My first 50-mile ultra marathon event couldn't have been a better experience even if the world's most celebrated race directors spent years of planning to put on the event. There were no crowds, no cutoff times to meet and no expectations to fret over. There were just a hand full of folks who met at Cafe Wren, Luck, Wisconsin, to go out for a day of touring the Ice Age Trail on a beautiful early fall day. The 50 miles of rolling, forested countryside was mostly moderate to casual trail running in terms of difficulty and glorious in its scenery, making the miles flow by. The true tests of the days challenges lay not in the physical demands, but in that place where the hardest adversaries dwell and the most violent, drawn out battles rage: in the mind.
The morning of the run started at a 4 am alarm and followed with a nice egg, bacon, cheese, Tabasco, English muffin sandwich, a banana and a home brewed latte. Shit. It's official. I'm an urban professional. So be it. Surprisingly, I got a very solid night's sleep and wasn't feeling nervous about the day. That all started to fall apart en route, however. I drove and drank 1 quart of Accelerade to keep my mind off the imminent pain that would ensue after the 1.5 hour drive and half hour pre-run meeting. As we crossed the MN/WI border, the nerves were in full blown alarm status. I've never run further than 26 miles before, let alone 30, 35, 40, 45 or anywhere near 50. Thoughts of shoes, blisters, the cold, wet weather, upset stomach, nutrition and the inevitable wall(s) that I was about to deal with circled through my mind, now nearly completely unchecked.My crew for the day, my wife Nancy and boy, Rowan, were already supporting me during this pre-run limbo I was confined to. Nancy kept talking and Rowan cooed and slumbered in his carrier seat sending me as much comfort as a 5 and half month can. Even so, my head was beginning to swim and my stomach was getting sea sick as a result.
We made it to Cafe Wren in the nick of time: I think if there were another 15 minutes of travel time I would've blown chunks. I didn't even recognize Peter with his newly-shaved head and everyone else gathered around the tables in the cafe were complete strangers to me. I was to be the day's newbie and was feeling very much so as I looked at the shear amount of sinew per linear foot of muscle gathered around the table. This was a different crowd than the somewhat heftier muscled climbing crowd I've grown accustomed to over the past decade and I suddenly felt heavy in spite of the 20 pounds I dropped in the past 9 months of training leading up to this day. After a debriefing by our illustrious leader of the day, Pete, we loaded up the vehicles with loads of mobile drop bags/bins to be delivered to us by Pete, Nancy and Rowan every 6-8 miles or so at road crossing aid stations.
I didn't know exactly what I was expecting for the start of the run but what happened was probably an indication of the mood for the entire day. Some casual banter between stretches and last-minute carb/water intake, some review of the initial leg's route finding and then, without warning, overt signal or anything suggesting we were about to do something highly unusual and demanding, everyone just began sauntering off into the woods ever so nonchalantly. To most people, I would guess this would be seen as somewhat anticlimactic. To us, even me, the greenie, it was perfect. The conversation began at mile 0 and didn't end until nearly 13 hours later.
I glanced down at my Garmin wrist computer's GPS-driven data to see that, yes, we were moving at 9-minute mile pace for the first 3 miles. I thought Pete said we'd be slower than molasses, topping out at 12 minute miles most of the time with bursts into the 10 minute range? Didn't the leaders of our pack get the memo? I was fine at this pace, for now, but doubted that 50 miles of it was anywhere near my abilities. Soon after that first 3 miles of likely excited energy-driven pace, we backed off to a more reasonable pace through rolling hills and then into a beautiful beaver pond. We crossed along the beaver's 100-ft long dam and on into some of the most beautiful woodland and wetland habitats I've seen in some time. We rolled through aid stations joking, laughing and sharing stories of other outdoor adventures: other long runs, adventure racing, climbing, canyoneering, biking to name a few. This band of 8 runners was starting to get to know each other and their running personalities, which would serve us well later in the run.
