Sunday, April 24, 2016

2016 Zumbro 100-- Gratitude. Running. Being Free.

   My palms begin to sweat, I tremble as I watch the clock turn over to 8am. I blink, flashes of Race Director John Strokamp come into picture as he stands on his ladder, bundled up in his brown Carhart overalls, once again flawlessly distracting everyone with his preface rambles moments before the start.

   Race day is still a week out, but I'm already beginning to get nervous for my first 100-miler.

Race Day

   After a quick drive Thursday night before the race to pick up my race packet and drop off my drop bags I went over a few final checks, set out my clothes and went to bed around 9pm. For the first half hour or so my mind would not stop racing. I'm not really one to get nervous before races, but attempting my first 100-miler was nothing to take lightly.

   I soon found myself taking a few deep breaths and the next thing I knew it was 4am; time to get ready.

My tote with almost everything related to running I own
My mantra I wore on my wrist for the entire race along with some extra motivation from my incredible girlfriend
   A quick breakfast and I waited for my running friend Kristene to pick me up. With the wind at my back as I sat on my tub with basically everything related to running I own stuffed inside, I knew the experience ahead of me, no matter what happened, would be something I would never forget.

   Rain drops began to lightly trickle down. I hoped they would not last, but knew we would be heading in the opposite direction the clouds were moving.

   Kristene arrived, threw my tote in her car and we were off. Weaving along the empty highway I looked out the window and noticed giant clouds drifting away over the Mississippi river. The storm had passed and a new day was following in the sun rising horizon.

Storm clouds drifting away in the distance
    The short 50 or so minute drive flew by. Once we arrived I checked in, dropped off my tote, chatted for a bit with some other runners and friends before I met up with my mom to go over a few things for crewing me.

A somewhat detailed description to help my crew
   Nervous chatter began filling the air as runners made their way in. The chatter began growing around the fire. I stood with my Mom and listened as other runners talked. My body began to tremble, not because I was cold, but because of uncontrollable nerves.

   "AJ, you look cold. You're shaking a lot," my mom whispered as I sipped on a small cup of warm coffee. "Not really, just nervous, mom," I calmly replied.


   More and more runners began making their way in as race director John Storkamp coaxed everyone to start. I glanced down at my watch, 7:42am, it was almost time for the pre race chat.

   I gave my mom one last hug before heading to the start area as she wished me good luck. Others nervously made a few last minute adjustments to their drop bag and sheepishly walked to the start area, trying to stay as far back as possible.

   The first row of runners stopped about 15 yards from the actual start line as John made his way to the top of his iconic Zumbro latter.


   "You all know the start is here. Come on, don't be shy," John coaxingly said to everyone like a hungry wolf telling rabbits to come out of hiding.


   Slowly I glanced at my watch, 7:53am. I wasn't going to be fooled by a startled start like I was last year at he midnight 50-mile start.

   Fog from my breath began  to slowly rise past my eyes, I looked around at nervous, yet attentive runners focusing on what John is saying while trying to bury the fact of what they are about to embark on for the next 20 or 30 plus hours.

   My mind started to race. Not another moment with these exact individuals will ever happen again. 70 + runners about to head off into a journey each their own, each will never forget. Everything began to blur as the count down started from 5...4...3...2...1. I blinked. We were off.


Lap 1

   Bursting from the start, runners filed inline hiking up a short incline followed by a small flat before dipping down, around and up the first big hill to one of the best lookouts on the course overlooking the start/ finish area.
The start/ finish area below about 1 mile in
   I stuck with a small group of veteran and new runners. The small climbs were tempting to plow up, but I knew a long road was ahead. After about a mile a few runners ran ahead as I found myself listening to some guys in the group chatting and eventually meeting Kevin Clark, whom I would run with the next lap and a half with.
Conservatively walking to the top of the first climb 
One of my favorite sections atop the first hill
   We made our way to the first aid station chatting about anything and everything. We quickly moved through the first aid station and soon found our way to the next. I grabbed a few chips and oranges, which would fuel me the entire run.

   As we made our way to the next section, the shortest section on the course, I knew I would need to fill up my handheld water bottle at the next stop. I quickly poured my Tailwind into my bottle once we arrived, shoved down some oranges and headed up Ant Hill, quickly catching Kevin on the climb.


The rocky ascent
   "Dude check out this rock!" I said as I bent over and picked up probably the coolest rocks ever. Now, it was no lighter, like I normally find, but it would suffice. I shoved it in my shorts pocket as we hiked on.

   Soon we quickly caught up with some other guys we ran with on the first climb. On our way down the final section before hitting the gravel road Kevin Langton flew by us.

   "HOW AWESOME IS THIS GUYS!" he yelled and let out a loud "WOOO". "I LOVE RUNNING DOWNHILL," echoed as he made his way to the road.

   The wind hit us straight in the face as we turned onto the gravel road. A few of the gusts took my breath away with snow mixed in. I could hardly look up without hundreds of snowflakes stinging my eyes. Once we crossed the bridge leading into aid station 4 my jacket was completely covered in snow, things were starting to get exciting.

Making our way into aid station 4 as the snow began picking up
   After a quick stop the next 2.68 miles flew by. We cruised through the short, wavy, single track section. The sun showed it's face off and on only to be hidden by clouds minutes later. Before I knew it we were at the gate entering the last hundred or so yards before the start/ finish area. Making our way to the finish of lap one I glanced down at my watch, 11:11.

   "Hey Kevin it's 11:11am. That's gotta be good luck to finish at, right?" I muttered as we crossed the finish line. I've heard it's good luck to make a wish at 11:11 so I quickly closed my eyes for a second and wished I could just finish this thing.

   I quickly handed my water bottle off to my Mom making my way to my drop box to grab a few things to fix a nagging blister on the outside of my left big toe before it got any worse. Kristene ran over to me and asked if I needed anything.

   "Fruit," I said. "Oranges, please".

   I watched as steam rolled out of my shoe sitting on the ground. The cold air was sharp on my foot as I began working on popping my blister and applying some Mole Skin. Kristene came over with a cup of fruit and water. My Mom brought me my water bottle back and I was ready to go.

   "Slow down man," Kevin said. "We've got all day," he laughed as he grabbed his trekking poles out of his bag.

   "No problem. We can leave whenever you're ready," I answered. I took the time to show my Mom and Kristene the sweet rock I had found on the course. They were thoroughly impressed.

Kevin and I making our way in from our first lap
Fixing my blister early on
Showing off my awesome rock I found
   I stuffed the rock back into my shorts picket and introduced Kevin and my Mom. A few minutes later we were off.

Lap 2

   "We are on a 19 hour pace," Kevin said as we made our way up the first hill once again.

   "Holy crap, we better slow the frick down," I said. The first lap fun run was good to get out of our systems, but we both knew that kind of pace would not be sustainable.

   Hiking our way up to the top a few runners cruised past on on a small hill.

   "Fools," Kevin said. "Don't worry. We'll catch them later". A flash of them doubled over on a stump in the middle of the night crossed my mind. Not that I was wishing them bad luck, but I knew they were chasing fools gold and no promises could be kept at the insane pace up hill they were going.

   Kevin and I trusted our guts, running the flats and power hiking the hills. We were still making great time. After the first aid station we soon began the first of two climbs before reaching aid station 2.


   "Hey man if you want to drop me and go on your own you can," Kevin said. I assured him he was fine and did not mind the relaxed pace early on. We found our way on the narrow, rocky climb that led to a shelter at the top. I slowly felt myself pulling ahead of Kevin and before I knew it I was at the top and he was nowhere to be seen.

   I continued on to the next aid station, grabbed some fruit and took a few minutes to fill up my water bottle. A giant gust of wind caught under the aid station's canopy and moments later another gust finished the job, tipping the canopy over. The legs crashed into the tables as people ran away and volunteers protected themselves.

