Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dad's Video Tribute

I Remember...

I remember our fishing vacations in Park Falls, stumbling out of bed and into the camper on the back of the pickup in what seemed like the middle of the night, us kids still in our jammies, driving for what seemed like forever.


I remember spending one vacation day tooling around the lake on a pontoon boat, and even though the cruise was a break from fishing, Dad still brought his pole and kept his eyes peeled for any swirl in the water that could signal a musky working nearby.


I remember fishing for pan fish with Dad, and him reminding me over and over again not to rest my pole on the edge of the boat, so I could feel the fish bite.


I remember swimming in the lake at our house, and the days I would talk Dad into throwing us into the air as high as he could so we could splash back to the water, over and over and over again.


I remember the early mornings, riding with Dad in the truck, headed out to work on the farm, Dad chewing toothpick after toothpick down to splinters, and pouring coffee into the cup of his Thermos while bouncing down the country roads without ever spilling a drop.


I remember the hours I spent on the lawnmower, including the day I ran over the flag pole, completely flattening it to the ground. But, I don’t remember Dad being mad about it.


I remember the football games, and the baseball games, and the wrestling meets, with Dad cheering loudly from the stands. And, he’s still been there as I’ve gotten older, at Ironman and ultra-marathons, “high-fiving“, cowbell ringing, and overflowing with pride at the finish line.


I remember deciding to go to the University of Iowa, in my family full of Iowa State Cyclones, but I don’t remember Dad ever trying to talk me out of it.


I remember Dad coming to help me move once in college, even though I hadn’t asked for help.


I remember Dad teaching me the importance of a firm handshake, but I also remember when Dad stopped shaking my hand, and started giving me a hug.


I remember when Dad began ending our phone calls with the words, “I love you.”


I remember Dad teaching me to always give 110%, to leave it all on the field, and to hold my head high, win or lose.


I remember learning from Dad, by example, how to work hard, and how to stand up for what you believe.


You see, I remember my Dad teaching me…how to be a Dad.


David Clark Emmert

Love, Honor and Pride

Husband, Dad and Papa

December 4, 1937 - October 25, 2008

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

We Think We'll Keep Her ;-)




You'd think Derek has been holding babies his whole life. And of course, there's no doubt Grandma's had some practice :-)

Welcome to the Family! She's Perfect!

We would like you all to meet the newest member of our family.

Darcie Ann Emmert
September 2nd, 2008, 10:35 am
8 lb., 20.5 in.
APGAR score a perfect 10!

She can't wait to meet you!

Jenni and Darcie are both doing great!

Wow!




She's Beautiful!!!

Everyone is wonderful!!!

Getting There

We're ready to push!

Moving Along

Jenni is dilated 8 cm now. I guess she starts pushing once she gets to 10 cm.

Epidural Is In

The epidural is in, which apparently went fine. They made me leave the room for that. I headed to the cafeteria, of course.

Contractions Getting Stronger

The contractions are definitely getting more intense now, which they said would happen after breaking the water. We'll probably start the epidural soon.

Water Broken

The doctor just arrived and she just broke the water to get things moving along a bit more quickly and naturally. That went very well, nice clear fluid. They said she had a nice thick water bag which protected the baby very well. She is dilated about 4 cm. They said the baby looks very good on the monitor.

So, stuff is oozing, now. I guess in this game, oozing is progress.

The Pain Scale


I think they should have a chart like this at the aid stations in some of my races.

I remember when Jenni was in labor with Derek and the contractions started to get pretty uncomfortable, they asked her where she was on the scale. She said something like "4". I looked at the chart and looked at her, and said, "your face doesn't look like that". I think she has a pretty high threshold for pain.

If men had to go through labor, I think the species would have gone extinct long ago.

Food

Jenni tells me I'm obsessed about food. It's not about food to me, it's about energy. It would seem to me she's in a race of sorts, which is something I can relate to. And when I'm racing, I need energy.

When Derek was born, before we left for the hospital, I insisted we make a sandwich for Jenni to eat on the way since she probably would not be able to eat once we got there and I knew she'd need her energy. Of course, I made one for me, too :-)

She had her typical toast with peanut butter this morning, which she ate most of, although her nervous tummy did not feel hungry. I just tried to get her a snack, but the nurse said, sorry, no food until after delivery.

Good thing she had that toast ;-)

Names?

Oh, and by the way, yes we do have a name picked out.

No, we're not telling :-) I can say that it is NOT one of Derek's suggestions, such as "Shaggy Dog".

The Fancy Contractions Gadget


Since I don't really know what I'm supposed to be doing during this labor thing, I find myself studying all the fancy gadgets. I make it my job to let Jenni know when she's having a contraction by looking at the graph on the monitor (as if she needs me to tell her). They're about 3.5 to 4 minutes apart now.

