Black Hills 100, Go West Young Girl

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In 2016 I crewed and paced for my boyfriend Erik at the Black Hills 100.  It would reach 103 degrees that day.  That experience in itself was blog worthy; driving my tiny red Geo Prizm through the Black Hills of South Dakota trying to get to aid stations ahead of Erik in the blistering heat.  The runners coming in then looked like totally trashed, grey, versions of themselves.  Erik looked at mile 30 like he does at mile 60.  The heat was incredible.  It was this race one year ago that a spectator saw me waiting for Erik, asked if I ever did any of this stuff, when I replied “Yes” she looked me up and down in shock saying “wow, you do NOT look like a runner.”  Gulp.  After staying up and crewing for him, I paced the last 50 miles, it was the hardest pacing job I had ever done.  He was on the whole time, and me, by over extending my duties earlier that day, fell off at the end.  Black Hills gave me a one-two punch, and I left last year knowing I wanted to do it.

The training for Black Hills was totally different than any race.  Winter ultras take MONTHS to fully recover, so I was still eking my way out of Actif when I was supposed to be building miles.  My plan: run a lot of little runs,  and do a ton of strength training and swimming.  That way, I wouldn’t be totally gassed from doing 30-50 miles on a weekend, and could maintain some consistency in training.  This was a total experiment and I had no idea if it would work.  Leading up to BH, I did three 20+ runs, all races or pacing Erik.  THREE.  Dang girl.  But as we gathered our things and drove west, I was ready to see if my little experiment would work.

As we checked in to Camp Rush No More just outside of Sturgis, I finally felt like we were back.  I love this place, we tented here last year, and if you ever find yourself near Sturgis in need of a place to camp, this place is great!  It was good to be out West again, God it makes me feel WILD.  Like I just want to keep going.  When I was a little girl, we frequently drove this way to Montana, how many hours have I spent gazing out of a car window day dreaming, having a thousand adventures in my mind?  Louis and Clark.  The Bad Lands.  Beaver Head.  The Tobacco Root Mountains.  When you are out here, they are at your fingertips, waiting to be touched.  As we crept into night for that final sleep I wanted to run, explore, stay up all night, find rocks and see animals, a very good sign.

That morning, it was like a high school reunion!  Seeing friends I saw, last night, a few weeks ago, or last year when we met.  Chad came over to me, arms spread wide open for a hug.  I hadn’t seen him since last year, I loved this family that I felt very much a part of,  how close the shared experience makes us!  As we gathered in the parking lot, chattering excitedly I still had no idea what was coming, but these great people made me completely fearless.  As the race director quietly counted it off, our small group of runners left Sturgis and headed for the Black Hills.DSC_0464

Well it is stunning, that much is sure.  I had this desire to see all the places so the beginning was great!  I ran with Kate a bit, with Andrew a bit, with Erik a bit, they all moved on and I maintained my slow pace, wanting my legs for later.  Susan was behind me which is never great, that means I’m going too fast.  The open prairie and big blue sky was all encompassing.  Still I found that I was walking… a lot.  I found that I was walking more in these first few miles than any other race!  It was all HILL!  Thus begins the mind game of “Are You Prepared For This Kari, Or Not.”   Still, the strength training was paying off, the hills were tough but I was scooting along quite easily.  Until I was not.  The climbs just got hard all of a sudden.  My heart was trying to break free, and about 10 runners pass me on this one hill.  Just like that.  WTF.  Andy stopped with this concerned look, “do you need anything?” he asked.  I thanked him but no, what was alarming was the way he was looking at me.  I felt like shit.  Did I LOOK like shit?  I began the check list:  going to hard? No.  Drinking enough?  Yes.  Eating enough?  Yes…. how much?……….

a lot……

Really?  Like what?

Well I had that half banana at the first aid station… And then two gummies.   Oh and then four pretzels at the last aid station!  I looked at my watch, it was 2:20.  I had been running for nearly four and a half hours, and eaten enough calories for one.  I’ve decided to rename my blog- “Weeeeehooooo Mistakes!”  Since that is more appropriate to how I roll.

Getting to the next aid station, refueling was number one.  First, Tailwind in the pack, so no matter what I’ll always get a steady flow of calories.  An amazing idea that I came up with several hours into the race.  Then lots of food, but not too much and I was off.  Soon I was running steady again, passing two guys where one of them said “wow you recover quickly!  I want what you’re having.”  “Tailwind!” I shouted as I ran past. Then we saw a rattle snake, sunning himself on the trail and totally pissed we interrupted him.  Oh yeah, I was in it now.  The legs felt great, I was on a reroute that was very runnable so I was hauling ass.  Very much, the whole race my thoughts were, if you CAN run you MUST.  That is, all flats and downhill’s I have to take advantage of.  Eating a cookie and running hard into the aid station at Dalton Lake (mile 30), my friend Rick was there waiting.  I didn’t know how much I wanted to see a friendly face until I saw him.  I asked how the kids were (Jeff and Erik), and they were doing great, a few hours ahead of me.  Leaving the aid station, I knew what was coming.  A long, giant, climb.  It starts out as switchbacks and turns into a  jeep road, and then just keeps going.  At some point my thoughts moved to, we actually WILL run out of mountain at some point, right?  It CAN’T go on forever… can it?  But alas it ended, and off I went, trying to get to the next aid station before nightfall.

I was familiar with what was coming because of running the last half with Erik last year and Black Hills is an out and back course.  Thinking of Erik, I missed him a bit, which was a strange sensation, and was a reminder of my goal: this race, no crew, no pacer.  Susan usually runs like this and I wanted to see if it was for me.  Night came and thus ended the perfectly warm day.  I cannot express how deeply I enjoy running into dusk, and that magical moment when you decide to flip the headlamp on.  Oh yeah…so good.   The cold was coming, so the plan was to get to the turn around by midnight-ish to get my coat.  I continued hiking up the jeep roads and seeing the dust rise in my headlamp, hearing cows moo in the distance, I was completely alone and completely contented.  Bypassing two aid stations gave me a little time and I was soon on my way to the turnaround.  This is always exciting because you start running into people on the return trip, which always gives you a little pep.  I chatted with Angela for a bit, she is one of the Gnarly Bandits, and the most upbeat human you’ll ever spend trail time with.  If you can run with Angela, do it.   Soon Erik and Jeff came out and I smooched on Erik for a bit, they both looked good, and I really began yearning for that turnaround. As I left them I thought, change shoes, get coat, eat food.  Those three things were swarming my mind, but this part of the trail is single track and riddled with big climbs,  and steep descents, and seemed to take forever.

Alas, I made it.  Half an hour, that is as long as I get.  This is also my “one sit” I get every race, so I ate soup (a lot) and changed shoes.  The feet were fine, I just wanted something new, so I discarded the Salomon’s and grabbed my Brooks Glycerin, yup, that’s a road shoe people. I would regret this decision for the remainder of the race. Susan came in and we chatted a bit, I hang on her words since she does so much RIGHT.  A chat felt good and reminded me of my mission, soon after she left, so did I.

Leaving the turnaround is the half way point, it was inky black outside dotted with the headlamps of other runners.  I love this part.  The sky was wide open, stars shinning their brightest now that the moon was out of the picture.  It was cool and damp and I knew it was more downhill from here, so essentially easy right?  Well then right away I was dying on those climbs and thinking a mountain lion was going to eat me.  Then I would hit a cold pocket and freeze my butt off.  Basically from the turn around to the next aid station I unraveled completely, turning every once in a while to sweep my headlamp in the trees ready to see my demise mid air, claws out, jaws wide to eat my face.  So by the time I got to the next aid station, I was a pooped frozen popsicle Kari, and falling asleep.   I needed to take caffeine AND stay warm standing still, tricky.  Until I saw the chair in front of a heater and a blanket.  There, I broke my rule of only one sit.  Plopping my frozen butt down, a woman sat next to me saying “It’s got to be difficult without a crew, no one is grabbing stuff for you.”  “Yeah…..” I replied.  “So can you get me a coke?”  Maybe that’s what I needed, my Mom.  This chic just volunteered.

Then Daryl Saari came into the aid station in shorts, now caffeinated and not wanting to look like a wimp in front of this ITI competitor, I was motivated to follow him out.  Up and out we went, climbing the big climbs I was now warm  and snug as a bug.  I went through the rest of that chilly night unaffected, and when dawn came, I welcomed her as I always do, unaware at the time that during that black  night, my Grandmother had passed away.  She was one of the people that was a part of my frequent journeys out west as a child, and for better or worse, I learned a lot from her.  Looking back at it, I see that night and feel…tiny.

All we had to do was get to Dalton Lake, then, we could just coast.  I was running on and off with Daryl, we talked about ITI, this race, and mountain lions.  Apparently I was right to be terrified!  We got to the descent at Dalton Lake, and I ran down (mostly), my legs felt great.  Like I was riding a horse I was barely in control of.  Yet the “kick” was there, my quads were burning on the down hills but they took them all.   I kept wondering when the wheels would fall off, when would my training experiment bite me in the ass.  But I was good!  Hike the uphill’s, run when you can, hike hard when you can’t.

The last 20 miles were so strange.  First I met a girl at an aid station that was unraveling.  Daryl and another chic continued on, and me, momma bear, stayed with her.  We talked, we had a good clip going and when I found the stray dog she was in a good place.  Enter Poett the dog.  Who was happy as hell to run with me, and I him.  But the poor pup would have followed me to oblivion on that hot day so we stopped and I called his owner.  Yes, in the middle of a race, this bitch made a phone call.  We made arrangements and Poett and I parted ways.  Off I went, running actually really well, legs flying on the downs.  Except when I was trying to find a place to poop (which never actually happened, tragically).   It was warm out, getting to an aid station I was so relieved they had ice for my pack, I told them “It wasn’t 6 hours ago I was bitching about how cold it was!”  We laughed, the volunteers were awesome this year.  My feet were killing me.  DO. NOT. wear road shoes during a trail run.  They are different you guys.  Every rock and root my dear, you WILL feel it.

Then I was almost to the last aid station, exactly where I wanted to be.  No more “next one” or “three more” just the finish from here on out.  As I made my way around the prairie, I saw my friend Kate walking with her husband.  We chatted for a bit, I don’t think I know anyone stronger.  I told her, and I’ll tell you dear one, that what I love about these events is, there is enough distance to make mistakes and have the wheels come off (they will by the way) and there is enough time to learn, adapt, and finish said race.  That EVERY event can be a learning experience and an opportunity to become more adaptable.  I told her my wheels came off at 17 miles!  And look, here we were, 7 to the finish.  It was a great place to be.

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Then the last 7 miles started.  I climbed and climbed and told myself this is the end and to be super positive.  I passed three women on horses and longed to ride out here, to smell the leather and listen to the saddle creak, to hold reigns and touch a horses neck, to lean back as we descend the mountain.  This place puts a spell on me!  Then the spell popped like a bubble filled with will power as I climbed a meaningless hill out of no where.  I stood on the top and said “who seriously cares!?  WHY am I doing this?  This is so STUPID who would do this?  What IDIOT runs 100 miles this is absolute bullshit I’m done no more never again!!!”  So I lost my patience a little bit there.  But scooted along after meeting a woman who was looking for her dog, it’s easy to pull yourself together when you have an audience.  Plus I really wanted to find two stray dogs on this run!  Alas I found myself looking at the pavement, one mile to the finish.  I only wanted to take my braids out, so I undid them and let the wind cool my hair.  I was in a place where I’ve not been before; I lost my ability to run.  But REALLY couldn’t you guys!  No worries really, plenty of time and all, it was just a strange place to be.  Probably from not doing more long runs, still not bad!  I think the training was a success, since I’m not here to win it but get that finish, and oddly felt better in some areas.  More strength training!  Anyway, I saw a shape walking toward me, it looked like Erik but it couldn’t be… and then it was!  Oh lordy my girl heart melted, so I got to walk it in with my man.  Walk by the way, and as we got to the finish and my friends were cheering I yelled “I’m not running!”

As I looked at my friends laying in the grass, I just felt so in love, most had finished and were happy to be relaxing either way.  I felt something then that I hadn’t before, having always having been a person on the move, from those early days going out west, everything temporary, I looked at them and thought this community might be here forever.  That I might be here to stay.

And then on our way home, Erik and I visited the Bad Lands,  I had been here so many times as a child, but distance makes the heart grow fonder, and I did not want to leave.  The open Wild, just waiting to be touched, each path, leading to more Wild, I was drinking it up with my eyes.  Knowing now that the end of an era was happening within my family, I desired so much to just continue driving west instead of going home.  Living a life of freedom pulls at my heart, running the Black Hills didn’t quench any of it, as usual, I want more.

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Rest, recovery, and getting back on the horse.

I’ve had too many things I’ve wanted to write about, what’s the opposite of writers block?  But I need to tell you this last story of the Order first.  Having  never done a winter ultra just two years ago, I binged on race reports and blog entries.  I write these to tell my story but also to put the information out there, to encourage and inspire anyone who wants it.  It is also one of the reasons why I shamelessly speak of my mistakes and weakest moments, they are a learning moment for me, but what good does that do sitting in my brain when I can share it and someone else can benefit!  Not being very clever I would probably be a thawing corps in Wisconsin right now had I not wrapped my sleeping bag around me that first Tuscobia night, an idea I got from reading Chris Scotch’s race report where he did the same thing at another race.  Yes, executing a race takes thought and strength, as does the recovery!  After speaking to my fellow Hrimthurs a little while ago, who were experiencing the same thing I was in some areas, my belief of telling you this final chapter was cemented.  It is easy to be there for each other during the race, but the After can be more lonely than any second night on the trail.  There is also no pushing through the recovery for me, and as much as I try to bypass certain aspects, I still have to go through the motions.  So here is my story of what happened after completing the Order, in all its full glory.