   "Well does anybody need anything," one of the volunteers said jokingly. Other volunteers rushed to help set up the canopy and set up the tables. I was only taking up space in the commotion so I decided to head out.

   My mind quickly began to wonder for a few minutes. I was alone by myself for the first time during the race and why is this dead tree down in front of me? Wait. Why was a sign facing away from me with markers on the wrong side of the trail. Did I miss a turn?

   I quickly ran back around the corner and noticed a lot of foot traffic below me. This is right isn't it? I remember that opening, I think. My mind began to race. I quickly ran back to the downed tree and around the corner, just to make sure the trail markers were on the wrong side all the way around the corner.

   Dang. I missed a turn. I quickly ran back, hurling my legs over the tree and running as fast as I could to the missed turn expecting a gang of runners to be there asking me where I came from; luckily no one was there and my mistake went unnoticed, but  was back on the right course.

   I made my way to the top of Picnic Rock to be greeted by a strong refreshing wind. I took a deep breath and thanked nature for the much needed cool down.

   Making my way down the hill I was looking forward to my favorite section of the course before aid station 3. Narrow small hills weaving through the woods reminded me of being on a dirt bike or roller coaster. Taking a few steps to reach the top of one I let my body hang for a moment before I let the momentum carry me down and up the next.

   Up the last climb of the course after a quick stop at the aid station I still felt surprisingly good. No aches or pains had shown up and I felt my stellar nutrition of oranges, tailwind and S-Caps was spot on.


   Quickly I found myself finding a rhythm on the gravel road to the next aid station and what seemed like a blink I was cruising my way into the finish, completing my second loop sometime around 3pm.

Lap 3

   Coming into the start/ finish area I already had a plan for the next lap in mind. Hand warmers and my headlamp were my main priorities. I did not plan on using the hand warmers the entire loop, but knew with the sun going down it was going to get colder and I wanted my headlamp in case I got stuck out on the course when it got dark.

   I quickly made my way to the food to grab some oranges and fill my water bottle and turned around to see my girlfriend, Erika standing behind me.

   "Girlfriend!" I yelled before turning around and grabbing some fruit. "PICKLES!" I yelled at the volunteers. The only stop that had pickles was the start/ finish area and I was as pumped as ever to have my two favorite things with me, Erika and pickles.

Talking with my awesome crew before heading out
   Feeling extremely good after two laps the excitement only got better when one of my favorite songs came on, Panama by Van Halen. I was fist pumping and just excited to be there and feeling this good.

   Once my mom filled my water bottle I was on my way just as the song, Running with the Devil came on. It was hard to leave, but I knew I had to get going if I wanted to start my fourth loop before dark.


   Taking each section of the course as the came I slowly chipped away towards each aid station. I thought about how great and different I felt this year compared to last year as this would have been my last lap of the 50 mile race. I thought about my plan of changing clothes and shoes  going into the start/ finish area.

   I tried thinking of every song that was about running, but could only think of one or two-- Running with the Devil and not really related to running, but Too Legit to Quit by MC Hammer.

Finding a rhythm early by myself
  After aid station 2 I trotted down a narrow single track and met up with a running friend, Josh Thiemann. Walking up on him he told me his calf was giving him some issues. I offered him a S-Cap salt tablet, but he politely declined as he had his own. Slowly starting to pull ahead of him I knew he had along night ahead of him if he decided to continue, but knew his journey would be special for him not matter the outcome.

   Coming up on my favorite section once again before aid station 3 I was looking forward to being halfway done and still moving well. Once I arrived at aid station 3 I grabbed the usual oranges and a few chips.

   "Hey A.J.!" I head someone yell behind me. I turned around and it was my previous running partner Kevin Clark.

   "Hey man!" I answered back. "Sorry I dropped ya on that climb."

   "No problem," he said. "You were moving good and no hurt feelings, I'm just hiking and enjoying the day".

   We chatted for a bit and I headed out for the last big climb on the course. I caught up with a guy as I reached the gravel road I had been leap frogging the entire loop. We talked for a bit as we made our way to the next aid station and onto the finish.

   "Man I'm taking a little break when I get done with this lap," I told him. The top of my left foot was starting to ache on downhills which I think was from my shoe being too tight.

   We made our way past the gate leading to the last hundred or so yards to the start/ finish area before he broke off to meet someone waiting for him as I ran on. Jay was standing by the aid station waiting for me as I ran in.

   "I hope you're ready to run man!" I yelled as I ran in.

   I did not even notice at the time, but I had just PR'd (personal record) my 50-mile time and was a half hour ahead of last years 50-mile finish time.

   Heading to grab some more fruit and pickles at the aid station I saw my good friend Kurt Brown working the aid station.

  "KURT!!!" I yelled as we threw up our hands to high ten. "Man, I'm felling good!"

   "Yea! You look good man," he replied. I slammed down some fruit and pickles before seeing Sarah Chapman anxiously awaiting the start of her 50-miler at midnight. I wished her good luck and headed off to the back seat of Jay's vehicle to change and pop a pesky blister on the outside of my left big toe.

   Next to Jay's car I seen Kevin Langton changing and taking a few moments to himself inside his vehicle. I waved and quickly made my way to change. Erika stood outside the door awaiting my every request.

Popping blisters and changing in Jay's car
   She got me my blister kit, scissors and other random stuff I forgot to grab out of my box. Literally, she rocked this aspect of my race with my Mom tending to anything I would need and helping with little things such as the careful task of bending over to pick up something I dropped.

Making some last minute adjustments before we headed out
   In about 20 minutes and some change I was ready to roll out with Jay for the long night run.

Jay and I heading out as the sun sets behind us
Lap 4

   With new cloths, shoes, hat and running partner I was feeling good heading into the night. Jay and I have ran countless miles together including a 24 + hour stint at his first 100-mile race at Superior 100 last September.

   Coming out of the warm car and into the cool sunset air I was a little stiff. We walked to the woods and ran the short trail section before heading up the first big climb. Making our way to the top I tried to get some water out of my pack, but noting was coming out. I figured the hose was kinked so I took it off and tried to readjust.

   After putting my pack back on I tried to suck some water out again, but again nothing came out. We stopped for a second as I took my pack off once again trying to figure out what was going on. Click. I pushed the hose back into the water sack connector and it was good as new.

   "Erika must have not noticed she unhooked the hose a little bit when she tried taking the water sack out and filling it up," I told Jay. I was a little frustrated, but knew she was doing her best to help me and quickly turned to positive energy as we made the rest of the climb to the top.

   I glanced over the start/ finish area as we made our way into the dark trail ahead. Jay and I were both moving well through the lap as night came.

   I looked down at my watch a few times leading up to midnight when the 50-milers were starting so I could have a good idea as to when the blazing fast runners would start to trickle through.

   Earlier I had joked with Jay telling him about all the 17-milers last year running up hills in the early morning of the 50-mile race and was joking with my running partner if anyone runs up these hills just as the lead runners came through.

   Sure enough, just as I mentioned the story to Jay we were on a big climb as two 50-mile runners came charging up the hill past us.

   "I can't believe they are running up this hill that fast," I told Jay. "I can't believe he's wearing a tank-top," Jay replied.

   The time was close to 1am and the temperatures were somewhere around 20 degrees and it was pretty astonishing someone was running outside with just a tank-top and shorts on.

   Soon waves of 50-milers began to pass us as we held our pace as we both knew we had a lot of miles ahead of us.

   "Hey is that AJ," one runner yelled as he passed by me with a group of runners. "Yep!" I yelled back. It was Alex Bartley, a running partner whom I have ran with before. He wished me well as he turned the corner with his group.

   With more than half the loop done we were still moving and running great. I couldn't believe my steady diet of S-Caps, Tailwind and oranges at each aid station was still working like a charm.

