Solar Powered Runner Rages Against the Dying of the Light
Our hero’s awoke early on that cool morning, both with a yearning for adventure. One was primed for adventure. The other had a heavy heart.
They will come into this story later. I will tell you of their deeds, but first I will tell you about something important that happens out there in the woods.
As I make my way along the dusty trail I reach out gently to touch the trees with my fingertips, the massive cedars, the pines, the birch, and I say I love you. You are beautiful. I hear you. I see you.
The wind howls out of the North.
And I feel their acknowledgment. The trees reciprocate…they fill my body with fresh energy and fill my lungs with air. They reach out and touch my soul. This is the very breathe of the Spirit. In that moment I feel and I understand that all living things are inter-connected, intertwined beyond explanation. The Great Mystery is accessed.
Have you ever had a tree acknowledge your presence?
I assure you, this is a real thing.
Although you do not need my assurance.
Try it for yourself.
This year’s Superior 100, my second, was a pilgrimage of sorts.
A journey through the wild north. I call it a Pilgrimage because something with this much opportunity for transformation must be discussed accordingly.
Not knowing where to begin I will relate a bit of what happened early in the week of the race. The context of the week is important in this story.
On Tuesday before the race the Episcopal priest at St. Mark’s, Rev. Paul Lebens-Englund, a runner and a great guy all around gave me a blessing. He did this before last year’s race too. Before we prayed he asked me if there was a question I was bringing with me. What a profound question!
It wasn’t so much a question but a desire that was leading me. A desire for transformation, a desire for change.
When one sets out on a journey, one can expect to come back different. That was it. That was my goal. To come back different. And I knew that this would be a different experience from last year.
I had been excited for months. The Superior 100 has recently become a very important part of my life. Why? Quite simply, because it is an adventure. I may have the adventure gene. I need a great adventure every year, every month, every week, every day. See my race story from last year to understand the “why” better (entitled: Liminal Space: Wild Race).
On this particular day I set out on the journey around 9:30am on Thursday, September 6th. All my gear was packed including 11-drop bags. I wasn’t going to have a crew this year so I was going to be heavily reliant on drop bags at the aid stations. It was difficult to anticipate when and where I would need certain things. Plus, I don’t necessarily own multiples of everything so I had to be strategic. But I did the best I could with what I had (that sentence is a mini race report in itself). The good news was that Matt and his family were going to meet me at Tettegouche (mile 34.9) with my bag. Having crew at this one aid station was critical for me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On Thursday I went to pick up Reid at his house and we loaded his gear.
We were off! We talked excitedly until Duluth then stopped for a foot long sandwich each. Then we made our way to Two Harbors. I dropped him at the AmericInn and drove on to Blue Fin Bay by Lutsen, where I was to stay.
Traffic in Two Harbors was slow because of construction, which made me anxious. But I realized quickly that I was ahead of the game and would have plenty of time to go and get set up, then return for packet pick up and the pre-race meeting. All this driving back and forth sounds crazy in hindsight, however, at the time I simply needed to do whatever would make me feel prepared.
I drove back down to Two Harbors and the traffic was madness due to construction. I bypassed 61 on some country roads and arrived at the Packet Pickup from the North. Running 100 miles continues to teach me about adaptability.
I was already calmly adapting to minor events outside of my control. This was a good sign.
Packet Pickup was hopping by the time I arrived on the scene. People everywhere were looking way tougher than I felt. Packet Pickup was again a humbling experience for me. It tends to bring out any insecurities in a very real way…shit, I should have trained more. Damn! I have no business here. It’s a bit like being a child on the first day of school.
But that quickly changed with the first people I saw that I knew.
I pulled up next to Erik and Kari. Then saw a bunch of local legends in quick succession including Mike and Nikki. Then I saw Teresa (from my gym) volunteering. I bought a bunch of tee shirts for my family and my pacers, and a hat and a sticker for me.
Soon I saw Reid and Alex, Brandon and Aaron Hansen. The pre-game was in full swing and the anticipation was heightened. There was food by the 4-H kids which was really good stuff!
This was happening, the race was now fully real. Life was in full effect. I was in the moment completely, taking it all in.
And then came time for the sermon. The room got quiet for Storkamp’s pre-race talk (the race director). He does a great job with honoring those who came before us, those who have been doing this a while, as well as the newer people.
He closed with this poem by Jim Morrison, which had been posted earlier that day on the FB:
We are getting closer…
Gently they stir, gently rise.
The dead are newborn awakening.
With ravaged limbs and wet souls.
Gently they sigh in rapt funeral amazement.
Who called these dead to dance? Was it the young woman learning to play the ghost song on her baby grand?