After finishing Actif, I went back to my life, spending the now standard five days in a men’s size 13 shoe due to the swelling in my feet.  This “normal” is mostly from the winter ultras, the feet swell, then they go down, then back to normal.  It never occurred to me that it would be anything else other than water.  Last year it took MONTHS to recover from Arrowhead, so this year I had a plan.  Sleep.  For many weeks I slept 10-12 hours a day, this is the first step to healing for me.  But I also wanted to do it stress free, so I slept and put away any thoughts of trying to start training again or anything like that.  I was TIRED.  So I slept.  This portion was something I actually did right.  I also starting binging on fish, in the last 15 years I haven’t eaten as much fish as I have since finishing Arrowhead.   And sometimes not even fish, you know that fake crab meat in the plastic bag at the grocery store?  BAGS of it!  I won’t use the word “addiction” here but whatever one click above that is, that is what fake crab meat is to me.   I couldn’t get enough.  So whatever my body was craving, I ate.  And then slept.

I started running a little bit.  The first time I attempted a run, I bailed.  It took a day to realize that the anxiety I had been feeling was the same anxiety that plagued me at Actif.  I actually was worried I wouldn’t finish that 3 mile training run!  After some internal coaxing I realized that not every run had to be a massive endeavor and I became the (self proclaimed) Queen of the Twenty Minute Run.  It was GREAT!  I would DRIVE to the park, run for 20 minutes, and DRIVE HOME!  Sorry planet Earth!  But it helped get me over this hump and got me back on the trail.  This was a month after Actif so I was feeling pretty proud and ahead of the recovery game.  Last year I just wanted to sleep during my runs, like actually pull over on the trail during a 5 mile run and bivy.  None of that was happening so life was great.  So far so good.  Then two things happened.  I got depressed and I got fat.  Not sure the order so we’ll just say they happened at the same time.

Sleep turned into my escape, I was sad all of the time.  I felt far away from my dreams and goals and that is a bad place to be for Kari.  The exhaustion was extreme.  To add to this, my car broke (my bad!) so I was biking to work, that’s 150 miles a week, 30 miles a day, for almost two months.  The 20 minute runs were gone, my days piled on top of each other, I rode my bike and my world shrank.  I cried every day.  All of this riding didn’t change the fact that I now have a full extra layer of fat on me!  I couldn’t figure it out!  And it had nothing to do with that sugary fake crab meat so don’t even think it!   There was this puffy fat around my knees, my KNEES!  I had a belly and chubby knees. Oh God!  I just ran 100 miles!  I could not figure it out, and the state of my body compounded the state of my mind.  I’m not super lean or skinny anyway due to chips and the fact that my boyfriend works at a brewery, and generally don’t care about weight unless it’s two weeks before a race and then I freak out about dieting.  But this was different, I looked unhealthy and felt weak and THAT is not ok.  This helplessness went on for… who knows.

There was never one day where I “got better” but it was more like a series of events that cracked open the depression and let some light in.

First, I spoke to Craig the physical therapist who comes into the store.  We talked of training and racing and recovery, that we, the Order, should be guinea pigs for some mad scientist to experiment on.  That the swelling in my feet was not water but some creepy residue from my body eating its own muscle, LEAN muscle.  WHAT!  What an asshole!  So yes, when you actually traumatize your body it does react to keep you alive…by eating itself.  ewwwwwww!  So that’s where the fat Kari came from.  I decide to join a gym.  Touché universe, as this was something I said I would never do!   But I needed to get strong, I needed a huge change up, I needed to swim in the pool, I needed to get my muscle back and the fat would take care of itself.  So I joined a YMCA to play and swim, and every day my heart shoots out of my chest and dramatically swirls to the bottom of the pool and it feels great!

The mental recovery takes as much time to heal, and that healing for me truly began at the Zumbro 100.  I was reunited with my fellow Hrimthurs and as we talked of the ITI we had tears in our eyes.  It was so good to see them and it filled the giant hole that was in my heart that I didn’t know they could fill until then.  Catharsis.  I talked to my friend Ed, and as the morning went on we swapped stories, talked dreams, and we spoke of the actual reason for doing any of it, and that is the connection with our fellow runners.  My ship was being set right with each conversation.  Later that night, I paced two of my friends to their first 100 mile finish.  One was during the Witching Hour, the shitty part of the night, and the other I paced her last loop, the victory loop.  Watching these strong women give everything to get the hard earned buckle was HUGE, I was focusing not on my own insecurities and out of touch dreams, but instead was focusing on them and their finish.  It was so wonderful to watch.  Zumbro was a wakeup call, and when I went home I was ready to get my duckies in a row.

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One of my favorite pictures from Zumbro.  Not sure what we were talking about, but it is very symbolic to how I was feeling!

Since then, I’ve been focusing on strength at the gym, swimming, and consistent running.  Even if it’s for a few minutes, I try to run 5 days a week.  I’ve started fixing things that need fixing, IT bands and those pesky tight caves.  All of this to be a better runner for next winter and injury free.  Being an addict, balance is hard for me, so I’ve already over done it twice by working out three times in a day and having to sleep for a day.  This puts me right back at day one after Actif so I am REALLY trying to move to consistent training vs acting like a slow Olympian.  Adrenal fatigue is a huge concern, so I’ve been taking Adrenal Support drops and Hammer Mito caps, whether these work who knows, but it makes me feel proactive and that helps.  I’ve changed my version of challenge and have started to meet with friends again, spring is here, and winter is coming.  This all comes down to getting ready for next year.  Training for winter starts in July and I have added more to my training blocks.  I have every intention of going for the Order again, with an Unsupported Arrowhead mixed in.  Actif is almost a given, as dramatic as it was, I think about her every day.  I know my mistakes and want one more go of it.

I remember my recovery after road marathons being two days.  But this is a whole new world, this winter ultra shit and those days are gone!  It’s not the distance, it’s the TIME.  Staying up all night messes you up!  For a WHILE.  And the recovery isn’t just, put your feet up and rest, it is multi faceted.  I am reminding you and Future Me to be our most adaptive selves when it comes to recovery.  If something doesn’t work, change it.  If you’re not motivated to do something, do something else!  And what ever you are going through, chances are so is someone else, even if to a different degree.  Regardless of the detours this spring I’m already better at recovering than I was last year, and I hope you find this last chapter of 2017 to be your Sleeping Bag, use it!

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Back at it during the Chippewa 50k, happy to be running without the sled.

Adding Art to the Art Blog.

Below would be one of my first landscape paintings, and the first in years.  I did this for my friend, mentor, and now boss, Jan Guenther. Jan has been a shining light as I grow into an athlete, and she has supported my dreams, let me borrow base layers, and offered encouragement whenever possible.  I see she is like that with many people, and am reminded that successful people want YOU to be successful too!  Jan is very much a giver, and I wanted to give her something that no one else could (as she certainly had all the gear she needed)!  After going to her cabin in Hayward, she made a comment joking about how all paintings she had were “Colorado mountain scenes” and inspiration hit.  My roommate at the time had just been skiing on the Birkie trail so I asked him for some photos, and chose this one taken close to Fish Hatchery.

That was TWO years ago.  I have eked my way through the painting, and it has changed its face many times.  I have learned a few things painting this, one, I am still trying to find my voice in painting.  Which is why it took so long to finish, I was changing how I wanted it to be because I didn’t know how I wanted it to be!  Two, in order for my landscapes to look the way I want, I have to let go of my obsession with detail.  You’ll see at some point in my bone drawings, I LOVE getting the tiny details in, but winter cannot be contained in this way!  So I fought this urge and went back and forth between big brush strokes, and tiny detail, which resulted in my learning experience below.

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It looks way better from a distance.

Actif Epica, Chasing the Order Part Three: Attack of the Manitoba Gumbo

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I still have no idea how to start this story.  It has been almost two weeks since we finished our race in Winnipeg and I still feel so raw from the experience.  Actif Epica was the shortest and flattest event out of the three, and throughout the last 6 weeks I have looked at this race as no more than an easy long run to finish the Order.  Rumor has it, it was tough, from my friends and acquaintances.  I was warned not to do the race and by no means do the longer version.  But I was determined and signed up for the 100 mile, and tried to convince the others to do the longer one as well.  Days later when my friend and mentor asked how it went, I burst into tears.  Jan asked, “you didn’t finish?”  Well I finished, but that wasn’t enough to heal the wound, and I realized that just because you finish a race doesn’t mean you get this blissed out euphoric feeling of accomplishment.  Sure that’s what I have experienced so far, but Actif left me feeling broken and I still am trying to figure out why.  So in the retelling, I hope to reach this catharsis that I truly need.  For you dear reader, I fear this post might be as boring as a long Manitoba dirt road.

Driving up to Winnipeg was a long and flat drive.  We got a taste of what was to come, the 8 hours of driving across the plains was the perfect opportunity to figure out our GPS units.  Actif was an unmarked course, we were given cue sheets and GPX files to load onto our GPS units to find our way.  Up until this point we had been unable to load the files, the GPS Drama was the most stressful pre race scramble to date!  We drove into Winnipeg and arrived at the Forks for gear check and in all honesty, by this time I was not in a good place.  My anxiety level was in the red, I couldn’t calm down!  It was the GPS, getting us ready, trying to make sure we’ve interpreted the odd gear requirements, and a slough of other reasons.  This anxiety sky rocketed during the race meeting, as the RD’s were discussing the race rules, trying to figure out what would constitute a disqualification, and what the gear requirements actually were.  I was trying so hard to calm down, but seeing the guys put me in a good place.  They were all excited, Randy, Scott, Paul, Jeff, and Daniel.  We had been on this journey together and now we were at the beginning of the end!

During the race meeting, we were told that as the race moves along the US border, there is a chance that one could come across a refugee fleeing the US.  That particular area had seen a lot of refugees recently, and it was a cold reminder of the state of my country.  We were given instructions on how to help them, give them clothes/food, and who to call.  I felt proud of this place that was welcoming those who weren’t welcome in my home, and ashamed that that was the case.

The race meeting ended and we headed to the hotel, where, we finally got the files loaded onto the GPS!  What a drama!  We went to bed for a few hours of sleep, we needed to head to the start at 4 am.  The morning came, Erik, Mom, Fred and I drove the long black drive to the start.  We arrived at a town with an abandoned church, and a few other dark buildings.  We were the only ones there.  No bus filled with my friends was in sight and there was the anxiety again, were we in the wrong spot?!  They arrived shortly after 6, filing out with a tiny blue stripe on the horizon.  With the entire field out of the bus, I became aware of how small we were.  Just 14 of us would go on this 100 mile journey.

Hugs and kisses to my parents, and in the quiet morning, we started our trek on a black dirt road.  Mark and Paul started at a brisk run, and Erik and I walked quickly after.  I had a pack on, opting out of a sled due to the plethora of dirt roads.  Looking at my tiny GPS screen, we made our first turn.  It would be a completely different experience from the well marked course of the Superior 100, or the wide, white snowmobile trail of the Arrowhead.  We were on a road, following the blue arrow that was us.  We crossed a frozen field in the beautiful morning, the openness was just gorgeous!  I was in Canada!  Doing one of those destination races, I felt super fancy and my belief that this was going to be a cake walk was reinforced.  Erik and I walked along a dirt road, and then turned onto another dirt road, and then our blue arrow told us to turn again.  Open fields dotted with  abandoned barns or houses watched us pass.  Places that were once something to someone.

We came to a trail, and the lead biker passed us.  He was the one who checked us in at gear check and complimented my bright yellow pants.  Shortly after that he face planted, head over handlebars, into the deep snow.  He shook it off like a pro and began walking his bike.  Erik and I, just after him, started punching through the snow.  Take a few steps, then down past my knees in snow.  I’ve never seen snow that deep and it was awesome!  I felt like an arctic explorer!  Day dreaming about the Iditarod, we slowly made our way through the field.  Then we came to another field, with more snow.  I’m not sure how long it took for the novelty to wear off but it wasn’t long.  Each step that dropped me down was like an electric shock from my knees to my hips.  I had been to the Chiropractor earlier the week before to work on my IT bands and they had felt great up to this point, but the jarring was deleting everything he had done.  I tried to make myself lighter by stepping quickly which turned into a series of slightly out of control falls.  Every once in a while I could hear Erik say “careful” as I slapped myself down the trail.

Randy caught up to us right before we got to the water drop.  The group of us took a reprieve, joking and filling our water.  We were at something like 15-ish miles.  And I was pooped!  We crossed the bridge and now were in yet another field.  Erik calmly made his way and I flopped down the trail, post holing, as the guys called it.  At one point Jeff and I made our way tediously through the snow, and the Canadians walked right past us in their snow shoes!  Talk about a brain melter!   Then we were at yet another road, my pretty yellow pants now streaked with mud, we followed the blue arrow.  Erik and I had a good system, he checked the queue sheets, I confirmed with the GPS.  There were a few discrepancies, sometimes there was a sign when there shouldn’t have been, but we made our way.  In the afternoon sun, as a group we walked quietly down the muddy road.  Then Randy yells “this is boring” and I laughed out loud.  How true, where was the white winter, the beauty?  I was just on a road.  This was so unlike the Winter Ultras I had become spoiled with.

