Friday, December 31, 2021

Mines of Spain 100 Mile Race, 2021

“Have you ever climbed a prison wall?”

This was a life changing question for me in July of 2018. At the time, the answer was no, I had not ever climbed a prison wall.

While Laz's question was pointed and specific to the Barkley Fall Classic, it held possibilities for me. If I did that race, what else would I be able to do? I knew immediately what I wanted to do. Run 100 miles.

Around 2010, Bill handed me the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and said I might enjoy it. The book blew the doors off any preconceived notions I had about running distances. Two years prior I had run a 20k (12.4 miles) and it had ended very poorly for me. A full marathon was inconceivable. 100 miles? Again, inconceivable! 

But the idea of trail running had taken hold and eventually I found my way to the trail and ultra-running commune, I mean, community and was scaling a Tennessee prison wall in September of 2019. 

My finish of the Barkley Fall Classic was not what I had hoped for but disappointment did not mean failure. I was challenged to embrace the possibilities outside the prison wall and was lead to sign up for the Mines of Spain 100 mile race for the following year.

On Saturday, January 18, 2020, I rushed to my brother’s home to find it filled with our town’s emergency services and the news that he had passed unexpectedly in the night. We would find out later he had an aortic aneurysm which burst and he passed instantly, his exhale out of this world to inhale into the presence of the Father. 

My grief accumulated as 2020 wore on and my running became more and more labored and lackluster. Yet, because I am not one to give up, I pushed on training through the summer. It was mid-August when I realized I was burned out, tired, sad, worn down, exhausted and not in any mental state to run 100 miles. I emailed the race director and relinquished my entry and stopped running.

When 2021 rolled around, I tested the running waters with a very minimal training plan. I wanted fun challenges, cool swag, friends and mostly to run happy.

In 2020 I had also signed up for the Superior 50 mile race in Minnesota, which was cancelled because of the pandemic. It made me happy to think about returning to the rugged trail which I love so much in early September. I was able to take advantage of the guaranteed race entry policy for 2021 and began rebuilding my running with a training plan which I made work for me, running the lowest mileage I thought would prepare me for the race.

By early July, I started to hit my stride. I volunteered at the Whiterock Ultra and at the last minute, signed up for the 50k. I knew it was a bit of a stretch for me to do so but if anything, I would learn what I needed to work on. And I knew I could finish it because I am now the person who just signs up last minute for a 50k without another thought. I enjoyed myself the entire race, save the one mile of life-sucking B grade road, turned mud, and a fairly massive bonk at the start of the blue loop. I got to meet Wendy and we enjoyed downtown Coon Rapids together. I learned what triggered me into the low spot and how to solve it, save a good rant on Marco Polo to friends.

With another solid month and a half of training I was ready for the Superior 50 mile race. Unfortunately, I came down with a nasty cold and try as I could to rest and shake it, I couldn’t run a quarter of a mile without coughing, let alone run a technical and mountainous distance race. I notified the race director I would not be starting. 

It was a little crushing to have to back out of the single race I had been training for but colds cannot be helped. I felt lucky to have gotten my running back and for all the people and experiences I enjoyed in the process. I knew the question looming before me was what to do with all that training once I was feeling better? I realized I didn’t have to do anything with it, an answer I didn’t expect and which also removed any pressures. I was free to make my next running decision however I wished.

I thought of what kind of running or race would make me happy and bring me joy. What races sparked that kind of excitement and still had availability? Skimming through the possibilities, I came across the Mines of Spain 100. Now this had my attention! I compared my 50 mile training to a general plan written for 100 miles and found I had very similar mileage save one 50 mile training run. Close enough in my book. I crossed my fingers, took a deep breath and hit register on Ultrasignup. The next day I accepted my entrance to my first 100 mile race!

There was about 5 weeks between Superior 50 mile and MoS 100. It left barely any time to panic and no time left to cram in any more significant runs. I only had time to recover from my cold, crew and pace my friend Mindy for her first 100 mile race in Arkansas, recover from that, and put together my race crew and pacers. Get better, don’t get injured, rest up, shop for last minute items, pack, leave and run 100 miles.  

