A week ago we were sitting at the Baptism River. The change was pronounced--the long absent feeling of vigor and strength drained back into me (a weird expression, indeed!), as the six-month malaise began to lift. It was no longer a motion repeated ad nauseam in a self-contained cycle meant only to fulfill itself--no, I was alive! (Thankfully) I sprang from my seated position, announcing to my companions that I was no longer the shuffling dolt who produced only unimpressive tangles with nature, best described as exceedingly meh. I was now a conquerer adorned with swift feet and the magic wand-tip of my Steripen. I could run and drink beyond the setting of many suns, or so I told them.
While the wild exuberance of that moment was tempered somewhat over the next several miles of hoisting my lumbering carcass over the many boulders between Highway One and County Road Six, I completed those back-to-back runs on the Superior Hiking Trail with renewed confidence in my ability to produce performances that at least matched the mediocrity that I achieved in 2014.
So, when the morning of the Voyageur 50 arrived, I was ready to secretly chase my time from last year. I lined up with my sandbagging friends near the back of the pack, but was improbably compelled to move up when the math on moving up during the race's first two miles seemed impossible. I declared, "We're moving up."
No one followed, so I found myself running alone along the river. There were likely people within fifteen seconds of me either side, but my spot and pace afforded the blissful illusion of isolation. These were my favorite miles of the day. Temperatures were still cool, the trail was gorgeous, and the sounds of the Saint Louis quieted the chattering internal voices of unrest and doubt.
I crossed the River, experienced some brief, pointed emotion (this place, this nature, has tangled my heart), before entering the unremarkable ski trail that connects Jay Cooke to the Forbay aid station. At some point after this, we ducked back into the woods and joined the unfamiliar Gill Creek trail. The Voyageur/Curnow courses have been different each of the three years that I have done the race, and this was the change for this year's edition. Rather than cruising on the MUP, we descended and ascended steep, technical trail. I enjoyed it though. Normally I'm a destroyer on the ski trails, but this year I've spent more time practicing running slow and walking fast.
From the powerlines to the turnaround, I ran with Angie from Nebraska, whom I'd also run with at Rocky Raccoon. Small world. Our splits at RR100 were always within 29 minutes of each other, with our lap times staggered so that we crossed paths more than once. The company was nice, but she was also running really smart, pushing just a little bit harder than I might have on my own, but always reasonably. I benefitted immensely from this dynamic. We reached the long descent to the zoo. I felt great and was about to hit the turnaround one minute ahead of my 2014 split and well under ten hour pace. Things were awesome.
My plan for the turnaround was this--use the portapotty, and figure out everything while I sat there. However, there was a problem--there was no portapotty. My brain short-circuited and I stood there like a lobotomized fool, stammering some incomprehensible gibberish to Julio. Finally, he just told me to leave. I wasn't there more than a few minutes, but I'd accomplished almost nothing. Nonetheless, he was right, I needed to get moving.
I'd been relying on Tailwind and gels for the first half of the race, and what a success it was--I never felt nauseous, had ample energy, and hadn't wasted any time at aid stations until the turnaround. It may be surprising then, that I left the aid station trying to drink a glass of Coke, eat a packet of sweet potatoes, and shove my mouth full of Shot Bloks. Three minutes into my return trip and I felt awful.
The heat suddenly felt unbearable, vomit inched its way up the back of my throat, and my legs felt like bricks. Having completely abandoned the plan, I started shoveling salt pills into my mouth. My short-circuiting brain couldn't make sense of anything. Bunda was around a mile behind me and Kelcey and Madeline were just over two miles behind. The way my day had turned, I expected to see all of them very soon. I tried to make the best of it, and hoped that I could recover well enough to run with them when they caught me.
Impulsively, I'd opted to wear my seldom used Salomon Sense Mantra 2s, reasoning that I didn't want to destroy any of the shoes that I actually liked. This was a choice I mildly regretted on the paved descent to Beck's Road. There are shoes that are good at running down steep, paved roads at mile thirty. These were not it.
I no longer wanted to dig deep enough to go under ten hours. It's doubtful that I physically could have, but I quickly and easily surrendered to damage control mode. Ice went into my pack at every aid station and I found myself walking on the Willard Munger trail because it was just...too...fucking...hot. When I was in the shade, I could run, even the climbs. In the sun, I was helpless.
Eventually, gels started going down again, and I randomly stumbled on the right combination of fluids and electrolytes. It still wasn't good, but it would suffice. I crossed the swinging bridge and enjoyed the remaining miles of shaded, technical trail, finishing in 10h27m.
I should be getting used to it by now, but grappling with the slump post-race was a struggle. The weeks preceding Voyageur buoyed expectations of reviving last year's predictable script of running smart and finishing strong. More than an impressive finishing time, I wanted to build confidence going into Fat Dog. That didn't happen.
Just like Black Hills and the thru-hike, I had to intellectualize and emotionalize my way out of that place of despair. What does it really mean? I thought of Laz's words--"If you’re going to face a real challenge, it has to be a REAL challenge. You can’t accomplish anything without the possibility of failure." Flipping the script may offer something that redemption could not have--real doubt, a real chance of failure, and the opportunity to face myself in the darkness, knowing that even if it gets ugly, I don't need to be afraid.