The biggest summer of my life, when racing in person disappeared…
This summer I had been marching along with the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee and entered Coyote Summer, meaning from May 1 to August 31 (GVRAT) I had to complete 1000km across the state of Tennessee virtually, and from July 1 to August 31, complete 400 miles for Coyote Summer. Of course when I finished the 1000km for GVRAT I would continue on for the 1000 miler. I had been averaging over 220 miles a month for two months and heading that way for July as well. Richard had signed up for the Badger 100k by Ten Junk Miles earlier in the year. This of course became virtual in July. I decided that I would pace him for his first 100k if he would have me, of course fearing I would be too slow.
But then it hit me. I was fully trained up for a 200 miler basically. But all events were virtual now. What about a longer FKT? I popped onto the FKT site and searched the routes but nothing was nearby within any reasonable driving distance (13 or less hours). I was a bit disappointed and called off the search for a while, but later realized that I could submit my own FKT route! There are tons of trails and systems/routes not included on the FKT site. One that sparked my interest not being on there was the North Country Trail, a trail that is 4,600+ miles long stretching from Vermont to North Dakota! Yet the only piece of it on the FKT site was the Michigan section, 500+ miles long and including a bridge walk that may or may not be open during covid-19 (I think labor day is the only time to really cross it without traffic, but some thru-hikers have gotten through by other means). Regardless, 500+ miles was a little too ambitious given I had never gone past 103 miles total in my life. On closer inspection, the Wisconsin section of the NCT was between 209 and 211 miles, how perfect!
The NCT site was very well organized and had every resource available, and for every state, broken into chapters. The maps using the avenza app were free to everyone and was an app you could use offline (a GPS locator). I knew if I were to do this I should expect little to zero cell service and no where to eat or stay overnight. All these assumptions were correct.
The next issue would be time of year. I didn’t exactly want to hinder myself in the heat, so chose the end of August, and hoped that would be a good time for others in case I needed aid or help (pacers/crew). I figured early September Wisconsin in the south usually cools off to lower 70s for the most part on average, so extreme northern Wisconsin a week or two earlier would have about the same. Daylight hours mattered too. Now to keep up volume and training.
My “training” had come and gone in waves. I would go through heavy periods of heavy loads and volumes, doing upwards of 60-80 miles per week to dipping down to 20-30 for recovery weeks. In July, I did a mini ultra for my monthly ultra, just over 27 miles, in a heat wave and downpour. My mileage for the month dropped off below 200 miles, as I spent a good 10 days tapering for pacing Rich. I decided then a few things:
1) I would sign up for the 100 to get the time on feet and volume, although this was cutting it close with recovery from that and I’d never done a flat 100 before, and 100 milers just come with all sorts of associated risks.
2) I would submit the FKT route after the 100 on August 1st to make sure I wasn’t injured or that someone else wouldn’t snipe it out from under me before I had a chance to attempt it first.
Time started passing so slowly as it was…
For the 100/100k with Rich in tow, I formulated the base plan which was walking/hiking for 0.2 miles and then running the rest of the 0.8 mile out for each mile. I would let him set the pace for the aid stops, which was graciously provided by dear Megan and her van. We would be using the official race course being it was so close to where we lived. This meant starting in Belleville, heading down to Orangeville, Illinois and heading back again. For myself, I would then figure out what I was going to do personally since the 100 miler started in Orangeville. I voted for doing shorter out and backs on the Badger State trail, heading north until the path became paved, and then south again, and then filling whatever I needed thereafter. We also decided to start a bit earlier than the 100k start to avoid people who might start at the same time (since we started on the day of the badger on the trail where it started!).
It was a lovely day, starting out sunny. Rich forgot his watch, finding out on arrival. Facepalm.
Moving on, we would use my watch. Megan was there and also attached her Coros as a backup on my hydration pack. Looked like highs would top out in the low 80s, but clouds moving in later in the day. And that’s exactly what happened!
With the plan in place, and all ultra goodie things shifted over to Megan’s van, we took off south down the trail. Megan would meet us every 3-5 miles, which was often enough. Everything went smoothly, the trail was a bit damp and sticky in places, but not muddy, and not hard. Rich and I kept the intervals going. We got a small ways in and decided to take the detour. Detour? An official one.
