Monday, October 17, 2011

Wild Duluth 100K

The Wild Duluth Races have to be among the most beautiful in the Midwest. That's saying a lot, as there are some really beautiful races in these parts. They are also very well organized, have great volunteers, and some pretty sweet bling. The hoodies for the 100K participants are especially nice this year; and my finisher's beanie is going to worn proudly all winter. If you haven't run this race yet, put on your calendar for next year.

My own race was nearly over almost as soon as it began. Things started well enough, a lovely, crisp fall morning with a nearly full moon lighting the still dark sky, perfect for running. About half a mile in, things start to get interesting with a pretty good climb up the Superior Hiking Trail to Engen Park. It was here that I took my first of what would be many falls on the day. At first glance, it wasn't a bad fall. In fact, I caught myself on the way down and was up before I fully hit the ground. However, it was just enough to start an episode of piriformis syndrome that would haunt me for the next 20 miles.

What is piriformis syndrome? The piriformis muscle is one of the gluteal muscles that runs behind the hip joint. It happens to run right past the sciatic nerve. This proximity means that if the piriformis muscle spasms, the sciatic nerve becomes strangled, resulting in pain throughout the hip area and down the back of the legs. And I am talking biting a bullet to avoid screaming pain. Piriformis syndrome is not uncommon in runners, due to their often tight hip adductors and weak abductors. I have had piriformis syndrome off and on for a couple years, though it has been a few months since I have had an episode. Well, it turns out that the little fall I had, combined with the cool of the early morning, was enough to start some muscle spasms in my piriformis.

This began a downward spiral that I couldn't escape from. The spasms and pain dramatically reduced my range of motion in my stride. This decrease in my range of motion meant I was much more likely to fall on the very technical trail I was covering. So I would fall, which would set off another bout of spasms, which decreased my range of motion even more, which....well, you get the idea. I tried stretching, I tried walking, I tried relaxing through visualization. At the 8.8 mile aid station I got a butt massage from one of the volunteers who was a licensed physical therapist. I told you they had awesome volunteers! Each of these helped, but only until I tried running again.

Honestly, if I hadn't just DNFed at Sawtooth, I would have dropped in the first 10 miles. I was frustrated, nearly in tears with pain, and unable to get out the negative loop. I decided to keep going only because I knew it would be good mental training for my next attempt at Sawtooth. However, due to my walking, my breaks for stretching and massages, I was at the very back of the pack. This didn't bother me in itself, but was afraid I would make the 50K cutoff of 9 hours. At around mile 17 I saw my River Falls running buddy, Jenny, who was running the 50K. She noted that I was at the back, said she was worried about me and asked if I needed anything. I asked if she had any ibuprofen, she did and gave me four which I downed instantly. Within a couple miles I was feeling better. My range of motion was back and I could run without pain. She absolutely saved my race.

The trail gets much less technical from the 20 mile aid station to the turn around. I was feeling good finally, and had the advantage of not having worked very hard at all for the first 20 miles. I picked up my pace and began steadily passing other runners. I also started to make up some time on my watch, and over the next 22 miles felt like I was flying down the trail. I even took another fall around mile 35, but it didn't start any spasms, so yay!

By the time I got back to the climb up Ely's peak, around mile 42, I had nearly worn myself out. Still I was able to keep pushing pretty well, and wanted to get as many miles in as I could before night fall. I made it to about 50 miles by sunset. The last 12 miles were pretty much a power walk. Any time I tried to run, I would trip over some unseen root or rock, and decided it just wasn't worth the effort. Others must have been having the same problem, as while I wasn't passing people any more, I also wasn't being passed. Well, until the last mile or so. At this point a couple passed me and ended up finishing 5 minutes ahead of me. There is no way I could have run that last mile 5 minutes faster, they must have been flying. They sure flew past me.

The sweet finish! Met and congratulated by Kim and Andy, the race directors, and presented with my finishers beanie. What a great moment. I ended up finishing in 16 hours and 22 minutes, a full 8 minutes faster than I had predicted to my wife. They way things started, I didn't think there was a chance of that happening, so I was very happy with that time. It was good enough for 21st out of 57 starters and 45 finishers. 

My night wasn't over, though. I didn't want to pop for another night at the hotel, and anyway, I had promised my mom and dad a ride to the airport early Sunday morning. My reward for being done running for over 16 hours, was a three hour drive back to River Falls.

Two days later, my feet are still swollen and I still can't walk down stairs without holding on to the railing, but I am recovering and looking forward to 50 miles at Surf the Murph in less than two weeks.

I learned a lot this race: always carry ibuprofen, don't quit when things are bad early, and to start strengthening exercises for my abductors, and stretches for my adductors. I don't want to ever go through that again.


  1. Great to be able to beat back the hurt and end up with a strong finish! Congratulations Ross!

  2. Dang, I'm jealous! I wish I would have made a harder push and convinced my wife to scamper up to Duluth if not for the 100k but at least the 50k.

    I can relate to the piriformis issue for I've dealt with it for a couple years now but my desire to run keeps me from fully recovering.

    I wish you a speedy recovery and look forward to meeting you out at STM 50 miler.

  3. Congrats on the finish! As I was going up Ely's Peak, I was trying to imagine doing it at that point in a race... better you than me!

  4. Thanks guys!

    And Chris, I don't think we need to quit running to avoid piriformis problems. Stretching and core strengthening should do it.