Pre-Race: Would I be ready?Throughout the year, I had been working toward running the Surf the Murph 50 mile ultra-marathon and sharing my intention to go even further in 2014. Consistency in training seemed to be my biggest challenge due to our family's push to prepare our house for sale. Time was a precious commodity, and I struggled to keep up my weekly mileage. The only other race on the calendar, the Chippewa 50K, my first "official" foray into the ultra-marathon world. I had a blast, but honestly it hurt.
Not wanting to repeat the experience with subsequent races, I begin training in earnest, consistently turning out weeks in excess of 30 miles. I was pretty proud of this stretch of training which lasted from July 7th through September 12th. Either through events or a need to take a break, training came to a halt.
While on-call, my professional life requires me to carry around a cell phone and have a laptop close at hand. This prevents me from the most consistent way for me to get mileage in: commute running. A five to eight pound laptop is a bit too much to carry around in a backpack. In addition to on-call, my wife left town for a period of time, leaving me as a sole care-taker for the children. I enjoyed my time with them, obviously, but it severely challenged my ability to train. Finally, we had a major planned outage at work, which took away from my sleep.
Four weeks before the gun, I still hadn't signed up for the race. I wasn't confident I could make full distance. While on Facebook, I learned from one of the co-race directors that I would get credit for completing the 50K – if I made it that far. Fair enough! I signed up on September the 26th for the longest race of my life.
I have always said that the most influential motivator for my training is a race on the calendar. That following weekend, I did my first real Long Slow Distance run for the entire Summer and Fall seasons. Consequently, these following weeks ended up being the largest weekly training mileages I would run for 2013.
Race DayAlthough there was an option to camp on-site at the Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve, campers were not going to be allowed to stay overnight a second night. My youngest son, Ryan, had a school festival the Friday before the race, so I opted out from camping. I was happy to sleep in my own bed even though it was relatively restless.
I woke numerous times before finally throwing in the towel at 4:00. I never wake up this early, but it was useless trying to stay in bed. I quickly packed a bag, showered and ate. I was out the door a little later than I would have liked, especially after discovering that I was exceptionally low on gas. Regardless, traffic was non-existent and Google Navigation brought me to the park entrance without incident and on-time.
I could feel the energy immediately upon arrival as I dragged my drop-back to the Start-Finish area. I put on my waist belt and jacket then checked in to get my race bib and swag. There weren't too many people at the start line, but enough to feel like an event.
The BeginningI knew a couple of friends were likely to be running that day, and I was fortunate to run into Todd and his friend before the race started. Everyone was excited, and there wasn't much time left to discuss. The race directors addressed the gathering crowd - flags to the left, stay on trail, let someone know if you're dropping out; the normal pre-race tralk.
We were soon off into the darkness of the morning. A great "fire vurm…" of headlamp light reflecting off vests and clothing, snaking up and down the trail. The first part of the course was relatively sheltered from the morning wind, and the day proved to be dry and beautiful. I spoke for much of the stretch with a runner named Scott. He wore an orange coat and was in good humor.
Eventually I pushed on, for no good reason at all other than it felt good. My strategy was to run the flats, walk the uphills and bomb the downhills. Things went well for me, and soon I was at the Natchez Aid Station, manned by the venerable Upper Midwest Trail Runners association who had stocked it with bacon, a welcome change to the normal station fare.
I don't recall much between Natchez and Smurf Village, but I laughed out loud at the unexpected humorous signs. I came to the end of the first lap in good time, around three hours, but I had begun to develop pain in my knees, a touch of ITB.
Second LoopI didn't spend much time at the Start/Finish aid station, but I did partake in the soup, gels, and refilled my water. It wasn't long after starting on my second loop that I ran into Les Martisko, the long-time race director. He was fascinating to talk to, with this race being his 350th ultra marathon! He showed concern over my knee pain and suggested I find Ibuprophen if I could. I thanked him and shuffled on by.
Keeping up with the run and hike strategy, I did relatively well, but I struggled emotionally with the growing knee pain. At Natchez, I ran into Shannon Lindgren in a new emotional low. With strong thoughts of dropping, I sat on the ground and tried to stretch out the pain. Shannon was very supportive, and we talked about other things to distract me. Arika Hage, a 2014 At-Large Member of the UMTR, gave thoughtful encouragement. She didn't want to see anyone drop at the Natchez station or anywhere along the course for that matter. She gave me a Vespa drink – this crazy, citrus-tasting liquid containing honey bee Royal Jelly – and sent me back out on the trail!
