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100 miles of gratitude at Hennepin Hundred

By Henry Howard

On the eve of my second 100-miler, the Hennepin Hundred, I pushed my dad in a wheelchair for the first time.

His mind is decimated by Alzheimer’s/dementia, which is now limiting his activity, thereby sapping his strength and energy.

When a parent ages quickly it’s a stark reminder of how little control we have, how limited our time is on this spinning globe and how important it is to make every day count.

The timing could not have been better.

BTTT advocacy

Why run 100 miles?

For anyone lining up at the start line, there must be a solid “why.” I want to keep redefining what’s possible for me. I want to explore new places. I want to delay the arrival of my own personal Father Time as long as possible.

My previous 100-miler, Rio Del Lago, was a struggle fest with 18,000 feet of climb in the beautiful mountains near Folsom, Calif. Hennepin, my qualifier for Western States this year, was on a flat canal path with just 1,000 feet of gain. Somewhat ironically, a few weeks before Rio Del Lago was when I received a call from my dad’s doctor, the first step on my journey with him and this awful disease.

It’s been years since we’ve been close, unlike the close bond that Travis and Mark Macy have as the latter battles the demons of Alzheimer’s. A part of my experience with this disease, I have become a stronger advocate for Bigger Than The Trail (BTTT), a nonprofit dedicated to providing mental-health resources via trail running for those who need assistance.

In the 20 days leading up to race day, I sought to get 20 donors from friends and family members. Overall, 23 people donated more than $1,100 in that time frame that will provide seven months of counseling. (There is still time to donate. Please consider a contribution and visit this page.) BTTT founder Tommy Bryne kindly offered up a prize to a donor who was picked at random after I completed Hennepin. Congratulations to Mitch Goldstein!

Let’s keep shining the light on mental wellness.

Race day

The 100-milers had an option to take a bus to the start line or be shuttled their by their crew, family or friends. My crew and I made the hour-long drive from our hotel to Sterling, after my standard pre-race meal of peanut butter and banana on gluten-free bread.

We had plotted out a solid strategy, subject to change, of course. And my gear was packed. With the weather forecast calling for a 50 percent chance of rain and possible thunderstorms, I was ready with multiple running outfits, three pairs of shoes and socks, two rain jackets and more.

It lightly rained twice for about five minutes each time.

After walking to the start line and getting my ankle timing chip, it was almost go time. Loaded up with Honey Stinger gluten-free waffles, gels and chews, as well as water in my UltrAspire handheld and plenty of adrenaline, I was ready.

We started on a nice sidewalk path near the canal, a familiar site for the next 100 miles. After a brief tour around some residential neighborhoods, we hit the canal trail, heading south.

A couple of miles in, I felt a pain in my foot where I had been dealing with an injury for months. It soon dawned on me that perhaps my shoe was tied too tight. I stopped at the first aid station, where I quickly retied it and it never bothered me again. (Lesson for long distance runners: fix any issue immediately, otherwise it might cost you more time later.)

That was about the time runners were greeted by a trio of sisters in kayaks cheering us on. There were many long stretches of solitude or occasional chats with other runners, but it was always nice to see the amazing support from aid station volunteers and local residents in some places.

The first time I met up with my crew was the aid station around mile 23, which I hit a bit earlier than my four-hour projection. They did a great job, refueling me, updating me on the weather and more. I would see them again in nine miles, where things would take a turn.

A low point

On my way to the mile 32 aid station, the midday heat began to take its toll. The pre-race predictions of a wet run never materialized. Instead, temperatures hit around 80 as the sun made it feel even hotter on an October day when the average high was 60 and the low around 40.

My crew helped me get in calories, rehydrate and cool off. A plant-based yogurt helped settle my stomach and get in some easily digestible calories. As planned, I also had a couple of gluten-free tortillas with avocado spread.

In such long distances, there is always a low point that runners need to work out of. After eight minutes at the aid station, it was time to head out again.

I saw my crew briefly again six miles later, after my pace slowed to 12-minute miles. It was almost 2 p.m., basically the hottest point of the day and I was still feeling it. I took in water and Coke, and tried desperately to push out the demons that were urging me to quit. But there would be no quitting today.

At the mile 44 aid station, it was another eight-minute stop but one that thrust me on my way back to feeling better. Water, Powerade and watermelon were the key ingredients. Plus an ice bandana that helped cool my body down around 3 p.m.

The low point had passed and the rest of the race was a combination of running, walking, refueling and finding joy. I pushed ahead, one foot in front of the other. The consistency was noted by another runner, Joshua Holmes, who told me during and after the race, “You are/were the most consistent runner I saw on the course.”