Approaching a New Finish Line


Today's the day! We arrived at the hospital at a dark and early 5 am this morning to induce labor. All is looking great. According to the fancy monitor, Jenni's actually having contractions about every 5 minutes, although she hardly feels them. I think this thing might have happened today anyway :-) I'll try to keep posting when I get a chance.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Beauty and the Wrath of Mother Nature - 2008 Kettle Moraine 100K

"I don't know if I can, but I know why I want to try. I want to try because I don't know if I can."

That's what I wrote when I decided to sign up for this race back in November. Signing up for the Kettle Moraine 100K Endurance Run was my first step into the world of ultrarunning. Running 62 miles seemed impossibly far at the time. But, so far, each step I've taken on this journey has taught me that when the mind believes the body will follow. And my mind hasn't failed me yet.

Since we ran in the aftermath of an unseasonably late snow storm at the Chippewa Moraine 50K in April, and we had absolutely perfect running weather for the Ice Age Trail 50 Mile in May, it would only seem right that Mother Nature would slam us with the worst heat and humidity of the year for Kettle. The race started at 6 AM, and although it was only 64 degrees, the humidity was 94%! Over the first few miles on the Nordic Loop it was very clear we were in for a long and difficult ordeal. Even though I was taking it easy and going slow, my heart rate was a good 10 to 15 beats higher than normal for the pace.

I tossed my sub 12 hour time goal out the window. Today would be about surviving the elements, not conquering them. The early miles clicked by uneventfully. I made sure to keep my two handhelds topped off with fluids at every aid station and tried my best to keep up with the conditions. A couple miles past the Bluff aid station, I was surprised to find myself already atop the second highest point on the course, Bald Bluff. The climb up to it had seemed more daunting during training and Ice Age 50.

Between Horseriders (12.3 mi) and Emma Carlin (15.5 mi), I fell in line with a few folks running together and enjoyed their camaraderie for awhile even though the pace felt a little slow. I figured that probably meant I was going a little too fast, so I just settled in and enjoyed the ride.

I'd never been farther north than Emma Carlin on the Ice Age Trail, but I had heard there were several miles of open rolling meadows in this section. Sure enough, not far past Emma Carlin we hit the first open prairie section followed by more wooded trail to Antique Lane (18.7 mi). From Antique Lane to the Highway 67 aid station (23.9 miles), a significant proportion of the trail was open meadows. The temperature was now in the mid-70s, and the humidity was still over 80%. I was not looking forward to coming back through this section on the return trip of the out and back course as it would be mid-afternoon by then.

But, on the positive side, it was at Hwy 67 that Jenni and Derek arrived to cheer me on. I'd not been keeping track of my time since I knew my original goals were out the window, but I asked Jenni and she told me I was about 15 minutes behind schedule. Seeing Jenni and Derek is always a nice boost of energy for me, and I was glad to receive it as I was starting to drag a bit.

Hwy 67 is the lowest point on the course, and from there the trail heads back into the woods and offers up plenty of hills, more of them going up than down, as it climbs to the highest point on the course on the Scuppernong Trail just before the turnaround. Somewhere between the Hwy ZZ aid station (26.5 mi) and the turnaround, another runner, Kent Green, caught me and we ran together for awhile. Kent seemed to have more energy than I at the time, and it was good to have someone to talk with for awhile. He was attempting his first 100 miler, and I see now from the participants list that Kent was one of the two youngest runners on the course that day at just 21 years old. As that is almost half my age I don't feel so bad that Kent had more spring in his step at that point :-)

Kent and I pulled into the turnaround at Scuppernong (31.4 mi) at 6:04 on the race clock (12:04 PM). This was nearly 25 minutes behind my original pace plan, and I was already one tired puppy. I spent some extra time at the aid station resting, refueling, and cooling down. The temperature was now pushing into the lower 80s, and the humidity was still near 80%. Eventually, I pulled myself together and soldiered on.

As I returned back through the Scuppernong trail I was struck by the awesome beauty of the place. At one point I found myself down in a kettle bowl marveling at the lush green walls of the forest surrounding me. I heard the runner in front of me simply say, "Beautiful!", and I couldn't agree more. Despite my fatigue, at that moment I felt truly blessed to be able to do what I was doing, and to be doing it in such an amazing place.

When I returned again to the Hwy ZZ aid station (36.4 mi), expecting to be greeted by my loving cheering section, I instead encountered almost-4-year-old Derek, arms folded, lower lip pouting, making that "hmmf" sound. Clearly, he was pissed about something. Turns out, he'd found this really great stick and someone (he claims it was Mom, but she denies it) stepped on it and broke it. "It was the best stick. There aren't any other good sticks.", Derek pouted to me when I asked for the story. "Derek", I said, "You're in the middle of the forest. Surely you can find another good stick. A better one." But he was sure that was the last good stick in all the forest. What it was really all about was 'hot, humid, and past nap time', but it made for some nicely distracting entertainment for a couple minutes.