Somewhere around 18 miles my knees started to get a little sore. I had taken the 2 weeks leading up to the run off to fully recover from a 27-mile run at Afton State Park. When I take more than 2 days off from running, my knees and left hip start acting up on me, so I was glad things were going so well as to not have suffered any pains up to this point. But somewhere around 20-25 I began hitting a wall. Expressed physically, the mind so often sets walls for us. On the drive it was the nervous stomach. Now it was the thought of surpassing 26 miles into the unknown. I limped into the aid station at around 25 looking and feeling poor, to say the least. I was down and out, just a bit shaken and uncertain about the up and coming "part 2." We had covered nearly half the distance and my knees where stiff and sore, my energy starting to fade...far too early in the run for this to be happening. I downed 2 Pop Tarts and drank up, stretched a bit, then played with Rowan a bit. His playfulness and energy, along with the Pop Tarts, began to charge a new energy source within me. I mentioned to Nancy the the rest of the run was going to be a stout challenge and was likely going to be very painful. We set off for the beginning of the way way home, now stepping into the second half of the run. All down hill from here as they say. Never have those particular words been so loaded as in this moment.
I stiffly gimped off down the road out of the Aid station and I heard Peter yell out to me "you're limping, Shawn" and all I could think to say was "I know." Not profound to the casual bystander, or maybe even to Peter, but to me, at the time, those words that fell from my lips had weight. The acknowledgement of the failing body and the resulting pain followed by continuing on without any more discussion somehow lifted my spirits a bit and my legs began to loosen up again. The pain started to dampen as I moved from walking to running again, and we veered off into the woods just as we reached the 26.2 mile Marathon distance. I was now truly stepping into another world where everything was new to me.
The next 8 or so miles were supposed to be the crux of the day given the steeper, longer, more frequent hills. However, I was now high on pushing into a running distance that was new to me PLUS running over terrain that I love and train on with some regularity. But perhaps the greatest influence on my mood and energy level at that point was the infusion of sugar from the luscious Pop Tarts. I moved to the front of the pack of now 5 that headed off into committing to the full 50 miles.
I was in absolute heaven, regardless of the sore knees. Old growth pine forests growing over steep hills were run on exquisite single-track; the best I've ever seen (which isn't saying much given my lack of experience, but trust me, it was top-notch). As I pushed through my favorite running environment I noticed that the conversation that permeated the day up to this point had completely disappeared and it was dead quiet other than my soft foot strikes in the dirt. I looked back to everyone to see a group stone-faced. I took this as a cue that my inexperience had allowed me to lose track of my ultra pace and I was now regressing back to my solo training run pace; a pace that would probably jeopardize our chances at gracefully, or otherwise, reaching the true end of the trail back at Cafe Wren. A quick inquiry back to the very elegant and strong runner/guide for the day, Joel, produced the reply I fully expected: slow down a touch and stop running the uphills. Damn. I had lost myself in my surroundings and had fallen into my playful mode of running rather than keeping the long run in mind. I quietly chastised myself and adjusted the pace to an appropriate rate of travel.
Towards the end of the hilly section of trail, my knees came back alive with pain as we climbed over barb-wire fences and up onto elevated bridges over trout streams. When we finally came into the aid station 12-15 miles from the end of the run, I was beginning to enter that part of the run that my stomach was anticipating on the drive to the Wren that morning. That part of the run which was what I came here for. Where the muscles, tendons, nerves, even the bone marrow began to experience the task at hand in earnest. It was the real wall that needed surmounting when every handicap I have was brought to the surface. The point where the "rat" was being fed and its ravenous feeding fenzy threatened to destroy my chances of reaching the end unless I handled him with the kind of fortitude I could only hope to one day achieve. That was why I was here. That is what I came here to experience. Could I push through this horrendous, glorious task in spite of the pain and soon-to-be-profound suffering?
I knew I could. And not in a superficial, talk-yourself-into it sort of way. I knew it to be truth. I didn't doubt it but for one brief moment back around 20-25 miles. Even now, as darkness fell and my ability to want to talk or stay awake faded and my myopic vision focused to a point defined by my headlamp, my belief that I would make it did not fail. I began suffering and hurting more, but I was truly loving the experience. All that being said, I dreaded transitioning to walking and then back to running again. I wished I had the energy to run the rest of the way, to not have to experience the jolts of pain that came when my muscles were forced to loosen back up into running mode from walking; where they had nearly locked themselves into tight ropes. When we finally hit the last 4 mile stretch, a horridly flat, even, straight and level bike trail built on an old railroad bed, the whole day fell away and everything avalanched, emotionally and physically, down to this last bit. The entire day leading up to this point served as the means to which I was now about to meet the real challenge.
