Six weeks ago I had no intention or desire to be an ultramarathoner. Most of the year I lift weights 5 times a week mixed with runs of 3 to 5 miles for cardio. My fitness and training is motivated by a desire to be a better outdoorsman when I head out west every year to hunt elk. To prepare for those trips I switch my focus in the summer months to intense hiking and hill training; often with a heavy pack. Putting miles on a trail in the wild is nothing new to me.
Back in May my friend Steve told me about his upcoming 100-mile utramarathon on the Superior Hiking Trail (northern Minnesota). Since I love the trail and often do backpacking trips on it, I offered to be one of his pacers. It also would serve as a final fitness test for my elk hunt because it was two weeks before I headed out to Montana.
When I joined Steve at mile 85, I didn’t find the man I was used to seeing. Instead, I found an elite athlete, driven by passion and a desire to keep moving forward no matter what pain or nastiness mother nature threw his way. I must admit that I quickly became envious of his feat. I paced him for 18 miles, enduring some mud pits, technical rock gardens, and a couple steep climbs. He persevered through every challenge like a champion. As we threw our headlamps on with 3 miles to go, I did the quick trail math and told him we could finish by 8 pm (totally irrelevant, but seemed like a good goal at the time). It didn’t take much convincing before the pace increased and the goal became a reality.
Then something profound happened.
As we ran through the Lutsen ski resort nearing the finish line, Craig (the other pacer) and I parted ways with Steve so he could finish by himself. For the last 18 miles I heard endless talk about the finish line and how much Steve wanted to get to it. I came within 50 yards of it and the feeling and energy of it was intoxicating. But low and behold, it was not my finish line, and I couldn’t scratch that sudden itch I felt.
When Steve talked to me the next day thanking me for crewing and pacing, he planted a seed in my head about doing an ultra myself. Since life is too short to hold onto that burning desire for a whole winter, I decided a couple days later to sign up for the Surf the Murph 50-mile ultramarathon in Savage, MN. At that point, I had not even run a marathon before.
With 5 weeks to train for the event, I immediately consulted fellow CelebrateMan crewmember Tommy about the ability to transition my elk training into ultramarathon training. Tommy is a former strength and conditioning coach at the University of Minnesota. At that point, I was hiking over 50 miles a week, which quickly changed to running per Steve’s (now Coach Steve) guidance. At the end of two weeks, I was able to do a 20-mile trail run before heading out to Montana for a week of intense hill climbing. Once I got back to town, I knocked out a marathon distance on trails, marking a new personal best and giving me confidence in accomplishing great things. That run was two weeks out from the race, so my training program began to taper in preparation for race day.
The week prior to Surf the Murph was marked with several questions appealing to Steve’s vast ultra knowledge, creating my race day plan, preparing my crew and pacers and resting my body. There was some doubt going through my head that week since running past 26 miles was unknown territory for me. But I had a great deal of confidence in my heart and determination to not fail, which eased the nerves as D-day approached.
The morning of race day began at 3 am so I could keep my normal daily routine of coffee and eggs. Starting out the day with caffeine and nutrition is key. The course was an hour drive from my house and registration began at 5 am, so I was out of the house by 4:15.
With long sleeves on and a headlamp on my head, my forward motion began at 6 am sharp. Surf the Murph course is composed of three 16.7-mile loops of cross country trails that maneuver through forest, fields and wetlands. There are four aid stations with the longest distance between any of them only 4 miles. Each aid station was full of various food, candy, liquids and gels. Oh yeah…and tons of energy from fellow runners who volunteered their day to support us.
My plan was to start out really slow, walking all the rolling hills through the forest in the dark. But due to race day anxiety, I knocked off a minute and a half per mile of my planned pace for the first 5 miles. Even as I passed the first aid station, where I ditched my headlamp, I continued a quick pace as the sun began to rise along the horizon. This ended up hurting me at mile 11 as the long sleeve shirt I had on made me sweat more and collect the sweat on my arms, turning them instantly ice cold.
I realized at that point I needed to slow things down and remove one article of clothing. Since I was only a couple miles from the next aid station, I decided to tie the shirt around my waist. That plan worked well, but masked a bigger issue that was lingering that I was unaware of at the time: my body was dehydrated.
After years in the military and athletics, how could I possibly be so ignorant about my own hydration? When I relieved myself at the mile 13 aid station, my urine was dark and minimal; signs of an urgent need to start consuming water. I made the decision to finish out the first lap with fast pace hiking so I could keep sucking down water every 5 minutes. With my fast start, I still managed to finish my first lap 10 minutes ahead of the plan.
