Sunday, January 13, 2019

Thoughts on the Run, Week 1

I have often said, to just about anyone who would listen, that “the best way to get to know a place is to run it.” 

I said this, believing it to be true. I espoused this. I tried to live this, and thought I was doing so. When I travel to a new city, I run it, sure in the knowledge that I will thereby be getting to know the place better than I would any other way. 

I have lived in my current neighborhood for more than four years, running locally the whole time. I felt confident saying that, based on my own maxim, I knew this neighborhood. 

But I have a confession to make: I was completely full of it. 

I know this now because I recently took up a challenge, posed by Rickey Gates, to run every single street in my neighborhood. 

After running more than 40 miles of streets and sidewalks, all within a mile and a half of my apartment, I can tell you that I did not know this neighborhood anywhere near as well as I had thought. Before this challenge, I had probably run less than 25% of these streets in four years. And these are the streets that, according to my own saying, I should know better than anybody. 

In the process of running every single street I found, among other things, a house that looks like it was transported straight from an English village, a row of mansions overlooking a homeless encampment, more Little Free Libraries than I could have imagined, and a Calvin and Hobbes mural painted on a garage door. I saw eagles, red-tailed hawks, and a fox. I found new allies, through, and dead-ends mere blocks from my front door. And I ran by more than a dozen churches.

So does my theory that the best way to get to know a place is to run it hold true? 

Maybe it does, but you have to run a place with intention. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Thoughts on the Run

I am a runner. 

People who know me well at all tend to be aware of this. Casual acquaintances tend to be aware of this. The elderly gentleman I run past several times a week no doubt is aware of this. When first learning about my “runner-ness,” there are a few questions that  inevitably arise. One of the most common is “what do you think about when you’re running?” 

To quote Quenton Cassidy, protagonist of the novel novel “Once a Runner,” I often answer “quantum physics.” As he said, it’s as good an answer as any, and for me, it has occasionally been the literal truth. In college, whenever I was stuck banging my head against a particularly difficult physics problem set or take-home exam, I would actually go for a run. More often than not, I would come home to find the solution floating in my mind. 

The truth is, on my easy runs, I think about anything and everything. During harder runs, as well as races, I think about the run or the race. I simply don’t have the mental space to think about anything else. But more than two thirds of my runs are easy, and my mind is free to wander. 

I have often thought that most of my more interesting ideas seem to occur when I’m running. More often than not, I don’t fully recall these meandering thoughts when I get back and return to my daily, non-running life. 

Lately, however, I have worked hard to write more regularly, in a more focused way. I confess I have had this intention many times: I have started and made significant headway on several books, novels and nonfiction. 

Never having been able to finish one of these longer works, I decided this time through to try to write shorter, more focused pieces. This is my attempt to do so. 

Each day, I run. 

Each day, my mind runs. 

And now, each day, when I return from my run, I write down a brief phrase or two that represents some of the thoughts that passed through my head during the day’s run. Later on that day, I use these phrases as a cue to jog my memory (apologies for the horrific pun) and expand on it, writing out long hand. If I deem it worthy, I will later edit it, type it out on the computer, edit it again, and post it here. 

Welcome to Thoughts on the Run. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A Tale of Two Ultras

A few weeks ago, coming off the high of a good long run and my first 50 mile week in years, I made what may have been an ill-advised choice: I signed up for a 50k and an 8-hour race a mere week apart. 

What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time. 

Or, as another runner so appropriately phrased it: “We’re ultrarunners. We don’t make good decisions.”

I will say in my defense that my goal race (Wild Duluth) had not worked out. I was going to be in another state that day. So I eyed the Hixon 50k, which was the following weekend, as a replacement race. I had just put in one of the better training blocks of my life, running both faster and farther than I had in years, and I didn’t want to waste my fitness. 

But then, I didn’t want to miss the Icebox 480, the unofficial end to the midwest ultra calendar, either. It’s always a fun day, and the 7 mile loop really allows you to see more people than you might think. Plus, I could drop out at any time. 

And a lot of my trail running friends were planning to be there. 

So yes, I had my justifications. The fact remained that I had never done anything remotely like running (potentially) two ultras within seven days of each other. Hixon being on a Sunday, I would only have five full days of rest between the two races. 

Naturally, a few days after signing up for these races, I tweaked my ankle during what would have been my last real pre-race tempo run. 

At first, that seemed like awful timing, but I quickly realized that it might have been the best possible time to have such a minor injury. I had already gotten through my hardest training block and my biggest mileage. I was just over two weeks out from my first race, and all my substantive training was already behind me. As long as I was smart and didn’t push my ankle too hard, too quickly, the forced taper that little niggling pain started might just be the best thing to happen to me. 