Was it the wilderness children?
Was it the ghost god himself, stuttering, cheering, chatting blindly?
I called you up to anoint the earth.
I called you to announce sadness falling like burned skin.
I called you to wish you well.
To glory in self like a new monster.
And now I call you to pray.
Yes. This poetry is my language. The time to pray is now. The new monster emerges in the morning.
I slept well which is rare for me in general, certainly rare the night be fore a race. I awoke with clarity and focus. Today was the day I had been anticipating for months. Accept it, feel every second of it. The high’s and low’s. Feel it man. What was ahead? Great glory. Great defeat. Great suffering. Great joy. The paradoxes of life.
I propped myself up on an elbow
And gazed out the window
The shadow light awakens
Dawning clear and breaking wonder
Calmly I looked
Into the heart of the storm
And there was no danger
Around 4:50am I had a quick shower, a bagel, some coffee, and orange juice.
I did one last gear check and our first hero knocked on my door at 5:18am. Matt wanted to take me to the bus at Lutsen in order to get my bag for Tettegouche and I think, really, to see me off. To participate in this event to its fullest. Matt was what I call an “all in” pacer and friend for this race. Reid had been like this last year with me.
Matt might have even been more excited than me in the weeks leading up. He loves adventure. And I could tell that he was eating this up.
He greeted me cheerfully and inquired about how I was doing. I told him the good news, that I had a good sleep, etc. We stepped outside and the weather was great. No, it was perfect. I hesitate to use that word, but it was. It was 52 with a slight breeze. Dark. Starry still. We got in his car and left mine at Blue Fin. Matt would use my vehicle later to drive to Finland, leave it there and retrieve it on Saturday then bring it to the finish line. He talked about the day ahead.
When we saw the buses it got real for me. I saw a bunch of other runners Kevin Langdon and Susan Donnelly.
I said goodbye to Matt and boarded. It felt like a long ride. I looked around most of the others were dozing or staring off into the distance. I looked at Facebook and saw the horrible news that I and so many others had hoped would not be. Stephanie had passed away.
Stephanie was married to Paul, they were very close friends of my second pacer, Noah. She was a mother of three young children, and a Lutheran pastor. Absolutely tragic. I still have no words. I saw on Caring Bridge, “Beloved Child of God” and I knew.
I shed my first tears of the day.
I decided to text Noah even though it was only 6:05am. And let him know that I had no words. That I was so sorry. That I would completely understand if he could not make it to pace the next day.
I tried to think about other things, even the race ahead, but I couldn’t. Death has a way of putting things into perspective and it tends to dominate ones thoughts when it is present.
I said some prayers for the family and closed my eyes for a bit.
I centered for a while.
I didn’t really know what else to do but carry on. So I carried on. We arrived at Gooseberry and practically lept off the bus. I was ready to get this show on the road, or should I say trail. The energy was palpable. It may sound dramatic, but everyone was there. I mean all of these people were people I was looking forward to seeing. Some I knew, some I didn’t. All of them I wanted to know eventually.
I paced around for the next hour and said hi to people. Reid and Alex weren’t there yet. I’m still new enough to this sport that I only knew a few people. I can still walk around nearly anonymous, and that’s just fine with me.
I talked with Kevin Langton who was encouraging as always. And Aaron and a few others. I met Jason Husveth and told him his 2013 race impacted me and was one of my inspirations to run my first 100 the year before.
Alex, Reid, and Brandon and I moved towards the starting line.
As the Beastie Boys blared over the speakers Storkamp asked us all to move closer. Then he demanded that we move closer.
He gave a quick spiel and we were off!
Alex, Brandon, Reid and I were together only for a few minutes. I saw Aaron Hansen and we started chatting. Before I knew it I had pulled ahead. Anything goes on those first four miles or so. It’s the only pavement of the entire race, so people open up. We quickly ran into to Stephanie Hoff (legendary) and talked with her for a bit.
We moved like lightening through these first miles and dove headfirst into Splitrock. I spent these miles with Aaron, who is really fast) until the first aid station. I inadvertently left the aid station without him on the way to Beaver Bay. I knew it would be a matter of minutes before he passed me for good. But I thought it was fun to be out in front for a little while, even though it seems silly.
I was feeling on top of the world! The weather was perfect. I could tell that it was going to get hot but at this point the conditions were ideal so I decided to pull ahead as far as I could while the getting was good. As the day heated up and as I moved closer to Beaver Bay I started to feel some preliminary pings of cramps. A guy asked me for something for his hotspots on his feet. I thought about that fact that we were 15 miles in and he had hot spots already…not a good sign. I fished out a tube of vaniply and gave it to him. I selfishly wondered if I would need it and not have it in the future, but quickly realized that I could find more of this at any aid station. Vaniply is sponsor and nearly everyone was carrying.