When I hit the Hwy 67 station (39 mi), I was happy to see that Derek had indeed found a new, better stick. This one was shaped like a Star Wars blaster, and of course I was cold-heartedly blasted by my little storm trooper upon arrival.

Around this point, we started hearing reports of some serious weather possibly headed our way. Besides that, what I had to look forward to was the miles of open meadows between me and Emma Carlin. Onward. One foot in front of the other.

The meadows lived up to their reputation. Exposed in the heat, the humidity even higher in the rolling fields of tall grasses, it sucked the energy right out of me. I got into a rhythm of running the exposed sections and walking in the shade of the sparsely scattered sections of trees to try and cool off. At one point, leaving one long meadow behind me, seeing another long exposed section in front of me, I sat down in a small grove of trees to recover. I've never sat down in the middle of a race anywhere other than at an aid station. (Well, there was that one time at Ironman Wisconsin 2005 which ended with an EMT helping me into an ambulance, but that story has already been told). But, as the saying goes in ultrarunning, "It never always gets worse." I think that quote needs to be followed with, "assuming you live to tell the tale", but that's just me.

A few miles later I came upon Kent again, walking and talking with Meghan Hicks. Meghan looked familiar but it took awhile for me to realize why. She also ran Chippewa Moraine back in April. None of us was having a particularly good time just then, so we walked a bit and ran a bit together. We had each been drained by the oppressive conditions. I ran with Kent and Meghan on and off for most of the rest of the race.

The rain drops started to fall just as I arrived at Emma Carlin (47.3 mi). Reports were that we were soon to be nailed by a strong storm. A little rain sounded good to me. A tornado, not so much. Keep moving forward.

Somewhere past Horseriders (50.5 mi) is when it happened. The sky opened. Flashes of lighting were followed sooner and sooner by violent crashes of thunder. The rain started coming down as hard as I've ever experienced. Quickly the trails turned into little raging rivers. Rocks on the hills created small waterfalls. Dips in the trail turned into shallow ponds. And the lightning got closer. Twice there were explosions of lighting so close it made me instinctively duck. I was just praying that my time was not up yet. Since I was on a section of trail going more uphill than down, heading toward the highest point in the area at Bald Bluff, I had thoughts of heading off-trail to lower ground to wait out the lightning. But seeing as I was surrounded by thousands of trees, I figured the lightning would much rather nail one of those giants than little me, so I slogged onward.

Between the pounding of the rain, the pounding of the miles, and the damage inflicted by the heat and humidity of the day, my legs and feet were in bad shape. Running uphill was impossible, and running downhill was too painful. Running the flats kind of sucked, too, but I tried. I was already beyond "the hardest thing I've ever done", and every new step was one step farther into the unknown for me.

By the time I reached the peak of Bald Bluff, the worst of the storm had passed, and a new problem presented itself. Mosquitoes. The pounding rain had washed off whatever insect repellent remained on my flesh, and the mosquitoes were swarming. They gave me incentive to keep running so I could reach Jenni, and a can of bug spray, at Bluff Road.

After finally reaching the Bluff Road station (55.5 mi), and applying a liberal coating of bug spray, I felt ready to finish this thing off. I ran and walked the first couple miles of the Nordic loop with Kent and Meghan, and then I tried to dial it up and run as strong as I could the rest of the way. I pulled into the final aid station at Tamarack (57.8 miles), and in my mind I was thinking the finish was less than 3 miles farther. I was informed it was another 5.1 miles (the course is a little longer than 100K, at 62.9 miles). The last few miles of this race are anything but easy. It's an endless series of roller coaster ups and downs, and I was hurting. With three miles to go I really couldn't run anymore. Usually I'm able to muster up some extra energy and extra resolve late in a race and finish strong. Not in this race. Not on this day. I was humbled by the course. Humbled by the conditions. Humbled by the distance.

And humbled does not even begin to describe what I was feeling about the runners headed the other direction. As I was coming into the finish of the 100K, thoroughly beaten, there were runners headed the other direction on their quest to finish 100 miles! When I signed up for the 100K, my thought was that if I could survive 100K I'd make an attempt at 100 miles next year. But with a couple miles to go in my 100K, all I could think was, "I will never ever do this again". How in the hell, after all of that, are these people continuing to run, knowing that they are setting off to cover another 38 miles, into the dark of night, with thunder beginning to rumble in the sky once again? How? How? I thought I was tough. I thought I was strong. That girl was, was...she was smiling! What the hell? Clearly, there is another level of tough that remains beyond my understanding.

All I could tell myself was that if I kept putting one foot in front of the other, this would eventually end. Finally I began to hear the sounds of the finish line. Finally, Jenni and Derek came into view, and Derek was ready to run. I handed Jenni my water bottles, and ran with Derek the final 100 yards to the finish line, crossing the line in 13 hours and 45 minutes.

