Friday, September 15, 2017

The Happiest Place on Earth: Fall Superior 2017 Volunteering and Pacing Report

It's September, and the Big Dance of Minnesota trail running, Fall Superior 100, 50, and 26.2, has come and gone. Once again, I was there to volunteer and pace. I wouldn't miss this one for anything. Sit back and enjoy some stories from 30 hours at Superior.

Getting to Finland

There are Car Logistics, so I drop my car at the (not yet set up) Sugarloaf aid station and walk the 1+ mile down the gravel road to Highway 61 so Samantha can pick me up and give me a ride to Finland, where we're both working. I bring along early dinner.

The next day, someone asks me, "Did I see you standing on the side of Highway 61 last night, eating a giant salad?"
"Yes. Yes, you did."

Jump around

Mile 51 aid station is at Finland Recreation Center, and it's jumping. Dawn is running a great aid station. The first dozen runners have come through and more are trickling in, but lots of crew members and pacers are already hanging out, the food's hot, and the music is playing.
Samantha: "You know what the difference
between ultrarunners and normal people is?
When 'Jump Around' comes on, normal
people jump around for, like, 15 seconds.
Ultrarunners jump around FOR THE WHOLE SONG."
A runner's mom comes over and asks Joy, Chalayne, and I whether one of us is a medical person. Without copping to the fact that we are, respectively, a nurse, an EMT, and a doctor, I ask, "What for?"
"My son is trying to decide whether to drop."
Joy: "If he has to ask, the answer is no."

Joy and I eventually 'fess up to being medical and go over to talk to the runner. We agree that he looks WAY too good to drop, even if he is throwing up.
ME: "Hey, Eric Nordgren once finished a 100 without eating anything for the last 40 miles."
HIM: "I know Eric. And, yeah, but once it took him 8 hours to get through Manitou Gorge and he dropped at mile 75."
ME: "Curses! Your logic is too strong for me. But now it's time for you to leave."
HIM: [gets up and leaves the aid station to continue his race]

We're handing out hot hashbrowns, quesadillas, and bacon. The temperature's dropping on its way to the high 30s and we're putting on more layers. Someone lights the bonfire and turns on the strings of lights as the sun sets.
Credit: Fall Superior Races
Lots of friends are coming through. Susan is running her 100th 100 miler today. She's characteristically focused as she throws down three cups of hashbrowns, and acknowledges my congratulations with a little smile. Bekah is looking a little wide-eyed but overall great in her first 100 miler. Andrea's running her first 100 too, and Samantha is ready to pace her when she comes in a bit before 10 pm. It's busy and exciting. 

Pacing: Finland to Crosby-Manitou (11.6 miles)

I'm pacing Joel and Kyle from here to Sugarloaf, mile 72. They've sent me a spreadsheet with their expected times in and out of each aid station, indexed to their splits from 2015, when they last ran the race. It's a model of precision and prediction. They arrive only 45 minutes after their best-case time.

Joel has told me he doesn't want to waste time at Finland. As soon as I hear they've arrived, I rip off my outer layers, change shoes, shoulder my pack, and bound over to where they've sat down (wisely, nowhere near the fire). "YOUR PACER IS READY! LET'S ROLL!"

(It's possible I've had a few cups of coffee.)

I ferry bacon, soup, and coffee to them. Jeff will also be pacing the next few sections. After only a small amount of fussing with technology, food, shoes, and lube, we're on our way across the soccer field and into the woods.

It's 11 pm. Finland to Sonju is 7.4 miles and we're power-hiking at a good clip. Quickly, we warm back up and are shedding hats and jackets, despite the cool temperatures.

The trail is pretty dry, the sky's clear, and the waning, three-quarters moon has risen. When I step off the trail to pee and turn off my headlamp, everything is outlined in dappled silver shadows.

Sound carries differently in the dense woods. Everything sounds very close and intimate. Conversation is easy among the four of us as we walk single-file.

 In the dark, we can't see how long the hills are or how steeply they climb. We're in a little bubble of light, specks of warmth moving through the night.

We reach Sonju in a little under two hours. It's a "minor" aid station, with no crew access, and in the past it's been a quiet, mellow place.

