An Athlete's Diary
I pulled into Sawbill well ahead of any cutoffs and saw my friend John Gustafson captaining the aid station. He and I go back a few years and have shared the Superior Trail on more than one occasion. I told him I was ready for a lift back to Caribou Highlands (the finish line) so I could see a few friends finish the 100 miler…
Wednesday evening I arrived at Caribou Highlands just in time for an amazing home cooked meal. It hit the spot and the crew was alive with conversation, telling stories of adventures past and discussing the path of Hurricane Irma. I caught myself many times just sitting back taking it all in. As I sat back I was surrounded by the buzz of lively conversation and laughter. Energy was high as everyone was gearing up for a weekend of activity. I was with a large group of Superior Trail Race volunteers and I was one of them. I met a whole bunch of people and looked forward to seeing the race I’ve grown to love from a different angle.
The past four years I’d been preparing to run, to toe the start line of the Superior 100 and see about getting to Lutsen 38 hours later. Not this year. A couple of weeks prior to Superior I texted the RD about any volunteer opportunities that might be available. I told him I was coming up Wednesday and I’d love to help out any way I could. Monday, I got a reply with two jobs that had just opened up due to Donnie, a legend in these parts, needing to stay away for medical reasons. I was honored that John would think of me and gladly accepted and anticipated my contributions to Superior ’17.
Thursday morning my new friend Jerry and I were headed to the Beaver Bay trail head to mark trail from Beaver Bay to Silver Bay. It’s a beautiful 4.9-mile section of trail with lots of climbing and descending. We drove Bill’s car and had the crew marking the Silver Bay to Tettegouche section leave my car at Silver Bay. It was good to get on the trail for a bit as my feet weren’t used to the technical terrain. By the time we got to Silver Bay I was hustling the way I knew I could and gained a lot of confidence for the 50-mile race I was going to do Saturday. Jerry and I got back to Caribou Highlands at noon or so and I spent the rest of the day doing some computer work and gearing up for Thursday Night Football! I like football so I was pretty excited for opening night.
Friday morning was the start of the 100-mile race. John asked if I would be a course marshall on a section of trail coming off the Split Rock loop 10 miles into the race. The aid station is down a hill towards highway 61, then once you hit the aid station you come back up the hill and head to Beaver Bay. My job was to direct runners coming off the loop towards the aid station, then direct runners towards Beaver Bay on the way back up. We didn’t want anyone to do the Split Rock Loop more than once :) What a beautiful day!
I got back to Caribou Highlands at 1 or so and my mind shifted to the race I was about to attempt. Usually when I’ve got a race like this I don’t volunteer beforehand. I’m glad I saw the other side of this event. It makes me appreciate, even more, the sacrifice and commitment by the race director and all of the dedicated volunteers that make this thing go. Now I had to try and figure out how I was going to cover 52.1 miles having not run more than 4 miles TOTAL since Voyageur 50 mile on July 31. I had a couple of things going for me heading into this year’s Superior 50 mile though.
It’s about a 45-minute bus ride from the finish to the race start in Finland and most everyone is trying to get a few more minutes of shut eye on the ride. I did too. When we got to Finland I lubed up good with peri-garde. I’m not a big fan, as most of us probably aren’t, of chaffing during these things. I’ve learned over the years that extreme chaffing with 20 miles to go can make it pretty easy to end things for my races. During Voyageur in July I had no issues and was hoping for the same here. The key I found is to lay it on thick! I went to the bathroom and off we were. Temps were in the 40’s and you could see your breath. I underdressed to start as I knew it would heat up quick. It did and I was perfectly dressed all day.
The only real plan I had for my race was to get to Sugarloaf as soon as I could and figure it out from there. A couple of sections I was worried about mud were Sugarloaf to Cramer Road and Sawbill to Oberg. Gustafson was at Sugarloaf and I was in and out in a hurry. Sugarloaf to Cramer is pretty runnable and I ran a lot.
I got into Cramer well ahead of the cut, changed out my socks and headed up the trail. The Cramer to Temperance section is runnable too and I ran a lot there. I did stop by the river for a quick bird bath. It felt great! I knew up the South side of Carlton’s peak was going to be slow going so I went slow. That whole section was slow really and, at some point on the way down, I decided I was going to call it quits at Sawbill, head to the finish and watch my friends finish their 100 miler.
As I pulled into Sawbill well ahead of any cutoffs and saw my friend John Gustafson captaining the aid station. He and I go back a few years and have shared the Superior Trail on more than one occasion. I told him I was ready for a lift back to Caribou Highlands (the finish line) so I could see a few friends finish the 100 miler. “No you’re not.” He said. You’re going to finish. I have a lot of respect for John and he knew I was looking great, feeling great and was going to finish this race.
