run. For me, it proved to be one of the most valuable training days. Within a mile the group had separated into different abilities and paces and Julia and I found ourselves picking our way around the bridle trails by ourselves. The entire trail was in a state of ice, snow, mud and standing water other than the few which were south facing and had dried out. We cut our run short, not completing the entire loop, even though the twelve miles had taken us four and a half hours. Back home, we strategized, watched the weather, bought massive amounts of gear, watched the weather, planned, watched the weather, panicked and regrouped and watched the weather some more. Winter was not budging. 

Bill, Luke and I pulled into the Zumbro West End campground with the camper around 4:30 Friday afternoon. It had been raining on and off all day from what we could find out and the trail was a terrible muddy mess. The 100 mile runners, including Julia, had started that morning at 8:00 but the trail was winning as the drop rate increased with each loop. Julia called it after one loop deciding that the mud was not going to play nice with her injured foot. I walked to the registration/aid station area to assess things. Spirits were good but showing signs of battle. As I walked back to the camper I overheard John say to a runner who dropped that Susan Donnelly who is a very accomplished 100 mile runner had said this was the worst conditions she had ever run in. 

As Melinda and I sat around the trail map discussing plans, layers, gears and trail conditions as reported by Julia who had risked coming back from her hotel to visit, it started to thunder. Then we heard the sound of ice hitting the camper. Then it snowed. We stepped out of the camper at 10:30 to 3 inches of snow on our way to pick up our race bibs. The boys were building snow forts. 

I had made up mind as to what I was going to wear as I packed the day before but there was still last minute doubt as to how best to handle the worsening conditions. I made Bill keep track of the time for me as I changed layers until I on a thinner pair of tights under a thicker pair of tights, a short-sleeved shirt, long-sleeved shirt, a thicker outer layer and a wind and rain proof jacket. I put on a single pair of Injinji wool socks after slathering my feet with Trail Toes and then placed foot warmers on top of my feet. Our camper was full of friends as my friend Nate showed up at 11 to check out this ultra running scene. We all talked and laughed as Melinda and I finished getting ready.

At 11:45 or so we assembled for the pre-race meeting. We found Charlie or Charlie found us and told us the harrowing tale of him driving on the dangerously icy roads to get to the race. He advised us to use hiking poles earlier rather than later and later rather than earlier I decided that was very good advice. We saw Jason and he was all bundled up in all his warm gear and goggles to crew friends of his. Pre-race directives, pictures and hugs and kisses (Bill only for the kisses) over, we moved to the start line. In the dark of midnight, it would have been difficult to find but in the blinding snow we could only follow the people in front of us and listen to John’s voice as he called us to come closer, closer, closer… Go!  

Where's the start line? (photo credit- Paul Nye

I was now inside the 50. 

I’ve not done a lot of night running and my past experiences have not be great. The times I have run at night I have spooked myself with the sound of my own footsteps, letting out a little yelp when the sound got the best of me. Other times it has been squirrels, rabbits and deer, their eyes illuminated by my headlamp. I chose the midnight start because I figured I wouldn’t get eaten or attacked or spooked if hundreds of other runners were with me, all of us with headlamps on. We quickly filtered down to single file on the trail where banter was surprisingly quiet, I believe due to all of us waiting for our life-altering experience. Since I was more mid-pack, we were hiking the climbs rather than running and our footsteps fell in sync. The sound of us moving and marching was a unifying experience. I wasn’t the only one to notice it as others around me laughed when I broke into a little “Hi Ho, Hi Ho”. I looked back and could see a line of light made by all of us individually but blurred together. The snow draped and outlined the branches. It was beautiful. I imagine the same run but without the snow to reflect back our light and I don’t think it would have been nearly the same experience. 

Have headlamp, will travel in single file 

The trail conditions seemed markedly improved from my expectations and previous experiences. Make no mistake, there was plenty of mud and standing water. Perhaps I’m becoming a more seasoned trail runner, perhaps my life-altering experience happened four years ago but the weather had changed and so had the trail since Friday morning’s start. I knew two things- my mind would not budge from my goal and I would take what the trail gave me until one of us won. 

In the dark and snow, we came over the first overlook then tucked ourselves back onto the trail. Branches hung low being burdened with snow and often Melinda and I smacked ourselves with one, not looking up from our footing to see it. One of my favorite sections is the trail though the pine trees. On my scouting run, it was an ice rink which was completely opposite of the stream that ran down it four years ago and this time it was muddy. But what captured me was the way the branches domed our headlamps. I could see a runner ahead, a tiny cathedral of moving light. 

