Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Stars Upon Thars And None Upon Ours…

Superior 100 brought to mind the Dr. Suess tale of the Star Belly Sneeches. Star Bellies thought they were better than those Sneeches without stars according to the children's story, and then one day those with none bought theirs so they could be equal to the Star Belly Sneeches. It starts an on again, off again sequence until no one can tell who is who anymore.

Superior 100 has created an elite club of finishers awarded the sought after black sweatshirt where each year the finishers earn a star patch to be placed on the arm of their single lifetime hooded sweatshirt. It's quite incredible to be able to say that one has finished this particular race. Unlike the stars in the Dr. Suess story, these stars are earned with sweat, perseverance, and sometimes blood. The director, John Storkamp, referred to the stars during the mandatory check-in meeting as a "sticker collection."

Clockwise from top: The elite star sweatshirt | Myself howling behind the 1st place finisher trophy at the mandatory meeting | One of my drop bags | On the bus with my coffee where Evie stepped on to take my picture like it was my first day of school. Which coincidently, Sawtooth did school me.
For some runners the sweatshirt/sticker collection really is a strong motivation as I heard throughout the race. Past club members were wearing their stars at the check-in meeting, and my run buddy and I felt like the outsiders…because we were outsiders! We had no stars and others who have ran this race several years had at least one star or a fews down their arm. They pretty much hung with past finishers that they have known through the years. We did briefly talk to one star wearer who was very friendly to us outsiders, but that ended as previous runners connected with their pack. I was glad to have Evie there to cut through the seriousness. I didn't see anyone else posing near the first place finisher award, but it was worth it for the photo of me howling like a wolf.

The day before the race, I had been all nerves the entire day even though we took a brief hike and played tourist around a small town. I felt like I was hopped up on caffeine and jittery. We had ran into some of the trail markers at dinner at our hotel. They didn't exactly give us a reassurance of making it through this race. Instead, we felt judged by the looks on their faces and disbelief that we were in this race. HMMM didn't I have a qualifying race already? Did I really need to prove myself just to be here? One guy called us "trolls" because we lived below the Mackinac bridge in Michigan. Yep, that is all he had to say to us. So I am just going to have to say it…I thought he was a prick. And come to find out he is a bit of a running celebrity in Minnesota. Bravo! Feel my sarcasm. While the other gentlemen had some insights to the race course including where the 2 feet of water was, John Horn had more words to share. I listened up to any advice he had to give. He's legendary having won the 100 and marathon distances in previous years and was going for the 50…which he did win the Grand Master's and take 3rd overall this year as well. Wow, just wow. He said, "This race is a character builder. That's for sure." His apprehension didn't settling me at all. I had never anticipated a race in this way before. 100 miles is a big deal, and Superior is a beast.

As the Director took a pole of past DNF runners coming back to finish this raise, it revieled a 7-10 person field of hands being raised. Some had multiple attempts at Superior 100 in the past, as I met one on the course who would finish it this year after two previous years of stopping half way and past mile 60. And why do they come back after such an ass kicking? I wish I had asked him his reason. And then asked what it felt like when he knew he was going to make it. I think that would be one of the most revealing and exciting insights of an ultra runner's mental strength.
Right before starting with the sun coming up. 

The Starting Line:
The starting line was completely different from the check-in meeting. People were very socialable and one mother approached me and said she wanted my name on her shirt because her daughter was running it and she was rooting for us women. What a cool way to support your daughter and female runners.

My mother was in Michigan hoping I wouldn't start, maybe get lost on my way to the start line, or at least drop out early. I'm just speaking the truth here and this is what I have dealt with all my life.

I spoke with several experience 100 miler finishers and a couple first time attempters like myself. It's all very exciting. I was glad I brought my own coffee, because the coffee that was suppose to be there had a coffee machine malfunction. So I think some people were hurting.

Note: For the first time ever there were no restroom lines for ladies. There are that few of us.

Starting out in the race I met a woman from Holland, Michigan. We cruised and chatted thru the first few miles until we hit the trail where I was immediately was aware of her trail skills that were superior to mine, and I fell back. I wasn't even going to try to keep up with that! She had finished this race before and her trail experience was evident. I was much more cautious on the loose plates of stone and running up and down large loose rocks. I watched the foot work of other runners and could tell that their shoes were sticking surprisingly well on the curved larger boulders on mountain tops.