I took four days completely off running, foregoing my last longish run, and two other runs besides. I came back that fifth day, on a trip to Madison with my wife, with zero pain. Over the next week, my ankle twinged a couple times but never hurt in any serious way. I proceeded into the land of taper tantrums and over-thinking my gear. 

Hixon 50k

What can I say about this race? I controlled what I could control, and those aspects of the race went well. And what I couldn’t control, I managed. 

Things I could control:
I treated HIxon as a goal race, meaning primarily that I obsessed over this race to the detriment, or possibly the benefit, of the Icebox. As race day approached, and the weather forecast stayed the same (rainy and windy, with temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees), I went back and forth repeatedly on what to wear. 

I decided on a long sleeved New Balance cooling shirt, my capri tights, light gloves, my UMTR buff, and my normal socks and shoes. On top of that, at least for the first part of the race, I would wear my Altra StashJack, the one with the fully open back that’s designed to accommodate a vest. I would be wearing a waist belt, but I figured that the open back would allow better ventilation and keep me from overheating. 

I took the race out at a pretty decent clip, but not crazy fast. As usual, I found myself in the not-quite-lead group: two runners took off, and I stayed with the next group for a while. I wanted to run within myself for the first lap, and then see where I was during the second. “Composure, Confidence, Compete.” was my mantra for the day, courtesy of an iRunFar column. 

With that in mind, I ran much of the first lap with two other runners, chatting about work, about the course, and just about anything else that came to mind. They would drop me a bit on the hills, I would catch up on the flats and downhills. I saw no reason to push the hills on lap one. 

I went through the first of two 25k laps in 2:30 on the nose, feeling good and ready for lap two. 

Things I could not control:
Around mile three, I started to feel water running down my back that was more than the rain could account for. I reached for my bottles and, sure enough, the cap had come off of one of my two 10oz water bottles. I’d be stuck with half the water I had planned for during the remainder of the race. Not a huge deal, with the frequency of aid stations on the course, but it meant I ran out of water a couple times on the second lap. 

At about the same point in the race, I realized just how wet the trail was. So far, I was still in the top 10 runners, and the trail was in good shape. But there were more than 100 50k runners behind me, and another 350 25k runners would star an hour the 50k. The second loop, I knew, would be a muddy mess. 

And so it was. Within the first half mile of the second loop, I had almost fallen twice and I was running almost two minutes per mile slower than my first loop pace. I realized, though, that the rest of the field would be similarly affected, and sure enough, I came close to holding my position in lap two (passed one person, and was passed by two). 

Finally, around mile 22, my watch, now four years old and used almost every day, gave a resigned beep and asked me to “please recharge.” I would run the rest of the race with no GPS data, time-of-day only. 

Ah well, not that important in the grand scheme of things. I knew generally what the mileage was, and I knew we had started at 7:40AM, so no problems there. All I needed was to keep drinking every ten minutes, and eating my 80 calories every 20. 

I came through the second loop and finished the race in around 5:39 elapsed, 11th place over all. That’s good enough for my best place in a 50k. It’s half an hour off my best time, and not the time I had hoped for going into the day, but it was a solid effort and I felt satisfied. 

Between Races
I felt better than I expected after my 50k. I was tired, sure, but I did not experience the same beat-down, I-don’t-want-to-run feeling I often have after other, similarly long efforts. I credit my training for that difference. 

Nevertheless, I only ran once in the five days between Hixon and Icebox. I wanted to run at least once, since that would give me an indication of how I was recovering, but I didn’t want to let myself push the pace at all, so I ran with the Thirsty Thursdays at Theo group. Every Thursday, they run around five miles around Theo Wirth park in Minneapolis, taking about an hour to do so, and follow that up with a beer or two at Utepils. 

My legs felt tired, but not beat up, giving me more confidence going into Icebox. 

I had a few goals for Icebox. First and foremost: have fun. Icebox is the unofficial end of the trail racing season in the Twin Cities area, and it tends to be as much of a party in the woods as a race. I wanted to treat it as such. Second: I wanted to run an ultra-distance. With the approximately seven mile loop, that would be a minimum of four loops. However, and third, I didn’t want to push too hard. I wasn’t sure how my body would react, so I told myself to do whatever I could on the day, and not worry too much about time or distance. 

Icebox 480

Despite forecasts of light rain, Saturday dawned dry and chilly (35 degrees or so) as I drove the 30 minutes from my door to Whitetail Ridge in River Falls. In other words: it was perfect trail racing weather. I got to the start area about 30 minutes before the race was supposed to start, collected my trucker hat, and set up my drop box in the start/finish/lap area. 

I was taking this race much less seriously than the Hixon, so I decided to just go out with a group and see how I felt after each lap. 