I changed socks again and headed up the trail to a chorus of “finish, finish, finish” from the crew and aid station volunteers. I pulled out my phone and facetimed my family for a mile or so and that really lifted me up. For most of the section from Sawbill to Oberg I walked. I walked with a purpose and patience only gained through knowing this trail and this point in the race. There was little mud to speak of and for this I was grateful.
When I got to Oberg my goal was to get out of there and see how far I could get before the darkness hit. I changed socks, added my rain jacket around my waist just in case it got cold after the sun went down and made it my mission to get down the back side of Moose Mountain before dark. It’s a tricky descent with lots of roots and slick terrain. I made it! It wasn’t until I got half way up the switchbacks that I needed to turn on my headlamp. As I got to the top I remembered John Mathson, who we lost at this very spot, during this year’s spring races.
It’s all downhill from there! I was running. Aside from the 25k race I did a few years ago, this had to be the fastest I’ve every covered this section of trail. One conversation I had with a fellow runner this year was about how we get these sticking points on the course stuck in our heads and we let them affect the runnable sections as we anticipate the suck. This time around I embraced the sucky parts, dropped it into first gear and ran when gravity helped me. That was a big mental boost this year.
I got into Caribou Highlands at 8:20 and change and was thrilled at the amount of people hanging out waiting for runners to come in and finish. With each finisher, our name was announced and there was a huge roar from the crowd of crews and fellow runners. John even announced my name and I got an extra ovation. It was a special moment. One that I won’t soon forget.
I say thank you for everyone involved in making this event happen. Superior has changed my life and I’ll forever be better because of it. My wife held down the fort here at home for four days while I was gone. She worked and shuffled kids from one thing to the next. She’s always been supportive. I think she knows how much this community means to me. It was really gratifying to give back and volunteer this year. I didn’t make it to all of the pre-race festivities but it feels good to have contributed.
This surely was A Superior Experience!
While I've felt more prepared for events in the past, I was ready for Voyageur.
This summer we’ve been doing more events as a family and my family was planning to join me on this adventure. We ended up getting a screw in our tire on Thursday so they didn’t drive up on the spare. I was on my own.
I went up Friday afternoon and bought an “extra” site at the KOA in Carlton about a mile and a half from the start/finish. Sleep didn’t come real easy as there was a train rolling through my dreams. Actually, the tracks were just meters from my head.
Saturday morning, as the race starting gun went off, I made it to the start and Voyageur ’17 was underway. Walking was my plan early and walk I did. In fact, for a while I was in last place (if that’s a thing in a 50 miler). I caught up to the logjam at the rock and waited my turn like everyone else.
The first 20 miles or so were pretty uneventful as the power-lines weren’t yet scorching and the sun hid behind the clouds as morning transitioned to afternoon. I made it to the zoo at 12:19. The cutoff is 1:00. What does that mean? I was too early to drop. I changed socks, had a few pickles and followed my instructions.
The sun was out again on the road to Skyline and I resigned to steady progress.
From Skyline to Becks is 2.7 miles. I just kept moving along with no watch or GPS to track my progress. My mantra on the trail was, “I’m going to keep going until somebody stops me or I cross the finish line.” The closer I got to the end, the more I could see myself finishing.
The notes from my family were helpful. Elli didn’t know what to write when we sat down Friday. I mentioned something about embracing the suck. She wrote, “Keep going! I Love You. Embrace the suck, I guess…” Thanks Elli. There was plenty of suck to go around and, thanks to your note, I embraced it and it motivated me.
From Becks to 7 Bridges I trudged along, using gravity as an ally when I could. For a while I shared the trail with Jill, a mother of three from St. Louis looking to complete her first ultra. She would!
Anyone who has traveled from 7 Bridges to Grand Portage knows what stands in the way. The power-lines… It was hot. Reports are 94, which is actually not as bad as I’ve experienced it at Voyageur. I tried to use gravity and knew there were just five major hills here. The “Lost in Focus” message I wrote myself really helped. Lost in focus on the goal at hand knowing the only way to get there was to keep moving forward. Remember… “I’m going to keep going until somebody stops me or I cross the finish line.”
Defeat the Stigma was waiting at Grand Portage. Kevin Chem snapped this pic.
The flies weren’t real bad, but they were present. I found that if I laid my bandana over my head, the corners would act as a horse’s tail and keep the flies at bay. Mark doused my head in water before I could answer if I wanted it. Thanks Mark! And, Julio encouraged me on my way off to Peterson’s. Mark said as I filled my water bottle and had a few pickles, “You’ve got 50 minutes to go 2 miles.” So, what did I do? For the first half mile, knowing it was only 11 miles to the end, I refueled and got set for my final push. I knew that if I took some time here gathering myself for finish, I would benefit down the trail. I mixed a Spark, had some peanuts and bacon and tightened everything up for the stretch run.