Examples of the trail and views. Not all of these are mine as my mind was busy.  I wish I had photographed the triple "XXX" glowing signs at night that my headlamp would catch. "Don't go off that ledge!"
Much of the trail is running on top of mountain rock (climbing up and down uneven rocks—top to bottom, and up again). It's similar to running on asphalt in the comparison that there is no cushion and higher impact unlike a forest padded ground trail—very much unlike the Michigan trails I have ran on. One runner commented that he thought it was worse than asphalt and his knees were hurting. The curve of the rocks wreaked havoc on my ankles in one particular stretch, so much so that I removed the small heel gels in my shoes. That helped stop the rocking and pain. The other balance of the trail includes a lot of roots that are high enough that it was hard to run. I literally hugged trees in areas to stable myself. I did run on a lot of sections I normally would have never ran on to keep a better pace. I usually embrace the walk but found myself embracing the run where I could. It was really hard to find the "happy" in running on such a challenging course where my mind could not really check out. It's a the vary reason some people hate trail running—you can not check out without suffering the consequences. Put it this way, this trail is so technical that I didn't even consider turning on my headset until mile 35. It wasn't even a thought. It takes A LOT of concentration, and exertion to climb up and down larger rocks, boulders, fallen trees and walk the planks. Arg, captain! And then there's the slipper thick mud sections.

Not one of my photos but
illustrates one of  the many
hillside,  rocky trails down
 that need careful attention.
This trail was not only beautiful from the views of climbing mountain after mountain, but the sounds of water rushing over falls and down streams were like poetic music with the added clatter of runners on slate rocks, which sounded like running on broken plates as percussion. I missed a lot of the beauty in keeping my eyes on the trail. Although I had read about sections, experiencing it in the moment was surreal and never being on this trail before, I thought it just seemed more like one loooong trail with similar sections of constant obstacles. There were trees that had fallen over in the trail to be either crawled under or straddle over, and swampy areas with either slippery thick mud, water, or areas that actually had plank boards to cross. The planks were awesome until I found some wobbly ones some where between 11 pm and midnight.  I thought, "If I fall here, I'm going to REALLY be hurt on all those boulders below. Who would find me?"

Descending down the rocky sides was nothing that I could just run down. I purposely left space between myself and any other runner. One man with poles, fell behind me down a rock decent. I asked how he was and he assured me that me was okay. Although, he looked like a rag doll sprawled on the rocks.

On the trail, I met runner who had hired an elite coach to get thru this race. He said he had DNF-ed another race, but made it thru another 100 in June. But for this race, he hired a coach. Training food for thought.

L-R: Aid station equipped with a bowl of salt tabs |  Running along the slate plates | My husband crewing me at mile 20 and my run buddy Evie as well.  I was feeling nauseated at this time and that didn't go away.
I waited too long to wear the Calavera INKnBURN singlet this year. That shirt deserves a party!

It was at about 40+ miles and in the dark that I started to lose faith in making it thru the cut-offs. I made a few mistakes. I had been making the cutoffs, yes. And had read enough reports that I knew not to be going any faster than a 17 minute pace. My goal was to just finish this. I had some miles in the dark that were getting quite a bit slower and I didn't keep in mind that they take that into account thru the night. I then thought about the time goals I had set, which were based on an individual that knew this course. That became silly in that moment.  I was alone in the dark looking for the trail and reflectors. Although I enjoyed the dark running, the slower speed was playing games with my mind. So mistake number one, was that I lost my faith and did math on the course. Later the next day Robyn, a fellow INKnBURN Ambassador, point that out. "Never do math on the course." Uhg! She was right.

I also had a few physical things going on. I had been feeling nauseated since mile 20. I can't explain why to this day. But I will be experimenting more with using just Tailwind. I had to chew Pepto tabs from 20 miles on, which helped a little. The only thing that I could consume that went down well was Starbucks DoubleShot Coffee & Protein that was in my bag. If there had been warm food options that would have been appealing too. But each time I went to the aid stations there was no coffee, and all the promised hot food was gone. Right before I entered County Road 6, the last grilled cheese sandwiches were consumed. My crew had asked if there was hot food waiting and there was when they asked, but some took more than there share according to the workers right before I arrived. I wasn't the last person, so there really wasn't enough.