By the time I emerged from the woods into the glorious Beaver Bay aid station it was noon. The light was full tilt and the heat powering up. As I came into view the aid station went crazy! My energy surged. The uproar was for me…not too many things feel that good. The ego loves it. But the spirit loves it too.
A wonderful woman filled my water.
I saw Kelly Plumbo and Peter right away and they greeted me with smiles. I told them Ried was close behind and running smart (of course) while I was getting ahead of myself. I asked Kelly for some foot tape from Reid’s bag. I hadn’t ever taped the night before or that morning so I was going sans tape. I wanted to have some in my bag just in case I got injured in the field.
Bruce got my drop bag and helped me with the planned shoe and sock change. Things went so smoothly. Bruce is a professional out there, he anticipated my every need and I’ve only ever met him once or twice before. I knew him through Sherri and had met him at TC Marathon last year. Thank you Bruce!
I saw the first of the pictures from Liv, and smiled, almost teared up. My wife and children were not able to make it this year so they put pictures and notes in every one of my drop bags. So that I could see them at every aid station. I felt their presence!
I took off towards Silver Bay with pb and js in my hand and a tube of glide. I was trying to remember to glide up at every aid station. It goes without saying, but chafing is the worst. And it can take you out. So why not be overly zealous with the glide and vaniply?
As I moved on this section I made a major rookie mistake. If Storkamp is reading this…the trail merges briefly onto a road and ATV trail. Instead of turning right back onto the trail I kept going straight on the ATV trail. I was lost in thought and not paying attention. I got about a quarter mile down the way before I started to wonder where everyone was. I quickly knew I had missed reentering the trail. Shit! I thought. I sprinted back and found the way. I think about 15-20 minutes went by during this little foray.
Back on the trail I felt a renewed sense of “Pay Attention!” And be present.
I caught up with Tim Owata and another guy although I never got his name. I called him Anton Kuprikna in my head because of his long hair and beard. The whole race I’d be leap frogging with Anton and Tim.
The Silver Bay section is rocky and rooty and quick. It’s the shortest section at 4.5 miles. I came into the aid station and caught up with Reid and Sherri. Reid’s my primary running partner along with Alex and Sherri I’ve gotten to know mainly from races and FB messages about other races. They moved fast towards Tettegouche. This section is a beast. 10 miles with major climbs in the heat of the day.
After some catching up and conversation I realized I couldn’t keep up with them. The cramping in my legs was happening, quads and hamstrings. It was to the point where I had to acknowledge it and just try to power through (this was not my first rodeo with regard to cramping). The climbs were going slower.
Bean and Bear is probably my favorite part of the whole 103.3 miles course. You get up there and time stands still. The breeze gently rustles. You look out on the world and its wonderful. Kate come up behind me and she offered me some salt tablets, which I desperately needed. I thanked her and she was off. She was having a great race!
I was alone for most of this section. It was difficult, to say the least. And it felt like it went on forever. I sang some songs. I got to Tettegouche aid station by 4:30 and felt pretty good. I saw Matt and Sandra and Audrey there (Matt’s wife and daughter). It was so good to see them! They were my family at this aid station. We caught up over a few minutes. They were exited which greatly helped my state of mind. I got my headlamp, extra battery pack, poles, and long sleeve out of my backpack that they had lugged up to the aid station. I was grateful for this crew stop.
Then I saw Peter Schnorbach and Maura who help run the aid station. It was great to see them! And Amy too.
I hung out with Matt and family for a few minutes and got back on the trail. This next section I was both looking forward to and dreading. It was where I threw up a bunch last year and nearly dropped out of the race. It’s a harder section than I remember…hence the puking.
Susan Donnelly passed me a few miles in and was talkative. This was different than other times that I’ve encountered her on the trail. But this time I was in a quiet mood. Usually I’m the one that’s super talkative! She moved on.
I made it to County Road 6 in the daylight. 7:30 or thereabouts. I was raging against the dying of the light.
I spoke with Jamison and some ladies behind the table. I left when the sun was setting in the distance and I turned on my headlamp. It was like a Tom Waits song in that my voice was shot but my will was strong.
I just kept thinking, get to Finland and Matt will take you to Cramer Road. Get there. I was starting to chafe in major ways. It was getting bad already. WTF? Copious amounts of Vaniply and glide.
As I sit by the fire tonight writing in my living room I have a hard time remembering the struggle on the trail as if my body and mind have already repressed the memory. The second time is different. The after glow is not there in such great amounts.
