Saturday, September 14, 2019

2019 Superior 50 Mile Race Report: Patience, Acceptance, Gratitude


I’d been pacing and volunteering at the Fall Superior Trail Races for five years before my own fire started to kindle.

Spring Superior, sure. I’d run the out-and-back 50k four times, up Carlton Peak and back to Lutsen. But fifty MILES of rocks, roots, and 12,500 feet of climbing? I wasn’t convinced I wanted that, until 2018 Fall Superior, when, after pacing 28 miles overnight, I stood at the finish line and realized I did. I put my name in the lottery in January and found myself with a big goal race on my calendar. September loomed large. 

This year’s training was all about Superior preparation: two 50k races, 70 miles in three days at Western States Training Camp, Voyageur 50 Mile. My training log shows that I averaged 45 miles per week, certainly the most I’ve ever run.

I learned a lot along the way, especially about the joy of starting slow and finishing fast. I ran even or negative splits at Chippewa, Afton, and Voyageur, finishing all three ultras smiling, laughing, and running strong. Despite an unexpectedly crazy summer of job searching and career change, I stayed mostly injury free, taking a day or two off here and there when something didn’t feel right, but mostly checking off runs, intervals, hill repeats. No training cycle is perfect, but it’s been a great season. I’m amazed and grateful that I came to the starting line well prepared, well trained, uninjured, and excited to run. 

Race morning began with a 3:15 alarm, ahead of the 5:15 start. The sky at Finland Recreation Center was clear and streaked with stars, and the air was cool and breezy. The weather all day couldn’t be better: clouds moving in after a clear morning, temperatures in the 50s, no more rain after a few showers the night before. I checked in, saw some friends, danced to 80s hip hop (“Joy and pain/Are like sunshine and rain”).
Fist bump with Bob. Photo: Chad Richardson
I was in a good place mentally — eager to see sections of the course I’d never seen, and ones I’d never seen in daylight, eager to see friends at the aid stations, but with no specific time goals aside from beating the 16:45 cutoff. I thought of the advice I’d heard an experienced runner give about the course — “Be patient” — and decided that would be my plan for the day. Patience, acceptance, gratitude. 

Start to Crosby-Manitou (mile 11.7, ~3:00): Sunlight, wonder

On John’s countdown we were off, running easily up a gravel road for a few miles before a turn onto the Superior Hiking Trail, which we’d follow for the rest of the day. Aside from a few quiet conversations and the sound of footfalls, it was quiet, with headlamps lighting the road and trail. I cruised the opening miles at an easy, warming-up pace, stopping 30 minutes in to change the batteries in my suddenly-dim headlamp (and breathing relief that I'd packed spares). My friend Bob ran right behind me much of the way, in companionable quiet. It was his third attempt at Superior 50, and I wanted to see him succeed.

The brightening sky contrasted with the dim trails as the day began, and eventually it was light enough to switch off headlamps. We hit Sonju Lake aid station (7 miles) in full daylight, right around the two hour mark. Bonfire smoke swirled and volunteers directed runners in and out, refilled water, and offered food and encouragement. We didn't need much, so early in the race, and quickly headed out again on the short but rootbound 4-mile section to Crosby-Manitou.

I'd run this section three times before as a pacer, but always in the deepest hours of the night (and usually in the rain). It was exhilarating to see the trail, and to enjoy the dry ground among the deep tree roots. We crested Horseshoe Ridge, which I remembered as nothing more than a sensation of deep black open space to one side of the trail, and I gasped at the spectacular views of the Sawtooth Ridge and early fall colors. Turns out, this section is gorgeous! The woods ended quickly and I ran up the gravel road to Crosby-Manitou in great spirits, eager to see the next section in daylight.

Morning sunshine on Horseshoe Ridge

Crosby-Manitou to Sugarloaf (mile 21.1,~6:10): The only way to win is not to play the game

This 9.4 mile section of trail looms large in the Superior mythos. It’s the longest section between aid, and with its descent and climb through the Manitou River gorge, it starts off steep and technical, before giving way to a long 6 miles or so of mostly-runnable but often seemingly interminable wooded singletrack. I've paced it twice, and both times succumbed, at least a bit, to the "we should be there by now!" syndrome. This time, I was ready to do it differently. Patience, acceptance, gratitude. The only way to win this section, I knew, was not to play the game.

This section had given Bob trouble in years past. Once, he’d even fallen and broken some ribs on it. So at Crosby-Manitou, as we refilled water and ate bratwurst, I told him, “We’ll do this section together and keep our skeletons intact.” Then I repeated something I’d said years ago, when he first tried Superior: “We should come into Sugarloaf saying, ‘I can’t believe how good I feel!’”

We bounded down the steep rocky trail to the river crossing. Or, rather, I bounded. I'm relatively fast on descents, and Bob was beginning to slow down. At the bridge, I waited and he caught up, and we started the big climb in a little group of runners. I knew this section well. “Three false summits, then you’re on top,” I announced, stepping up and up.
Manitou River, from the bridge
The trail climbed boulders and leveled, then climbed and leveled again. I'd slow to let Bob catch up, but despite his summer of strong training, he was beginning to hit a low point. Finally, we were finished climbing and rewarded with incredible views from the ridge. I was exultant — we had conquered one of the Big Scary Climbs on the course! — and tried to share my excitement with Bob. He replied in monosyllables.  

Top of the climb!
"This next section is a total mental game," I reminded him. "It's always longer than you think. But all we have to do is keep moving. Don't look at mileage or time. The only way to win is not to play the game."

To my surprise, the trail today was flowing under my feet and I was eager to push the pace faster than Bob wanted to go. "Okay, this is a runnable section," I'd say, following him. He continued to hike. "Let's run this," I tried. "Run!"

The morning sunshine began to give way to clouds, keeping the air cool. I was amazed by how dry the trail was, and by the work that had been done over the summer in perennially muddy sections. We ran and hiked over new boardwalks, our feet dry. I kept encouraging Bob to eat and drink, and he kept moving forward, never giving up even as he navigated a physical and mental low point. "You should go on," he said on several occasions. "As long as you keep moving, let's finish this section together," I responded.

In due time, we crossed the Caribou River bridge. "Three miles from here," I grinned. Bob's mood lifted and he ran. We both ran, ticking off the two sets of power lines, the road crossing, the covered-bridge river crossing. He consulted his phone. "Just under a mile left." "THE ONLY WAY TO WIN IS NOT TO PLAY THE GAME!" I replied. Our momentum built as we began seeing the signs the Sugarloaf volunteers had posted. Finally, grinning absurdly, we ran in to Sugarloaf.

Sugarloaf to Temperance River (mile 33.8, ~9:35): Acceptance, and the gifts of the trail

Sugarloaf is MY aid station. I've volunteered there for the last five years. I've paced into it twice. Jan and Joe O'Brien, the long-time aid station captains, are beloved Superior friends. When I thought of my Fall Superior race over the past year, I had visualized this moment.

