Friday, March 17, 2017 St. Patrick’s Day
Gear West Stumble 5k
“Win your weight in beer”; the prize offered to the overall winners of the 5k race starting and finishing at Gear West Ski and Run Shop in Long Lake, MN. As appealing as that sounded, I had decided to run easy. But when the race started, as usual, I saw fit to push myself as hard as I felt comfortable enough to do. It was a bit cool and windy, but very nice for a mid-March evening. A group of 5 or 6 runners took off ahead of the pack, with another half dozen of us in trail. I ran fairly strong throughout, definitely slowing some on the return trip of the out and back. I finished in 20:32, far from winning the big beer prize, but quite a reasonable time for a 5k run. Back at the store, there was one table full of fun awards for the participants, and another filled with Irish day food; hotdogs and chips, corned beef and potatoes. There was a great turnout for the run, including such notables as Mark Smith and his family, Kari Gibbons and her parents, and of course, the owner of Gear West, Vasaloppet Hall of Famer Jan Guenther. All in all, it was a fantastic night, even though I ducked out early to try to get ready for the day that was to come…
Saturday March 18, 2017
END-SURE 50k North Dakota
An early start Saturday, we were on the road headed to North Dakota before 5:30 am. My friend Fabio and I were on our way to the Sheyenne National Grasslands to take part in the END-SURE (Extreme North Dakota Sandhills Ultra Run Experience) 50k. END-SURE follows a portion of the North Country Trail, and is the first race of the 2017 season of the UMTR Ultra Trail Series.
A four hour drive was going to make for a long day, but we made it to the finish area with about a half hour to spare. We got checked in and I visited with some Canadians I’d met in the year past. The race director gave navigation advice and cracked a few appropriate jokes to lighten the mood. At 10 am the runners piled into vans and we rode to the start.
It was a nice morning, cloudy and cool, but dry and calm. There were close to 50 of us taking part in the 50k, with an eventual 45 finishers. In the longer distances, only 2 of 9 finished the 100k and 1 of 3 the 100 mile. We gathered and waited in the parking area that served as a Trail head. Fabio and I visited with a forest ranger who was on hand for the start. About 12 minutes before the official start time, everyone was ready to go, we were herded to the other side of the gated fence and then sent off to follow the trail.
I was feeling fine, still in the mode of the 5k from the night before, I was pushing from very near the beginning, making space between myself and others on the trail. Soon there were only 2 runners ahead of me, and the trail was mine to do with as I pleased. Through much field and pastureland, many smaller rolling hills, a soft yet sure footing persevered. The trail itself was not overly established in many areas. At times it felt as though you picked your own path between the permanent trail markers. You had to pay attention to follow the path, that said, it was relatively easy to stay on course. It just required an awareness and switching between looking at the trail directly in front of you and focusing ahead in the distance to spot the next marker. I found it to be a fun trail to travel.
Within a handful of miles, I had caught up with the second place runner, turned out to be another Canadian, who had actually been volunteering at one of the later checkpoints at Actif Epica a month earlier. I remembered her immediately. She was still running stronger and I knew better than to try to make a pass, still the lead runner within our sights for a few more miles. We soon began to see a few of the runners doing the 100k on their way out, the first being Ultra Series Champion Mark Martinsen. I gave him a hoot and a high five as we passed. By 12 miles in, I grew tired and was forced to slow. With no other runners behind me having been in sight for some time, that soon changed, as 6-8 runners passed me before I reached the aid station near the midpoint.
I was hungry when I got there, after refilling my water bottles, I enjoyed some bacon, chicken broth, and other snacks. I was overdressed for running, and had surely gone out to heavy. I was sweaty and it was cool, the sun which had shone early in the day had disappeared behind a thick cover of clouds. I was looking behind me for Fabio, thinking that I’d let him catch me and then travel together. I think I saw his red jacket approaching as I was leaving the aid station, not more than a handful of minutes back. It wasn’t long, after several more runners, that Fabio had caught me.
I had quite abruptly gone from 5k mode to 100 mile mode, just one foot in front of the next to gut out the miles. I worked to maintain pace. We reached the last aid station, which once again, was the back of a pickup truck out in a field. Here we had to do an extra loop and circle back to the aid station to make our miles. During this loop I met Sharleen from Sioux Falls. Having never run a 100 miler, she is determined to take on a 5 race series this year, the Midwest Slam, an admirable undertaking. After a slight confusion, we made the loop and returned to the pickup truck. I visited with Mike who was out supporting his wife Janet in her race. He and the aid station volunteer were enjoying a beer. After telling me he’d never give a beer to any runner unless they had a $20 bill, Ryan soon offered me one. A Summit Horizon Red Ale, a tasty local brew. I nearly finished it but shared a few swallows with a fellow runner and friend, Timm. The carbohydrate rich fluid made me feel quite a bit better about the final 6 or 7 miles of the day.
This section of trail featured a few areas of still frozen solid creek like crossings and one wooded ~50 foot stretch of soft, ankle deep snow, the only snow along the entire course. It was near this portion with 2 or 3 miles remaining, that a man came from behind me running like a deer, way to spry and fresh at this point, regardless of his distance traveled. He turned out to be none other than the lone 100 mile finisher, clocking in at 18 hours and change.
Much of the day I expected a pr 50k time would be in order, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. I still have work to do, and I need to be smart. This race was a friendly reminder of what not to do in a couple weeks come Zumbro. I still enjoyed myself immensely and am very happy with the day that was. After indulging in some finish line food and one more beer, courtesy of my friend Brian, met at last year’s Kettle, I made it to the car before Fabio left for home without me. True, it wasn’t the same as a “Minnesota” trail race, but I am thankful for the experience, and will return, both to the race and to explore more of the trail that is the North Country.