On Monday, September 2nd (Labor Day 2013), my wife and I headed north to the Ice Age trail (IAT) in Wisconsin to run a pre-planned 40 mile section of forest, fen and prairie. The section from Leach Lake Road to our newest park, Straight Lake State Park, was brand new to both of us. The plan was: I would run and Beth would crew.
As a preamble to this report, I had been in a pretty miserable mood prior to the run; kind of depressed. The French have the word ennui, pronounced “ahn-wee”, that I like to use because it makes me smile. Sounds like a treatise on urination; “Ennui; Draining the Sleepy Weasel”. Anyway, we just saw my oldest daughter off to college, and that, along with not running as much as I’d like, and family financial issues, had me in a major funk by the time this run started. And the weather Monday morning mirrored my mood. Real gloomy, Eye-ore type conditions.
At the trailhead (Washburn County)
After the 5:00 am alarm, we gathered our gear and drove north about 1.5 hrs to the trailhead just north of Cumberland, WI. The temperature was cool (perfect for running) at about 50°F, and the sky was overcast when we found the trail entrance off of Leach Lake Road. It was not too tough to find, though most non-state roads up here tend to be of the gravel variety, so the going was slow.
Though it was a chilly 50°F, I knew I would get warm quickly once the legs started moving. I wore a technical long-sleeve shirt, compression shorts, a Gore-tex beanie and some cheap gloves. I carried water in a single 20-oz bottle on a waist pack, with the section map in a pocket to be traded at each new segment. This proved to be about just right.
As we stood there in the misty morning, looking at the scant opening in the woods marking the trail entrance, we spotted an otter trundling down the road, inchworm style. We looked into the forest again, and then with a shout of “epic/awesome!”, I went through the looking glass.
Through the looking glass: Timberland Hills Ski Trails (miles 0-5, Burnett County)
I was immediately engulfed in dense woods. The trees were mostly deciduous, closely spaced, and with very little undergrowth. In fact, last year’s leaf litter still blanketed the ground. I was left to find my way without much of a trail to go by. The IAT is marked by a series of yellow blazes; rectangular marks on trees along the trail. I was left to go from tree blaze to tree blaze until a trail finally showed itself. Without the blazes I would have needed a bloodhound. This would have been tough later in the fall.
Following my auspicious start, the IAT eventually joined with the Timberland Hills XC Ski Trails; a hilly segment through marshland and some light woods. I went from a barely visible scratch in the earth to a grassy superhighway. It was a fantastic change as the trails now were easily discernible and the footing firm. After about 5 minutes though, I missed the dense woods and the singletrack. I could have driven my car down these paths, with enough room for oncoming traffic. Also, there were many trails crisscrossing the IAT; keep looking for those blazes!
Along one portion of this trail, the undergrowth was about waist-high, blocking sight of my feet. The footing was pretty even here so I was not concerned while I kept up my pace. Unknown to me, a family of turkeys was traveling the trail just ahead of me, under the undergrowth. Once they heard me coming in was major panic time. Wattles and snoods gobbling everywhere as about 10 turkeys flew into the trees, crap soaring in every direction like chaff from fighter planes. Funny. Their crap missed me.
Near the end of this section, Beth met me at the Boyd Lane trailhead with a change of water bottle. I drank very little during this portion, and really didn’t need the water. We did this mostly for safety in case we missed each other at a later trailhead. And then I was off, feeling (just a little) better.
The superhighway continues: Still more ski trails (miles 5-10, Barron County)
After crossing the county line, the ski trails became wider and even better managed. I think 2 lanes of traffic, each way, could have managed through this section. Plus, these were lighted trails, with overhead lamps on poles lining the path. Not really the ambiance I was looking for, and not the IAT character I was expecting. Thankfully, this section did not last long.
A fantastic section of snowshoe trails broke from this forest superhighway, and I was again immersed in glorious wooded singletrack. Snowshoe trails tend to be great running trails (without the snow), and this section was no exception. This is what I came for, and I enjoyed every bit of it. The path wound over hills and into valleys, along small lakes and through marshland. It was still cloudy and in the 50’s, but I was starting to have fun as I warmed up. I could feel my malaise (another funny sounding word, reminding me of a sandwich spread) lifting a bit more.
In no time I saw Beth again for our second meet at County Line Road. We traded water bottles again. I think I drank maybe 6 ounces at most all day; I still didn’t need much water. Then, after leaving the trailhead, I had about a quarter-mile jog down County Line Road, and back into the green tunnel.
Things start to get interesting: Sand Creek Segment (miles 10-15, Barron and Polk Counties)
To paraphrase Bane, Batman’s recent nemesis, “Oh, you think undergrowth is your ally. But you merely adopted the briars; I was born in it, molded by it.” Oh the undergrowth; a thousand tiny claws tearing at my body as I wound through the charnel way. The trails entering the Sand Creek Segment of the Burnett and Polk County Forests were highlighted by marsh and fen, with knee to waist-high undergrowth hiding the trail; undergrowth with teeth! The briars continually tore into my legs, cut my socks and pulled on the fabric of my shirt.