It was different because my family wasn’t there. I had already accomplished a finish. So it was a bit strange. It was like I wanted to be sure that last year wasn’t a fluke or a one hit wonder.
The way to Finland is challenging. Because it is the halfway point and a major aid station there is more anticipation. Its also where the 50 miler starts at 5am.
I made it to Finland by around 10:30pm. It was dark, and certainly cooler, but not cold.
Our first hero of this story, Matt, was waiting and primed for adventure. Talk about attentive! This guy was ready.
We hugged and went over to a chair by the drop bags and port-o-potty.
I took off all my clothes and changed them bare foot in the porto. These are the kinds of things you don’t worry about when you are running a hundo…Like eating potatoes and dipping them in the salt that everyone else is touching.
I got my pack stocked. Matt got me some soup broth and coffee. And some quesadillas. I took my time, but not too much time. I was aware that aid stations ate up a lot of time for me the year before.
We took off out of Finland. Once more into the breach, dear friends. The dark night of the soul.
The stars were out, and the moon. This section is about 7.5 miles. But we thought it was 4.9 because I was reading my wrist band wrong.
Sonju Lake Rd was warm and bright. The music was playing, and it didn’t disappoint. I sat by the fire. Brandon was there. We would leap frog all night.
We heard an owl and it stopped us in our tracks. We listened. There is nothing like listening to a forest at night. It speaks.
I stopped again to gaze at the Stars as we crossed a dirt road somewhere out there.
I left my body for a while and my soul rested while my legs carried on.
There was nothing more to worry about, at least not for that night. Not that things didn’t matter, far from…it was more of a letting go of all control. A surrender. It was time to BE for a while. I followed Matt as he talked and I gave up using my own power and tapped into the larger.
I created these lines in my head:
Living in the time of underground wisdom
Circling the wolf pack
As if nothing matters
With a stone in one hand and a feather in the other
We arrived at Crosby Manitou and I took a seat immediately.
John Taylor came over to help out. Yes, this is the John Taylor who has completed over 100, 100 mile races. We ate bacon and quesadillas. I took out a baggy and dumped my Tail Wind so I could use the bag for some real food. We got my drop bag.
Odin appears as a raven sometimes. Ragnar Lothbroeke saw the Odin raven quite often in the beginning of the show Vikings. Now, I do not think for a moment that I am Ragnar, or any Viking. Nor do I put a lot of stock in Old Norse mythology…but I’m pretty sure I saw THE Raven as we neared Sugarloaf. Odin, soaring. Leading.
Man this section is long. And the beginning is just climb after climb. We used our hands to crawl up the sides of the rock. Matt said he had a whole new appreciation for the people that do this. We grinned on.
At Sugarloaf Lisa yelled and whooped and ran up to me for a huge hug.
I was energized and amazed that she would give someone as disgusting as me a hug 70+ miles into a race! Well, I needed it and I appreciated it. It was so good to have that section completed and behind me.
I wasn’t going to make marathon start by 8am. The sun was already out and I had made peace with this fact. I knew Noah was waiting at Cramer Rd (marathon start) though. And I knew he’d be ready go. So we moved quickly through Sugarloaf after food and water and sock change. Oh and coffee!
My memory of Sugarloaf to Cramer Rd is hazy at best. The combination of seeing Noah soon and the dawn of the new day was renewing my soul.
The second hero of the adventure, Noah, was waiting with a huge smile on his face. We hadn’t seen each other in 7 or 8 years! He had arrived before sunrise, of course. And now it was past 10am. But he didn’t think twice about it. We held a moment for Stephanie and I know his heart was heavy.
I introduced him to Matt and we got down to business. Quick break, sit down, get some food, and coffee. We said a heartfelt goodbye and thanks to Matt and we were off. Matt had spent 12+ hours with me out there overnight. Talk about sacrifice!
It wasn’t long before we were laughing like crazy. We didn’t skip a beat! We picked up where we left off years ago. It was delightful!
The day was warming up quite a bit. The sun shone down on us from on high. The way to Temperance was quiet outside of a handful of hundred milers and 50 milers. We laughed some more and kept up the grind.
At Temperance we got our pancakes, which I had been looking forward to! 3 of them with Nutella. The best thing. I took some Tylenol.
Then we started to run. As the Nutella and Tylenol coursed through my veins I felt lighter. I had 20% less pain in my feet. It was time to go. I knew that I did not want to be in danger of cutoff times again (like last year when I barely made it through the last few). So we picked up the pace greatly. We ran all the way to Carlton, climbed it, then ran down the other side to Sawbill. I kept telling Noah to get me to Oberg. No sitting until Oberg. No waiting around. No dilly-dally. Get to Oberg!
