With the arrival of our second kid this summer, I decided to step back from 100m racing for the season. I needed to get out from under the training pressure and reduce the time away in order to be more fully present in the early months of #2. So when the idea of pacing Rolf in his first 100m attempt came up, it was a perfect fit for my current life. I could still stay connected to the race, give back, and help a friend complete his goal. What follows is a brief account of our time together on the trail — the full story is his to tell.
I wake up and am immediately anxious to get on the road North. I take a few moments to be with Kelly, Peter and Charlie and then begin to prep. I tape my feet. I had done this last year during the race, and wanted to do more experimenting with this ever since. I use Strength Tape and a skin prep of Tincture of Benzoin. It goes on easily and quickly, and would remain that way until I finished my pacing duties.
I rush out of the house and get to Silver Bay around 1pm. Liv texts that Rolf has left Beaver Bay and is looking good. She says he’s 30 minutes ahead of his time, which I find troubling. Alex arrives and we wait for Rolf to come through, which he does around 2:30pm. He looks awesome. He looks happy. Whatever anxiousness I had about his race day is eased when we see him. We fill his pack, kick him out, and move on to Tettegouche.
I’ve never been on the spectators’ side in the Superior 100, and as I arrive at Tettegouche, the effort and sacrifice that my own crew has endured in years past becomes clear. Parking is hard and the aid station is crammed with people. I mean this in the best way possible – this is our running community after all – but, crowds!
Alex and I wait with Liv, Phil, Julie, Raph and Vera. It’s been a long day for the kids, and they’re doing great. Both of them are excited to see their dad, but are slowly succumbing to the fatigue. Raph befriends a neighboring spectator who, together, spend the next hour playing with rocks. It’s fun to be here, and know that Rolf is doing so well.
Rolf pops into the aid station pretty much on schedule. He’s on a sustainable pace, and is beaming when he gets in. He says he’s eating, drinking, and generally feeling positive. 35 miles into the race, this is fantastic! Alex asks him how his feet feel, to which he replies “okay”. Alex demands he remove his shoes and fix them, which is a good idea, even if it’s pre-emptive. I strip Rolf’s shoes and socks and clean his feet with a wet wipe from the aid station. I apply some Tincture of Benzoin and we wait impatiently for it to dry. I wrap both of his heels in tape and carefully replace his socks and shoes. It’s an investment of 10 minutes, but one that will hopefully pay dividends in the middle miles. We kick him out, and he trots down the trail happily. He’ll be at County Road 6 in no time! I’ll see him at Finland, which is my next stop.
When I arrive at Finland, the front of the pack has already come and gone. A few front-runners are trickling through, but it’s otherwise quiet. I fill my water bottle and sit in my car. I work on my prototype RSR app for an hour or so before attempting to get some sleep. Rolf should be here by 10:30pm, so I pull out my sleeping bag, set my alarm for 10pm, and try to get some sleep. I drift in and out, but my phone dings loudly with two texts from Alex. He should be asleep. I read them and my heart sinks.
It had never occurred to me that he’d find trouble on his way to County Road 6. He looked amazing at Tettegouche. By the time I read this, I figure that it’s too late to offer help. I’m unprepared, half-asleep in my car and tracking had him into the aid station 10 minutes ago already. The best I can do is be here and ready when he arrives.
I text Liv.
My new calculations put Rolf here around 12:30pm, so I try unsuccessfully to get some more sleep. I’m way to spooled up now to sleep, and I give up trying. I get all my gear on and stand at the aid station. I have two more hours before Rolf will be here, but it feels good to be ready just in case. I meet some nice people from St. Cloud who offer me a spot by the fire. It feels great on this cold, damp night. My car says 44F.
A headlamp in the distance approaches. This has got to be him. It’s not.
Now, a pair of headlamps. It’s him, and he’s not alone! The couple approaches. It’s not him.
I am blistering with anticipation, worry, anxiousness, empathy, grief and hope. I think back to the deal I made with Rolf: If you can get to Finland, I can get you to the finish. All of this seems jeopardized now. I haven’t had an update in over two and half hours.
A headlamp with a red jacket moves briskly across the baseball fields that welcome runners to Finland. I know that jacket. It is him!
“ROLF!” I scream across the darkness.
“Hey buddy!” a friendly voice replies.
He looks good! He’s moving! He’s happy! I can’t quite rectify this with the messages I’d received earlier, but he’s vertical and capable of motion, so whatever his state, we will persist. We will finish!