We got to the first checkpoint, and it was here where the End came.  The end of my battle to be positive, to be a good competitor, to enjoy the journey.  I found out that our pace  was minutes ahead of the cutoff, that in order to finish, I could not… slow…down.  And I always slow down.  I fear I passed my anxiety onto others as we gathered to go.  I had no idea how this was going to happen, I had no faith in my ability to maintain this pace to the end.  Erik and my Mom spoke words of encouragement as we left the checkpoint.

As we headed down the dirt road, Erik, Jeff, and I were passed by more bikers offering their words of encouragement.  One even let us know we went the wrong way in the first bad post holing section, and we went extra miles.  What!?  The day went on, passing another abandoned building or funny goat.  We met up with Mark on the trail, his feet were in bad shape and they were working their way up to the rest of his body.  The wet snow and mud were brutal, we offered words of encouragement and I willed his feet to get better.

We met a Real Canadian on the road who told us about the trail ahead, the sun was going down and the open prairie was just incredible!  We crossed it, ate some snacks, and came to a T.  The trail continued on, but to get to it, you had to cross what looked like a tiny swamp.  I could smell the stagnant water, oh hell no was I dousing my feet in that shit! They were already wet and I was not going to get them soaked!  We started to walk around, Erik took one step and was down to his knee in water.  So we went WAY around, moving down a driveway a little bit before post holing through the brush back to the trail.  As we moved back along there were signs of other riders doing the same.  One more biker came after us and we helped him pick a good place to cross, that swamp was a nightmare!

Darkness finally came and after that long day, I was feeling physically ok but ready for the checkpoint.  As I think now, many parts of this race are “missing” from my memory, or switching places.  Either way, this is the official disclaimer of the accuracy on time and checkpoints.  Erik and I walked into a checkpoint, fully dark, I think midnight, and I needed to refuel.  My feet were totally wrecked.  The severity was one that I hadn’t had to deal with ever, as I usually take care of them.  But the conditions meant there was little one could do to “fix” them.  I thought of Mark.  Peeling off my socks, a crescent shaped blister was taking residence on the ball of my feet, Trench Foot came to mind.  Shit.  I tried to eat and relax with Erik, Jeff, and Paul, but  I knew we were close to the cut off and Randy and Daniel were not in yet.  The volunteers were amazing, so jovial, asking us to hang out with them and eat ribs!  Then something happened, we’ll call it “It.”  I decided to leave it out of my report, it’s not a lie leaving it out, but would take away from the spirit of the race which I believe to be good.  The confusion of the cutoffs was becoming stressful and we four left the checkpoint and It, slightly renewed but very much working hard to get to the next checkpoint before the cutoff.  I bit back tears wondering where Randy and Daniel were, and as we turned down the road their headlamps appeared!  Erik yelled “get in get out!”  We were getting too close to this thing.

The blackness of night on the Manitoba plains was quite the experience, just flat black sky and ground, dotted with lights in the distance indicating some kind of life.  We would cross a road with no signs, that just stretched off into nothing.  Jeff made a comment about not being particularly fond of smelling pig shit for 10 hours.  I agreed.  Behind us, I could see the headlamps of my friends and relaxed a little.  Turning onto a field and uneven terrain I started stumbling and slapping my way down the trail again, Jeff and Paul’s lights quickly faded in the distance.  Four or so hours later Erik and I made it to the Niverville checkpoint.  It was four am, we needed to leave at 4:30 to pass the checkpoint.  Holy crap I was tired!  Erik got some pierogis, and we drank pop.  The volunteers were again so amazing, it still brings tears to my eyes. It was the way they looked at us.  I’ve never seen that before.  Looking at Paul, Jeff and Erik, everyone had the same look on their faces.  This was taking its toll, but we were doing it!  Randy and Daniel came in, with only 20 minutes to rest and refuel.  We all left together, but my legs were tightening up, and it took a long time to catch up to them. We laughed and joked a bit, talked about “It” but soon wiggled into single file.  Now we just have to get to sunrise.

Eating caffeine pills, we quietly marched along, the blackness of the prairie not letting the sunrise come for an incredible amount of time.  I watched our blue triangle inch along on the GPS, it had to be soon.  We turned onto a road, and then missed the turn onto the trail, so Erik and I walked back, it was one block but it seemed like more!  In the bright morning we made it to the checkpoint.  I could feel the defeat in my face, I barely could talk to the volunteers as they gave me food and orange juice.  All too soon, we had to head out once again.  Then it was fully daylight and we were on a long dirt road with open sweeping fields.

*If you have to go to the bathroom on the prairie expect some delay as all the trees are connected to houses and yards.  That was a dark time.

At the end of a road, there was the truck, and my Mom and stepdad ringing that bell.  Mom was looking so cute in her little sweater, I was just mesmerized by how pretty she looked.  Probably having something to do with how good it was to see them!  She offered well wishes and words of encouragement.  It helped!  Still marveling at how pretty Mom was, Erik and I moved easily and quickly to catch up to the others, they got ahead of us during *.  Out across a field, on some black dirt road, we trotted along.  I was starting to feel good, and eating again, something I hadn’t really been doing at all.  I chatted with Daniel a bit and ran to catch up to Erik.  But Actif wasn’t going to let us feel good for too long, as the day heated up so did the mud.  Manitoba Gumbo they call it.  Every step you take adds a layer of heavy mud on your shoes that will NOT come off, I tried pushing it off with my poles, which in turn added a layer of Gumbo to them.  Poles swinging wildly we “kitty-foot” our way across, the going was painfully slow.  Looking down at my shoes there was an inch pancake around the soles.  Thank GOD we reached the turn and the end of that hell, only to be on yet another section of post holing torture.  Picking my way slowly, as it started to mist/rain, I started to cry.

There was a bridge in the distance, and I knew that was where the water drop was, making my way, a giant golden retriever started running wildly toward me.  It was my Moms dog, and to see her joy lifted my spirits!  I was greeted by the volunteers and my parents, we took pictures and the rain stopped.  Our group, my friends and brothers in this journey, were the only ones left in the race.  The conditions and cutoffs had taken their toll.  But we were getting close, Winnipeg was getting close, Daniel pointed out the skyline on the last hellish section.  We were doing it.  Nothing was in the bag though, so off we went.  Under the flood way and over the bridge, I heard someone scream in pain.  This race was REALLY taking its toll.

Randy waited for Daniel, and Erik and I moved toward the final checkpoint.  We were so close to the cutoff, it was time to move hard.  Erik was pulling me with his words of encouragement, and we stumble ran to the college.  Through the neighborhoods, I tried running as hard as I could, I could FEEL my legs were just dead weight.  I didn’t know how this was going to happen.  To be this close to a finish and still not know if a finish was even possible was a new experience.  I folded.  I let Erik pull me, he took charge of the GPS and I ran until I could only muster a slog.  As we got close, Randy and Daniel appeared behind us, and we reached the final checkpoint together.  Fred said it was the first time he had seen me get to a checkpoint and not smile.  Sitting down I wanted no food or drink, just get that damn pack off my poor ladylike shoulders.  Mark came over asking if anyone needed food, his race had ended the day before.  Instead of doing what I would do which is to cry in my martini alone for 4 days, he was here!  He took my shoes off, cleaned off my feet, brought me mountain dew (gross but no coke means tough decisions must be made).  He offered words of encouragement, and more importantly showed me a better way to be.

Kissing my parents, Erik, Daniel, Randy and I left the final checkpoint and headed to the finish, 9 miles away.  We were sticking together, my legs were gassed but I know we could maintain 2.8 miles per hour to finish within the cut off.  A while later, there was Mark again, directing us to the trail, he was in full volunteer mode!  Through the neighborhoods we went, the open prairie replaced by suburban Winnipeg.  As we walked, a runner passed us and with a cheer shouted “hey, Actif Epica?!”  I was with Daniel at the time and neither of us said a word.  Not one little peep of acknowledgment.  We were so deep in the pain cave, the thought of that poor runner now makes me laugh a little bit!  We came to a bridge and there was Mark again, lord every time I saw him I started to cry!  It was so awesome seeing him out there being such an amazing ambassador for our sport.

At last the road for us ended and we were once again coming to a trail.  This time the same volunteer that had been at many of the checkpoints was there.  I’m sorry I don’t know his name now, he started walking with us, and continued to walk with us for the duration of the race.  He was seeing us to the finish.  Soon another volunteer joined us, a young girl, who paired up with me as I walked behind the boys.  We talked about the race, her school and work, and she told me how far to the finish.  Another volunteer joined us on our final march to the finish.  My heart swells now thinking of it, and this is going to be my takeaway from Actif.  The people that walked us in were a true testament to the race, that is not a race, but is.  They wanted to be and very much were a part of this, and to be walked to the finish will be a huge memory for me until death.  Maybe it was because I felt so broken, and they made me feel cared for.  Maybe it was because I felt big and strong and they were escorting my amazing self and my amazing friends into this realm of awesome.  As we topped a little hill, there were my parents and the cow bell and it all became very real.  Another volunteer joined us, and another, and then the RD came and with an amazing amount of energy walked with us chatting about where our friends were.  This troop made its way to the Forks.

Daniel was a few steps behind so we stopped to wait, Randy, Erik, Daniel, and I would finish this together.  From someone who previously did not like doing events with other people I will gladly eat my words, there was no where else I wanted to be.  With Fred ringing the cowbell announcing our arrival, we four walked through the busy square.  The young girl pointed to a spire with a Canadian flag telling me that was the finish, I told her she should do this race someday.  As we came to the finish, there was Paul, Jeff, and Scott cheering us in.  God we did it.  I was so proud of them, of us, to do this strange and hard thing.  Scott, who made the CHOICE to finish and did, the definition of mental power.  Paul, his first winter ultra was the Tuscobia 160 and he made it and them all look easy.  Jeff, who lives up to his name, so rock solid in mind and body during the grueling parts.  Randy, whose hilarious humor is outweighed only by his true care for others.  Quiet and strong Daniel, who I saw at Arrowhead breakfast and was too shy to ask him to join us, after chatting with him and hearing stories by others I know our table missed out and I’m reminded to include everyone, you never know what new friend awaits.  Erik, who pulled me selflessly those last miles and who I PROMISED this was not like other winter ultras.  We all did it.  I can’t say anymore on the love and bond I have with these humans, because it just won’t do.

There we were, after the photographs, in a warm room, sitting in chairs, and not worrying about cutoffs.  We finished with 20 minutes to spare and were now enjoying the luxury of time.  Mark had the presence of mind to bring food from the last aid station to the finish, and we took our medals in a haze.  Mom and Fred had pizza, and wine, so Erik and I left to head back to the hotel.  I still want that pizza.  Too tired and beat to pig out like a little…well piggy, it was an early night.  After a restless sleep we prepared to leave and meet the boys for breakfast.  That was a good idea, seeing them again, all of us on a long table eating food and laughing at how miserable we had been just a moment ago.  Mom made us “mug rugs” of our Hrimthurs experience, she brought many of us to tears with that kind memento.  I got a chance to thank Mark, and listen to the boys stories.  All too soon we were back in the car, heading to North Dakota.  Driving to the border, we passed exits that lead to towns that previously had no meaning, but now have been marked by our suffering and bonding.  My legs were so tight I could barely stand.  Stopping at a rest stop I was leaning on Mom trying to get to the bathroom, unable to keep my balance.  This race had also marked itself on my body.

And here I am, living this again, crying again, feeling the anxiety of the cut off again.  Have I reached catharsis?  The beginning I think.  But I know now that this race and experience is very important.  I’m still working on the how, but there is a relevance here that I need to live with and listen to for some time.  Until then, I reached my goal of getting into the Order.  That a little over a year ago I heard Chris Scotch talk about it in the race meeting of my FIRST winter ultra and I thought, “Oh Shit” knowing I had to do it.  That I’m standing on the platform of my goal and it is yet again, not what I expected.  That it was not a podium of victory, but a hard march to a finish with people I actually don’t feel up to par with.  That it was the shared experience, it is always the shared experience (as this loner humbly admits) that makes everything worth while.  That we, none of us do this alone.  And I’m not just talking about Acif Epica anymore.

actif-3actif-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arrowhead 2017: Chasing the Order Part Two/Gummie Bear Feast.

Driving up to International Falls for the Arrowhead my head was brimming with the expectations of what was to come.  I was filled with excitement to see my fellow participants and friends, and eager to get out on the trail.  Arriving at gear check was like coming downstairs on Christmas morning.  Jennifer was there, my eyes caught Race Director Ken, and moments later Paul, Jeff, and Randy sauntered in.  This topped off my giddiness and we laughed about Tuscobia, recovery, and what the Arrowhead had planned for us.

