Friday, December 14, 2018

The Comeback: a meditation in sun and woods

I looked down at my watch. “8:10!” I said to myself, in disbelief. “Hey, Tim! You’re on 8:10 pace! At mile 95!” We were running down Britton Peak, heading for Oberg, the last aid station before the final grueling stretch of the Superior 100 on Minnesota’s North Shore. “It feels good,” Tim said over his shoulder, as we continued to dodge and jump among the large silvery rocks. He was his usual understated self, but I could feel his exuberant joy.

In this, his second Superior 100 race, Tim had hit a dip earlier on due to heat and fatigue, and had spent some time with his second pacer, Alli, working himself out of the trough. Having emerged from that dark tunnel with renewed optimism and purpose, he was now leading me (his game #3 pacer) through an express tour of the Superior Hiking Trail. Branches and roots crunched under our feet; the bright leaves flashed by. I feel like I’m on the Cyclone, I thought, remembering my 91-year-old father’s tales of riding the iconic Coney Island roller coaster in the 1930s. Other hundred-milers and fifty-mile racers looked at us with puzzled faces as we zipped past. “What’s up with that guy?” I could hear them saying in their heads. “He’s happy,” I offered.

There was a surpassing amount of unbridled happiness on the trail that entire weekend, as runners from near and far descended on this scenic jewel along Lake Superior, within waving distance of Canada, in pursuit of hundred-mile, fifty-mile, or marathon glory. The rocky, rooted, steep Superior Hiking Trail (or SHT when it’s at home, as the British say) offers runners a chance to explore the infinite variety of the northern woods, boasting a near-obscene amount of calendar-ready vistas that reward the quad-scorching climbs. Put on by John and Cheri Storkamp of Rocksteady Running, it is one part relentless trail challenge, one part epic outdoor festival, and one part old-fashioned family hootenanny. So many literally set their calendars around it year on year; the twisting trail has become a lodestar on the running journey.

My Friday began, as it always did, about a third of the way along the course, at Tettegouche Aid Station, captained by the ever-genial Peter and Maura Schnorbach. The trees were turning, ever so slightly, and the narrow glade surrounding the central food table was filled with eager families and ecstatically optimistic dogs. The woods fanned out on either side—dense, unending, and unyielding. Headlamps would go on in a few hours; key decisions would be made. Yet here, in the golden afternoon light, in the warm embrace of friends, all was safe. Pots of soup simmered on our little camp stove, and gels, gummy candies, and orange slices were arrayed like colored jewels. As aid station helpers, we milled about, omnipresent camp counselors/restaurant servers/cheerleaders/ministering angels, not resting until all of our runners’ needs were met.

The leaders swept through first, barely grabbing a gel, their pit crews surrounding them in a precisely choreographed display of efficiency and support. Neal Collick and Mallory Richard, who would both go on to smash previous records in their stunning victories, were notable for their intense focus, but also their palpable happiness, their genuine joy in being immersed in this moment on this trail. Working at an aid station at a familiar race is kind of like being the bride or groom at a huge wedding; you’re so busy, you don’t even have time to greet everyone properly.

Tim came through, a bit hot in the sun but full of hope and purpose, surrounded by loved ones. Such a contrast from last year, I marveled, when he had battled so many challenges early on. I gave him a hug and told him I planned to see him the following morning for our party at mile 85. He agreed, and bounded off. 

And so it continued as the shadows lengthened and the day progressed. The runners continued their carefully choreographed conversation with the woods, renegotiating every mile who would lead and who would temporarily submit. I watched all of it as I sliced bananas and handed out candied ginger (hooray for candied ginger!), and came up with my own definitions of success.

Victory, I decided, went to those who were able to most strongly and actively be present in each moment as it passed. Outside of the solid foundation of training that all Superior runners bring to the race, there is so little that one can control on the day itself. The wind, the light, the deep mud, the steep rocks, the errant branches or blazing heat…all lie in wait, judging no one, encompassing all. Those who ride the crest, immersed in each second, end up with the happiest adventures.

The night fell, the moon rose and then the sun. The 100-milers beat on, boats against the current, as my beloved Fitzgerald wrote, and the 50 milers took off at 5 a.m. Neil and the rest of the early-victors 100-mile posse were already done, having crossed the finished line in the dawn quiet of the pool area, in what Grandmasters winner Doug Kleemeier called “the peaceful, special time” before the crowds arrived. The marathoners, fresh and cheerful as a posse of young mountain goats, sprinted off at 9 a.m.

