It's been a year-long journey to return to the North Shore. I've faced financial hardship, injury, and yet I persevered. It's been the most rewarding accomplishment of my running career - and I owe a big part of it to my buddy, Bill. Bill got me off my ass when I was moping about for weeks recovering from my injury. THANK YOU BILL!!!! Unfortunately, Bill got hurt a week before the race and was unable to run. However, despite a thrown back, he unselfishly made the trip up and crewed for me, which turned out to be invaluable due to the difficult overnight weather conditions.
So, how did it all go down? Well, it started off famously when Bill and I arrived at our lodging, only minutes away from the start. A high school classmate of Bill's had a fantastic 2-bedroom log cabin atop a bluff which they allowed us to use free of charge. I tell ya, it was soooo relaxing there. In fact, for some odd reason I was extremely at ease the whole time up to the race. Maybe not so odd, considering I was confident in my preparation for this race. I had put in my long runs and did 70 miles of recon runs on the trail itself the past 2 months. I knew in mind that if I stuck to my plan, I'd cross the line.
I woke up around 6:00 am feeling relaxed and refreshed from a good night’s sleep – unlike any other 100-miler pre-race sleep that has been full of anxiety and restlessness. I fried up 3 eggs, downed a banana, drank a glass of water, and we were off for Gooseberry Falls. At the visitors center I took care of the traditional “pre-race dump” to clear out the pipes. While cleaning up, I had a nice chat with Dale Humphrey about his use of Vespa – a nutritional supplement featuring an extract derived from Japanese hornets. I’ve read quite a bit about it and was quite curious about his experiences with it. Dale kindly offered to send me a few samples, which he did a week or so after the race. Thanks, Dale! I plan to try it out during the Black Dog 50-miler and will post my findings here.
Ready, set, go!
As in most ultras, the race started off without any fanfare. A simple “Go!” is all that is usually issued and everyone shuffles off. In my case, I started out walking – in the very back of the start pack. I didn’t want to get caught up in the emotion of the race start, especially an uphill one, and just to go out slow and relaxed, enjoying the overhead views of Gooseberry Falls. There’d be plenty of time to run the next day and a half, no point in working this early. The weather was perfect this Friday. The sun was out, the skies were clear and the temps around 50 degrees. The only concern looming in the back of my mind was the weather reports I had read all week long predicting rain for that evening. Nonetheless, a few miles in I caught up to Angela Hill, who I had met earlier in the year at the Zumbro 100 and also seen at the Afton Trail Races in July. Angie was chronicling her Sawtooth experience via short video clips which can be seen on YouTube.com. For those of you who’ve missed out on meeting this gal, she’s one tough cookie, and a load of laughs to boot. A single mother, she still finds time to work full-time and train, all the while maintaining her sanity and being a good parent. She’s also quite the karaoke crooner (again, check her out on YouTube). Anway, we hung out together for most of the first leg and most of the way into the second leg until we caught up with Tim Roe, with whom she had planned to finish the race with. Leaving them behind, I made my way to aid station #2 at Beaver Bay.
Checking out of Beaver Bay, I continued on towards Silver Bay. I don’t recall much happening during this short leg, other than feeling relaxed and in good form. I had stuck to my plan of starting out slower this year and it was paying off thus far. The leg from Silver Bay to Tettegouche was a long and fairly lonely one. I didn’t see many folks at this point since we were really starting to get strung out. I did manage to come up on Dennis Drey, from New Mexico, who was struggling a bit with a bad ankle. The miles clicked off without much ado nor effort and soon I was at Tettegouche still feeling strong. Grabbing my headlamp and reloading my supplies, I quickly made off for County Road 6. Having done recon on this leg earlier in the summer with running buddy, Bill Pomerenke, I knew the first 5 to 6 miles were going to involve a lot of climbing, so best to lay low and not worry about the mile splits being high. Early on I latched onto the pace of Jim Wilson and Lynn Saari. The 3 of us stuck together the entire leg, until Jim jetted off near the last mile, followed by myself, then Lynn. Again, no problems or issues and everything was going according to plan.
The last few miles of the Tettegouche – County Road 6 leg were run in the dark. I found out later from my buddy, Bill, that a couple had forgotten to bring headlamps with them during this leg and had to navigate their way down from the treacherous and sheer dropoff trails without light. No thanks! I pulled into the aid station still feeling good, but a bit tired and flat, which was expected, having covered what is in my opinion, the toughest part of the course. The first 44 miles of the Sawtooth 100 are punctuated by relentless climbs and descents, wearing the body down quickly. Nonetheless, I had done my homework this summer and executed my plan flawlessly, covering the 44 miles with minimal effort. Now it was time to head off to Finland and then face the demons from last year where I fell apart on the way to Sonju and Crosby-Manitou. Making a very quick stop, I downed a 5-Hour Energy drink and dashed off into the darkness, leaving Jim and Lynn behind. The 5-Hour Energy snapped my brain to attention and I felt refreshed, so I made great time attacking the relatively easy 7.7-mile leg. However, a few miles from Finland, the dreaded rain began to fall. At first, it was a light sprinkle, hardly worthy of donning a jacket. However, as I approached the aid station, the sprinkle turned into a steady rain. This was sure to make the night running interesting!
