Saturday, January 18, 2020

My St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra Experience Part 2: The Frosty Selfie

Seconds earlier, Jamison had given the verbal queue that the race had begun.  I knelt down in the snow along with forty-eight other runners and five skiers, pulled the trigger on my fire starter and lit up the Esbit tabs in my stove.  Once our water began to boil and we got the okay from a volunteer, we could pack away our stoves and start running.  The flames from the Esbit tabs were strong, but my water was slow to boil.  I looked around as other runners were cleared by volunteers and began hitting the trail.  "How's it going?" Jamison asked as he approached.  "Good, just waiting for my water to boil".  "Ah, okay" he answered as he looked down at my stove.  "Did you bring a lid for your container?"  "No" I replied with a shy smile.  "That definitely would have helped, but I think you'll be good to go soon".  Damn it.  Why hadn't I thought to buy a lid?.  It was a minor bump in the road, but based on how things had turned out so far, I couldn't complain too much.  Having run multiple long distance races, I've learned a few lessons about how to react when things don't go according to plan. I've learned that especially for a race like this, it's important to plan meticulously and be organized, but when things don't go according to my original plan, it's important to not freak out.  That would only weaken my spirit, and if my spirit were to weaken, I'd be screwed.  The best thing to do is to stay cool and adapt.  Expect things to go wrong and be ready to act accordingly.  Focus on the present, control what you can, and things will work out.  Several volunteers approached me over the next ten minutes to see how my boiling was progressing.  "Dude, you're so close" they kept saying.  "You should be good to go any minute".  Finally, after what seemed like forever, bubbles began forming on the bottom of the container, and my water began to boil.  "Nice, you're good to go!" the volunteer said.  Thank goodness.  Relieved and happy that I passed the stove test, I packed up, grabbed the end of the thin climbing rope I had fastened to my sled, tied it around my waist, and off I went into the night, pulling my sled about six feet behind me.

I eventually began catching up to other runners and skiers, giving them kudos as I cruised by.  St. Croix State Park has several miles of interconnected snowmobile trails and the entire thirty-eight and a half mile course was located within the park boundaries.  To ensure that we stayed on course, the path was marked with yellow signs containing blue arrows at all junctions where trails intersected.  In addition to these signs, there were small florescent yellow flags on sticks off to the side of the trail every half mile or so.  The trail was in great condition.  Several inches of snow had fallen the week prior, and was now packed down, thanks to the park employees and snowmobile riders.  It was like running on Styrofoam, and the snow crunched underneath my shoes as I glided along.  Even though the path was about twelve feet wide, I stayed as far to the right as I could, occasionally turning my head back to make sure that my gear was still secured to my sled underneath the bungee cords, and nothing had gone missing.  As time passed and miles were covered, I eventually took out my phone to check the time.  Sometimes extreme cold can cause electronics such as cell phones to excessively deplete battery energy in order to remain functional.  In an effort to keep my phone working, I kept it in a Ziploc bag with a hand warmer.  My phone read 8:33 PM.  A little over two hours had passed since I began running, which meant it was time to have some food and hydrate.  During winter races it can be tempting to avoid hydrating and eating, but I made a conscious effort to eat and drink every two hours to keep the proverbial fire burning.  I slowed to a stop, turned to my sled, unzipped my pack, and took a few big pulls of Gatorade from my hydro flask.  I then pulled out a big red bag of Chips Ahoy! chewy chocolate chip cookies.  Since my body would be burning more calories than a usual ultramarathon by keeping itself warm in the extreme cold, I opted to consume high calorie foods with a lot of sugar.  I opened the package and reached into the plastic tray that held the cookies.  I popped two of them into my mouth and stuffed the rest into my jacket pocket, eating them one by one, as I continued running.  Even after stopping for two minutes, I was beginning to feel cold, so I wanted to keep moving.  I took note of what time it was so that I knew to re-hydrate and eat again in two hours.