Of course, Derek wanted to play then. He told me I didn't have to run, but sitting was no good. But, I had to sit. I was feeling pretty bad, knowing I had to eat, but not feeling one bit hungry. I eventually got myself into some dry clothes, found a place to sit near the food table, and tried to get some calories and fluids into my system. It took awhile, but I started to feel better. Not my legs. My legs were shot. But the rest of me finally began to recover from the trauma.

As it turns out, I wasn't the only one who suffered that day. Of the 70 runners who started the 100K, only 38 of us finished. I was 11th among them and 3rd in the 40-49 division. Of the 123 starters of the 100 mile run, just 37 finished the full distance. Many decided to call it a day at 100K. I'd venture to guess those are the lowest finishing percentages in this event's history.

-

So, I said I'd never do that again. But as anyone who has participated in endurance events can tell you, time is a wonderful anesthetic. It quickly forces the mind to lose track of just how badly it hurt. I can't let go of the mental image of those runners headed back out there for the final leg of the 100 miles as I was limping in to the finish of the 100K. They have something that I don't have. Even those that didn't end up finishing the 100 miles. Just the fact that they had the strength and resolve to push onward, having been just steps from their car. They picked themselves up and pushed on, heading out into the night. How? Physically, mentally,...how? I don't understand it. It bothers me that this event was so hard for me. And, it bothers me more that the idea of running 100 miles feels no more clear to me now than it did before...maybe even less clear. Those people possess some character than I do not yet possess. Whatever it is, I want it.

When the mind believes, the body will follow.
-

Monday, May 12, 2008

"RUN!" - Ice Age Trail 50


When the farthest you have ever run is 31 miles, how do you convince yourself you are capable of running 19 miles farther? 50 miles. I guess there is but one way. Run 50 miles. And so, at 6AM on May 10, 2008, I found myself standing amongst 250 other runners awaiting the start of the 27th running of the Ice Age Trail 50.

It was a cool morning in the upper 30s with temps expected to rise to the upper 50s or low 60s by day's end, no wind, clear skies early, clouds in the afternoon. If you were to place an order to God for the perfect running weather, that would be about how it would read.

The race starts with a 9 mile loop on wide cross country ski and hiking trails, followed by a 24 mile out and back to the southwest, then a 17 mile out and back to the northeast. The early 9 mile loop was very runnable with some flat sections on soft pine needle covered trail, and numerous roller coaster hills. It was a perfect layout to let the field of runners spread out before entering the narrow single track of the Ice Age Trail.

A few miles into the early loop I found myself running and chatting with Caroline Spencer. I learned this was Caroline's 12th Ice Age 50, that she has completed several 100 milers all over the country, and like me she has competed in every Ironman Wisconsin triathlon starting with the inaugural (and that the 2005 edition of IMWI left a similar blemish on each of our racing resumes :-(. I have found that ultra runners are such a humble lot, you have to pull out of them all the incredible things they've accomplished. I hope I didn't drive her crazy asking questions about her achievements and experiences, but to my benefit our chat helped the first 9 miles feel almost effortless.

I stopped at my drop bag at the end of the loop to shed a layer of clothes and refill my handheld bottle, and off I headed for the first out and back section. This section has everything. A few flat romps across open grassy meadows, but mostly narrow winding dirt single track, steep rocky ups and downs, projecting tree roots, and a few timber stair steps thrown in to keep things interesting. I lost track of how many times I nearly tripped and fell, and I rolled my left ankle pretty good once, but I managed to stay upright and injury-free throughout this section.

I ran by myself through much of the first out and back, and was starting to drag a bit around 18 or 19 miles. But my spirits picked up when the leaders starting coming back at us. Something about handing out a smile and a "Nice job!" to the passersby helped to lift my spirits and return some energy back to me.

After rounding the first turn, between mile 22 to 26, or so, I was actually feeling pretty good. My spirits and energy were high. It was in this section that my wife and son, Jenni and Derek, arrived to cheer me on at each of the accessible aid stations.

Somewhere after about 26 miles I started feeling less chipper, and I concluded that I had actually been taking in too much fluid. I was feeling slightly light headed, I'd been "watering the plants" a bit too frequently, and my hands and fingers were noticeably puffy and swollen. So, I started to dial way back on the fluid intake. I made sure to take salt tablets regularly, and add a bit more food from the aid stations to make up for the calories and electrolytes I otherwise would have been getting from the sports drink. I think that was the right move, but it's not like I immediately started feeling better.

Around mile 33 marked the end of the first out and back and the start of the second out and back at an intersection in the trail called "Confusion Corner". I'm glad there was a volunteer there to tell me where to go because I certainly would have taken a wrong turn otherwise.

Not far into the second out and back section is the climb up to Bald Bluff, the highest point on the course, with a memorable long steep rocky hill to take you there. This hill is also called Indian Signal Hill. The name reminds me of something I've noticed from cycling. When you're cycling it's pretty common that the most significant climbs on the route take you to hill tops with large radio antennas at the peak. I guess the Indians used the some logic for sending messages, they just used different technology.

