Crusher Race Report

Sarah Pruss

Pre-race Dragging one’s spouse and children to the site of an ultramarathon is hit or miss. The kids were excited that the Rippling River Resort in Marquette, MI (home of the Marji Gesick 100, The Crusher, and the Polar Roll) had a pool. And my spouse was curiously concerned that I might die. Luckily, the Ericksens were along – a family steeped in 906 Adventure Team race glory (Steve has completed the Marji Gesick 100 MTB and, now, the Crusher 225). Between the Ericksen parents and their three high energy male children, my spouse and brood were preoccupied enough to forget about the possible me-dying thing.

On the Friday before the race, I checked in and checked gear. Tom, who had pre-run the course over a span of two days so that Todd could have his precious GPX file, was in charge of checking the runners in, checking their gear, and trying his best to give the runners an idea of what they would be facing. Tom was extremely helpful, having written the first ever run report on this course and also suggesting the Avenza maps app for navigation. He also gave excellent descriptions of the three race checkpoints, and the photos that would be required at the finish line.

Friday afternoon, Steve and I took the 4 pm shuttle to our base camps. The bus first dropped me off at Rippling River Resort in Michigamme, and then continued on to Trails End in Copper Harbor. Since both the 50 mile Crusher run and 225 mile Crusher bike are point to point races, racers are required to camp at base camp the night before the race.

Base camp was…uh…interesting. Having navigated a 3.5 mile section of the NCT from the McCormick trailhead out and then back two weeks prior, I had a pretty good idea of what I would be facing. There are three major challenges of The Crusher Ultra – insects, navigation, and the one that would prove to be my downfall, the entirely self-supported nature of the race. Originally, it was stated in race rules that outside support and support crew would not be allowed, but that rule was later relaxed. Trying to stay in the true spirit of the race, I told my husband not to crew, but that I would filter my own water and bring all my own food, carrying everything I needed on my own back. Ultimately, I ended up caving and accepting aid twice (well, three times if you count the lady picking blueberries on the side of the road) from race volunteers who were specifically looking after the runners.

After arriving at Maple Ridge Resort to an enthusiastic greeting from Bob (the owner), who I had already met once during my previous stay, and an enthusiastic goodbye from Steve, my teammate, I was feeling cautiously optimistic and went about setting up my campsite with a fairly peaceful feeling.

The other runners at base camp were extremely outgoing, social, and… confident. It was the last that threw me off. Didn’t they know what we would be facing? Did they realize how hard the navigation would be? Weren’t they worried about not finishing at all? Everyone was either working hard to keep a positive attitude or truly they were unconcerned. I was exhausted after a couple of days with both my kids and the Ericksen’s wild kids, and felt like I just couldn’t “do” the social interaction thing. Listening to everyone tick off their ultrarunning achievements and discuss their dreams of Marji glory in the Fall was too much for my thin-worn self-esteem. I decided to snuggle in my tent with a book instead, and felt alienated from the rest of my species.

The Crusher

Before the race it was decided that spouses and relatives would split into 5 groups, each carrying several runners to shuttle to the McCormick trailhead. The drive is about 25 minutes and we left at 4:45 am to make the 5:30 start time, along with a short pre-race briefing and roll call, and a group photo. GPS “spots” had been distributed the night before. I noticed immediately that I had the largest pack (Camelback Helena 20) and was the only one wearing full sleeved shirt and pants and the only one in bug netting. I knew the heat would be an issue, but I had also been on the trail long enough two weeks ago to know that I would be BOMBARDED by insects (mostly mosquitoes, but also some biting flies) the second I set foot on the trail. I assumed that everyone would have the same susceptibility, but later I revised that assumption. I’m not sure that everyone was swarmed the same way that I was. Most of the other runners were wearing their “normal” trail running race packs. I was truly amazed that everyone had the capacity for all the food and gear they needed in their trail running packs, as I had not been able to fit everything into mine (Nathan Vapor Howe) two weeks prior.