 This year, however, Maria is captaining Sonju and she's not one for doing things halfway. The theme is "Woodstock," and there's music, decoration, and costumes. Oh, my, the costumes.
Travis, who I paced last year, is there:
"Where'd you get the wig?"
"What wig?"
We laugh about how much better we're both feeling at Sonju this year. Last year we made a long stop here, in the rain, trying to get Travis's mojo back. This year, Joel and Kyle are hours ahead of where Travis had been, and we're all feeling great.

We reload on coffee and bacon (seriously, my runners were POWERED by bacon) and we're off again, this time just a 4.2 mile segment to Crosby-Manitou. Our stop has gotten us chilly and it's harder to warm back up. My hands are freezing and I pull my buff back on.

We're still power hiking, and we're still booking just-over-20-min miles. Solid for the middle of the night and ahead of the spreadsheet projections. Conversation meanders. Joel and I have a lengthy, likely-tedious-to-everyone-around-us discussion about Christian theology. I recite poetry and make bad jokes.

Right around 3 a.m. and we're arriving at Crosby-Manitou. The last half-mile is up a gravel road and we've got our first clear views of the night sky in a while. The moon is high and washing out the Milky Way, but thousands of stars still hang high above us. We spot Orion on the horizon, and Cassiopeia overhead, and collectively bemoan our lack of constellation knowledge.

100 yards out from the aid station and I hear Matt, the aid station captain, booming, "Welcome to Crosby-Manitou, fueled by Peet's coffee!!!" He's clearly been sampling his own wares -- it might be 3 in the morning, but he's WIRED.

We've planned a longer stop here. Joel and Kyle plunk into chairs by the fire and surround themselves with an explosion of drop-bag crap -- electronics, charging cables, batteries, food, socks, I don't even know what some of it is.

I've brought them coffee and bacon, eaten some fried potatoes and bananas, and I'm getting antsy. Matt and I sing along to "Lawyers, Guns, and Money." I joke around with other runners and pacers. I stage a one-person dance party to "Gangnam Style." Finally, I tell my runners, "Let's roll." Eventually, we do.

Crosby-Manitou to Sugarloaf, 9.4 miles 

At 3:20, we head into the Manitou Gorge. It's 9.4 miles that includes some of the gnarliest terrain of the course. The spreadsheet says it'll take 4 hours.

The spreadsheet's pretty good. It takes right around 4:05.

 The trail makes a bouldery descent and crosses the Manitou River in the first half-mile, and then we begin a long, steep climb out. This is the part everyone talks about, so I'm prepared for the preposterously steep, bouldery trail and its multiple false summits. Pumped on coffee and Zevon, I exclaim, "We're doing this thing!" Joel, Kyle, and Jeff agree that we are, in fact, doing this thing. We're in great spirits.

What people forget to mention about this section is that after you've climbed out of the gorge, you've still got 6+ miles of trail ahead of you. It's long, but we're buoyed by being through the hard part, and by the prospect of sunrise in an hour or so.

At the top of a ridge, we pass a runner who's off the side of the trail, sitting on a boulder. 
"Come along with us!"
"No, I'm going to rest a little here. But would you tell my wife that I'm still coming, just much slower than I thought?"
We get his name (John), his number (49), his wife's name (Angel), and promise we'll look for her at Sugarloaf.

Race cut-off is 38 hours. A 100 mile runner finishes at 37:59, to thunderous applause and cheering.
10 minutes later, he finds me.
HIM: "You probably don't remember, but you passed me in the Crosby-Manitou section."
ME: "John! Number 49! We tried to find Angel!"
HIM: "Here she is!" [I shake hands with his beaming wife.]
HIM: "I spent SIX HOURS in that section. Got into Sugarloaf and told Angel I wanted to drop. She wouldn't let me."
ANGEL: "He finished and said, 'Can you believe I wanted to drop?!'"
HIM: "I finished! My first 100! In 37 hours, 59 minutes!"
ME: "This is the awesomest thing I have heard ALL DAY."]

The sky lightens, the stars fade, the sun rises. The mud is deep and wet in this section. We're hopping from log to rock to board to avoid it.
ME: "This is like playing 'The Floor Is Lava!' Woohoo!"

Eventually, we hit an unavoidable mudpit, and we're all in shin or knee-deep mud. So it goes.