I was definitely slowing down on the out section of the final out and back. More than once I realized that I was walking, but I'd long since crested the hill I had been walking up and just unconsciously continued walking the following flat. I had to shake myself out my daze and remember to start running again.

When I reached the final turn around at the Emma Carlin bike trails, just past mile 40, I was happy to see Jenni and Derek. I took a break to eat and drink, and to, well, just stop for awhile. But after a couple minutes of that and confessing how tired I was, Derek had heard about enough and he just yelled out, "Run!". I found that pretty funny, and started to laugh. But, Derek wasn't laughing. "RUN!!", he yelled again, louder this time. The boy was serious. He knew this was a race and it wasn't sitting right with him that I had stopped for so long. "RUN!!!", he shouted once more, and with that, what could I do but soldier on...and RUN!

Derek's lively proclamation was like magic to my psyche. As I started to head back to complete the final 10 miles, each time I found myself walking anywhere other than a steep hill, I heard Derek yelling, "RUN!" in my head, and it got me going again. With about 6 or 7 miles to go I started doing the math and I could see that I had a chance to come in under 9 hours. But, to do so I'd have to dial it up a notch. I started to dig deeper, to push harder, to walk less, and to run faster. My exhalations started to become some kind of primal growl to shed the pain and fatigue. I didn't know how fast I was going, but I knew I need to average a little better than 10 minute miles over the last 6 miles to make it, and that was nearly 2 minutes per mile faster than I'd been managing over the preceding 10 to 15 miles. And, I'd have to go back over Indian Signal Hill in the process, not to mention the dozens of other lesser bumps on the trail.

When I reached aid station #8, with 2.5 miles to go, my watch said 8:35. I was still on track for 9 hours, but just barely. There could be no slowing down now. Fortunately the biggest of the hills were now behind me and it was just a matter of pushing through the fatigue to keep the pace up. At the final aid station, with 1.5 miles to go, my watch said 8:45. I started to believe I could make it, but the final mile and a half seemed to go on forever. Finally, I could hear the announcer at the finish line and I knew I would make it. When I arrived at the finishers cute, there was Derek and he was ready to run. He jumped in with me and sprinted across the line. I'd say we crossed the line together, but I couldn't catch the little guy :-) The clock said 8:58:01.

It wasn't like 9 hours was some really important goal I had tucked away in my back pocket for this race, but I guess subconsciously, it was indeed exactly that. And, I was glad there was a part of me deep inside that wanted it because those last 10 miles could have really sucked if I didn't have that goal to wrap my mind around.

So, I guess I CAN run 50 miles. Imagine that. Now, I just need to tack 12 more miles onto that for my 100K next month. And then... Jeez, where does this end?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"It's Just a Training Run" - Chippewa Moraine 50K 2008

"It's just a training run."

That's what I was telling myself when I signed up for the inaugural Chippewa Moraine 50K.

It's not that I really view a 50K as "just" anything other than a really long way to run, particularly seeing as this would actually be my first ultra. Rather, it's that my first step down this ultra path was to sign up for the Kettle Moraine 100K, coming up in June. Some time after that fool hearty mouse click, I got to thinking that perhaps I should try a couple shorter races first to get some experience. And that's how I found Chippewa. You know, "just a training run."

I got a bit more than I bargained for.

As race day loomed near, I started peeking at the weather forecast. It didn't look good. As much as I distrust weather forecasts of anything beyond the next 24 hours, it looked pretty inevitable that we were going to be hit by something unpleasant. But, would it be cold rain, or sleet, or snow? And, just how much? The race site appeared to be right on the line between rain and snow as part of a huge storm sweeping across the country. Areas to the north were forecast to receive a foot or more of snow in the 24 to 36 hours before the race. For New Auburn, it was looking like we would likely see just a couple inches of fresh snow.

"It's just a couple inches."

We arrived in Chippewa Falls on Friday afternoon, picked up a few groceries, and after a brief scare that our van's cooling system was crapping out on us (turned out to be nothing serious), we headed out to the race site to get checked in. The Chippewa Moraine Interpretive Center on the Ice Age Trail northeast of New Auburn was great. My three year old son, Derek, (he'd be quick to point out, "I'm three and three quarters") was having a blast checking out the snakes and turtles and all the various items on display. The staff there was very friendly, and they came over to let Derek see and touch the painted turtle, and let us watch him "run" across the floor. I noted for the record how much quicker the little guy was running than I probably would be the next day.

In the race packet was a flier for a place in Chippewa Falls called Loopy's Saloon and Grill which sounded right up our alley, so that made dinner plans easy. I filled up on the classic athlete's pre-race meal of beer and pizza before heading to the Country Inn and Suites for the night. Our initial plans had us heading about 70 miles farther north to stay with my parents east of Hayward, but given that they were being pounded by a major snowstorm, we had already tweaked the itinerary and decided to stay closer to the race site.

