We hung out with coffee on Marian's back porch to discuss the drive north. It was a beautiful day in the shade with little humidity. We had decided on an early dinner and then packet pickup. Marian and I exchanged pre-race gifts. She gave me a silver necklace with a pendant in the shape of mountains and a crew shirt she had made. She had on the same necklace. I gave her a zippered pouch with zombie gingerbreads on it. I bought myself one too so we could match. I met Thom's middle son Elliot that day who would pick up Marian's youngest from school. He was would compete in a Kendama tournament over the weekend.
Thom and I packed the car. In addition to our luggage and folding chairs, we put a cooler sized refrigerator on one side of the back seat that was folded down. The cooler was plugged into a battery that would keep the temperature constant. The battery was plugged Into the car and would charge while the car was driving. The battery had the ability to charge other devices.
On our way to Lutsen we stopped in Hinckley for Tobies pastries. The last time I went to Minnesota was for Grandma's Marathon for my 40th bday, Marian recommended the caramel pecan rolls. I wanted to relive the joy of that roll. The dimensions of this roll is like a tesseract. I am happy to confirm that it was as good as last time, maybe better. We drove to Jay Cooke State Park while eating our rolls. The calories were negligible since we were bound for an ultra marathon. We stopped at the park to wait for Thom and his eldest son Henry to arrive. We walked across the bridge to the trails to watch the St. Louis River. I noticed the water was orange. Marian told me the color was due to the iron in the rocks. I had not seen Marian in person since 2020. Work had moved her to Minnesota during the pandemic. We kept in touch via email, text and Marco Polo. We had great conversation during the drive.
We made our way at the waters edge. Marian slipped her feet out of her flip flops to put her feet in. The color of the water was evident on her skin and super cold. Thom and Henry found us quickly when they crossed the bridge.
We headed to the Black Woods Grille in Two Harbors. We met up with Marian's dad and his partner Regan. They already had cocktails while waiting for us. We were a few minutes ahead of Thom and Henry who drove Marian's mom and her husband's little car. They had an elaborate plan to use the rental as the crew car while Marians mom and Husband drove their van with the kids. Thom and his son would drive the smaller vehicle to Lutsen. This would allow me to drive the rental back for my flight.
The Black Woods Grill had something for everyone, vegetarian selection and walleye from the boundary waters. I ate walleye the last time I was in MN and wanted to have it again. I had it that night with waffle fries. We ate on the deck. Regan and Clancy brought their pups. We were laughing a bit that Marian's dad had spiral bound the race website information. Thom and I would use the same packet, unbound, to get from air station to aid station.
Packet pickup was at the Lake County Fairgrounds. Rock Steady Running were the race organizers. They had a photographer for each runner pre-race with their bibs. I bought myself a red/orange/scarlet hoodie with the RSR's logo on it. My suitcase contained a plethora of running gear for varying weather conditions. My non-running apparel was not as varied. The weather was ominous for Friday. We got to the condo called Caribou lodge around 8:30. It would host the end of race festivities for Saturday, so it was an ideal place for the runners to stay. I went to sleep fairly early. We set our alarms for 5am the next morning.
The race for the 100 milers started at 7:50 at Gooseberry Falls state park.
It wasn't raining hard but spectators were in their rain gear. The start was a verbal countdown and understated. I was happy to hide in my hoodie. It was not a pleasant morning. Thom had decided on breakfast instead of sight seeing along Lake Superior.
We had breakfast at the Vanilla Bean in Duluth. Thom told us that the table next to us were Minnesota's fastest trail runners. Thom and Marian's coach was running the race. The table next to us were the men that ran the coach's company of running coaches. They were all collegiate runners. Regan and Clancy met us there a few minutes later but they had their own table. Henry and Thom had baked omelets. I ordered Huevos Rancheros. My over easy eggs were atop roasted potatoes and refried beans. It was a grand breakfast. I ate half and brought the other half back to the condo. We all noted the Scandinavian breakfast, house made caramel pecan bread dipped in batter and fried, drizzled with caramel with bacon, ham, sausage and a fruit cup. We dropped Henry off at the lodge So he could get a full night's sleep. Previous cases of Covid gave him migraines when he did not sleep enough. He works as a night nurse and slept during the day. Henry would crew with Thom that night.
The Split Rock aid station at the 10 mile mark did not allow crew members. We met up with Marian at the Beaver Bay and Silver Bay aid stations. These were at the 20 and 25 mile marks. She took food, changed shirt and socks, left trash and refilled water. She carried 3 bottles on her. One bottle in each pocket of the hydration vest and another in the back pocket. All this happened quickly in each stop. She had trained this way to ensure that she would meet the cut off times for each aid station. The cutoff times ensured the race moved along at a certain pace. The race organizers maintained tracking for each runner that came through each aid station. While we waited, I chatted with the kids. I had not seen them in about 2 years when the two oldest were shorter than me.