The first lap I shared with what must have been the second group of guys (the lead group went out far faster than I wanted to), and the lead woman. I knew a couple people in the group already, so the lap was almost exactly what I hoped for: an easy-ish run in a beautiful area with some friends. Even feeling relatively easy, though, we went through the first ~6.8 mile lap in under an hour. I had thought ~1:05 per lap would be an easy, sustainable pace for me. But my legs wanted to go for hour pace, so that’s what I ran. 

I say the pace was easy, but that’s not quite accurate. At no point during the day did my legs feel good. From the first few steps, I could tell viscerally that I had raced a difficult 50k the week before and that I was not fully recovered. Despite that, I found that I was still able to travel at a good clip. I had less power on the uphills than I often did, but the only hill I walked during the whole race was the steepest hill on the course, at the one mile mark. I decided before I started the run that I would always walk the steeper part of that hill, and I stuck to my plan.

I noticed something else in laps one through three as well: I am not sure why, but I was much stronger relative to other runners in the second half of the lap than the first. I would consistently catch people about 40-50 minutes into my hour-long laps (and laps 1-3 were all just under an hour, not counting my stops at the beginning/end to use the restroom, top off my water bottle, and grab some more calories), and would remain ahead of them until the start/finish area. 

Laps two and three were much like the first. My legs never felt good, exactly, but I could keep a good pace regardless. While the pack I ran with the first loop quickly disintegrated on the second, I started to catch and lap slower runners on these loops, each time getting a little mental boost from interacting with them. I continued with my very successful fueling strategy (drink at least once every 10 minutes, eat 80 calories every 20), and had comfortably settled into the day. 

I briefly considered calling it a day at three laps, but opted to head out on lap four any way, knowing that I had enough in me to finish that, at least. Lap four was a different beast. I was really feeling the fatigue now, both from the day but more, I think, from the previous Sunday. I took one spill in the Hixon that just mildly torqued my left knee, and that started to make itself known late in lap three. I slowed down considerably on lap four, opting to walk while I ate instead of running. 

Mentally, I was still there and thinking that I might do lap five and see whether I might be up for more after that. Again, though, I had already decided that I would pull the plug when the day ceased to be fun. This was not a goal race for me, just a chance to see what I could do. Simply put: I was ready to have fun, but not to enter the pain cave.

So when I pulled into the start/finish area again after 1:15, almost 15 minutes slower than my prior laps, I checked in with myself. My form had started slipping (inevitably). My knee was hurting (see above form note). I had run around 28 miles, a week after racing 31. 

I gave myself some time to change my mind, and even called my parents about my brother’s birthday present. After that assessment, though, I decided that this was not the day to try and break my own distance record, but a day to celebrate just how well my training had gone this cycle, and look ahead to what I am sure will be a remarkable 2019. 

Self Assessment:

In all, I’d raced nearly 60 miles over two weekends, separated by just five days. That’s something I would not have even considered a couple years ago. More importantly, I finished the season without the malaise that sometimes settles in: there was no voice in my head saying I just didn’t want to run any more. 

Two weeks out from Icebox, I ran the UMTR Fall Fatass Frolic yesterday: 9.3 miles in 1:06 and change. I also bought a skate-ski setup, something I have meant to do for years. And this week, I think I might just start my own local version of Rickey Gates’s “every single street” challenge. 

Also, somebody did the Border Route in 25 hours, and I think I want to lower that mark. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018


Barriers are funny things, particularly when they are mental barriers. 

For the entire time I’ve been running, or at least, the time I’ve been keeping track of mileage, the 50 mile week has seemed like both a major barrier and a major breakthrough point. There is no reason that 50 miles should hold such esteem in my mind. 49 miles, seven miles each day, might make more sense from an aesthetic perspective, but from a training perspective there is no real reason that 50 miles is any different than 45 or 55. 

Nevertheless, it has always been firm in my mind as an almost mythic barrier. I have flirted with 50 mile weeks fairly regularly. I often surpass 40 in my training. Somewhat less often, I start to hit around 45 miles per week, usually in the lead up to an ultra. Rarely, though, have I hit 50 miles in the span of a week (I define a week as Monday-Sunday). 

The very few times I’ve reached that point in my training, though, there was no real momentous occasion to it. The 50 mile mark almost seemed to sneak up on me and pass me by. 

That is exactly what happened to me this past weekend. I had run 46 miles the week before, a total that was somewhat unexpected to begin with. I actually ran a good six miles shorter than I expected on my normal Saturday long run, after waking up and feeling tired and uninspired by trail running. To my surprise, after a leisurely 12 on Saturday, I got up on Sunday and ran a fast eight to close out the week on a high note.