There was a frost advisory and I did not change my clothes before dark. I added layers but that wasn't enough. I should have changed at Tettegouche where my husband had met me. That was a HUGE mistake. I was soaked through and freezing every time I slowed or stopped at aid stations. There really should be a changing area or sheet hung. Women especially need to change. There's something that isn't talked about enough. Wearing a wet bra and underwear froze-me-out with the frosty temps. By the time I reached mile 51 at the Finland aid station, I just felt like I didn't want to go on between the burning in my legs, nausea, and feeling absolutely frozen. Hand warmers would have been a key item to pack in hindsight.

My legs were burning from the knees down. Not that I didn't expect pain, but I was going with the thought of do no harm the first 50 miles….well harm was happening anyways. I really couldn't tell if I was injured, causing injury or what. I knew I had trained for a 100 miler—but not this one! I met people in the dark on the trail pausing on the fallen trees or larger rocks—resting and just breathing. One guy moved as though he had hurt his arm badly as he shuffled along. The constant up and down stepping is nothing like running on a padded path or road running—different muscles in. I had not use the restroom all day. I couldn't tell if I had to go or not. At one point I thought, "Great, now I am peeing myself." I later found I had started my period.

The number one reason I stopped at Finland 51.2 miles (17 hours): I lost my "why".  I lost the ability to talk myself "IN" to going on and seeing how far I could go. The suffering for another 20+ miles and then getting thrown off the course, didn't feel worth it. I became reliant on seeing my husband which I wouldn't have seen for another 11 miles. That would have been hours away. Never having a crew before, the support was overwhelming, yet I needed them. Maybe it was just easier for me to stick my heels in and stop because it was him. He was in a bit of shock to hear me say, "I'm done"—words I have never said when it matters. He did everything he was suppose to do in pleading with me to keep going because I was still running and others were dragging and limping. I was frozen, and when he told me to sit in the heated vehicle, it was all over in my head and physically. It's all on me.

Several runners I conversed with along the course were strongly motivated by the thought of the sweatshirt. It wasn't motivation for me at all—not in conversation and not at the moment I dropped.  I let go of all the 4 a.m. wakeup calls I had all summer that said I could do this. I questioned whether I had enough baggage to overcome the suffering and if I wanted that baggage. And I felt for what ever reason that I had learned everything I could in the moment. I felt fulfilled in the moment. The worse part was I felt like I really let my crew down and anyone that had believed in me. Guilt. Never having a crew before I was overwhelmed by the assisted love. Even one of the Ragnar BAMRs I met in D.C. showed up, and I was touched. I was disappointed in not being able to run with her in the morning.
This was a butt kicker: the course and mental let down.

The next day I phone my kids and talked to my mother, and she was rejoicing that I DNF-ed. THAT annoyed me to no end. I thought, "Geese, if I had talked to her last night. I would have kept going!" Nothing motivates my like proving people wrong. I was pissed at myself. Cue cards for ALL next time!

Later that morning we went to meet Evie to support her on the course. She was running the 50 miler and we joked that between us we would have the course 100% covered, but she was already getting bumped at mile 26.7 Cramer Road. She wasn't making the cut-off. She was moving along, but on this course, you have to move faster. It was a kick in the teeth. She wanted to go on, but was swept. It's the just another reality of this race. She has finished many ultras, so it isn't like she isn't capable. While waiting I watched Robyn work the aid station and talk a man back into the 50 mile race that thought he had a broken rib. OMG, broken rib guy went on! I instantly wish she had been at Finland last night.

This DNF may be just the baggage I need to come back. It burns on long after the race is over. Superior has left a mountain of rock in my heart. I think every runner will get "their one that got away" experience. This ONE is mine. I knew going into this that if I could finish it, I could do anything. So the race and work goes on. Afterwards with the experience fresh in my head, another runner friend with more experience messaged me and told me she had DNFed one time and she came back to show that trail who was boss and that's what I would too. I told her, "not this race." But less than a week later, I knew she was right. I can't let go of that mountain that Superior left in my heart. Character building? Indeed. I'll be back—rock solid, amnesia and all.

Hiking views of Lake Superior and trail falls

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