We awoke early Saturday to see that, sure enough, Mother Nature had delivered the promised inch or two of fresh snow. It didn't seem like that should be a big deal. The big unknown for me was, how much snow was already out there on the course, still hanging on from the winter that just wouldn't quit? Reports were that there was still snow on much of the course, particularly on north facing slopes.

So, what to wear on my feet? I decided to go with insulated shoe covers/gaiters and Kahtoola Microspikes. The shoe covers are made more for cycling than running, but I've used them together with the Microspikes several times this winter, and the combo has worked pretty well, particularly on hard packed snow and ice. On several inches of soft snow, the spikes do little good, except to hold the toe end of my shoe covers in place. Not exactly sure what to expect out there, I wore a waist pack thinking that if I wanted to shed the extra footwear I could stuff them in my pack. I figured it would be better to have my spikes and not need them then to need them and not have them.

We arrived at the race site less than 15 minutes before the scheduled start time, which was about 15 minutes later than we had planned. So, I left my wife, Jenni, and a sleeping Derek, in the van, and with a rushed description of how they could get around to the aid stations along the course. Jenni will be the first to admit that she's a bit "directionally challenged", so I wasn't sure when I'd see them next.

I arrived just in time to catch Wynn's pre-race talk before we all gathered in the snow covered field in front of the Interpretive Center for the start. I found myself a bit farther back in the pack than I wanted, so as soon as we started running I quickly made my way around the crowd to settle in about 1/3 to 1/4 back from the front of the field before we entered the trail, figuring passing would be challenging once we entered the woods.

The first couple miles of the trail didn't seem too bad. There was a fair amount of snow out there, in addition to the couple of newly added inches, but the dozens of feet pounding away in front of me quickly packed the snow down to form a narrow path with reasonable footing. I learned very quickly that in a trail ultra, especially on snow, you can't always run your pace. Within the first mile I found myself in a single file line with a small group going a bit slower than I would have liked. Passing meant stepping outside the freshly packed narrow path into soft snow several inches deep with who knows what hazards possibly hidden beneath. I decided it was probably best to just settle in and take it easy. After all, there were still 30 miles to go.

At the first aid station about two miles in I was happy to see Jenni already there with camcorder in hand, cheering me on. Around mile three I was reminded about why I had done virtually no running in the two weeks leading up to the race. My left calf started to complain. At 3.5 miles it actually hurt pretty bad. Not good when you have more than a marathon still to go. But, you know, I started to get pretty pissed off at my calf about this rebellion. My calves have been giving me grief on and off for a handful of years now, and it's about time they suck it up and get with the program. So I decided, fitting with race director Wynn's directive of "no whining", that I wasn't going to listen to this whimpering from my calf. Enough already. Go ahead and hurt. It's not going to get you off the hook. You're coming with me, and I'm not about to DNF my first ultra at less than five miles, dammit! That was the end of the conversation with my calf. It may have kept moaning, but I stopped listening.

Upon meeting up with a crowd again, I decided to try and pass while a small group in front of me walked up a hill. It took more effort than it was probably worth, but I really wanted some open trail in front of me so I could dictate my own pace for awhile.

The trouble with this plan, as I well know from experience, is that once I spike my heart rate like that it just doesn't seem to want to settle back down again to match my perceived effort. At least that's what I told myself. In reality I was having trouble coming to grips with the fact that this was going to be a much, much longer and harder effort than I had imagined. Any thought I had about my anticipated finishing time was already long gone, and even at what was a seemingly ridiculous slow pace, the going was tough. The snow seemed to start getting thicker, the traction worse.

I started to conclude that the Microspikes were doing practically no good at all on the soft snow. In fact, snow was starting to clump on the bottom of my shoes, forcing me to flick it off every few strides. At the second aid station around mile five, I peeled off the Microspikes and handed them to Jenni. The change didn't give me any better traction, but it didn't seem significantly worse either, and the reduced weight was an instant relief. But, the clumping snow continued to be an issue, with snow sticking to the straps of my shoe covers under the arches of my shoes. So, at the next aid station around mile eight, off went the shoe covers as well.

Now, just so you don't get the wrong idea, with all the challenges of the day, the conditions of the trail, my footwear annoyances, pacing troubles, my whining calf...all of that aside, I was having a blast. The course was truly beautiful, and unique. It was hard to really take in and appreciate the full beauty of the place because taking your eye off the trail for more than one stride was to invite a sudden face plant or turned ankle. But it was the kind of place that just felt peaceful. The funky, rickety, narrow boardwalks winding over sections of marshland...that's the kind of stuff that imprints itself permanently in your memory.