We sit by the fire as I bring Rolf soup and quesadillas. He’s downing aid station food as fast as I can bring it. (I would later learn he hadn’t eaten in over two hours when got into Finland, so I’m glad I put as many noodles as I could into him.) After a short break to warm up by the fire, we are out an on our way to Sonju.
The first hour, we’re moving nicely in an aggressive hike. Rolf fills me in on the details of his race, his episode before County Road 6, and his current state. His illness seems to be behind him, but it’s left him with a strong aversion to running food. He can’t eat any of the food he has on him, and without any new calories since Finland, our pace drops after an hour. There are still 5 miles to Sonju, and we are grinding them out. Conversation is slow, but we do some singing. I tell Rolf that Peter’s been watching a video of Cmdr. Chris Hadfield sing Bowie on the ISS, and so we start singing that.
“Ground control to Major Tom!”
It is so clear that I have to get him to eat! I am offering everything I have, none of which he’s taking. I finally get him to eat a bite of a shot block, which he does only to please me. I know I have to get his engine going again, and food will be the key. I will start him slow with small amounts and ramp him up slowly. By the time we reach Sonju, he’s eaten perhaps 50 calories. It’s not much, but it’s progress.
We reach Sonju and see our good friend Anne. I tell Anne I need a to-go bag of aid station food, because it’s the only thing he’ll eat. She fills a bag full of tortillas and hamburgers. Rolf packs away the calories here while sitting by the fire. It completely refreshes him, and as we leave the aid station, a new song is booming.
“Ground control to Major Tom!”
It’s a good sign.
With our new energy, we begin chatting again, and Rolf begins talking about race goals.
“I really want to get to Marathon start before 8am. I really want that energy.”
I glance at my watch. It’s nearly 3am, and we would have only 5 hours to cover just under 20 miles. At our current pace, there is no chance of this happening.
“Yeah man, we can do it!” I reply, simultaneously feeling bad for lying, proud for encouraging, and sad that we won’t get there.
We ride Rolf’s high for the next two miles before we plunge back into our nutritional reality. This time, at least, we have real food. I pull a quesadilla out of his to-go bag. I estimate there’s perhaps 75 calories in that little wedge he’s nibbling on, but that’s 25 more than the last thing he ate while moving. Progress. By the time we cover the 4mi to Crosby, it feels like 10. It’s less than 40F at this point, and I am freezing, despite my arm warmers, t-shirt, long sleeve t-shirt, windbreaker, hat and gloves. We are moving so slowly, I’m having trouble keeping warm. I try to conceal this from Rolf because I don’t want him to worry about me. I run up the trail and run in place for a while. I don’t do a good job.
“I’m not doing too good here buddy.” Rolf says.
I offer reassurance and hope, just as we pop onto the road to Crosby. Rolf tells me for the second time that there should be pizza here. I’m glad he’s hungry. We hike up the hill and get settled by the fire to warm up, and eat more. Rolf eats a piece of bacon and I can see his sprits lift. He’s smiling, and definitely on another high from the aid stations. He’s covered roughly 18 miles since his stomach trouble, and he’s definitely recovering. However, it’s also 5:30 in the morning and he’s been up for 24hrs. What energy he’s getting from the food is being robbed by general fatigue.
There is no pizza. We push forward.
The sun is coming up as we get to the bottom of the Manitou river gorge. I want us to be getting out of this section now, not getting into it. We’re not in the best shape, and this is one of the most difficult sections on the course. I’m feeling frustrated, but I remind myself that, as Liv said, “Reid is the adult”. I don’t get to feel frustrated today, because today isn’t about me. My only responsibility is to Rolf, and so I keep all of this from him and do my best to project positivity.
“I don’t think we’re going to get to Marathon start by 8am.” Rolf says.
“Yeah, probably not. No worries though. We just need to keep moving and we’ll get there soon!” I reply.
Rolf’s mood is steadily flat as we push through the climbs of this section, which I think is a good thing. No emotional highs and lows, he’s just heads-down grinding it out. His pace is slow, but he never stops moving. I am impressed by this, and I think this is what will get him through. If he can just keep moving like this, he’ll finish. Conversation is, as it has been, light. What little there is consists of course geography and miles remaining until Sugarloaf. Rolf doesn’t know it, but Liv will be there. I don’t tell him because she wasn’t positive she’d make it, but it’ll be a nice surprise if she does.
“How far until the aid station?” he asks.
“2.4mi or so I think.” I reply.
“I need to get out of here. This needs to end.” he says. I agree.