Encouraged and determined, I made it back to Horse Camp where I again stretched and rested. There was no ice and no Ibuprophen to help with the knee at all, but I decided I may as well finish my second loop and qualify for finishing the 50K. If I had to, I would walk it in.
Somehow, I managed to pick up into a trot and came upon Les again, this time running with another co-director for the race, Jessica. He could see I was hurting, and I shared my thoughts about dropping and my inability to find Ibuprophen on the course. He dug out a few Aleve pills and handed them to me. "You could walk the whole thing and still have time to complete it," he encouraged.
We walked for a bit, and after fifteen or twenty minutes, my knee started to loosen up again. "See! Your form already looks better!" Indeed, I was feeling a lot better! I picked it up to a trot again and made it to the Start/Finish in about 4:30.
Third LoopFor some reason, I was feeling very optimistic again. When asked if I was done, I replied "Let's see!" I didn't take off right away, rather opted to hang out, ice my knee, and get some fuel. It was here that I had run into a fellow trail runner, Steve Tollerud, whom I had first met on the Superior Hiking Trail years ago. He had just finished his 25K and was getting ready to go party with a friend of his at a local beer fest. I was jealous, but determined to try my chance at the last lap. He gave me encouragement and promised to bring me a beer! Awesome!
Looking around the site, I spied a young runner who looked like he might be convinced to go back out. He hadn't taken his gear off yet, and he was stretching out a bit.
"Let's go out together!" I suggested. "Just let me know when you're ready." We stocked up, reset our watches, and headed out. The young man's name was Kevin Chem, a resident of Savage, MN. He was of average height and typical build for a runner, and I had estimated his age as eighteen or nineteen. In conversation, he revealed he was only fifteen! That's one-five!
I was amazed! "Why did you decide to run a 50 mile marathon?" I asked.
"I have self-esteem issues," he replied with a sidelong grin. Right. Self-esteem. Seemed pretty confident to me! His legs were bothering him and my knee was bothering me. We were a pair of broken runners determined to walk the last lap passing the time away with stories of our lives. I shared the remainder of my Ibuprophen with him, and we trudged along.
"Are you on the cross-country team?" I asked.
"No. I told my coach I wanted to run this instead." He replied. Self-esteem issues, I chortled in my head. This kid seemed to have miles of confidence and determination. I learned he was interested psychology and that he and his friends were into robotics. I told him of my life experiences as a college student, a young single graduate, a husband, and a father.
At Horse Camp, we stocked up on Twizzlers, soup, and anything to replenish the calories we had burned along the way. We made it back to Natchez and shouted our way into the aid station. Arika was overjoyed to learn I hadn't dropped yet. Looping to the back side of Horse Camp, I grabbed another handful of Twizzzlers, and we kept moving.
On our way to Smurf Village, I thought I hadn't recognized a leg of the race. Had I cut off part of it by mistake? Possibly, maybe. I couldn't decide. I was so tired and sore, that it almost didn't matter any more. We turned a corner, and I once again recognized the trail - there was no way I could have skipped it in a previous loop.
We continued walking and walking, sometimes dropping into silence to live in our own pain. Eventually, we entered Smurf Village and the sun began to drop. Kevin received a couple of phone calls on the trail - not entirely disconnected from the world around us - to let his friends know he was still out on the trail. It was in this last stretch that they met up with us; first two then three teenage boys in for the final hike.
We crested a large hill as the sun finally hid behind the hills to the West, and Steve was waiting and cheering us on with his runner friend! I love these trail runs, honestly! With congratulations for Kevin and I, we all headed back into the thick of it for the final stretch. Kevin received another call; his parents were now on the trail coming out to meet their son.
The light faded quickly, and Kevin and I donned our headlamps again. His parents soon met up with us, and I congratulated them on raising such a determined and strong son. I could tell that Kevin wanted the race to end, and his energy returned. We left behind his parents and friends, and we trotted into the finish in 12:39! We were not the last people on the trail, but we certainly got our money's worth for the time we spent on it.
Les and John Taylor greeted us at the finish line, a huge grin on Les' face. "Walstrom! You made it!" Indeed I had, thanks to him and all of the great volunteers, and thanks to Kevin for being my partner in pain for the last lap.
We retreated to a warm building for pizza and chili. Steve showed up with that promised beer, which I endured to wait until I got home to enjoy (due to a no-alcohol rule for the park). Todd and his friend also joined us; though I honestly don't remember who arrived first. It mattered little. We had all done it; we had all completed 50 miles that day and walked away with a story of endurance and perseverance.
I love these races.
Kevin Chem is ready to do more running and last I heard was likely to attempt the Savage 100 mile ultra-marathon this Spring! His race report for the 50 miler can be found here.