And Sugarloaf came through for me. Raucous cheers and cowbells greeted us as we arrived, and I got monster hugs from Jan, from Travis, from Steph, from LOTS of people. I couldn't stop grinning. After six hours and 21 miles of running, in the middle of the woods, I had come home. A volunteer refilled my water. Steph brought me chicken noodle soup, heavy on the noodles. Jan and I laughed that I'd signed a 10-year contract to work at Sugarloaf and would HAVE to be there next year, even if I was moving to Seattle.

Recalling my unexpected battery swap that morning, I said, "Travis, remember my [EXPLETIVE DELETED] headlamp? I had to change batteries AGAIN this morning!"

He laughed but then got serious. "I have a headlamp in the car. Want to borrow it, just in case?"

I bit back my initial "No" and considered. In the back of my head, I had been a bit worried about navigating Moose Mountain with subpar lighting. I made a decision. "Yes. Yes, please, I really would." He ran off to his parked car and returned a minute later with two good headlamps. Overwhelmed with this unexpected generosity, I shoved one in my pack and a little mental burden I hadn't even been aware of quietly slipped away. One more quick round of hugs and I was crossing the road, yelling "I LOVE YOU, SUGARLOAF!!!" as cheers and cowbells saw me off.

The next 12 miles were the only section of the course I hadn't seen before. I was now running along, moving at my own speed, and deep into the mindset of patience, acceptance, gratitude. It felt good to run and to feel the ground move beneath my feet, and this was a runnable section, traversing past wetlands and woods, with occasional inland views of brightening autumn colors. Without trying very hard, I slipped into an attitude of curiosity about what the trail would give me next.

Early fall colors!

On this section, I began to pass runners in greater numbers: mostly 50 milers, but occasionally I'd round a curve and see the pink ribbon of a 100 miler in the distance. Kevin Langton was power-hiking his way to Cramer Road, and I overtook him, got a hug, and tried to help him troubleshoot his bad stomach. His writing and his words have been such an inspiration to me and to hundreds of other runners, and I wished I could give back some of that energy today. 

The miles into Cramer Road were very runnable but a bit longer than I expected. I tried not to play the game, though I worried a bit about losing my cushion of time till cutoff, and arrived when the trail brought me there. I was at the halfway point in the race, a marathon in, and about 50 minutes ahead of the cutoff. My friends Mara and Cari were volunteering at Cramer, and they filled my water, brought me my drop bag, offered food and encouragement. Colleen S was there too, giving encouragement. Bob came in as I was preparing to leave. Zevon played on the speakers. Again, I felt incredibly cared for and loved. I was eager to see what the second half would bring.

Mara and Cari: Great volunteers, or THE GREATEST volunteers?
The miles from Cramer to Temperance were again new to me, and the words patience, acceptance, gratitude were strong in my mind. The trail brought me climbs and descents, and soon I found myself running downstream alongside a rushing river: the Cross River, I later learned. I basked in its beauty, in the afternoon light, in the feeling of effortless movement as I flowed alongside it, down, down to the bridge to cross. The Cross River was a gift, one that amazed me all the more because I hadn't known it was there. An unexpected burst of joy that felt like it lasted for more than just a few miles.

A bit of climbing, a bit more trail, and I descended to Temperance River before I knew it. I had passed more runners and many hikers. The afternoon was flying by, and I was flying with it.

Temperance River to Sawbill (mile 39.5, ~11:10): Riding the wave

Temperance River aid station in late afternoon was laid back but ready to help. As "Footloose" played and I sang along, they fed me bacon and pancakes, filled my water, offered me food to go, assured me I was over an hour till cutoff. The spell of movement was on me and I couldn't stop for long. I was off, excited to see Carlton Peak and Sawbill. With two thirds of the race behind me, I was already beginning to feel like the end wasn't too far off.

The trail crossed and then climbed gently up the river, and the many afternoon hikers moved aside for me, offering encouragement as I ran. This is our family's favorite section of the trail, and it was a joy to be on familiar and much loved ground. I passed a few 50 and 100 milers and shared cheerful words and energy with them. The trail veered away from the river, climbed some more, entered the woods, climbed again.

Without really noticing when it happened, I found myself on the flanks of Carlton Peak. The last (and only previous) time I'd done this section was 5 years ago, pacing Travis. I'd forgotten just how steep and prolonged a climb it was, and I kept moving but slowed as the steps became bigger and bouldery. Around a corner and I overtook Steph Hoff and her pacer. Her smile was as big as ever and we shared a quick hug and words of excited encouragment. She was absolutely crushing Carlton, on her way to a hard fought and gritty finish. Seeing her was a huge lift as I finished what felt like the hardest climb of the course.

As I rounded the flanks for Carlton Peak and hit blessedly level ground, then gently downhills, I passed a few runners before falling in behind another 50 miler. She was moving at my pace and it was fun to have someone to follow instead of pass. We gathered speed and momentum as we descended Carlton toward the Sawbill parking lot. We seemed to go faster and faster, crossing long boardwalks and trail sections, enjoying the rewards of gravity we'd earned on our climb. Finally, I couldn't keep up and she pulled ahead, but I'd gained time and, paradoxically, felt even more energized. With a huge grin, I ran into the Sawbill Aid station. 

Sawbill to Oberg (mile 45, ~12:45): On familiar ground

Sawbill was jumping, the biggest aid station I'd seen since Crosby Manitou. They cheered every runner in like we were winning the entire race. Music played. Families hung out in chairs and on blankets. The aid station volunteers fed me soup and noodles. I was comfortably ahead of the cutoff and gaining time on every segment now. With a half marathon to go, I felt unstoppable. I realized that I was going to finish this race, and in good style.

Jason Husveth was helping out here. "Jason," I said, "there's nothing else quite like this, is there?" I started to choke up. Good grief, I thought, I can't do this yet. I probably still have 4 hours left out here! We talked a little about the day, the trails, the year. It was a good, quiet moment in a high energy, hectic place -- and a reminder that I had some big feelings around this race. I packed them up and headed out to the final aid station.

I've run Sawbill to Oberg at least five times. I remembered it being not especially hilly, sometimes muddy, frankly a bit boring sometimes. But today, I was entranced by my own movement. 40 miles into my day, I could run, and I was fascinated to watch the trail unfold beneath my feet, under the spell of my own motion. I watched with curiosity and detachment as the trail gave me climbs and descents, as it gave me a few patches of mud. I laughed at the signs for the Oberg parking lot, which I knew were comically far from the actual aid station, and at the spur trail to Mount Levaux, where I took a wrong turn one Superior.

The long double-wide section into the aid station, where you can hear your destination long before you're there, was an old friend. I was among friends, all day, every step I went.

Oberg to Finish (mile 52.1, 15:02:28): Nothing left to do but finish 

Oberg was a party, and I came in feeling like a rockstar. Cheers and cowbells and music and so many people after a quiet day in the woods. This was it, the last aid station. All that was left now was to run the final 7.1 miles in. This race I'd been dreaming of for a year, for longer, felt almost over. I choked up again, overwhelmed with gratitude and amazement.

