Friday, September 24, 2010

Sawtooth 100 Ultra Trail Run (Crewing for son Chris)

This entry will be easy.....Between Chris and Helen I sure can't add much of anything so I'll encourage you to click on to their links at the end of this post, but I'll toss in a few peripheral thoughts and observations.

My original plan was to hit Gnome Fest mountain bike party at the Levis-Trow trails this weekend, but as I was working "up nord" in MN, yeah hey (I used to live in northern MN, so I can talk that way without it being disrespectful) I decided to mosey on over to the north shore above Duluth to meet Chris, the oldest of our off-spring, and try to figure out just how many brain cells he had left. See, he started doing these crazy, long running events and the longest one so far, the Superior Sawtooth 100 mile ultra marathon, was on his docket for the weekend. I had hiked around some of these hills years ago along the Superior Hiking Trail with my brother-in-law, Tom, so I knew it was a gnarly area and 100 miles and 30 some hours of running, walking, crawling, rolling, etc. was going to be a real test, I thought.

After looking on the website about the race and seeing 20k feet of climbing and 20k feet of descending (on a mtbike, this descending would be cool, on foot, I'm thinking maybe not so cool) and the amount of DNF's (about 60% finish) I could only imagine what Chris might be in store for. I figured at least I could be there to make it easier to claim the body!

To be totally honest, as a Father, I didn't want to be around if there was a lot of carnage and if Chris crashed and burned. I wasn't sure how I'd react and further, I was more concerned how Chris would react if he couldn't finish or if things went real bad.
At some of these events, shall we say, at times Chris and I don't really get along all that well. I'm not sure why, but I do think it's something we both recognize and each take a little blame for and each try to improve upon at the next one. The few days we spent together with his Mom at the Sacramento Marathon last December were not fun due the obvious friction, stress/tension or something at the event. I actually vowed not to attend any more events, as it got pretty ugly a few times, in my mind. I'll take as much blame as possible, but to me, Chris was being a real ass at times.

So, I knew he had it all figured out for the Sawtooth without expecting me to be there, and I knew in effect I wasn't needed at all, so really, all the pressure was off, so to speak, for him and I when it came to our interaction. I thought I'd just stand back and be one of the spectators, so to speak.

I figured he may need some help with Cooper, his mutt, so at the last second, I gave him a call and said I'd meet him Thursday evening and hang out some over the weekend to check this thing out. He seemed quite pleased with my decision.

We met for dinner and I met his friend, Helen. She was going to be his support crew and also pace/run with him the last 20 miles or so. I think he had only known her for a couple of months before that, meeting her at one of the first trail runs he entered.

It was decided that I was going to help her crew for Chris, especially after midnight, as Helen was manning an aid station starting at that time. So, from midnight till Chris came through her station I was it. When Chris hit her station Helen was going to be running/pacing with him to the finish and I'd jump ahead as I had been all through the race.

Helen told me what to do during that time alone and I did my best to obey!! Things went great as it related to Chris and I and our relationship. Those 8 hrs. between midnight and 8AM alone were worth the price for admission, as they say.

Driving to the start, we got 45 seconds down the road and Chris had to already stop for a bathroom break! oh boy!
Friday AM we saw the racers off at Gooseberry Falls Park, the start.
Chris and Helen getting stuff together.

The lead out from the park.

I then scooted back to Duluth for a quick hour mtb ride at the newly completed Amity Singletrack trail. Dang, they've done a great job and continue to do a great job up there!

I then met Helen at the 3rd aid station, Split Rock I think, and the fun began, as she and I leap frogged to the next aid stations as Chris made his way north through the day and evening hours.

Cooper and I out on the trail during the race near the Tettegouche aid station.

The Coach (Helen) in action.
Friday afternoon.
video

In the middle of the night......
Due to parking and road conditions, the crew was not allowed access to one aid station, Sonju Lake. It was 10:30 PM or so when Chris came through. I was the only crew member there for any runner. I had parked my Jeep and pedaled my bike the 2.5 miles up the dirt road to the station with what he might need in my back-pack. It was neat riding the bike and just being there. I brought a beer for the attendant of the aid station, but they (there ended up being 3-4 of them there) had their own.

