*Lacey is a 2019 Merrell and Trail Sisters Trail Run Adventure Grant Awardee.
On day one in the dark of the early morning, I stood with my husband, Nate at the Southern Terminus of the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT). As I straddled the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, I started my GPS watch and satellite tracker and took the first step toward the 310 miles to Canada.
I’m not entirely sure what it was that initially drew me to wanting to attempt the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on the Superior Hiking Trail. Maybe it was because no woman had done it yet, and I wanted to show that a woman could do it. Maybe I needed a challenge that bordered on impossible. Maybe I wanted to prove to the world and myself that you can be a 38-year-old, stay-at-home mom and still be a badass. Maybe it was all of those reasons and ones that I still don’t fully understand and can’t express even now. The “why” has evolved and matured over time. But whatever it was, it took hold of me and had me committed to it like no other goal I’ve had in the past.
As the sun came up transitioning the sky from black to rosy pink, I crossed a beautiful river. I paused at the bridge to take in the golden light dancing off the water. The thought of handmade pastries from our local coffee shop awaiting me at our first crew stop snapped me back. The plan was to meet Nate and eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at predetermined road crossings along the trail. In between, I was otherwise alone with nature.
Day one carried on much as I anticipated it would. I knew this part of the trail well as I had trained and raced my 50K here. In fact, I was familiar with probably 70% of the trail from training on it all summer long. I knew what areas had pine forests and what areas gave way to Aspens. I knew where the best views of the blue inland lakes were. I was intimate with the stretches of “janky stairs” and bog boardwalks. I knew what sections were going to challenge me physically and which ones would challenge me mentally. Not only had I trained on these trails, but I have spent years backpacking them as well. My kids grew up out here complaining about the weight of their packs and asking how far the campsite was and stopping every five minutes to ask if they could eat more trail mix. I’ve spent girls’ weekends, anniversaries, and birthdays on this trail. If I am honest, I probably feel more at home in these woods than I do at the address my mail goes to. Even though I was exploring unknown territory for my body, at least I was on familiar ground.
In the company of this old friend, my body and mind performed well. Even with the mindset of taking it easy and enjoying my time in the woods, I was still easily under my target pace. My soul was filled by the hours and miles with the dirt under my feet. I stayed in a really good mental space for the majority of the day. However, towards the evening I got hit by a short but cold rain shower. Compounded by being hangry all the while having minor route-finding issues, I let my emotions get the best of me. I got angry at the route for not being more clearly marked and angry at being cold and being caught in the rain and angry that I was letting myself get angry. I covered the mile I had left to the road crossing for dinner and arrived upset and cold. I think I even cried while I ate, letting myself feel those emotions as part of the experience.
However, I got myself back into focus after some warm soup and donning dry layers. I was ready to tackle the last few miles of the day. It was a section of trail that goes through the city of Duluth, MN. It crosses other trails and uses roads to connect segments of the trail. Knowing that this area had the potential to be difficult to route find, I had studied maps in preparation. It didn’t help that the trail was also poorly marked or not marked at all in places and it slowed me down quite a bit. I got frustrated and angry at the parts through town and was thankful to get back into the woods, albeit a bit behind schedule. Eventually, I got to the backpacking campsite Nate had hiked in to with our gear. I was discouraged that I had finished so late and I wouldn’t get as much rest as I wanted, but I was still on target, accomplishing the daily goal of 56.6 miles.
After a short night’s sleep, I crawled out of the tent at 5:30 am on day two. My body and mind felt great and were ready to repeat another long day. The day two mileage of trail was on one of the easier parts of the SHT. It is less technical and has much less elevation gain and loss. It was a great way to have an “easy” day to let my body continue to season and become accustomed to the reality of high-mile days. Despite never having traversed over 50 miles before, my legs felt relatively fresh, my mental game was mostly strong, and nutrition was going down with ease. I even had some sections of trail that felt so effortless to run, it was like those days that you long for as a runner. My training was paying off.
However, it wasn’t going to stay that way.
By mid-afternoon, I started to develop tightness in my left shin. It started out a manageable nuisance when I flexed my foot but continued to travel higher and higher until it settled about midway up my leg. The discomfort progressed and worsened to the point where I could only really power-hike because every step would elicit pain. I was still maintaining a pace of about three miles an hour. However, by evening I was slowed to limping and had to call Nate to come in and hike with me to keep my mind off of the pain. By the time I got to dinner, I was behind my target and in tears. We decided to go with our plan B of a shorter distance for day two, only four more miles to end the day.
It was dark, raining again, and I was in a lot of pain. Nate was an amazing support and did his best to rally me. He was able to get me back out on the trail and would meet me at our campsite. He said sending me back out that night was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. But, it was in those low moments when I carried on despite the adversity that I was the proudest of myself. It would have been so much easier to just quit, go back to the easy and comfortable, and say that I wasn’t enough and this goal was too big. I had an idea of where I thought I had drawn the line of my limitations. This is where the magic happens; when you see that line and cross it, realizing that you can do so much more than you gave yourself credit for. It was also when I was the most thankful for Nate’s unyielding support.
About a mile from the campsite, after traversing through swampy shin-deep mud, technical boulder descents, and root-strewn forest, I could no longer put any weight on my left leg. It was excruciating to do so. I tried everything in an effort to alleviate it enough to keep moving. I was putting so much pressure on my hiking poles I am surprised they didn’t snap. Nothing helped abate the deep-seated primal burn every time my left foot would even slightly load. In semi-panicked tears, I dialed Nate to come and help me. We hiked to the tent together, me with my arm and most of my weight on him, capping off day two at just over 48 miles.