My strategy for the race had evolved over the course of a couple weeks of careful speculation and planning. I knew I needed to wear netting. The constant inhalation of insects and getting them in my eyes, mouth, and even breathing them in two weeks prior had led to a state of “panic running,” running constantly and without thought, leading me to miss trail cues and abandon what Tom had called earlier in the day “trail sense.” In the netting, I knew I would be able to slow down, run steady and look for trail cues, consult my navigation, and pace myself much better. Also, the times I would need to stop and filter water would be easier, with less risk of getting 100+ bites. I worried about the skin swelling (turned out to not be a false concern) and problems that might result medically if I just allowed myself to be bitten. Because I knew I would be moving slowly, and my main strategy of “don’t get bit and don’t get lost” would be different from the other runners, who had packed light, had no netting, and appeared to be much more athletic than I was, I knew I needed to let them go on ahead of me, stay behind on the trail, and go at my own pace. When the race started, that was exactly what I did. I noticed that everyone went to the left of the first downed tree on the trail instead of going right (which I had earlier found to be the much easier course) and started to feel confident in my plan, even wondering if I would ultimately overtake some of the other runners with my strategy.

The race did start in the dark. I had expected some light at 5:30 am, but it was at least one if not two hours before I could ditch my headlamp altogether. I worried that the loss of those two hours of battery life would be an issue for needing to charge my headlamp earlier than anticipated during the night, but there wasn’t much I could do, and I did have three backup lights and several of my 6 battery packs had bright LEDs, also. The forest is DENSE. The trees filter out a lot of light. This was fantastic for later in the day when it started to get sunny, but did make it harder to see. Dawn came slower and dusk came earlier.

After a couple hours of running it was clear to me that the other runners were very far ahead. There is a strange phenomenon in the forest where you are so alone and in your own head, and possibly even seeking human companionship, where the tinny buzz of mosquitoes and horseflies and the low baritone of “unh-un-ungh” from the bullfrogs starts to sound like human speech – a man and a woman having a conversation. Every time I thought I heard human voices I would listen carefully and realize they were far out of hearing distance. It did make me a little nervous.

The first 6-8 miles are navigated solely on GPS and trail sense. Trying to stay on the “red dots” of Avenza and the “green line” of my fenix 3’s navigation track. Finally, you reach a kiosk in the middle of the woods. After that, there are blue blazes to mark the NCT. One blaze indicates “Hey! Trail right here, lady!” Two blazes indicates to start looking for a turn or a steep uphill, and three blazes indicated a hairpin turn is about to occur, such as a switchback, etc. I had learned this from Tom the previous day and it was extremely helpful.

Around Mile 10, I became too confident navigating the blazes. As I rounded the plateau that looks down over Wildcat Canyon, and Wildcat Canyon creek, I saw a blue blaze up ahead and a trail feature – a log that had been sawed with steps and a rope to help you climb down. As it was directly in front of me and clearly part of the manmade trail, I climbed down and continued to follow blazes, never thinking to look BEHIND ME for a divergent trail. Why would I do that?? Why would I ever think to look behind me when there was clearly a marked trail ahead of me and pointing in the right direction!? So I went down the steps (managing to slide and bang up my leg pretty good on some rocks) and rounded a curve at the bottom. There I kept following blazes. Despite my new found confidence, after about an hour of following trail, I decided to check my location. I looked down at Avenza and realized I was back to the trail that I had already been on, headed the OPPOSITE WAY, away from the finish line. I wasn’t quite sure at that point how far I had backtracked, but I knew I was out of water, and had been hoping for a cleaner, faster moving water source ahead to filter. By the time I turned back around, the enormity of my mistake was slowly dawning on me. I had lost at least 2 if not 3 or 4 hours of time, and would now be very likely to miss the cutoff unless there was a way I could make up time elsewhere, and assuming I didn’t get lost again. I started looking frantically for a good water source. The only one I found was a muddy trickle of creek, but it was clear enough to see to the bottom and I was desperate. I stopped and filtered about a half liter, what I hoped would get me back to where I had backtracked and hopefully to a cleaner water source. Little did I know, I wouldn’t reach another water source until I made it all the way to the road and to the plain, where there was a water drop (Thank God) and two bottles still had not been completely emptied. I kept going forward, on trail that I had already navigated, the whole time trying not to lose my shit about having done all of this now THREE TIMES – two times forward and one time backwards. Finally I reached the plateau, the canyon, and the wooden steps. I pulled out Avenza, I turned all the way around to look behind me, and I finally saw the divergent trail. Bingo. I was headed in the right direction now.