Getting a glowing shot is difficult when your own headlamp is lighting up the trail

I really don’t know where Melinda and I were in comparison to the rest of the 50 mile runners because within the first three miles, we had all thinned out significantly and by the first aid station we were no longer headlamp to hydration pack close. There was always mud but there was almost always a work around. The temptation to dodge all the mud would eat up time and energy so it was a balance of continually moving forward and staying out the of muddiest parts as much as possible. It was just a game out there as we wove our way along on the driest paths others before us had stamped out. 

And it continued to be dark since it was in fact nighttime. Even later in the day, I remember thinking to myself “I’m running in the dark!” or “I ran through the dark!”. I’m literally so proud of myself for staying up most the the day before other than a few hours of rest and then running from midnight on. One of the advantages of using headlamps is that the course markings are easy to spot because they are reflective. With a quick glance up the trail I could spot the next turn or next section. I could also spot where other runners were on the trail. We would be at the bottom of a climb and I would tell Melinda to look up so she could see them.

Julia and I had deemed the steepest climb before the second aid station as The Big One. You climb several smaller ones, hoping that it’s the big one but only when your legs are screaming and you wonder just when in the hill its going to be over, do you realize you are on The Big One. Summiting the hill, you quickly crest and descend, using mud or ice as the means to get down. On our first loop, the trail was mud but not the flowing mud the 100 milers had the fortune of riding down. This was less mud for me than 2014 so I felt really grateful for what it was. 

We were in and out of the second aid station fairly quickly, although I think we could have always shaved more time off of the stops. The second aid station acts as the third A.S. as well. This section is a quick little up and down and then a sandy coulee which is often difficult to run well. That did not prove to be the case this time since the rain had compacted the sand and it was firm underfoot. We were able to run this section and make it back to the aid station quick enough.

Right out of the aid station we started the long climb to the ridge. We met up with another woman at the top and stuck with her for some time while she us all about some awesome races she has done and now I want to do them. We made it across the ridge and headed down Ant Hill. Ant Hill is not small. The boulders are not small. It’s even a tough ride for my guys on their dirt bikes (they go up whereas we go down). I’m not a fan of Ant Hill. We went slow enough to reduce the impact of the long, long descent on our knees but fast enough to take advantage of the downhill. At the bottom is a mile plus long access road. Both Melinda and I were a little bitter about this road because both of us walked this stretch the last time when we wanted to run but we’re stronger runners now and ran most of it.

After the fourth aid station, which is also the first, we encountered the most standing water. It filled the entire trail and we spent a lot of time trying to keep our feet out of the water and mud but was only somewhat success. Even though this section never did fully drain, my feet were the wettest and muddiest during the first loop.

We had made really good time for our first loop and for not knowing what we were going to encounter out there. Our boys were sleeping but Paul, Bill and Nate were there to help us gear up for the next loop. I called out what I needed from Bill and he filled my bottles with more Tailwind and found my next pair of socks and shoes. I changed both, wiping down my feet with baby wipes first and adding more Trail Toes before. You know what? Trying to change socks and shoes with the wind and snow howling around you while trying not to go hypothermic from not moving sucks. Bill took off his winter coat and draped it around me while I finished up. And he hates being cold! The aid station offered me an amazing quesadilla and some bacon and my eyes were wide with delight. Nate, this being his first experience with an ultra of any kind and me at 5:00 in the morning giddy about a cheesy flour tortilla that stuck to my gloves as Melinda and I headed back out into the blizzard conditions, well, he was speechless.

I’ve always heard the sunrise does wonders for the spirit after a long, dark night of running and was waiting for my Zumbro sunrise. Melinda called to me and over our shoulders was the low, red glow of the sun ready to break the horizon. I was ready for it to happen and hoped to catch it in a turn in the trail. But the clouds would not release their captivity of the sky and that was all we ever saw of the sun for the rest of the day. Gently the morning song of a few brave birds broke out but the rest of the woods remained silent. The darkness of night moved away for the light of day so we turned off our headlamps and took in the trail as though for the first time.

We landed at the first/fourth aid station and rejoiced to take our headlamps off. Mine has a light on the front and a battery pack which is strapped on and is worn on the back of my head. I had tried to lower my ponytail to keep the battery pack from causing a pressure point but didn’t get it quite right. Plus, after 6 hours of wearing it, it was heavy.

