Thank you Chad. I was fortunate enough to complete the race this year, making this my 5th finish in eight attempts. The Arrowhead 135 is a self-supported winter ultramarathon where runners can compete on foot (running and walking), on fat-tire bikes or on cross-country skis. You must carry mandatory survival gear with you at all times (sleeping-bag, bivy sack, stove and fuel, extra clothing, food, water etc.) in a "pulk" sled, which on average weighs about 45 pounds when fully loaded. The race takes place annually the last week of January or the first week of February, starting in International Falls and finishes on the southwest shore of Lake Vermillion near Tower, MN. The race is held on the Arrowhead State Trail, a hilly, multi-use trail which is primarily used by and groomed for snowmobiles in the winter. There are three checkpoints over the 135 mile course where you must check-in and can refill water - you can also pickup your drop-bag with additional food for the second half of the race at the 75 mile checkpoint. Aside from the last couple of abnormally warm years, it has routinely gotten down to -20F during the race and I have experienced temperatures as cold as -38F. It is the most challenging footrace in Minnesota and one of the toughest ultra-distance events in the world.
I’ve read that this was the most difficult Arrowhead yet, as only 7 of the 42 runners finished. What made this year’s race particularly tough?
Some people have said this was the toughest year yet, I am not sure about that statement, but I guess this is a very individual thing. That being said, the finishers’ percentage was lower than the past few years. The way I see it, every time you compete in the Arrowhead 135 it feels like the toughest year - it chews you up and spits you out every time, that is just part of its charm. The additional challenge this year came as a result of warm temperatures coupled with a considerable amount of snow the first night. These conditions made it very difficult to stay dry and the 8 to 10 inches of new, heavy, wet snow provided very difficult footing for running or walking. I used this year’s race as a training run for the ITI350 and was holding back from the beginning, starting in last place. This paid off later in the race when things got tough. As a result of this conservative approach, I eventually moved up and finished in second place.
While impressive, this year’s Arrowhead was really just a “training run” for the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350, which you completed in early March. During the event you and your friend, Matt Long, covered 50 miles a day for 7 straight days. You guys agreed to stay together and walk the entire event, rather than racing it. Is it possible to briefly describe a week-long race?
This event in Alaska is something that I had been aiming to do for nearly a decade - besides its big brother, the full 1000 mile version (the entire Iditarod Trail), the 350 is considered by many to be the toughest ultra-race in the world. I had won a complimentary entry into the 2012 race by winning the 2011 Arrowhead 135, but by the time the race rolled around, life-stuff had gotten in the way and I was in no position to compete in the event. This year, things were different, preparation went really well and I was ready. I did the Tuscobia 150 and Arrowhead 135 as training leading up to ITI350 and toed the line feeling really good about it.
As you mentioned, Matt and I decided to stay together with the primary objectives being; 1) to not get lost and 2) to finish the race. So yes, we put racing out of our minds and just enjoyed the experience. The first days proved to be the toughest for me, then after about 100 miles, I was fully settled into the routine of traveling an average of 50 miles a day.
Doing this race is an incredible experience, if you look on a map, there are no roads, no cities (aside from a couple of remote lodges and a few native-villages) once you leave the start and head northwest into the interior of Alaska. You are self-sufficient over some of the most remote terrain anywhere in the world. Traveling safely through the wilderness with the skills you have developed over many years of training (winter camping, ultrarunning and racing) is a feeling that is hard to describe, it is both empowering and very humbling at the same time. There were moments of great hardship and moments of great joy - an event like this is like a can-opener, it cracks you open and you get to see what you are made of. The sights seen, feelings felt and experiences had are nearly impossible to articulate.
On Facebook you mentioned that you don’t throw the term “epic” around too much, but that you thought this event might earn that title from you. What was it that put this event over the top?
Yes, I did say that. I hear people use the word all the time... like, "That was the most epic 50K ever!". I am sure what is deemed "epic" is purely in the eye of the beholder and is informed by your personal limitations and life experiences and maybe I am just too damn desensitized, but after two decades of running, I had never called anything epic. But this one has earned that distinction. The vast distance, the remoteness, the difficulty of the terrain, the beauty, the camaraderie with the other competitors and the anchor that you must pull the entire way all conspire to create and unbelievably tough mental and physical challenge and an unforgettable experience.
What are some of your other favorite ultra/trail events?
This list has gotten very long over the years. I have run the oldest and biggest ultra in the USA (JFK), I have run the most hyped ultra that just about nobody will ever run (Copper Canyon), I have competed the double crossing of the Grand Canyon, a.k.a. R2R2R, and generally have been fortunate enough to get around and run some pretty awesome events. But I always come back home and prefer the events here in Minnesota. I think my two favorite trail races are the Half-Voyageur Trail Marathon (recently renamed the Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon) and the Voyageur 50 Mile Trail Race - these are two classic northern Minnesota trail races with tons of history. They are old-school, no-frills events and the courses are super challenging – running over really varied terrain, including single-track, double-track, service roads, gravel roads, bike paths and paved roads.
