Pink Ribbons

The moment the enormity of what I was about to embark on might seem odd to those who have not been part of the Fall Superior Races. It was when they handed me a piece of pink flagging tape at race packet pickup. Five years ago, I first ran the “baby race” of the event weekend that consists of a Marathon, 50 mile, and 100 mile race that are all point to point on the Superior Hiking Trail ending at Lutsen Ski resort. The starts are staggered so that runners from all three events are out on the course at the same time. The 100 mile race begins 24 hours before the Marathon. That first year that I ran the Marathon, it was hot. Those who know me, know that I don’t deal with heat well. I moved North to Minnesota for a reason. The Moose Mountain Marathon is on incredibly technical rocky and root covered trails and has about a mile each elevation gain and loss along the way. It hurt. I struggled. But whenever I started to doubt myself along the way, I would see one of the runners with a pink ribbon which is given to all the hundred milers so that the other runners know to be “extra nice” when passing them. It also served as a huge bit of encouragement for those of us just getting into the world of long distance trail running as it kind of melts away your sense of pain when you realize that whatever you were feeling that person you are passing has been out there an entire day and night and back into the day more than you. To understate it extremely, it was inspiring.

The next year, I ran that Marathon again and made my first attempt at an ultramarathon with a 50 mile race in North Carolina. I didn’t finish, but I learned a lot about what it takes to do what only a year before I would have laughed if you would have told me I’d be trying to do. In the time since, I’ve run the Moose Mountain Marathon two more times. I’ve run several 50k races, a 50 miler, an actual 100k, and a “100k” that was actually 69 miles wrapping around Mt St Helens. Each race has taught me more about how to be successful running a long event and also has taught me a lot about myself and my sense of what I can accomplish.

People often have a hard time understanding what would make someone want to run all day and night (and sometimes into the next day… and night). It’s hard to explain, and I’m not entirely sure I even know myself. It’s certainly different for different folks. There is something about venturing to do something that you are not entirely sure yourself is possible. It brings focus. Living on the edge of what is physically and mentally possible certainly means that sometimes if you really are pushing those limits, you are going to fail. After that first DNF (did not finish) in North Carolina, I didn’t feel defeated, I felt emboldened. I had made it further than I ever had before despite not reaching my goal. Running has become a puzzle for me of figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t in training, fueling, equipment. Every time I’ve had problems on a run, I’ve tried to figure out ways I could get past or mitigate the problem in the next.

I felt fantastic and incredibly well prepared for this race. My wife, Marin, and several friends had come up to spend the entire weekend following me and pacing (running sections later in the race) with me. The Superior Hiking Trail is one of my favorite places on this planet. It is just an absolute stunning trail that makes you work for all the views. The first 25 miles of the day was the most just enjoyable running I have ever experienced. At the start of a 100 mile race, everyone was just settling into a nice easy pace including a lot of walking. This year the race brought some interesting but fun diversions early in the race including a shin deep river crossing and a section where a beaver damn had flooded the trail making it a waist deep crossing. It also brought countless hornet stings (none for me thankfully, but the tell tale profanity rung through the air from many other runners near me) and many slogs through maddening mud.

Photo by Cary Johnson
Photo by Cole Peyton
Photo by Zach Pierce
Photo by Cole Peyton

As the day heated up I started to feel the effects of the heat with an upset stomach and some woozy light headedness on the sun exposed climbs. The weather was gorgeous, but as was said earlier, I don’t do well with heat. My feet were also starting to feel the toll of the terrain. The vast majority of this trail is spent skipping from rock to root to rock with very little smooth surface. I had been taking care of my feet to manage blisters or other problems that can become huge especially on such a muddy course, but just the impact of stepping on these sharp edges was starting to take a toll. My legs were still feeling great though and I was hitting all my time goals. As darkness set in my stomach issues definitely started to ease as I made the descent into the aid station at mile 43 where I would pick up Mike, my first pacer.