The Mines of Spain 100 is held in Dubuque, Iowa along the Mississippi River. The start/finish area, also affectionately dubbed Crewville, is set up in a park on the north end of the 20 mile course. Winding up and down bluffs and prairies, it has over 14,000 feet of elevation gain in approximately 100 miles. At packet pick-up, I checked in with the race director, Joshua Sun. I hadn’t seen him since my 100k finish in 2018. We quickly caught up before I was whisked away for my first ever pre-100 mile race photo by Mile 90 Photography and handed swag upon swag, purchased a couple more items and went off for my final supper, race strategy chat with Justin, Mindy and Bill and some sleep. 

Departure photo by Mile 90 Photography
Departure by Mile 90 Photography

The morning of the race, I patted myself on the back after eating all my oatmeal and a banana coated in almond butter. We pulled into the park and started setting up the canopy on our little parcel of Crewville. It was a perfect little spot for a home away from home, a place to store my mountain of gear, food and clothes besides being a sheltered place for my crew to hang out. At least that was my perception of it for the short amount of time I was actually in it.

Crewville sweet Crewville

And just like that at 8:00 am we were off!

One hundred miles. O-n-e hun-dred my-l-zuh! 

My race strategy was that this wasn’t a one hundred mile race but five 20 mile challenges. Over the past two years, I completed two different virtual challenges which significantly prepared me for this race. One was a 24 hour challenge, running 5 miles every 4 hours for 24 hours and the second was similar but shorter- a 12 hour challenge, running a little over 7 miles every 3 hours. I learned how to evenly distribute my effort, care for myself in the current challenge while prepping ahead for the rest of the day. Even though it was not exactly like the virtual challenges, the mental segmentation was the same. Five 20 mile loops at six hours per loop. The timing was a guess on my part. While I couldn’t know how much physical or mental attrition would happen, this seemed a reasonable place to start.

The bluffs and a peek of the Mississippi River

Justin and I met years ago at our kids’ elementary school when we were volunteering for a running program. I recognized the Psycho Wyco hat he was wearing and that was the beginning of our running friendship. We notoriously find each other during our runs, occasionally have a planned run together, never make simultaneous race plans and yet somehow end up at the same races and run together. Now here we were at Mines together again. We shared the Crewville campsite and would hang together for as long as we could. 

We're gonna go crazy tonight

Laughing all the way

Since we had run the 100k together four years ago, we both knew our least favorite part was an out and back trail leading to a metal hole punch hanging by string from a tree where we would punch our race bib to prove we had done it. Both of us lack any nice words for this part of the trail. It is long. It is rocky. It goes on forever. There is nothing to identify where you are at and how much you have left to go. We couldn’t even keep track of the distance. Just when you lose all hope that it will end, it finally does. You punch your bib and then run back the same way you came from.

The turn around is real

Probably my favorite section of the trail was leading to the aid station at Cattesse Hollow. After the whole, desperately long out and back section, this is mercifully shorter. A runner coming out of the aid station informed us there was bacon waiting for us. You would have thought he said there was a million dollars (actually an IPA for Justin) waiting for us. My oatmeal and banana breakfast had long since worn off and hot, bacon-y food sounded amazing. And it was! While wonderful aid station volunteers refilled my hydration bottles, I side-hugged a friend I had been looking forward to seeing since the 100k four years ago. On the way back, we brought the great news of bacon tidings to everyone we met. 

Stayed dry this time

I was under strict orders from my Mindy to make sure I ate. Reflecting from my 100k race, the amount of calories I had not even come close to touching had made Mindy’s job of keeping me company almost impossible- sing out loud, talk about stuff but nothing gross, scary, sad or even too happy- and left me feeling more broken down than I was. I packed my nutrition in five bags of 1,200 calories each which was approximately 200 calories every hour for 6 hours a loop. Packing the bags this way made it faster to refill my pack at the end of each loop- wrappers out, food in. I had to eat all my gels, cookies, chews, and bars plus some aid station food before I got back to Crewville. I had individual packets of electrolyte drink and one bottle for it to go in. I had to finish the bottle before I got to the Cattesse Hollow aid station where I would refill it. Bill and Luke figured out how to refill the hydration bladder in my vest and that’s the water I drank. 

