Throwback Thursday: Running Through the Woods at Night

Back in September of 2012 I had my first trail/ultra running experience when I paced my good friend and now coach Adam of ASTP Coaching. It was epic enough that I wrote about it back then and am republishing the post in its entirety below.

Back in July I got an email from Alison. She and Adam would be coming to Minnesota in September so that he could compete in the Superior Trail 100 miler. Some friends who planned to come pace Adam had bailed and would I be interested in taking their place? According to Ali, primary responsibilities were to “keep him company, make sure he is eating and drinking, doesn't get eaten by a bear or fall off a cliff, etc.” Holy crap. I can't say that I wasn't intrigued but I had more than a few reservations - this would require some serious research and thinking. Adam's and my ski results were similar in college, though they often tipped his way, and since college he has become what I would consider to be an extremely good runner. In the past several years while working as a ski coach and exercise physiologist his focus has turned to ultramarathons - he explained to me this weekend that he enjoys the challenge and the puzzle of managing all of the countless variables involved in finishing an ultramarathon, let alone finishing strong, which he already has done in two of the most famous ultramarathon's in the US - Leadville and Western States. Initially, I was concerned about keeping up with him even when I had fresh legs and he had run for about 80 miles already.
Obviously, though, the subject of this blog post gives away that my fears were assuaged enough that I agreed to join them in Lutsen, MN last Thursday night; I would serve as one of three pacers, and would tag along with Adam for about 12 miles starting around mile 85. Adam's brother Isaiah would cover miles 50-72, the trainer that Ali's parents work with at their gym in Minnetonka (Trainer Pete) would take the next 13 or so miles and I would follow after him. The last 7 miles were up for grabs for anybody who felt good enough at that point, although Adam seemed to be penciling in Isaiah for a nap and rally. Adam sent a detailed race plan in mid-August; at this point I was feeling good in training runs and getting excited as the numbers looked reasonable to me. My biggest concern now was that living in the city I was seriously lacking in night-time trail running experience. A couple of around-town headlamp night runs were the best I could do so there was still a little bit of anxiety there, but I would do what I needed to do to get Adam as close to the finish line as I could.
We started the haul northward last Thursday after work and arrived in Lutsen around 10:30pm. With an early start and a long day ahead, everybody had already headed to bed so we quietly slipped into the cabin and called it a night ourselves. Knowing I was going to be up most of the night, I figured I would sleep as absolutely long as possible - this got me to about 7:30am. By that point Adam and Ali were long gone to the 8am start. Isaiah stuck around to stay off his feet for a while since he wouldn't be starting until around 6pm. We enjoyed a leisurely morning in beautiful view of Lake Superior, eating bagels, sipping coffee, reading the back issues of UltraRunner magazine that Adam left on the kitchen table.
Meanwhile, Adam hammered out about a 4 hour, 30 minute marathon, no small feat - and about 30 minutes ahead of his fastest goal pace (Adam likes to make 3 goals on his race plan - for this event he had a 20, 22 and 24 hour race plan). We headed out to meet him at the 25 mile aid station around mid-day, but he beat us there. We moved on and met Ali, her uncle, her parents and Adam's parents at Tettegouche, mile 35. We ate some lunch and caught up, then hiked the half mile up to the aid station, where we set up our little station: piles of honey stinger waffles and gels, pb&j's, various sports drinks, peanut butter sandwich crackers, Ali just kept pulling more and more stuff out of the bag. We waited around, made some chit chat with each other and some of the other crews that were rolling in.
Zach Pierce Photography: 2012 Superior 100 Mile Trail Race &emdash;
The leader came through, followed shortly by Adam about 5 minutes back. He seemed to be feeling great, asked how far ahead the leader was and left, confident as ever, saying “I'm going to eat him up” before vanishing back into the woods. This started a hurry-up-and-wait pattern that would last another 15 hours. After somebody from one of the other crews making a crack on the order of “whoa you're all here for that one guy,” we all piled into the cars, drove the few miles to the next station, set up the gear, food, and folding chairs, and waited. Adam would come through, say something fresh - at County Rd 6 for example, in response to a question of hows it going, he responded with “Step over a rock, duck under a branch. This is *&%ing awesome.” - then head back off into the woods. Rinse and repeat.
Zach Pierce Photography: 2012 Superior 100 Mile Trail Race &emdash;
Soon it would be time for Isaiah to start his pacing (at which point Adam had completed marathon number 2), which meant it was time for me to begin the transformation from spectator to distance runner. To complete this change, I headed back to the cabin for a rest. I ate a burrito, pulled the shades in our bedroom, put on an eye shade and proceeded to lie quietly with my eyes closed for 2 hours (Although I am pretty good at waking up whenever I need to, I am notoriously bad at sleeping on command). I may have drifted in and out of light sleep a bit but was mostly awake.