While my parents were at the volunteer meeting I was working on repacking my sled…again.  The conditions were looking favorable, but I was worried about a repeat of last year.  Knowing this year we wouldn’t have access to dryers, I laid 12 pair of  wool socks on the bed.  Maybe excessive?  I left them there to think about it.  Before the pre race meeting started , Mom, Fred, and I sat one of the long tables and reconnected with people we’ve all met this last year.  Thomas sat by us and I asked as many questions as I could about the upcoming Actif Epica.  Thomas is so thoughtful, you can see it behind his eyes, and I tried to hang on to every nugget of advice.  I asked him how many socks he was taking: four, hmmm not enough for me.  A few people came over to wish me luck, and ask “soooo…. how ARE you feeling?”  Referencing my escapades on the Tuscobia trail 3 weeks earlier.  “I feel great, I think!”  Knowing full well for the past few weeks I had been whining to my boyfriend about how my ankles hurt, my calves hurt, my hips hurt, I’m tired and fat.  But we were at the Arrowhead, my game face was on and I wanted to start!  Rachel came over, she was doing the foot division self supported and I could see she was down to business mentally already.  I asked how many socks she was taking: six.  That sounded reasonable, so I told her that’s what I will do as well based on her decision.  “Please don’t” she said.  Too late I chuckled on the inside.  It’s amazing I’ve finished one race.  The meeting is one of my favorite parts and I laugh at Ken’s jokes too loud, like an awkward first date.  We eat our food, and head to the hotel for one last comfortable sleep before the Uncomfortable starts.

The morning was beautiful, the temp was in the easy high teens, and the 4-6 inches of predicted snow fall was down to “maybe one.”  Still fearing the sloppy/mushy/sandy conditions from last year, I wasn’t going to relax until I see the trail myself.  Ken promised us a surprise at the start, and as we headed over, fireworks went off!  Fireworks!  For us, I felt so special!  Getting last minute hugs from Julio, Mom and Fred, I was still looking for Alex.  Then I heard her yell and we exchanged hugs, she was following her boyfriend Jared at the Arrowhead after her win at Tuscobia, “He has it in him” I said squeezing her, so much wanting both of them to fulfill their winter ultra dreams this year.  Ken yelled “Release the hounds” and we moseyed down the trail, hugs and kisses went to my parents in the dark, and the adventure started.

You could feel the excitement, marching down the trail the sounds of chatter, laughter, and dragging sleds filled the air.  I walked and talked easily along, saying hi to friends and wondering how this will be.  When will my body say enough?  This was so hard last year, and I just finished my longest race ever a few weeks ago.  When will my knees and heart just say no?  As the sun rose, the answer was “never.”  I felt energized… correction, I felt cocky!  The snow was perfect, the temperature was perfect, my sled was perfect… I started to run.  Not to win or get a good time, it was pure jubilance.  Passing Chris on the trail he shouted “I think you’re on fire!”  Smiling I ran on, this was where I wanted to be.  Moving easily over the hard packed trail, I ate my naan wraps, vowing to keep eating and drinking consistently over the next few days.  After burning off that excess energy, I wiggled into my march.  The miles pass and then I hear that sound, THE sound that anyone who does a race with me comes to love: my Mothers cowbell.  Running again I round a corner and there they are.  Mom, Fred, and Julio, cheering on participants at an intersection.  We exchange smiles and laugh at how great it is, I take the opportunity to go to the bathroom.  For guys, they barely have to stop, nay, they don’t even have to go to the side of the trail to pee, just right there in the middle for Kari to drag her sled through.  For the ladies, the harness comes off, the fanny pack comes off, and then find a tree.  It’s a process.

A few hours later, walking along the still easy trail, I started wondering where I was.  Last year I got to the first check point exhausted and well after dark.  Nothing seemed familiar and my energy was ebbing, but I shook off the wondering and put a gummy bear in my mouth.  That gave a little energy burst and my quick step returned.  I passed two people and then heard behind me “oh there is the road, Gateway is the next turn.”  Whaaaaat?!  It was afternoon!  Daylight!  And I felt great!  What a huge difference the conditions were making, I charged into the first checkpoint with Scott and we laughed at how this race was “practically over.”  30 minutes, that’s all I was allowing myself here, wanting to push hard to MelGeorges where I would take my reprieve.  Downing two Gatorades and a sloppy joe, I changed my socks and looked disdainfully at my jacket.  My wet jacket.   Shrugging it off, I left the first check point as the sun went down.  Helen came in as I was leaving, gliding over the snow,the reflective strips of her parka lighting up the night.  Then Thomas came in and we shouted at each other, I took a right and was back on the trail.  Laughing as I reached the point on the trail that last year I had my first breakdown.  HA!  What was the problem Kari?  Into the first night I went, confident and happy.

I’m still a newbie at all of this ultra stuff, but the more I do them the more I learn.  One thing I’ve discovered, like clockwork (pun intended) is that at about 12:30/1 a.m. is when the deep sleepiness sets in, then, after pushing through to 2 a.m. I take some caffeine and coast to daylight.  The deep sleepiness does set in on that first night…at 9:30 p.m!  Thinking to myself that this is going to be a long night, it took every ounce to not take a caffeine pill, but to hammer it out to at LEAST midnight. The Tuscobia Hangover had arrived.  A grey silent shape swooped into and out of the beam of my headlamp just yards ahead.  Heart skipping a beat I looked for the owl again but she was gone.

Feeling so tired,  the thought of bivying entered my mind.  Oh hell no!  I put a gummie bear in my mouth and the familiar energy burst followed.  A plan!  I’ll eat a Gummie Bear Drip, one gummie in the cheek at all times until midnight and then I can take caffeine.  This was going to work.  As I was calculating I slowly became aware of a sound, like background noise that you unknowingly got used to. Stopping my loud sled my heart practically burst with joy as a wolf howled in the distance!  A short time later I started walking and it became clear we were moving toward each other.  He was so close that I could hear his howl was a bit raspy.  That was a big boy.  A few hours later and a whole wolf chorus penetrated the night, I could still single out the first wolf, the others were piercing and high pitched, he was low and raspy.  Being out on the trail with them was so energizing, and was a reminder of how deep in the woods we were.

The Gummie Bear Drip got me to midnight, and I took some caffeine.  Then I was hammering it, moving well and feeling awake again.  Getting to Gateway before dark was great, now I wanted to get to MelGeorges before dawn.  I had been walking with Joe on and off throughout the night, we had met last year when he had dnf’d Arrowhead for the second time.  Looking at him and his cool sled set up, I told him this was his year.  We moved easily, and I kept putting a single Gummie in my cheek.  Meeting people along the way, we chatted a moment before Joe and I passed them, I could smell the barn.  Soon enough the “five miles to Melgeorges” sign appeared, unreal!  We were going to get to the second checkpoint before 6 a.m!  When we got to the lake I shouted “Hey Elephant Lake we’re back you big bitch!” I could see a line of red blinkies ahead, indicating other people heading to the reprieve of the halfway point.  Looking behind I saw Joe’s headlamp and others behind him, we were all experiencing the same thing heading across that lake.  Almost there.  It is a long trek and goes on forever though, my IT bands were massively inflamed again and I was unfortunately taking vitamin I to help.  Being so close to a checkpoint, they began to hurt worse, the body and mind are an amazing thing!  Either way, we got there, unclipping my harness I walked up the stairs into my Mothers arms.  We laughed at how early I was and that felt great!

Getting into the lively cabin is a great experience.  Right away I started asking about my friends, where was everyone!?  Where was Randy and Helen and Chris, where was Rob and  Jared?  Paul had just left, and every time I heard that some one was out already and doing well it was a sigh of relief.  I looked up and saw Thomas, “when did you pass me?” I asked.  With a  beaming smile he replied “I dropped.”  The relaxation on his whole person was evident and I was instantly happy for his decision.  The Arrowhead is tricky, it makes it ok, even when it’s not.  I ate a lot, but there were so many people around I was having trouble concentrating.  Mom and Fred were bringing me soup and grilled cheese, I watched Mom bob back and forth looking after other participants.  She was more in her element than anyone else there.  Leaving a pile of wet clothes and headlamps with empty batteries I climbed upstairs to get some sleep.  I had plenty of time, hoping for two hours of sleep, maybe three, and I could stay up for another day and a half.  Slapping some desitin on my blisters, I stretched out on the bed and napped for one restless hour.  Dreaming that Mom had tried to wake me, I prematurely came down to join the chatter not knowing that tiny hour would be my only true sleep at the Arrowhead.

Daylight had arrived and more racers were moving in and out of the cabin, I started to ready myself.  Not taking care of things before I lay down meant more work now and the going was slow.  Joe and I talked about leaving together, I sternly told him that we can keep moving together but I don’t want him waiting for me, “if you want to go, go.”  He replied “no problem, chivalry is rightfully dead.”  It was wonderful leaving the halfway point before I even got there last year!  The marveling at how easy the trail was in comparison to the year before never stopped.  Hugs and kisses to Mom and Fred and we walked down the road back to the trail.  I looked out toward Elephant Lake and saw more people making their way across, and feeling a bit sad that it would be a year before I could cross it again.  Getting to the trail I reached into my pocket for my watch… and it was gone!  The last time I used it was when we were crossing the lake, dammit!  I looked out at the lake again with a desperate little whine before turning onto the trail.  Had I not gone through a watch-less Tuscobia the year before this would have melted me, instead it was just a minor inconvenience.

Wow what a beautiful morning!  The trees had a fresh dusting of snow, the sky was white and the trail lay out before me.  There are a couple giant hills right away and my climbing skills are not great so I lost Joe almost immediately.  Relaxed now that I wasn’t trying to keep up, I settled into the grove.  Those downhill’s are AMAZING!  I just love riding my sled down the big ones… and the little ones too come to think of it!  But you have to work for them, and my Tuscobia Hangover reared its ugly head at every uphill.  I had no power and walked up each hill at an embarrassingly slow clip, and was eating an unladylike amount of Ibu’s.  I know they helped, but I didn’t/don’t like the idea of telling my body to be quiet when it’s trying to say something.  But the sharp pains in my knees and deep in my hips was intolerable and I had to maintain the anti-inflammatory.  It’s not a good place to be and I hope to come back on my own power next year.

Enough of that.

I was having a GREAT time riding my sled!  I came upon Rachel and we chatted for a bit, talking briefly on how it was going.  She is so calculating and smart, I was happy to get some trail time with her.  Then I came upon Helen at the top of a hill.  She was half in her sleeping bag doing things, getting ready for a sleep, it was so sunny and she was so cute the image will always make me smile.  Rachel was going to sleep there as well and as I left them, I shook my head in amazement.  Both going unsupported, the true Arrowhead.  Next year.   I caught up to Joe, well he let it slip that he was waiting for me (what!) and then Randy and Jon.  Going up and down the hills everyone was in good spirits in one way or another.  We began to have contests for who could ride down the hill better!  The trail flattened out again and we moved easily along.  Randy was giving me tips for doing the unsupported division, like don’t melt snow that you gather from beneath a tree gesturing to his water or as he called it “Pine Tea.”  It was a great day.  After feeling broken for so long, I was starting to knit myself back together, the people I have spent time with on the trail had much to do with it.  Randy is one of those people.  I had started to bond with all the guys doing the Order as well, it made sense as we were all equally nuts for doing it.  There was a puddle in the trail, one puddle.  I stepped in it!  No worries, at Melgeorges I put bags on my feet, I was getting good at this Ultra stuff.

The second day passed in a bright blur of gentle hills and sledding.  We would spread out, and then come together.  At one point we scooped up Christiano, a Brazilian doing the Arrowhead for the first time.  Night finally came, and as I switched on my headlamp I noted “last one.”  It had started to snow again, the gentle flurries that had been falling on and off for the last few days were harmless.  Until the sun sets.  Then, you are sliding down a hill in the dark, the beam of your headlamp is cut short by the falling snow, you ride kind of squinting and praying that there are no surprises at the bottom.  As Christiano, Randy, and I get to the flats, the temperature is mild but the driving snow and wind put us all in quiet business mode.  There was a streak of frozen slush stretching out on half the trail, not wanting to go around but remembering the puddle incident from earlier, I smartly stabbed my poles (approximately 4 pounds of pressure) in the slush to make sure this portion was firm.  When it held I took my 150 pound body and stepped down in to icy slush that went up to my calves, over my baggies and into my shoes.  SHIT I yelled climbing out of the ice, “IDIOT I’M AN IDIOT!” Randy looked at me with a seriousness that shut me up, “what’s the plan?” he calmly asked.  We were just a few miles from a shelter, I didn’t want to stop in the open and the temp was mild so loosing a toe wasn’t an issue.  We would move to the shelter.  Luckily I knew exactly where we were as I had come upon someone pooping in this very spot the year before, and you don’t forget something like that.

We make it to the shelter, and take a reprieve.  Two bikers were getting ready to bivy and a fire was going.  Randy lay down on the frozen ground to shut his eyes while I worked on my feet. The bikers kept chatting with us and I looked at Randy trying to sleep, I felt protective of the little time we had here, instead of asking them to be quiet I offered them Pringles thinking that might give him a moments peace.  Fresh baggies, socks, and desitin did the trick for the feet, but I fear the slush water put a chill in me that would be there the duration of the race.  Stopping was sapping our heat as well and we made a move.  I’m tedious on the trail so it takes a long time to get my harness and gloves right, and as I’m adjusting the boys are waiting getting cold.  Finally we move, 10 miles to Surly, the last check point.  This was happening!  This is the hilliest part of the trail, the uphill’s are steeper and more frequent and the going slow.  I was still slow going up but my sled was on form for glide, at each hill I would loose the boys, then catch up to them on the downhill’s.  I loved watching them come down the hill that night, just headlamps moving at an unnatural speed in dark.