One would think that moving into such casual running terrain after all the hills and uneven footing would be a relief, but it was pure and utter hell. Even in the dark one could see forever. At least in the rolling, meandering, hilly terrain you could only see 100-200 feet in front of you most of the time. We were now forced to look off into the infinite, towards a finish line that might as well have been another 50 miles away. I resigned myself to running 1 mile and then walking, so I checked my watch and then starting running. After what I thought was about a mile, or 15 minutes, I looked down to see that I had covered 0.20 miles. I was was absolutely dumbfounded. I confirmed the distance with others and was heart broken. The next 4 miles consisted of what seemed to be a Twilight Zone existence where time did not exist and the miles felt, honestly, much more like 20 road miles on a training day at 10K pace. Only I was averaging 20 minutes per mile, including running and hobbling. Whenever I started running again after a walking break, my knees, quads, calves and hamstrings protested with sharp pain as they tried to loosen back up again.
I turned off my headlamp, put my head down, and turned inward, deeper down than I can remember. Deeper that my first climb of the Grand Teton where we spent 3 days on the climb (from the climbers ranch and back) and got severely dehydrated. Deeper than last year's ascent of Mount Moran when Sue and I were forced to bivy overnight on the top of the route in response to the impending lightning storm and darkness. We slept on top of our flaked ropes in the gravel of a ledge with only space blankets to keep the night cold and wind off us. We slept after climbing for 12 continuous hours on 1.5 liters of water, three energy gels and two power bars each. We spent the next day doing 12-15 rappels into the unknown without water or food and were forced into a Zen trance needed to keep composure in such a hostile environment and after the exposure and energy drains required of the classic route. We got to the base of the mountain and still had the second half of the day to bushwhack out to the Lake and canoe and portage back to the car. We were spent, drained, tired, sore and very, deeply satisfied; albeit potentially a little irritable and smelly, but otherwise overjoyed with our coup. On this 50-mile run I had to dig deeper than our attempt of Edith Cavell in the Canadian Rockies in piss-pore conditions, neither summer or winter conditions, just crap. We bailed at the midpoint shoulder of the massive mountain and spent the rest of the 24 hour continuous climbing day rappelling, down climbing, sliding, and eventually walking back to the hut.
On this 50-mile run I was forced into a new depth within. This is why I came here, for that final step and all that it had to offer me.
The last step of the run came and with it too came an immediate release. The pain stopped, the continuous movement that the13 hour day demanded (we spent 22 hours moving and 2 hours at aid stations since it wasn't a race) all immediately and profoundly came to an end. So to did the immense struggle for the last leg of the run. And then the realization that a significant portion of the suffering was derived from my mind, not the physical demands. Certainly, the rigors of the day were great, but not so great that I didn't immediately start wondering when I could run 50 again; when would it be beyond the "too soon to be safe" period? How much more training would be required to do 100 miles at altitude in the mountains? I didn't reach my ultimate wall of suffering on this run, so what will it take; howmany miles and what kind of terrain? When, where, with who, how, but never did I ask myself why. That part has always been known to me since I was a child. I've never suffered trying to determine why I challenge myself in these ways in the wilderness. I'm fortunate, very gifted and grateful for that.
The shower back at Pete and Jen's place was likely the best, most amazing shower ever had by anyone in modern history. Of that, I have no doubt. I went in looking, and feeling, like my essence was drained from my body leaving a wrinkled raisin of a human, only to emerge full of joy, life and energy; well, at least much more than I could have expected given the day's demands. We all enjoyed a tremendous spread of food and even managed a beer. The smiles were plentiful even though most of us, except Joel, walked as if our Achilles tendons had been calcified and needles were injected into our soles. I probably looked like a really old man as I moved, but I felt so very alive and full of joy and good fortune. What a privilege to have the opportunity to train and then run an ultra marathon. If I had the ability to provide this experience for everyone in the world, I would drop everything and make it happen.