But even beyond the beauty of the setting, I had a feeling during this race that I've never had in any other race I've ever run. It occurred to me out there that this was the first time in all my years of racing that I've ever been, well, not "racing". I've raced against others. I've raced against the clock. I've raced against myself. I've raced against the course. I've raced against the weather. This didn't feel like any of those. The word "participating" doesn't do it justice either. And, it's not simply that I felt content to take it easy, because there was nothing easy about what I was doing. This was damn hard work despite what the pace might later prevaricate on paper. It was none of that. I was simply immensely enjoying the challenge set before me in a way that I don't think I can properly describe. The best things in life can't be told. They must be experienced.

Derek was finally awake by the time I hit aid station #4 around nine miles, and I'm sure he has no idea how great a boost it was to see his smiling face running toward me, arms wide, yelling, "Daddy!!" No gel, no sports drink, no caffeinated beverage ever concocted can come close to matching the boost of energy you get from that!

The six mile section between aid station #4 and the turn around seemed to be where the snow got just nutty. Several sections had snow knee deep, which I learned more than once while stepping just off the beaten path. Around mile 10 I settled in behind two guys who were going about my pace and I was happy to follow. Between mile 11 and 12 somewhere I started to wonder when we'd see the leaders coming back toward us, and how cozy the narrow trail was going to get then. When we saw a few runners headed toward us, however, it was disconcerting to discover that they were not the leaders. We'd all taken a wrong turn somewhere, and they were headed back. When we asked them if they were sure, they said they got to a point where there were no more footprints. Yep, wrong turn indeed. Fortunately we weren't too far off the mark and the little detour probably only cost us five minutes, or so.

But, when we found our way back to the right trail, the mistake resulted in a major traffic jam. We found ourselves queued up in a long line of about 20 runners, moving slower than we'd been traveling before our side trip. A couple times I tried to get by a few runners only to have the terrain force me back in line, and really no further ahead. And, that's the way it would be all the way to the turn around. As I guessed, it did indeed get tricky when the leaders started coming back toward us. I always tried to step off the beaten path a bit to let them by, but it was not always so easy. The leaders were a real stand-up bunch of guys. Most of top 10 or so runners offered words of encouragement as they squeezed by, which I found really impressive.

It was a great relief to reach the turn around, but I did my best to refuel and restock quickly, and get out of there before most of the crowd I'd been running behind. As the miles progressed after the turn around, the snow conditions began to change. Snow that had been kind of "sticky" earlier was turning into a slush about the consistency of a 7-11 Slurpee, and the change was not good. You just could not get any decent traction on this Slurpee snow. You'd plant your foot, and it would slide one way or another, sending you off balance. Also, several areas had become wetter and muddier, and there was no getting around stepping into ankle deep icy water from time to time.

There were no more long lines of runners on the return trip. I was typically behind two or three people, or completely alone. In fact, there were long stretches where I couldn't see anyone in either direction as far as I could see. I couldn't help but to start becoming annoyed at the snow at this point. Besides feeling constantly off balance, I kept repeatedly kicking the inside of my left ankle with the inner edge of my right shoe, always in the same spot. And, that spot was getting very painful. Each time it happened, I'd wince with pain, and curse the Slurpee snow. I was more than done with winter. Really. Enough with the snow already.

Something else happened on the return trip. The hills. There were more of them, they were bigger, and they were steeper. Yes, I know it's an out and back course, but I'm telling you there must still be glaciers out there reforming the topology, and it happens much more quickly than tens of thousands of years. It was just a few hours, but several new hills appeared. I'm sure of it.

Returning back to aid station #2, around mile 26, I was happy to see that my parents had arrived to join Jenni and Derek. The roads to the north had finally been cleared of the dumping of snow they'd received, allowing my cheering section to double in size for the final few miles. And I needed some extra cheering, because those final few miles seemed to go on forever. What a relief it was when the Interpretive Center finally came into view. Fittingly, the final stretch to the finish is uphill, and when I arrived at the finishing chute, Derek was there and happy to see me. I encouraged him to grab my hand and we crossed the finish line together.

My time was 6:20, nearly two hours longer than the time I believed I was capable of had conditions been favorable. But, I certainly was not disappointed. It was a long hard effort, and I enjoyed a major sense of accomplishment.

It didn't take long to find my way to a hot bowl of some fabulous chili at the well stocked post race party. With some warm food in my belly, and a welcomed change into dry clothes, I had my hands on the cap of a bottle of Leinie's Honey Weiss when Derek ran up to me, and said, "Daddy, will you play with me?" I smiled, put the bottle down, and played in the snow with my son. The same snow I'd just been cursing.

The best things in life can't be told.

Monday, March 10, 2008

New Milestones

One of the most satisfying aspects of running is reaching a new milestone. When you're just getting started in your running, those new milestones come rapidly. Your first 5K or 10K. The first time you hit double digits, running 10 miles. Your first half marathon. If you've ever trained for a marathon, you probably remember the first time you covered 20 miles in training. And, of course, there's the satisfaction of crossing the finish line of your first marathon.