So sadly the trail tunnel has been closed due to dangers surround the structure and it was illegal to pass through it. The official detour took runners (and bikers who passed along the trail too) off to Tunnel road, a very hilly road even not by Wisconsin standards. We started up the hills to the right and were followed by bikers, some walking them up, some grinding the gears. The top was amazing, full of farms and fields of flowers and hundreds on hundreds of yellow butterflies flitting about. This was absolutely the best part of the course. Down and back up we rolled along the hills until the road dumped us out back on the trail heading south.
Most of these miles were mundane and even keen on pacing. Arriving at Orangeville, we overshot the pavilion to the right where a port-o-potty awaited (though there was one more pavilion with a restroom, a legit one along the way I think around mile 20), to cross the covered bridge that read “Orangeville” on it, which was the official starting line for the 100. I apparently missed the new Wisconsin Supreme court Justice running back towards Belleville along the way, as she was getting sworn in later that day as she ran her 100 miler. Upon returning to the pavilion, we met again with Megan and took a longer break here. I jumped into a new shirt, mine was soaked with humidity that stuck to me like a moist summer shower, and ate a bunch. Oops.
Well shortly after taking off after inhaling as much sugar as my body would allow, my system broke. I started getting a side cramp, and if I learned anything from my mess with cramps from the virtual 100k I did earlier that summer, I needed to walk and keep my heart rate low to digest what I had trying to settle in my bowl of sloshing inside me. I apologized to Rich for slowing us down. Rich started taking longer breaks, but mentioned along the way he wouldn’t be opposed to continuing on for the 100 miler with me. I told him straight up “I’ll ask you again at mile 50.” Well off knowing things are highly likely to change past mile 40, and he had never ran this far before (us, being at mile 35 currently on our way back to Belleville).
We quickly got back on our pace intervals, although a bit slower now in the running department. Bugs were only bad in spots, and trying to write this now even mentioning the bugs were possibly bad in parts in Badger comparing it to what was to come during the FKT…well…
Rich started asking me to complain a bit cause it made him feel better than he wasn’t the only one suffering. I knew miles 40-50 well, and knew complaining did nothing and it would only get worse from here, and the fact we were running and moving well, in my opinion, was a good thing, a positive. This is when the mood dropped, as I likely predicted would happen around mile 38-42. Rich reconfirmed he would not stop and he would get it done no matter the time it took. I felt bad for him, but he needed to learn how this felt on his own. Running became challenging as we broke out intervals into smaller ones to make it more manageable. But the transition between running and walking was what was getting Rich, but running for too long and walking for too long weren’t good either. I kept track of our intervals and kept the train moving. We eventually caught up to the Texas crew, who hadn’t a headlamp to their name. It was getting dark. Our intervals didn’t match up well with theirs, but our overall speed was faster…though our stops longer at aid. Unintentional cat and mouse.
We reached the detour coming from the opposite direction and it felt like fresh air literally. The hills moving our muscles differently and the open night sky breathed freshness all around. Rich was beginning to realized too that stopping too long at aid would cause him too freeze, a good “force you out of your chair” motivator. I only resigned to sitting on the van bummer most times. I am pretty good at getting up and out on my own, although sometimes slow about it, I’ve never been trapped by the allure of chäir. 10K left. 90K down. The pain was pretty real for Rich.
He stuck it out as we hit the final stretch which was a huge motivator to have no more aid stops left. We arrived back in the parking lot we started from at the 100k mark and he was done! I switched clothes for the night, keeping my watch running and taking a picture of his finish mileage and time from my watch for reference. I propped my feet up as I ate. However, this is where things started decaying for me…
The next 7 miles were out north and had one aid stop between. I headed out into the dark, humid night. My light shone on several nearby paradise bushes with leaves overturned and white, gave the night a spooky feel. I walked for about a mile to let the stomach settle the food, trying to have learned my lesson from earlier, and to get moving again. I started up with the intervals myself again. At this point, I had switched to more minimal shoes. I had started out with the Olympus and switched to the superiors. I passed by Dot’s Diner, unknowingly in the dark. As I got closer and closer to the turn around at the far north end (this is quite a few miles past the 100 miler course turn around north of Belleville), I started to decay a bit, reaching 70 miles. I arrived at the Megan Van and took a sit myself and lowered myself onto my back to let my feet relax, feet propped in chair after enjoying some food..and found out EGGS ARE INCREDIBLE! Like mindblowing WOAH moment.