   "Running 100-miles is like eating an elephant," Jay said to me. "What?" I asked laughed as he went onto explain.

   "You know, an elephant is big and you have to take it in chunks, just like 100-miles," he said. I knew where he was coming from, but for a little while I thought Jay was losing his mind.

   After leapfrogging with Kevin Langton throughout the night as I would catch him on the climbs he would soon be right on my heels right before each aid station. He respectfully let us pass him on each climb to not hold us up.

   I was in no hurry, but it was a nice gesture and I appreciated his generosity to let us go by. I knew we had a long road ahead and anything could happen, but for the moment I was ticking off the miles one by one.

   As Jay and I approached the gravel road I told him we only had about 1 1/4 mile left until the aid station.

   "I can check the actual distance on my watch," he said. No matter what his watch told him I had it stuck in my head once I got to the road before aid station 4 it was only 1 1/4 mile to the aid station.

   I think it helped mentally Jay never did mention how far it was on the road because as the laps progressed it seemed to get longer and longer.

   The sky was clear as we moved along the road at a good pace. I pointed out the beaver activity on the trees along the road as we passed by.

   Rolling into aid station 4 I once again grabbed some fruit and a small cup of water and we were on our way.

   I frequently checked on Jay to make sure the miles were not catching up with him too much.

   "Even if I wasn't feeling good I wouldn't tell you," Jay said religiously every time I asked. "I know, I know. I just want to make sure you'll holdin' up old man," I replied with a laugh.

   Before I knew it I could hear the music at the start/ finish area booming. Campers huddled around their fires as we ran in I could see shadows of people turning around to cheer us in like ghosts coming out of the woods.

   I quickly went over my plan with Jay to grab some fruit and fill up my water pack before we headed out on our next lap.

   The energy was almost instantaneously electric as I heard my name over the speakers as we came in and made our way to the smorgasbord of  food the amazing volunteers had displayed.

   "Kurt!" I yelled as I made my way in, high tening him once again.

   "How are you felling man!?" he asked. "Great! I can't believe I'm more than halfway done and feeling this good man!" I replied. I grabbed some oranges and apples as my Mom and Erika attended to my water bag.

Getting ready to go out for the next loop
   Within a few minutes I was ready to head out on our 5th lap.

Lap 5

   The cold night air was contagious. Jay and I both began to feel the cold air cool or bodies as we made our way out of the aid station. I knew the bitter cold would not last long as I conservatively planned to briskly hike the first climb.

   Atop the first climb the beautiful stars shined bright over the camp below. Jay and I made our way to the first aid station, quickly grabbing some fruit and off we went. We were still moving quite well, which I was a little surprised since it was practically the middle of the night.

   A lot more runners were on the course and I knew it was more important than ever that I stick with running my own race and not trying to jump on someones train just to keep up.

   The quiet spells between Jay and I grew longer and longer. I checked on him periodically and his response was always the same, "even if I wasn't feeling good I wouldn't tell you", but I checked of an on anyway.

   After about half way through the lap I sensed something might be up with Jay. His footsteps grew louder. His breath became deeper and more prominent on climbs and something just seemed a little off.

   Finally after poking and prodding to get some kind of answer he finally let me know his stomach was feeling a little rough. I offered him some ginger, he denied and said he would get some at the next aid station, but I grabbed some out of my ziplock bag and handed them to him.

   We cruised into the next aid station and took a few extra minutes for Jay to sip on some ginger-ale and wait for his stomach to relax, which I did not mind at all.

   Within a few minutes we were on our way, up Picnic Rock and through my favorite section. I was a little worried the up and down wavy motion would upset Jay's stomach, but he did not seem to complain, but then again he probably would not have told me if it did.

   In and out of every aid station I mentioned to Jay how much I loved water and how I was surviving this entire race so far on basically just eating fruit at the aid stations. I could tell things were getting a little foggy after our next climb up Ant Hill.

   I remember looking down and randomly seeing rainbow colored cat faces coming at me. They drifted away and disappeared as each floated towards my face. I quickly shut my eyes for a second to clear my head and just like that they were gone.
Pretty much spot on as to what my cat hallucination looked like
  "Jay, I'm friggin' seeing cat faces. Things are getting weird," I said. The next short climb we walked up I almost stepped on a giant bug sitting in the trail.  Holy crap, I stepped on it! Wait, where did that leaf come from? Phew, it was just a leaf. I'm losing my mind.

   Jay and I made our way towards the gravel road and continued at a steady pace.

   "I can't believe you haven't had any problems," Jay said to me.

   "I've just been enjoying the run, man," I replied. I knew I still had 20 or so miles to go, but it never once crossed my mind how many miles I was at during any of the laps.

   The cool air frosted each breath in the light of my head lamp as we made our way to aid station 4. The lights trickled through the trees as we made our way towards the bridge. Jay's stomach was really bothering him, but I knew we were almost back to the start/ finish area and he could rest there.

   Once we reached the aid station I bit into an orange slice as the thin layer of ice melted in my mouth, I knew it was cold. I was fortunate my body was still working and warm. Jay chugged a few cups of ginger-ale and we were on our way.

   We made our way up the slight incline out of the aid station and started running. I noticed Jay began to fall back a little bit.

   "How are ya feeling boss," I asked.

   With a small pause he replied, "If you want to go on without me I can make it to the start/ finish area from here".

   "Are you sure?" I replied. "I'll be fine," he said. I slowly started to pull away without trying and before I knew it I could hear his familiar footsteps behind me again.

   "Don't push yourself too hard, man," I said. "You have nothing to prove to me. We've done hours and hours of training together which is more than I could ever ask for. I don't want you to hurt yourself for this".

   "I got a second wind," Jay replied. "It's only a few miles until I'm back. I can make it with you". I was instantly humbled by his willingness to push through with me. The miles we had spent together over the past couple years had revealed more respect than I could have for anyone. I knew he was in a lot of pain, but it was inspiring to know whatever the last lap threw at me, I could finish this thing.

Lap 6

   I glance down at my watch, 3:05am. A quick in and out and I could finish under 24 hours.

   Erika and my Mom instantly worked on filling up my water as I continued to shine my positive energy around the aid station.

   "KURT!" I yelled. As we high tened again.

   "Man, you're killing it out there!" he replied. "Yea, I'm feeling pretty good man, last lap!" I said.

   Before I knew it my pack was filled with water and I was ready to go.

   "I'm going to try to finish under 24 hours," I said into Erika's ear. I'm not sure she was fully aware of what could happen, but she calmly replied, "You're doing great. You got this". We quickly kissed and I hugged my Mom before I headed out on my last lap.

   I glanced over at a sign I had noticed on a couple of my previous loops, "Stay Strong". For some reason, maybe since it was my last lap, this time the sign hit deep.


   A brisk walk along the road my left knee began to feel a little tight. I needed to run. Trotting towards the first climb I was surprised Shelly Gronke, an amazing runner and friend, greeted me.

   "Is that A.J.!?" she said as she came up behind me. "Yep!" I replied a little unsure as to who it was at first. "Hey, Shelly!".

   She ran off into the distance and power hiked the first hill. I knew if I could keep up with her I could relax the second half of the course and finish well under 24 hours.

   I stuck with Shelly and another 50-miler to the top of the first climb. The three of us kept a strong pace as we weaved along the trail. I couldn't believe, after 5 laps (80+ miles) I was keeping pace with one of the best ultra runners I know. I was absolutely determined to finish under 24 hours at this point.

  We neared the aid station, music blaring and the volunteers anxious as ever to help. I quickly made my way over to the table to grab some oranges and head out.

   "It was nice running with you A.J.," Shelly said as she dug in her drop bag.

   "You too!" I replied. It was the last time I seen her until she finished.

   I made my way, alone, into the dark night across the bridge and into the dark woods once again.

   OWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW! I heard off in the distance. I had not heard any coyotes the entire night, what a gift.

   HOOO! HOOOO!HOOHOO! Not even five minutes later the familiar sound of an owl echoed throughout the silent bottoms. I became fully focused. Nothing was going to stop me. I was on a mission, possessed by the night.

   Making my way to the first big climb I ran into my good friend, and eventual 2nd youngest finisher, Kevin Chem.

   "Hey Kevin!" I yelled as I hiked past him and his pacer Jason Hara.

   "Are you on your last lap, man," Kevin asked. "Yep!" I enthusiastically replied. I could tell he was in a rough spot having almost 2 more laps to complete and knowing someone passing him was on their last lap.

   I quickly turned around, "You got this man. Just keep plugging away, the sun will be up soon and things will get better," I said.

   His voice and spirits sounded lifted as he replied, "I know. I got this. Good luck!"

   Before I knew it I was at the top of the climb, slightly out of breath, but I knew I needed to keep pushing. The body hadn't given up yet and neither had my spirit.

   Like the trail beneath me the miles flew by. Soon I was at my favorite section for the last time on the course except this time it didn't seem as fun as before.

   Quickly falling into a rhythm I found things were not the same as the previous 5 times. Maybe I was just ready to be done. Maybe I was about to crash, but whatever it was I knew the sun would be up soon and I only had a few more stops to go before the finish.

   I glanced down at the open grass area as the early morning light began to brighten the trail around me. The light from my headlamp sparkled off the cold dew on the ground, it was amazing.

   Into aid station 3 everything was beginning to freeze. Thin layers of ice covered cups of water and pop.

   "What can I get ya?!" one of the volunteers asked me.

   "Um, do you have any oranges?" I asked. "Absolutely!" he replied. "They might be a little frozen, but we'll do our best to cut some up for you."

   I was instantly grateful for their generosity to help. I only took a few slices, but thanked them for everything they had done.

   Making my way up the last big climb, Ant Hill, I knew the sun was about to come up. I glanced to my left and could see the golden orange sunlight poking through the trees of in the distance, it was exactly the pick-me-up I needed.

   Soon it was light enough to turn off my headlamp as I came up on another runner, her pacer and a dog.

   "Hey Michael!" I yelled as I passed by. It was incredible to see last years winner and current course record holder pacing a friend. The running community in this area is simply amazing.

   Trotting up a slight incline the dog I thought was theirs waited for me at the top. I gently brushed my had over his head as he jumped behind me nudging my butt with this nose as we made our way along the single track trail.

  I felt a strange energy flow through me as we made our way along the trail. It was as if we were connecting on some other level I couldn't explain. He quickly jumped past me and ran up the trail. Around the corner he stood tall atop another slight incline as we made eye contact and in a flash was gone.

   It was nice to have the few moments we shared together on the trail, even if it was a dog I had never met before.

   Down the last rocky decline I took my time. It's not worth hurting yourself here. Not now. Not this close to the finish. Take your time.

   Once I reached the road I had my first major discomfort of the race, I had to fart. Now I know I've heard, "never trust a fart after 10 miles", but how was I supposed to handle this at mile 90 something?!

   Okay, stop. Just breathe. Let it out....Sllloooowwwwwllyyyy. Phew, that was a close call.

   After the slight discomfort and odd twisting and turning kind of dance that probably would have looked weird to anyone else if they were around me I found myself comfortably running along the road.

   Nearing the aid station I figured I hadn't drank anything for a while. I sucked on the valve, but nothing came out.

   Fumbling around, trying to push the ice back into the sack was a struggle, one I would not win. I figured I was close to the next aid station and it was not too far from the end and I would be okay for a few miles.

   Once I made it to aid station 4 I quickly ran over to my drop bag to grab my, "I'm friggin' awesome" t-shirt. Since wearing it to the finish of the 50-mile last year it's become somewhat of my tradition at this race.

   "Would you like anything," one of the wonder volunteers asked me as I made my way over to the table full of food.

   "Just oranges and a little water, please," I responded with a smile. She poured me some warm water which was something I was not used to, but figured it would help me warm up as we chatted for a few minutes.

   "How's your race going?" she asked. "Excellent!" I said. "This is my last lap!"

   "That's awesome! You better get going and finish this thing," she said cleverly trying not to keep me too long at the aid station. She generously helped me pull my shirt over my pack, I thanked her for all she had done and was on my way.

   "Kevin!" I yelled as I made my way out of the aid station. Kevin Clark, whom I had ran the first lap and a half with.

   "How are you doing man?" he asked. "Great! I'm almost done," I replied.

   "That's awesome! I still have one lap to go. If you want you can pace me," he said with a laugh.

  "Thanks for the offer, but I think I'll be good and ready to relax once I'm done," I laughed. We wished each other luck as I pressed on.

   Catching up to some other 50-mile runners I ran into another friend Long Nguyen. Long dashed ahead as another guy and I made our way through the windy single track trail.

   Before I knew it we were back on the road. I knew it was not far to the end and was instantly struck with a burst of new energy. I wished my running partner well and sprinted ahead to catch up with Long.

   "Oh hey A.J." Long said surprised. "Hey!" I replied. "We're almost to the finish from here, lets bring it in strong!"

   We blew past the metal gate to the open campground. As I ran past where I cramped at the end of last years 50-mile I was thankful that feeling had not greeted me this year.

   "We're doing a 10-minute pace," Long said. "Awesome!" I replied.

   As we neared the finish line Erika stood of to my left cheering me in. I looked ahead as John Storkamp, the Race Director, stood wide eyed as I sprinted in.

   "I gotta go Long! Thanks for running with me!" I yelled as I sprinted as hard as I could across the finish line.

Coming in strong
   Most of the finish was a blur of my contagious excitement, congratulations from numerous people and complete shock that I had just ran my first 100-miler under 24-hours, I was extremely grateful.

   After crossing the finish line I said something to the effect of, "the Zumbro Gods were apparently in my favor," to John, it sounded better in my head, but I think he got the point.

   I was soon greeted by my Mom who gave me the biggest hug ever.

   "I can't believe you just ran 100-miles," she said. "I'm so proud of you!"

   John handed me my buckle sometime during all the excitement and I signed the banner before things got too busy and I forgot. Larry "The Oracle" Pederson congratulated me and was in just as much shock as I was.

Receiving my finisher's buckle from John
   A few weeks before the race I had the opportunity to help clear the first and last few miles of the course with Larry.

   "I think whoever cleared the trail the first and last few miles was the difference maker in me running this thing under 24 hours," I jokingly said to Larry and John.

   "Yea, those guys did a pretty good job," Larry replied with a laugh.

   Josh Thiemann, whom I had seen Friday afternoon, came over and congratulated me as well. He looked a little too comfortable to have finished, but I asked him how his run went anyway.

   "I dropped after I seen you," he said. A tough thing for any runner to swallow, but I know he'll be back next year.

   I spent the next couple hours relaxing after changing into some clean clothes, which felt amazing, watched the 17-mile runners take off and a few 100 and 50-milers finish before heading home.

Erika and I shortly after I finished
Congratulatory hug from my awesome pacer 
The banner everyone who has ever completed the Zumbro100 gets to sign at the end

Finishers medal and buckle
Final Thoughts

   Zumbro teaches you exactly what you need to learn. Not just Zumbro in particular, but running in general teaches you a lot about life if you are willing to listen to the journey.

   Running my first 100-mile under 24-hours is nothing I take for granted, but an experience I will remember forever. I did not have any down moments the whole time, which I am extremely grateful for.

   With no expectations, but to finish, I felt helped me find a groove and relax early in the race and take everything as it came and reacting accordingly. I have found this has worked in every running race I have done.