This past week,I got a good start. After resting Monday, a day I take off religiously, I hit eight miles on Tuesday, complete with my fastest non-race mile in three or four years sandwiched in the middle of a steady-state run. Wednesday was easy and short. Thursday, I ran twice: six miles fast in the morning, and five and a half in the evening at a slow pace. (Thursday evenings I have started running trails with a couple different groups, which allows me both to socialize and to get some easy trail miles in when I normally would not). Friday was again easy and short. 

I went into the weekend with 27.5 miles on my legs, and no thought of hitting 50 for the week. 

Saturday, though my legs were still carrying a good bit of fatigue from the week, I ran a solid 16 miles out at Afton State Park. I stopped often, taking pictures of any mushrooms or fungi I saw, and chatting with the other runners sharing the trail on what was, after all, a gorgeous morning for a run. I even managed to pick up the pace for the last three miles back to the car. That was 43.5 for the week. 

Sunday, I still had no intention of hitting 50 for the week. 

But Sunday was Twin Cities Marathon day, and I ran around spectating. Soon enough, my watch said four for the morning, and my legs and brain said “why not?”

So I kept running until I hit just about seven miles. And the mythic (in my mind) barrier was broken. 

In the grand scheme of things, obviously. 50 is just another number. But the mere act of running that much in a week has done wonders for my own confidence in my training. More than that, the relative ease with which it happened (there was no special scheduling, no particular addition of miles or runs), and the two relatively low-mileage days in the middle make me think I could do it again. 

And maybe do even more. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Flow on the Border Route

I have a problem. 

It’s the night before I’m going to try to complete the Border Route Trail, a 65 mile wilderness trail across the north woods of Minnesota and through the BWCA, in a day. I drove up from the Twin Cities today, and between Memorial Day traffic and road construction, it took me an extra hour and a lot more frustration and energy than I anticipated. Then I got to Grand Marais, where my wife and I were meeting up with the rest of my crew (my family), in the middle of a bike race.

It’s not surprising, then, that I don’t feel that I am in the right headspace for a long day on a relatively unknown, and notoriously difficult, trail tomorrow. 

I have a plan for it, though. Over dinner at the Gunflint Lodge, while I let my parents and wife hold up the conversation, I retreat into my own head, repeating over and over again in my head “Take what the trail gives you.” 

I continue that mantra throughout the next few hours as we get the last details in order and organize all the gear for the next day. I keep the phrase rolling through my head as I tossed and turned throughout the (short) night, even as my brain shows me, in vivid detail, all the ways that my run might go wrong (would undoubtably go wrong, as my tired brain would have me believe). 

Fast forward a few hours. It’s 9:00AM. I last saw my crew over an hour ago, 11 miles into my day, and I’m now several miles into the BWCA. It’s been four and a half hours since I started my run, and I’m starting to record some thoughts on my GoPro.  I can hear the surprise in my voice later when I say “I’m now 41/2 hours into my run. Funny, it doesn’t feel that long.” 

And it didn’t. Clearly, despite the day before and the limited sleep, I got into the right headspace, and I credit my resolution to “take what the trail gives [me]”, and then to stick with that mantra even when the trail wasn’t giving me the pace I wanted. 

At that point, though, 4.5 hours and some 16 (plus one accidental extra) miles into my run, the trail was giving me what I wanted: sub-15 minute pace while I was running. The navigation was not too difficult, for the most part, but it required my constant attention, both to keep on the trail and to keep from injuring myself. The trail itself told me when it was safe to run, and when I was better off walking. 

The one time I stopped to what the trail was telling me, I put my foot into a hole left by the dislodged roots of a deadfall, and nearly put an end to my attempt. But even that only shook me out of my groove for a matter of moments. 

Simply put, at this point in the day, I was flowing. Time passed easily, and the miles passed smoothly under my feet as I alternated between walking when necessary and running when possible. 

I have never had a flow experience last so long before. For a good three hours, maybe more, I moved steadily forward, time passing without much note taken, and making steady progress. I was even making up time on my “slow” splits, despite the technical nature of the “trail.” And even though I had gotten only a few hours of sleep, gotten up at 3:30, and been on the trail for some six hours now, I felt easy and strong, and more than anything, simply happy to be out in such a beautiful area on a gorgeous, if warm, spring day. 

Then came the alders. My experience of time reversed in an instant. From hours passing like minutes, the minutes started to feel like hours as I had to force my way through the intertwined branches of these blasted shrubs. My attitude soured in an instant, and I fell behind my splits for the first time all day. 

After the section with the alders, I never really got back into a flow state. I kept tabs on my pace, and despite feeling pretty solid and being in a good mental space, I was still slipping back on my goal pace. Not by much (I ended up averaging 18:40 pace, and my cutoffs were at 18 minute pace), but it was enough for me to realize that I was not going to make my self-imposed cutoffs. 

