Weather was overcast, and a high of 21C. About as perfect as somebody can ask for in late July.
Race started off well. I got passed by about 100 people in the first half mile. I was utterly convinced they were going too fast, as my Garmin indicated that I was doing 9 minute miles!
After the first half mile on a bicycle path, the course ducked into some gnarly single track that was runnable if you were careful. And it was nearly impossible to pass anyone. Unfortunately, the people in front of me were too careful and walked almost the entire 3 miles to the Jay Cooke aid station.
After the first aid station, the track became much wider and grassy. I was much closer to the back than to the front, so all the morning dew had been mopped up by the faster runners. Win! I took this opportunity to pass a few people on the downhills (which I seemed to be very good at). Crossing a small hydro dam, I arrived at the Forbay's Lake aid station.
The next trail section started to school me in what hills were about. We took the Gull Creek trail which consisted pretty much of a 1.5 mile downhill (sweet!) followed by a 1.5 mile uphill (bogus). It was at this point that I took my first serious walk break. The Peterson's aid station was welcome, as I really needed a refill of my water bladder.
The next section to the Grand Portage aid station was fairly non-eventful, except it should be noted that it was 100% entirely downhill, and at a fairly healthy grade. After Grand Portage were the infamous Power Lines. You leave the aid station going up a large hill, then descent a ridiculously steep slope just to ascend another ridiculously steep slope. At this point, I thought "That wasn't too bad" as the trail veered off into the forest. Alas, those were just the teaser hills. The big hills lay about half a mile up the trail. I arrived at the real power line hills, and immediately laughed. It was obvious that whoever included this section as part of the race had a sense of humour. The ascents and descents were nearly vertical, large (350'), and repetitive. It was during the power lines that I met somebody on the trail who actually went to the same high school as me! Small world indeed! The Seven Bridges aid station was like a mirage in the desert.
The descent towards the Fond Du Lac aid station and ascent back up towards Beck's Road aid station was fairly uneventful. My legs were started to get trashed from the long continuous ascents and descents. Relief wasn't in sight when I arrived at Beck's Road, as we immediately began climbing an asphalt road towards Sniveley Park. It was during this section that I came across the leaders coming back. Everybody cheered them on as they zipped past us, letting gravity do all the work for them. It was the Sniveley Park section of trail that I detested the most. The trail was mushy, there were little mud bogs covering parts of the trail, and lots of horse tracks to trip up in. The Skyline Parkway aid station was a welcome sight, as it meant no more horse holes (at least until the way back!).
The descent from Skyline Parkway to Turnaround Zoo aid station was fairly uneventful. At the time, I thought I was making good time, making time for the slower sections of the course where I had to walk (Power Lines, etc). Dwayne and Murray were heading back when I was 1 mile away from the turnaround, which gave me hope that I wasn't as slow as I thought I was! It was at this point that things really started to turn south on me.
It started to rain about 10 minutes before I got to the Turnaround Zoo aid station. This of itself it no big deal, until you consider that this rain was all that was keeping the sun from shining on us. Once the rain stopped, the clouds had parted and the sun started to bake me. I got to the turnaround at 5:05. I figured that if I pushed myself a bit, combined with my newly found knowledge of the trail, I could finish in under 10 hours. I ditched my iPod (which didn't have any battery power at the start, and was just dead weight), decided not to change my socks (I didn't want to see what my feet looked like), ditched one of my untouched Cliff bars, and reloaded my supply of E-caps.
My way back, I was walking a lot more than I was running. The downhill runs had started to take their toll on me. My legs felt fine, but I couldn't catch my breath when my legs were moving that fast. So I had to start walking downhill. This pretty much blew my time expectations out the window. Skyline Parkway, Beck's Road, and Fond Du Lac were all a distant blur as I kept a forward shuffle going. By the time I got to Seven Bridges I felt dead on my feet.
I knew the next section would be the dreaded power lines, so I filled my water bladder until it was bursting at the seams with iced water. I rammed as many potatoes as I could down my throat, and grabbed a handful of pretzels. I was ready to wage war on the power lines. I'm not sure if it was the change in my head (making war on the trail), or the ridiculous amounts of food I ate at the aid station, but I found the power lines to be much easier coming back than heading out. The rain had made the trail very slippery, and I had to use the bushes and grass to pull myself up the hills and brake myself on the descents. I can only imagine what the people ahead of me had to do, as I had the advantage of seeing where people had slid out and knew to not step in those places.
When I arrived at the Grand Portage aid station, my energy had come back. I was eating much better, and moving much faster. I also knew that I "only" had a half marathon left to run, so I gunned it as best as my legs could go. My average pace started to creep faster, but it was too little too late. My 10 hour goal was long gone. On the other hand, I still had a good chance of finishing strong. I tried really hard to not walk any of the last section between Jay Cooke aid station and the finish, but had to slow down in a few dicey places. But overall, I made a very good show of it.
I crossed the finish line at 11:28 screaming my head off in joy and excitement. This was by far the hardest race I had ever done in my life!