While you’re probably best known for your involvement in ultras, you’re not afraid to mix it up on the roads a little either. What are some of you favorite road events?
People are always shocked to hear this from me, but I have always loved road running and racing. They just don't always love me back! Hands down my favorite road races is the Paavo Nurmi Marathon in Hurley, Wisconsin. It’s an old-school, low-key, grind-it-out road marathon and is one of the oldest marathons in the country. The Ron Daws 25K and Twin Cities Marathon are a couple of my local favorites.
|John on the trails. (Photo by Todd Rowe)|
I have been active my whole life. Part of that I think comes by default. Growing up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, kids were just more active. When I was little, I traveled around my hometown far and wide; on big-wheels, bikes, skateboards and on foot. My sister was athletic and in cross-country - I can remember being 11 or so and borrowing some shiny, blue Nike running tights (they were so long I had to roll the legs up and the waist down) and went for my first few runs. In 6th grade I joined the Hastings Cross Country team but got kicked off a few weeks after joining for selling weed in school. I started running again around the age of 15, but never again on a school team. However, I ran my first race ever, the Twin Cities Marathon, about a year later, just after my 16th birthday.
Tough question, but it seems like a lot of people that are really good at extreme ultras, I’m thinking of Dean Karnazes, Pam Reed and Timothy Olson, have all battled drug problems in their past. And in the video you submitted for Adventure Minnesota Films, which you can see HERE, you mention dealing with drugs in your early teens. Do you think somehow the two are related, perhaps in terms of their ability to become addictive?
Yes I certainly do, but needless to say, the two are certainly not mutually exclusive. I have a lot of friends that I run with who have battled the same demons I have and by no means think it is a coincidence that they have gravitated towards running and ultras. Without getting too philosophical here, I believe running is natural. I also believe the life we are living in the 21st century is quite unnatural; whether it be our food, how we spend our days, our lack of physical activity, the amount of screen time we are exposed to, etc. Some people don't adjust well to modern life (they belong to a different time and place) then turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. As an addict, if you are fortunate enough to come out on the other side from your addiction, turning to running (and ultrarunning) is the next great escape (and is quite a bit healthier). But maybe its not an escape at all, maybe it is just returning us to what is natural, to what is at the core of our being and to what we should be doing as a species... being physical and moving forward.
You ran your first marathon at age 16. Did distance running “replace” the drugs problems you had?
I spent a lot of time in AA and NA meetings and seeking out help from other people that had experiences similar to mine. That was the key to getting clean and sober. That being said, running, weight-lifting and an active lifestyle were all an integral part of my recovery and continues to be to this day. I protect my recovery and running as if my life depends on it. That is why my focus, when it comes to running, has always been on longevity and consistency, over performance. To this day I still consciously hold back a little in training and racing because I don't want to get burnt-out or injured. If you are a obsessive-compulsive runner (like me), the hard part is not seeing how far or hard you can push yourself (that comes pretty natural). The key is in holding yourself back and making good decisions (just as a good coach is meant to do).
Now you talk about living the “straight edge”. What does that mean for you?
I throw the term around and ultimately I believe in the message, but really, the important piece of the message is that I am clean and sober - it is just a sexier term that does not seem to scare people off as much as other "recovery" lingo. I don't try to wear it on my sleeve, but I am not afraid of letting people know where I have come from. A big part of what I strive to do in life (and frequently fall short) is to help and be an example for others who are struggling with their own addictions, particularly young people (I got clean at a very young age). It is important to let younger people see that you can lead a good life, have fun, be different and kick some ass, sober. The Straight Edge counter-culture has been around since the early ‘80s and seems like it is something kids can relate to. I identify with it.
What other races do you have planned in 2013 and what are your goals?
Goal one is to recover from all the winter racing, having raced 635 miles in just over two months. Second, is to get back to a consistent training schedule and start with some sub-marathon distance road races early this summer. From there I have been putting some thoughts into when I might reach my 100th marathon or ultra. For some reason this goal has become more important to me the last few years. I think it is to pay homage to the hard-earned longevity I have had. I don't race just to race, but nevertheless it has become a goal. I just hit my 77th (marathon or ultra) at ITI and have been wondering if I can hit 100 by the end of 2014. After that I think I will be due for a year off from ultras so I can focus on some shorter road racing and maybe a fall marathon in 2015 to try to significantly improve my Marathon PR. We'll see though, I usually just go by feel and try to keep it low stress. I am ultimately just one of a million average recreational runners out there, so it has to be fun, otherwise there is little point.
What are your PRs?
This list seems kind of silly, since I do so many types of races, but here goes! Note: I’ve still never run a 5K or 1M race.