   The night before the race I was a little anxious to get to the start and contemplated staying up all night, but my girlfriend reminded me worrying about it would only make things worse and it would be better to just sleep, she always knows what's best for me.

   I'm not one to worry too much when it comes to races and I think it helps to implement similar habits into my training. I'm not saying to not train without goals or worries that may result in a loss of interest, but training the mind to deal with the mental aspect of endurance running is key.

   After having some time to try and wrap my head around what happened I'm still a little shocked. I remember waking up the next day after sleeping for 12 or so hours and thinking what the heck happened yesterday while looking at my buckle.

   I never thought in my wildest dreams I would run 100-miles under 24-hours. I am thankful for the opportunity to have done it, but at the same time realize if I never do it again, it's okay.

   Enjoying the little things and subtle acts of kindness people did for me throughout this experience is something I am forever grateful for. My Mom and girlfriend who came to help with little experience and do an absolutely amazing job is something I cannot thank them enough for.

   I feel it's fair to credit all of my friends and family who supported me along the way, the miles I shared with numerous people have all helped more than I could ever ask for. Without them I know I would not be where I am today.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Pre Zumbro 2016- Training For My First 100-Miler

   2010-- Fresh out of college with unlimited possibilities in front of me. The "Freshman 15" hung around for most of my college days, fueled by pizza, beer and as much food as I could fit on my plate in the cafeteria. Running 100 miles or just running in general was the last thing on my mind.

   My early days of reshaping my body and my life were not easy. Whenever I had a tough workout or I just didn't feel like working out I would just remind myself my future self would thank me, and looking back, I can definitely attest my future self thanks me more than I could have imagined.

   The opportunities, people and adventures I have experienced through running have been more than I could have ever imagined. For me, it's not all about the miles or distance, it's about the journey.

   The hard work is over, for now. As I sit here reminiscing about the past couple years from when I started my first P90X workout to see if I could dedicate myself to 90 days of working out on my own time to finishing my first duathlon, 5k, half marathon, marathon, extremely long fun runs, helping other runners reach their own goals, and a few 50 milers; my next challenge, only a few days away, is something I have secretly striven to do for years.

   From the moment I finished my first 50 miler about a year ago, I have wanted to run 100 miles. The stepping stones to get to where I am today have not always been easy or exactly how I have planned, but with a little hard work, dedication and most importantly consistency, I finally feel as ready as I can be.

   My weekly training regimen from early November of last year until now look a little like this:

Monday- Morning yoga | Meditation | 4 mile round trip walk to work and home | Hour strength and core workout at night

Tuesday- Morning yoga or workout | Meditation | Light run about 5 miles | 4 mile round trip walk to work and home

Wednesday- Morning yoga or strength workout | Meditation | 4 mile round trip walk to work and home | 5-10 mile night run followed by an hour strength and core workout if not done in the morning

Thursday- Morning yoga | Meditation | 4 mile round trip walk to work and home

Friday- Morning yoga or strength and core workout | Meditation | 4 mile round trip walk to work and home | Long run 13 miles

Saturday- Long run 20+ miles | Afternoon/ night yoga

Sunday- 10 mile run | Epson salt bath at night

   Consistently, for a majority of the winter weeks, I would run a total of about 60 miles with a few in the mid 70's. After a few weeks off from my previous running season I slowly built up my mileage, which took about a month before I felt conditioned enough to keep up the miles. 

   A key component to my success over the winter was not getting stressed if I missed a workout or run. I have always felt it is best not to stress out about the little things when life happens because I know it will work out in the end.

   Key components to my success and staying injury free are as follows:

The Importance Of Yoga And Meditation

   Yoga and especially meditation are not common practices for everyone. I have found these may have been more important in my overall training than the miles accumulated throughout the weeks. I believe doing yoga consistently has helped keep me feeling fresh day after day, especially after back to back to back long runs over the weekends.

   Meditation is still a new practice to me, but I still strive to do it everyday for at least 10 minutes if I can. After the first week or so I did notice a change in my mindfulness while I was running and a little more in tune with how my body was feeling during runs. I felt I slept better and could relax a little easier at night and busy tasks at work seemed to be a lot less stressful, as I was more focused and relaxed when handling situations.

   Now, I know these practices are not for everyone, but I am a strong believer in both. If you are new or unsure if these are right for you, I would suggest incorporating a little of each into your day, even if it's just for 5 or 10 minutes to see how it goes.

   For meditation I use an app on my phone called Headspace. The app can be downloaded for free on your phone and you get 10 free guided mediations that are about 10 minutes each. The full package can be purchased for extra by either paying month to month or yearly-- https://www.headspace.com.


Strength Training

   Strength training has been part of my training from the very beginning. I started out unsure as to how to stay motivated from just going to the gym with my own routines, which got old fast every time I attempted it. 

   Not a lot of ultra runners incorporate a lot of weight training into their training regime, which is understandable with the soreness and fatigue that comes with long 4 plus hour runs. I found mixing in even two days throughout the week helped keep everything in check. Plus, if I had an off day or a long stretch of consecutive days running I would throw in a weight routine instead.

Preventing Injury

   Once I started getting into 75 mile weeks I would start to feel little pains here and there that would sometimes last a few weeks. Yoga, mixed with strength training and listening to how my body felt from week to week, I feel, has helped me stay relatively injury free.

Weekly Miles

   I'm not a huge mileage freak, but I do try to get the most out of every run or workout I do. I do not have a set schedule of miles from week to week. This has helped me approach my training and running in a more relaxed style.

  Not having a set schedule has helped me adapt to life when it happens and not fret about missing a run or workout. Yoga and meditation has helped me relax mind mind when the anxiety of missing a workout creeps up and adapt in a more positive way.

   On top of my weekly mileage I have also incorporated some lifestyle training which includes activities such as walking to work, standing at work or doing pull-ups every time I pass the door with my pull-up bar on it.

Nutrition

   I'm not going to get into specifics on the benefits of all the different fueling and nutrition strategies people follow these days, but I will touch no what has worked for me. 

   For all of my long runs and 50-mile races I have found Tailwind is the best fit for me. I have only had one incident were I got sick from it, but I think it was caused by drinking too much on a full, watery stomach. 

   Recently I have found out during cooler temps I need less water and about 1 S-Cap every hour or so. I've incorporated using S-Caps (also known as salt tablets or caps) recently into my long runs and have had no issues which cramping thus far, which has been somewhat of an issue for me in the past.

Main Focus For My First 100-Miler

1) Have fun
2) Enjoy the journey
3) Adapt to whatever the situation is
4) If you fail, fail fearlessly. Learn from it, fix it and move on
5) Finish

   My plan is similar to my first 50-mile run last year, finish. No matter what happens throughout the 100, 80, 60 or however many miles I run, the experience will be something I will never forget. The people I meet, the miles we share and the journey we are on may all be different, but for one moment we will all have one thing in common; our fearlessness to toe the starting line.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Surf The Murph- 50 Mile

   One day shy of a year to the start of the 2015 Surf The Murph 50-mile run I had ran my furthest distance to date at that time, 17-miles. I was completely new to ultra running, and fairly new to running as well. The opportunity to pace a complete stranger to his first 50-mile finish had me hooked from then on. The next year I had planned to build up my endurance to run the 50-mile race next year at Surf The Murph. I had an incredible winter running season filled with a lot of long runs and decided to do another 50-mile race, Zumbro 50-mile, as my first 50 instead, which turned out to not be a bad idea and went surprisingly well.

   As the months passed by throughout the summer my typical and stress free non-structured training plan continued. I'm not into getting all caught up in following a day-to-day schedule and mostly run to how I'm feeling, with longer runs on the weekends mixed with some strength and stretching exercises throughout the week.

   Coming into this run I felt good over all, but a little weak mentally. I knew only a serious injury would take me out of the race and felt strong enough to make it to the end even if I had to walk, which happened a lot sooner and more frequent this time than I had expected.