From the start to around Mile 16.5, the race is on the technical terrain of the NCT. The first checkpoint is on a plain, where the trail dumps you onto a gravel road. Make no mistake, though you are no longer on a technical trail and navigation becomes an afterthought (you just follow the road for about some- ? miles), the bugs are still very bad. When I stopped to check my camelback (it was leaking badly after a water fill up at the stump, the first checkpoint), I was swarmed by mosquitoes, but now the biting flies were worse, since the sun was up and it was an open plain. I tried to push back the hood of the netting to get some air on my face, but I had to put it back up, the bugs were still much too thick. I met up with some of the 100 mile bike riders on the road. They were very nice. They gave me some salty snacks, and a tiny shot-sized vial of Maker’s Mark for chugging at the Forestville trailhead. They gave me their names which I tried hard to remember (Kevin? Mark? Ron?) and told me they would see me at basecamp. They helped me find the stump and we joked about snorkels.

At mile 26 or so, still on the road, I was charged by a pack of 5 dogs that came running down a driveway. They were barking and snarling, hackles up and teeth bared. Two of them were lunging at me. I have been charged by dogs before, but never so many, or so aggressively. My usual strategy of shouting loudly, waving my arms, and slowly backing away down the trail DID NOT WORK. I had to use my poles to hold them off, luckily the large pit bull who seemed to be the ringleader was actually afraid of the poles, just not afraid of me, unfortunately. A German Shepherd in the group kept trying to sneak around to my side, to get at me from that angle, while I held my poles crossed in front of me, inches away from the pit bull’s chest. When I took a pole away from the pit bull to hold it up in front the shepherd, the pit would inch closer. It was a good 5 minutes or so of terrified yelling, pole waving, and slowly backing down the road before a neighbor lady came out with her own German Shepherd and commanded her dog to chase these aggressive ones back to their house. Luckily all five dogs were afraid of the neighbor’s dog and hightailed it home right away. I was absurdly grateful, but still shaken. Adrenaline pumping, I took a few minutes to walk and calm down before I started jogging slowly again.

Around Mile 29, I saw a lady sitting in a lawnchair on the side of the road, picking what looked like berries into a coffee can. On closer inspection, I realized I was right! She was indeed picking wild blueberries growing along the road. They were incredibly plump and ripe. I started to snag a few and shove them up into my bug hood, when she offered me an entire handful from her can. Again absurdly grateful, I accepted them, thanked her, and felt a little better as I made my way down the road.

All this running on the flat had me very hot, but feeling somewhat better, as I was making decent time for as late in the race and as hot as I was. I started feeling hopeful that I might actually make the cutoff, despite my earlier 5-7 mile detour.

I made it to the second checkpoint, the Red Road sign. Took a few pictures hoping to capture what signage I was supposed to – there was a construction barrel and a spray painted tree – I wasn’t sure which was the right thing to photograph.

I checked for cell service later on down Red Rd and found that I had 2 bars of LTE. I took my phone out of airplane mode and texted my husband. Yes, he was watching me on trackleaders.com. Yes, he saw that I had gone backwards and detoured, losing precious time. Yes, I was ok. Yes, he would keep watching. Steve was still in the race and making good time. I told him I hoped to make it to Forestville around 5:30. My primary race goal was making it to Forestville by the cutoff. I put my phone back into airplane mode.

I met up with a truck on Red Rd – she had soda and water, and all sorts of food. She told me, when asked, that I was the last runner, and that I was two hours behind the runners in front of me. No hopes of catching them, but possibly still hopes of finishing. I got some water and coke from her, thanked her, and marched away. I was actually looking forward to getting off the road at this point. It was hot, sandy, and dusty, with no shade. AND I was in the bug suit, starting to get even hotter than I had been in the forest. I knew I would be slower in there, but hopefully I had made up enough time to stay steady, slow, and safe on the way back to Forestville? I knew the sun was starting to get lower in the sky by the time I picked up the trail into the woods again. I became hopeful, because here, much of the NCT was two track, easier to navigate and a wider swath. However, there were still some fierce, rocky climbs, and I was slowed down several times by the heat and the bug suit. I decided to try to take off all my netting when I saw the mosquitoes had thinned out a little. I thought that it might be worth the loss of time taking off the suit and that I could make it up by moving faster once my body temperature had cooled.