Needless to say, I was having less fun. At one point, the undergrowth hid a significant rise in the trail. I fell for the first time at this point, though it was not a major spill. I fell forward to a pushup position and merely pushed myself from supine to upright and kept motoring.
I’d prefer not to dwell on this section, though I was getting concerned that the trail conditions may never improve. I can say that once I got out of the marshland the trail became legible singletrack once more, and I bounded out of the woods to meet Beth once again at the County E trailhead.
After the traditional water bottle trade, it was time to search for the trail on the opposite side of E. It just wasn’t there. Where did they put it? The old trail ended, and no new trail began; just a wall of corn. The map showed the trail crossing the road directly at the trailhead, with no jog down the road. Our first navigational challenge. After a journey into the cornfield, and a search up and down the road, we eventually found the opposite trailhead a quarter mile north. Stupid map. Whatever; I was off again.
The charnel house continues: Sand Creek Segment (miles 15-20, Polk County)
I was feeling very comfortable running by now. My legs were full warmed and I was moving at my planned 10-minute clip. Any faster would have been disaster. The briars and undergrowth remained, but the footing became more technical. Hidden roots and hillocks crisscrossed the trail, with numerous creek crossings over shaky log and stick “bridges”. At one point I ducked my head to avoid some overhanging branches, only to get beaned by the unseen next branch; and then the next. That hurt, but it was kind of funny in a 3 Stooges sort of way. I hadn’t lost my sense of humor. Yet.
By now my legs were getting pretty scratched up, and I was covered with those seeds that have hooks and quills designed to adhere to your clothes. I came out of that forest looking like Sasquatch, days after getting kicked out of the cave by the missus.
The weather was still cold and gloomy, yet my attitude was perking up; I was having fun. Though it could have been funner. And it was time to see Beth again. At the van I took off my shoes and socks to empty them of the detritus I picked up over the previous 20 miles. A blister would ruin any fun I was having for sure. I drank about half my water bottle on the last section, and it was time to take on a few calories. I grabbed a Hammer Apple-Cinnamon gel (one of my least favorite gel flavors), took a new bottle, and was off into the longest section of the day.
The start of Awesome: McKenzie Creek Segment (miles 20-27)
The end of the briars was evident as I plunged back into the green tunnel. Glorious forest singletrack! And it was here that some hills started. Before the adventure, I had planned on running all of the hills, while maintaining an easy 10-minute pace. Some of these hills challenged that plan; not with their heights, but with their grades. These were some steep climbs and descents! For the first time that day my legs were complaining. But that was easily overshadowed by the most gorgeous section of trail yet that day. The path cut through and over ridges, above the Clam and McKenzie creeks; sometimes way above. It was here that the sun came out, dappling the hillsides and warming the air just a bit. From reading a plaque along the trail, these creeks were recently revitalized for the trout population, making them Class 1 (self-sustaining) trout streams. More than once I heard a loud splash, though no culprit could be seen.
It was here that I fell the second time. My legs were getting pretty trashed from the ups and down, and my metabolism was still mainly carb-burning. I think a bonk was coming. It was then that a root reached up from the trail and grabbed my toe sending me face-first into the dirt and rocks. All action just ceased; the footfall tempo abruptly halted. I stood up slowly to assess the damage and found two bloody but otherwise unhurt legs. And I was off again, albeit a bit sorer from the fall.
To take my mind off of my sore legs, I began thinking about food. My mind always seems to dwell on food later in runs. I developed a yearning for a PB&J sandwich in the worst way. On Wonderbread, with strawberry preserves and chunky peanut butter. Then my mind wandered off to work. In less than 24 hour’s time I would be sitting at my desk in St. Paul doing who knows what. Surreal. OK the thinking thing was not going well, back to the forest and trail.
As the sun was finally out, and the hills were keeping the legs working, I felt myself warming up a bit. I then found the next trailhead at McKenzie Lake and I was out of the green tunnel and met Beth waiting for me wondering what took me so long. Yeah, that section went slow. I traded the long sleeve shirt with a shorter version, the beanie with my ball cap, and lost the gloves. I took another gel (Montana Huckleberry this time, one of my faves) and swapped bottles and set off into the next segment.
Into the Open: Pine Lake Segment (mile 27 to 34)
Finding the next trailhead meant about a mile of road trotting before cutting into some private hay fields. It felt great to be warmed by the sun, as the cool breeze kept me from over-heating. The trail meandered a bit before it came out onto another road, with its continuation to be found directly across and into a freshly mown field; obviously private property. For respect’s sake the trail skirted the outer edge of the field. It was pretty uneven and tough to run through, with the trail indistinguishable among the mown grass. I kept expecting the trail to plunge back into the forest at each turn, but it continued around the field perimeter along all four sides, returning the same road as before. The trail finally dove back into the forest about 20 yards west of where exited. What was the !@#$ point of that? Most of the IAT to that point was laid out in a logical manner; up to that point.