5 times 6 hours times 200 calories equals

Coming in after each loop was a relief. While I didn’t miss my crew while I was out on the course, I was really happy to see them every time. Bill was the time keeper, making almost perfect estimates of when I would come in. Mindy would greet me every time, cheering, holding stuff for me, switching out my gear and making sure I ate. Luke was there almost every time except for when he was sound asleep in the camper. Amber came to crew me and would get her first ever pacing duty through the middle of the night. Audrey drove down to cheer me on and take pictures. (Ben had college so he couldn’t make it.) I felt extremely lucky to have so many people there for me. Crewing is a tough and tiring job and I was so thankful for all of them. 

Thawing the Squirrel's Nut Butter

This silicone cup needs a sippy lid 

I don’t know what happened while I was out on the course but apparently everything happened and all kinds of conversations went on and sight-seeing in Dubuque. Bill and Luke went to a mountain bike area. Audrey and Mindy got coffee at a bar. I guess Amber shared how they put a sauna in their basement. I completely lost track of time outside of the race. Since I arbitrarily set my loop time at 6 hours and the race started at 8 am, I knew the times were approximately 8:00 am, 2:00 pm, 8:00 pm, 2:00 am, and 8:00 am. The sun was up, was going to go down, it would be dark and then the sun would come up again and it would be light. I didn’t look at my watch much and avoided trail math as much as possible. I had Bill for that.

The time keeper and his girl

Luke was not bored

Inside the race, it was always a matter of eating and drinking, moving forward with easy but sustained effort, being efficient at aid stations and keeping my mind on the mile I was in and the next aid station I was headed towards. It was easy to start fixating on a different mile or the unknown or the what-ifs. I wasn’t completely unaware of the future because I still had to make decisions now in order to get there but mentally, I had to stay in the present. That phrase has always seemed like a bunch of malarkey to me. But a fixed goal, a fixed bubble of a 100 mile race is a great place to test such malarkey and see if it worked and indeed, it did. When my mind wandered ahead, I would tell it to stay in the mile I was in (even though I didn’t actually know what mile that was). I had also come up with sayings for each loop that I wrote on index cards and had Mindy hand me one each time I came in. These I tucked into a pocket in my vest and would repeat to myself even if it didn’t make sense or fit the moment because it forced my focus back to the present. 

“Dare Greatly”

From the speech by Theodore Roosevelt and expounded upon by author Brene Brown, this phrase has challenged me through my running the last few years. I was in the middle of daring greatly.

“I can. I will. I must.”

Adapted from the chant of the Navarro College cheer team, the focus of the Netflix series “Cheer”. It’s a strong cheer and the kind of motivation to keep myself going.

“Swing my sword”

Well, not all of them were that strong and this one, I found, was a bit of a reach even though I chose it. It’s from Mississippi State head football coach Mike Leach’s fascination with pirates and I imagined myself swinging an imaginary sword. At what, I cannot tell you. It didn’t really matter, I had hours to imagine all sorts of things and this kept my mind occupied.

“Time to row the boat” 

I heard this phrase from a podcast and since I cannot find any actual evidence that the phrase uttered by the woman it was accredited to is true, I will not share either. However, the phrase stuck with me. Time to row the boat. Time to do the work. While “swing my sword” had me swashbuckling at imaginary foes, this was real to me. Rowing engages your whole body and mind for power and progress.

“Embrace my strengths”

Just because I signed up for this race didn’t mean I didn’t have reservations or nerves about it. I felt fairly confident I could endure the suffering better than I ever had but daring greatly and all that aside, I needed some outside assurance. In a conversation across the kitchen counter, I expressed my concerns with Bill and he succinctly said I should embrace my strengths. Among other things, I’ve got a good amount of perseverance and a pack a wallop of stubbornness. This was the first phrase I wrote down.  