As I glided along the trail with no sounds to be heard except the crunching of snow under my shoes and the sound of my sled being pulled behind me, my mind began to wander.  I thought a lot about how lucky I was to have met and befriended Tony and Kim.  In early October, my friends and I had found them on the Ragnar Napa Facebook group while recruiting members for our team.  They responded to our inquiry and were quickly added to our roster.  At that time, I was beginning to plan the travel logistics for St. Croix, so you can imagine my surprise when Kim sent our team an introductory message and said "Tony and I are from Hinckley, Minnesota".  I couldn't believe what a coincidence it was.  Of all the cities and states in the whole country, what are the odds that they lived in the same town I would be traveling to in a few months to run St. Croix?  Unfortunately, Ragnar Napa was cancelled due to wildfires, but when it came time for us to part ways, Tony and Kim graciously invited me to come stay at their house during race weekend.  Their house was so cool.  It was like staying in a resort in the mountains.  It had a wood interior, lots of windows, and ample space.  They owned forty acres of land, had a detached garage, and another shack on the property that Tony had converted into his own personal gym, complete with punching bags, a treadmill, mats, weights, and even a stereo.  The night before, as we were heading out to Bear Creek Tavern, Tony and Kim had shown me all of the paths and trails they had on their property.  I couldn't believe how lucky I was to be staying there.  Tony's father had passed away several years earlier, along with my mother.  My only logical theory is that the two of them, wherever they are, must have pulled some strings. "These guys need to meet" they probably said to each other.  I continued along the snowy trail, as the flashing LED lights and reflective gear of runners ahead of me periodically appeared in the distance.  I promptly came up behind a guy and a girl running together.  They introduced themselves and Shawn and Mike, both from the Twin Cities area.  I complimented Shawn on her sled decorating abilities, which included flashing, battery powered Christmas lights.  She was a winter ultra veteran, while Mike was out here completing his first one.  We leapfrogged over the course of several miles, and I eventually bade them farewell as I ran ahead.  It was an absolutely stellar night.  Thin, high clouds consumed a portion of the sky, the stars were steadfast, and a full moon shined brightly from above as the snowy trail sparkled and glistened in the moonlight.  Most of the course dissected through the wilderness, and the path was lined with tall, leafless trees, which blocked most of the wind that swept through the area.  Periodically, I'd glance up above the tree tops at the moon and stars and revel in the beauty of it all.  It was so bright, I scarcely needed my headlamp, so I shut it off.  But after a few minutes I thought "wait a minute.  What if there's animals out here?  It would be nice to be able to see their glowing eyes in the distance so I can at least be aware of their presence".  With this thought in mind, I decided to switch my headlamp back on, although the light was barely needed.  As I progressed farther, I crossed wooden bridges over frozen creeks and eventually the wilderness gave way to a huge clearing.  "Wow!" I said out loud.  I could now see a ways in front of me, and was in complete awe of the surroundings.  I had heard before the race that several runners were unable to make it due to an ice storm in Wisconsin, and I was bummed that they wouldn't get the chance to enjoy this experience.  Among them were the hosts of Ten Junk Miles, the podcast that had introduced me to Jamison and this race.  I felt bad that they had fallen behind the eight ball and couldn't make it, and here I was reveling in the good fortune of my situation.  But we all have lucky and unlucky moments in life, and although I felt bad for them, I was happy that things seemed to be progressing nicely, at least for now.  After all, there was always next year.