We all had on the purple team shirt that Marian made for us. I had it underneath my hoodie. The rain had turned the trails into a bog. Runners came through the aid stations soaked and muddy. It had altered the course so much that even Marian's Coach, Jake, who was the race leader so far was falling behind.
We would not see Marian until mile 43.5 at the County Road 6 aid station. The Tettegouche aid station was not accessible for crew. We returned to the lodge to prepare for the night. I ate the rest of my breakfast and a slice of gluten free toast with peanut butter and homemade cherry jelly. I rested in my room afterwards. I had gotten myself in Marathon shape. I wasn't sure I could run this event since I had Covid this past July. I have asthma and needed steroids to help my lungs recover. I spent August running up hills and on trails, working on strength and doing speed work. My longest run before the weekend was 18 miles. I tapered for 2 weeks and all the quirkiness that entails.
I didn't let myself fall completely asleep. I listed to podcasts to relax my body. I got up at 7pm to get ready. I had race jitters even though I was not racing. It was no longer raining but the humidity remained. I wore black capris, long sleeved black shirt, running jacket and my hydration vest. I donned my headlamp and had Lara bars. I would run with her through the night.
We arrived at the County Road 6 aid station to find Marian's mom Nancy and Bob already there. While waiting, Henry and I talked about our cleaning habits. Henry describe a one time aggressive clean of his bathroom, cleaning around the knobs of the toilet. I described how I had a cleaning lady come after my family had Covid and how she got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the bathroom floor and made the fixtures shiny.
Marian arrived at the County Rd aid station around 10 pm. She changed shoes and shirt. She told us to be very gentle with her feet. The Injinji toe socks had to be peeled off slowly from the ankle and off each toe. She was in pain and we had to remedy it as soon as possible. I cleaned her feet with baby wipes so we could see the blisters and bandage as needed. I folded the baby wipe to remove the dirt between each toe until I could see only skin. Nancy held the lantern so I could look at each one to seek out injuries and would be hot spots. We used moleskins for the blisters and duct tape to secure it on. Henry applied the bandages while Thom refilled the water bottles. Thom also talked to her intensely about their experience with runners at this mile mark. They had volunteered at aid stations for these types of events before. He told her to think of the things they said to these runners in these situations. Then, Marian and I were off. I had a headlamp and an Amphipod clip on light on my vest. With 2 sources of light it would cut down on the shadows I would see across the trail. We moved at a fast hike. The terrain had rocks, roots, boulders, small and medium sized bridges in various states of disrepair. There and parallel planks of wood that would serve as boardwalks over bogs, streams, moss and mud. Marian took a fall over a couple of wood planks and hurt her shoulder. I took another fall from a couple of planks at a queer angle. My left foot fell in a stream or tiny lake. It was hard to tell in the dark. I looked up occasionally to see the outline of pine trees against the night sky but I spent most of the time looking at Marian's feet hitting the ground so I would know where to place mine. It was a foggy night so our headlamps were reflecting against the droplets in the air around us. We hiked efficiently on the terrain. We turned our lights off once to look at the stars that became visible once the fog and clouds dissipated. I kept thinking of a Sky Full of Stars by Coldplay. I was so happy to finally see them. I thought about Coldplay songs as the night progressed. I am a middle aged woman that goes to bed at 9 pm almost every night. The fatigue of the last two days of early rising had crept up on me. In those hours it stared at me with the full intensity of the old man cat at home that I missed who was in my face when he wanted food. I was not giving in to fatigue that night. Especially not on the face of Marian's foot pain and despair. Nobody on the crew felt anything in those hours outside Marian's person. We had more than 7 miles to the next aid station.
She told me to the beat of her moving trekking poles that every step was torture. The rooty terrain ensured many missteps and every step off beat generated a tortured cry from her. The kind that happens in the middle of a breakup. Usually you can talk to your woman friends, tell them he was an asshole narcissist or that he was freaking out and would come back. I couldn't do any of that for her. The Superior Hiking Trail didn't have feelings and it didn't give a shit about our feelings. Marian expressed her disappointment that despite her training for a 100 mile race, she did not feel trained for this one. She also told me she wasn't okay. She said she felt dizzy (from the electrolyte imbalance). She peed frequently. We did a lot of peeing trail side. I pulled my long sleeved shirt over my bottom. I always thought a insect would bite me while exposed. Marian had a "she wee" contraption that allowed her to pee while standing up. We were hoping that the Skratch in one of her water bottles would correct it. It wasn't instantaneous though. Later on she told me she didn't care about the timing and that she would never do this event again. I didn't know what to say. We had to keep moving and despite not wanting to, we did.