I arrived at Temperance to start my pacing shift with Tim. He’d had a great run with Dan, his speedy first pacer, and, according to next pacer Alli, “we had a little break, but now we’re great!” She was calm, composed, a former pro soccer player and now head goalkeeping coach for the University of Minnesota women’s team. She could, I reasoned, handle drive, determination, and drama in equal measure; whatever her assessment was of the last five hours, I knew not to question it. “Ready to go, Timmy?” I asked cheerfully. “I feel amazing!” he said, and took off. This, I now realize, was the theme for the entire last marathon of the race.

Over the silver rocks, down the roots, through the woods fractured by yellow sunlight, we went, picking up speed like a downtown train. I tripped after Carlton Peak and broke my finger, but I couldn’t worry about it, or I’d miss my stop on the Express. “I think I’m negative splitting this,” Tim said, laughing. “What happened?” I asked, trying not to suck wind too overtly. “Well, I was in a bad place, and Robyn Reed told me to eat a ton, so I did, and then I just reset my head.” “That Dr. Reed,” I marveled. “She knows what’s up.”

And just like that, we were at Oberg. I love Oberg…it is such a bustle of activity, it’s the last stop before the finish line, and it’s run by my dear friend Kurt Decker and the fine folks of TC Running Company. There, Tim met his love Elena, who would accompany him to the finish. “Drink that Coke,” I advised her as we did the handoff. “Someone’s feeling chipper.” 

I hung around Oberg a bit, watching the 50 milers charging through. We’d been fortunate enough to see many 50-miler friends en route; they, along with the blazing Colin Hagan and Emily Wanless (the men’s and women’s winners) would all turn in wonderful times.  The top marathoners, including winners Shane Steele and Emma Spoon, were also finished--exultant, spent, treasuring their fresh recollections of the race.

As the golden hour approached, I met Tim’s brother Jon and his girlfriend Kelly (the peerless Team Tim crew chiefs), to head to the edge of the road where the runners would emerge for their final stretch. It is here, at this still point where the last vestiges of SHT dirt meet the long asphalt drive around Caribou Highlands Lodge, that the runners finally know— they know, in every fiber of their exhausted bodies—that they will complete this thing, that the end is waiting for them like an unwrapped gift.

“Can I run the road with you?” I asked Tim. He and Elena could finish the final stretch alone, together, but I wanted to share just this last piece, to celebrate the enormous contrast between this year and last year. We didn’t talk much, but we all smiled, and Jon and Kelly filmed it while they drove alongside, like a happy pace car. As Tim and Elena headed for the last turn into the pool area, I pulled off, taking a short cut through the happy throngs to the finish.

Surrounded by family and friends, laughing in disbelief, Tim finished, having strung each moment together to build a chain of equal parts jubilation and challenge. “Nice comeback,” I said under my breath, as I watched him from afar.  “I want to get my star!” he announced soon after finishing. Standing a bit apart from the crowds, I watched as he, along with all of the other finishers, stepped up to claim what was theirs: the star, the medal, the moment, the day.

It was real, it was here, and it was glorious.

Amy Beth Clark is a mom of three, writer, runner, and peanut butter aficionado who lives in Maple Grove, Minnesota. She loves pacing friends in ultras while wearing her trademark sparkly skirts.

Monday, May 29, 2017

True North by Amy Clark

"Okay, so this is where we sing," I announced. Lynnea and I were at that iconic spot, where the endless drive north of the Cities finally branches off onto Highway 61, the "Scenic Drive/North Shore" option. For as long as I've been going up to the Superior Hiking Trail (about 4-5 years, although I'm hazy on the exact date), I've shamelessly broken into "Girl from the North Country" as soon as I hit this stretch. I mean, why wouldn't you? Bob Dylan wrote this song for Suze, the girl in the coat with her arm around him on the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan." Usually I belted this out alone, but the last few years I'd been lucky enough to have company, starting with the inimitable Dr. Reed as well as the lovely Lynnea F. Lynnea was with me again on this trek, and kindly agreed to film the sign sighting and musical accompaniment in all its glory. If you know us, you likely saw this on social media; if you don't, you've been spared.