So many friends at this stop. Alex was here, pacer bib still pinned on, having sent her runner off to finish his 100 mile race with his family. I hugged her, ate more food, started to run out, came back to get out my headlamp, stopped to take a picture of the final aid station sign. "Nothing to do now but finish this thing," I grinned. I didn't want it to end, but I was ready for the end. Eager for the trail, I headed out.
Contemplating the finish!
Five years ago, I'd broken down this section for Travis. "Runnable section, steeper climb, Stairway to Heaven, long runnable section on Moose, steep descent through the saddle, switchbacks, over the top, past the campsite, and it's all downhill to the Poplar River." At the end of his 100 miler, it had been slow going. Today, the miles just went steadily by as I watched the ground flow under me. The climb up Moose was steep, but short. The top was more runnable than I remembered. Everything felt shorter today, and time slipped by. I kept passing runners and pacers, saying, "I think we should finish this thing!" and getting grunts of assent and "Hell yeahs" in response.

Night fell and I turned on Travis's headlamp. It was like strapping the sun to my forehead, and the ground leaped out in bright contrast. I breathed gratitude for friends, and thanked myself for accepting his offer of help, hours ago. The party was in full swing at the finish line and the sound carried into the saddle. I power hiked switchbacks, crested Mystery Mountain, started dropping down in the sudden silence. Passed Amy and E Rolf on the descent, moving, moving. Past the campsite. No more uphills. Sound of the Poplar River faintly ahead.

I overtook a 100 miler and we quietly discussed how close we were. "I think it's farther than you expect to the river," I said, remembering previous runs. I rounded a corner and saw reflectors. "Or, maybe, it's right here!"

The Poplar River bridge. I stopped for just a moment, admired the river in the dim light, the chaotic noise of its waters. I breathed in the cool night air. It had been a perfect day. Tears stood in my eyes. I wanted this moment to last forever

With a final breath in of river-scented air, I turned back to the trail, climbed, and ran gravel road, then paved road, then wider paved road, as the lights of Lutsen came up all around me. People stood by the road and said "Congratulations." I slowed so the 100 miler ahead of me could get her finish -- it turned out to be Angela Barbera, I'm glad I waited -- and I paused in the dark, at the corner of the swimming pool, while she finished. Then, I ran into the lights and the sound and the friends and the joy of the finish, feeling more powerful and accomplished than I have ever felt in a race.

Open to the possibility of greatness

At FANS this year, early on, Lisa Kaspner-Swift told me, "I feel great! I'm sure it'll all go wrong eventually!" I said, "Open your mind to the possibility that today could simply be an incredible day." And although she didn't feel incredible every step of the way, she proceeded to run the race of her life, covering over 100 km.

A long trail run seldom goes according to plan, and after seven years of doing these, I've come to expect that unexpected problems will punctuate any effort of many hours on the trails. But in my planning for problems, injury, gear failures, and trail disasters, I try to remind myself to be open to the possibility of unexpected greatness as well.

We run for many reasons, but perhaps the rarest and most sublime are those fleeting days where everything comes together, the world moves under your feet, and the trail unfolds before you. Superior 50 was a day of unexpected greatness for me. A year of training, a slow start, dry trails, perfect weather, five years of volunteering karma, and the love and support of my extended trail family alchemized into an experience I will never forget. I can't think of a more beautiful end to my time in Minnesota than this.

This, but running. Photo: Chad Richardson
Thank you, trail family. Thank you.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

I Owe Kate A Race Report: 2018 Superior Pacing Report

It's a great time for a Superior race report!

I paced Kate Leis from County Road 6 to Sugarloaf in the 2018 Fall Superior 100, wrote most of a race report, and didn't finish it until today. What better time to finally publish it than on the eve of the 2019 Fall Superior races?

Jokes aside, this was a really special event for me. It was my fifth fall at Superior, and for the first time, I came away from the race with a new fire. I had found the drive to want a Fall Superior finish of my own. A few months later, I entered the lottery for the Superior 50 Mile. The day after tomorrow, I'll be at the starting line and taking on this big, scary, beautiful, joyful, incredible event myself, for the first time.

This race report is a reminder of what brought me to this moment. It's a preview, an inspiration, and, I hope, a launching point — for me, and for all of you who are taking on something big, this weekend and in times to come. And for Kate, this is a thank-you letter. Thank you for sharing with me an event so special that it changed the trajectory of my running career. I can't tell you how much our journey through the night meant to me.


Back in July, I offered to pace Kate, who I didn't know well, but I figured it'd be fun. Turns out she's my age, going for her 5th Superior 100 start (and 3rd finish), and she can *move.* Pacing anxiety begins.

(Pacing anxiety: The almost-always irrational fear that your runner, having already gone 43 miles/11+ hours, will be able to run so fast overnight that you can't keep up.)

I pack way too many layers, shoes, snacks, and camping gear and head north on Friday morning. After stashing gear at Sugarloaf (mile 72), where I'll finish, I finally make it to County Road 6 (mile 44), where I'll pick up Kate, around 5 pm. The plan is to volunteer here, pace Kate overnight to Sugarloaf, then work there till close.

CR6 is jamming in bright sunshine. Spectators line the gravel parking lot, the aid station is serving up standard ultra fare, and runners are coming in looking happy and surprisingly non-muddy. After a dry August and early September, the trail is in extraordinarily good shape this year.

I'm immediately making PB&J sandwiches, setting up the propane stove for soup, and trying to figure out how to make coffee. This year, it's a new cone-filter pour-over system, which I love, but I fail to find either the directions or the measuring scoop so I'm eyeballing the amount of coffee grounds.

A runner asks for coffee. I pour him a cup from the still-dripping airpot.

"I'm not sure how strong it is. Let me know, okay?"

He takes a sip. His eyes widen a bit. "It's, uh, great! But, could you put some water in it?"

Superior Hiking Trail tourist

Kate had sent her crew and pacers a spreadsheet of her anticipated paces and times through the dozen-plus aid stations on course BECAUSE OF COURSE SHE DID. It had her coming into CR6 at 8:32 pm, but she'd rolled an ankle two weeks before earlier and had emailed us that she was throwing out her time goals and just wanted to finish.

Apparently she's having a good day, though, because at 7 pm her husband shows up and tells me she'll be there in 25 minutes or less.

I'm scrambling around, trying to speed-eat my dinner, telling someone else how to make the coffee (having now located the directions and the measuring scoop, glory be!), making sure my pack's ready to go. Jamison, the aid station captain and a good friend, comes over while I'm standing by Lisa, his wife.

JAMISON: "Aren't you pacing? You're not dressed for running."

ME: [I'm wearing running shorts under my pants. I start undoing them to show him.] "Ah, but look!"

JAMISON [backing away] "You're... taking off your pants in front of me. While standing next to my wife."