Then the lap of hell began!
The first 5 miles of the loop is very hilly, with some short, steep climbs that really slow a runner down. On lap 2, these hills triggered severe cramping in my quads and I was trying hard to get my hydration back. These miles quickly became agonizing, putting doubts in my head about my ability to finish due to dehydration or time disqualification (race cutoff time is 14 hours). My pace increased to about 20 min/miles, which was about 6 minutes higher than the plan.
As I emerged out of the woods and into the horse camp aid station at 22 miles, I found a welcomed site. Two of my crewmembers Bob and Nancy were there ready to cheer me on. Unexpectedly, Nancy was in running attire and without missing a beat, volunteered to pace me for the next 8 miles. This meant everything to me! Nancy’s cheeriness and positive energy quickly wore off on me. The negative thoughts going through my head at the beginning of the lap quickly dissipated and were replaced with a can-do attitude. Plus, having someone to talk to made the time pass by a lot faster.
By the time Nancy and I arrived at the aid station 30 miles in (all new territory for me) my whole crew was there: my wife Kirsten and son Colton, in-laws Jim and Ginny, niece Kelsey and two certified badass ultramarathoners Nick and Coach Steve. Nick offered up his pacing services and joined me on the trail back to the Start/Finish Line Aid Station 4 miles away. At that point I was starting to worry about my time since I was struggling with all the hydration and cramping issues, but Nick kept ensuring me I was well on pace to finishing the race in the time limit.
(My crew [from left to right]: Bob, Jim, Ginny, wife Kirsten, Kelsey and my son Colton)
(Even Colton realized the need to stay hydrated)
Pacers serve many functions for runners, but probably the most important role is for them to do what ultramarathoners call “trail math”. When someone has been running for 8 hours, math is an incredibly challenging thing to do. Pacers give you the details of the pace needed and the motivation to achieve it. Nick was great at that and I trusted his judgment.
We rolled into the Start/Finish Line Aid Station at about 8 hours (nearly an hour behind schedule). I knew ahead of time as long as I left that aid station to begin the 3rd loop, I was going to finish the race. I think Steve knew this and he was determined to get me back on the trail. Steve, or as I should call him “Mr. Resourceful”, found a couple wooden poles, wrapped tape on top of them, thus creating some makeshift trekking poles for me. These were a godsend in the hills.
Nick kept pacing me through the next 5 mile section, motivating me along the way and talking to me so my mind couldn’t process the pain my body was experiencing. He made the most grueling section of the trail seem like candy, and we were able to bring down our time so I could get back on schedule.
(Giving the thumbs up as I got ready to knock out the last 4 miles of the race)
At mile 38, Nick handed off pacing duties to Steve and I was never again going to walk on a downhill. Steve’s motivation and knowledge was instrumental in my ability to knock off mile-by-mile on tired legs and worn out body. He frequently reminded me to drink water, take a salt pill and fuel up with sports beans and gels. He smiled and cheered every time the terrain offered a slight decline because it offered us the ability to run it. I found this irritating for the first couple miles, and instinctual and fun towards the end.
At mile 40 we ended up on the trail with another runner named Dave, a retired Air Force guy. Steve had met him earlier on the trail and found out he wasn’t able to finish this race last year due to being bit by a dog on the trail. Dave and I instantly fed off each other’s energy as we both got second winds at different times. Steve took Dave under his wings so-to-speak, and we came into the final aid station at mile 46 with two hours left in the race.
We quickly downed liquids, refilled our water, got some calories in us, and got right back on the trail to accomplish something great. The next 4 miles went by quick. Pain and discomfort were sidelined to thoughts of finish lines and the thrill of accomplishment. As we rounded our final turn, in the dark with headlamps on, Dave and I could see the finish line and smell the warm fire pit where my family and crew were huddled waiting for our arrival. We came through the finish line to familiar cheers and accolades from fellow runners. At that point we had accomplished something great and it was worth every bit of the pain and agony our body went through during the day.
(Here are my badass pacers/fellow ultramarathoners. Nick is on the left and Steve is on the right)
As I reflect on this great achievement, I have a difficult time answering what drives me to do such crazy things. Six weeks ago, running an ultramarathon wasn’t even a thought in my head. Now I’m in an elite group of people who have run further than most people can comprehend. And I must admit, the allure of doing 50 miles more is floating around in my thoughts. Perhaps a 100-mile ultra is in the cards for next year.