Getting to the top of The Big One, the mud chute had now become an ice chute. We, along with several men, battled our way down it. The second/third aid station looked more remote than ever as only a handful of volunteers were there and the lights used to brighten the station during the night were gone. I overhead a volunteer ask another if they needed a certain item anymore and she replied that she did not. It occurred to me that they might be packing up instead of cleaning up. I had hoped we could finish our second loop before the 17 mile runners started or at least be far enough ahead that they would never catch us. I did not want to share the trail with 500 of them. I asked about the morning race and they told us it had been cancelled but said nothing about the 50 or 100 mile race. Melinda and I spent the next section wondering if this would be our last loop but continued with our mindset that we would go until we finished or got pulled. I spent several icy downhill sections sliding, falling and swinging around trees as if they were poles while Melinda looked on from above and rated my skill and poise. As she crept her way down, I decided my safest course of action would be to sit on my feet and slide as far as I could, using my hands as paddles. See, no one will write about this kind of inside information in Ultrarunner Magazine but I’m here to say it was somewhat effective and definitely entertaining. 

Ah! So this is what the trail looks like!

Melinda and I entered the third aid station and no one said a word to us about stopping after this loop. We overheard a volunteer boost a 100 miler up, assuring him he would be able to finish, and we took it as a sign that we would be continuing our race as well. We slipped and slid our way up to the ridge. We kept our mission up to run when we could and walk when necessary and found the trail drifting over although we could still find it. Melinda and I always stayed together but worked at our own paces. We even took bio breaks together although a fair distance from each other. Squatting in a half a foot of snow on tired legs can be an awakening experience. (Dudes have it super easy is all I’m saying.) 

After 16 hours, this was hilarious

There is a long service road before reaching the bridge which links back to the front end of the course. Again, we had no positive feelings about this road but suffered ourselves together to run it as much as possible. We knew it was around a mile long even though it felt like 5 miles but in reality we had no idea how long it was. Assessing ourselves, Melinda’s knees hurt when she ran and my Achilles hurt when I walked. Despite our uneven injuries, I figured with the third loop we would probably both develop another pain that would even us out. Through the trees I kept searching for the metal arches of the bridge. I found them at least three times only to have them be branches before we really did see them. The aid station had made chocolate chip pancakes for us and they were a delight! 

We came into a very forlorn looking campground. By now the boys were up and everyone met us. Luke found the sign Kristy had made for me during one of my long treadmill runs and was holding it up for me. He became my real live giant teddy bear which I hugged at will. Bill and Paul hustled us into a huge canvas warming tent that had been set up and helped us with our gear. The mood was pensive and hurried. I overheard someone say to hurry up because the weather was getting bad. It’s really not the kind of thing you want to hear in a toasty tent with the snow and wind whipping the sides. It will suck the resolve right out of you. I was down on calories and down in my spirit and paused for a moment. I knew I was going back out and that I would finish but it was definitely a low point. Fortunately Bill knows me and knew how to assess the situation well. He gave me a hug and kiss and booted me out of the tent. I shoveled in a load of scrambled eggs and took two sausage links to go in my formally cheesy and now greasy mitt.

Since the trail had gone from mud to ice, we decided to use our spikes for the third loop. 
They would not have been a good choice for the first loop as there was too much mud. I learned this by finding a singular spike in the mud during that loop. I picked it up and was going to carry it to the first aid station, however, minutes later we came upon two women, one who had lost one of her spikes in the mud and I handed it to her. But spikes on an icy trail are magic and we never slipped once during the loop.

I also brought my new hiking poles with me. I had purchased these a few weeks before the race and only tried them once on a walk in the park. I had my doubts as to how much benefit they would provide versus the challenge of learning a new piece of equipment. The course climbs out of the campground very quickly, I learned very quickly just how amazing using hiking poles were. Charlie was right. I was able to transfer enough weight through the poles to now use both my arms and my legs to move me forward. I proclaimed my love for them immediately. Eventually I share the poles with Melinda so she could try them and she also professed her love. We swapped them back and forth for a while and each time she had them I was plotting as to how and when I could get them back. Finally, I realized we could each use one pole and handed one to her. 

