Don't worry citizens. You didn't miss my birthday. In fact, you still have around 20 shopping days until it happens (August 13th). Don't wait till the last minute. Buy me some sweet gifts before all the good stuff is gone!
My birthday present to myself on my 31st birthday was my first ultra marathon. A glorious 31 miles (50K) down my favorite trail: the Luce Line State Trail in Plymouth, MN. I chose that site for a couple of reasons. As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been using the Luce Line in some form or another since I was little. I've been dreaming about traversing the entire distance for just as long. And as it turns out, the distance of the developed portion from Plymouth to Winsted is 31 miles exactly! Seems like it was meant to be.
I would have done the distance on my birthday, except I'm training for a bigger fight....my 50 mile attempt in September. I needed to hit the 30+ mile mark this month so that I can keep my training on track. It's been bitchin hot all month, with record high heat indexes as high as 127 degrees! That's like the inside of an Easy Bake Oven. It was so hot a can of Diet Coke burst in the back seat of my car.
Yes, I said car...not truck. I traded in my F-150 truck (along with a piece of my manhood) for a Buick Lucerne and a lifetime membership in AARP. The new B-Class isn't the awesome display of awesomeness that the truck was, but I'm tired of pissing all my paycheck down the gas tank. I'm also tired of people asking me to help them move. I didn't realize my friends were all transient little bastards. Well rent a trailer folks! I'm out of the U-Haul business!
Anyway, this weekend was the first set of days that it would be below 80 degrees for a low temperature. So I needed to strike while the iron was hot! It was still set to be around 74 degrees in the morning, so it also meant waking up at 3am to drive to the trail head before it warmed up to around 90 degrees by midday.
Now, when I told some of my running friends (read, my less supportive, more arrogant ones) that I was getting ready to do my first ultra, they informed me that it wouldn't really count because I wouldn't be running in an official race. To those people, I say you're right. What I did wasn't a race. It was harder. I didn't have the luxury of the virtual runners restaurant every 5 miles that has become the ultra aid station. I didn't have anyone to help me if I got lost or hurt. And I didn't get a drop bag or a crew or any of that. I had to cram everything I would need into a bag and lug that monster around for 6-7 hours. So if it doesn't count...I can't wait for it to ACTUALLY count. That ultra is going to seem like a breeze compared to this one!
So what do you bring on a 50K? I have no idea. Ask someone who has actually run one (smirk!). What I brought was the following:
I laid out one pair of Bedrock Sandals, one pair of Invisible Shoe FeelTrue sandals, one pair of Softstar Runamocs, 2 liters of water, four packs of Clif Shot energy blocks, three Lara Bars, one tube of nuun electrolyte replacement, a basic wound care first-aid kit, a headlamp, a GPS watch, water purifying tablets, my favorite running headband, a waterproof wallet for my phone and ID, calf sleeves, and a tech shirt and shorts. Then I crammed it all into my Inov-8 Race Pro 2 waist pack (which is a polite way of saying "fanny pack"). In the end my waist pack looked like a python eating a watermelon.
My pregnant looking waist pack. Who wants to guess the baby's length and weight?!
Now for those unfamiliar with the Luce Line, it is a 63-mile limestone trail built on the site of an old railroad track. The first 31 miles of the trail from Plymouth to Winsted is crushed limestone. The remaining 32 miles from Winsted to Cosmos is dirt. Since it's an old rail line, the whole thing is stick-straight and flat. So to jazz it up a bit, and make it easier on the feet (I planned to do the whole thing barefoot if possible), I was going to run on the horse trail that parallels the limestone trail the entire way. That trail is singletrack, and is built into the natural terrain of the area. In my experience there aren't a lot of huge elevation changes, but the terrain is still pretty hilly.
Trail map showing my epic journey. It's hard to see, but Plymouth is on the far right hand side, and Winsted is on the far left. Looks a lot easier when the town you're running to is only 13 inches away!
Well, things didn't exactly go as planned. In fact, things got quirky about three steps away from my car. My mom lives right off the trail head, so I ended up parking in her driveway at around 4:30 a.m. to get going. Then I strapped on the largest fanny pack in human history and started down the trail. Right away, I noticed my pack was giving me the old bum-bag beat down every other step. Thank you sir, may I have another! And it wasn't in line with my stride and making it hard to find a rhythm.
With ultras I've been warned to take care of problems early so they don't derail you. So I dumped all of my extra shoes to get rid of some excess weight. That made the pack a little less like a gigantic sock monster so that it would better conform to my waist. I was really worried about this mind you. I brought my Runamocs because I knew that the singletrack on the Luce Line tends to be a little overgrown with weeds. I wanted a closed-toe shoe in case my toes got a little sensitive from kicking crabgrass for several hours. So a few feet into the run, and I was already a little frazzled.
After getting my gear situation squared away, I hopped onto the singletrack in the early morning dark. And again, I was immediately thrown for another loop. I've never run barefoot on the trail in the dark. There's probably a reason for that. It's like a gigantic game of "Guess What You Just Stepped On". The only prize is foot impalement. Even with my headlamp, I couldn't see very far ahead of me, and I certainly couldn't see all the debris on the trail. So I would describe my first 5 miles that I ran in the dark as a series of stumbles, uncoordinated acrobatics, and judo moves over rocks, sticks, and uneven terrain. Not the best way to get into a groove for a long run.