After about a mile with the bug suit off, I realized my mistake – the mosquitoes were getting thick again as dusk fell, and as I headed into wetter, grassier sections of trail. I had to stop and put the suit on again. After which, I filtered water out of the Little Garlic River at a really nice spot where the water was moving fast. It was cold, fresh, and really clean. I decided to fill up the entire 2.5 L pack, hoping that this water would get me through the night. Even though I knew I would be carrying this extra weight for a while, trying to filter water during the night seemed like a bad idea. I was just grateful that I was still thinking straight, even though I was discouragingly carrying a heavier pack, back in the bug suit again, itching my hands now, and miserable. Looking down at my hands, I realized as I had been on Red road and now filtering water, I had received MANY bites on the only part of my body constantly exposed during the entire race. They were puffy and swollen, and very uncomfortable. (photo is from the next day)

I looked forward to the night, still, as I hoped it would help cool me down. I worried about my headlamp’s ability to help me navigate, and ability to see the blazes on the trees.

As night fell, my spirits lifted. My headlamp, perched as it was on TOP of my hat (I usually put the lamp under the brim, but this was impossible with the bug hood going over my hat) perfectly illuminated the blazes! Now that I was in a better traversed section of trail, the blazes were not just sprayed on, either, they were screwed on and the screws glinted in the light of my headlamp. And so, I kept moving forward. Calculations had me making it to Forestville between 5:30am and 7:30 am, depending on what the terrain and navigability of the trail did further on in the race.

With about 13 miles left to go, finishing started to seem like a real possibility.

When I knew I was getting close to the Little Garlic River Headwaters Kiosk checkpoint (checkpoint #3/3), I started looking around. I heard the hum of traffic and guessed I was near a road. I saw the glow of a truck’s headlamps in the distance. As I got closer, I realized it was a truck. Tom got out, wearing his headlamp and smiling at me. He had come to check on me!

He offered me a stool to sit on, and pretty much any food I could have asked for! It was now the middle of the night, around 1 am, and I was feeling kind of optimistic that if the upcoming trail was easy, I might be able to make it in time. Even if I didn’t, it would still have been a good go, a good opportunity to train for Marji and really test myself. But I didn’t want to eat. I realized as I was refusing Tom’s offers of food that this was probably a bad thing. It was a sign that I had let myself become too dehydrated during the many searches for water and too hot, stifling as the bug suit was. I half-heartedly accepted a banana, knowing I had to force SOMETHING down, and some coke, which did make me feel a little better. I still had a lot of Little Garlic water (something deeply and darkly hysterical in me found this funny – that I was drinking “Garlic” water) and I didn’t want to add more weight to my pack when I was already so exhausted. I knew that I would be drinking less because my stomach was off. And I knew that I would finish dehydrated. But, I’ve pushed through it in 50 milers before, and I knew that, in a longer effort, it would be a more dicey move.

Tom showed me how to get across the bridge. Wearing his headlamp, he led me onto a grassy and unmarked section of trail, newly made and poorly “ridden in.” Without his guidance I would have wandered around that trailhead forever! Before we parted, Tom told me he would meet me at the next road crossing. He warned me about a section of trail ahead where one of the other runners had gotten off course. Apparently there were many trees cut down and some of the blazes were gone. I could see he was worried. I was worried, too. Losing the trail at this point could be costly to me – not just causing me to miss the cutoff, but if I was too mentally out of it, I might not be able to make it back at all. There are a million ways things can go wrong out there. You can get your foot caught in a branch and twist your leg. Get lost. Fall onto rocks and hit your legs and your head. Fall into water and lose supplies. I had done, or nearly done, all of these things so far on the trail. If just one more thing went wrong, or went wrong in a worse way, things could be really, really, really bad for me. Like lay down on the trail and go to sleep bad. Or drown in a river bad. Or break a leg bad. And I knew Tom was watching the GPS, but he wasn’t my dad or my husband. What if everyone failed me and I didn’t make it? Like, not in the DNF sense, but in the actually dead or broken sense? I had a new goal. Make it to Forestville alive and in one piece.

And that’s when I got lost inside the Beaver Dam.