LAP 1

    A cool mist filled the air as my girlfriend and I walk to my car for the short drive from her parents house at 5:10 am. As we pulled into the parking lot, runners tip toed their way through the puddles scattered around the parking lot. We eventually made our way to pick up my packet and drop off my drop-bags. A volunteer huddled around the fire by himself as I made my way back to my car. Other runners were sticking close to their cars as well having no business standing around in the cold morning rain with the long day ahead of them.

    When I got back to my car my girlfriend headed out to find information for her and her moms volunteering duties. I sat patiently in my car, thinking about the day ahead of me as I adjusted and readjusted my shoes and anything else I could nervously fidget with.

   15 minutes until the start I made my way to the start area and met up with my girlfriend and her mom. Runners patiently waited around for the start as the misty-rain danced in the flood lights shining at the start area.

   I noticed a few runners I have seen and ran with before and briefly said hi before the race director called everyone for a pre-race talk.

Ready to rock at the start
   A short countdown and we were off. I strategically stayed somewhat in the middle of the group, hoping for a 3 hour first lap. Making our way through the trail up a few rolling hills, rocky terrain and some steep climbs we were at the first aid station. Feeling good and not in need of refilling my water bottle I ran through as the volunteers helped the wave of other runners carefully picking at the smorgasbord of food on the tables.

   Mud and more mud began sticking to my shoes. Runners bounced back and fourth behind me over puddles and mud holes, their lights beaming at my feet helping to see where my next step would be. I knew I would not be moving this swiftly though the mud the next couple laps and enjoyed it while it lasted. We soon arrived at the next aid station where my drop bag was.

   I quickly headed over to the shelter where my girlfriend and her mom put everyone's bags to keep them out of the rain and grabbed some tailwind. After filling up my water bottle I was on my way. The next sections are a lot more run-able than the previous 6 or so miles. A flat gravel trail led to the prairie section.

   The sun began to light the sky behind the clouds, the raid had stopped and I turned off my headlamp. I was moving well though this section and watched as other runners crossed the grassy fields. Music echoed through the woods as runners hiked up the hill to the next aid station.

   I quickly said hi to another running friend, Kevin, and was on my way along the road. This part reminded me of the long, flat, restless, leg pounding gravel road at the Zumbro 50-mile, but not quite as long. For the first lap this section was a breeze and again, before I knew it I was at the next aid station filling up my water bottle.

   With the sun shining though the trees as the wind pushed against my back I made my way up the last hill to the finish area where I planned on grabbing some more tailwind, dropping off my headlamp. I contemplated ditching my long sleeve, but figured I would hang onto it because I knew the wind was picking up and the prairie section might get a little chilly being in the open.

 LAP 2

   I was on my way once again. I caught up to another runner as we made our way up a hill and asked him what time it was.

   "Almost 9am," he replied. I was right on pace so far.

   Playing leapfrog with other runners as we passed each other throughout the lap. Just before I reached the second aid station another running friend, Scott, blazed past me as if I was standing still.

   I was just surprised to see him as I think he was to see me. Looking stronger with each stride he passed every runner ahead of me and quickly disappeared around the corner.

   A few 50k and 17-mile runners began showing up on the trail, looking strong and optimistic as to what the day had in store for them.

   As I pressed on one incredible 50k runner stood out to me.

   "375 ultra marathons. 71 years old", was written on a piece of paper pinned to his back. I yelled out good job as I came up behind him and gave him an enthusiastic high five.

   It's runners like him who have inspired me to continue these crazy endurance events that may not be understood by all, but for those who are bold enough to try, know exactly what it means to go the extra mile.

   Soon I found myself, along with a few others pulling into the next aid station where spectators cheered us in. I was still in good spirits and quickly filled my water bottle again and was on my way once again.

   Leapfrogging with more runners I began to feel slightly sluggish as I continued though the breezy prairie section.

   Like a knife being dug into the back of my leg I felt a strong cramp constrict my left calf. I stopped dead in my tracks, and bent over bracing myself and my leg so I wouldn't fall over.

   The familiar feeling of cramping is nothing new to me and I knew exactly how to handle it. After taking a deep breath and relaxing for a second my calf slowly loosened as I briskly walked for a while. I soon regained my rhythm to run again before coming upon my favorite section of the course.

   The sun shined though the amazing fall leaf covered trees as thousands of orange and yellow leaves covered the wood's floor. The sun speckled off the wet leaves giving them an even more vibrant color.

   Instantly taking my breath away I gazed around, smiling as other runners behind me rounded the corner and could not believe what they were seeing either. It's moments like this I live for on the trails.

   With less than a mile to go I was finally at the next aid station and I knew I would be looking forward to that section on my last lap.

   As runners made their way out of the aid station I head some mumble under their breath how much they had despised this section.

    I set out with a group going at a good pace as we passed some 50k and 17-mile runners. I felt my legs slightly begin to fire off little hints of cramps as I made it back into the woods. I made the conservative decision to walk and take in some more Tailwind, I was really feeling the miles catch up to now.

   The last section before the start/ finish area felt like it was taking forever. Each hill and corner I thought I was coming up to the next mile. I was feeling really drained as I made my way into the start/ finish area and changed my shirt.

LAP 3

   I glanced up from digging in my drop bag and was greeted by one of the most energetic and all around awesome runner I have ever met, Shelly.

   I've had the opportunity to run with Shelly at a fun run 50k I did earlier this summer and witness her incredible endurance abilities at the Zumbro 50-mile run and Superior 50-mile run.

 We chatted briefly before she started to prepare for her last lap and I made my way over to the aid station table, looking for some sort of pick-me up before heading out on my last lap.

   I remembered I needed to call my girlfriend before I started my last lap. I picked up my phone and noticed she had texted me, "Love you, you've got this!!!" I instantly smiled. We briefly chatted and I was as ready as ever to head out.

   I stopped at the aid station quick to see if they had anything that might look good. I'm not a big fan of gels, but decided maybe bringing one along for later wouldn't be a bad idea. I grabbed a chia seed gel, shoved it in my pocket and shuffled down the trail.

   Before I knew it Shelly and her running partner were right behind me. I was struggling a lot as Shelly tapped me on the shoulder and encouraged me to run with them. I was not in the mood to run as I could feel my legs tingling to spark another cramp, but I decided this might be the pick me up I needed.

   I stayed with them for about a mile or so before they quickly pulled ahead of me down the trail. As they pulled away I was a little frustrated I could not keep up, but was happy to see them bounce away enjoying themselves.

   I walked a bit and took a few deep breaths letting the frustration pass and reassured myself I had to run my own race at this point. I just needed to do what I came to do. Finish.

   My mind began to wonder and for some reason I caught myself thinking about how long it would take me to finish. I began continuously running numbers through my head over and over again.

   "What the #*@% am I doing," I yelled out loud. I needed to stop this nonsense and just make it to the next aid station. I knew I would be out there for a lot longer and I did not need to cloud my mind with that bullshit.

   I quietly made my way into the first aid station as the volunteers chatted with each other.

   "NUMBER 34 IS HERE! YES!" One of the volunteers yelled out as the others cheered and raised their arms. I couldn't help but laugh and smile. "And he's gotta go to the bathroom."

   Once I came out of the bathroom they were very helpful to ask if I needed anything. My water bottle was still full enough to make it to the next aid. I grabbed an S-Cap to see if the extra sodium would help with my cramps, it has worked for me in the past.

   Right before I headed out I noticed by the drinks a bottle of whiskey sitting on the table. I laughed and asked them what that was for.

   "That is for emergencies," one of the volunteers replied. "You know, just in case," he laughed.

   I laughed and told them I'd be good for now, but if they were still there later in the night I might stop by. They wished me luck as I trotted down the trail.