The sun came up enough for me to see at around mile 6. But my trail problems didn't end. We've had a lot of rain in Minnesota over the past couple of months. So the Department of Natural Resources closed the horse trail for most of May and June due to soggy conditions. Then for most of July our state legislature decided to play a big game of "I know you are, but what am I" with the state budget and closed down the government in the process. All this seems to have lead to a trail that was very poorly maintained. At this point in the trail the weeds and grass were so high in some areas that I wondered where I packed my machete. That plus the army of horse flies that was using my head as a buffet made the first couple hours of my run pretty miserable.
Here's a sample of some of the less jungle-like portions of the horse trail.
Tell me where the singletrack is in this picture and you win a prize! According to the sign it's "that way" ->
I fought the singletrack until about mile 8, where I broke out my Bedrock Sandals and decided to give the limestone trail a try. That move made the terrain a whole lot easier to navigate. But now I was fighting the battle of boredom. Before I left for this run, one of my fans told me to take lots of pictures. Well folks, the Luce Line looks the same for the entire stretch. So here's your picture...the only one you'll ever need to imagine what a run on the trail would be like.
I tried to spice things up by occasionally jumping back on the singletrack. But by about mile 12 I knew that I wasn't going to make it any significant distance if I continued. All the high-stepping, ducking and dodging was taking a toll on my energy level. In fact, at this point I was so frazzled by all the problems I was having that I was considering straight up quitting. I was tired from fighting through the tall weeds. I was eaten alive by mosquitoes. I wasn't running the trail that I wanted to run. I was wearing shoes (albeit my favorite pair of sandals). I was just an all-around whiney little bitch.
So I started walking to lick my wounds a little bit and contemplate my next move. I'm not sure exactly what my thought process was, but in the few minutes I spent walking I told myself that I was going to finish this run.....and damn it I was going to have fun doing it. I had been dreaming about doing this run for years. I might as well enjoy it and take it all in.
And for the rest of the run, that's exactly what I did. It's amazing how much a positive attitude can change how you're feeling during a run. I went from feeling like I couldn't run another step, to feeling like I could run forever. I told myself that any negative feeling that I experienced was just a low. It was something that would pass, and afterwards I would feel good again. In the moment, I would embrace it and run with it as part of the experience.
It was never a question after that whether I was going to finish the run. I ran exactly how I felt. I sped up when I felt like speeding up. I walked when I felt like walking. And I ate and drank from my pack when I felt like I needed to. I felt good the entire time, and never experienced a low again.
Even on a trail this uniform in appearance, it was amazing how much stuff happened to me along the way. Since the terrain really didn't change that much, I don't have a reference point for where all of this happened. So instead of describing the rest of the run mile by mile, I thought I'd just mention the highlights:
1. I passed through a town called Lyndale, which was one of three small towns that intersect the trail. The town has only one street, called Hoyt Ave. On that street, there is only one business. It is a bar called Ye Oxe Inn. Perfect city planning Lyndale! You're officially my new favorite town.
2. A majority of the trail is flanked by incredibly large houses attached to what looked like equally large farm fields. I'm not sure what these folks were planting, but if that's the kind of house you can buy with a career in agriculture, I want my fricking 40 acres and a mule!
This wasn't the biggest house I saw during my run. Just the only one I decided to take a picture of.
3. Right after I passed the above house, I got dive-bombed by a gigantic bald eagle. It must have had at least a four-foot wingspan. I didn't know exactly what to do, so I stopped and saluted it. Then I hummed the National Anthem as I kept running. I'm not sure what the protocol is for being attacked by a national symbol. I hope I did all right.
4. At around mile 19, I passed through the town of Watertown. I also ran through the middle of the Rails to Trails 5K. The finish line was right at the 19 mile marker, and about a mile of it was on the trail. It was a nice change to cheer people on after a solid 4 hours of solitude.
5. At about the same time as I encountered this race, it also started raining balls. A few minutes later, the storm sirens went off. So I spent about 10 minutes in this tunnel until I concluded that if the storm was bad enough to kill me, it was probably going to kill me here more than it would on the trail. I remembered hearing something on NPR about how tunnels are the worst place to be in a tornado. For some reason, I also had total recall of the words to the song, "Stop, Drop, and Roll" (you know...the one they used to teach you in school in case you caught on fire) at this point. Must have opened the entire "Survival File" in my mind while deciding what to do about the storm. Though when it's raining so hard that you can't see, that's probably the last bit of information you'll ever need.
I actually ran through about three torrential downpours during my journey. These were my favorite parts of the run. Not only did it take the humidity of the day away, but it also got rid of all the mosquitoes. I'm not sure that I would have made it if these storms hadn't cooled me down.
After approximately 6.5 hours of monotonous running in a straight line, the trail stopped suddenly in front of a lake. I saw this sign, and a smaller limestone trail off to my left-hand side.
I assumed that was the end of my run, and stopped. Most people get a medal, and a finish line, and all that fanfare after they become an ultra marathoner. I got this little sign. And that was okay. That's kind of the way I wanted it. It was a fitting way to accomplish a very personal goal. It was my childhood dream to travel the whole distance of this trail. I did it all by myself, and I finished all by myself. I didn't think anyone would really completely understand how much it meant for me to do this anyway.
So my first ultra marathon ended as unassumingly as it began. I walked another mile into town and called my wife to pick me up. We drove up to her parent's cabin, and I spent the next two days relaxing on the beach. I didn't really tell people what I had done. I didn't feel like I had run 31 miles anyway. I felt pretty good.
I'm an ultra runner now. So I got that going for me...which is nice. And I'm feeling cool and confident heading into my next big adventure. So...yeah....that's about it.