ME: "Yes. Yes I am. I want to show you what's underneath." I waggle my eyebrows at him.

LISA: [laughs at both of us]

Kate blows into the aid station and it's go time. I lace my shoes, grab my pack, slam a cup of Coke as she downs a turkey wrap and dances back and forth at the trailhead, ready to clock some miles.

To cheers and cowbells, we run into the woods. It's 7:30 pm.

We reach a high lookout over the inland lakes and woods just as the last light is going, and I stop for a picture, then run hard to catch Kate again. “I’m a Superior Hiking Trail tourist,” I tell her.

The only picture I took, but it's a good one
Now it's fully dark, we're climbing and descending, Kate's ankle is giving her no trouble to speak of, and we're just riding the wave. We move along, occasionally passing or being passed by other runners and pacers, but for long stretches, the trail is ours. There are boardwalks, roots, rocky climbs, but nothing seems to exist outside the little bubble of light we carry with us.

The day has been warm, and the nighttime temperatures are headed into the 40s with a breeze. We're in shirtsleeves, breaking a sweat when we climb hard, then cooling off at the top when a breeze comes through. It's a good temperature for moving fast, in the dark, and that's what we do.

After a bit over two hours, we're into Finland. It's the halfway point of the race, it's a major aid station, and there are lots of people coming and going. Kate is still feeling great as she eats mashed potatoes and bacon, and her husband Matt helps her get geared up for the night, with poles, gloves, a more powerful waist light. He and their parents will go get some sleep; the next time we'll see them will be tomorrow morning at Sugarloaf, 21 miles later.

"That's good crew management," I comment. I've seen a lot of exhausted, sleep-deprived crews in my five years at Superior.

"I figure I'll really need them tomorrow, so they'd better be rested!" she grins.

Susan likes my hair

We're out of Finland and trading leads over and over with running legend Susan Donnelly. Incredibly, it's her 18th Superior 100, and she has done over 100 100-mile races. She passes us, exclaiming, "Robyn! When did your hair get so long?" I laugh at the sheer weirdness. We have an intermittent conversation about hair over the next several hours, before she pulls ahead for good.

The exhilaration of being out in the woods at night is kicking in for me now. It's past my bedtime. It's past *everyone's* bedtime! We're running around in the woods! We get to do this all night! It's forbidden and silly and it's a beautiful night and it feels good to be moving under our own power, across big miles of trail.

Another 7.5 miles and two and a half hours, and we're into Sonju. In contrast to Finland, it's a small aid station with no crew access, and it runs pretty much exclusively in the middle of the night. It's like a tiny oasis of light and welcome in a big dark world.

Kate is putting on a clinic on how to go through aid stations, and it's all I can do to throw down some coffee and a bite of something before she's refilled her water, moved some snacks into the front of her pack, and is ready to blaze out again. All I can do is chase after her, laughing at the contrast from the year I spent an hour in Sonju in pouring rain, trying to bring a runner back from the dead.

The bicycle

It's after midnight now and we're on the short (4+ mile) but deeply root-bound section of trail into Crosby-Manitou. Kate has been running now for over 16 hours.

KATE: "Look over there. There's a bicycle!" [points into the woods]

ME: "I see a tree stump, but not a bicycle."

KATE: "There's totally a bicycle there."

ME: "I totally believe you that you see a bicycle. That sounds awesome. I wish I could see it too."

KATE: [stops] "Robyn, look *there.* There is seriously a bicycle."

I stop and look where she's pointing... and damned if there is not in fact an actual bicycle, 10 yards off in the woods, parked next to — I can now see — a tent.

We laugh all the way into Crosby-Manitou.

Riding the wave

It's a perfectly clear night and the stars are shining with an intensity that I don't remember. The moon's just a tiny sliver. The world is big.

The last half-mile into Crosby is up a gravel road, uphill. We run it. We're riding the wave.

Crosby's a party, another all-night aid station but with a sort of "last chance" vibe, since the next section's 9+ miles long and gnarly and takes most people anywhere from 3 to 6 hours. You can get anything here — coffee, a burger, grilled cheese, baked goods, candy, three kinds of soup. I'm pretty sure that if a runner came in and demanded a beer and a shot, they could set it up. We're happy with burgers and, for me, more coffee. For the first time all night, Kate sits down, long enough to dump a rock out of her shoe.

Last year, I spent a good half-hour at Crosby, lip-synching Zevon songs and side-eyeing my runners, who did a major drop-bag dive that looked like a paleo food truck collided with an electronics store. This year? We're out in 15 minutes and Kate's complaining about how long she took. It's awesome.

It's 2:15 am and we are in the guts of the night now, moving through the longest hardest section of the race. Kate still feels good, but the hours and miles are becoming more apparent. Still, it's the fastest I've moved on this section of trail.

We dr
op down into the Manitou River gorge, leapfrogging with a few other runners, then start the long, long climb out.

"Okay, I know it's wrong," I say, "but I... really like this climb? I mean, it is very clearly what it is. You don't wonder, 'Should I be running?' And then, eventually, you're done and at the top. I like it!"

Weirdly, Kate seems to understand this. She tells me about getting passed, in her first ultra, by people power-hiking faster than she could run. "So I went home and I started practicing my fast hike," she concludes.

I laugh. We've been absolutely booking it up climbs all day, and it's clear that whatever she's doing is working.

We're through the gorge and climb out, we've done the long descent off Horseshoe Ridge, and now we're in the long, *long* section of not-much-memorable before crossing the Caribou River. It's 4 a.m. or so. Kate has slowed from a very fast hike to a merely fast hike, but we're moving along, reminding her to eat and drink every 30 minutes. We're telling stories about pets, friends, our lives, races. It's companionable. We feel patient and know that if we keep moving like this, we'll reach the next checkpoint.

Weird happenings deep in the night

We cross a small bridge over a trickle of water, consisting of two 2x6 boards, side by side. One's partly rotted and rotates as I cross it. My foot slips through and is trapped between the boards.

It's 4 a.m. and my problem-solving facilities take a m
inute to get back on-line. I try pulling my foot up — not enough space. I try rotating the board back, but can't quite figure it out. Kate turns back. "I'm stuck in a bridge," I say helpfully. We laugh a little and she suggests I take my shoe off. But just then, I notice there's a wider gap further along, and manage to get my foot out through it. I shake my head and we laugh as we move on.

A little further up the trail: We come around a corner and there's someone lying on the ground in the trail. Wait, there are *two* people lying down, one on either side of the trail. Kate's in the lead and visibly startled.

The prone forms resolve the
mselves as a runner and pacer. It appears they just couldn't wait any longer to take a nap. The pacer opens one eye, gives us a thumbs-up, and waves us on.

Up the trail:

ME: "What the hell was that about?"

KATE: "I'm just glad I didn't see that when I was alone."

ME: "Yeah, my first thought was, 'PLEASE DON'T BE DEAD!'"