Then I ran. I was running when I normally wouldn’t. I was walking with purpose, working my way closer and closer to Peterson’s. Once I got to Peterson’s I left for Forbay three miles away. Once I got to Cooke, I was off to the finish.
As I left Forbay I remember verbally telling myself that it was closing time and this was winning time and that there weren’t any options but to run it out. My legs hurt but my mind was strong. I’m sure my nutrition played a role, along with my walking strategy early on in the race.
As I ran into Jay Cooke I was thrilled to see a boy serving at the aid station. He was so eager to help it made my heart happy. I smiled the whole time we talked and as I left had a tear in my eye as I do now just rethinking the encounter. The joy and willingness to serve was and is overwhelming.
I love the section of trail between Jay Cooke and the finish line. It is littered with rocks and roots even though there isn’t much elevation to speak of. It reminds me of Superior. It was here that I met up with Jeff, a husband and father of three who was attempting his first ultra. We talked of many things for the final 3.4 miles. I was walking by now as I’d already put the clock behind me.
With about a quarter mile to go, after we reached the bike path leading into Carlton, we began to run. Jeff ran faster than I did although he encouraged me to run faster than I was. We crossed the finish line just seconds apart from one another and I had finished my third Voyageur in five attempts. My time was 13:50:35.
As I’ve been asked about my Voyageur experience I say that I won many battles on Saturday. My mind would have had me stop if it wasn’t for the encouragement of my family, friends and the many people (volunteers) who make these events what they are.
I carried mileage notes in my water bottle on Saturday with the distances to each aid station. It was helpful to know what was to come.
I am grateful for the support of all the people in my life who sacrifice for me to be able to train (even though I didn't train much for this one) and participate in these events. There’s one more on the schedule this year… Superior 50 Mile on September 9. If my math is correct, will be my 20th ultra marathon finish since 2010. It's been a test every time. Each event has been a test. The test is never the same and I never know the questions before the exam. Ultra endurance is is an always lesson testing one's ability to shift and overcome in real time.
Then, Wednesday evening Caden, his friend Will and I ran the Endless Summer Trail Series 4 Mile. I finished in 32 minutes and change, much faster than I had planned. It was a blast and if you haven’t tried any of the Endless Summer events, they’re on local trails and a lot of fun. Thank you Fresh Tracks Media for the event image. And, if you are in the Minneapolis area, check out TC Running Company. Let them know I sent you in and you'll get 20% off your purchase. They're great and will take however much time is needed to get you set up specific to your needs.
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When we write in our diaries we write about where we're at, we share our struggles and we detail moving to a place that's, for lack of a better word, better than we are today.
I certainly have nothing to complain about as I sit here hearing my children playing with their friends through open windows on this beautiful summer Minnesota evening.
Since my last update more than two months ago my life has felt full. The period of time following Superior Spring was one of reflection, excitement and grief I suppose. Losing Jon has been difficult to process. I did not know him personally but find myself thinking of him often and praying for his family and friends.
Life got busier as I'm sure many of you can relate. School ended and summer came. Baseball season came and went and summer has been full of chaos and bliss here at the Howard house. We've slept in many days with no need for alarm. This house is often a busy place with a thousand questions a day, baseball practice with my Son and Elli's 10,000 shot summer basketball challenge. We're on track!
We did Endless Summer Trail Series at French as a family, I completed Afton 50k on July 1st and am set to, not really prepared to, toe the line for the Voyageur 50 Mile on Saturday.
My business, Training Edge Sports, is growing and I landed a big client (Great River Energy), which starts in January, doing Career Integrated Wellness ©. I've been doing more hitting and pitching clinics and working with players 1:1 to improve their baseball skill. The online personal coaching (personal training) side of things has picked up as well and clients are seeing the results they are seeking.
Months ago I talked a lot about some significant nutritional changes I was making. While I haven't logged many miles this July, my diet has been tight. I'll draw on that as I head into Voyaguer 50 Mile.
So, I'm enjoying summer, struggling to find motivation for regular exercise and tell myself every day to get better in some way.
I would love to hear how things are going for you. Leave a comment here or shoot me an email at email@example.com and I hope summer is treating you well!
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My training is in full swing for Superior 50k and I had a few thoughts today on the trail that I share in today's episode.
Life is an event. Rarely do things go completely according to plan, at least for me and the chaos that surrounds my in this season of life. How we respond and move forward determine if and how we get to the next aid station. Block/Rhythm is taking shape as my schedule has gotten busier and my calendar has squeezed over the past couple of weeks. Do you take inventory from time to time and create a rhythm in your calendar that works for you or do you feel yourself always playing catch up?
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