Photo by Mike Wheeler

Having someone to run with can be a tremendous and wonderful distraction after over 12 hours on the trail much of the time on your own. The first part of this next section was fairly tough going up and around the Section 13 rock climbing area. The temperature had dropped to probably around 40, everyone around me was all bundled up. I was finally at just the perfect temperature! As we got past the climbing area we hit some nice easy footing trails that we were really able to move either power walking or getting some nice running in. In between these god sent sections of smooth trail, every rock and every root was starting to feel like walking across a floor littered with legos in bare feet. My feet were really starting to get unbearable.

We came into the halfway aid station and took a bit longer of a break, got some soup, iced my feet by just leaving them on the cold concrete slab where Marin had set up the chairs, put on a different pair of shoes. At this point I picked up my second pacer, Patrick and headed out for a section that I knew wasn’t as bad as far as elevation change, but had some of the trickiest footing of the course. The new shoes definitely helped, but the damage was certainly done and each successive step became more and more miserable. Patrick, an ultra athlete himself, did a great job encouraging me along the way, but the dread of spending another possibly 20 hours on those feet was taking over every thought. The stomach issues were also starting to come back. We limped along and made it to the 63 mile checkpoint where Marin, Heather & Noah who were to pace me in the next two sections, and Bri, Patrick’s girlfriend were waiting somewhere around 4am. I dropped into the chair and was done. Marin pushed against me to see if I was just tired and tried to prevent me from quitting if I would regret it later. I was done. It was time.

We headed back to the condo, I took a hot bath and got some food and was able to wish the folks staying with us that were running the marathon luck before falling asleep as we watched the sun rising over Superior.

After Marin and I got some rest, we headed to the finish and were able to both soak in the pool and hot tub as well as see many friends and fellow Loppet Run Club folks finish the Marathon (although some of them were so fast we missed them when we thought we’d be there in plenty of time!) Watching the hundred milers coming in, seeing the belt buckles being handed out certainly made me wistful, but I feel no regrets about the decision I had made hours earlier. On that day I had reached my limits.

Running an event like this is not something that most people do alone. My wife Marin has helped me through all of my adventures in this crazy hobby of mine and led the charge with this one as well coordinating the entire Bitner support team. Ingrid (who crushed her PR in the marathon the next day) and Mike K took the first shift following me around from aid station to aid station allowing Marin to get some rest anticipating along night and day ahead for her. Mike K and Patrick each taking a section through the night keeping me distracted from my ails. Heather & Noah showing up at 3am waiting in the literally freezing cold to take their turns running with me. Mike E who was able to sleep in and still get credit for being part of the crew. I’m sad to have missed seeing one of my Run Club runners Tara who was working one of the aid stations I missed through the night. I am so lucky to have friends willing to drive 8 hours in order to stand around for hours at a time to see me for 5 minutes or to run with me through the night.

The support that I receive from my family, friends, folks from the Loppet Run Club which I help lead, my colleagues is incredible and is part of the magic feeling this sport gives you. Sisters trying to take “family credit” for miles run. Text messages, Tweets, and emails of encouragement. Seeing a thread on the company chat channel where a colleague who runs ultras explains what is happening as folks are watching my dot move across the map was highly amusing.

My head is already spinning thinking of what’s next. This race has only made me more excited for the learning and shifting in strategies that I’ll need to make to try to push myself further. What cool places can I go? The oft-quoted slogan in ultrarunning is “relentless forward progress”. While I may have stopped in this race, in this sport, I know I continue to grow. After my first half-marathons with the Loppet almost 10 years ago I used to not be able to walk down stairs for days. When I DNF’d three years ago in my first ultra attempt, I had to actually crawl on hands and knees to make it to the upstairs bedroom at my sister’s house. While my feet still have that walking on lego feel, I can walk up and down stairs like a champ. My training was good, my legs strong. Now to figure out the other variables. Different shoes? Learn how to step softer? Lose some weight? I look forward to sharing many more adventures with those I run with, those who support me, and those who might be able to look at my stories as a pink ribbon encouraging their own adventures.