We've reached the Caribou River, about 3 miles from Sugarloaf. It feels like we're getting close. Kate has run this section recently and has shockingly good memory of the course and landmarks; she ticks them off as the sky turns a dark gray, then a lighter gray, and a band of orange appears at the horizon.

We pass through a clearing and admire the rainbow-striped horizon and setting crescent moon. It is sublimely beautiful. We realize our cameras can't capture it, so we just try to soak it in.

As the sky lightens, we know we're close to Sugarloaf. We keep looking for landmarks and listening for the sounds of the aid station. We're trying to be patient, but we know it's soon.

And, sure enough, soon enough, it's there, and we're out of the woods. It's 5:45 a.m., it's daylight, Matt and the crew are there, looking refreshed.

From dusk till dawn

Kate's crew ushers her into a chair and plies her with food, foot care gear, fresh socks, and encouragement. She's in good hands.

Her second pacer, Cary, has dropped my car off for me here. (I parked it at CR6, found Cary, and said, "It's a late model
 black Prius. They key's under the front wheel." There's a lot of handing your car keys to a near-stranger at Superior.)

I find the bag of fresh clothes I'd stashed in the woods yesterday and gratefully change shoes and put on long pants, while drinking coffee and eating hash browns and bacon. Even as Kate prepares to throw down the last 50k of her race, I am mentally changing gears and getting ready to work aid-station magic.

Kate takes off into the woods to cheers and cowbells. She'll go on to finish in under 32 hours, taking 27 minutes off her PR. Here's her race report: 

She, Cary, and I meet up at the finish, 12 hours later. She is radiantly happy.

At the finish line, the speakers are blasting "Could Have Been Me," punctuated by announcements of incoming runners finishing their marathon, 50 miles, or 100 miles.

I wanna taste love and pain
Wanna feel pride and shame
I don't wanna take my time
Don't wanna waste one line
I wanna live better days
Never look back and say
Could have been me
It could have been me

In my mind, a fire is beginning to take hold.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Like a Freight Train: 2019 Afton 50K Race Report

I ran my third Afton 50K on Saturday. My PR there (6:38) was five years ago, and was a real high-water mark in my running career. Two years ago, I did it in 7:11, a run notable for a negative split and for having WAY more fun in the second half. This year, my training was pretty good (Chippewa 50k, 70 miles in 3 days at Western States Training Camp, most recently a back to back 18 mi/14 mi weekend), but I didn't think I had a new course PR in me. This was actually great news! It really took the pressure off. I had no time goal heading into the race, just the goal of having fun and enjoying the hell out of Afton, the entire way. As it turned out, I ran 7:17, stopping to help a sick runner along the way, had a grand time, finished strong, and accomplished every goal I had.
UMTR group picture, pre-race.
Photo: Fresh Tracks Media
After a brutal 3:15 am wake-up, three of us carpooled out, arriving early enough to get a coveted parking spot in Afton State Park, already a win. Check-in and pre-race was a blur of seeing trail friends, group pictures, squaring away a drop bag, almost forgetting to put on sunscreen. (Spoiler: Should have reapplied at the midpoint. I got a little rosy.) We lined up, John played Beastie Boys, I danced and laughed and any remaining nervousness fell away and never came back. Just like that, we were off.
Bob, Jon, and me, happy at the starting line.
Photo: John Stewart
By Afton standards, the weather was pretty moderate, with temperatures peaking around 81 degrees and lower humidity than sometimes. Nevertheless, when we climbed to the prairie around mile 2 and caught some breeze, it already felt good, and throughout the day, those unexpected little gusts of breeze were a life-saver on an otherwise sweaty course. I rolled through the first loop feeling good, trying to remember to eat as I went, high-fiving aid station volunteers, savoring the overcast early morning before the sun broke through.
Enjoying some early prairie miles.
Photo: Evan Roberts

Cranking on the rail-trail!
Photo: Fresh Tracks Media
By the time I finished the first 25K loop in 3:16 (just 12 minutes off my 25K PR! whatttt?), I was feeling a little tired, and definitely getting toasty. But hey, that's Afton. Dawn and the great aid station folks refilled my hydration pack, I replenished my snacks, and I headed out for loop 2. As I briefly ran with another runner heading out of the start/finish aid station, I commented, "Congratulations! We've done the hardest part of this race — starting the second loop!"
Finishing the first loop, waving to the photographer!
Photo: John Stewart
Although I was tired as I approached mile 20, I was pleased that I could still run nearly everything I'd run in the first loop — and on the downhills, always my strength, I was easily passing other runners. As the day warmed up, I started putting ice into my bladder at aid stations, and filled my buff with ice and put it around my neck. I left the aid stations feeling like I'd been packed in ice, and it was great. At about mile 23, near the bottom of a long, somewhat technical downhill, I passed a little group of three people. One had taken a fall and was reclined against a bank, looking dazed. The other two had stopped to help.
"Hi! I'm Robyn. What's your name?"
"... C," he mumbled softly. "What's your last name, C?" He mumbled his last name. Thank goodness for personalized race bibs. Okay, mildly confused, oriented times one.... "Hey, C, do you know what today's date is?" [long pause] "... no." "Do you know what this event is called?"
[long pause] "... no." I checked his pulse during this conversation. It was rapid and a bit thready — which might have been normal at mile 23, but the other runners told me he'd been sitting for at least 5 minutes at this point. I know the Afton race loop well, so it was easy to decide what to do next. "Okay! We're not too far from a gravel road where they can get a 4-wheeler. How do you feel about trying to walk out, C?" We stood him up, the runners who'd stopped each draped one of his arms over their shoulders and we started walking the rest of the descent, maybe 1/4 mile. God bless the running community — during this time, 10 or more runners had passed us, and every single one of them stopped and offered help in the form of ice, salt, water, food, and to run ahead to the aid station and send word that we needed a 4-wheeler. The runners who'd stopped had already sent word ahead to the next aid station, and someone with cell reception had called them as well. We didn't know it, but they were already mobilizing an EMT crew, as well as a 4-wheeler. I realized I hadn't introduced myself to the two heroic runners who had first stopped and were now walking him out. "By the way, I'm Robyn. I'm a doctor, but I'm a pathologist, but I also do race medic stuff. So, I can fix blisters and I can tell you why you died, but everything in between's a bit of a gray area." Despite this, we worked together to help troubleshoot; they'd started appropriate first aid before I even arrived. We reached the gravel rail-trail road and I thanked the runners profusely. They took off and I waited with C, helping him make phone calls to his family. In the next 10 minutes, help arrived in rapid succession: first, a hiker who brought food and company. Next, Mark, the nearest aid station captain, sprinting in with fresh ice. And finally, three 4-wheelers carrying John Storkamp and an EMT team. That's some awesome support. I gratefully handed C off to the EMTs. Shook hands with everyone who'd come to help. High-fived John. And took off. I didn't look at my watch during that interlude and wasn't using a GPS, but I'm guessing it was a 20-25 minute stop. However long it was, and whatever the reason, though, I felt unstoppable after that. I just got running again and suddenly, momentum was carrying me along for the whole remaining 8 miles. I rolled though the next aid station, where my friends volunteering had heard there'd been problems up-trail. "Hey, it's Dr. Reed! I hear you were delivering a baby out on the trail!" "Yes. That is exactly what I was doing. Well, okay, technically, Mark delivered the baby, but they named it after me."