And I was ok with that. But I did get into my head “my crew will be worried.” So I didn’t slow down at all, and in fact ran my fastest pace since Magnetic Rock at mile 33 or so. This was a section of portage, so it was a much nicer, smoother trail than any other section I’d run that day, but I was still pleased that I could run well with so many difficult miles under my belt. 

I have never slipped into flow states that easily before, or for that long. I credit being as ready as I could be physically for the challenge (thanks to this book), and for a few mental tricks and techniques I learned from this one. 

Now, after the BRT, I finally picked up a book on flow, and have been reading it (slowly). Much of it confirms what I already know, but I highly recommend it, and hope to use it coaching my own athletes, once I get that going. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Border Route: Technical Post

Border Route Report

In my prior post, I went through my impressions of the Border Route itself, hopefully giving an idea of what the trail is like, and what it was like to be out on a trail of that length and difficulty while trying at the same time to move quickly.  For this post, I want to dial in what I learned from this run: what went well, and what can be improved. 


For a long time in ultras, I had trouble nailing down my fueling scheme. I would usually end up eating too little, and bonk. Or my stomach would reject the food, usually starting after three hours or so. 

At Zumbro, I learned a few things: I knew beforehand that I was not able to just eat gels or chews and be able to finish an ultra in good condition. At Zumbro, I learned three additional things: I could not eat just sweet food (gels, chews, and stroopwaffles), and I needed a variety of food (salty, sweet, formulated, real, etc . . ).  

For the Border Route, then, I packed a wide variety of food in my bag. Payday bars were a particular favorite, being both salty and sweet, as well as fat- and carbohydrate-rich. I ate some gels, some waffles, and some home-made favorites (pinole bites with matcha are fantastic). I added to that some beef jerky and dried mango, two stalwarts I’ve previously used for long days in the mountains. 

Salt and Pepper Kettle Chips were not as successful. They did not go down well. 

I also learned from Zumbro how much food I need: somewhere north of 250 calories per hour. I opted to eat on the half hour, unless it was a Payday bar (240 calories). I had parceled all my snacks into 125-150 calorie bundles just for that reason, and it worked like a charm. I ate two or three payday bars, and whatever else I felt like eating at the half hour, keeping a good mix going. 

I carried 4000 calories in my pack for the wilderness section of the trail. I wanted to have enough for the full 42 miles, in case something went wrong and I couldn’t meet my crew at the Clearwater Lake campsite. As it turns out, that’s where I left the trail. But I have no regrets about taking that much food. 

Food: dialed in.


Hydration went really well, despite the fact that it was 85 degrees in Northern Minnesota in May. I certainly did not expect that when planning the run and choosing the date. 

I generally drink to thirst, and I followed that method this time as well. Usually, that works out to a good sip every 10 minutes or so, and this day was no different 

The BRT has an added issue: after the first section, I would only get aid at the 32 and 52 mile marks. I needed a good, light, water filter (details on that to come later). I decided that I would take a full 70oz reservoir of water, and a single, collapsable 500mL (about 17oz) bottle. It being the Boundary Waters, after all, there were regular water crossings. My plan was to filter a full water bottle at every water crossing, and drink first from the bottle, and secondly from the reservoir once the bottle was dry. 

With the expected heat, I made one change: every other bottle, I added a Nuun tablet after filtering. 

The plan worked almost incredibly well. I felt clear headed and hydrated the entire time, drinking when I needed to, and never being over or under hydrated that I can tell. I ran out of water in the reservoir within a mile of the Clearwater campsite, and my dad and my wife, who were out there waiting for me, confirmed that I was clearheaded and coherent, and had I not arrived 20 minutes later than my cutoffs they would have sent me on my way with no qualms. 

Pacing and Navigation: 

I had the goal of moving at about 15 minute mile pace, or about four miles per hour. I figured I would run nine minutes, then walk one minute throughout the day, letting me recover on the run. 

After the first four miles, I realized I didn’t need to bother with that schedule. I had resolved to “take what the trail gives me,” and I did. That meant much of the time I was actually unable to run. In some places the trail was too steep, in other places too technical. 

The phrase “too technical to run” has a different meaning on a wilderness trail than in a race situation. On the Border Route, I was on my own, not knowing when I might next see somebody, should I hurt myself and be forced to stop and seek/await help. I had my tracker, with an SOS feature, but that was an absolute last resort: if I had cause to use that, it would mean I had failed utterly. So I took a cautious approach, running when I could, and walking when there was any question. 

