The race had been on my schedule since the new year, and in spite of my recently-fractured ankle, I was optimistic. Due to lingering soreness, my training plan didn’t kick into high speed until summer. By the time I reached peak week, I was happy and feeling fit, though I knew I was behind by a few weeks. I was in “do your best” mode.
In the week leading up to the race, I was a proper mess. A niggling soreness in one of my toes seemed to escalate into a full-blown sprain – or something – and I spent the week prior trying to stay off my feet with my toes taped together. I was waking in the middle of the night, inexplicably frantic. I was panicking over my three-day work week, and my mother was flying into town to accompany me to the race. Logistics, work, and injury were swallowing me up. So I did the one thing I’m really good at: I freaked the hell out. Every minute of every day.
I was absolutely impossible, and it’s a wonder my family endured me.
Mom arrived and we headed northward with little fanfare, and after dropping our things at the rental house, we dropped by the aid station at County Rd 6. This was to be Jamison’s second year at the helm here, and I was excited to show Mom what this “trail running” business was all about. We didn’t spend much time there – an hour or two – before moving on to Caribou Highlands to catch the pre-race briefing. I’d considered returning to County Rd 6 after dinner, but miraculously found myself getting tired, and I was in bed and asleep by 9:30. (This officially marks the best night of sleep I’ve ever had before a race. I slept like a rock.)
The morning of the marathon, my alarm went off early – or, would have, if I hadn’t already been checking it every five minutes for the previous half hour. I wanted to get some food in and digesting early, so I packed away some calories at 4:30am before crawling back into bed. By 6:30am, I was up and more-or-less ready, and we were out the door shortly after 7am.
The race start was everything I remember from 2015, when I brought Jamison up for his running of this same race. Briskly cold, teeming with people, thumping with what my uneducated ears guessed was the Beastie Boys. The routine was comforting. A short wait in a long bathroom line, a last hug to family, some words exchanged with a friend, a countdown, and we were off.
The much-anticipated conga line wasn’t bad, save for a handful of people who said “Oh, go ahead and pass, I’m walking” after being way too far forward and causing a logjam. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that every step of walking here would be energy better spent later.
The stretch to Temperance passed beautifully, uneventfully. The surrounding chatter of the first mile or two slowly faded as people spread out, as I hoped it would. Listening to conversation can be a nice distraction, but out here, I wanted nothing but the birds and the wind and the rushing of water.
Alongside the Cross River, this wish was fulfilled. Two miles of solitude, surrounded by forest and river, alone with my thoughts. I was brimming with cautious happiness; I was moving well, at least a minute ahead of pace, already worried that I was going to burn up. I’m always worried. But I trotted along, occasionally passing others as surely as I was being passed. I set the goal here that I needed to roll into Sawbill feeling fresh, and so long as I accomplished that, the rest of the race would take care of itself.
Coming into Temperance, I was greeted by Mike M., who commented that I was looking good. I ate a potato and a bit of PB&J, slammed a glass of Ginger Ale, and headed back out. Jason T. was sitting across the road from the food table and he called out my name as I jogged out, and we exchanged greetings and thumbs-ups before I disappeared back into the woods.
Checking my watch and comparing to my pace band, I was irritated that the numbers didn’t seem to add up. I was behind, yet I knew I’d been ticking off faster miles than I’d calculated. I made a mental note to ask Jamison when I saw him; I knew he’d be waiting with my mom – and cold Mountain Dew – at the bridge crossing over the Temperance River.
My strategy of quitting caffeine in the weeks leading up to the race worked like a charm. At Temperance, I found Jamison and Natalie K. standing at the bridge, and just across the way, Mom sat in the sun reading a book. As I slammed my first Mountain Dew of the day, I mentioned to Jamison that my times seemed off. He pointed out that my calculations were based on round miles, and I’d rounded down for Temperance. I was around 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Fired up, I gave a round of quick hugs and got my butt in gear.
I knew the climb out of Temperance was a slow one, sure to pick slowly, ruthlessly away at me, so I elected to walk much of this section even when I had the inkling that I could run. The tales of Carlton Peak had prepared me well, and it was so inflated in my mind that by the time I’d crested it, I was surprised it hadn’t been more difficult. Coming down, I found myself wanting to run, but stuck behind a handful of people who were just a little too quick to comfortably pass. In addition, my gut started to grumble unpleasantly, which made anything more than a slow trot uncomfortable. As these miles passed by, I grew anxious for the next aid station.
My stomach had settled enough as I neared Sawbill that I charged in aggressively, focused on finding my husband. I’d already unbuckled my vest, and when I saw Jamison chatting with another runner, I bellowed for him and thrust my vest at him. I had one desire in the whole wide world, and that was the bathroom. I heard him call “You’re here already??” and saw my mom’s look of surprise as I ran past. I was nearly 20 minutes ahead and feeling fantastic, with the exception of the bathroom urgency. I ended up taking in no food here, and after putting away some more Mountain Dew, I headed up the hill and out of Sawbill.