As mentioned before, last year I completely lost it on the way to Sonju from Finland. I staggered for what it seemed as hours on end in the darkness, my spirit being crushed. This year, I was better prepared and had already run the leg since then (although in the daylight). Again, after yet another quick pit stop at the aid station, (thanks to Bill), I was off into the cold and wet darkness to face the demons of last year and get my ass to Sonju, still feeling good. Surprisingly, despite the steady rain and dropping temps, I maintained a steady pace and was still feeling good. It’s amazing how much easier a section seems when you’re not exhausted and delirious. My new Brunton L3 3-watt headlamp “paved” the way through the muddy and rooty section to Sonju. It was an investment that truly paid for itself. Other than almost knocking myself out on a couple of trees that had fallen across the trail, inconveniently at head height, the only thing that stood out was the constant images of small field mice dashing across the trail and climbing up small saplings, trying to avoid drowning in the now-saturated ground. I pulled into the Sonju aid station having crossed paths with Darryl Saari on his way out. I informed him his wife and Jim Wilson were somewhere behind me. At the aid station, there was a poor soul wrapped up in a blanket, shivering in front of the fire. It reminded me of exactly where I was a year ago. The cold and wet weather was already taking its toll on the field and would continue to do so throughout the night. At this point, it had been raining steadily for 2 to 3 hours, with no signs of relief. I swapped out my headlamp batteries, refueled, and took off for the next aid station, happy that I had defeated the demons from last year and had one last big hurdle to jump – the steep and never-ending climbs in and out of the Crosby and Manitou river gorges.
Here Comes the Sun (Kinda)
The short leg from Sonju to Crosby-Manitou, being fairly easy, went without any fanfare. Inspired by having conquered the leg to Sonju, I was excited to tackle the river gorges and get the worst behind me. I pulled into the aid station cold and damp. A quick change of clothes under my rain jacket and some hot food set things right. Grabbing a few food items to eat on the go, I made off into the perpetual rain towards Sugarloaf. Descending into the first river gorge, the steep and rocky trails thick and slick with mud, I was glad of my decision to bring a trekking pole along with me. I had been carrying it with me the entire race and it had been saving my back and knees. Patiently I made my way down and then up out of the gorge. Half way up the ascent, I was joined by another runner. “Who do we have here?!” I shouted back. “Andy Holak!” replied the runner, quickly gaining on me. I was stunned. Andy Holak – behind me? What the hell was going on? Andy is a stud ultrarunner and I’m just a guy who’s happy to finish. Well, as Andy filled me in, it all made sense. He had succumbed to stomach problems at the Crosby-Manitou aid station and decided to try and sleep it off, which he successfully did, finishing 13th overall. Amazing! I continued on through the rain and dark at a slow and steady pace, hoping to maintain about a 25-minute mile throughout the leg. Still feeling good, yet a bit cold, I knew the pending sunrise would be a welcome friend. In the last hour of darkness, I climbed out the river gorge for the last time, knowing the worst was behind me. Along the way I had caught a few exhausted and weary runners who were falling victim to the horrors of the Crosby-Manitou climbs. Finally, the sun rose, although to gray and rainy skies. Would this rain ever end? On I forged to the Sugarloaf aid station, now peeing every 10 minutes. “What the hell is with this?” I thought to myself. Darryl Saari, while passing me, reassured me it was due to the cold weather. Nonetheless, I arrived at the Sugarloaf aid station, cold and tired, but in good spirits.
At Sugarloaf, I was tended to by Bill and another friend, Londell Pease. Bill refilled my hydration pack, restocked my food, and grabbed me a dry change of clothes. Londell pulled off my soaked socks, dried and cleaned my feet, and helped me put on a dry pair. A few hot food items and another 5-Hour Energy in me, I set off to the Cramer Road aid station 5.6 miles away, where my race had ended last year. For some reason, in my delirious and exhausted state of mind last year, I had recalled this leg as fairly flat and easy. Wrong!! Steady climbs, coupled with trails that had turned into rivers, the section proved to be rather challenging. Still peeing a frustrating frequency of every 10 to 15 minutes, I sloshed through the mucky and tattered trails. My stomach was starting to sour a bit now, which made me a bit uneasy. As I pulled up to the Cramer Road aid station, for the first time in 77 miles, I was not smiling and feeling “great”. Still, I was doing great and well within the cutoffs. Now I would be forging into unknown territory at the Sawtooth 100. Next up was the leg to Temperance. I had never run this section before, but was told it was fairly easy. Well, there were a lot of downhill sections, but there were plenty of small climbs, plus tons of water on the trail which ran along the Temperance River. Because of the 9 hours of steady rain, the river was raging and much of the runoff had flooded the trail. At one point the trail was completely covered in ankle-deep water in every direction. The only indication of where the trail lead was a solitary orange-flagged stake in the middle of the small “lake”. Still peeing every 10 to 15 minutes, my stomach souring even more, and exhaustion starting to set in, I was starting to get worried. At least the rain had stopped and the sun was coming out.