350M Self-Supported Winter Ultra = 7 Days 5 Hours 15 Minutes
150M Self-Supported Winter Ultra = 49:19:00
135M Self-Supported Winter Ultra = 40:32:00
100M Trail = 18:16:26
12 Hour Road = 85.5 Miles
70M Self-Supported Winter Ultra = 20:25:00
100K Trail = 12:45:07
100K Road = 8:08:47
50M Trail = 7:46:00
50M Road = 6:04:00
50K Trail = 3:58:00
Marathon Trail = 3:29:00
Marathon Road = 2:53:59
30K = 1:55:51
25K Road = 1:31:19
Half Marathon Trail = 1:34:47
Half Marathon Road = 1:17:30
10M Trail = 1:05:00
10M Road = 59:00
10K Road = 34:30
8K Road = 28:45
What are some of your favorite accomplishments?
Winning the final edition of the storied Edmund Fitzgerald 100K road race. My time (8:08:00) was not super-fast by historical Ed Fitz standards, but to have my name on that list of winners is awesome, an absolute honor and something that I am really proud of. The one thing that sticks out for me is that I actually started this race a few minutes late. It was super foggy that morning and my wife Cheri and I got turned around on our way to the start. We actually passed the runners in the car as we headed to the start-line! By the time I caught the lead pack I was out of breath and Dan from Thunder Bay took off pretty hard out of the lead pack. We ran about 1:05 or so for the first 10 miles, which was absolute suicide pace for me considering we had 52 miles to go. Apparently it was for Dan too as he eventually fell off the pace. I spent the last 10 miles of this race looking over my shoulder wondering who was coming, but ended up finishing about an hour in the lead.
Being the first person ever to finish the Arrowhead 135 on foot. I was in unchartered territory and it was a real battle to finish and get the win. I died a million deaths during that race. During the second half of the race, I encountered -20 to -25F and I only saw one other competitor and one volunteer the entire time.
Completing the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350.
My 25K PR, which I ran at Ron Daws. I was nowhere near the win, but felt great the entire time and was thrilled with my finish time of 1:31:19, averaging 5:53 pace. I should have been running a marathon that day.
Winning the Door County Fall 50M in 6:04. It was nearly the perfect race for me. Myself and two other guys went out really hard at this race covering the first 10 miles in 1:04 or so, we settled down after that but still hit the marathon mark in 2:58, I believe. The only negative during that race was at about 50K I hit a bad patch, which cost me the sub-6:00 finish. But I rallied, moved up from third place to first against very stout competition and got the win.
Putting up 85 miles at FANS 12 hour in 2010. I am still a couple of miles short of the course record, but hope to keep going back and trying until I get it some day.
What do you consider your strengths? Weaknesses?
My strength is my strength (both physically and mentally). Physically: I am barely 5'8" and weigh 165 lbs. For top-end-speed this is a liability and is probably why I have gravitated towards the longer distances. Having some mass has helped to keep me relatively injury free, has allowed me to train fairly high mileage and can be of real benefit in an ultra when you need a strong core and upper-body to push through the late, painful miles. Mentally: The challenges I face during a race are usually dwarfed by some of the challenges I have faced in life. This helps me to deal with the hardships that creep up late in races and I don't get rattled too often.
My greatest weakness is probably also a strength at times; stubbornness and single-minded focus. I often times get too wrapped up in work to train properly and vice-versa, I can get too wrapped up in training and loose focus on other things. Like all things in life, proper balance is required.
In addition to your own running, you’re heavily involved with the local ultra scene. What races do you currently direct and why do you think it’s so important to give back to the sport?
I am the race director for the Zumbro Endurance Run 100M, 50M & 17M, Superior "Spring" Trail Race 25K & 50K, Afton Trail Run 25K & 50K, Superior "Fall" Trail Race 100MI 50M & 26.2M and the Endless Summer Trail Run Series (various distance trail races from 5K to 7M). I originally got involved as a volunteer because I wanted to give back to the sport that had given so much to me. Since then I have taken over as Race Director for the above-mentioned races and I volunteer at several others throughout the year. As anyone who has been involved with putting on races knows, they do not happen without volunteer support. The economics of all but a handful of real high-profile events just simply don't work out and events rely on dedicated volunteers and sponsors to help make the events happen. Simply put, it takes a village, and without the village, we don't have the great events in our state that we do now. I have been very fortunate to work with really great people in making these races happen and have formed many lifelong friendships through this type of work.
|John from a familiar perch while he directs one of his many races. (Photo by Zach Pierce)|
I have been doing artwork, producing music, messing with photography and been involved with graphic design forever. I sometimes joke that I took over these races just so I can push my artwork on people! I get a lot of positive feedback and a lot of questions about the meaning of the artwork portrayed on the race shirts. The way I see it is this; How many shirts with the silhouette of a runner on it can you have? I like doing something way off the charts to get people thinking and guessing a bit - I think I have yet to put the image of a runner or even a date on any of my shirts. People usually think they are concert t-shirts or are club shirts from some kind of cult or something!
If people want to run one of your events or volunteer, what are the best ways to stay informed? Do you have a website or facebook page that people can follow?
Yep, each race that I direct has its own website and Facebook page easily found via a quick Google search. Links to all of the races can also be found at Rock Steady Running. Please support the local racing scene, whether it is one of the races I direct or one of the 100s of other great races in our state. We are lucky to have such a vibrant racing scene.
If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?