We arrived at the Finland aid station and were overjoyed to see Thom and Henry. We did not think there were crew members allowed at this station. I snacked on salty foods, warm quesadilla, salty tortilla chips and beef jerky. Marian sat with Thom. He told me to make sure she drank the electrolyte water bottle. The men walked Marian and I back to the trail. We had more than 7 miles to go. Marian told me to talk to her. I felt like the scene in Teen Titans when one of the characters has a machine that enabled them to look inside their minds. Robin had scenes of training and bettering himself and Star Fire had scenes of rainbows, kittens and unicorns. At that moment all I could think of was the bunk bed I had napped in earlier that day and the cat named Fatigue! There was nothing else going on in mind! I had NOTHING to say! I told her about the meeting I had earlier in the week with a woman in Turkey where my team got more confused than before her explanations. I told her Angelo and I watched Predator recently after he saw the prequel in Hulu called Prey. I told her this since I was looking at the mud on her legs and thinking about having to clean them off so she could apply Rock Tape to the aching Achilles on both legs. If we hadn't talked so much on the ride up, I might have caught her up in the moms running club in Lousville, which I didn't interact with that much. I don't actually know what I ought have told her about the running club. There were few runners on the trail with us. She thought everyone had reached a point where they were all moving at the same pace although slowly so nobody was really passing. We did see some runners but we were mostly alone.
I kept a list of the things that needed to be addressed when we met up with Henry and Thom again. Marian said she wanted to lay down at the next aid station. I said "okay: thinking it was a good idea myself. Note: this NOT what you should agree to as a pacer!! There are many things you should tell your runner in the course of a 100 miles, this is not one of them! My headlamp had grown dim and I had switched to a Marian's flashlight to watch where I would place my feet. Before the flashlight I had been guessing in foot placement (also NOT a thing to do).
It was a relief to see the light strung up for the Sonju Aid station. We got there about 4:30 - 5 am. They had a camp fire going. We sat in front of the fire for a few minutes, relieved and warming ourselves. We both had a cup of coke. This improved my headache, probably due to the lack of caffeine. I ate 4 quarters of a pbj and bacon. I went back 3 times for bacon. Coke, bacon and pbj felt like a life line. I was back! I felt like we could power through the rest of the darkness. The aid station workers were talking to Marian about her feet, asking each other if they had lancets. They said if she didn't want to go through the nail to relieve the pressure she should to go under the nail with a pin to let the fluid out. This was dreadful sounding but we knew it had to be done so she could continue. I thought Thom would do it. At this point Thom would have switched skins with her or carried her through many miles to the finish.
Thom got sick with Covid in June and got pneumonia. His energy levels are low and lung capacity is not 100%. He should have been running this race, but running isn't in the cards did him for the remainder of the season. It was Marian's plan to have him pace her to the finish, assuming they would move like we were moving through the night. We were moving at a brisk hike and sometimes Marian would start to run to make sure she hasn't forgotten how. Just to point out, nobody that we passed or passed us was running.
We left Sonju revived with snacks in our pockets. I carried Oreos, a Twix bar and a York peppermint patty. The sky was lightening and the despair was dissipating. Marian reminded me I was almost done and asked if I was looking forward to a nap. I said no, definitely not until we took care of her wounds. It was almost the start of the 50 mile race. I had to really think about which day it was. Marian told me to tell her she was awesome. I told her she was a warrior after pushing through the rain and running through the pain in her feet. We would address it all at the next aid station. I talked about the scene in Rocky where he asks his coach Mick to cut him so he see beyond the swollen eye. I thought about it because Marian would have to cut herself in order to release the pressure in her toes. It was the only way she would be able to continue with the race. Per Regan's suggestion, I will definitely carry conversation cards the next time I pace someone.
The daylight brought on the 50 mile runners with blue ribbons attached to their person. We moved out of the way for them, which was excruciating for Marian to stop moving and then start again. It was a rough night and Marian felt terrible expressing it to the runners that asked how she was doing. I thought it was par for the course. I have heard other 100 mile runners say the event will tear you apart. Marian was mid being torn apart and not in a place where we could fix it. Our spirits were lifted when we got on a dirt road in our way to the Crosby aid station at mile 63. I had been moving for almost 8 hours. We were on the dirt road for about half a mile before we got to the aid station. I was so happy to be there. Both Marian and I ate pancakes. Henry brought her soup and coffee. I had coffee, a pancake and a sausage pattie. When I came back to where Marian was sitting, she had her shoes and socks off. I cleaned off her legs with baby wipes and Henry dried off so she could apply rock tape to her Achilles. I cleaned her feet a little so we could see the damage. I gave her one of the safety pins from my pacer bib to pop the blisters under her toe nails. She did it and not Thom. Her reaction once the blood came out was awful. I think she poked her skin under the nail more than once to drain the blood. Henry applied an antibiotic ointment. Marian applied the Rock Tape to help the Achilles and we gave her 3 ibuprofen. Then she was off. Thom was ready to run with her and so was I if she wanted. She refused and she was off and running. We wouldn't see her for another 10 miles at the Sugarloaf aid station.