Nailed it! (Note the snow accumulation on me and in my eyeballs) (photo credit- me, obvs)

We entered the first aid station again and I asked if there were any more pancakes and nearly cried when the volunteer said there was. Since they were in a covered container and kept slightly warm, they were nearly the only thing edible and not frozen on the table and I gladly ate two. Throughout the a.m. I had been eating bananas, potatoes, a few potato chips and some very frozen Aldi brand Girl Scout cookies, plus the aforementioned foods from the aid stations. Between aid stations I sucked down Huma chia and Spring Energy gels along with chomping through Clif Bars and Picky Bars. I washed everything down with plenty of water, cups of ginger ale or Coke, and kept the constant drip of Tailwind going until I thought I was going to puke, to which I backed off of. Entering the third aid station, Melinda asked for some hot food as she had munched on pb&j sandwiches the entire time. The volunteer said she had a hot grilled cheese sandwich ready to go. When she carried it over to Melinda the sandwich slid off the spatula and fell to the ground. We stood there, not knowing what to do as there was one more on the griddle but there was two of us. Can you guess what happened next?

I ate the fallen sandwich!

Is it even sane of me to admit that I had wondered for a good portion of the race if I would eat anything off the ground? 
Well, I did and my mom has already declared how proud of me she is and there are no take backs even after discovering this sort of thing keeps trending with her daughter.

It was a hard day for the aid stations as well.

While in the sand coulee, we had heard a loud crack and the sound of either a tree or a huge branch falling. And while the we had experienced snow, sleet, wind, ice all throughout, nothing had felt dangerous. But this felt precarious. The trail on the ridge was completely drifted over. Melinda looked at me and I commented “Nice.” We no longer walked on the trail but on the snow, guessing as to what was the trail. I held my left hand up to block the wind from driving the snow into my eyes but realized I wouldn’t be able to hike that way the entire ridgeline so I pulled my buff even higher and dropped my head down. Melinda, ahead of me, had done the same and the image I have of her is that of a lone hiker in a blizzard bent into the wind. I only post-holed once (when your leg drops through the deep snow) and quickly corrected my course. With the wind and the new perspective, I found a little log shelter on the ridge. I’m sure it had been there the previous two loops but I’ll be danged that I’d never seen it until now. New weather, new times of day, new perspectives and one sees new things every time.

Thanks, sign.
And that is the thing about this year’s race. It was brutal. I guess. I look at pictures and can’t quite remember it being so bad. Inside the 50, inside 16 hours for us, as the trail changed from mud to ice, as night went to day, as hundreds dwindled to a few, it was absolutely beautiful. 

One of my favorite views- the layers of white

We walked the entire access road back. The ridge had taken so much out of us. We ate, we walked, we regrouped. We checked in at the last A.S. and finished the last stretch. We talked of how we would get together for beer and pizza later. We marveled that we could still run. 

Finally we pulled up out of the bottoms and saw the campground. The wind drove at us, desperate to get in its final licks but we would not have it. Paul would later say that people were trying to guess who was running through the campground and he proudly yelled out “It’s my two Mindys!” 

Two Mindy's, two finishes, 1 adventure 

Our times are equally listed. We have a story only 49 other 50 mile finishers can share. We took care of ourselves and each other. Melinda is emphatic in saying she could not have done it without me but I wouldn’t have wanted to do it without her from the beginning. 

Stoked to have done it and to be inside

We’re bummed we could not be with Julia and that she did not have the trail or race we had but she stepped up to a bigger task with all the heart and bravery one needs to even do so. We are humbled by the true selflessness of the volunteers who stayed long after their shift was over because relief could not gain access just so we could stay the course. My admiration and gratitude for John Storkamp and the outstanding team at Rocksteady Running runs deep. I am grateful to Paul for taking such good care of your Mindy, capturing some outstanding pictures, losing sleep and providing for our every need post-race.
My people- Ehresman small group for saying you believed in me more than you said I was crazy; Julia and Melinda for all the texts, long runs and dreaming; Anne and Kristy for the treadmill signs and Yeti strength; the Turkeys for the long runs at Ledges and Browns; Gary for talking me off the ledge- your need for no bs makes me focus; my family for occasionally asking me about my races means a lot; my sister for putting me back together all the time.  

There aren’t words to express how I feel about Bill. He drove me to the race, managed all my needs, took care of Luke and made the call to pull our camper out of the campground to higher ground, missing Supercross in Minneapolis, to drive us safely back to Iowa all in a day and half. Your belief is me is beyond my belief.