The America-themed aid station (think lots of flags and bunting) sprang into action, packing me in ice and plying me with cold drinks, then kicking me out. I left at a run, yelling, "GOD BLESS AMERICA!" at them as they cheered me out. The next section started with a mile-plus of straight flat gravel rail-trail. Sometimes, this section can be the most mentally challenging of the course. This time, though? I cruised it, feeling like a freight train myself. Climbed the Meat Grinder, and rolled into the last aid station of the course.
Fresh Tracks Media makes us look more epic than we feel!
"Dr. Reed! How's it going?" "Aid Station 5! You are my FAVORITE aid station!" "Aw, I bet you said that to Aid Station 4, too." "No, I told them 'GOD BLESS AMERICA!' I love all my aid stations, but I love you the most." I grabbed more ice and a potato. 5k to the finish! On the last, humid, wooded leg of the course, I considered my time. I'd wondered, before stopping, if I could go sub-7 hours. Now, I was aiming for sub 7:30. Actually, I realized, it was going to be better than that. I kept passing runners as I climbed the final hill and started the final mile on the prairie. 7:20? Better yet — I hit the finish line after 7 hours and 17 minutes of worry free, joy-filled, purposeful time on the course.
Couldn't be happier at the finish!
Photo: Jamison Swift
Every race has stories. Every race has meaning. Every race has unexpected connections. This is one I'll remember for the welcome, unlooked-for sensation of strength deep into the race, for the lesson that I can run, and run strongly, even when I'm tired, for the relief that great medical support was so close to hand when we needed it, for the realization that after seven years of trail running, my trail family is family.

They're all good days, but this was a very, very good day.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Arrowhead 135: 2019 Volunteer Report


Arrowhead 135. A 135 mile point to point race by foot, bike, or ski on a snowmobile trail from International Falls to Tower, Minnesota. Deliberately scheduled for the coldest week of the year. Solitude, distance, survival. 

I’ve been talking about coming up to see it for years. It seems too insane to even exist. I had to see it for myself. Getting there is hard: (1) I-Falls is really far away, and (2) it runs Mon-Weds to avoid snowmobile traffic. But I've worked out my schedule. I've made the time. This is the year.

And what a year I've picked! A historic cold front is predicted to come in on Tuesday, plunging temperatures to -30F or colder, and wind chills into the -50s and -60s. As multi-time Arrowhead finisher and winner John Storkamp puts it, this year is "a good old-fashioned Arrowhead race."

Including, but not limited to

Sunday morning, I drive up, getting to International Falls in time for the 2:30 volunteer meeting. “Frostbite Falls” has lived up to its name with a vengeance, setting a new low temp record of -44F this morning. But by the time I roll in, it’s a balmy -5 and sunny, with views of Canada just across the Rainy River.

Runners have been checking in for the mandatory gear check. With only three checkpoints on the 135-mile course, and no outside help allowed, they must carry winter survival gear with them: a -20F sleeping bag, bivy sack, stove and fuel, and food, among other things.

Gear check! (photo: Bob Marsh)
I sign the volunteer waiver, certifying that I am aware that, by volunteering, I could meet my end in numerous colorful ways “...including, but not limited to the following dangers: hypothermia, frostbite, drowning, collision with pedestrians, vehicles, snowmobiles, wildlife, and other racers and fixed and moving objects, dangers arising from surface hazards, equipment failure, inadequate equipment, weather conditions, and animals and the possibility of serious physical and/or mental trauma and injury, including death, associated with winter athletic competition.”

I’ll be volunteering at the finish line, logging finishers, checking to see they’ve still got all their gear (pulled on a sled by the runners, in frame bags for bikers), and escorting them into the casino, where there’s a hospitality room. 

After a briefing from Ken the race director and Mike and Frank, the finish line captains, I sign up for two 6-hour shifts.

My car, just before leaving. The IKEA bag contains,
among other things, 4 different coats, 4 buffs,
2 pairs of boots, and an insulated, fleece lined skirt.

Do your part — Keep our finish rate low

photo: Bob Marsh

The pre-race meeting is in the community center auditorium. Ken, the race director, says, “This is forecast to be the coldest Arrowhead ever. It’s cold for us, and we live here.”

He emphasizes frostbite prevention, making good choices, and cooperation on the trail.

I enjoyed this entire slide, showing a cumulative 15 years
of finishing rates, but especially the last line.
 The auditorium’s filled with fit, nervous looking people. The chatter over the spaghetti dinner that follows is about gear, staying warm, and staying dry. In conditions like this, breaking a sweat is dangerous. Wet clothes lose heat fast, and wet skin freezes.

I catch up with a few friends who are running or riding this year, and meet a few more. It’s not the same crowd as at more temperate ultras, though there’s overlap. Winter ultras have their own unique subculture. Jamison and Lisa are here to volunteer, just weeks after directing their own winter ultra, the St. Croix 40. It's an event designed to help racers prepare for Arrowhead and similar long winter races, emphasizing survival skills such as bivying and using a stove in cold weather.

Race start

Race start, 7 am Monday morning, at a ball field in town. It’s -9 and snowing lightly. I drive in behind a line of fatbikes, the riders wearing the required reflective gear and blinking lights. Runners unload pulks (sleds) from their cars. It’s quiet and orderly, but there’s an unmistakable vibe of prerace excitement.

Prepping pulks, ready to run
My friend Kari, a ridiculously accomplished runner, is biking this year. She’s pumping up a tire that went flat on the ride over here — tire pressure is much lower with the 75-degree temperature drop between inside and outside.

I tell her what my fri
end Todd told me when I broke my elbow at mile 2 of Zumbro 17 one year: “We’ll, at least you’ve gotten that out of the way.” I give her a giant hug and wish her an amazing ride.

Fireworks, through a chilly camera
The bikes line up. Someone shoots off fireworks. They’re off!

The sky is just beginning to lighten as the skiers (all 4 of them) and kicksledders start, and then the runners.

Go bikers go!
As we spectators start walking back to our cars, John Storkamp (10 time Arrowhead finisher, 3 time winner) jogs up to the now-empty starting line, where his pulk is waiting. Everyone knows John. He grins and greets people as he gets ready to start the race, a few minutes late.

(43 hours later, he finishes in fourth place.)

 At 8:30, it’s -14, the sun is up, and I see sun dogs for the first time. It’s a beautiful morning.

See the rainbow?
Me at the start, warm and
happy (photo: Bob Marsh)
With the race started, I have no commitments for 17 hours. I get coffee with the fabulous Maranda, who has come up for the race start. I pack up my car, and decide to head to the first checkpoint, at mile 30 or so.