I decided my early miles, for however many they might be, should not feel like work. Justin and I keep our pace easy, didn’t push the uphills and kept relaxed going downhill. But by the end of the second loop, he and I were starting to separate. We had talked each other through the first two and I still felt strong while Justin was starting to battle stomach issues and such. Getting back to my crew, I changed from shorts into tights, switched shoes and grabbed my headlamp. I was ready to return to the course while Justin needed more time and I realized, tearfully, I was more likely going on this loop by myself. I walked out of Crewville crying and eating. A night loop almost completely by myself was not something I had accounted for. 

Getting a little goofy

I don’t think I was strictly crying about that. This was more like “Hey, you’re in the middle of this massive endeavor and you’re not even halfway through but look at you go and what in the world are you doing.” tears. They didn’t concern me or Mindy or Bill or Luke or really Justin, although he gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder. I threw away my empty mashed potato/mac and cheese container and got to work again. 

By now the sun was going down but I went as long as I could without my headlamp on. I liked the dimming light. In the middle of the prairie I was struck by the moonlight. The air was cool, yet not frigid. Silent but not lonely. The night sky slowly opened its curtains to the stars and I rejoiced to be out there. 

Finally reaching the far turn around at the end of the prairie by myself, I was faced with the task of taking off my hydration pack to punch my bib which was attached on the back but lo and behold, a trail angel dressed in a pickle costume appeared. (I’m not making this up. This is not a hallucination. I repeat, this is not a hallucination.) Pickle Man kindly obliged to punch my bib for me. And I disappeared back into the woods.

Aid stations become respites in the middle of the long journey. They undergo changes themselves throughout the race. At the beginning of the race they are all big energy and hype. Mid-afternoon they find their groove of welcoming runners in and attending to their needs. But at night they are magic. The blaring music of the day has quieted but bright lights and warm food draw runners in. An oasis for runners, the overnight volunteers become your best friends and don’t mind your gibberish for the minute you are there before nudging you back out. The second day aid station has itself, tired out just a bit but is no less effective or amazing. Even in the later hours they believe you can finish even when you can’t string two words together. 

Here’s a little secret about ultra races. It’s about community. Yes, you get vistas and views and blisters and belt buckles. But the best is experiencing the common sufferings and celebrations. I met Kimberly, from Wisconsin, running her first 100k and we chatted while chipping away our miles. She couldn’t imagine doing 100 miles. I admitted to her I couldn’t either but here we were. Justin and I met Christopher. He’s run a handful of local races and we just met him for the first time. How great is that? Community is someone sharing their KT tape and blister care advice and someone else sharing their personal size changing tent so you don’t have to change your bra in the open. (Not me) Community is checking on a runner laying down on a bench at 3 am to make sure she’s okay. She just wanted a nap and barely got any shut eye due to all of us making sure she was okay. (Not me) Community is double checking on someone taking an emergency “side trail” with her headlamp off as to not draw attention to herself because the caffeine from the last aid station suddenly kicked in. (It was me. Thank you for your concern and also I’m sorry for what you might have seen but I begged you inside my head to please not look back at me but you couldn’t hear it.) 

I saved my caffeine, aside from my morning coffee, for later in the race. I was hoping to benefit from its stay awake effects but instead it rumbled my tummy too much. After several bio breaks, I identified the cause and stopped it altogether. What I could enjoy was the bounty from the aid stations. I already mentioned the bacon but did I mention the hot dog, bacon and quesadilla I shoved altogether in my mouth? Or the pickle, cream cheese and turkey roll-ups? How about the mac and cheese and mashed potatoes? The oranges, bananas and pickles? The mini scones? Muffins? And then there was the time when I couldn’t get down the pancake and bacon I got and so I stuffed it into my pack for later. Amber was thought is was hilarious. I thought I was being heroic. Long time readers know you can’t just go throwing away good food. 

According to Bill, I was doing well with my pace, even coming in a bit under the six hour range for the first 60 miles. Now every mile was the new farthest I had ever run. With still no clue what time or day it was, I was ready for company for the rest of the night and Amber was ready, too. Amber and I are long-time friends and she was there for my first half marathon, my Superior marathon and is starting to chase her own ultra-dreams. There is nothing like getting a good pacer to boost one’s spirits. My basic pacer requirements are that they must have strong hiking pace, not talk about sad or gross things. Singing anything and quoting movie lines are strongly encouraged but not required. Amber got to experience a night loop with me as I mumbled to myself about the granola bar I was eating or stumbled over some rock my blurry eyesight missed. She was absolutely great at keeping me company, sharing laughs and toilet paper during that everlasting gobstopper loop.