After a long time in woods and upland bogs, we cross the final stream, climb gently, and up ahead we hear the unmistakable sounds of Sugarloaf aid station. It's 7:30 a.m., the air is growing warm, and the night is over.

My pacing section is done. I'm sending them off with a fresh pacer, Kelli, but first, Joel wants bacon. Of course. I raid the table and return with good news and bad news.

ME: "Joel, they're making more but there was only one piece. The good news is, it's huge!" [I brandish a giant piece of bacon.]
JOEL: "This looks great. Now, I need about four more like this one."
ME: "Did you hear literally anything I just said?"

They take off with their new pacer. I peel off my mud-crusted gaiters, shoes, and socks and enjoy the sensation of dry feet while eating a few aid station burgers with bacon.
Kyle (front) and Joel, crushing it in daylight.
Credit: Zach Pierce

Sugarloaf Volunteering

Joe and Jan are running the aid station again, and as usual it's a well-organized, well-staffed, laid-back oasis in the woods. This is my fourth year at Sugarloaf, and every year it gets another accoutrement or two: this year, there's an actual porta-potty! How civilized!

I chase my bacon burgers with a cup of coffee and I'm ready for some aid-station action. I butcher a watermelon, fill runners' water bottles, chat with crew and pacers who await their runners.

A cure for nausea

Scott comes in. He's in pretty good spirits, a little queasy but otherwise feeling great. Last year he'd come in right at the cutoff and with a bad ankle sprain, so this is great. His crew sprays him down with sunblock as he sits down for a short rest.

 I bring him a ginger candy.
ME: "This is good for nausea. Just tuck it into your cheek and let it dissolve."
HIM: "Thanks." [sticks the wrapper in his vest]
ME: "Hey, I can throw that away. Do you have other trash you need to get rid of?"
HIM: "Actually, yeah. I've been picking up trash along the trail."

He begins pulling trash out of his vest pocket: a gel wrapper, a piece of foil, and then... a ziplock sandwich bag with some dried green leaves in it.

ME: "What's that?"
HIM: "No idea. It's not mine, I picked it up off the trail."
[My friend Jim, waiting for his runner, has joined us.]
JIM: "It looks like... weed."
ME [starting to giggle]: "Uh, yeah, it actually does."
SCOTT [also laughing]: "I've never smoked pot. Is this what they call a dime bag?" [He holds it up in the air and looks around.] "Ten bucks! Anyone?"
 JIM: "You totally picked up someone's stash!"
ME: "I'm gonna throw it away. It's probably crappy weed anyway. Though, hey, it might be good for your nausea!"
[I take the bag and the rest of Scott's trash and throw them in the trash bag.]
JIM: "Are you sure you actually threw it away?"
[We all giggle like little kids. Other people are giving us weird looks.]

Scott heads out, in good spirits. 

Duct tape and determination

Jim waves me over. Angela has just come into the aid station and needs some advice.

Angela is one of the "Gnarly Bandits," a group of runners attempting to run a series of 4 100-mile Upper Midwest races and a 100k, all in one season. I'm the series director this year. I know that Angela did the Gnarly Bandit two years ago (and then ran a 150 mile trail race a few weeks after completing it). Her sweet, smiling, petite, blonde appearance masks the legs of an endurance athlete, the heart of a champion, and the determination of a crazed badger.

She's fallen somewhere in the last section and slammed her dominant right hand on a rock. "It's a little swollen," she says. 

It is indeed swollen, and painful to move or manipulate. Her question is not "Is it broken?" It isn't "Should I drop?" No, this is Angela. Her question to me is, "Can I wait till Monday to get this looked at?"

 I could examine her hand further to get a sense of whether this is a bruise, a sprain, or a fracture. But as I think about it, this doesn't seem like the most important issue at the moment.

"Let's just talk about getting through the race for now. The worst-case scenario is that something is broken," I tell her. She nods. "If it's a simple fracture, then yeah, you can wait till after the race to get it looked at. But the worst-case scenario for a fracture is that it's damaged the blood supply to your hand. If that's the case, you need to stop right away, 'cause not finishing is sad, but gangrene is much worse."