Gateway: Cold enough to snow

The Gateway checkpoint, at mile 35, is named for the Gateway General Store, a gas station and convenience store on a lonely stretch of Highway 53. In addition to coffee, candy and chips, they’ve got crockpots with six kinds of soup for sale, plus homemade pastries and cookies. Today, I learn, is their busiest day of the year.

When I arrive a bit after 10 am, six bikers have already come through, barely stopping to check in before blazing back onto the trail. I say hello to the checkpoint volunteers and admire the fully-loaded fatbikes leaning against the store wall, their owners warming up inside.
Riders in early morning sunlight (photo: Bob Marsh)

Russ, the on-the-ground race coordinator is here and recognizes me from last night’s meeting.

“Hey, Robyn, when do you have to be at the finish line?”

“Not till midnight.”

“Could you help out here for a few hours? I’m short a volunteer.”

Well, sure. I change into my boots, put on another buff, and don a reflective vest.

We’re standing outside the store, checking racers in and out. We spot their race number (on their body and bike) and record their time in. Then — the tricky part — record when they head out. At this hour, it’s all bikers — the runners and skiers won’t be here for a few hours. Some barely stop (especially the small group of people in the “unsupported” category, who can’t go inside or accept any outside help, not even water), but some are in Gateway for an hour, drying off, getting ready for the next, 35 mile leg.

It’s warmed up to about 5 degrees and, defying the forecast, it’s snowing lightly to moderately. I joke with volunteer Mark that maybe the snow will keep things warmer. He says, “Yup. Up here, there’s two kinds of winter weather: cold enough to snow, and too cold to snow. We prefer ‘cold enough to snow.’”

Bikers are rolling in steadily now, most wearing masks or face coverings. There are epic frost beards and snotcicles. The biggest difficulty seems to be moisture management — it’s really tricky to dress so you don’t sweat out there, and the snow is complicating things further. Still, this is the front half of the pack, and, aside from a few people dropping early, they look pretty good.
Kari and another rider, coming
into Gateway (Bob Marsh)
Even if it’s as warm as it’ll be for the duration of the race (and it is), it’s cold standing still on the side of the road. After an hour, I break out my chemical handwarmers and footwarmers. I got some notable frostbite last winter on my toes and have no wish for a repeat. Between that and a few cups of hot delicious salty Gateway soup, I’m good for the next few hours.

At 2 pm, the next shift of volunteers arrives and I’m done. I thank them and the folks I’ve been working with, and head out for something I’ve been looking forward to, getting onto the trail myself.

Arrowhead solitaire

Another hour or so down the road, the Arrowhead Trail crosses the Orr-Buyck road. Jason has recommended it as a nice section to run. I find the crossing a few miles back from highway 53, park, and lace up my trail shoes.

Strained sunshine in a winter sky
It’s 3 pm, 4 degrees, and still snowing. The trail’s been packed by snowmobiles, but there are no footprints or tire tracks I can see. My feet crunch in the slightly soft snow as more filters from the sky.

So much solitude
It’s very quiet here. At one point, I startle a bird — grouse? — and it flaps away indignantly. That’s the only life I see on my outbound few miles. 
I crest another short, steep rolling hill and turn around after 30 minutes or so, following my footsteps back. Two bike racers pass me, pedaling steadily on the snow, and disappear around a bend.

After a burger at a snowmobiler bar, I reach the finish line, at the Fortune Bay Casino and Resort in Tower, MN. The finish line is a canvas tent in the back, heated with a portable wood stove. I can see smoke pouring from the chimney and blowing sideways as I sort my gear in my hotel room. I manage a few hours’ sleep before my first shift there begins at midnight.

Finish line, Monday night

It’s 11:50 pm Monday night, I’m wearing crazy winter gear, and I’m trying to find the door leading out to the finish line. Eventually, Lisa, who’s returning from her shift, points me out the correct door and over the correct snowbank, and I’m sweaty but there. It’s -6F and cooling off fast.

Finisher's-eye view
Inside the tent, it’s at least 50 degrees warmer, even beside the door, and everyone’s shed a few layers. 

Paul and I are the new kids on shift, and Frank, one of the finish line captains, gets us up to speed on our duties. As racers arrive, we record their number and time, then help them get a finish line photo if they want one. We escort them into the casino through a utility corridor where they can leave their bike or sled, and conduct a gear check, making sure they still have the required -20 sleeping bag, bivy sack, stove and fuel, lights, reflectors, and 3000 calories of food. (Frank: “I’m usually ‘Minnesota nice’ about the gear check, and ask but don’t make them show everything. But if it’s someone who’s first in their division, then really look.” Other finish line captain Mike: “Or if they give you any attitude.”) We then escort them up to the hospitality room, where heat, food, and company awaits, and hand off their timing sheet to the volunteers there.

Warm inside the stove-heated tent!
Eventually, a headlamp winks from around a curve in the trail, and we put it into action. A biker — the seventh — climbs the final hill. We all pile out of the tent, throwing on hats and gloves, and ring cowbells, yell encouragement, and check our watches as he rolls to a stop at the tent. 

I snap a photo (“look epic!”) and walk him inside.

Congratulations, Chuck!
About 15 riders finish between midnight and 6 am. Most look happy, and a number of them tell me how much fun they had. The packed snow and cold temperatures made for fast riding — in fact, the first place finisher, Jordan Wakely, shattered the course record by 90 minutes, lowering it to an impossible 11 hours, 43 minutes.

More than one says, “Great course for bikes, but those runners... wow, I just don’t know.”

In between arriving racers, we follow their progress on the SPOT tracker (which about half the racers are using), peek out the tent door to check for incoming lights, and tell stories about winter camping, Scouting, kids, and work. The tent is cozy and there’s wi-fi from the casino. It's a surreal little island of civilization in a savagely cold night. Every time we step outside, it’s colder and windier, and when I remove a mitten to record a rider’s number, my hand rapidly becomes painful, then numb. You can feel the wind tearing away body heat. By 6 am, it’s -19F, which is also the predicted high temperature for the day.

Don’t believe the hype. There was MOST CERTAINLY wind chill.
The hall where riders are leaving bikes is filling up with frosty, still-laden bikes.
Some incredible rigs!

Moments from first volunteering shift:

PAUL [returning to the tent]: "That guy I just took in? He's an admiral in the Navy!"
FRANK: "What? Retired?"

PAUL: "No! Active service! Oversees a fleet of 82 ships!"
ME: "How on EARTH did he train for this?"
PAUL: "Well, he did mention he was kind of undertrained..."

