Alex Swenson 2004

It wasn’t just that I had turned 40 a couple of weeks prior to the race.  I don’t particularly care about crossing that threshold.  Rather, I was begrudgingly coming to the conclusion that my body was acting old and lost its ability to withstand levels of abuse that it had once shrugged off.  Recently all sorts of injuries were asserting themselves, of types and severity that I had previously only read about.  I was starting to lack confidence in how to train and race.  It all had me spooked.

So I started the race quite unsure of how it would go.  Happily, the start was cool enough that I wore gloves.  Though it would soon warm up, the temperatures never spiked beyond the high 70s.  All in all it was a terrific day for running.  The nippy early morning conditions made it easy to start out fast.  I banked a few miles, but the exposed prairie section after Emma Carlin quickly knocked my pace to a more reasonable level.

Trail conditions were nearly perfect.  Most of the grassy areas had been recently groomed and the worst trail sections only had a bit of mud.  The bugs were bad every time I stopped to pee, but no bother while running.  Aid station folks were exceptional about getting my bottles filled fast, even with my special request for ½ SUCCEED, ½ water, and lots of ice.  I managed to stay on course due to the excellent ground markings, which I really appreciated.  I always get lost on courses marked with flags because I tend to focus on the ground.  Around mile 35 I was looking up the trail for oncoming runners, tripped on a rock, and went flying into the bushes.  Another runner pulled me out and located my gel flask.  I had a bloody scrape but no serious damage.

My mantra for the day was Drink, Pop, Swig.  Drink constantly, pop an electrolyte capsule every hour, and swig some gel every thirty minutes.  I skipped real food entirely, except for a few bites of banana and energy bar.  I’ve learned the hard way that I only tolerate real food in cold weather conditions.  This strategy also has the advantage of insuring fast transitions in the aid stations, as there’s no wavering over what to eat.

The 100K turnaround is both the best and worst feature of this race.  It gives a great sense of completion for those having a bad day, but makes it a lot tougher to head back out.  I came though in 10:05 and was still feeling great, so there was no thought of succumbing to the comforts of the aid station.  I changed into a pair of ultralight road trainers and was on my way.  Irrationally I skipped changing my socks because I didn’t want to see the sad state of my feet.  Better not to know.  The new shoes gave me a huge psychological lift, as I felt like I was running barefoot.

The trail back out to Bluff was the best part of the race, what with getting a chance to see everyone, exchange encouragement, and size up the competition.  It was surprising to see the 100 milers so spread out, with 20-60 minutes between each of the top few runners.   I was even more surprised to catch Kevin Setnes, who was struggling with a rebellious digestive system, a bit after Bluff.  Despite moving into first place, fatigue was hitting me hard.  I tried to focus on covering as much trail as I could while it was still daylight.

It was a huge relief to make it to Rice Lake, knowing that I was finally on the last leg.  Back through Highway 12 I picked up my flashlight and headed out.  Fifteen minutes later it was dark and my pace plunged.  From this point forward, there was a steady stream of oncoming runners.  All of us were tired, so there wasn’t a lot of talk.  Still, it was nice to know that I wasn’t all alone on the trail.  I kept up a steady jog in the dark and played a psychological game that I save for such dire times.  In this game I imagine myself running on one of those moving walkways found in airport terminals, just bouncing along effortlessly, except in this case dashing through the forest.  It always gives me a lift, especially on the spongy pine needle sections where the fantasy is easier to indulge.

The last 10 miles were brutal.  My legs were dead and all sorts of sharp pains were shooting from my feet.  As much as I loathed the section from Tamarack to Nordic, it sure helped to have run it three times already.  At that point the last thing I could deal was a surprise.  I kept pushing myself, just telling myself that the faster I ran, the sooner it would all stop.

I had deliberately avoided looking at my watch for the final few hours, so I was amazed to cross the finish line in 17:32.  My goal had been 18:15, and anything sub-19 would have been great.  It was a thrill to finish on the same day that I started, especially in my first race as a masters runner.