Maybe I didn’t wait long enough to write this, so that I could process it.  Maybe my writing skills are lacking.  But I can’t tell you, dear one, how absolutely unending the last ten miles to Surly are.  Other than to say, they are unending. Unending.  It makes no sense, you cruise for seemingly miles down the hills and yet, the miles creep and creep by.  Or they cease.  I had no clue what time it was, we were all tired and it was early morning or so I thought.  After seemingly hours two snowmobilers came by and spoke with Randy, after they left I asked “did they say 2.4 to the check point?”  “6.4” was his response.  On and on we crept to the checkpoint.  Randy called it, ready for a nap, he was doing the unsupported so getting to a checkpoint was meaningless to him.  I lay on top of my sled and immediately fell asleep.  A few moments later I grunted awake, got up and started walking.  We have to be only an hour away, I had to push through.  Christiano caught up and we walked together. Getting closer to Surly there were signs and mannequins shoved in the snow, a mask here, a leg there.   I prayed for patience.  Finally a snowmobile came around the corner and said the check point was right there, I babbled quickly at Christiano and a few moments later we were there.  Praise the baby Jesus we were there!  And so was Mom.  Totally drained we hugged and I got my camp meal going, heading inside the giant teepee to sit down I mumbled at Joe who was in great spirits.  He was rocking it to his first Arrowhead finish!

So far ahead of the cut off and 19 hours to finish the last 25 miles meant I was in NO hurry.  Chilled to the bone (probably from the mini plunge) I sat next to the fire soaking up the heat and eating my mesquite bbq camp meal… not recommended by the way!  I should have slept, gone outside and bivyed, but stubbornly did not.  Instead I sat there doing nothing until it was time to go.  Rejuvenated a little knowing we were so far ahead of the cut off, I once again set out on that final stretch to Fortune Bay.  Into the night once again, I thanked and hugged my parents before heading to Mount Wakemup.  Christiano and I hauled ourselves to the hill, this time I would be going down in the dark which was thrilling in its own way.  Sliding down into blackness I reached the bottom and waited for Christiano, we laughed and kept walking.  Not too much later, my wheels completely came off.  We were both tired, I was swerving, the temp was dropping and wind was picking up.  We picked up the pace to warm up but soon dropped down to a slow slog.  I took a caffeine pill which made me feel absolutely sick to my stomach.  My body didn’t want caffeine, it wanted sleep, and as a result my core temperature was dropping.  I had just a few moments of sanity left so at 14 miles to the finish with a blue stripe on the horizon, we bivyed.  Just a few moments after I climbed in and shut my eyes, a snowmobile stopped.  It was Robbie, we were on the trail.  In my desperation I just plopped myself down in my sled, a very big no no.  He picked up my sled and moved it a foot over, in my sleeping bag and bivy I attempted to hop on top of it.  Which looks about as funny as it sounds.  We laughed and he scooped me up and set me on my sled.  I snuggled in and closed my eyes.

It’s debatable whether or not I slept.  It just felt so good to rest, but soon my wet feet were chilled, and then my body started to shiver.  I rolled off of my sled and sat up in the morning brightness.  The sun had not risen, so I guessed we stopped for less than an hour.  I told Christaino that I was leaving as I gathered myself.  Very cold now from stopping, I shoved everything into my sled, made sure he was awake and charged into the dawn.  Not wanting to eat food because of a nauseous stomach that was plaguing me for the last day, it was time for a Gummie Bear Drip.  Yes!  Life and sugar pulsed through me and I was moving fast over the last flat portion.  Just stopping to rest my eyes worked wonders and I was once again hauling ass!  Now that I was alive, my mistake from the night before came crashing down.  I had not taken care of myself and pushed it to the point where my decision making skills were compromised, stopping on the trail, you IDIOT!  I angry cried and hoped to find Robbie again before the end to apologize.  Shaking it off, and shoving two gummies in my mouth, I easily took down the last few miles.  Getting to the bog was wonderful!  It was here last year where I totally cried my butt off, I laughed at myself and how weak and dumb I had been, completely forgetting the mistakes and tears made earlier on the trail this very morning.  Isn’t life grand!

Gummie Bear Drip maintained, the Arrowhead trail wound through the marsh and trees, a bright sun and blue sky lit up my whole world.  It was perfectly beautiful.  Turning a corner, I saw a car and my heart leaped thinking it was my parents… then sagged seeing that it wasn’t….then leaped again seeing that it indeed WAS!  My Mom climbed out and I stopped at the top of the hill and did a little dance.  We laughed and hugged each other, 1.5 miles to go!  Jon and Randy were just ahead so I headed down the last portion trying to catch them.  What a beautiful day it was, walking through the trees, and when I saw the snow fences I wept with joy.  Odd that  I had been surrounded by beautiful scenery for two and a half days and it was an orange plastic fence that got the water works started.  I thanked the trail for passage, and said goodbye vowing to be back next year.

The finish was amazing, Mom, Fred, and Jennifer were there along with a few other volunteers.  We talked excitedly at each other and took pictures, the fatigue of the last few days gone.  The trail was packed and easy, I had pr’d by HOURS without even trying!  Heading into the casino finally, I passed the final gear check and went into the room with the other participants.  Everyone has the same look on their faces, and the same waddle!  I walked over to Ken and told him it was too easy, he said he would work on making it harder next year.  I was reunited with my watch, which FRED found under the bed I was sleeping on!  When Robbie came in I apologized for putting him in that position, I want to be an ambassador for my sport and in that moment I failed.  We hugged and I was calmed by his reassurance, was again floored by the efforts and care that the snowmobilers have for us, Todd, Robbie, and others who were faceless helmets for days.

My friends were all accounted for, celebrating in their red faced and fatigued way, and I began The Feed.  Two buffets, one for dinner, one for breakfast, that is all I wanted in the world, and a good sleep.  Mom, Fred, and I ate like kings, we swapped stories and began planning for Actif.  It was awesome celebrating with them, it makes the whole thing worthwhile, having them there, but they were tired too from 25 hours of volunteering at Melgeorges, so we made an early night of it.  I slept easy, the Arrowhead is the One for me, I was grateful to be there, the sadness wouldn’t come for a few days and I already miss it.  But that next morning at breakfast more war stories were swapped, more orange juice drank, and talk of the Order continued.  One more.  When I finish it I’ll be only the second woman to do so in the foot division.

One more…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuscobia 160, chasing the Order part one.

The Tuscobia 160 mile ultra had been on my mind for a year, ever since I had a successful 80 mile first attempt the year before.  It was my first winter ultra and this year the 160 would be the furthest I had gone, I wanted to be prepared.   I had been meeting with a small group of women every few months to talk logistics and dreams, each of us supporting the other in our own way.  It was our Winter Women group.  After a year of planning, passing gear check, and one last night of sleep, I was driving to the start in Rice Lake Wisconsin.

Once there, I was feeling happy and surrounded by my family and friends, as Chris Scotch laid out final instructions, Helen yelled “1,2,3, go!” and we were off.  Waving kisses to my Mom and Step Dad, all of us 36 runners moved into the darkness surrounded by dozens of red blinking lights.  The start was a confusing time for me, less than a mile in and I dropped a glove, returned to me by the beautiful Jennifer.  I was over dressed, so after moving along at a fast walk I was already over heating.  So I stopped to take off my puffy.  Soon I was freezing.  So I stopped again to add a layer.  Then my hydration tube froze, so I stopped to put the pack under my two coats (where it should have been).  This all happened in the first few miles, I was not in a groove at all!  Meanwhile I got to chat with a few runners, my ladies Alex, Jennifer, and AJ, and the sun rose.  The Tuscobia sunrise was beautiful, it was a bright winter morning.

The plan was to move hard through the day and night until the turn around in Park Falls, sleep, and then coast to the finish.  Easy as pie.  Going for the Order was my final goal, so I wanted to sleep more during this race so I wouldn’t bottom out at Arrowhead.  All of this was swarming my mind, I was sweating and thirsty, walking I continued to crack my hydration tube trying to coax water out.  Ten miles in, I could finally drink.  I was making a lot of tiny mistakes, feeling spread out, and discombobulated.  Walking along the trail that was in my dreams for a year, I looked into the woods at the snowy ground and sweeping fields.  It was here I became aware of how still everything was, and how loud and intrusive my body and mind were in comparison to the landscape.  The panic and anxiety of everyday life that had become my new “normal” became apparent, but had no place here on the trail, if I was going to succeed I needed to drop it immediately.  Taking a deep breath, my race started then, in the quiet and healing winter.

Eating and drinking, the miles passed, and it was fun recognizing places on the trail from last year.  I started leaving bits of “power” on the trail for the return trip.  Stab a pole in the ground, power.  Stab another pole in the ground, POWER!  I saw Mom and Fred at an intersection, we chatted momentarily and I eased on.  The blue snow started to turn orange, and the shadows of the trees stretched from one side of the trail to the other.  The first day was coming to a close.  Still regularly eating and drinking, darkness came and I started looking for the first check point, Ojibwa.  Patience is not a virtue I possess, and the closer I get to a resting point the worse it gets.  Fully dark and my mind bent on Tiki lights I hurry on, impatiently shoving Pringles in my mouth and following a red blinkie miles ahead.  A lifetime later, the red blinkie was gone, a good sign!  Then I saw a white headlamp look back at me, then turn and walk away (I found out a short time later that it was my friend Alex), I was at the spur trail to the check point!  Rejuvenated I took the left off of Tuscobia to Ojibwa, and met Faye on her way out, it was good to see a Winter Woman on the trail!  Soon, Moms cowbell could be heard in the distance, 45 miles is a long time.

Stepping into the warm shelter was awesome, and I was all business.  Immediately drying gloves, headwear and coats.  There was frost everywhere, in between every layer of coat and shell, and base layer.  Once that was started, I put new batteries in my lamp, resupplied food in my fanny pack, and ate as much food as I could.  There was no hurry to leave, and the resupply took about an hour.  Getting ready to leave again, I noticed (for the first time) that my socks were wet, being warm I literally didn’t feel it!  Feeling a rush of adrenaline at this potentially deadly mistake, the sock swap was made.  I asked about the weather for the night and dressed “appropriately” for it, there was an emergency over coat in my drop bag, thinking I was prepared for the night, I stupidly left it behind.  Kissing my Mom on the cheek, I moved toward the night, 35 miles to the turn around, easy as pie.

The first few miles were great, I was moving fast over the trail, smiling at the perfect sky above.  The stars were bright and beautiful, the white  Moon just behind me casting long shadows on the ground.  It was truly lovely.  Slowly but surely the temperature dropped.  No worries, starting to get a little chilly I picked up the pace and soon warmed again.  Then it got chilly again.  So I picked up the pace…and didn’t warm up.  Walking fast, my core temperature dropped, eating more food trying to get warm, my hands started to freeze from the exposure.  Frost was building up again around my face and I moved at a fast clip.  I was chilly but that was fine, I could maintain this until the turn around.  Hours pass.  It became clear that I could not maintain this until the turn around!!!  Not wanting my hands to refreeze I opted out of eating and drinking, this put me in a downward spiral of cold and Bonk.  I was getting dangerously cold and something had to be done.  Idea time!  I had a thermarest insulated sleeping pad, I could wrap that around me and be snug as a bug, right?  Knowing that stopping would make my core and hands get even colder, I committed one last time to stop and get the pad out as quickly as possible.  There are many things that I am grateful for: Smooshie, my Mother, a warm bed, and that no human ever saw the “Thermarest struggle of 2017”  Flailing about trying to get it around my shoulders looked something like a cat chasing its own tail for MINUTES.  No thumbs made the task impossible, and after an embarrassing amount of time, I gave up. Needlessly  chilled even more, I moved down the trail, chiding myself for not taking my extra coat.  More time passed, this was not sustainable.  My sleeping bag!  I could use that to wrap around instead.  One last time I stopped and cracked that baby open.  Easily wrapping it around, I soon felt the warmth returning, and walked with the heavy bag over my shoulders for the rest of the night.

Early in the blackness of morning, a headlamp ahead stopped me in my tracks, as it drew near I asked “am I going the wrong way”  The spirited balacalava said he was on his way back.  I stared stupidly at him… then broke the silence by asking him to zip my pit zips shut!  We chatted and parted ways and I marveled at how fresh and cheery he was.  Dawn came, and I yearned for the turn around, daydreaming at the food and sleep I would soon enjoy.  Feeling a little pep, I dropped the sleeping bag and tried to move quickly.  In the dawn, another human was walking toward me, I have tears in my eyes recounting that sight.  I was desperate for Park Falls.  Shoulders on fire from carrying the bag all night, I was gassed, physically and mentally.  Crossing an intersection, I heard Moms cow bell, turning around I saw they were behind me.  In a daze I turned my sled around to go toward them and my Mom “white fanged” me telling me to keep going!  Two miles later, moving through the city streets, I arrived at the school.  No cheering in my heart, no “shew girl you did it”, just an internal sigh at arriving at the turnaround.

I gentleman opened the door and sled and all, I walked into the gym.  Inside, Awesome Alex was just leaving, we chatted for a bit, but I was focused on getting out of my cold and frosty clothes.  Food.  All of it, bowls of soup, crackers, cheese, cookies, doughnuts, and hot cocoa.  The man who opened the door brought me a cocoa, I thanked him for volunteering and he said he wasn’t.  He and his son were in the bike race, but I “looked so miserable” he had to help!  HA!  Eyeing the sleeping pads while eating soup, I chatted with Mom and prepared for a much needed nap, not thinking about the next 80 miles, just bent on rest.  Laying out my clothes to dry, I climbed into my sleeping bag and fell asleep.  The gym is where the 80 mile bike and run start, but throughout the pre race meeting and hullaballoo, I slept without hearing any of it.  Two hours later, Randy was standing over me singing Sweet Child of Mine.  It was time to go.  Preparing to go was slow, I wanted to eat more but was peeing brown (we’re friends right?) a sign of massive dehydration.  I guzzled water promising myself not to leave until my pee was a more ladylike color.  AJ and Jennifer were there, we chatted, shared stories and tears, and ate more food.