Early the second morning

Amber keeping me awake

I don’t mind a loop format at all. From a crewing perspective, staying put in one place the entire time is super easy. From a running perspective, I pick races that don’t bore me and usually there is a greater goal trying to be accomplished. There is almost always something new to look at or find for the first time even though you’ve run past it four other times. Just because the course is repeated or doing the same race multiple times doesn’t make it mind numbing. And no race is ever the same. Something always changes- either the weather, slight course changes, and you, the runner, are a different athlete than the previous year. 

One of the things that felt different about this race was the distance I was signed up for. 

This wasn’t the race I expected to be my first 100. I thought it would be Zumbro. (I want that owl!) I made the decision last year (2020) to go for MoS 100 and it all fell apart. This year, 100 miles was only on the table as a wild, improbable goal. It truly wasn’t until I couldn’t run Superior 50 that I remembered it. All the experience I had accumulated over the years and the most recent experience crewing and pacing Mindy for her successful 100 mile finish solidified my first 100 mile attempt as the next right thing to do. Running Mines was a gift.

I returned to the start/finish area and refilled my pack as quickly as possible and overcome with emotion mixed with exhaustion, tearfully left Crewville for the last time, now with Mindy and more mashed potatoes. It was really hard to believe I was doing it even as I was on the verge of doing it. I’ve heard stories of people dropping in the last 20 miles for so long that I let that subtle fear dominate my thinking instead of realizing that wasn’t going to be me. I had given myself plenty of margin to finish under the 33 hour race limit even though my loops were slowing down. However, twenty miles is still twenty miles and people would be waking up, eating breakfast, going for a much shorter run, running errands, grabbing lunch and watching the football game all while I was still out here doing twenty miles. 

Lest you think I’ve been talking about myself in the third person this entire time, I have not. On one cold December Saturday morning, a group of us decided to run from the finish line of the Sycamore 8 race to the start and then start the race, going back to the finish. Julia and I were discussing running Zumbro 50 mile the following April and Mindy overheard us and decided all on her own she would do it too. That was the start of Mindy and Mindy aka My Two Mindys aka Mindy 1 and Mindy 2 aka M & M. Over the last four years, we’ve gotten ourselves into all sorts of adventures and excitement. We’ve run and trained together so much that when she wasn’t at a group run one day, I argued with her that she was. It was only after I pulled up the group picture that I had to accept she was only there in my heart. 

Two Mindys don't make a wrong

Mindy was excited to see the race during the day instead of the night like during my 100k. She was excited to get to run with me. (It had been three whole weeks since our last run together- her Arkansas Traveller 100 mile finish in which she crushed it!) She was excited for my 100 mile finish. She was excited because she’d gotten way more sleep than me. With her practically skipping down the trail, we wound our way through the last twenty miles. 

By now it was Saturday and the park was busy with families out for a hike which was cluttered with smelly, zombie like runners. More than one hiker stared at me, pulling their kids out of the way. Time moved faster than I could push myself to keep up. Keep moving. Don’t stop. Moving is making progress. Moving gets you to the finish line. Momentum is your friend. Moving takes less energy than trying to start after stopping. Stopping doesn’t accomplish anything. In a grim moment, I leaned over on my poles and gave a guttural yell. It’s madness to look at oneself 95 miles in and wonder how in the world you’re still moving and at the same time question how you can keep moving and knowing you have to keep moving. No one was going to rescue me less than one mile from any aid station or road. I’m fairly certain I startled the lovely couple on a hike with their daughter. They seemed very happy and very clean. I was kind of the opposite. 

My feet and body endured the miles really well. The weather was amazing for late October and the trail was completely dry. (Please refer to my thigh high standing water 100k recap.) It was simply the toll of pounding up and down trails and bluffs and stairs for 100 miles that caused them to hurt. I could identify any pain I felt and Mindy passed along the sage advice that it was “nothing a finish line can’t fix”. But that didn’t stop me from expounding between which was faster or felt better- walking evenly down the stairs which reduced the jamming of my swollen toes into my shoes or stepping off to the side where the slope made me run faster and that’s how you get done is by getting to the finish line. Want to know what you think about during 100 miles? Stuff like this. Riveting. Mindy said I was really wise.