Checking my phone again, about five and half hours had now passed since I started, and I soon spotted the lights of the check point in the distance.  When I arrived about twenty minutes later, I greeted the volunteers and prepared for the second and last test.  Part of running St. Croix was to teach runners the importance of having winter survivalist skills.  My stove test may have been slow going, but I successfully passed, and the next hurdle would be passing the sleeping bag and bivy test.  A bivy sack is essentially an outer shell for a sleeping bag that is used for winter camping to keep body heat trapped inside.  Once I exited the trail and made my way into the check point, which was the parking lot of the park headquarters, I removed my sleeping bag and bivy from my sled and rolled it out on the icy pavement.  Before the start of the race I had stuffed my sleeping bag inside my bivy and rolled the whole thing up into the bag to avoid having to do so at the check point, which would have cost me more time.  Once I wiggled inside, a volunteer came over to give me the go ahead.  "How's it going out there?" she asked "So far, so good!  I appreciate you guys being out here".  Volunteers are a key ingredient to making any race happen, but tonight, these guys were especially awesome for being out here in the middle of the night, bundled up in bitter cold temperatures.  I'm glad they had a heated tent to escape to during their downtime, but they still had to bundle up to stay warm in these crazy cold temperatures.  "Okay, you're good to go!" she said about thirty seconds later.  Sweet!  I had passed the final winter survival test.  The final hurdle would be making it through the seventeen miles I had left to go.  If I could do that, I would be home free.  I packed up my sleeping bag and bivy, feeling positive.  That was until I overhead a volunteer tell another runner that his car thermometer read seven degrees below zero when he arrived for his volunteer shift a few minutes earlier.  "Wait, what?" I asked in disbelief.  "Yep, minus seven man.  You guys are bad asses!".  Was it really that cold? My body was generating a lot of heat, so it was hard to tell.  "Number eight, checking out!" I said enthusiastically as I made my way back to the trail.  The volunteers clapped their hands, cheered, and sent me on my way.  Thirty minutes later, I removed my phone from my pocket and for laughs, I decided to take a selfie.  The flash went off, and I took a look at the photo.  I couldn't believe what I saw.  It looked as if someone had thrown a big snowball right at my face.  Snow and frost covered my beanie, my buff, the outer layer of my jacket, and even my eyelashes.  I looked down at my jacket, and sure enough, it was covered in frost.  My muscles were generating ample amounts of body heat, which warmed up my hat and clothes.  The heat crystallized in the frigid cold, and created a layer of frost all over me.  When I saw that selfie, it scared me a little.  Was it really seven below zero out here? Or was the volunteer's car thermometer malfunctioning?  It was a critical moment.  "What the hell am I doing out here?" I thought.  "This is insane.  Why am I out here in sub zero temperatures, in the middle of the night, pulling a sled full of stuff through the wilderness?  Why am I not in bed sound asleep, like a normal person would be?"  Jamison mentioned during the pre-race briefing that we would likely question our life choices at some point during this race.  For me, that time had come.  What in the world had I gotten myself into this time?  Eventually, I burst into loud, psychotic laughter, breaking the midnight silence.  This was the kind of stuff I lived for.  Yes, this is absolutely insane.  Who would do something like this? and why?  I don't know, but man, I love this shit!

Runners go through several phases during ultramarathons, and I was now entering what I like to call, the loopy phase.  It's like a combination of a runner's high and a proverbial acid trip.  "I'm on my way.  I'm on my way! Home Sweet Hommme" I sang out loud, alone on the trail.  Stars shined above, and the moon continued lighting up the white trail as I ran through the trees.  The song I was singing was a favorite of mine, and the tone of it seemed to blend perfectly with my current predicament.  Moments earlier I had stuffed more cookies into my pockets and I looked at them as I held them in my hand.  "Maybe I should see how many cookies I can get in my mouth" I thought.  "Why not make this even more interesting?".  But they were all going in, one way or another.  I soon approached a section of the course that Shawn earlier referred to as "the Lollipop".  There were several hills along this area, and when I approached a downhill section, I sat down on my sled, and rode it down the hill, using my feet to steer (I confirmed before the race that this tactic was not considered cheating because we had to haul our sleds up the hills too).  Shortly after riding down yet another hill, I saw the lights of two oncoming runners. "Is that Liam?" it was the familiar voice of Shawn.  "Yep!" I answered.  Seeing Shawn and Mike was a welcoming sight, but suddenly I became confused.  Why were they going the other way?  "Wow, I thought you guys were closer behind me" I said.  "Oh yeah, we slowed down a lot since the check point.  We're just going easy" Mike replied.  They seemed to still be in good spirits.  "Nice!  See you guys in a little bit" I said as we parted ways.  Why were they going the opposite way? I had been following the blue arrows and yellow flags, so I was pretty sure I was on the right course.  Just then, another oncoming runner approached.  "Hey, nice job" I said.  "Thanks! But you know you're going the wrong way right?" she replied.  I looked at her quizzically in the beam of my headlamp.  "I am?" Using her pole, she pointed to one of the yellow signs with a blue arrow on her side of the trail that marked the direction of the course.  This wasn't good.  In fact, it was horrible.  I had passed the same sign about an hour before.  Not knowing exactly what to do next, I looked ahead and to my delight, I saw a sign with an arrow on my side of the trail about thirty feet ahead.  "Oh, check it out!" I said to her as I pointed the beam of my headlamp at the sign.  She walked over to my side of the trail to get a better view.  "Oh!" she said.  "This must be the part of the course that is out and back.  I knew we had a small section of out and back, I just didn't know where.  Never mind, you're good, sorry!" After a burst of laughter, I wished her luck and continued onward.  Within minutes, I was alone again and there were no lights of any runners in sight.  Despite following the signs, my encounter with the last runner I had seen had planted some seeds of doubt in my mind.  Forty-five minutes later, I was still alone and began feeling very isolated and vulnerable in the midnight wilderness.  "Am I really on the right path?Yes, I have to be" I thought to myself.  As pleasant as running in solitude can be, at this moment, I longed for some company.  The bike race began at 10 PM, and a handful of them had already passed me along the way.  I kept hoping that a bike racer would ride up behind me, just to ensure that I was going the right way.  Just when things were really starting to get sketchy, a bright light shined behind me.  Yes! I'm good.  "Nice job man! I'm so glad to see you.  I wasn't sure if I was going the right way" I said to the bike racer as he passed.  He laughed, gave me a thumbs up, and continued down the trail.  Suddenly, all was well again.  Moments later, an oncoming snowmobile came roaring up the trail.  I waved as he approached, and he stopped and asked me if I was okay.  He had mistaken my wave as a signal for help, but I was just saying hi.  "Yep, I'm good!  Just saying hey" I said.  "Cool, you've got a great pace going.  Keep it up".  He was one of the volunteers patrolling the trails to ensure our safety, for which I was extremely grateful.