But truly, who wouldn't celebrate the SHT? So much beauty, so much mud, so many rocks, such unforgiving ascents, such breath-grabbing wild perfection and soul-restoring views. I'd spent time here alternately pacing and racing, depending on the distance, and it was all marvelous. Fall was for pacing (categorically my favorite gig in the known universe), while spring was for slapping on a number and going head to head with the trail gods.

After a few grindingly rough 50k finishes (oh, the indignity of the Total Body Shutdown at mile 21!), I had a Come to Godfather moment with the world's wisest coach, Kurt Decker, last year.  I was presented with the paradigm-changing concept of If it Always Sucks for You in the Second Half, Why Don't You Just Try to Run the First Half Faster and Stop There? I received this truth with heartfelt clarity, realizing that, despite the fact that all of my friends do 50s and 100s like they're walking through a barn door, I may not be cut out for those distances and--PSA!--that's really okay.  This year was declared the Year of the 25k, after 2016 yielded two decent runs at that distance at spring Superior and Afton.

So here I was, pulling into Caribou Highlands Lodge, after a lot of TC Running Co. team road racing and Zumbro pacing (Mr. McCarty! Mr. Pittman! Sound the trumpets!), to see what my trail held for me this merry month of May. Last year's race conditions had been, in my opinion, perfect--shorts and bra weather, an exceptionally clean and dry trail. This year, I had no idea what to expect. Life had been crazy-busy, sleep was at a premium, I'd just come off a very stressful time at work. Kurt's plan had suited me down to the ground, featuring lots of high miles (60-75 miles per week, on average) and plenty of hill repeats. (If you haven't done Kurt's Hills in Minneapolis yet, talk to me. They are wonderful.) But the SHT, of course, doesn't care what you've done from November to April. She is as fickle as an ocean breeze. What happens on race day is only revealed the moment you start.

After a lively Friday night selling swag and greeting friends ("Of course you need to buy this buff...look, it works as a skirt!"), Lynnea and I crashed early under the watchful gaze of Moose Mountain out our window at Eagle Ridge. We awoke before our alarms for coffee, peanut butter, and incantations to the trail deities to keep us always in their care. (This is the word of the trail; thanks be to mud.) The scene at the start is always hopeful for me. The waiting's over, spirits are high, and you've just got to do it.

Swag girls moving the merch

Of course, the SHT delivered. From the first moment of singletrack, I was happy. I got to see this beautifully messy, root-filled place I'd been missing for 8 months. I got to see familiar faces running alongside me at every turn, including the marvelous 9-year-old Hadley Knight, cool as a cucumber in her little blue hat, cranking out the miles under the watchful gaze of the amazing Alisha Janaszak. I got to witness the early 25k leaders coming the opposite way from the turnaround, including my happy November Project girls Sarah and Helena. Most incredibly, I had the privilege of watching the eventual 50k winner and course-record-smasher Ben Cogger on his way home, running as if lifted by sails on the wind.

I was lucky enough to revisit Moose and Mystery, those all-seeing twins of the wilderness, their purple shapes so comforting when seen from afar, yet so unrelentingly, unyieldingly present when attacked up close. (I had "Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me" in my head for this race, which I changed to "oh these hills won't let me be; Lord have mercy on me.." as I ascended; this was infinitely better than that year at Wild Duluth 50k when I had to live with a "Stacy's Mom" earworm for the better part of 7 hours.)

And so it unfolded, just as I had imagined it would. I ate vegan peanut butter-chia seed-chocolate balls (Joe O! Thinking of you!), I did my awkward gallop-y thing on the descents (Kilian! Please don't watch! Ever!), I wore my gold skirt, and (perhaps most remarkably of all), I DIDN'T FALL ONCE.

As I rounded the last turn by the swimming pool, after wondering, as I always did, why it took at least 5 miles to get to that overpass by the gondola thing, I heard the cheers and cowbells of the waiting crowds. My early-a.m. Hyland trail peep Dave had finished just ahead of me, and I heard his name, but then I thought I heard something about "grandmaster female" as I came in. And sure enough, there stood the wonderful Rob "Angus" Henderson, my 2016 Zumbro pacee and all-around traill rockstar, laughing and holding out not only my wooden medal but the signature framed Rocksteady award.

"Wait..what? What?" I said, looking around for that other fifty-something chick who must be waiting to claim it.

"What's this about not having any chance at winning anything?" Rob teased me, handing over the plaque and snapping my photo. My time was 3:05, which made me very happy, given the mud and all of the challenges of my life in March and April. And it would have been a euphoric end to a joyful day, grabbing my snacks, watching my friends finish, clutching my framed RSR square for dear life.