Multiple conversations about winter gear, because that's what you talk about at a winter ultra.
ME: "Mike, are those Steger mukluks?" [Steger is a well known and well regarded mukluk maker — or so I thought! — in nearby Ely, MN]

MIKE: "Are you kidding? These aren't mall-walker mukluks! They're from Empire." [proceeds to extol the virtues of the guy in Duluth who makes 10 pairs of muks a year and has a waiting list]

ME: “I’ll get a finish line pic for you. Turn off your headlamp.”
BIKER [struggles with frozen headlamp for a full 90 seconds, failing to turn it off]

ME: “Never mind. I’ll do a profile shot. It’s more epic that way anyway.”

Congratulations, David! You do look epic.
[Three bikers roll in, right in a row, and start exchanging hugs]
FRANK: “Do you all want to be recorded as finishing together?”
THEM: “Oh yes.”

Congratulations, Jere and Leah!
In the elevator, I make a belated realization. “Hey!” I exclaim to Leah. “You’re first woman!” We all cheer there and then, and she gets properly congratulated when we get to the hospitality room.

A few minutes before 6 am, the next shift shows up. 28 riders have finished. We show the new volunteers what we’ve been doing, shake hands, and head back to the casino for some downtime. I’ll be back in in 6 hours, at noon, so I’m focused on getting some sleep and eating. I pull the curtains in my room and crash hard.

Finish line, Tuesday afternoon

A few hours' nap, a shower, and a square meal later, and I'm on my way back to the finish line.

I run into dropped runners and riders as I walk through the casino. Sveta Vold is there — I'd embarrassed both of us yesterday at Gateway when I said, "You
're Sveta? Wow! I'm a huge fan of yours!" Now, I start to tell her that I'm sorry she's dropped, and she waves off my concern. "It's okay. I'm not bothered by it. It was the right thing."

Alex and Jared have dropped from the foot division. They've both completed this race before in some tough conditions. Alex tells me, "We just couldn't stay dry. All our baselayers were soaked. And when we changed, everything wet just flash-froze. It wasn't safe to keep going." She's matter-of-fact about it. There's no question it was the right call.

Alex on the trail (photo: Bob Marsh)
Jared adds, "We knew from the forecast that it was going to just get colder and colder, and that made it easy. There wasn't that possibility that conditions would improve, that might make you want to keep going."

We're now 29 hours into the race. After a comparatively torrid stream of bikers (15!) in my last shift, only seven more have arrived in the previous 6 hours.

There are about 11 bikers still on the course. The DNF (Did Not Finish) rate for the bikers is hovering around 50%. Dozens of runners have dropped, though 13 will eventually finish (an 80% DNF rate). We expect the first runners to arrive some time after dark tonight, 36 hours or more after they've started. All but one kicksledder has also dropped (he'll eventually DNF too). All 4 skiers have dropped, including a few incredibly strong ones — the snow's so cold that skis don't glide.

Our volunteer complement for the noon-to-6 shift is me, my friend Bob, and Eliza and Megan, two young outdoor guides from Ely. We learn that they work with a dogsledding outfit, and spend their days guiding, winter camping, and skiing with the dogs.

nsurprisingly, they're well prepared for the current weather (now -20, dropping fast, and quite windy), and we all stand around outside for a while enjoying the weird conditions (how can it snow when it's -20?!) and filtered hazy sunlight. It's probably 60 or 70 degrees warmer in the tent and transitioning back and forth is a shock.

The stream of incoming riders has slowed, but now that it's daytime, friends and family are coming by to wait for their riders to finish. Ashley and Grant show up, waiting for multi-time finisher Marcus Berggren to come in on the bike. They're both previous Arrowhead finishers themselves, on foot, but dropped from this year's race. We have a convivial time standing around the tent with our coats off, eating cookies one of the volunteers brought, talking about races, camping, trails, and good times.

Frank stops by to thank all of us. He says, "This has been the best year ever as a volunteer, because we've had so many people helping out. Thank you, all of you."

Every few minutes, we unzip the canvas door a few inches and peek out of the tent so we can see riders approaching. When we spot one, we all throw on layers, run out, and start ringing cowbells and banging pots and yelling.

The riders are icy, masked, grinning fiercely, proud to be done.

There's a lull. A Fortune Bay publicist stops by, takes pictures of us outside by the tent, does an interview. We're all bemused.

The talk turns to gear again, and Megan and Eliza put on a winter-footwear clinic for us. We get a demo of their favorite socks and boot-liners, mukluks ("yeah, these are Stegers, I wouldn't wear them for anything serious, but I got them at the Ely Goodwill for $20"), and overboots. I learn more about how to keep my feet warm in truly Arctic conditions than I ever have before.

As the wind whistles in the tent door, I spot a bike coming up the trail. As Phil finishes, a second bike appears — Marcus! We stand outside, with our backs to the wind, and make noise as the two of them finish.

Marcus stops at the finish line, digs in his pack, and pulls out a Swedish flag. Ashley laughs. "You've been carrying that for a long time!" He poses with the wind whipping the flag, then we head inside.

Marcus holds the course record for fastest Arrowhead on foot. As we go inside he comments, "Every time I do this on the bike, I cannot imagine doing it on foot. And I say that as someone who's *done* it on foot, multiple times!"

Let's do it again

It's 3 pm. I look at the race tracker pages, talk to Frank, who's in the hospitality room, and come to a realization: There are no bikers still on course who have yet left the 110 mile checkpoint — no way they'll be here in under 3 hours. The first runners won't be in till after 6 either. There will be no finishers for the rest of this shift.

With Frank's encouragement, I return to the tent and suggest that 2 or 3 of the 4 volunteers could leave. Megan and Eliza tell me they were planning to be here till 6 anyway, and they live less than an hour away. Bob's ready to go inside; his feet are cold and he'll be here for another day and more volunteer shifts. Me, I'm working tomorrow, back in Minneapolis. I gratefully take the chance to start driving back in the daylight instead of after dark.

I shake hands with everyone in the tent. Stop off at the hospitality room to pick up my luggage and say goodbye to the volunteers. Make sure Megan and Eliza get their race shirts and swag bags.
Frank thanks me for coming. I tell him, "It was an incredible experience. Let's do it again soon."

I carry my bags out into the whipping snow and rising wind. My car sounds offended as it starts.
I think of the runners and riders still on the course in the early twilight — the first won't finish for several more hours, and the last won't finish till this time tomorrow.

I point my car south. And I begin the trip back home.


I came to Arrowhead because I knew that experiencing it, even as a volunteer on the edge of the activity, would tell me more than I could ever learn by reading or listening. I came because the first time I volunteered at an overnight aid station, at Superior in 2014, it genuinely changed my life. Curiosity brought me, and a desire to go deeper.

What I brought from it was a renewed sense of community. Volunteers who, though they've never run or biked the course, come back and stand in the cold for days, year after year. Riders and runners finishing the race for their fourth, or sixth, or tenth time. Veterans welcoming newcomers. Racers helping each other in ways you'd never need, or see, on a more conventional course.

It's a special world, with its own remote, fierce beauty. I'm glad and grateful that I witnessed it. I'll be back.
Prerace excitement with Kari and Dawn (Bob Marsh)