Moment of Truth
I shuffled into the Temperance aid station a wreck. By now my stomach was a mess and I had no appetite whatsoever. On top of that, I had been slowing down each mile the past leg. Was my race going to end here? Would I be able to make the cutoffs at Sawbill and Oberg? I was still way under the cutoff, but my increasingly slowing pace cast a large shadow of doubt in my mind. Informing Bill of how I was feeling, he emphasized how important it was that I continue to hydrate and take in electrolytes. Downing only a little chicken broth and another 5-Hour Energy Drink, I staggered out of the aid station, facing the proverbial “moment of truth”. Because my stomach had soured so badly and the constant peeing was unrelenting, and because the leg to Sawbill was only 5.7 miles long, I decided that I would go this section without food or water. Obviously my stomach was angry and telling me to stop doing whatever it was I was doing. It needed a break. I plodded along the flat trail along the river, averaging only 27 minutes per mile. This was not good. I knew up ahead there would be some serious climbing up Carlton Peak and I would hemorrhage huge amounts of time. My chance at finishing this race was getting away from me! Gathering myself, I decided to remain calm until the 5-Hour Energy kicked in and cleared my head. Once that happened, I would figure out what to do. Sure enough, like clockwork it did its magic and I gave myself a pep talk. I told myself I had trained and planned too long to let myself, my buddy Bill, my family, and my friends down. All I needed to do was get the legs moving and soon they’d remember how to run again. As I started to shuffle along the trail, Jim Wilson came blasting by me. “Go get’em, Jim!” I shouted in encouragement. Soon enough, my shuffling turned into a slow jog, and then into a run. I was back! Infused with new confidence, I blazed along and eagerly awaited the climb up Carlton Peak. “Bring it!” I said aloud as I headed toward the rocky climb. I caught and passed a few runners up and down the climb and cruised on into Sawbill with 90 minutes in hand under the cutoff! Hell yeah, I was going to make it!
Bringing it On Home
I arrived at Sawbill with my appetite and confidence restored. I downed a handful of Pringles, some pickles, and chicken broth, anxious to make way through the next leg to the final cutoff. Off I sped, brimming with renewed spirit. Along the way to Oberg I caught John Taylor, Jim Wilson, and Eric Skytte. John was not having a good day and was ready for the race to be over. Wilson had lost his “mojo” as he had put it and Eric was just trying to keep moving. I blasted on through to Oberg to the awaiting smiles of my buddy Bill and Karen Gall, whose unbridled enthusiasm for all of the runners was inspiring. I had maintained my 90 minute lead on the cutoff and knew now, barring any stupid mistakes on my part, I was on my way to the finish line and my hard-earned red jacket. All I had to do was make it up and down Moose Mountain in one piece and the rest was a cakewalk. Again, like I had with Carlton Peak, I welcomed the climb up Moose Mountain and ascended it with little effort. Relaxing, now that I knew the hardest of all climbing was now behind me, I enjoyed the flat run along the ridgeline before the steep and tricky descent. I continued on and up Mystery Mountain, with darkness settling in. I donned my headlamps and picked my way through the rocky, wet, and tricky trail atop the small mountain. Part way through, my Brunton headlamp went dead in a flash. WTF!? Frantically I swapped out batteries, to no avail. Fortunately, Bill had made sure I carried one of my flashlights with me. So, I put the headlamp that was around my waist on my head and pulled out the flashlight. On to the finish! After what seemed like forever, I finally made it out of the woods and could now see the lodge in the distance. I zipped across the wooden bridge, up the gravel hill, and onto the paved road into Lutsen Village, smiling from ear to ear. To the cheers of friends I rounded the final corner to see the finish line and my buddy Bill waiting for me. When I reached the line, I jumped onto it (or destroyed it, as Zach Pierce had put it) with relief and sheer joy. I had done it! I had finished the Sawtooth 100!!
Soaking it All In
Despite the joy that came with celebrating a long awaited finish, the reality and impact of finishing this race didn’t hit until the next morning. By the race’s end, I had been awake for almost 39 hours straight and was too exhausted to really think about what had transpired. The next morning when I awoke, it did hit me. With tears welling up in my eyes, I realized that all of my hard work, planning, and dedication had paid off. And that despite being injured and sidelined for nearly 12 weeks, patience and persistence got me to the finish line. I never had felt so satisfied and proud of myself as I had been at that moment.