With 50k grandmaster champion Dan "Captain Speedy" Quiggle

But it wasn't long before news began to filter back to the finish line that something had happened on the trail, that a runner had collapsed, that his fate was unknown. And then it was known, and it was devastating. For a while we all sat in disbelief, unwilling to accept that this had happened to one of our own trail family, young and fit and full of joy in life and running. We continued to cheer for all the 25k runners still streaming in, and for the 50k leaders as they crossed the line. Their accomplishments were no less heroic, their struggles no less real, in the face of this tragedy. If anything, each finish bore a heightened sense of privilege at simply being able to do this.

That night, there were no big noisy group outings, but smaller gatherings of friends, sitting together, sharing stories, holding each other up, and reflecting on the pain, loss, and utter randomness of the morning, of the vibrance of a runner who left the world in the full exuberance of doing what he loved amid the eagles and the pines and the endless sky.

A week later, I helped my older daughter Emma triumph over exhaustion and stomach issues to triumphantly complete her first half marathon. She is 17, applying to schools, an unwritten canvas, full of dreams, on the brink of her amazing life. Two days later I was with my friend Kristine and her children at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, where we served as "flag runners," placing flags by the graves of fallen soldiers for Memorial Day. I looked at all the names there, Kristine's father among them, and thought of both the grand heroic acts and the little daily moments that define a life.

Every deed has an impact. The years are short, the moments are long. Make the connection; squeeze the meaning from every encounter, be it with nature or your fellow creatures. There isn't every answer out on the trail, but there is forgiveness and solace and acceptance.

Go out and run today. Grab a friend. Grab your child. Grab your dog. Go forth, and be all in with it. For right now.

Dedicated to John and Cheri Storkamp, who live each day with joy.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Going Long

I wrote an 80 in the snow today, for no other reason than the mere fact of its existence amazed me. That's 80 as in miles, as in number of miles in a week. For me, an average trail runner with a very average body and very average race times, this was the equivalent of "discovered a comet," or "finally found El Dorado"---ethereal, incomprehensible, ridiculous. But it occurred.

Of course, I knew others did this routinely; I would see their Facebook posts and Strava entries: "25 this morning...13 at lunch....feeling a bit tired, so only did 19," and on and on in some kind of new language of Crazy Land, where running for five hours was easy, joyous, empowering. Of course, I would use all of these adjectives myself in the month of December, and not think it was at all weird to, say, get up at 4:15 to leave for Afton by 5 in a snowstorm, in order to get 5 extra miles in before the group run at 6.

It all started innocently enough.

In an attempt to remedy my long-standing functional inability to record any of my runs in any way, whether via a spreadsheet, run-tracking site, or a piece of paper and a purple crayon, I joined some of what I would affectionately refer to as the Run Every Molecule of Every Nanosecond of Every Day in December challenges. There were three of them, and they all required some kind of daily reportage of one's individual and cumulative efforts. One was all-business and supportive, one featured numerous "shoofies" (photos of one's running shoes in the snow, sand,or asphalt), and one was uplifting and cheering. I liked them all, and began to look forward to documenting my exploits at Hyland, at Lake Harriet, at the magical River Bottoms. Those who know me know I don't need much encouragement to wax rhapsodic about the light through the trees, the sparkling necklace of headlamps in the dark, the comforting sound of many shoes running together in new snow. With my new challenge memberships, I got to write this stuff every day...heck, it was a requirement.

What happened next remains a bit mysterious. Somewhere between the joy of talking about a hawk near the semi-dangerous log crossing and my natural propensity to get up super-early before kids and work, these twin enthusiasms formed a single thought in my mind: What if I tried ____ miles today? The number started at 8, then became 10, then 13, on and on up to 20, in closer and closer succession. I did them all pretty slowly, and I did almost all of them with friends. There was no intense speedwork, only a few tempo-y Lakes runs, and a whole lotta bonding going on.

Over the course of the summer and fall, I'd expanded my running network to include a greater number of friends from a wide variety of groups, and it had made my life so much warmer and richer. I was shocked at how many of them agreed to get up at insane hours and meet me as I tested my body in this weird new challenge. I looked forward to the alarms, to the silent dark, to the thrill of unexplored territory. I also found myself minutely aware of all the small pleasures of each run, maybe because I had more time to savor them: the peculiarities of the light reflected off Lebanon snow, the ever-changing colors of the Lake Harriet bandshell at sunrise, the stately grandeur of the mansions on Lake of the Isles.