Feeling massively rejuvenated I continued the preparation for the final half.  My stuff was spread out EVERY WHERE.  I must have undressed as I walked across the room, and gathering myself took more time.  Repacking the sled, I was ready to go, kisses and hugs to my parents and friends, I left the school a completely different person.  The sun was bright and it was a beautiful day!   Mom, Fred, and Julio were at an intersection a few blocks later and I yelled “I’m more than half way done!”  On this 35 mile portion of the trail, I had some fear that it was going to be a suffer fest like the previous night, and I made the decision to not allow my mind to be weakened.  Stay on top of your food and water, don’t think, just walk.  I had started taking Vitamin I for my inflamed IT bands, they were excruciatingly painful, but I still didn’t like taking anything.  The day passed in an instant and darkness came, along with another beautiful night.  Instead of looking at my feet burdened under the weight of the sleeping bag, on the return trip my head was up, the direction of the trail was facing the Moon, and I eagerly walked toward her.

35 miles, done.  HOW could something be so hard one day and a breeze the next?  Either way, I was again at Ojibwa.  My parents and Erik were there and we shared hugs and words.  Maybe it was because I was feeling so good, but my diligence at preparing for the next leg dropped off here.  I warmed some clothes, but not all.  I ate some food, but not ALL the food.  I drank some water, but was back to brown piddle.  I should have slept, but ended up closing my eyes for 15 minutes.  By the time I was to leave, I was fumbling and unprepared.  Kissing my family goodbye, I left for the final stretch of the trail.  45 miles to go, less than a Voyaguer. Easy as….pie.   I later told my Mom that the first half of the Tuscobia 160 feels like a half but the second half feels like two “half’s.”  Think about it.

I walked most of this portion with Randy and Paul, I’ve never done a race like this with someone before and it was nice having company.  But I was falling asleep and veering all over, I had to take a nap on my sled at one point and when I found them waiting for me further up on the trail a wave of guilt rushed over me.  I was starting to hallucinate so I took a 5 hour energy, and this aided in making me hallucinate faster!  At one point I was standing on the trail staring at the ground waving my hand in front of my face trying to figure out if the bugs I saw were real.  I like bugs and fear I wasted plenty of calories avoiding stepping on them.  Sunrise came and my heart cheered.  It had been a long night.  We stopped to eat, I would nap or eat or drink, not enough of either.  The three of us walked through the morning, occasionally chatting, and I yearned for a gas station.  I wanted a breakfast sandwich, and was going to “wait” to eat.  Literally hours pass, I was feeling so nauseous and couldn’t figure out why!  Totally zapped I gave in on my breakfast sandwich extravaganza and started to munch on bacon.  The nausea was gone almost instantly and I felt life and energy pour into me.  We stopped and I drank more water, and felt more energy.  Todd was out on his snowmobile, and it made the experience even more real.  We happened upon an 80 miler, his “sled” had broken and one of the awesome volunteers made him a new one.  He was dehydrated, hungry, and swerving.  One of the boys gave him water and I gave him a bag of peanut butter pretzels.  We moved a little way down the trail and there was Mom, we were very close to the last town and my freaking breakfast sandwiches!  It was well after 1 pm.

I practically ran to the gas station, once there, I sat with Mom and Fred, slamming a Gatorade and two of the best eggie sandwiches in living memory.  I went to the bathroom, and looked in the mirror for the first time in days, and wow, red faced, puffy eyed, bad assness happening!  Getting ready to leave, I looked at the boys, and they looked the same.  Chatting with Mom and Fred brought me back to sorts, and I felt a little fire grow inside me again.  We left at 3pm, with 16 miles to the finish and plenty of time to do so.  I was practically frantic with the energy from the sandwiches, some of that precious energy was wasted as I dropped items and fumbled along.  Turning onto the last flat stretch of the Tuscobia trail, the energy was palpable.  The boys were moving hard, no one was talking, we had a mission and were so close to completing it!  Looking at Paul and Randy  move down the trail ahead of me, I felt a deep sense of pride for them, to move all day when it’s hard and when our “fun cards” had been punched was quite the accomplishment.  Soon we started spreading out, and night came once again.  A driving sideways snow had begun, and the last few miles of the Tuscobia trail eked their way out.

I continued moving hard, eager to finish.  Hallucinating only mildly but some things I started to see were disturbing and slowing me down.  Two miles to the turn, then one, off in the distance I could see cars and knew I was approaching the final turn.  Soon I was there and so was Mom and Fred.  It was fully dark and the driving snow had stopped.  We cheered at each other!  The last part of the race was here, and I was standing at the foot of the four miles that had derailed me last year.  I was determined to not let that happen again.  Kissing and hugging, I turned into the night.  Randy and I walked some time together, then I scooted along.  I was bent on finishing but finishing well, only letting positivity in and saying goodbye to my short patience.  The four miles passed, I reveled in the adventure we had been on, and the tears streamed down my face.  I pondered on the point of all this and could come up with no answer at the time, looking back at the process I need to go through to mentally handle a race like this, the purpose is for my soul, and a tool to battle my depression.  Hopefully these continue to emulate life.  Moving closer I saw a blinkie that didn’t move, and soon heard my Moms cowbell.  Another reason to do this?  Making memories with my two favorite people!  We reached for each other and I cried tears of joy in their arms.  I couldn’t believe it, at the finish of the Tuscobia 160!  Chris Scotch said some complimentary words which I shyly mumbled a response, he and Helen have the power to make me feel like an awkward middle schooler.  They are just too cool!

We took pictures and I was inside sitting down, sharing victory smiles with my fellow participants.  The inside of the KC Hall was bright but quiet, pizza and pop lay about as well as other racers.  Helen came over and chatted for a bit, and I gazed starry eyed at her, knowing we would be sharing the trail at Arrowhead soon.  Mom brought me Sprite, so dehydrated again I drank two liters before bed.  The three of us headed to the hotel, driving past the finish just as Scott was completing his race.  Pulling my boots off, knees screaming, calves rubbed raw from my wool socks, my biggest cheerleaders and I ate pizza and drank wine.  We shared stories, and they told me of the people they met during their 62 hours of volunteering.  I loved that they could have an experience that was exciting to them, beyond my tiny race.

The Tuscobia 160 was a “perfect” race for me, I made enough mistakes so I could learn something, but not so many that it resulted in a DNF.  I always feel so humbled after an event like this, and the reality is, I haven’t truly been tested by the elements yet.  The temperature was in negative double digits for the entire race, and yet it is still not THAT cold.  Thinking now about using my sleeping bag at -18 gives me pause, what would I have done if it was -45?  There is a lot of room for improvement, and I am grateful that Tuscobia allowed me to pass this year.  I’m getting better at fixing problems as they arise, and am working on the patience bit.  These are not natural actions for me but are crucial to winter ultra success.  All in all, it took 24 hours before I started getting excited for the 160 next year, until then, the Arrowhead awaits!

…and if the Frost Giants permit, the Order as well.

 

Arrowhead 135, 2016: Chasing dreams and teepees.

 

                On that icy February morning in International falls, I was at the start of the Arrowhead 135 mile ultra marathon.  I had talked with my Mom and Step Dad Fred, peed a thousand times, and it was time to line up.  I walked out to my sled, turned on my blinkies, it had started to rain/snow.  I reached down to put my harness on and realized the buckle was missing.  The buckle to clip my sled onto my body was missing!  Like a hammer the Arrowhead crashed down on me, the race was over before it ever started, all that planning, all of the training, gone.  It was the end of times.  Flash back to a few months ago when I sent in my application, stating to the RD my intention to complete the Arrowhead and to let me in because I was a “Hard Ass”.  Months of training, pulling my tire up and down hills, doing over nights at Afton alone, weeks earlier doing a “dry run” at Tuscobia, all came down to this moment. 

                A moment of sheer terror about the embarrassing story that would come of this and I heard Rachel’s voice chirp “I have an extra clip”.  That snapped me out of deer in headlights mode and I ran to the car to see if it fell off there.  There she was in the back seat.  Rachel said she always kept extras because plastic breaks in the cold, this whole debacle made it very clear at that moment that I am a total 100% newb at this. 10 minutes earlier the race director was asking “hey aren’t you the hard ass”!  Humbled, I walked to the start, in the dark with my comrades and hundreds of red blinking lights in the misty morning.  One last kiss to my Mom and we were off.  It’s hard to describe the beginning of an adventure, full of hope, knowing this is the most comfortable you’ll be for two days, but not really comprehending what that means.

                We march on, in a herd, the light comes slowly, many of the racers are still in a herd.  I become aware of how loud everything is, and that I’m sweating.  I pull over, shed a layer and all of a sudden the herd has passed and it’s quiet, just like that!  Now I can relax and get into a good groove.  The beginning miles pass as they do at the start, the excitement is in the air, people chatting, but I can’t wait to get into the alone time.  Meanwhile I meet up with Rachel again and her friend Matt, they spew positivity and I gulp it up.  I chat with Jason Husveth for quite some miles and he gave me some good pieces of wisdom and shared some excellent tree knowledge.  We leapfrogged for the day.  At one point there was a bloody smear and a piece of deer fur in the middle of the trail, wolf kill.  I thought “this is promising” hoping to get a glimpse.  At one point I dropped my hat, my superior 100 hat that I worked my ASS off for.  The logical thing to do was turn around and locate it in the snow, locate my white hat in the snow.  So During a 135 mile ultra, I pulled my sled around and headed back, this is where I met Thomas.  Seemingly endless amounts of energy, clipping along at the same pace that (from my perspective) he would maintain for the duration of the race.  A thick southern accent said “you must really like this thing” as he handed me the hat.  We talked for a bit, he mentioned the conditions, and it was here I was made aware of how tricky they were.   Not deep snow, just soft enough were every foot that was placed sunk down so that it was work to move forward.  I could feel my sled for the first time, and I was sweating.  No big deal, just maintain this pace, and you’ll reach Gateway by 4:30 maybe 5.  I stopped to switch socks, the mushy snow was soaking through my shoes, the moments of having dry feet lasted only that long.  I made a mental note to stay on top of my feet, and be proactive with the sock changes and body glide, something I’m not good at.  The hours pass, a chat here and there, then some quiet time in the woods and the sky was getting dark.  4:30 came and passed.  Then five.  It was dark, and starting to rain again.  Remembering Tuscobia a few weeks prior I had arrived at the checkpoint fresh as a daisy, in comparison, I hadn’t yet reached the General store and I was feeling tired!  This is the fucking Arrowhead and I’m tired at 30 miles!  I stopped to eat, got the zipper stuck on my sled because of the freezing rain, swore more times in ten seconds than in the next 60 hours.  The zipper was done for the rest of the race. 

                Getting to the general store wasn’t great.  I was annoyed they had moved it so far away!  It took 3 trips to get all the necessary gear out of the sled and inside, I was new, forgetting things, and panicking.  The warmth of the store was invigorating, and I’m not talking about the temperature.  The ladies working this makeshift aid station were angels, warm Gatorade, sloppy joes, and dryers!  I sat down, pulled out my list, worked on my feet while I ate. I listened to the chatter, a drop here, a crash there.  My shoes and socks were soaked.  THIS had never happened before, and it was because of the sloppy snow.  I had stopped to change socks once, which felt great, but a few miles later they were wet again.  What to do?  “I’m going to put bags on my feet” I mused out loud.  Two men previously minding their own business next to me looked at me in horror.  “Please don’t” said one, “bad idea” said the other.  I instantly knew the right course of action!  I marched over to the cash register and returned with two bread bags.  If I was going to have wet feet, they were going to be warm and wet, not cold and soaked. 

                Time to go, I left Jason on the floor tending his feet and hoped he would get back out soon.  Out into the cold and dark, the reality set in here.  I had been moving hard since dawn, it was tough, I can’t maintain this, it’s impossible.  There it was, that word.  I started to panic, how was I going to make the cut offs!  A thousand scenarios popped into my head about how this is not going to work out, and the ‘ol worst enemy took a few miles out of the Arrowhead.  Then raw logic came back like a warm blanket.  It’s not IMPOSSIBLE, John Storkamp and Rob Henderson are ahead of you, THEY haven’t quit, so it’s not impossible.  Cleary my athletic prowess can be compared to these two in the “if they can do it so can I” scenario.  I promptly told myself to shut the fuck up and keep walking no matter what.  Somewhere I figured out that the side of the trail is a little bit firmer than the middle of the trail where everyone has been walking and biking.  There’s that logic again.  It wasn’t a solid surface, but I’ll take it.  Back into the rhythm again and I marched into the night. 