Catfish Creek was flooded up to thigh high four years ago

Mindy, eyeing her watch, asked me if I had reached 100 miles yet on mine. With a few more footfalls my watch clicked over to that elusive number and I whooped and shouted out “100 Miles!”. She asked me if I felt different now and I exclaimed “Yes!”. Yet as different and exciting as that was, I was still two miles from the finish. 

The Finish Line! Th-e Fiii-nnii-shh Ly-nuh!

Mindy fell away for me to cross the finish line by myself and everyone started cheering. Spectating many times at 100 mile finishers, this was a new feeling to be the one they cheered for. I smiled into tears. I had done it! 100 miles!

Race director, Joshua Sun, handed me my gorgeous belt buckle and Mile 90 took my finisher’s photo and then hugs and tears and more hugs and more tears all while smiling. This finish had been years in the making. 

Race director, Joshua Sun, and I share a personal moment

I will not tell a lie. There is nothing to beat the elation of completing a long time hope and dream but oh, it felt so good to stop moving. My feet were truly the only parts hurting and as soon as I sat down, someone graciously took off my shoes and socks. I only had a couple blisters and knew it was from my shoes which were too small for my swollen feet when I changed into them earlier. All sorts of food was offered to me but the only thing I wanted at the time was a slice of plain white bread. 

I sat under a warm blanket at the finish line with my crew, my slice of plain white bread, my belt buckle, a coffee from Audrey, while Luke climbed the massive tree behind me and we all talked and laughed and cheered other finishers and oohed at other runners’ blister situations.

Finally we packed up. We, meaning everyone else, while I stood and watched. Somehow I got into the truck but the first time I tried to get out was not so successful. I looked at the ground, prepared my mind for what I was about to do, launched myself into forward motion and collapsed to the ground like a wet spaghetti noodle. My legs did not catch me at all. From then on, Luke would rush around the truck and help me get out. 

A shower felt glorious. Brushing my teeth felt glorious. Clean clothes felt glorious. The chicken nuggets and fries tasted glorious. I wanted to eat the apple pie too but by then I realized I had been up for over 36 hours and suddenly I really, really, needed to sleep. I don’t remember the rest of the ride home until Bill pulled into the driveway. Ben came out right away to hug me and he and Luke attempted to get me out of the truck and into the house. I don’t know how but somehow I got into bed and remember telling Ben thank you for taking care of me and cheering for me and I loved him and I just couldn’t talk anymore…zzz. 

The next morning, I made it up in time to see Ben before he left for a sprint enduro in Indianola, IA (he took 2nd). I wanted something out of the truck, so I limped outside to retrieve it and came back in to a stern talking from Ben about if I needed something I had to ask for someone to help me. I said I was sorry and that I would do so. 

I ate and slept and hobbled my way into recovery with my race t-shirt and hoodie on all week and my belt buckle and finisher’s medal by my side. I don’t have a belt to put the buckle on and I’m fairly certain it would pull down my pants if I did try to wear it and I prefer that to happen on a side trail in the dark with no one to witness if at all possible. 

Mines of Spain, Dubuque, Iowa

Total race/moving time 30 hours, 22 minutes, 37 seconds

Total distance: 102.73 miles

Total elevation gain: 14,573 ft

Calories burned: 9,961

Hours slept: 0 

What I learned, and I’m giving myself a generous assumption, was this: This was the strongest and smartest I have ever run. I knew it during the race but didn’t acknowledge it. I want to let that knowledge and belief sink in sooner and let it propel me to the finish. Certainly, this is much easier to say now fully recovered while just now remembering that I also learned I could run with my eyes closed for five steps at a time.

photo credits belong to: Mile 90 Photography, Audrey Christine Photography, Amber VanLoo, Mindy N, and me


Post a Comment

Thanks for reading. Kind comments are always welcomed!