Rolf is totally done with this section, and the finish never seems to get closer for him. A combination of fatigue and anticipation is making tenths of miles feel like tens. I feel the grind of this section, and I’m barely 20 miles into my day. Rolf says his ankles hurt and I offer him some Advil. I tell him how this was a game changer for Alex in 2015.
“I read an article that says it’s bad for your kidneys.” Rolf says, out of breath from a quick climb.
He continues saying something, but I don’t hear it because I’m too busy parsing that statement.
“Is it?” I think silently to myself. “What’s the source of that?” “Alex took them. I’ve taken them. You don’t need kidneys when you have a finisher’s sweatshirt. Do you? Why are we worrying about this? Take the damn Advil!“
24hrs on your feet is no time to be debating pharmacological choices, so I let it go.
“I have it if you need it.” I say and let the issue rest. He should take it.
Still though, through his pain, Rolf is moving forward and eventually we cross the covered bridge that signals a mile remaining and get into the aid station. Liv is there, and Rolf is rejuvenated. I can physically see his spirits lift while he’s with his family. Every aid station has been a huge boost for him, and this one is no different. We are there roughly an hour before the cutoffs and it feels like we have plenty of time. We’re not moving fast, but we are moving.
We say goodbye, get hugs, and head back on to the trail. Only 7 miles until marathon start, and I’m sure that if we can hold this pace, we can even make time on the cutoffs. After the low of Crosby, it feels like we’ve turned a corner. A new day is here, and we leave behind whatever negativity the night brought. We’re moving. We’re positive. We’re finishing.
Our journey to Cramer is more heads down grinding. I am continuing my planned pacing strategy that I’ve been using all day. Set the pace I want him to go, if he falls behind, stop and wait. It means we spend a lot of time apart on the trail, but Liv’s words “Reid is the adult” continue ringing in my ears. If his pacer goes his pace, he’s got no hope. Through this section, Rolf is relentless. Even after the aid station high wears off, he’s got more energy than he had previously. He is eating! We’ve gotten enough food in him by this point that he’s now taking care of himself and I don’t have to worry much about it anymore. His good nutrition contributes to a steadfast, albeit slow, pace. He never stops moving (a quick morning break on a log, far from the trail excepted).
Rolf has been watching the miles accumulate continuously on his watch, something which I cannot fathom. I’ve built strategies around avoiding the true mileage of this race, treating it as I would the sun, and observing it only indirectly. Rolf stares at it directly.
“Only a marathon to go!” He says as we arrive at Cramer Road.
Rolf sits and I check the cutoffs. We’re now only 45 minutes ahead of them, and I’m starting to become aware of their looming presence. What was once a distant threat, has become a gathering storm and we need to clear its path. As we’re refueling, Alex arrives and greets Rolf with the energy of a hundred men. There’s no crew here for Rolf, but Alex’s enthusiasm makes an ample substitution. Once again, his spirits are buoyed and we set off with happy hearts, full bellies and all due haste to get to Temperance by 4pm. I estimate we’ll be there by 3:30pm, so as long as Rolf keeps moving.
Rolf’s relentlessness in this section is again on display as we grind out the 7 miles to the aid station. I begin to understand that, though his pace is slow, his will finish this because of his ability to simply persist. He just doesn’t stop. Every time I lose him around a corner, or at the bottom of a hill, he’s always right there just a few steps behind, the steady clicking of his poles a metaphor for his grit.
Temperance is a chameleon; its geography changing to suit your mood. If you hate flats, it’s flat. If you hate climbing, it’s steep. If you are tired, it’s long. Today, it’s long. Rolf is consistent, and we’re moving, but with the added pressure of the cutoffs at our heels, the miles once again drip by. Rolf and I are, once again, heads down grinding it out, with only minimal conversation. I am feeling small flashes of cramps on my inner thigh and I know we don’t have time to stop. If I lock up, he will have to move forward alone. I will not allow him to lose time because of me. I wonder if Phil could be ready sooner. I hope I don’t need to ask.
We arrive at Temperance approximately 30 minutes ahead of the cutoffs and I am relieved to have this margin. However, we have to make haste and get back on the trail. Rolf and I both eat pancakes with bacon and Nutella on them – likely 500 calories down in approximately 4 bites. As Rolf enjoys his pancake, I feel happy for how far he’s come in this race. 40 miles earlier he was sitting on a log, praying for a miracle. Now, he’s here, effortlessly downing hazlenut flavored calories by the hundred. By now, I am sure he can finish this, but we have absolutely no time to spare. It’s only 5.7miles to Sawbill, and a lot of that is climbing up and over Carlton Peak. Some of our fastest paces all day have been when climbing, so I’m optimistic we can make up some time — even 5 minutes could make the difference. We need to get to Sawbill by 5:40pm, and we have roughly 2 hours to get there. Our momentum is building, and Rolf can now assemble in his mind all the remaining pieces to finish. Up and over Carlton, meet Phil, get to Liv, get to the finish.