                In ultra’s, everyone must go through the same thing, I think this is why there is so much support for each other.  Everyone must get up that shitty hill, everyone has to bonk, and EVERYONE has to get through 2 am.  The struggle is real.  During Tuscobia I must have walked 10 extra miles swerving all over trying to stay awake.  Well not THIS time, I was prepared!  So at two a.m. I knocked back a 5 hour energy, no time like race day to try something new.  And holy crap that was amazing!  I NEVER felt the night, up and down the hills, marching here, peeing there, all the while a little spring in my step.  Except when I stopped to pee.  That first night was amazing and when dawn came I laughed, one more like that and I won’t need to worry about needing to sleep!  Just remember that for later.  Either way I was ready for Melgeorges, I knew I could take a nap, eat some food and better yet my parents would be there!  My mother’s personal ultra marathon was going to a race without being able to offer aid.  So she and Fred volunteered at the half way point.  Someone sarcastically said to me, “not everyone brings their Mommy”, too true!  But I will SHAMELESSLY bring these two adventure partners with me wherever I go, not everyone brought their Mom, but I was willing to share.  Daydreaming about seeing them and grilled cheese I started to get impatient.  I should have been there by now, any minute right?  There’s a sign, I get close and it reads “5 miles to Melgoerges” wtf!  I thought I was closer!  Just keep moving, 5 miles later I see another sign that says “one mile to Melgeorges” WTF!!!  Finally, I get to Elephant Lake and get a good clip going across, a lone volunteer clapped and hollered for 5 minutes while I slowly came over, “I’m your one man welcoming party” God I love these people.  Moments later and my Mom is hooting at me and I’m inside and there is food in my hand!  While I eat, I prepare for leaving, refresh batteries for the inevitable night, change clothes, eat more food.  Time for a nap, I go upstairs and lay down in a bed that I’m SURE hasn’t been slept in by any other sweaty humans, and try to close my eyes.  My heart was pounding like a jack hammer probably due to drinking that heart melting 5 Hour energy.  I tried counting down from 103, in that hour, I maybe slept 45 minutes.  Time to go.  I walked down in a daze and got dressed, it was hard leaving my parents, they were warm and have an energy that makes me want to be around them and stay around them.  In this time, Rachel, Matt, and Thomas had all come and gone.  Final hugs and I was off, into another day.  It’s pretty hilly here, so I pulled my sled up to the top of the first hill, swung it in-between my legs, sat down and rode it into oblivion.  A super cool woman named Jennifer taught me how to do this and with every hill I got better and better.  Then I would crash leaving gear and mittens and Kari smeared all over the trail.  Up and down I went, the rhythmic pulling paired with the immediate task at hand of getting to the top of each hill and down again was Life for me.   It was still soft snow with little footing, I was still changing socks constantly (damp socks and not sodden thanks to those fancy baggies), still poking my poles around me finding the hardest place to walk, but it was all so POSSIBLE.  This adventure I was on.  At some point I walked with Rachel for a bit, I remember thinking, wow she is the real deal.  So positive and strong, she set the standard.  We stopped to eat, I had to find the perfect place to pee (this is seriously a problem, and adds minutes to my races, but I can’t until I find the right tree).  I ate and when dinner was over, it was night!  Just like that my headlamp was on and it was very real in a very hallucinate-y way from here on out.

                The trick about Arrowhead is patience.  Everything will come in time, and that night was a slow dark night.  We were all pretty spread out at this point, and I was happy to have this time alone with my thoughts. The night was red blinkies sparkling now and again, a white headlamp off in the distance indicating someone looking back, and searching for wolf prints in the snow.  Some parts I could ride my sled, using my poles to push along and block sticks and brush from attacking my face.  It was slow going but sometimes faster than stumble running.   I crested a hill and met a snowmobiler, he waited patiently for me to get to the top.  I thanked him for giving me the space and for volunteering.    He then said he wasn’t volunteering but was out to see the race, which surprised and impressed me.  Without me saying my name he knew who I was and recounted having a drink the night before with my stepdad, wtf!  I want to sit and have a drink with my step dad! It was a fun encounter as most are when meeting the snowmobilers.  We parted ways and the night continued with big sky, blue snow, and shuffling on. 

I met Todd on his snowmobile a few times on the trail, he was a sweep of sorts, checking on us poor self-destructive humans and making sure we didn’t do too much harm.  At one point during the night he told me about a big hill and from there being a few miles to Ski Pulk, the last aid station.  Time to take a five hour energy, I was getting tired and wanted to get to Ski Pulk for a coco and a nap.  This one didn’t have the same “kick” as the last.  I eventually climbed to the top of said hill and someone was standing there, so I walked over to him and chatted about how steep it was but we were almost there.  When he didn’t respond, I blinked at him, and then saw it was a pair of poles standing on end with a coat draped over them.  At my feet was a bivy sack full of a human who I’m sure was trying to sleep.  I was really getting tired, I needed to move!  Get to ski Pulk in an hour and you can take a nap, who KNOWS where that hour estimate came from.  I marched on, a freight train named Helen Scotch passed me in the night after a few cheerful words, and I thought “whoa she’s the real deal TOO!”  Inspiration is never too far away on this trail.  Then I came upon two men leaning over a bicycle, fearing it was broken I inquired if they were ok.  When Jim Wilson answered, I realized the other person was his sleeping bag and he was just changing socks.  I was REALLY getting loopy.  We chatted and shared the trail for a time, marching up and down hills together, it is experiences like these that make the arrowhead so special.  So unexpected, but welcome nonetheless. 

After Jim and I parted ways I thought my knee was getting tight, so I stopped and stretched.  Then I started wandering.  Between wanting to sleep and wanting to get to the next aid station, I was fishtailing and feeling nauseous. Any time my heart rate rose, like going up a hill for example, I felt like I needed to vomit.  Miles of this, was getting old, added to my knee tightness, I gave up on resting at Ski Pulk.   It was time to stop.  Even though I was only an “hour or so away”, I pulled out my bivy, changed my socks, put my shoes in the bivy and closed my eyes.  Heart pounding in my chest, I began my count down from 103.  At some point a snowmobile stopped and idled for a moment, I knew it was Todd and this relaxed me even more, he drove off and I fell asleep.  A half an hour later my alarm went off.  I took a deep breath and immediately started coughing and heaving, my lungs had been filling up with fluid.  I cracked open my bivy and let the cold air into my lungs, this prompted more heaving and I ejected fluid for a few minutes.  Someone stopped and asked how far to Ski Pulk, I coughed and told him an hour.  I had been saying an hour for several hours.  Laying down being warm was nice, but it was time to go!  Just a few minutes of sleep and I did feel mentally more aware.  I put my shoes on and climbed out of the bivy, I reached for my gaitors which had frozen (I had the presence of mind to put the shoes in the bag but not the gaitors) and needed to shove them in my armpits to warm them up so they would fit over the shoes again.  Hacking I stood up, and an electric shock went through my knee, I gasped, what happened!?  Why did I not wake up feeling like a little princess!?  But the nausea was gone, so with that win, I marched on.  Ski pulk, why are you so far away!?  I walked, I pulled, I rode my sled, and coughed.  The snow was still mushy so anytime there was a little downhill I sat down on my sled, knee screaming, and poled my way along.  It wasn’t fast, but it was often faster than I was moving.  Then I heard fireworks and quickly deduced in my beautiful hallucinating brain that no way in hell would anyone be lighting fireworks in the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter at 6 am.  I had arrived at ski pulk!

                I checked in and climbed into the massive teepee, thankful I didn’t wait to sleep, fireworks cute but not for sleeping.  Inside, Chris Scotch, Jim Wilson and Damion or Dominique?  (I can’t remember, we’ll call him Damionique) were sitting by the fire tending their minds and wet clothing.  I pulled my sock off waiting for the legendary hot cocoa to arrive and started drying clothes as well.  Damionique gave me some desitin for my two blisters that had formed, they were little and I stand by my choice.  We chatted quietly and I dreamed of my big meal I had planned for this stop.  The minutes passed, then Damoinique stood up purposefully and said he was getting nervous about the cut off and he needed to go.  I blinked at him, it wasn’t 7 am yet, the cut off for ski pulk was 11, Damionique is faster than I am, something wasn’t right.  I asked him to clarify and Damoinique proceeded to do math at me, I don’t remember the details, but it was enough to get me into panic mode right quick.  Ski Pulk is the last aid station yes, but it’s still 25 miles to the finish, that is a full DAY of pulling for this little cowgirl.  I yelled “Where’s my cocoa” because it was time to go!  I packed up, slammed the tasty treat, ditched the last meal plan (you idiot Kari) and jumped into my harness.  Then I saw Mom and Fred marching down the road, had I left 2 minutes earlier I would have missed them!  It rejuvenated me to get hugs and encouragement from them.  We laughed and chatted and hugged and I was off!  The sun came out, the SUN!  I hadn’t seen it in days! 

                This last portion is one I have had my mind bent on for a year.  Mount Wakemup, how many times had I daydreamed of it!  I knew it was the last hill and then a fast flat 20 to the finish.  I was absolutely reeling after Ski pulk, it was a NEW DAY, and I was going to finish!  Wakemup came, hiking to the top was a breeze and I thought, “that’s it?”  Ahhh but it is the downhill, I learned, that is the “wakemup” bit.  Taking in the view as much as I could and gulping at the decent, I climbed on my sled and pushed forward.  Then I was flying trying to steer my sled and barely staying on, and at one point I saw sky and my feet in the air before coming down panting to a slow stop at the bottom of the hill.  Pausing I laughed out loud and laid back on my sled.  I loved life!

                Hiking along I saw my parents at an intersection, we laughed and hugged each other, I knew I had 20 miles to go and was “ready”.  Moving along again, the sugary treat from Ski Pulk left and the sun went away, and it started to snow… again.  I am a snow junkie and for the first time in living memory, the snow took a chip off me.  The hard-packed snow of the trail was gone, and the soft squishy snow returned.  Maybe I was daydreaming of the finish too much and the coke I was about to enjoy.  But I went off the rails hard.  My knee was absolutely killing me, every step there was an electric shock down my calf. I was continuing to cough fluid.   I stopped to make a “snow pack” for my knee, which was snow in a bacon baggie, duct taped to my knee.  It felt good for a moment but soon melted.  I walked for a long time and felt terrible for most of it, fear and lack of faith took over.  I met my parents at some intersection and had a hard time mustering.  My Mom gave me quiet encouraging words and I rallied on the outside as I moved on.  Not wanting to disappoint them, I turned the corner and sobbed.  I sobbed because I thought I wouldn’t finish.  I sobbed because I wasn’t strong enough.  I sobbed because I wanted a fucking Coke.  Off in the distance the familiar sound of Todd’s snowmobile reached my ears.  Straightening up I wiped my tears away just as he turned the corner.  “How are you doing bad ass” he asked.  Todd is the Arrowhead Angel.  “Great” I lied!  Then he told me there are 7.7 miles to go.  WTF.  THAT I can do.  That is possible.  We said our farewells and I took my last Arrowhead meal: 5 hour energy, bacon, vitamin I, and a tums.  I told them to go to their corners and I marched on.  Following Rachel’s trail and always looking for firmer ground, more miles passed.  Someone wrote in the snow “If you’re reading this you’re going too slow”…  Dammit!  The marsh was beautiful and I tried in vain to not imagine how great it was going to feel to finish.  There was Todd and my parents, one mile to go!  I walked, a little squirrel ran in front of me and I noted how he was the first wildlife to be seen in sometime and not the wolf I had hoped to spy.  The deepest fatigue, I kept looking at the side of the trail to find a place to nap.  Last mile of the Arrowhead and I wanted to take a nap!  It was a beautiful mile, a perfect winter wonderland once again, and I tried to imprint the moment on my brain, so I could always look back and touch it.  Orange snow fences indicated the end was near, and soon I could see the Casino and the finish at the top of a giant (to me) hill.  Of course.  There was my Stepdad and he walked me across the finish line.  Even though they offer no assistance, my parents  both “walk” every mile with me and the victory of the finish is more for the three of us than for me alone.  Tapping my poles on the banner, I hugged my Mom, we laughed with the volunteers and I was where my dream was, in that moment.  The Arrowhead finish.

                Then it was time to do the final gear check and start to eat all of the food.  I couldn’t get enough Coke, not something I drink in everyday life but num!  Thomas was there and he was relaxing, then Jason H. came in, I was so happy he finished.  Cool and calm, he was right behind me the whole time.  I received my trophy, and we walked to the hotel room.

                A quick lay down and then off to the buffet!  Lord help me that was the best buffet of my life.  So much awesome food and sprite!  We talked and then off to bed, I had a dream I was at Ski Pulk setting out for the last stretch, a nightmare I would have every night for literally weeks.  The next morning we went down for the Arrowhead Buffet, unofficial.  Chatting with the other racers and volunteers was the highlight of the weekend, hearing stories, hallucinations, and other such nonsense.  It’s hard to explain the feeling you get of going through something alone, and then hearing of other people doing the exact same thing at the exact same time, also alone.  It parallels life in a way that I could not describe as I would only ruin it.  I went to Arrowhead looking for something very specific, and I didn’t find it.  But I might have found something better, something bigger than me and a “race”.  I found a group of people that can be compared to no other, those who want a stranger to succeed, to give advice and support, and then to stay and laugh with those who finished and those who’s dreams were dashed for that year. It’s humbling and beautiful, simple and harsh. It is the Arrowhead.

 

Tuscobia 2016, the brain melter

                The Tuscobia 80 mile started out as a means to get what I want.  I needed a qualifying winter race for the Arrowhead 135 and really needed some winter race experience.  I got all of these things from my experience in Wisconsin but the Tuscobia winter race turned into its own being, separate from my intentions, and securing its own rightful place in my little ultra heart. 