This meant I ran much less than I was hoping to. I averaged a little under 17 minute miles for the 35 miles I ran. But I had to backtrack twice out on the trail. While moving, I was able to average a little better than the four miles per hour I was hoping for, but the water breaks and the backtracking took its toll, and I slipped below 18 minute miles “real” time, which was my cutoff speed. 

Navigation generally went well. The trail was generally easy to follow, save for a couple sections at the beginning (when I had a second set of eyes to help me navigate) and one section in the middle, crossing a ridge on exposed bedrock. It helps that there are few other trails out there, and this one has the brush cleared to either side somewhat regularly. 


Gear I feel like I really had dialed down. 

Shoes: Altra Superiors. I wore the same pair all 35 miles. I love the feel of these shoes, and they have enough cushion to keep my feet happy, and enough ground feel that I don’t need to worry too much about rolling my ankle. 

Socks: Injinji NuWools. These got sopping wet in the morning dew, and never dried out. Looking back, this is the one thing I might have changed. I didn’t have enough pairs of socks to feel I could swap them out at the 11 mile mark. In the future, I would bring a couple extra pairs, and maybe keep one pair in my pack. My feet were in rough shape at mile 35, and that was the one thing (other than the cutoff) that might have kept me from continuing. 

Gaiters: worthwhile. I used the Altra Trail Gaiters. They kept extra junk out of my shoes that might otherwise have slowed me down. 

Shorts: The North Face Long Haul (I believe). The pockets in the waistband held my compass and a little extra food. The longer brief underneath kept any chafing from starting. The downside is that this run apparently was the last straw for this pair, as one of the seams died. I may try to repair these. 

Shirt: Long Sleeve New Balance. This technical shirt is supposed to keep you cool when you sweat. The long sleeves meant I didn’t have to put on extra sunscreen or bug spray, which meant shorter stops. 

Hat: Ultimate Direction freebie. 

Gloves: yep, I wore bike gloves. I didn’t use my trekking poles, which meant I didn’t need them to prevent blisters, but I liked having them in any case. As the Speedgoat says, it’s always good to protect your hands. I only fell once, but the leather/gel combo of the bike gloves meant my hand was protected. 

Vest: Ultimate Direction Hardrocker 2017 vest. This was a key piece of gear for me. After Zumbro, I realized that neither vest I had (the Patagonia Forerunner 10L and the UD AK Race Vest V2) would work for the wilderness section of trail. The AK was not big enough, and the Forerunner did not have a front pocket large enough for the Garmin InReach (more on that later). This vest, however, was perfect. It fit all the gear I needed (see below), all the food I needed, and a full reservoir. All told, it was around 10 pounds fully loaded with food and water, and it had almost zero bounce at that weight. The plethora of pockets meant all my necessities (primarily food) were within easy reach without taking the pack off. And over the 7 or so hours that I wore the vest, I didn’t get any hot spots or pain from it. All in all, I wish it weren’t a limited-run vest (do you hear me Justin?). 

GPS/Navigation: I wore my typical Suunto Ambit2 for this one, set at its most battery-friendly GPS settings (read: not very accurate, it was 3.3 miles off from my InReach). I had a Garmin InReach Explorer+ for my GPS tracker and Sat Messenger. I opted for this over the SPOT for tracking because it gave me the option of sending messages as needed. I utilized that twice, once to let my Pacer know I was 10 miles into the wilderness section, and once to let my crew know that I had pulled out. 

For actual navigation, though, I used a map and a compass. 

Filter: MSR TrailShot. I cannot say enough good things about this filter. It’s quick, easy, and convenient. No bending over (unlike the Lifestraw). No clunky bottle (unlike Sawyer). You just point the nozzle at your bottle, let the tail end fall into the water source, and squeeze. It took ~2 minutes from the time I stopped at a water source to the time I had my water bottle filled and was on my way again. The trailshot is heavier than either the Lifestraw or the Sawyer, but I think the 2 ounces is worth it. 

Other Assorted Gear: I had some backup, emergency equipment: merino wool shirt from the now-defunct GoLite (though I hear they are coming back under new ownership, the old owners having started MyTrail), Patagonia Houdini jacket, SOL emergency bivy, blister/first aid “kit” (including duct tape, of course), Victorinox Classic knife, mini LED flashlight (I wore a Petzel AcTik for the few minutes I needed a headlamp first thing in the emorning). All that was for the very unlikely situation that I was forced to bivy for the night in the BWCA. 

As I said, I don’t regret bringing any of the gear. I debated trekking poles, but honestly the hills were either shallow, or few and far enough between that I didn’t feel the need. 

Again, despite not actually succeeding in the overarching goal, I consider this trip a success: I moved well for the conditions, nailed my fuel and hydration, and stayed generally positive. 

And I made the right call, I believe, in stopping, regardless of how I felt physically. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

You're a Different Person Up Here: Impressions of the Border Route Trail

“You’re like a different person up here.”