26.2.

The marathon. It's a major accomplishment. A life changing experience for some.

But like most runners who've worked their way up to the marathon distance, I've never taken a stride beyond 26.2 miles. 26.2 has been the ceiling of my running distance milestones for over seven years.

I've finally broken through the ceiling.

In each of my last two long training runs, each of the last two Saturdays, I hit 26.2 miles...and kept running. 26.6 miles a week ago, and 29 miles this past weekend.

It's been a pretty amazing experience, actually. It really wasn't all that long ago that I had no desire to venture beyond 26.2. Any thought of running beyond that distance just sounded too painful to consider. Every marathon I've ever run, whether as a standalone marathon or in an Ironman...about 10 times in total...has left me hobbling for days. For days following each of those efforts, walking down stairs was a torturous ordeal. My mind and body had no interest in finding out how much more pain may await by venturing farther.

But, then one day I fixed my mind on distances beyond 26.2 miles. Suddenly, and quite to my surprise, covering 26.2 miles doesn't seem that painful anymore. Now racing 26.2 miles, that's another beast altogether. But covering the distance at a training pace is starting to become rather ordinary. I've been surprised to discover that aside from some minor soreness in my knees, and a random ache here and there, my legs feel...well, not good, but not so bad after these marathon-plus runs.

Having nearly covered the distance in training already, 50K feels well within my reach. But, 50 miles? 62 miles? I have yet to really wrap my mind around those distances. And, 100 miles...that still feels beyond my imagination.

But, when I turn around and look back, I see that I've truly begun an adventure into new territory, and that hasn't happened in quite some time. I don't exactly know where this path leads, but I know this. When the mind believes, the body follows. Now I just need to get my mind to believe I can run 62 miles. One step at a time.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"Daddy, I need to go do my run now."

When I got back from my run yesterday, my 3 year old son, Derek, first excitedly showed me the two snowmen (correct that...snowpirates) he had just built with my wife. The one on the right with the red bandanna, the cutlass, the eye patch, and the hook, was the captain. The one on the left with the black bandanna was his first mate. Between them was a pile of snow and a shovel, where they'd just dug for treasure, of course.

But then he quickly shifted gears and announced, "I need to go do my run now." Off he went to put on his shoes. Not just any shoes. These were the ones he refers to as his "fast shoes". This was serious. I thought he was going to do a few laps down the hall and through the living room, but he headed for the door to the garage. He opened the door, not having bothered to put on a coat, and asked one of us to put up the garage door. Seeing now he was intent on heading outdoors, we put on his coat and sent him on his way. Since the road in front of the house was solid ice, we suggested he stick to the driveway, and with that he was gone.

We hustled to the window to spectate, and watched in amusement for the next several minutes as Derek ran laps around my car in the driveway. He'd jog down the sidewalk, up onto the front porch, back down the sidewalk, around the car, over and over. When I saw him peeking into the garage, I opened the door thinking he was done, but he just said, "I'm not done yet.", and turned to do a few more laps.

When he finally decided he'd done enough, he came inside and I offered him a cup of water to rehydrate. He showed me his muscles so I could see how they were getting bigger and stronger. I drank a glass of milk and ate a banana, telling Derek how I needed to refuel. He told me how his throat "hurt" while he was running, and we talked about how breathing hard in the cold air can cause a burning sensation in your throat and lungs while your body adapts to the conditions.

Just two runners, talking runner talk. :-)

-Steve

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Winter's Not Always So Bad

This winter I've run in sub-zero wind chills, several times. I've run in snowstorms. I've run in several inches of fresh powder. I've run in snowshoes. I've run on a slush covered frozen lake. I've run through skin-stinging icy snow blasting at me sideways. I've run with sheet metal screws in the soles of my shoes for traction. I've run on solid ice. And, a few times when I just couldn't bring myself to face the cold in the dark of the early morning hours, I've run on (shudder) a treadmill. Enough with the character builders already.

But, today, I actually had one of those runs that makes winter seem not so bad after all. Yep, it was on snow, and it was still undeniably winter. But, the sun was shining. The wind wasn't blowing. It was a very tolerable 30 degrees, or so. And, the several inches of snow on the trails was packed just enough that the footing was not half bad. All things considered, it was a good day.

This was my second time trying out my latest traction gadgets, Kahtoola Microspikes, and they worked like a charm. I was never at a want for traction today. They're certainly no replacement for snowshoes, so the snow needs to be relatively packed down for Microspikes to work well. But, today was perfect for them.

I covered 23 miles on the snow today, 3 hours and 45 minutes worth. In fact, I believe this was actually my longest training run ever, outside of races. And, on snow covered trails to boot. It was a good day.

All that said...I'm pretty much ready for spring now :-)

-Steve