                Thinking this would be a dry run for the Arrowhead, I packed everything accordingly, really a test of weight and food.  Getting to Wisconsin was the fun part as I met my parents in Bradford, but heading to gear check was so terrifying and invigorating there are no words!  You never get another “first” gear check.  Chris Scotch checked all my requirements, and gave me some pointers on reflective gear.  I was ready to take in any information that was handed to me, knowing I had to be my most adaptable self in order to be successful here and at the Arrowhead.  Nervous but so ready to be out there seeing what this winter ultra stuff was all about. 

                The morning of, we drove to the finish and followed the buses to the start.  I was a little nervous, but had “prepared” and felt ready for what awaits.  At the school, there were a few racers for the 160, resting up at their halfway point.  It was so impressive how exhausted they looked!  I was starting to get nervous.  Finally, it was time to walk to the start, it was here I realized in my ultra preparedness that I hadn’t put my blinkies on the sled, a required piece of equipment that without, would result in disqualification.  Also since they were headlamps I didn’t know how to get them on the sled and stay there.  Enter the “pre-race scramble”.  It’s a sad joke but every race my poor parents and I have some drama to deal with, so we’re all freaking out pawing at each other scrambling to attach these things and the race starts and the racers are off!  Of course everyone just starts walking, so calm and easy because of the long day ahead.  I meet my parents one block later and we are laughing at the latest panic, the adventure has started.  That first day was so magical, the sky was winter grey, a light snow was floating down, it was a true winter wonderland.  I walked easily along, Tuscobia is on a snow mobile trail, it is super flat with about four hills.  My Black River sled felt like nothing, poles in hand a rhythm was easily found.  I mused to myself at how wonderful the sights were, and at one point this was going to get “hard” and I was “ready” for that. 

                I chose to go without a watch.  Correction, I forgot my watch and was too cheap to get a new one in a gas station, and telling people I “picked” this option made me feel cool and not stupid. This would be a good training run, good mental training and what proceeded to happen over the next day would get me ready for the Arrowhead more than I ever thought it would.  Tuscobia was all about time for me, because I had no watch, and the winter sky showed no sun, I was a woman outside of time.  All morning and day, I was cheating death, outside of time and being engulfed in the balmy 20-degree beauty of winter.  Life was perfect for that delightful day. 

                As I walked along I met Jennifer, AJ, and Mike, we would leapfrog each other for much of the race.  Mike gave me beef jerky, so good.  I was overdressed so I stopped to take layers off.  At one point I came to one of the hills, the racer in front of me sat on his sled and rode it down the hill with such ease that I knew there was no way in hell I could do it.  I decided instead to run down the hill with my sled next to me, which worked for about four strides.  Then my ropes got underneath my feet followed by my sled and then it was a garage sale of legs and gear spewed all over the trail.  I was pushing myself to my feet and brushing off snow just as another racer came to the edge of the hill, pretty sure I salvaged the situation without much damage to the ‘ol dignity. 

Rumor had it, the weather would get very cold that evening, and as the sky got dark, I could feel the temperature drop a wee bit.  Knowing the first and only aid station at mile 35 was near, I started to run knowing this would keep me warm.  The object was to move fast enough to keep warm but not so fast that I was sweating.  Easy as pie.  I trotted along, the owls cheering us racers on, and the clouds started to clear.  Some started asking about how far until the aid station, “not far” I exclaimed!  I love to be overly confident about things of which I have no clue.  Nonetheless in the darkness the tiki lights of the aid station glowed in the distance.  I had made it.

                Walking off the trail to the AS my Mom popped out of her car, it was good to see her!  As we chatted I noticed her shivering and then noticed how cold it was.  Entering the aid station was like entering another world, the blackness of the night, bikes and sleds with blinkies at your feet until you pull back the tarp and enter a brightly lit cabin like building with a crackling fire!   I was approached by super energetic volunteers asking if I needed anything.  Rob Henderson was there offering cheerful words of encouragement and inquired how the day had gone.  I was feeling awesome!  Eating food, and not wanting to sit, I watched my fellow racers.  It was time to go, Rob gave me an excellent weather report which was appreciated but not adhered to.  Leaving the comfort of the bright aid station and heading into the night felt like another start to a different race.  I met my Mother again, she didn’t want to be inside the AS because she didn’t want to take up space, she was shivering in the cold.  What a trooper!  We exchanged words of encouragement and told each other to stay warm, I knew I wouldn’t see her until morning.  Into the night I went, fully charged, energized and ready to take on my big challenge….which ended up being myself. 

                The night began, I wondered at what time it was.  Rob said it would get to -9 tonight.  As the clouds pulled away like a blanket, the bright starry sky was revealed, the owls continued to hoot.  As I enjoyed the beauty of the crisp night and falling stars, I still knew that the clear sky meant cold was coming.  The temperature was dropping a bit, but was still manageable.  I had to pee.  This meant I had to walk a half of a mile trying to find the perfect tree to pee on, it’s a curse.  Black as night, no one around and there it was, shew!  At this time, I thought about putting on a layer of pants, my legs were cold and the temps were going to continue to drop.  Not wanting to change clothes this was put off for too long, by the time I got my pants on I was getting very cold.  As I suited up I romanticized at the ultra-marathoner, and how hard this was and how cool we were.  Me the newbie thinking this was the hard part is practically adorable now.  Practically. 

                What time was it?  The night went on, was it 9?  Midnight?  Was the sun coming up?  I had no clue but what WAS coming up was the wind, and with it bitter cold.  The balmy cold of yesterday was gone, this night was a new existence.  I was no longer a blissful woman out of time prancing through the winter of love but one very much in the reality of freezing her ass off.  I was COLD.  There was a puffy winter coat in my sled, but that would mean I would have to shed layers.  Poor planning.  Finally, I was desperate enough to stop.  What time was it?  I grabbed the puffy coat, ripped off my safety vest, then shell overcoat, pulled on the puffy coat…. this took MINUTES.  I was so cold nothing moved!  By the time I got the puffy on my fingers no longer worked, shoving them in my pants trying to get them warm enough just to zip up my coat.  I needed to get my core warm.  Got one zipper up, hands in pants, then another coat zipped shut, hands in pants, safety vest on, hands in pants, harness strapped.  Another racer passed me, I found out later he was in the 160, mentioning how cold his hands were.  I also found out later it was -25 that night. 

                Still cold I marched on, but WHY was I still cold?  An incredible amount of time passed before I realized the armpit zippers on my coat were completely open, how oblivious could I be?!  Once they were zipped my core had a chance to heat up.  Musing again on the ultra-marathoner, I thought about the difference between it and a marathon, or single day event.  The beauty of the previous day was perfect in all its ways, but it needed the cold harsh night to be complete.  That was the difference, the suffer fest of the ultramarathon, knowing it was coming, and wanting it to be there… until it was.  What time was it?  Getting tired and needing food, I grabbed the tube of Pringles out of the sled and started munching.  The blackness of the night was complete with shooting stars and blustering winds.  My hands were frigid.  Thus, I continued my night march. 

                Cold and black, clutching my tube of pringles I walked, shutting my eyes and walking, quietly through the night past other sleeping runners in bivys.  The shelter of the trees would open to a field with sideways winds cutting through all layers. I noticed that the Tuscobia trail has a mile marker counting down to the end of the trail, which seems nice until you walk FOREVER and then realize it’s only been ONE mile!  I tried not to see them as I trudged.  I had been alone for hours; what time was it!?  I saw headlamps, there was a driver in an intersection waiting for racers.  I stood upright.  And cheerfully asked if he was staying warm, act warm until you feel warm I thought, not wanting to show my true chilly state!  I ran away and back into the night.  Tired and cold, I walked and walked.  Frost was building up on my face, coat, and eyelashes.  What time was it.  What I really wanted was to see my mom, for just a minute, even though I knew I wouldn’t see them until dawn.  As this thought came to my head I turn a corner and hear it.  It.  The cowbell.  My mother’s which has a very distinct sound, and there they were around the corner!  So super cool!  We chatted for a bit, it wasn’t midnight yet, we hugged and I felt energy from these two who I love and trust so much.   I moved on into the cold night feeling their warmth. 

                It was through this part of the night when I realized being cold was no longer amusing.  The temperature continued to drop, and one by one, more bivys appeared on the side of the trail.  I counted down the miles, clutching my pringles tube, oblivious to time, aware only of the endless night.  I was wandering back and forth on the trail, my eyes trying to shut.  The frost continued accumulating around my hood, face and eyelashes filling in my line of sight.  I remember feeling comfort from this as it felt like some sort of insulation covering my face.  Around here the frost from my breath froze the zipper on my coat, so as my water in the hydration pack was warm and delightful I had no access to it.  I would end up walking 6-9 hours without water.  I came upon another racer who was falling asleep on his feet, a 160 miler.  So cool, I tried to keep up with him for a bit, the tiny blue tint on the horizon told me sunrise would indeed come.  I hung on to my carrot for a wee bit, but he was too quick.  As we pulled into some kind of town, I saw a gas station with blinkie lights littering bikes and sleds, “later” I thought, not wanting to stop.  THIS is classic Kari mistake, I hadn’t had a drink in hours, hadn’t sat down or rested once, and I WALK PAST the comfort of Rejuvenation Gas Station.  A block later, in the cold winter blue light of morning, I saw the silhouette of my parents in the distance.  As I approached my mother, she gasped at my face, filled with frost I could hardly see through my eyelashes.  They were parked at a coffee shop and I finally decided to take a reprieve, smart as this ended up being the last opportunity on the trail.  Walking into light and seeing the faces of the startled patrons was incredibly satisfying.  Trying to convince them that other people were doing this race and not just me proved difficult.  I drank coffee and chatted, warming up and letting the sun rise.  Not drinking ANY water here was an amazing choice (she sarcastically exclaimed), so after two cups of coffee it was time to go. 

                Into the morning I walked up Tuscobias four hills.  Ohhhh look, I spy a sexy tree!  Oh shit, I thought, the hallucinate-y part of my run was starting.  It was -16, Chris Scotch drove by on the snowmobile checking on us poor souls.  The sun was up and the bright winter day had bloomed in its frigid glory.  Tumbling kittens ran in front of me on the trail and I wondered why there was so much open water around if it was this cold.  The flat trail could drive a person mad, you can see for miles, but mostly you can see that you’re not going anywhere.  My coat had frozen shut again, and in my foggy mind a thought came, can I reach the hose without unzipping my coat?  With some finagling I wiggled the tube out and gulped desperately at the water.  HOW did I not think of that earlier?!  More endless miles in the blue morning, at one point I was in single digits to the turn, the ONE turn on the race course. 

                Then I was there, a lone volunteer waited at the turn, we exchanged pleasantries and my heart was glowing.  Turning into the sun, I started thawing out and getting warm.  I also, and this has everything to do with being close to the finish, fell apart.  I prayed for strength, and walked on.  Obsessing with the fear of getting passed I kept looking behind me, up ahead I see a ladder on the trail. No ladder, just the shadows on the ground.  Walking more, I stumble ran and walked, looking behind me all the way, seeing people that were not there.  Then up ahead I see my mom run across the trail holding her iPad, Fred on the other side.  The Tuscobia finisher banner was blowing in the wind, I made it!  Congratulating myself on how amazing I was, a car drove by, with my Mother inside yelling “one more mile!”  I blinked tears as I watched the hallucination before me fade away.  There actually is no Tuscobia finisher banner.  Walking on the end came, there were my actual parents and the actual finish.  I walked over and hugged them, unhooked my harness and walked to the door.  I could hear my Mom shouting instructions to Fred to not touch anything (my sled or gear) as they didn’t want to offer any assistance until I officially finished.  This was the hardest thing I have ever accomplished, the feeling of exhaustion and gratitude overwhelmed me. Going inside there were a few pooped cyclists hanging out and some volunteers along with race director Helen Scotch.  They cheered and I could feel laughter rise up, I got second place!  The winner Faye who was first female and first overall had long since finished.  I was still proud to be sharing that hypothetical podium with her.  My feet hurt!  Don’t wear silk socks!  I sat down and the Scotch’s puppies came over, I pet them and wanted nothing more than to lay down.  We eventually got back to the hotel and ate pizza and drank some celebratory beers (I managed ¾ of a beer), my Mom brought snacks and I gobbled them up, it always feels so good celebrating with these two!  At some point I passed out mid-sentence.

                The next morning, we headed down for hotel breakfast and there were some other racers there, Jennifer, Anjanette, and John, and I talked shop for a while.  Swapping stories, I learned a lot and Jennifer and I made plans to meet up so she could teach me how to properly ride a sled downhill.   Then it was time to go, my feet felt like sandpaper, but my heart was full of joy.  I had gained the confidence to tackle Arrowhead, and fallen in love with the winter ultra experience.  It truly was everything I wanted it to be and more, beautiful and harsh, just like the winter I adore so much.  Next time I’m taking a watch. 

A beginning but not THE beginning

When I was in the third grade, my teacher said that Lake Superior contained so much water that if you were to dump it out, we would be under a foot of water all the way to Mississippi.  Whether or not that is true, I have often thought of this tid bit throughout my life, dreaming of the Lake that I have a deep connection to.  Sometimes I feel dark and contained, other times I feel spread out covering all that I survey in a foot of sordid water.  This blog is coming into fruition after a year of silence, and it is my intention to compile a delightful yet contained mix of my outdoor experiences.  This will be in the form of race reports of which I have learned much, art, training, and mental health, along with a slew of other such nonsense.  Being Out There is precious to me, I hope to share that in a way that makes sense, is inspiring, and also helpful to anyone who wants to do silly races too. Thus I begin, with two stories from last year, and a little time spent When Outside.