Also, things began to feel good. Really good. Weirdly, inexplicably good. The pace felt both stretching and refreshing, like a good massage or a relaxing yoga session, the conversations funny and revelatory, and even the hills--the hills, the dreaded hills, those spectres that had waited around every turn to pick me up and throw me down and jump on my quads without mercy--suddenly, they seemed, well, okay, at least. Even Roxanne (the name we gave to the front of the ski jump hill at Hyland, in a fit of delirious predawn hilarity over a glowing red headlamp light that would not turn off) was a cheerful challenge to be attacked, rather than a monster to make me question the validity of my existence on the planet.

I felt joyful, fearless, and resilient. I also felt confused. Time and again, people would ask me, "What are you training for?" expecting a long list of races, or a qualifying time, or a far-off hundred miler. Some dear friends even confessed that they were sure I was secretly prepping for a big ultra, not wanting to reveal myself until the last moment. "Um, nothing..." I would answer lamely, feeling silly. "I'm just...seeing how it goes." Because I was born to over-analyze anything, myself especially, I was not really satisfied with this answer. Truly, why was I doing this? Yes, it was somewhat thrilling to total up the numbers and enter things like, "19 today, 314 since Thanksgiving," but it wasn't just about getting on the Mildly Insane Person's Leaderboard.

I think I was testing a theory.

Since the dawn of the One-Chick Henhouse era, I had faced many obstacles. Money, work, children, often, I had doubted my ability to succeed in any of these areas. Did I have the tenacity, flexibility, and strength to make everything work? More importantly, did I deserve the success? I had rocked the world of everyone in my family when I went out on my own, and now I was falling down repeatedly in my attempts to make it all perfect. Every bill that was late, every silly sibling argument that marred what I wanted to be a Norman Rockwell moment, every 50k race that crashed with a body meltdown at mile 19...I interpreted all of these as clear signs that I was blatantly not cutting it at life--that happiness was something experienced only by people with intact families, mansions, and large trust funds. (I live in Edina, remember...) Of course, this was absurd, but at the time that I began the holiday mileage challenge, I was drowning in these errant beliefs.

The intervening weeks, however, showed me the fallacy of these convictions. I was suddenly experiencing happiness, peace, deeper friendships, and a greater sense of wonder simply by...running more? Yes, as Glinda the Good Witch said to Dorothy, "that's all it is."

By letting myself run more, by giving into it, with no strings attached, I let so many of my demons go. I didn't have to be the fastest. I didn't have to be in front. I didn't have to race. I didn't have to win at every aspect of life. All I had to do, really, was show up.

And, strangely to me, others reacted strongly to what I viewed as this very weird and very private quest. Every day, I got emails from people (some whom I knew, some whom I didn't) who had viewed my posts and found themselves inspired. I, who had never felt worthy of any title expect perhaps Chaos Queen, was now motivating other people to get out the door, to show their sparkle, to cheer their fellow travelers on. It was bizarre, and humbling, and quite wonderful.

Now the days are, minute by minute, lengthening again, and 2014 is on the wane. The challenge will end, and I will return to a saner (but still, I think, slightly higher) weekly mileage level. No doubt the Superior Hiking Trail will have its way with me this spring, and skating will cost as much as a small yacht, and the dear progeny will bicker, and the heart will yearn, but this time, I will be ready. I can call upon the strength of my running tribe, the silent beauty of those mornings, the fortitude of the second hill and the additional two miles and the fifth repeated loop. In short, the secret to my triumphant arrival is rooted in the passion of my initial steps.

Anyone want to start early with me?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Circle Game: Or, how I found joy, elation, and true community spirit in 12 unbeatable hours

It was much warmer inside the pop-up tent. This I could tell you for certain at 8:03 a.m. last Saturday. Outside the blue and orange sides of my little cave, the rain slashed down biblically, with bass notes of thunder for added effect. I was reminded of the mythological scene in Fantasia, where the god of lightning is hammering out the lightning bolts, throwing down sparks. [Wait. You haven't seen Fantasia? Everyone needs to see Fantasia. Make sure it's the one made in the 1930s, where they hand-drew every frame.] I felt strangely calm, despite the relentless downpour, now that my goal had been achieved. Dry clothes. Snack. Hand warmers. We'd been standing at the starting line, huddled like sheep in a meadow, and I was soaked. My whisper-light rain jacket had given in with a whimper after about two minutes. It was almost a relief to hear that we would have a rain delay, and that I could start again on this whole Dressing for a Day of Running thing.