Nevertheless I got up at about 7pm for some dinner and did feel like the fog of race-spectator tiredness had lifted - it was going to be a fun night. After eating, I read for a bit (I was cruising through Tyler Hamilton's new tell-all doping book at this point), headed back into the bedroom for another hour of no-sleep-shut-eye for posterity, then it was time for coffee. I drank a cup and filled two travel mugs for later, one for myself and one for Rose, who had stayed with Ali to crew and was primed and ready for a super-crew-all-nighter (she's the opposite of me - she can fall asleep anytime she wants but generally has a pretty difficult time waking up). I spent the next 2 hours reading, organizing and reorganizing my gear, nervously pacing around the cabin and repeatedly texting Rose to ask for race updates until her phone battery died. Around 11pm I was bored enough that I had had enough so I headed out to the last aid station before the one that I would join Adam at.
The updates I was receiving from Rose described mixed results. At mile 62 he was down to 5-10 minutes ahead of goal pace and 25 back from the leader. At 72 miles, he was more running about 20 minutes ahead of a 22 hour pace - his mid-range goal, and 45 minutes back from the leader. So he was clearly slowing down, but this was certainly expected given the fast start - nobody seemed concerned and Adam was still saying he was feeling good. Around mile 77, when I met back up with the crew at Cramer Road, the race leader had come and gone before we arrived, and Adam started complaining about a sore left ankle. Well yeah, dude, of course you've got sore joints, you've been running for 77 miles. Keep moving forward and you'll get there. Actually the conversation was much more brief even than that. Pete was then halfway done with his pace leg and he mentioned Adam's ankle was bothering him. About as soon as he finished that statement Adam was calling for him to head out. They were gone so fast some of the volunteers at the aid station didn't even see him leave. Again we moved on to the next station and set up camp, though this time a bit more sleepily. Isaiah was passed out in the truck, and some of the parents had turned in as well. It was probably something like midnight at this point.
Adam hobbled into the Temperance River aid station (mile 85) at about 2:15am, with a very sore ankle. While he ate some food, drank some coke and rested for a bit I grabbed the pacers running pack from Pete, loaded it up with spare batteries, snacks and a fresh hydration bladder, and then we headed out. The ankle was bothering him to the point where he couldn't really run, so we commenced the “death march” portion of the race. I tried to make conversation as much as I could to divert his attention away from what sounded like pretty terrible pain - this wasn't actually that difficult since we hadn't seen each other in years and way longer than that since we'd actually really had any time to talk, and we weren't working all that hard so conversation was easy. A couple of times we tried to run, but that was generally stopped immediately by “waves of pain” so bad that it made Adam feel nauseous. I was very conscious to keep him eating and drinking, and kept trying to prod at what was going on with his ankle. Was there any way that we could get ourselves out of walking the last 20 miles of this race? The key question came probably in the last mile or so of that 6 mile section: “do you have any tape in the medical bag?” Adam knew we had duct tape, but was unsure about athletic tape and was nervous about finding somebody who knew how to tape an ankle. But we had an ace up our sleeve - Pete, the last pacer, was a trainer with a football and hockey background. We hobbled our way into the Oberg Mountain aid station having moved the 6 miles in about 3 hours. Adam ate some soup, took 2 advil, Pete taped up the ankle and we moved out.
The transformation was instantaneous, Adam was back to his normal self, back from the dead. The pain was, apparently, completely gone and suddenly we were moving! It was almost euphoric to be bombing through the woods just totally focused on covering trail, keeping our eyes out for trail markers. I still tried to make conversation, but this was now pretty difficult since we were working harder! I did manage to keep Adam eating and drinking, which was a success. His body language changed completely. Now instead of poling (or crutching really) with both hands at once to take the stress of his ankle, he was striding with one hand at a time, sometimes not even bothering to walk up gradual climbs. It was glorious.
We cruised that 6mile section in about an hour and 15 minutes and slipped into the aid station well before our crew expected us. Here there was only 7 miles to go so we dropped pretty much everything in our pockets, made sure we had enough water to get ourselves back, and pushed on. While I finished up at the aid station, Adam ran ahead to go to the bathroom. Not wanting to let him get away, I shoved half a key-lime-pie Lara bar in my mouth and peeled out. 10 seconds up the trail I swallowed the first bit of the bar and knew that I wasn't going to be finishing that. Too heavy!
This is when the euphoria wore off and the work began. That last stretch was tough! A volunteer gave us a description before we left, which I only barely heard; all I caught was that we should expect 2 solid climbs. We climbed a hill almost immediately that wasn't anything serious and were laughing about how easily we got over it when we came to the actual climb around mile 98. This nearly brought me to my knees and I was sure Adam was going to hike away from me with his newly regained strength (and legs with 98 miles under them?). But the climb ended and I managed to move my feet a little faster than him on the flats and downhills.
The second climb was not as steep but included a few switchbacks and I dropped back far enough that I had to let Adam know I couldn't hang. But again I managed to limit my losses, and we descended together at what felt like a breakneck speed down the other side of the mountain, then down a dirt road, along an alpine ski trail, to the finish. In the last few miles I was doing a lot of looking back to make sure that the guy behind us wasn't catching up (we had passed him at the beginning of this last section) so that we could avoid a last second out-kick like Adam had experienced in a previous 100 miler. There was no sign of the guy and as we rounded the corner I stopped to walk the last few feet as Adam crossed the finish line to the cheers of the race organizer, the race winner and his friends and family who were all now awake and waiting.