The finish

I picked up my first pacer at the mile 63 aid station. Paul Grzemski and Brandon Seaver traded off 6-ish mile runs, then a half marathon and a 12-mile run to the finish.

There were no significant obstacles other than being tired in the final 40ish miles. Both my pacers did exceptionally well, keeping me going. If I could change one thing about the race it would have been the amount of walking I did between mile 60 and 96.

With four miles to go, I told Brandon I wanted to walk the first two-tenths of each mile, then run to the next glorious beep on my watch, indicating I was one mile closer. We averaged around 13-minute miles during that final stretch.

One of my athletes was doing her first ultra, the 50K, at this race. While we had talked about her greeting me at the finish line, I knew that would be a big ask. The 50K started at 5 p.m., and given my projected finishing time for her, it would be quite a long wait for me. While I was hopeful to see her, I would totally understand if she chose sleep over a brief meetup.

As the lights of the finish line illuminated me in the final stretch, I saw Cameran, my athlete, on the sideline. A quick hand embrace and warm smile, and I continued to the finish line with a huge feeling of accomplishment.

Official result: 21:49:30, 24th overall, 16th male and first in age group. Of the 250 or so runners that began the journey from Sterling to Colona, only 135 finished. Fifty-four of those runners achieved the sub-24 and earned the “big buckle.”

At the finish line, it was all smiles.

And not just for me. I immediately asked Cameran about her race. She not only became an ultra runner, but she finished as third-place woman and 10th overall.

Now, that my friends, is an epic day of celebration.

Gratitude for pacers/crew

The aid stations were no further than 6.5 miles apart and I probably could have used them and drop bags to make it through. However, my crew were instrumental in getting me through the race, especially the rough patch early on and the late miles when walking became a temptations. It’s also noteworthy that they came up with the ice bandana idea, which I don’t know if I would have figured out on my own.

And, while she was not part of my crew, it absolutely made my day to see Cameran at the finish line and learn of her successful race. She is a joy to coach and inspires me.

Gratitude for the RD and volunteers

This is the first race experience with Ornery Mule Racing (OMR), and I hope it won’t be the last. Race director Michele Hartwig puts together an awesome race from easy packet pickup to a well-marked course to a fun finish line celebration.

And, in between, all of the aid station volunteers totally rocked it. One of the keys to my nutrition during the race was the vegan and gluten-free veggie broth. I don’t know if I’ve ever had so much broth in a 24-hour period. The 50-mile turnaround aid station also had gluten-free tacos. Although I did not end up stopping there, I appreciate the efforts to have foods available for vegans and Celiacs, like me.

Right now, I don’t have a 100-miler on the calendar for 2022. But when I contemplate one, I will certainly look for options put on by Michele and her OMR team.

Gratitude for my supporters

InsideTracker: My regular blood draws from InsideTracker give me easy-to-understand scores, feedback and recommendations. I recently did a test before my 100-mile training and another at the peak. The results were really interesting and a testament as to why I use science and data to gauge my training, fitness and nutrition.

Coros Global: I had used a well-known watch for years but am so am so glad I started with a Coros Apex in 2018. Its battery life is incredible, it’s easy to sync workouts and the data is incredible. My Apex was with me every step of the way at Hennepin, and back to the hotel, as I neglected to save my run at the finish. In any case, it still had 30 percent battery life left when I finished.

Odlo: The European-based company has made sustainability long before it was cool. Speaking of cool, their amazing technology kept me as cool as possible during the heat of the day at Hennepin. I wore their hat and briefs throughout, and one of their shirts during the race.

Honey Stinger: Based in Colorado, Honey Stinger is a leader in the endurance sports fueling industry. I used their gluten-free waffles, gels and chews throughout the race.

Gnarly Nutrition: This Utah company creates nutritional products by athletes for athletes. Here is why Gnarly is much better than an overhyped product that uses lesser quality ingredients. At the finish line, my only real food request was for Gnarly’s vegan protein mix.

UltrAspire: The Utah-based company's tagline, "Inspired by athletes" is an apt description of its philosophy and its approach to creating gear for endurance athletes. While I brought an UltrAspire vest, I didn’t need it because the aid stations were so close. Instead, I carried my UltrAspire handheld bottle and waist lamp.

Squirrel's Nut Butter: The Flagstaff, Ariz.,- based company produces all-natural salves for endurance athletes that prevent chafing. I lubed my feet and other sensitive areas before and once during the race and came out of it without any blisters or chafing. The story of how SNB came to be is interesting and inspiring.

Prevail Botanicals: The Colorado-based company makes a CBD-based salve that provides relief to aches and pains that endurance athletes suffer. It’s been a key component of my recovery.


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