Megan helped me up, but in the processes, I pinched the side of my right foot into the side of shoe and it HURT really badly. I teared up a little and headed out with a bag of chips, starting to feel cramping oncoming. I was so alone now. Previously, with Rich, we had passed several people either enjoying the trail or actually running the race course. There was a bit of peace, but the idea that there was an ultra left (30 miles) and by the time I got back to Belleville, STILL having 24ish miles left… so daunting for some reason and it was weighing on me now my mind was on the clock.
The actual race, and to get a buckle virtually, you had to come in under 36 hours, and I was currently under 26 hours. There was no way I wasn’t going to make it, but now I wanted to optimize my time now Rich was gone, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to try harder, I was supposed to keep hiking and occasionally running to make sure this was just a training race. But honestly I don’t know if I have it in me to with 100% assurance make a race a training race and stick with the plan when I have a shiny PR staring me in the face.
Not far off from the northern aid stop, I was running great! I felt great! And then I didn’t. I started getting sharp cramps in my calves if I tried to move efficiently at all, even walking. I started picking up nearby sticks to “roll out” the muscles. Ugh I was getting frustrated getting a 2nd wind and then being defeated by my own nutrition. It wasn’t particularly hot out, and wasn’t all day, just humid. But it took a toll and now it was time to pay up with interest.
I arrived at the aid stop and sat and ate chips, grumpy now. I didn’t want food, I never want food. But I needed salt and stuff. I forgot to add a nuun in my bottle. I had dropped my pack back at the northern point for less weight as I wasn’t going through enough water to justify the pack and it was chaffing my back per usual…just never kept up with the excessive sweating through the day with enough vasaline to counterbalance. My time ticked away…
I slugged my way back to Belleville, just not like I was when I had left. It was still dark and I prayed for that second sunrise. I somehow convinced myself that walking slower would make the sun come up faster since I wasn’t covering as much ground. When I had checked my watch time, it was 3am. Sunrise wasn’t until 5:30am or thereabouts. I continued grumping about time.
Back at Belleville my feet were hurting pretty good. I decided to take a walk through the park there and out to the residential area along the gravel path. The rocks were beginning to make me ache, and I had no idea what was to come after all, epic foreshawdowing. The silver leaves bathed me in the spookiness as Megan tagged along in her clogs (I was not moving fast at all). This mentally distracted me which was good. This is when I realized the time in the superiors was a mistake for my feet. They aren’t bad shoes, but a bit too little cushioning for where I was in the game. Sunlight was peaking over my shoulder at last upon arriving back at the van. I changed up the shoes and shoved my pouting aside, ate and headed back out south towards the tunnel. I was able to kick up a run, and decided to let it ride until I could not run again. About 1.5 miles in, the running came to a halt when my feet decided to ache and hurt again. Even walking was uncomfortable. The little stones, each and every one, was a curse. I focused so much energy on not hitting any of them along the rail trail. I didn’t remember (of course) that there were that many stones and rocks before.
I dragged again into the aid at the southern end. I got word there was a cat, but I missed him. I also got word that our friend Kristin was going to come out to help. I breathed the fresh news in and gave me hope, regardless if she came or not. I was not expecting pacers. I was able to produce some running again past the aid, but again, 1.5 miles out, I decayed yet again. The waves of in and out of decay were annoying but also demoralizing. I stopped outside of Belleville on a bench and took my shoes off and massaged my feet and inspected them for damage. No external damage to be found but the massaging surprisingly felt amazing. I could have stayed there forever.