Right after Chris left this station, it began to rain....Chris in his blog said I suggested he take his gore-tex here and he said he did, but in actuality, he didn't as you can see from the picture above. We discussed it and as it had only lightly sprinkled up to this time, he thought he didn't quite need it yet and I didn't argue. I figured it would be worse wearing it and heating up if it didn't rain and the next station was only a 90 minute run away or so in any case. So, he ran the next section without the gore-tex and got it at the next one and by then it was pouring out.
The bike ride back to Jeep was slower than expected in the dark and driving rain....the race began to get very interesting after this.

So, although I didn't have a freakin' clue if what Chris had done before counted towards what it took to train for and finish a nationally known grueling 100 mile, 30 plus hr. continuous trail run through a driving rain, I was learning and I was going to get an even better idea in the next 15 hours or so.

I watched some very experienced racers stop for a few hours to sleep as their bodies literally just shut down in the middle of the night and wouldn't allow them to continue until they took an extended rest. The racers knowing themselves well enough to allow this, knowing full well that to risk going out on the trail in their present condition could cause things to go very bad, was an indication that these folks know what they're up against and possibly turning a bad situation worse is not the answer.

Some bodies wouldn't allow food to be eaten and stay down and in this type of race and under these wet, cold conditions, calorie intake is critical. I've seen some of this in 24-hr mtbike races.

In the middle of the pitch black night, where nothing was able to be kept dry from the wind and rain, I witnessed crew members trying to stay awake and keep their racers clothes dry for the next section of race, their food and liquid nourishment measured and ready to go. Mentally going through what-if scenarios trying to prepare for every contingency their racer might require in anticipation of their needs based on past performances and current and changing conditions.

Witnessing racers coming in to aid stations soaking wet, physically exhausted and mentally exploding trying to keep it all together while their bodies convulsed in massive twitches as they fought off hypothermia. Working with their crew to get the most out of the few minutes of support before flying off the cliff of the next section where it was all up to them, alone again.

Runners of all abilities, desires and expectations plowing through ankle deep mud puddles not knowing if rocks or roots waited there to twist and turn ankles and knees to prevent them from finishing in times they expected or even finishing at all.
Steep, slippery mud and rock infested uphills that forced a death march. Treacherous downhills that combined with wet socks, shoes and feet that turned tough, calloused skin ready for the challenge from hours and hundreds of miles of training into slippery, rubbery, gooey pieces of flesh, exposing tender areas rubbed raw and now peppered with dirt and grit from the trail. Washed clean of blood and color from the constant exposure to water....moisture, at one end of the body, an enemy to the runner and his most cherished tool, his feet, and at the other end what has to be planned for continuously before placing even one foot on the trail...and then the some half a million steps to follow needed to finish the race.

Men and women of all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities passed before me for 30 hours and I started to appreciate in very small ways not only the dedication to the physical training it took to run a race of this magnitude, but the mental conditioning it took, as well. I've done some racing but nothing that would require what I was witnessing. My racing and training experiences would take me through a marathon length event in decent shape, but stringing 3 to 4 marathons together under these raw conditions was out of my realm of experiences.

I started to think of what members of other crews, Helen and some racers had said and were saying about Chris' effort. Him just having done his first marathon less than a year ago, the fact that in the past few weeks he had raced around 175 miles and biked another 100 in other events and would these take their toll and not allow his body enough time for rest between events to finish this one?
Lots of disjointed thoughts, questions and what-ifs were running through my sleep deprived mind as well as the racers themselves, for sure.
I did sleep 90 minutes during the night in the Jeep, awaking somewhat like magic almost wide awake before the alarm I had set went off. Literally seconds before Chris arrived at an aid station at 3:02 AM in the pouring rain and a fog that made the dark night that much darker and mystical. Trying to act wide awake, feeling guilty, as Peter and the other Apostles must have felt, in a very much smaller and different way of course, in that they couldn't stay awake for Jesus.

After the dark comes the dawn. Saturday morning Helen pacing Chris. Still raining.