“You and your dad: you’re both so much more relaxed in the Boundary Waters.”

“You are in your element.” 

(apocryphal, but I trust the source) “Jame is so different in the Boundary Waters. He just seems . . . lighter.” 

Before I started out on the Border Route Trail, I wondered how I would feel, being on my own in the wilderness. I knew the trail was gnarly, and I knew that I would be out there for a long, long time without much contact with anybody else. I have experienced moments on the trails before, in Colorado particularly, when I knew I was alone, and my mind played tricks on me. Little noises made me jump. My imagination gave me images of a mountain lion pouncing, or me breaking an ankle and being stuck. 

So I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable I felt on the “trail” now passing, slowly but steadily, beneath my feet.

In a way, the Boundary Waters is where I am most at home. And so, as people have done from time immemorial, I feel happy and proud to be fighting for it in my own small way. 

At Home on the Edge of Things: Impressions of the Border Route

Pre Dawn on the BRT
I don’t feel like I could do full justification to my 10 hours on the BRT if I tried to do a traditional trip report format. Instead, I will try to convey, as much as I can, the impressions that I remember, those that stick most vividly in my mind, from the 35 miles I traversed that day. I would say “ran,” rather than “traversed,” but as you will see that would be inaccurate.

A Trail that Demands Attention:

The first mile of this trail was the easiest. Easy even at 4:30 in the morning, when I started my day in the pre-dawn. 

It was not the easiest mile in the usual sense. It wasn’t the easiest because it was the first. It wasn’t the easiest because it was downhill. In fact, it is almost all uphill. No, the first mile is literally the best mile of trail, at least in the half I ran. 

For that first mile, the trail shares a path with the Magnetic Rock Trail, which must get much more traffic than the Border Route as a whole. It it the quintessential trail: a path through the brush that has been worn down to the dirt, easy to follow and packed enough to hit a good pace. Soon enough, the monolith that gives the trail its name loomed out of the growing light, a stark outline against the glow in the east, and the Border Route Trail turned south on its way towards the Cross River. 

Magnetic Rock 
With that turn, the trail reveals its true nature: a “vague path through the woods,” as the GearJunkie team called it. 

See the trail?

The course of the trail was not that difficult to follow, in general. In an area like the Boundary Waters, the brushing efforts to either side of the trail were readily evident: an area of much lower growth four feet wide, winding through an otherwise trackless area. But the trail demanded attention. I picked up my pacer in this section (my brother in law), because I’d heard that there were a number of intersecting trails, making it difficult to follow the correct trail.

Map Check. Photo: Steve Snyder
I was glad for the second pair of eyes, because even with the help, I missed the trail twice, and had to backtrack to get back to the BRT proper. Amusingly, the second time we missed a turnoff, a mistake that would see me running an extra mile, I only noticed we were off-route because the trail was too well-trodden and too clear. Whoever marked the ski trail in the same blue as the Border Route made, in my opinion, a poor decision. 

While prior attempts at the 24 hour mark on this trail have seen navigational problems and mistaken routes derail their attempts, I found most of the trail easy to follow. But as I have said, it demanded constant attention. Twice in the Wilderness section of the trail I let my attention stray from the trail in front of me, both times while fiddling with my GoPro camera to try to get some footage of the trail and record my thoughts. 

Each time, when I looked up again, I found myself disoriented, completely unsure if I was still on the trail. The first time, up on the ridge above Gunflint Lake, I had to backtrack, downhill, until I found that most useful of clues: the telltale sawed ends of a cleared deadfall. The second time, in the Alders, I caught a glimpse of the dopamine-inducing blue flagging that marks the trail throughout its length, which assured me that, while the trail was not in evidence under my feet, I was still on the correct track. 

A Wilderness Trail

The Border Route is, in nature as well as designation, a Wilderness trail. 

Beyond being faint, the trail is lightly used. 

At least by humans. 

Moose, on the other hand, seem to use the trail far more than people do. Rarely did I travel more than a mile or two down the trail without seeing moose sign. Their huge, splayed prints in the mud, more reminiscent of the hoofprints left by horses than by the dainty tracks of deer that I see when running closer to home, helped define the course of the BRT in many places. I quickly gave up trying to avoid their scat on the trail, there was simply too much to bother. 

And then there were the Alders. 

I had read about this section in my pre-run research, with numerous trip reports, as well as the guidebook itself, warning about the difficulty these plants created.  The warnings did not do these trees justice: I was truly unprepared for the true obstacle these would present, both physically and mentally. Through one quarter mile section of the trail, these saplings had grown across the trail to the point that they were weaving together, right at eye level, and I had to push forward and up to make any progress. This was, not coincidentally, the point where I started to fully realize the magnitude of the task I had set myself. 
It was also the most discouraging portion of trail for me. But brighter times were coming. 