Everyone has always told me that the section between Sawbill and Oberg is runnable – so much so that I’d started telling runners the same when I worked at Sawbill in 2015 and 2016. Yeah, it’s really not. Not for me, not this year. The mud was slick and thick here, the worst of the marathon, and the roots were heavy. This entire section was a slog as I bounced back and forth among several hundred milers, who were hiking better than I was, but who were running far less. It was during this section that my IT band started to make itself known, which was notable if for no other reason than I never have IT band issues. On this day, the descents were chewing at me, and every so often, a sharp twinge shot through my lateral knee. It was just often enough to keep me wary. The journey into Oberg seemed to take an eternity – a long, unremarkable eternity.
And then I was there, charging into the station, a full 30 minutes ahead of my anticipated pace. I’d been debating taking some Tylenol here, for certain lady issues (because my body has the best timing ever), but I wanted to be aware of my IT band. So I instead busied myself with eating a pancake and chatting briefly with Mom, who was marveling over how good I looked. I was marveling, too; I felt genuinely, confusingly good. I didn’t understand why my legs weren’t aching, or why my feet weren’t tender. I was 19 miles in, and I always hurt after this many miles. With two more mountains to go, the other shoe was about to drop. It had to.
I wasted little time at Oberg and rushed myself back out, resigning myself to Moose Mountain. I’d hiked from Lutsen to Oberg and back before, and I remember sitting on the overlook on the return trip, crying. It was too hard, too much, and I never wanted to do it again. This was to be my revenge, if I had it in me. Fortunately, with a little help from a 100-mile train, I got my revenge. I hooked myself to Kate L.’s entourage shortly out of Oberg, and with their drive and strong hiking, we powered up Moose Mountain with little fanfare. I remember laboring and struggling, but I wasn’t going to be dropped here. No way.
I must have spent the better part of two miles with them, listening to them chat, joining in occasionally, and those two miles made my race. Moose could have crushed me, but it didn’t. And at the top, on that beautiful plateau, I had it in me to begin running again. I bade farewell to that beautiful train and trotted on.
Coming down Moose was a challenge, with my IT band angrily protesting again with the descent. I began to worry here that I would be undone. “It hurts,” my brain would say. “No,” I would counter, “it doesn’t hurt. It feels appropriate. It feels exactly the way it should feel after 22 miles.”
The acceptance of my pain as being normal was practically transcendental to me. The IT pain was still there, but it was simply a fact of note, not a point to fret about. It would be fine. It was just a thing that happened.
In the valley, surrounded by green with the unsettling echo of a finish line loudspeaker, I summoned the ability to run the boardwalks. My delight at feeling fresh (well, fresh-ish) had long since given way to shock and bewilderment; I was objectively undertrained for this. I was objectively running faster than I should have, and running more often. And I was killing it. There was simply no justification for why I felt so good.
Climbing the switchbacks up Mystery Mountain was as tedious as I remember, but after Moose, it was pleasantly tolerable. I was getting itchy now, as I kept checking my watch, wondering how these last miles would unfold. I’d heard so many different accounts of how long the course actually was, and my mile-24 math skills were iffy at best. I knew I was going to obliterate my goal, but by how much? I thought 8:15 might have been in reach, but who knew? At the top of Mystery, I dug in, running wherever I felt certain I wouldn’t fall. I knew that I would hear the Poplar River before I saw it, and that it would herald my impending arrival to the road, and I strained to hear as I weaved through the forest. Mile 26 ended up being one of my fastest miles of the day.
And there was the road, with the opportunity to run unimpeded. But within a few steps, the pain hit. Real pain. After hours of soft forest floor, the impact sent jolts of pain through my ankles, and I was reduced to a hobble. It wasn’t until I turned off onto the grass of Caribou Highlands that I was able to run again, and I put in a blazing sprint (or, what felt like) as I careened around the pool. I heard my name blaring over the loudspeaker and I started to laugh. Crossing the line, getting my medal, being enfolded into a huge hug from my mom, then Jamison.
“Did you see your time??” he asked.
“No, I know I started my watch late, I don’t know what it was. Did I break 8:15? DID I, JAMISON??”
It was 8:14:50, from a goal time of 9 hours.
I remember being congratulated, waving vague hellos as I wandered off to find food, following my family where they led me. There were so many people I wanted to talk to, but in retrospect, I managed conversation with very few. It was an exciting blur.
Ultimately, the race changed things for me. The post-race appraisal revealed one toenail that’ll likely fall off, and an achy IT band that nagged occasionally for the next 24 hours. My ankles were sore for a couple days. Somehow, improbably, that was the worst of it.
So I did what anyone would do: I picked a 50-miler and put the training plan on my calendar. Seven months to race day!