 I examine her hand. Her fingertips are pink, warm, and have rapid capillary refill. She's got normal sensation in them. She can move her fingers and thumb, though it's painful to do so.

"Right now, it looks like you've got good circulation to your hand. I want you to check your fingers at every aid station. If they start to get blue, or cold, or numb, you need to stop and go to the emergency room." She agrees. (I think I use the phrase "or your fingers might turn black and fall off" at some point in this discussion.)

We decide to gently wrap her hand, both to protect it and to remind her not to try to use it. We roll up one of her buffs and put it in her hand. Another runner has an Ace bandage and brings it over, and I gently wrap it around her hand and wrist.

I realize I don't have safety pins handy and I've cut off the velcro edge. But just then, someone brings up a roll of duct tape. Perfect! We tear off a couple of long strips and secure the Ace wrap.
I didn't get a picture, but Zach Pierce did at Temperance
 "Try not to fall on it if you can," I tell her, unnecessarily. "When I broke my elbow at Zumbro, I think I re-fractured it going down Ant Hill and it hurt just as much as the first time." Angela shudders in sympathy (but she's still smiling as I'm taping her up, and asking how other runners are doing).

She's ready to get moving, and takes off as soon as I give the all-clear.

Rick is crewing for Lisa, who hasn't arrived yet. During this interlude, he's disappeared off to his car and returned in running gear. "I'll pace her for a little ways," he tells me, and takes off after her. 

12-plus hours later, Angela finishes the Superior 100, 15 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Her hand's still duct-taped together, still hurts, but she's beaming.

On Monday, she confirms that, yeah, it's broken.

Just a flesh wound

A woman running the 50 mile comes in, covered in mud and with blood running down her face from an abrasion at her temple.
"Would you like me to clean up that head wound?"
She's busy filling her water bottle and barely looks up. "No thanks."
"Did you lose consciousness when you fell?"
She's out of the aid station 
before I can ask any more tricky questions. 

Skin deep

My friend Kevin comes in, maybe an hour ahead of cutoff. He's been fighting injuries all season and went into the race undertrained but hopeful. But the Manitou Gorge has taken a lot out of him and his feet feel terrible. He's looking pretty demoralized.
Luckily, his wife Lisa is there and she is the greatest force for positivity that I know. She and I gang up on him.
"Kevin, you look awesome! And you got a new tattoo! It looks just like mud splatters but I can tell." He smiles wanly and drops into a chair.

We cautiously peel away his mud-soaked gaiters, shoes, and socks. His feet are white and streaked with mud. "I think I want to wash my feet," he says.
Lisa brings a towel and a pitcher of water. He pours, then realizes he's so stiff he can barely reach them.
What the hell, my hands are dirty anyway. I help out. Lisa gets out her camera, which strikes me as incredibly funny, and the moment is immortalized:
Not the worst feet I saw that weekend.
"Your feet are macerated, but the skin's intact. Your problem is literally skin-deep," I tell him.

I let Lisa manage putting socks back on, telling her, "I'm cool washing nasty feet, but my personal idea of hell is putting toe socks onto wet ultrarunner feet."
He eats and sits a bit longer. When I come back by, he's in dry socks and good spirits. Shortly afterward, he gets up and continues. 

Sparring with the master 

Jim, Ron, and Rick have been hanging out at Sugarloaf for hours, waiting for Lisa. She's been having a tough time overnight, fighting cutoffs, and they're a little worried. She's someone who has given so much to the trail community, working medical support, pacing, crewing, and volunteering, and we all want to see her have a good race for herself.

Lisa makes it in, less than an hour ahead of the cutoff. She's tired, demoralized, slumped in a chair, and announcing that she wants to drop.

Jim, Ron, and I prepare the full-court press.
HER: "I couldn't eat anything for 20 miles. I only just started feeling better."
ME: "That's awesome! You're eating again!"
HER: "My legs are shot. I want to stop."
ME: "They're going to feel so much better now that you can feed them!"
HER: "That last section was REALLY HARD."
ME: "Yep, that was the hardest section, and now it's done! No other section has as much vertical gain as what you just did!"
HER: "Bullshit. Carlton Peak? Moose and Mystery Mountain?"

I step away, laughing, to confer with her crew. "You guys," I say, "you know the problem here? It's that fully half the lies that I tell ultrarunners, I learned from Lisa. She's the MASTER."