Yes, it was a day of running. Really, a day. And for many, a day and a night and back to day again. While long runs were completed and children were fed, and treaties were signed and great novels read, a hardy band of intrepid (incomprehensible?) souls were still out there...running.

We were part of the FANS 6-, 12-, and 24-hour race, an annual (25 years!) timed race that raises money to provide college scholarships for inner-city youth. I had come the last two years to pace, i.e., to offer varying levels of chipperness, water-bottle-holding, snack-providing, and (only if requested) arcane stories from Radiolab to help pass the time to my fearless friends doing the 24-hour race. Last year's run, with the Nolan Ryan of FANS, Doug Kleemeier, had been particularly enjoyable. Over and over, I kept marveling at how quickly the time passed. Whoa, I found myself thinking, I've been out here FOUR HOURS. And it's still incredibly fun. The idea that I might actually do this myself lodged itself somewhere in the back of my mind, and there it sat for the next 6 or 8 months.

Until, you know, I turned 50. And in order to stem the tide of shock, disbelief, soul-searching, and slight panic that always befalls me on these "decade" birthdays, I decided to make this the Year of Doing Things That Scare You. Anything outside the comfort zone was fair game. So, I signed up willy-nilly for a bunch of races that, on one level or another, left me vaguely terrified. The Boston Marathon. 50ks up north on the unyielding Superior Hiking Trail. Another date with the Powerlines of Duluth. And, um, FANS. But just the 12-hour, because those 24-hour folks, their endurance was sick. It was just unearthly. Interestingly, of all the endeavors I embarked upon (and many are still yet to come--hello, Lean Horse) the FANS race scared me the least.

It had a lot of things that appealed to me: a flat, easily complete-able loop (perceived complete-ability is really important in a race that is so largely mental); tons of interaction with others (I'm chatty); access to aid stations and your own water, snacks, etc. at your designated "campsite" (I hate carrying stuff--any stuff); and even your own personal "counter" ("just like a personal banker!" I remember thinking), in my case two extremely friendly gentlemen who happily yelled out encouraging things each time I came around the loop. ("Lap 17! Nicely done, Amy!") Where others saw hamster-wheel repetition, I saw friendly familiarity and the joy of the known.

As the thunder gods got bored and put away their hammers to sleep (checking another Fantasia scene again, forgive me), we embarked on our journey. The silver rain came down continuously for the next 5 hours or so, but it never seemed angry, only purposeful. Spirits were high, ringed in my case with a slight edge of incredulity ("I'm going to be running for 12 hours.."), but I had this overwhelming feeling the entire race that I was being watched over by the spirit of FANS, the FANS gods, in whose benevolent hands I was putting my trust that nothing would go wrong.

And basically, it didn't. The laps circled by in a happy montage of shared conversation, cheerful volunteers (many of whom were involved with schools benefiting from the FANS program), and aid station delights ("bananas dipped in salt? These are amazing!"). I was joined by a relentlessly upbeat crew of pacers, both planned and unplanned, including fearless coach and sage mentor Scott Welle, savior of bunny-eating cats Arika Hage, and my number one supporter and crew-meister Todd Rowe, who not only put up the entire tent-o-rama, supplied the food, AND ran 20 miles with me, but also stood there in the rain, in the cold, all day, with an ever-changing array of quirky signs, including my personal favorite, "Motivation! Inspiring Sign!" I know that I am many things, but low-maintenance is not one of them, yet his enthusiasm never flagged; it occurred to me throughout this experience that supporting each other at ultra races is as good a metaphor for a relationship as any...there are radiant highs and plummeting lows, but ultimately there is only one set of hands that you really want holding out your peanut butter sandwich or clean, dry Hokas.
Inspiring us all with brevity that is the soul of wit.

