After watching and volunteering at the race in 2011, I decided that I would make a solid attempt at training for the 2012 race. Many doubted I would even be able to commit to a rigorous training regime that most ultra athletes know lots about. Myself, having never even run a marathon knew little about what it would take to become physically fit enough to endure long distances. I grew up running cross country and track and was very fit for endurance all the way through high school. I lost some of the running passion during college when a little homework and some beer drinking became hobbies. I am always up for a challenge and have kept my endurance/long distance mind-set despite taking some years off of running.
Training: Part I
My first concern consisted of questions around how to balance a full time job, SkiPulk.com, a loving marriage, great friends, and the huge task of training. It was a little overwhelming at first. Over time, I really began to enjoy the balancing act and thoroughly benefitted mentally and physically from training. I talked to, and heard of other ultra marathoners who often were going for 10 hour jaunts and planned to attempt 4-6 ultras each year. I realized quickly that I have too many other hobbies and responsibilities that I enjoy to approach training for an ultra like many of what I call the professional athletes.
I started off slowly and wondered when I would get my good legs back. I felt slow even after a few weeks of running. It wasn’t until I was a full month into training that I began to feel like my endurance was beginning to get better. I didn’t feel fast like I was as a high school athlete but I was starting to feel like my legs were going to get strong endurance wise. I don’t know if I will ever be able to carry 5:15 miles again in my life :) After a month of running, my goal was to get a few 40-50 mile weeks in. This proved difficult scheduling wise but it did happen. Many of my runs were in the dark after work. I decided this was ok because I needed to become mentally prepared for long hours in the dark during the race. I found running in the dark very enjoyable and easy on the brain. My higher mile runs (10-18 miles) usually occurred on a Saturday or Sunday. Another important thing to mention is the value of a running partner on the longer runs. A friend from work decided he was crazy enough to make an attempt at the Arrowhead with me. On longer weekend runs, we attempted to coordinate schedules and run together to keep morale high.
Enough about training for a bit. Another issue - HUGE issue in the 135 miles is the technicalities of gear. When I watched and volunteered at the race, it was obvious that moisture management was a huge concern both in and out. This meant keeping water unfrozen and drinkable, as well as preventing your clothing system from becoming saturated with sweat. I emailed a past race guru, Jeremy Kershaw, who gave me a lot of great pointers. I knew it would be important to not wear any kind of waterproof shell if at all possible. All clothing needed to be highly breathable, yet warm and shed most importantly wind and maybe snow. I went with Merino wool top and bottom base layers. I also wore the Craft XC pant. I really liked them because they zipped all the way down the leg for good ventilation and were easy to take on and off without having to take your shoes off. For footwear, I used the Outdoor Designs Boreas gaiter, Asics gortex trail running shoe, and two pairs of wool socks. I liked the set up a lot but next year will not wear a gortex shoe. It does not breathe well enough. I have seen pictures and ideas on how to set up a more breathable shoe to withstand the pressures of the race environment. On my upper body, I wore the wool base layer and a fleece vest. I was plenty warm in the ridiculous 20-25 degree temps. I was hoping for -10 to 10 degree temps. I hauled extra clothing in my sled in the event of colder temps.
Another piece of gear to put some thought into is the race sled that hauls your gear. I attempted to build a race sled out of a sheet of dog sled runner material with some added runners for tracking and stability. My original plan was to have a sled that would unbuckle and serve both as a gear sled and a sleep system.
The 1/8 inch UHMW sheet proved to be too thick and not flexible enough. If I try to design another lightweight race sled, I will use 1/16 inch UHMW. Another option is to go with a two pole harness system or a one pole. In a camping/portage/hill/narrow trail environment, I would say it is important to have two poles for adequate sled control. In this race, one pole is both lighter and efficient enough. I was lucky to have all of the gear at my fingertips to be able to alter my sled and harness system. In the end, I decided to go with the trusty Paris sled and a one pole system because I was not satisfied with the design of my dream race sled (maybe next time).
For obvious reasons, food and water are important when enduring long hours on your feet. Water needs to be easily accessible as does food. I attached my Granite Gear water bottle jackets to my harness. This worked out well and made staying hydrated very possible. I started the race with 4 Nalgene bottles. Three were filled with water and one filled with Hammer Perpetuem, the racers cocaine. I sipped on Hammer and drank the water. I could have had more water as a felt like I wanted to drink a lot. I put food in the dreaded fanny pack ( I don’t like wearing them, they make me feel white and nerdyJ). The fanny pack made food easy to reach. The goal is to have the necessities easy to acquire so you do not have to waste time to unhook and go back to your sled when you want to drink and eat. My system worked well.
Training: Part II
Now back to some training. For the race it is important that there is snow to drag your sled. When December in Minnesota arrived, it showed up like me in a street fight, with absolutely no gusto or snow in this case. I knew it would be important to train in snow and pull a sled. This was not an option during all the months of my training. I got creative and found an old truck tire at my parent’s house. In a tote in the garage, I had saved and old waist belt from a backpack. I put an eye bolt in the tire and tied a rope to the harness for the realistic pulling environment. I distinctly remember one training run with Ryan where we took turns pulling the tire every mile for six miles maintaining some pretty serious speed. We felt that in the legs for a few days but it was a good burn.
Two weeks before the race, southern Minnesota received about four inches of snow. The Root River Trail near Lanesboro was our weekend destination to proof our gear and our bodies on an overnight trip.
We started out having to bust through drifts and eventually got down in some protected valleys. The trail had about three inches of snow cover with tar underneath. It was pretty difficult to walk on because of the snow cover and the slippery tar. My designed race sled worked good but not as well as I wanted it to. We walked at a fast pace from 6pm until 1am. We then attempted to sleep for one hour. There was not a lot of sleeping involved.
On the trek back, my stomach was not in the mood to eat any more trail food. I am sure this was a result of exertion and being awake for a long period of time. I was expecting this to happen. When we were about 15 miles from the vehicle on our way back, the front and top of my left foot started to hurt at about ankle height. I continued to walk on it and it continued to get more painful until it was to painful to flex my foot for a normal walking cadence. I had never hurt this part of my foot before. It became a huge chore to even walk without gritting the teeth. At about 5 miles left to the vehicle there was a road crossing. I had to make the decision to wait for a vehicle to prevent more pain and injury. There was two weeks left until race day and I had just injured the tendons on the top of my foot.
This was a huge let down for me. I was very bummed out because I had dedicated much of the last 4-5 months to training for something that I had never done before. I was not sure how long the recovery would take. I got home and did not even attempt to run for a little over a week. I iced and took Vitamin I (ibuprofen). Michelle from work also helped me out with some body work and some essential oils and creams to help the tendons recover. I finally went for a short 3 mile run with 5 days to race day. The foot felt ok but far from 100%. I ran a few more times to attempt to stay limber and to test the foot until the weekend. By the race weekend, my foot felt a little better but I had no idea what repetition would do to it.