“Think of it as 50 miles of trail bliss,” the screen lit up. “Don’t think of it as back-to-back marathons.” I nodded and set my phone back down on the bed. I continued tucking my clothes in my duffel bag in the order I’d be wearing them: pjs on top, favorite race skirt underneath.
Carlton, Minnesota has a population of 862. It’s nestled on the northeast border of the state, about 20 miles southwest of Duluth. That night I camped in the lawn of the high school with my friend (who sent the text) and his wife. Running people are good people. We set up basecamp and walked six blocks downtown to the tiny grocery. The air was warm and orange. Minnesotan July can convince you to pull a sweatshirt on over shorts, but it can also fishmouth shingles (in the same day, too).
As the shadows stretched out, I couldn’t help feeling like my insides were sliding around like the boiling noodles I
was stirring on my camp stove. I’d run a couple marathons. I’d started the transition from road running to trail culture. But this was a monster with a new name: ultramarathon.
A few other runners popped up tents and hung hammocks. Our colorful shantytown took away the loneliness. In less than 12 hours I would set off on one of the oldest single-track races in the nation; a rugged, technical route through the backcountry of Lake Superior. I’d run to Duluth… and back.
That night I drank water, peed, ate spaghetti, peed, brushed my teeth and drank water, and peed. There had been a streak of 90 degree humid weather that wasn’t budging. It was not going to be comfortable. I zipped closed my little backpacking tent and switched on my headlamp. Extra socks? Check. Hat? Check. Salt? Check. Much like the crux of a tough rock climbing route, I didn’t know what this ‘next move’ would demand of me or result in. Coconut water? Why not.
I flipped open my journal, where I’d scribbled a quote from George Bernard Shaw:
“Always do what you are afraid to do.”
Rather than bolstering my courage, as I’d intended, it plunged me into doubt. I’d never run further than 28 miles. I’d never taken a salt pill. How do drop bags work? What’s in them? I was suddenly afraid to even begin because this might all fall apart. I might all fall apart. You’re a phony.
I peed one last time, crawled into my sleeping bag, and switched off my head lamp. I weighed my options. There’s no shame in an honest DNF. There’s no excuse, however, for a DNS (Did Not Start). Not when you’re healthy. I wanted to stomp on that finish line.
I shot up in the morning and started cramming Vaseline between my toes and anxiously coaxing water to boil for coffee. My guts weren’t squirmy; I had no guts. I felt empty (besides my heart, which was banging out an impressive drum solo in my ears). My memory jumps from stirring coffee in the dark to toeing the start line at sunrise.
The beginning of a race is like a pinched finger: one second everything is fine, but the next you’re exploding with annoyance. Invisible ropes tie you to all the runners together while ushering you forward. You can’t relax. This particular race funnels you immediately into a rocky, technical single track trail that is impossible to pass on for the first two miles. I started too far back and, though I planned to start slow, felt jumpy and tethered.
In the woods, the bliss set in. The next several miles were some of the best I’ve run. My definition of a good run: melting into your surroundings and noticing each moment, accepting it fully. It is running the mile you are in without attachment or aversion. I was amazed at the diversity of the good runners around me (spoiler alert: the gnarliest ultra runners look like they could be my grandparents), and I felt included in their special tribe. Maybe I’m not a phony. I’m doing it.
At times we were spit out into meadows that were roasting. I drank a lot, but noticed I wasn’t peeing. I drank more. I took salt every hour. I felt good.
The powerlines are reputedly the most challenging stretch of the course. They are a series of big, slick hills. I’ve run four wheeler trails underneath powerlines plenty of times (they’re typically city easements, open to the public), but these were sustained climbs with two steps to every one since you slid back down the gray clay. I hit them at peak heat.
I have a theory about running: the hard part is the first half. If I could get to the turnaround, the work was done. All I had to do was go back and find the car (it was just 25 miles behind me). The zoo turnaround wasn’t a zoo; it was a little stone bridge with everyone’s bags laid out, melting in the heat. I stuffed salt caps and tums in my handheld, filled up, grabbed a Clif bar, and figured there wasn’t much left to do but run back.
The first few miles coming back show off the vistas of the race: you can see over Superior to Wisconsin because you run high above the city on the slopes of Spirit Mountain. There was a breeze, a kid handing out frozen grapes, an aid station coming up. My watch said 28 miles. I’ve had the cake. Now it’s time for the frosting. I settled into all day cadence and soaked it up, wondering what would happen next. At mile 30 my husband unexpectedly popped out of the woods and cheered me on. I told him I was at 100%. He gave me a huge smile and shot of confidence. My watch died at mile 34.
The powerlines were a lot slower the second time, in fact I walked a lot of it, but a band of surprisingly rowdy Baptist deacons serenaded me with Bruce Springsteen. Their playfulness and comraderie lifted my spirits. A few of them were starting to get burnt and fatigued (like myself), and it felt good to pass around encouragement. Running people are good people.
Eventually I left my deacon friends and pushed forward. Get to 40, Jules. Then just knock ’em down from 10. You’ve run 10 miles lots of times (“runner logic,” as I like to call it, isn’t always so smart).
The lowest point hit shortly after, somewhere around mile 42. I came into the station and the volunteers were saying things to me that I wasn’t understanding. I tried to answer questions but fumbled my words. I wasn’t making sense, even to myself. It was late in the afternoon and my brain had been simmering on low for five hours. A volunteer wearing a Western States shirt came beside me and put an arm around my shoulders. I felt tears sliding down my face. “Why am I crying?” I asked her. “I’m not sad! I’m going to
make it!” I cried. “Honey, you need salt. You’re too hot,” came the soft reply. She brushed sparkly white salt crystals off my cheeks and put ice in my hat, ice in my bra, ice against my closed eyes, ice against my wrists. She took me down to the stream and splashed me. I felt instantly coated in slime, but something magical happened. I cooled off. I felt amazing, clearheaded.
Ticking down from 10 was harder than I thought. Races play a mean trick; the first few miles pass in a snap, and on the way back you remember that a mile is 5,000 steps and it feels like a punch in the face. You count to 100 and, even though you suspect you accidentally counted the 80s twice, you’re still completely alone in the middle of the woods. I was looking a little comical because my armpits had begun to chafe (I didn’t know that was even possible) so I cocked out my arms and ran on.
From the final 42ish miles I uncovered a running mantra I always carry with me: grind it out. When it hurts, when you are hungry, when you want to quit, when it’s over (except that it’s not the end), you turn your legs. You unplug your mind. Through the friction, the pain, the long expanse in front of your eyes.
I need it to be over, I thought as I scrambled back over the rocks that confined me in the beginning. I wanted to be done. But it ain’t, girlfriend, came the honest reply in my head. So grind it out.
I finally hit the paved bike path and I started to feel homesick. A policeman pointed me across the street, back to the high school. I tried to thank him, but a ball of yarn was lodged in my throat. A wave of emotion passed over me.
I crossed the finish, crossed it running.