The day progressed, and with it came a break in the showers and a shot of happiness as I watched my fellow 12-hour travelers and 24-hour friends continue to conquer the course. It got so that every turn became a well-worn path, a marker towards the next aid station, the street crossing, the big puddle, and finally the beloved break in the trees that pointed the way to the counting table. Many would bemoan the monotony of a course like this, but for me, it was perfect--I always knew where I was and how long I had to go. It never seemed overwhelming, because the metaphorical sun on the horizon was always just ahead. There were small joys, too, like seeing John and Cheri Storkamp, Aaron and Mary Ehlers, Kurt and Evan Decker, and countless others spectating and cheering. Watching Niki Ronnan pushing her brother Mike for the entire 24-hour race, both of them always happy and unrelentingly moving towards a goal. Witnessing the beautifully modulated performances of Doug Kleemeier, Sonya Decker, and Brian Klug, as they rode the entire roller coaster of the 24-hour race from start to finish with their hands in the air. Seeing Chris Hanson just sprinting the last of his 24-hour short laps, like a baseball player charging for home. Sharing two minutes, five minutes, or two miles with those I met on the trail, instant friendships forged in the mutual belief that there is something bigger than oneself that comes with the testing--the going into the tunnel of the unknown and emerging unscathed on the other side.

And before I knew it, things started happening. My PC (personal counter) told me at the end of one lap, "See you at 50 next time! Nicely done!" At this news, I forgot about my tiring legs and succumbed full-on to the giddy happy dance of the moment. Before FANS, I'd run 34 miles for my longest run (at the splendid Icebox 480 run by Chris Swenke, fellow FANS-er Ross Jilk and FANS pacer Jenny Marietta). Now, I was ready to hear the cowbells and savor my 50, just for a second. Of course, a 50 on this flatness is nothing like a 50 at Zumbro or Superior, but it still felt deeply satisfying and vaguely unbelievable. I tried to use this euphoria to fire me up for my remaining loops, keeping the pace with Scott, Arika and Todd, and waving supportively at the large turtle I saw crossing the road on my final "long" lap. "Slow and steady does work, buddy," I told him. "You were definitely on to something there." Rounding the curve for the last time, heading for 56 laps, I thanked all of the aid station volunteers for setting out the Gator Ade and potato chips (like Chateau d'Yquem and caviar 11 hours in, trust me), and the street-crossing volunteers who told us every lap how amazing we were. (For hours on end. In the wet and cold, never flagging in their cheer. For those who have suffered cynical moments, this is humanity at its best.)

"Time for the short laps!" I told my PC. "Enjoy them!" he said, pointing me in the direction of the orange cones. It was then I saw the shining pink Nikes of my short lap fairy, Kate Hoglund, come to carry me through the last few miles. Having helped me in a panic with a night-before purchase of Altras and some inserts at TC Running Co, Kate was still a calm and happy presence at 8:00 p.m., as we ran and walked (but mostly ran) back and forth through 30 of the 200-meter laps. She kept me talking, moving forward, and not giving in. "You can do this," she kept saying. As the time ticked on, it took everything I had not to skip like a second grader from lap to lap. I was a bit woozy, I was starving, I was light-headed, my legs were done, but I knew it was almost over and I wanted to memorize the sun-fading perfection of the minutes towards 8:30.
Happiness = the short laps with smiley Kate
And before I knew it, the tireless Counter Dudes were counting down: "5, 4, 3, 2, 1!" With 58.88 miles done, I collapsed into the arms of Todd and my friends, unsteady but unbowed.
Done and dusted with King Dougie, who still had 12 hours left(!)

After dry clothes, an endless shower, copious chocolate milk and a nice recap with my children ("I don't think I could run that in my whole life!" said Bella, who instead does five handsprings like walking through a barn door), I fell into the unmoving, velvet-dark sleep of the truly spent. At 3:00 a.m., of course, I was awoken by adrenaline, aches and pains, and extreme hunger ("need peanut butter! stat!") A few hours later, I was back at FANS to watch the truly mind-opening sight of the 24-hour rock stars finishing their short laps as the sun rose high and the dew shone on the high grass. Later there was the communal breakfast, and stories, and podium places for Doug, Sonya, and Brian, and lovely gifts such as the personalized chair given out to FANS legend Fast Eddie Rousseau, and the funny and touching sight of grown men and women moving delicately and gingerly in and out of chairs, their cups held out, zombie-like, for more coffee. All around us, life was happening at its usual frantic pace. But here, in this park, on this beautiful morning, it had paused, and embraced us all.

In the end, it was not about going in endless circles. FANS, in all its glory, was just this giant community-focused, athlete-filled, encouragement-flavored, beautifully organized endurance rave at Ft. Snelling State Park, and you miss it at your runner soul's peril.

Lap 25 (years), FANS folks. Nicely done. Very nicely done.