At first, all that happened was that I lost the blazes. True to Tom’s word, many trees were cut – haphazardly and laying across the ground. Why would loggers leave trees all over the ground? It didn’t make sense. Of course it doesn’t make sense, you idiot. It wasn’t loggers it was f*cking beavers. Took me a while to figure it out – too long. As I looked at my GPS and at Avenza, I realized I was paralleling the trail – just to the North of it, but as I tried and tried and tried to work my way south to try to get to it, I kept running into debris – trees too high or thickly branched to cross. I kept having to just work my way around. At that point I figured if I at least stayed parallel to the trail, I was moving in the right direction, and would eventually find it if I kept pushing south and east.

And then, I put my foot in nothing. No, it wasn’t nothing. I was crotch deep in water. I had set my foot down over what I thought was just another downed tree. Turned out it was a tree, laid over many other trees, and water underneath in a seemingly limitless network of tangled tree rubble. Still wearing my headlamp, but not able to look directly down with it to see what my legs were doing, I pulled out my cell phone and turned on the flashlight, shining it directly down to discover that I was inside a beaver dam.

Then, my headlamp went out. Just… out. No warning, no dimming. I didn’t have enough limbs free to get out my pack and get a new headlamp, let alone charge the existing one, and now my only light source was in my hand (a hand I needed to climb out of the dam) and NOT TETHERED TO MY BODY IN ANY WAY. If the phone went into the dark, polluted waters of the dam, it was lost. And with it my only current light source. Pushing down the panic with the help of the foggy mental haze of dehydration, underfeeding, and mild heatstroke, I climbed onto my belly with my one free hand and one free leg, and wriggled like a fish until I was laying across the carpet of broken trees. Pulling myself across, carefully and painstakingly, I made it onto solid ground. Now, getting to the trail was easier, as I was on the correct side of the dam. When I saw the first blue blaze, my heart lurched with joy and I actually cried out with happiness. The noise actual startled me, being what it was, an animal sound – with nothing verbal about it at all. I took my pack off my back, plugged in the headlamp to charge it, and pulled out a 600 lumen handheld light. I slung my pack back on my back and started moving again.

I knew that when I saw Tom at the next road crossing, I was out. Too many close calls and knowing that I was no longer able to take care of my hydration and nutrition needs was a recipe for disaster. My instincts are better than that. I pulled out of the race at Mile 43. What, on my Garmin, was Mile 50 because of all my backtracking and beaver wanderings. The icing on the cake of my self-loathing was this: The news from Tom that the other 12 runners had all finished. Happy and in one piece. With varying mild degrees of insect bites and no serious injuries.

And, “That’s it.” I said to myself. I told myself that morning, and in the day following the Crusher that I was done. I would never attempt this race again. I even told Todd via DM on Facebook. I’m done. Never again. It was hard. It was dark. It was scary. It was just…dumb. I might even not do Marji, I told my friends. What’s the point. What if I fail again. What if I have to deal with these feelings of failure and self-loathing One. More. Time. I didn’t know if I could take it. My body hurt. My hands hurt. My feet hurt. My pride hurt. And my heart hurt.

And then, something happened. I was driving to work on Monday morning, and a song that I had listened to during the race came on my radio (Gregory Alan Isakov’s “All Shades of Blue” for those who still care and are still reading). And it occurred to me that I actually had enjoyed 90% of the Crusher. Ninety percent of the race I was having a blast. I have pictures on my phones of big frogs, tiny frogs, snakes, trees, river vistas. I have pictures of tiny snakes illuminated by my headlamp on the trail. Things that, at the time, I was overjoyed to see. I was exuberant to see them.

And then I started thinking… What if I had on less heavy clothing under the bug suit? What if my pack was a bit lighter and more suited to running? What if I had better knowledge of the trail, having already run it, and was able to make up more time during the daylight? What if I knew the trail so well that I wouldn’t get lost? Maybe I could finish? Maybe I could finish faster? Maybe… Maybe I could get it all back again.

And that’s what is so dangerous about these races. They appeal to our “death instinct.” That thing inside of us that reaches for the dark and unknown. The tortured parts of our soul that long to suffer.

So, I will see you all at Marji. And I will see you at the Crusher in 2020 – God and husband’s willing.

THE CRUSHER 2019

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