I arrived back and Kristin was there waiting. She took me on a tour of Belleville through the streets and I had my poles. Wasn’t a good combo as I moved slowly. I had my mini breakdown at the van. Sob sob, gotta get going, suck it up. Daytime was showing its flavor. I started doing circles around the small parking lot surrounding Belleville community park. It was about 0.3-0.4 miles around and paved with a micro hill on both sides (one up and one down). I started running it. I started feeling better. I got new shoes from Rich who had successfully slept and come back to greet me again. These shoes were 0.5 size bigger. I decided to try and go out again on the trail. Worst mistake ever and it tore me back down. Rinse repeat.
Back to the small paved circle. Scotty and crew were cheering my antics on from the middle where the pavilion was. Must think I’ve gone insane. I kept with what was working. I ate and chipped away at the final half marathon. Thinking how long a half marathon was going to take me made me sad again. I kept mathing my way a finish time. More sadness. I think I just got really down on myself trying to prove I could make up time in the final marathon of a 100 when I was not ready to do so after a long day of pacing Rich along. It wasn’t MY day anyway, it was his, and we got him that finish. That was all I cared about until I was on my own. So much pressure for nothing. I did well. Regardless. Was it pretty? No. I ran around a hamster wheel parking lot mindlessly in the same direction for hours to finish.
Eventually, Andrea and her kiddos showed up at the park to cheer on a friend finishing a different distance there. The found some toilet paper for a finish line.
I ran and ran. Finally it was time to stop, the watch said I was done, and the first time I have managed to force my watch to hit 100 miles without restarting (lifelong goal accomplished), after 3 attempts at this! The finish chute made me cry, the distance made me cry, the agony that it was all over made me cry, everyone there pushing me to finish it up made me cry. What didn’t make me cry right then? I wanted to be emotional, and usually I’m not, some feelingless monster sometimes that just settles for the lack of emotion thereof. I get jealous of those who can get all broken up and heartening at their efforts. I knew at that point I was not hurting for real, and that there was twice the distance to go soon…
I managed a 39 minute 5k for the last 5k. My feet were dying with nerve pain, no severe swelling at all, but this is exactly the result I was hoping for. Nothing else felt too terrible other than being slightly stiff from not having any elevation gain for the most part (2000 gain over 100 miles, but the majority was a slow grade up for the first 50k). Total time according to my watch for 100.05 miles was 27 hours and 54 minutes, 16:45 average pace with all the breaks and everything. I had meant to make the aid stops quicker as Rich left, but the problems I had after he was done ruined me. I have no real doubt I could do sub 24 hours, but not on a course like Badger most likely. I need hills in my diet. The trail ate at my feet despite being flat. This is a theme I had heard from other flat races such as Yeti. Same feeling was at Freight train 100k too, though I attributed my bad times there to being fresh off of Cloudsplitter.
In the coming two weeks, I worried my head off about being prepared AND recovered for the FKT. No blisters or anything from Badger 100. I did some 5-8 mile maintenance runs in-between when I was ready to get back to it, but not real volume other than focusing on the hiking part every day. The right side foot pain lingered, only rearing its head at special times…not often enough to think about.
So much had to be done in preparation for the FKT. I set up a short fundraiser to give back to the trail which took some of my time figuring out since it was a non-profit and they were not listed on any site to accept non-profit donations (facebook/gofundme), so I had to set up a personal fundraiser outside of non-profit. A lot of long talks with Megan about the food plan, buying all the camping gear and maps, and laying out how timing would work and trying to wrangle up literally anyone to help pace.
The time came around, the week of the FKT, and I started paying extra for expedited shipping on gear I needed that wasn’t being processed. It would have been nicer to go in stores, but that wasn’t an option. The new Altra Escalantes also came out right beforehand, and I was hoping they went back to their original feel of the stretchy upper (spoilers, they did). I figured I need all sort of back ups just in case not knowing exactly what I was going to encounter on said mystery trail. Megan had scouted out a bit leading up on some trails. She took care of the food and spreadsheet and location information which is hecka challenging. We both assumed there would be no cell service up there (we were correct, sorry more spoilers).
The week was a blur, just so much prep and making lists and checking them 12128376 times over. Sleeping pad, sleeping bag, everything for contacts (I really need to look into lasik), allergy meds, things to even live for over 4 days. That brought me to the plan…I had no idea what I was doing so I messaged some friends who have done longer things to ask for advice. For the really long FKTs it was advisable to sleep during the night instead of pushing through. Brilliant me was like great! So sleep for 2 nights (sort of) and plow my way through the final night for extra miles and finish up.