JIM [to ME]: "Try and get her to laugh."
ME: "Lisa, you wouldn't believe the stuff going on at this aid station. One of the guys filling water bottles suggested using Coke to clean out wounds!" (True!)
LISA (chuckles): "That's a TERRIBLE idea!"
ME: "And then Scott brought in someone's pot stash off the trail!" (We all laugh at that one.)

 Ron and Jim are fixing her shoes, helping her change out of tights, filling her pack. I'm still working on her.

"Hey, I'll make you my super-special snack I only make for runners I really, really like: a peanut-butter banana."
"I'm allergic to peanut butter." 
"Lisa, you're killing me."

"This is just temporary pain, like childbirth. You got through that, you can do this."
"Robyn, I had short, painless, precipitous labor with both my kids."
"Lisa, I hate you for that, but I love you anyway. Now get going."

(At some point in the morning, I overhear an aid station worker saying, "Everyone has a super power. Robyn's is pep talks.")

Grudgingly, she gets up and shoulders her pack. I turn around to help someone else, and when I look back, she and Ron are gone, down the trail.

Troubleshooting 101 

Andrea's in the aid station and has a case of what Marcus calls "Superior shin" -- her anterior tibial tendons are angry and inflamed, and every step is painful. But she's come 72 miles and she's not ready to quit.

"When I stop and stretch it, it feels better for a little while. And I can run a few steps at a time before I have to walk!" Dang, there's no quit in this one. Even though you can see how painful it is, I want to help her. We loosen her laces. Her crew rubs Bio-Freeze on her shins. We talk about rolling a cold can of soda over the tendon, we talk about icing it, we talk about using hiking poles. Eventually, she gets up and heads off, because never mind the pain, she wants to keep going.
Allan is in with 30 minutes to spare. A shoe had catastrophically failed 20 miles ago so he's in his backup pair, and they're rubbing his ankles. Luckily, he's got a plan.

"Take some duct tape, would you, and fold it over and over again to make a pad about /this/ big and three-eighths inch thick. I'm going to put it under the heel of my insole."

We banter about how much better he looks than last year, when he barely made it out of the aid station. He doesn't need much else -- he makes his own homemade energy gel, he's got a laminated pace chart rubber-banded to his vest, he's self-reliant. He's in great spirits and his eyes are twinkling.

"Al, what's your line of work?" I ask him.
"Before I retired, I was an engineer," he answers.
"Let me tell you, that surprises me NOT AT ALL," I laugh. "That was my first, second, and third guess."

As the cutoff time approaches, then passes, we get a couple of runners who are ready to drop with injuries and, in one case, peeing blood. We pack up the aid station, waiting for one last friend, Kevin C. His crew, Elizabeth, and I bemoan his missing the cutoff. "Now I can't use all my motivational lines on him! Dammit, Angela kept going after I literally TAPED HER ARM BACK ON!"

Kevin C. rolls in over an hour past cutoff, relieved to be done. He's gotten remarkably far on almost no training as a full-time student and part-time worker. He's tired, but we laugh a little about how he'd rather have been working at Sugarloaf like he did two years ago. The trail sweeps are with him, and with their arrival, Sugarloaf is finished for another year. It's time for a hot shower, a square meal, a nap, and some fellowship and joy at the finish line.

The happiest place on Earth

A short drive, a shower, and a square meal later, I'm at the Superior finish line. As night falls, the crowd, hundreds strong, bursts into cheers and cowbell ringing as headlamps appear heading into the finish line. A bonfire burns, music thumps, there are dogs and kids and spouses and runners all in various states of jubilation and fatigue. Runners sprint, dance, jog, and groove their way across the finish line, their exhaustion forgotten for the moment.

I've come to recognize that when something stirs strong emotions, it's worth paying attention to what it is, and why. The Fall Superior finish line is like that for me. It's a palpable feeling of achievement, of months or years of dreaming, of mud-bound painful lows and soaring highs.

Massive credit to all who undertake this journey -- runners, crew, pacers, volunteers. You all join together to make the magic happen. And for a few hours every year, there's no happier place on earth than the Superior finish line.

See you next year.
Photo: John Storkamp