   The next section was probably the lowest I had been all day. I remembered I had a chia seed gel in my pocket and thought it might give me a little energy.

   I squeezed a tiny drop of the gel into my mouth and instantly felt an extreme amount of saliva fill the back of my mouth as if I was about to throw up.

   After taking a few steps to the side of the trail I unleashed pretty much everything I had drank all day. Like a New York fire hydrant water spewed out of my mouth not once, but twice. I probably could have put out a small fire with the amount of liquid that was coming out.

   I stood up, looked around to see if anyone besides me had witnessed what had just happened, and for some extremely odd reason felt re-energized.

   With about a mile left to the next aid station I began to run faster than I had probably in the last 10 or so miles. All my cramps seemed to disappear, I was back in business.

   Cruising into the next aid station I quickly refueled and headed out. Despite my incredible comeback the cramps began to come on again in full force. Running as much as 50 yards at a time before my legs stiffened up I started to become a little frustrated.

   Deciding to hike as fast as I could to the next aid station and take in some more Tailwind, the cramps began to subside.

   I knew my favorite section of the trail was coming up and was looking forward to it more than ever.

   Entering the once again amazing fall leaf euphoria I took it everything it had to offer. As I walked along I could hear owls around me hooting.

   "Who. Who cooks for you?" I began saying to myself as not one or two, but three owls repeated to each other in a triangle around me. I laughed to myself in gratitude for this incredible experience the trail had to offer me. I knew nothing was going to stop me from finishing now.

   Shortly I made my way to the next aid station and was greeted once again by Kevin and told him about throwing up 5-miles back, but ensured him I was feeling better than ever after it.

   "Well that doesn't sound like much fun at all man," he laughed. "No," I said. "But I'm going to finish and that's all that matters at this point". He wished me luck as I continued on.

   While I mechanically ticked along on the road I realized I only had one more aid station to go. Entering the woods, I could feel the late day sun shift as it fluttered between the fall trees against my face.

  Though another open section I could see the roof of the tin shed where the last aid station was.

  "I'm frickin' happy to see you!" I yelled out as I crested the top of the hill and charged into the aid station.
 After quickly filling up my water bottle, I was on my way.

   Four miles became, three, three became two. A slew of inspiration 50k and 17-mile runners trucked on as I wished each of them luck in the few remaining miles. Hooting and hollering echoed through the hills, the end was closer with each step.

   A sharp right turn led to the 16-mile marker. I blasted down the hill, charging up and down each hill. Relentlessly I stopped for nothing, no hills slowed me down. I charged up each and every one in the last mile.

   Rounding the corner to a very familiar home stretch, I extend my stride, pushing harder with each step. In the distance my girlfriend and her parents were at the finished to cheer me in. One last turn and I was done. My second 50-miler complete.

Sprinting to the finish
Done!
   This race was nothing short of incredible and once again taught me a lot about myself.

   So many times we compare ourselves to other people comparing materialistic items when really, we need to look within to better ourselves.

   A lot of things went wrong for me during the day. I could have gave into them and made them bigger problems than they really were and resulted in not finishing, but instead I chose to just take a few deep breaths and adapt to the situation for better or for worse.

   By accepting and knowing what ever the situation may be, taking a few seconds to step back, breath, and adapt to the situation, anything can be overcome, you never know what the next mile might bring.

    For me, getting to the starting line of an ultra is an accomplishment all in itself. Even if I would have decided to call it a day early, I would have been proud of myself, even though it may have been hard to swallow.

   After finishing two 50-mile runs, pacing a good friend 100k to his first 100-mile finish at the Superior 100 (now my furthest running distance to date), running a marathon and numerous other long runs throughout the summer that filled with great friends, new friends and incredible opportunities, it has been an incredible year and I'm as ready as ever to see what the future has in store.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Superior 100 - Rugged - Relentless - Remote

"The only way I'll DNF (do not finish) this race is if I have a serious injury. There is no way I'm letting anything else will stop me. I will be relentless"- Jay Wnuk


   In the weeks leading up to the 2015 Superior 100 located in beautiful Northern Minnesota, I could hardly contain my anticipation for what was to come. Meeting new friends, new trails and new experiences had been on my mind for months. Having run the Zumbro 50 mile earlier this fall, I knew this community of Ultra Runners is something special and I look forward to spending time with them any chance I can get.

   This years experience would be my first and certainly not my last. Although, I was not running the 100 mile my main goal was crewing my good running friend Jay. When his decision was made to run the Superior 100 I knew this would be a great opportunity to help him as much as I could.

   Our small running group trained relentlessly with him as we all had our own personal races throughout the year and personal goals, but overall it got us together for some consistently good long runs. His training did not stop there. With multiple 50 mile finishes throughout the summer, I knew he was well seasoned and ready for whatever the rugged Superior Hiking Trail had to offer him.

   Friday morning I awoke 5 minutes before my alarm. A quick shower, coffee and a breakfast bar were the first things to check off the list. Kristine, another running partner and crew member helping Jay and pacing another runner Kurt (who also finished an absolutely amazing 5 hours before last years finish in 31 hours) and I packed my car with everything we needed for the next few days.

   Shortly after loading up the car we were on our way. The brisk morning highway breeze felt good with my window down. In my rear-view mirror an amazing, bright sunrise dancing on the mellow waves of Lake Superior. I instantly smiled and a feeling of excitement instantly came over me. I knew good things were in store for the day. I dropped Kristine off at the first aid station, which I would later return to and headed to the start.

   Immediately when I pulled into the parking lot my phone rang, it was Kristine.

   "Kurt's hydration pack is leaking and I forgot his new one back at the hotel," she frantically yelled over the phone.

   I told her I would find Kurt and we would get things worked out for the first 20 miles and could give him his new hydration vest at the second aid station. About 5 minutes before the start Jay's wife called me and put Kurt on the phone.

   I told him we would meet him at the second aid station and give him his new bag. I made my way to the official starting area and found Kurt filling up some water bottles and shoving them in his hydration pack as Jay's wife came flying in out of breath with a hand held water bottle to save the day.

   Kurt assured us he would be okay with the amount of water he had until we could meet up with him again and made his way to the pre race briefing.

All smiles at the start
   "2.....1 Go!" race director John Storkamp yelled as the runners shuffled across the start line on the narrow pavement trail unsure of what the next several hours had in store for them.

   I chatted with a few friends before heading to the first aid station where I would spend most of my morning volunteering and helping the fresh and energetic runners fill their bottles and whipping up a couple hundred peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

  
   The front three runners came in quickly, smiled and said hello to all of us as immediately circled around and headed on their way.

   Runners came in waves of big groups since it was early on in the race, but needed little attention and moved through quickly.

It's not everyday you see a 100 miler running in sandals
   Jay and Kurt came in together, grabbed a few things to eat and were on there way. A few hours later the last runner came in well ahead of the cutoff and we were given the okay to clean up.

   Kristine and I made our way to the next aid station as fast as we could, thinking if our runners kept the same pace they may have already been there or would be shortly.

   As we got closer to the aid station cars lined the right side of the road leading up the hill where volunteers were directing traffic and making sure runners could cross the road safely.

   Kristine and I jumped out of the car and started power walking up the hill. Another spectator walking towards us said only 4 runners had come though. We instantly stood up from our power-walking-hunched over pace, laughed at each other and leisurely walked up the hill.

   I knew a lot of the runners would start to settle into their own pace and spread out a little bit. After standing for a few minutes as runners came in I had the ingenious idea of walking back to my car to grab some chairs.


   After setting up our chairs I walked across the road and watched runners weave through the narrow trail while balancing on narrow wood planks before bursting out of the woods. Other spectators around me watched anxiously and began ringing their cowbells. Cheers spread like wild fire as cowbells broke the mumbling of the crowd as runners popped out of the woods every couple of minutes.