Thom and Henry brought me back to the cabin to clean up. I climbed out of the car with my backpack and crossbody bag. I asked Henry for my backpack from the backseat. He told me I needed to sleep. Clancy and Regan were up and let us know they had been worried about Marian over night, The were comforted knowing I was with her. They had set an alarm for 2 am to check the race app to make sure she had come through the Tettegouche aid station checkpoint. Clancy's back was hurting and he needed to rest, otherwise he would have been there. I ambled downstairs to shower. I was starting to get cold. I thought the bathroom smelled when started to shower. After my shower the smell had gone. I realized the smell was probably me. I got dressed in my clothes from the day before and laid down briefly. I wouldn't let myself truly sleep, not while Marian was out there. The knock on the door let me know it was time to go. When I got upstairs to the main floor Clancy asked if I got a nap. I told him no, I couldn't. I asked him if Thom had gotten any sleep. He said no, that neither of us sleeping was our link to Marian. I hadn't thought of it that way but he was right.
Thom and I got to met up with Nancy (Marian's mom), Bob and the kids at the Sugarloaf aid station at 8 am? (I really don't know, I wasn't sure what day it was). It was a sunny morning and already hot. The family was elated to see her. She looked focused and strong. Thom was energized seeing her this way. Someone gave Thom a beer and it ended up in Marian's hands. I had hopes it would take the edge of the aches and pains. I tried to take it at first thinking she was just holding it for Thom. Anyway, she didn't need a change of shoes and socks, only left trash, replenished water and fuel. She was off again.
We came back to the lodge to wait. We wouldn't see her again at Cramer road until 1:30. I think I might have rated a peanut butter granola bar covered in chocolate. I couldn't stop eating everything in sight. I think I laid down again. When I came up again in ran into Regan. I asked if Thom had eaten and slept. Regan thought Thom rested. Regan told me that based on Thom's calculations it wasn't looking good that Marian might not make the cut off time based on her pace. We weren't going to talk about it. We headed out to the next aid station.
Cramer Road aid station was at the 78 mile mark shaded. I ate some vegetable soup cooked up by the volunteers. I was starting to need salt. There was 50 mile runner with long eyelashes that sat not far from us in tears. I went over to speak to her. She told me that she hadn't been able to keep food or liquids down. It had never happened to her before even though she had run this distance before. I asked her if I could get her anything. She said no. I patted her on the shoulder not knowing what to say. I had never had that happen to me before during a run nor had I run the distance she was running. They were all warriors.
We were starting to wonder if we missed Marian coming through the aid station. Thom checked the list kept by the volunteer. I stood with Eivy near the trail. It was so beautiful compared to the rain the previous day.
There was sort of a ripple among the team members. Thom had found Marian on the trail and she was aware she had missed the cutoff time. Regan cautioned us not to crowd her. I milled around near Eyelashes. I asked her if she would get a ride with the volunteers who were starting to pack up. Everyone gave Marian hugs and let her know that we were all proud of her. She thought she had let us down. I wondered if Covid was the cause of Eyelashes' GI troubles. After a while I had a chance to give Marian a hug. I told I was proud of how hard she fought. These events are a battle, not against other runners. Other runners would give you their water or ibuprofen if you needed it on the trail. This was a battle against your nerve endings, your fatigue, your myriad of feelings of highs and lows, and compulsion to nap. Not many people fight this battle. Most of us sit at our home offices, comfortable staring at 2 monitors and nap in between meetings. Ultra runners engage in the fight to remind themselves they are alive. Someone like me "crews", as a reminder that the world in my screens isn't life as we know it. All of that sits outside the boundaries of comfort. The fight against the elements is so close to the violent cosmos waiting to take us to oblivion. Marian was battling all of this, amidst the bruised toes and the heartbreak of not finishing. She was not going to go gently into the night. We were a little more alive and a little closer to each other because of it.
Elite ultra marathoner Courtney Dauwalter rolled in with her mom, who also missed the cut off time. The kids and Marian talked to her for a few minutes. Marian told us Courtney offered kind words as she wept on the trail.
As we headed to the lodge, Marian apologized for the "show". I pointed to Eyelashes and said it's okay, she had hers before you came. Eyelashes waved and smiled as if to say, you are in good company. I went it to the super cooler in the back seat for a couple of beers. I gave a Marian an IPA and drank a non-IPA. I needed to calm my own nerves.