The first 53 miles of the trail coming from the west were all road with a small section leading off of the Superior Trail to start off. The goal was to finish that section on the first day. 53 down and 150 some to go. The section after the road was considered part of the Brule State Forest. Brule led into the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest…a truly never-ending forest area. From mile 53 to basically mile 166 was all forested and trails. A short road section, then another shorter trail section and road to the finish (final 12 miles). After the 53 mile day, another 45+ mile day was planned into the woods and trail, and then minimal sleep, and a 100+ mile push to the finish. Too ambitious I was for my experiences.
Did I mention that it was minimal sleep? It was just over 200 miles, and that was equivalent to a 200 miler race right? Right?? People didn’t sleep much during those and this was no epic 500+ mile FKT adventure, it was my smaller 200+ miler adventure journey. So little knowledge…
I packed everything up rather successfully and Megan showed up to my house with her van and we packed It full and headed out Wednesday morning to the Mont du Lac Resort near Superior, Wisconsin. With Covid-19, we were all weary of staying in a hotel, but I found a place that rented out cabins for really reasonable prices! Plus it was only a bit away from the start of the FKT. Covid-19 wasn’t the only reason for camping in-between days, it was also more so the fact there was no where TO stay. There were really no towns along the way, no places to restock had we left anything behind. It was really pack in pack out. I really wanted to find a place for the finish to shower up and reset, but everything was well over an hours’ drive away, so might as well just drive on home.
On the way up, we stopped at Amnicon Falls and did a short hike there to see the waterfalls. A very nice park. This was not along the NCT, so just a bonus for us. We arrived in the late afternoon to the resort. The resort had a lot of little fun offerings for kids and adults like a water park almost! Nothing open during the weekdays. The cabin was newer for sure, with a single simple bathroom, kitchen/living space, a loft, and two small bedrooms. The only con was that the futon in the living space was more comfy than the beds which were pretty hard. Otherwise, the cabins were cute and functional. We ate at the ski house (this was really a ski resort in the winter), and ate with the geese along the hill outside post rainstorm. Then settled in for the evening.
I did have a harder time sleeping, being the bed wasn’t comfortable for me, and the anxiety of what was before me. I had set the start time around 9am since it would prevent some time pressure in the morning, I knew I’d wake up more naturally and get a longer sleep. This plan worked out well as I was up and out of bed fairly early anyway on Thursday, day 0.
Why day 0? It had not yet been one day, as far as FKT terms are considered. When you hit 24 hours in, that begins day 1. We ate a breakfast served up by Megan of eggs, potatoes, and bacon. I gluped down my brisk iced tea I had brought and we packed up and headed out to the start. The start was a bit tricky to get to, and a bit more tricky than we gave it credit for. We all knew ahead of time the start was about a mile of hiking in from the Superior Hiking Trail that the NCT turned into and joined on the Minnesota boarder. After some fanangaling, and many u-turns trying to find the little gravel road that led to the nearest Superior trailhead to the starting point, we found our way. Down a narrow gravel path, we drove until we found the little sign where the Superior trail crossed that road in Minnesota. We parked and I started the pre-run prep; feet, bug spray, sunscreen, hat, hydration pack, clothes, everything. It was a bit chilly for me, mid to upper 50s or so, but perfectly sunny, sun that peaked in and out through the branches surrounding us. Michele, lil Ro, with the Ornery Mule Racing Van, came up behind us to tag along to help and record the journey. Then it was time to set off along the wet trail heading towards the Wisconsin state line. Tiny hills littered the trail. It was peaceful and a great warm up for what was to come that day.
We reached the state line after a bit over a mile in. I jumped to touch the sign that marked where the Superior hiking trail southern terminus was and where the Wisconsin NCT began. It was a very nice sign if I do say so myself, no mistaking where it was even if it was dead in the middle of the trail with nothing around, no roads, no houses. After about a minute of deliberation, I said I was going, hit my watch at 9:10am, and headed out on a slow jaunt down the trail, it had begun. This would be a 221 mile journey of a lifetime.