 
  Jay arrived almost right on schedule with a good size group. I quick snapped a picture of him and ran up to the aid station to help with anything he would need and ask how he was doing.

Coming out of the woods still looking strong
   He filled up his hydration pack ate a few things and I told him the next section was wide open with little cover and to remember to drink plenty of fluids even with the cool temperatures and breeze I knew it was key to the rest of the race.

Routine aid station face stuffing fest
   "See you at the next one!" I yelled as he headed off. Kristine and I packed up our chairs and knew it would be a while before our guys arrived at the next aid station so we decided to a quick bite to eat.

   I scored probably the best possible parking spot in the parking lot and we set up shop to eat. Chips and hummus in a tortilla shell hit the spot.

   The crowd and their contagious energy had followed. As I made my way towards the action more cowbells and cheers erupted as each runner came into the aid station.

   A slight rocky downhill followed by a small bridge crossing welcomed runners. I noticed a couple volunteers at this aid station who were also at the first one in the morning, it was incredible to see so many willing to help out as much as they could.

   Jay had settled into a decent pace for himself by now and separated himself from Kurt and other runners he had been with all morning, which was a smart move with the long day(s) and night ahead of him.

   A quick water fill-up, food and a hug from his wife and a you look friking awesome I will see you at County Road 6 where I will pace you if you want from me and he was on his way.

   Kristine and I decided to skip the next aid station and try to get some sleep. I wanted to see the front pack come though the aid station down the road so I quickly headed off.

   After a few minutes I head someone say the leaders came though about 20 minutes prior, they were flying. I headed back to my car to change into my running clothes, get my gear ready and lay down.

   With a sweater blocking the blinding sun I closed my eyes and only managed to get about 20 minutes, if even that, of rest.

   About a half hour before Jay arrived I decided to head back to the aid station and cheer on some runners.

   As the blinding sunset down the road slid behind the trees Jay came in looking good and ready to eat some food and refill his water. I asked him how he was doing and if he wanted me to pace him now or at the next stop. I'm not sure if he really gave me a clear answer, but I was ready to go and soon we were off.

Heading out to pace
   We chatted a little about how the race had been so far as we mostly hiked this section. We were moving at a good click and I was able to take in a few spectacular overlooks as the sunset on the first day.

Into the Night

   Jay's plan was to hike and move well at night and run if he could, but try not to waste too much energy since we would still have a long day left once the sun came up. A solid plan for his first 100 miler.

   We rolled into Finland aid station which was about half way. After a quick change of shoes, coffee, hotdog and a few high fives we were on our way into the dark, cool night.


    We made some good time on the short gravel road that headed back into the woods and caught up with a larger group ahead of us, snaking though the trail. I had ran this section earlier this year and knew it pretty well, but was inexperienced at night.

   Soon we made our way to the next aid station, slammed some more coffee, filled up our water bottles and headed on our way. We found a nice groove though the snake like roots covering the trail to the next aid.

   Once out of the woods and onto the short gravel road we caught up to 15 time finisher Susan  Donelly. We paused for a moment, covering our head lamps, to look at the night sky searching for the northern lights that were rumored to be out, no such luck. We trotted up the hill, staying as far left as we could as cars crept towards us avoiding other cars that lined the other side of the road.

   "I've never seen so many crews and cars at this aid station," Susan muttered. Her well seasoned legs set a steady pace for us up the slight incline as we rolled into the aid station.

   Spectators sat bundled up in blankets, lining the road across from the aid station's tables. I grabbed some Vaniply for Jay and he quickly scurried off into the woods to apply it to some troubled chafing areas.

   Pickles, chocolate bars, salted nut rolls and more coffee were on the late night trail snack menu before heading out. I quickly grabbed a few salted nut rolls for some late night snacks as I knew the next 9.4 miles would take us a while to get through.

   We continued to move well though the night, gaining ground on runners during big climbs. Rivers running though the woods roared as we approached them. I could feel the energy instantly put a surge our pace.

   The night went fast and we soon noticed a subtle light outlining the trees in the distance. Along the hillside, to our right we were once again reacquainted with Lake Superior and an amazing sunrise.

Incredible sunrise
    After the blanket of night a new day was approaching us as the sun's orange glow lit up the sky with the subtle night sky above.

   We reached the next aid, filled up or water packs and just as we were about to head out Kristine jumped out of her chair and ran over to us.

   "Did you guys see Kurt?" she asked frantically. "Nope, we haven't seen anyone all night," I replied. She quickly walked over to the HAM Radio operator and was advised he had been there about 2 hours before us.

   "I don't know how I missed him!" she yelled, wished us luck and told us she would see us at the next aid station.

   With the sun lighting our way we heard the roar of the marathon runners starting. Perfect timing I thought. We were moving at an excellent pace, considering the 70 plus miles Jay had already conquered and did not have to worry about all the fresh marathoners scampering past us.

Feeling good. Jay's wife caught us just as we were about to head out
   Jay continued to move well as we cruised through another aid station and began the biggest climb, Carlton Peak. The miles were starting to catch up with us, but Jay set a steady, relentless pace to the top. The first few 50 mile runners skipped past us as we descended down the back side of the climb.

   Sometime during the 5.7 mile section I completely skipped an aid station and thought we only had a little over 7 miles to finish.

   Jay picked up his pace, running a little more to the next aid. We arrived in high spirits, but when his wife was not dressed in her running clothes to pace the last section with us, every bit of energy Jay had was gone like a fart in the wind.

   I instantly felt horrible for my rookie mistake. As we left I quickly whipped up a small pep talk reassuring Jay he was still moving well and we just needed to adapt and get though this section.

   Little talk and a few other 100 mile runners passed us. I was losing him. There was no way I was going to let him quit, especially since he had come this far.

   The last mile or so he began to lighten up as we cruised into the last aid station with his wife ready as ever to push him through the last 7 miles.

   With a couple more big climbs, a fresh pacer and the end nearing, Jay had found a new spark. I struggled at times keeping up with them as I fumbled with my equipment bringing up the rear, but soon found my own groove.

   As we neared the top of Mystery Mountain I pointed out to Jay he could see the finish, he had absolutely no time for that, he was completely focused on his next step. Barreling down the hill the calming sound of Poplar River filled our ears.

   Across the bridge and a steady hike up the small incline onto the road Jay knew the end was within reach.

Moving right along
   Moving along at a blistering fast 8 minute/ mile pace we weaved around a few corners.

   "Where the f*** is the finish?" Jay yelled repeatedly before we finally arrived at the final path leading around the pool to the finish.

   "I'll see you at the finish man!" I yelled and patted him on the back. He quickly grabbed me and yelled, "Hell no! You're crossing that finish line with me!"

   In the last stretch around the pool Jay's wife ran ahead of us, yelling as loud as she could as other runners and spectators cheered us onto the finish.

   With the same amount of anticipation for the race to start, the feeling was still there in Jay's last steps as he crossed the finish line.

   An instant sigh of relief, congratulatory hand shake, coveted medal and belt buckle from Race Director John Storkamp, mission accomplished.

Inside he was ecstatic to be done
Relaxing after a long couple of days
Still smiling
   The community and upbeat atmosphere at every Ultra Marathon event I have been to is simply incredible. Witnessing everyday individuals coming together to test their limits may be beyond comprehension for some, but for those willing to go too far understand. As a competitor and experiencing these ultra feats first hand simply comes down to believing.

   Believing in yourself enough to let your ego go and trusting in yourself that you can and will go farther than you ever thought imaginable. Whether it's around the block, 2, 10, 25, 100 miles or more, limits have no boundaries except the ones you put on yourself. Don't be afraid to get out there and test the boundaries so many have been lead to think is possible. It may not always be easy, but trust me, nothing is impossible.