As we leave Temperance I, once again, offer Rolf some Advil or Tylenol. Much to my surprise, he jumps at it and takes two 500mg Tylenol capsules. I wonder what has flipped his perspective, but I don’t ask. We continue down the river, cross the bridge and begin our switchback journey up the “foothills” of Carlton.
Perhaps 30 minutes after Rolf takes the Tylenol, I notice I’m no longer leading him by much distance. He’s right behind me now, and even begins chatting again.
“I’m feeling really good.”
“Awesome! Our pace has picked up. Let’s keep this going up and over Carlton.” I reply.
“I think I want to try running.” Rolf says.
“Don’t do anything that’ll cost you points in the long game. We need to maximize net time, not section time.” I caution.
“I think I’m good.”
I don’t know exactly what to do. Rolf is 85+ miles into this, wanting to run. I don’t want to allow this, because it seems any possible upside in pace would be outweighed by the potential risk of tripping, cramping, or fatigue. However, there is also a sweep crew who is probably only 30 minutes behind, and I do not want to meet them.
Reluctantly, I say, “Alright, let’s do it.”
We start running and it feels amazing. I feel fresh, and the new pace seems blisteringly fast. We pause only to walk up the steep sections, and run everything else. We pass one group, then another, then Kevin Langton who shouts
“What happened?? Did you guys find some cocaine?”
“We found his reserve tank!” I yell back from up the trail.
Indeed we had found his reserve tank! We keep up our new running pace for the duration of the climb, stopping only when the grade requires, and make quick work of the scramble up and over the peak. As we descend, I am calculating cutoffs in my head and realize that we will easily make the 5:40pm cutoff at Sawbill. In fact, we’ll be there around 5:15 or so. I start planning. I know the next section is runnable, and he has a very fast pacer, Phil, going out with him in the next section. If Phil can keep him moving at that pace, and maybe pick up another 5 minutes, he’d have time to play with as he navigates the Oberg stretch to the finish.
We’re only a mile out from Sawbill, and from behind Rolf starts saying his goodbyes and thank yous. He tells me a lot of nice things that make me feel happy, but all I can think about is getting him into that aid station, and back out with Phil. With a half mile left to go, I leave Rolf and run hard down the trail to the aid station. I get there about 90 seconds ahead of Rolf, and it’s just enough time to fill everyone in on his status and get Phil ready. I tell Phil to push him, that he can take it, that he has more. I tell him he needs to be at least flat time-wise in this section, but they could try to pick up a minute or two because the section is so runnable. I give Phil what’s left of my Advil and Tylenol stash and tell him to offer again — clearly some pain relief had a transformational effect.
Rolf comes in to cheers, and before I know it, they’re back into the woods and my job is done. I went just under 40 miles with Rolf and spent roughly 17 hours with him on the trail. In that time, I saw a runner who struggled, who endured, and who persevered in the face of an enormous challenge.
Phil’s wife Julie offered me a ride back to Bluefin, which I reluctantly accepted because I had no towel upon which to rest this disgusting, dirty body. She graciously allowed me to sit, unguarded, on the leather seats of her brand new Subaru. We drive back to Bluefin where Liv is getting ready to go meet Rolf at Oberg. Julie agrees to, again, drive my dirty self back to Finland where I pick up my car. I’ve been up for 36 hours at this point, and probably shouldn’t drive, but make it back to Bluefin where I grab a shower and head to the finish line.
I find Alex’s parents and await his arrival. He crosses the line with Tanya around 8:30, and the line explodes in celebration.
“Where’s Rolf?” Alex asks.
“On Mystery!!” I reply, to which Alex seems puzzled.
“On Mystery!!” I say again.
Alex is excited. I tell him I’ve been texting with Liv and they’re maybe 30 minutes out. Liv is going to text me when they hit the bridge, and then the pavement.
Rolf’s name is announced and I lose my mind. I’ve been up for so long, that any social filter I’d have previously attached to my emotions are long gone. I just scream. I think I steal the first hug, forsaking his wife and children.
He did it! 23 minutes to spare.
Amazing job, Rolf!