We stayed only momentarily at Sawbill aid station. I shared some jokes and laughter with a volunteer and we were back it. We tried to run but even though this section is relatively flat, it is covered with rocks and roots. I kept speeding up and slowing down. I couldn’t maintain the pace I wanted but oh well. I knew I was way out ahead, at least for me, so we were fine. And this was a shorter section, 5.5 miles.
Oberg was a beautiful sight. I raised my arms running into the aid station and the crowd went wild. At least that’s what I heard! It felt good to be at the last stop.
Wendy was there. She greeted me with a smile and we talked for a while about the race and day. She had paced Matt McCarthy at night and he had finished, oh, about 10 hours before I would! It baffles me how quickly some people complete this race.
Setting off into Oberg was an incredible feeling, the victory lap feeling. Knowing that you are going to finish. Knowing that all you have to do is get from A to B and B is only 7 miles away…and a few thousand feet of vertical climb…I had realized that that the sun would set during this section. After all, I still had the Moose Mountain climb and the Mystery climbs.
There was no way I could finish in the daylight, which was a big goal of mine.
I had been raging against the dying of the light for a while. I can admit now that I was really struggling with this. I wanted so badly to finish in the light. Do not go gently into that good night is what kept coming into my head. Rage. Rage against the dying of the light.
The first night I went gently, and it was indeed, all good. The second night I was ready to be done. And I could not let go or be very gentle with myself. It really was out of my control though. I could not go any faster. I just had to surrender and keep following the path before me. It would lead me there eventually. To Asgard. To the light of the fire. To the people who were waiting. To the calm after the storm.
For your reading pleasure I’ve included the full poem:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
We made it more than half way until I simply had to put breathe and my headlamp on. Noah waited even longer until the shadows were gone and the night was pure.
We could hear the Award Ceremony from across the valley, which in a way was comforting but it was simultaneously torture. I could hear John, like last year, plain as day. But the finish line was still a good 3 miles away. One can hear this ceremony all the way over Mystery, which is a long way. Like Frodo and Sam we kept moving through the darkness with the end near.
Ah the Poplar. The descent towards the angels. There isn’t anything else that feels quite like this in the world, I don’t think. Descending to that wondrous river and knowing without a doubt that you will reach the end is like something out of a Tolstoy novel. Tears fell for what I think was the last time of the day. But I can’t be sure.
Anne was there at Ski Hill Rd. and she ran us in. Which was super thoughtful. I didn’t give her the attention I wanted to, but I thanked her for being there. She gave me fresh energy with her smiles and conversation! She brought us news and stories from the finish line.
Noah was so excited, and ready to get me across the line. I knew Matt and Reid would be there along with many other friends and acquaintances too.
We ran under the gondola then came up to the final arrow. I turned down the lane and heard the cheers. I heard my name and the crowd erupted. Crossing that line meant number two complete. It meant I could sit down and take my shoes off.
It meant it was finished.
I received my medal buckle and was told my 2nd star was a mere 15 steps away.
I hugged Matt and Reid and Anne and Noah. Shook John’s hand (Anne’s husband). I took a seat in the row of finisher chairs just beyond the finish line.
The temperature was dropping but my core hadn’t chilled yet. I took my shoes off and sat down by the fire. Matt brought his cooler and I put my feet up next to the heat. The experience felt euphoric. I had waited to so long to sit down that my body wondered if this was for real. My feet heated up and my core went cold. Even with my 100-miler sweatshirt on. I sat and cheered the others coming across the finish line. Sitting there by the fire at night at the finish line was worth a thousand songs. I reflected on the past 36 hours on the trail.
The wheels had wobbled for about 20 hours but none of them had fallen off. The four wheels of hydration, fuel, chafing, and feet somehow stayed in tact. The fifth wheel of sheer determination kept them in line but that had nothing to do with my own power.
We hung out for a while then we decided to head back to Blue Fin.
I dreamed of light tilting toward the forest floor trying to find its way.
I am grateful beyond words. Thank you to everyone who made this possible. Thank you to my pacers, the true hero’s of the story. Without their accompaniment I would not have finished.
What an incredible community! Thank you especially to my loving family, Liv, Vera, and Raphy (and Ray and Loo Loo).
I thought of this poem before sleep took me:
The bell calls in the town
Where forebears cleared the shaded land
And brought high daylight down
To shine on field and trodden road.
I hear, but understand
Contrarily, and walk into the woods.
I leave labor and load,
Take up a different story.
I keep an inventory
Of wonders and of uncommercial goods.