Photo courtesy of Bryan Cochran via Phillip Gary Smith and www.snowshemag.com

The last leg lead me to the finish line to wait for Chris and Helen to come in. At the last few aid stations Chris' hip was giving him a ton of trouble. He said that it had started at mile 60, but I figured short of broken bones he'd be in. I looked up the trail and noticed these turkey buzzards....humm, what were they circling over, I wondered? The possible carnage I referred to earlier? A sign or omen of the news that Chris wouldn't make it?
No, I knew from knowing Chris he'd crawl in if he had to and if the buzzards paid a visit, he'd grab two in a death grip, and using them like sled dogs, force them to pull him along the trail to the finish if need be.
Different mental pictures started flashing through my mind of Chris as I waited.
From his soccer days at 6-7 years old where the coach it seemed spent every practice and match trying to convince him that he played a position and that that position was not the total area of the soccer field.
I coached him in Little League and he'd run from his shortstop or pitcher position where he normally played, to try to catch every pop-up(many were dropped at that age) and back up every throw. I finally allowed him to run to the pop ups , but he had to let his teammates try to catch the ball. He could grab it off the ground if it was missed and toss it back in, though. Always had a good arm!!
Eventually, he learned that baseball required him to be at assigned spots based on his playing position to backup certain plays and he seldom failed to be where he was supposed to be.
In freshmen football the mental movie played where we watched him run down an opponent 80 yards or so to catch him from behind feet before he crossed the goal line to prevent a touchdown after a teammate's fumble.
That's when I knew he could run....and I knew he'd do all he could in his power to win. As a Junior, his team was beaten almost every game, but he still played hard, hard enough to be All-Conference as was noticed by other coaches who did the voting.

Chris always has had the desire and God-given ability both physically and mentally to excel. Yes, this is "big fish in a small pond" type thing. We're not talking about a professional level athlete here, not even a D-1 level ability, nor professional level events and competitors. But it's the game of life and the pros, the wannabe's, the week-end warriors, those like Katelyn that Chris is dedicating this year to, all have their own challenges, desires, goals and reward system. My buddy from the 1st grade reminds me of this all the time.

Chris has had 2 ACL surgeries and subsequent required therapies proved he had the discipline to do the "dirty work" that no one sees on race day. The plate and screws in his ankle from a pickup hockey match were unknowns as well as to how they would hold up.
I've seen him push himself in small things, like kicking in a fastest lap at a mtbike race just to beat a racing buddy for a small trophy and bragging rights to participating in a 24-hr mtbike race staying up most of the night then driving 4 hrs home to pitch and then catch a double-header baseball game, so he has shown signs to finish what he's started before. But, all the desire in the world can't beat a physical or mental breakdown if it's bad enough.

So, as I waited at the finish line, concerned about the out come and who the person would be in Chris' body that would cross the finish line, I began to find myself working my way up the trail, trying to find the vantage point that would give me the longest view to be able to see Chris' progress.
I stopped at an overpass they use for skiers to use in the winter at Lutsen Lodge to cross the road and waited....and then they appeared from around the corner. I snapped the pic below then took off for the finish line hoping to beat Chris and Helen there, thinking to myself,
"I gotta be able to take enough short cuts to beat a guy running on one leg (due to his hip issue) for 30 hrs to the finish line 100 yards away or I really suck."
In Chris' own words describing himself, I can say about myself "I am not a runner!!" (The sandals didn't help!)

The last section.
30 hrs. 17 min. 43 secs. 11th place and a very, very respectable finish in a race that in just finishing is reward enough.

Chris and Helen.
I have to say, I was holding back my judgment of Chris' attitude the whole race, waiting for the end, to see if he was going to be able to hold it together. At every aid station he was cheery, smiling and in good spirits showing respect to everyone, but, I knew the test would be how he and I fared at the end.

I don't think I've ever seen him smile for so long or so deeply in many years, and why not?



Helen had to go help sweep and cleanup the course, so she took Cooper and took off.
We got some pizza to go with the brews and sugar smoked trout and salmon I had bought the day before and off to the room we went.
What a full belly and a few beers will do....oh, and maybe running for 30 hours, as well?

I had a victory cigar and beer out on the deck while Chris snoozed.
I was impressed by the mental toughness of the racers, the support of the crews and aid station attendants and the interaction and the desire of the racers to help each other. But, to be perfectly honest and not to take anything away from the ultra marathon community, my years of experience in the xc-ski, mountain bike, canoe/kayak communities aren't a whole lot different.
The difference I think regarding the ultra folks is that they are doing it for 25-40 continuous hours and not for the 3-4 or maybe even 5 hours that "normal" events would take.

Chris had told me Helen was a very accomplished endurance racer but I didn't knew what that really meant. She sure doesn't seem to wear her success on her sleeve.

I understood Helen was helping Chris and that seemed like a nice gesture, but what impressed me was that not only was she helping Chris as he came through the aid stations, giving advice, talking strategy, walking/running out with him as he left the stations, etc. she was doing it for as many racers as she could right up to the end, hour after hour.

It was some 30 odd hours of a new experience for me but best told by the guy, and gal that were out there actually doing it.

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