Day three started in the dark. Having been off of my feet for an extended period of time helped immensely; the pain had subsided. I could once again move efficiently enough to maintain about three miles per hour to still obtain the FKT. I was determined to finish. Everything else felt fine, and I knew I could work through this setback. It would have been naive to think that I wouldn’t encounter misery in this journey. In fact, I wholeheartedly expected it. Oddly enough, that’s part of the allure; to stare suffering and affliction in the face and have the audacity to carry on. If it came easy, it wouldn’t mean anything. This is the definition of ultra running. This is why I showed up on day one and why I would continue until I couldn’t anymore. I had already come this far and was amazed at what I had accomplished. I wanted to see what more I was capable of.
I spent the day repeatedly scaling steep and technical accents to breathtaking views that would eventually steeply and technically descend. The elevation gain and loss wasn’t the difficult part; it was the rocky climbs and rooted trail that made this day’s mileage a challenge. Coupled with the nagging pain in my leg, it was a tough day. Still, I found myself energized and emotionally overcome by the beauty each time I would crest a climb and take in the wild scenery that stretched for miles. It gave me such deep gratitude to be out there. Hardship brings moments into clarity, and I found joy in things I might usually take for granted; moose tracks in the mud, the smell of cedar stands, and the wind and sun on my face.
Around lunchtime, I was following the contour of a river as the pain in my leg grew again. I was eight miles from the next road crossing and worried that I would get to the point where I couldn’t walk like the night before. Nate again hiked in to join me, and we made it back to the car. While I ate lunch, I put my feet up and hoped that a little rest would restore my body.
After sitting and getting a hot meal, I was able to get back out and somehow keep going. The difficulty of the trail coupled with the nagging discomfort in my leg and exhaustion were adding up. I was getting ever slower as each mile teased more pain out of my shin. We decided to just get as far as we could for day three. I was again faced with the borders of where my limits were. I was confident that if my leg could get better, I could finish. I was determined to keep going. By something short of a miracle, I actually closed out the day feeling great and moving much faster. The searing pain subsided to a dull ache that allowed me to at least efficiently hike. I rounded out a 25-mile day feeling optimistic that it was going to get better and I could get back on track.
Unfortunately, the morning of day four started bleakly. I lay in the cold tent begging Nate for a few more minutes of sleep because I didn’t want to get out of my warm sleeping bag. But the weepy protest was short-lived and turned to laughing as I made up a song about how putting on tight leggings while being in a mummy bag was a difficult endeavor. Sometimes you have to laugh at the absurdity as to not cry. As Nate taped up a couple of my blisters, we made the plan to just see how today went and make decisions as the day progressed. We were also meeting a couple of good friends who were going to help pace and crew, and the thought of their company was encouraging.
A few short miles after getting out of the tent, I climbed to the top of one of the most magnificent views on the trail just as the sun had broken the horizon. As I rounded a corner, a panorama of autumn-colored forest and the vastness of Lake Superior spread out before me. In the foreground was a couple packing up their tent. I quickly realized that it was our friends, Josh and April. Before I knew what was happening, I broke into tears and blurted out, “I am SOO glad to see you guys!” Sharing this kind of experience with loved ones was a feeling unmatched.
We laughed through our tears and hugged. It had been a really rough couple of days and I was amazed at how good it felt to see friends. Being able to hike with April made all the struggles from the days before melt away. I was still determined to get the whole trail done, even if I had to limp to the end. I was willing to face the pain and the hours of mentally dealing with it because everything else felt great. My muscles never tired. My energy levels were decent despite the lack of sleep. What I had endured over the last few days and over 100 miles had earned me new confidence in myself. I knew I had what it would take to finish this FKT.
But my shin had other plans. As April and I hiked, it became increasingly clear that something ominous was going on. I had barely made it four miles and was again slowed to a shuffle. I had eight miles to go until the next road crossing. The farther I hiked, the chances of completing the entire trail were fading. At best I was now only able to move at two miles an hour. I could not conceivably cover the 160+ miles I had left to be able to break the current overall FKT of six days, eight hours and 30 minutes. Even just simply finishing to establish the women’s speed record in any amount of time was no longer a viable option. Listening to my body and taking care of it were more important. I may have had the ability and will to finish, but stopping was the right thing to do.
Knowing when to stop is just as important as knowing when to keep going. Unlike any soft tissue injury that I have had that will usually get better over time and with movement, this would get exponentially more painful the more I was on it. It felt deep and structural and volatile like the slightest wrong movement would make it erupt beyond repair. It was a discomfort I hadn’t known before. Even though it was unfamiliar, it was a pain that my body just instinctively knew.
As much as I wanted to deny it, it was undoubtedly a tibial stress fracture.
As I sat in the company of my friends and husband, we decided to stop. After building a campfire and sharing a few pulls from a very welcomed flask, we toasted the accomplishment. I had made it 140 miles, just shy of halfway.
I am not the same person that started this adventure a year ago. I set out to see what my limits were, to learn about myself, and to hopefully inspire other women to do the same. And while I feel like I tested my limit, I don’t feel like I found it. I now know that I can do a lot more than I ever dreamed I could.
Being comfortable isn’t what life is about. It’s about allowing ourselves to break down our self-imposed barriers and to realize the potential of what we are capable of. It’s about exploring the space beyond where our brain tells us to stop. It’s about growing psychologically, emotionally, and even spiritually by crossing the boundary of easy.
I learned that I don’t have to be afraid of big goals with seemingly impossible success rates because having the courage to try is a success in and of itself.