Even though it is wilderness, the Border Route is still a trail, and people backpack, hike, and even run on even this trail. 

After running all morning, 25 plus miles, seeing nobody but my crew and a pair of boats 400 feet below me on the lake, Stairway Portage felt crowded. I ran into my first pair of backpackers just before the falls. These two were backpacking the full length of the trail. When I told them where I had started that morning, they were visibly impressed. 

“That’s where we’re planning to end up  . . . three days from now.” 

Shortly after that, there was a family of four who must have hiked in on Caribou Rock Trail and were having lunch by the falls.

And then I had to shake my head to be sure I’m not hallucinating. There, on the trail in front of me, was Jon Storkamp, the race director for the Superior Spring and Fall races, and the Zumbro race that I had dropped out of just six weeks before. He had run out with two others on the Caribou Rock trail. When I told him when and where I had started, he told me “that’s a damn good pace out here!”  The three and a bit miles had taken them two hours to cover, a slower pace than I was making so far. 

Of course, I had to take a selfie. 

A Changing Trail

The Border Route is changing. Over the past 20 years, it has been subject to several fires and the 1999 storm known as “The Big Blow,” which saw 100mph straight-line winds down hundreds of acres of trees like matchsticks.  For a long time after, this meant that the affected areas were much harder to navigate, with new deadfall often falling across the trail, and less to differentiate the trail from the surrounding wilderness. 

In the years the fires and blowdown, though, the transition forest has started to spring up. Where once there were acres of pines, there are now crowded stands of deciduous saplings, some over ten feet tall. Brushing efforts have made the trail more open and easier to follow, but I found that the easiest way to follow the trail through much of this section was by looking for where the deadfalls had been cleared. 

Burnt trees and new growth. 
There is little stands out as clearly as the clean line of a sawn tree in the middle of the Boundary Waters. 

The forest has also shifted character from the older-growth pine to young aspen and birch. Beautiful, but exposed to the sun. 

And there is another change going on. The sad possibility is that the pines, which generally move in after the first stage forest of fast-growing deciduous trees, may never come back. The climate is warming, a fact that I couldn’t keep far from my thoughts on an 85 degree day in May in northern Minnesota. With this warming, the types of trees that can survive here will inevitably change as well. Pines may give way to birch and maples, and eventually to the scrub-oak forest we see so much in the southern portion of the state. 

A Stunningly Beautiful Trail

Through all of that, and even though I was moving quickly and concentrating on my end goal, I could not stop marveling at just how beautiful the Border Route is. 

Early morning on the BRT Photo: Steve Snyder
Ed Solsted and company, who broke the trail in the 70s, set the trail up to take advantage of the gorgeous vistas that the cliffs of the Gunflint and Rose Lake areas provide. The trail primarily follows ridge lines, from vista to stunning vista. The highlight of the trail for many is the course it takes along the high cliffs above Rose Lake, in the middle of the 40 mile section of trail that passes through the Boundary Waters. 

And the views are worth every step of the climbs it takes to get there. Trudging through the forest, the view suddenly opens up, and you look out over just a tiny sliver of the United States, over the watery border into the vast area that is the Quetico in Canada: mile after mile of lakes and forests, stretching to the horizon. The only sign of people I saw from the Rose Lake cliffs, where I had stopped to remove and readjust my socks and shoes,  were the two boats I mentioned earlier. From this high up, I couldn’t even hear the whine of their motors as they traveled the lakes. 

A small, uncharitable voice in the back of my head said “cheaters.” 

But I found the true beauty of the trail revealing itself in every step. The trail was so faint much of the time that it hardly disrupted the forest surrounding it, and unlike some trails, it seemed to belong in the wilderness, rather than cutting through it. Even as I pushed myself to try to hit my pace and make my cutoffs, I could not help but feel how privileged I was just to be out on the Border Route, at the edge of things, moving so easily through such a beautiful place. 

Looking back now a week later (as I write this), my impressions of the trail are of birds calling all around me as I make my way through the pre-dawn darkness, of the rising sun flickering through the trees as I followed it east, of the faint trail rising (how does it always seem to be rising?) ahead of me, wending its way through the forest, and of water, always water, falling in streams across the trail, or lapping quietly at the shore of lakes as I picked my way among the roots of cedars along the shoreline. 

Above Bridal Veil Falls
I think I’d like to go back, some time, and do a slower trip of the Border Route. Maybe take a whole three days. 

In summary,: the Border Route Trail is stunningly beautiful, unapologetically wild, and not to be underestimated. I wouldn’t say that this trail beat me, but it certainly tested me.