A little while later, exhaustion began setting in.  It was 4:30 AM, and my body was feeling the fatigue of trekking through a cold Minnesota night.  There were no mile markers along the course, so it was difficult to tell exactly what mileage I was at, but my educated guess was that I had about four miles left and I'd be done in about an hour.  As I continued along tiredly, I soon spotted something odd and beautiful off in the distance.  Lights.  From a building.  Oh my god!  I didn't want to get my hopes up, so I continued at a modest pace.  As I got closer I couldn't help but think: is this the finish line already?  Holy crap, it was! I had overestimated how much distance I had left, and was euphorically surprised.  Volunteers cheered and rang cowbells as I ran the final hundred feet to the finish line at the Trail Center, where the race had started.  I shouted and threw my arms in the air in celebration as I ran through the finish line, crossing in just over ten and a half hours.  "Wow, that was epic!  Thank you guys so much" I told the volunteers as I smiled ear to ear.  "Congratulations man!" they said as they handed me my finisher's prize.  After a few minutes, I promptly headed into the the building, where the volunteers were cooking up a full-on breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, and coffee.  As I ate, I spoke with a volunteer who was working the check point around the same time I was there.  "I heard it was seven below zero" I told the guy "Yep, at one point it was.  Then it warmed up to about two, and around five by the time I left".  Who knows if it was really that cold, but either way, those temperatures are pretty extreme.  Luckily, I managed to stay pretty comfortable the whole time.  I had a few layers on and my body generated just enough body heat while running to keep myself warm without sweating.  In fact, I even took off my gloves during a decent portion of the race because my hands were surprising warm.  As I finished breakfast and prepared to head out, a runner named Thomas came inside.  I had met him before the start, and he was the only other runner from California who had come out for St. Croix.  He had also successfully finished the race, and we embraced in a celebration hug before parting ways.  As I loaded my sled into the bed of the pickup truck and drove away in the pre-dawn darkness, I couldn't have been happier.

Back at the house, Tony let me in, and I flopped down onto the bed in the guestroom for a nap.  Later on that day, Tony and I went to brunch at the buffet of the casino in Hinckley, where he has worked for the last nineteen years.  Kim, who is a teacher in the Twin Cities area and commutes ninety minutes to work each day, had left earlier that morning to go dress shopping with her soon to be sister in law.  After Tony and I stuffed ourselves at the buffet, he showed me his working area in the backroom.  He was a Tech Engineer, and fixed the slot machines whenever they malfunctioned.  After seeing his work area and getting a better sense of his day to day work life, I was convinced he could fix anything.  Kim arrived back home later that afternoon as I was packing up to head to the airport.  The three of us embraced in a final hug and I told them I'd be back to visit again.  Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I couldn't return to Bear Creek Tavern for a celebratory beer, but I was pretty sure it wasn't going anywhere.  After saying our final goodbyes, I jumped in my truck and headed for the airport.  As is often the case during the drive home from an ultra, I did a lot of reflecting on the journey.  I was happy that everything worked out, and the only blunder I encountered was not having a lid for my stove container.  Things could have very easily gone very badly.  I had won battle after battle, and eventually won the war (finishing the race successfully).  Would I ever do an ultra like this again?  Absolutely.  It was a new and exciting experience, and I loved every minute of it.  But at that exact moment, despite how happy I was, I wasn't thinking about running.  I was exhausted, and I just wanted to get back home to California and into my nice warm bed.           

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