Anyway. It was now time to run through some sunny pasture and along some corn fields. Unlike the crops near the Twin Cities, the fields around here looked great; lines of tall green sentinels with multiple ears on each plant. The trail obviously wound along and through private land here. At one point the trail ran directly between two camper trailers, around the lawn chairs circling a camp fire. The campsite was vacant, though if the campers were at hand that might have been awkward. Weird.
About here my legs fully recovered from the previous hills and I had transitioned to mainly fat burning, reducing the chance for that bonk. My legs felt great again. A portion of this segment ran along the Straight River; very scenic, though the footing was pretty technical with sections covered in the roots of trees reaching for a river slurpee. I had yet to have much smooth trail on this adventure, so I was looking forward to the groomed state park paths to come.
After a nice climb away from the river and a slight jaunt along Highway 48, I met Beth yet again. Time to get ready for the last portion of the IAT that day.
And back into the woods: Straight Lake State Park Segment (miles 34 to 40)
At one of the North Face 50-mile races along this very trail (though 200 miles to the south), I sipped some Mountain Dew late on the course. I had been running for about 7 hours and the soda was like a jolt to the system; an IV straight to the furnace. So of course, I wondered what a Red Bull might do?
At the trailhead, I downed 12 oz of Red Bull in 3 gulps (hmmm, I could feel it working already), took my last gel, swapped water bottles for the last time, and set off into the woods once again. Here the trail wound past a gate with a “Do Not Enter: Private Property” sign (really?), past 3 quaint cabins overlooking the Straight River, across the driveway and lawn of the last cabin and onto the trail again.
Also, I had a plan for this last bit. Throughout the run my melancholy (another funny name, like the part of a musical arrangement that makes you sad) had been lifting. By this time it was gone and I was feeling great while drowning in endorphins. I felt it was time to demonstrate my manhood to my wife. Enough of this measly 10-minute mile stuff. Beth was going to show up at the opposite end of the park only to find me waiting for her with a satisfied smirk on my face (and one of those glinty things on my teeth). She would bask in my studliness as I described throwing down a 6.5-minute pace for the last 6 miles. Our grandchildren would be raised hearing this story. They would raise a pint at the pub in my honor.
I took off down that trail on fire, reveling in the smooth surface and relatively flat terrain. A caffeine-fueled rush of trees, rocks, roots and Red Bull. What I hadn’t factored in was, that running fast on trail meant keeping my eyes peeled on that same trail, not in the trees where the yellow blazes were painted. Any look up may have ended in a major tumble
I went down the first errant path right off. A quick glance up told me I was way off as the trail was about to end at the river. No problem, a blast back found the trail again after about 200 feet. I could still do this. Until I went down the next wrong path. This one cost me maybe 5 minutes of backtracking before I found the IAT again. After slowing for some very tricky terrain along the Straight River, I felt my quest was in grave danger. After the third wrong turn, I knew it was. So I gave up the quest and just had fun running fast. Our grandchildren would have to do without.
The singletrack became perfect at the state park entrance sign though. Now it was easier to keep the blazes in sight as I sped my way to the end of this adventure. The trails here were very hilly with some steep sections and sharp switch-backs. No matter, I was Red Bull-powered!
My legs were pretty beat but I did not let up on the throttle one bit; I was having too much fun.
The last scenic section along this route led along the shores of Straight Lake. There were a few people along these trails, but without camp sites, the population of humans was pretty sparse for a state park. The sun was getting a bit lower in the sky as well, but its warming rays were as strong as ever, shining off the water surface and glinting off each ripple and wave. The lake was fairly large, with absolutely no man-made structures to be seen. Beautiful, and rare. I could see the value of saving this park for the people. And with that I exited the woods right on time for my planned 10-minute pace. So much for Mr. Studly. Oh well, what a day!
What a day: Adventure Postscript
Up to this day I had never contemplated running my own race like this, where pace didn’t matter much and I could take as long as I wanted at each aid station. Though I did miss the competition and camaraderie, I did not miss the entry fee and long drive. I entered full of ennui, and left inspired to tackle life once again. The gray weather of my mood lifted, now filled with sunlit possibilities, from the fasted initial 20 miles to the Red Bull-fueled frenzy at the end.
Though I probably could have filled a pack full of water and gels and done this on my own, there was something special in sharing the day with Beth like this. What a great spouse to give up her day so I could gallivant through the woods, chasing turkeys and bloodying my legs! Thanks.
I am planning on doing this again someday; maybe along the North Shore of Lake Superior, maybe along another segment of the IAT. Probably more than 40 miles next time. Who knows. What possibilities.