2020 Border Route Trailrun Report
The Border Route Trail - the big one, the beast, the trail to be conquered, my white whale. From my past writings you might have read I attempted this one last year but for anyone new to Running for the Boundary Waters a quick summary is: I attempted this run in 2019 but due to heat exhaustion from 91 degrees, a smashed toe, and trouble keeping food down with 9 miles to go I had to call it quits. For all the adversity, it was still a life changing experience, lessons learned to last a lifetime, and fueled a desire to get back to complete the trail.
This is also a critical component to my overall goal - running the Border Route Trail and the Kekekabic trails combined as one through run, the Boundary Waters Traverse, of 110 miles through the heart of the Boundary Waters. So, successfully ticking this trail off as part of the training, experience, and learning how to get through the brutal BRT with more energy left to then take on the Kek was a crucial goal. Thankfully everything went right this time. Most everything anyway, but good enough for a great finish!
The Border Route Trail is, as the name would imply, a hiking trail that follows the
U.S. - Canadian border. Approximately 65 miles in length with roughly 40 of the miles completely within the Wilderness border, it climbs an overall 12,000 feet in elevation gain and is a grueling constant grind of up and down scramble over rocks, roots, boulders, through mud and muck and over (sometimes under) fallen trees. But the payoffs are worth it. Vistas from 200-300 foot cliffs overlooking the wilderness and miles into Canada are unparalleled, particularly at sunrise and sunset. Wildlife such as moose, bears, deer, ruffed grouse, otters and eagles can all be spotted. And the lakes and rivers are so pure and pristine that you can drink straight from the source - and in fact I’ve never purified my water on all my time on this trail. It’s a backpack hiker’s dream and for this trail runner at least, a challenge harder but more rewarding than even the Superior 100 on the Superior Hiking Trail. (- some places hard to get to quote) definitely applies here.
Ok, so finally about this run!
2020 Border Route Trail Run
I started out at 6:30 pm. Experience from my last run was that given I was for sure going to be running for nearly 24 hours and would spend half that time in the dark no matter when I started, I figured I’d do the dark half first. I wanted to get through the dark portion on relatively fresh legs and it served as a way to slow my pace down in the beginning so I didn’t run too fast at first and exhaust myself too early. 6:30 pm was also timed perfectly to hit the 270 Outlook point at sunset from the eastern trail head. It’s a little under a mile there and was a rewarding way to take a pause at the beginning of the run to take in the sweeping views of the Superior National Forest before the sun went down.
The Magic of Darkness
Dark descended pretty quickly after the 270 outlook. Within a half hour I was running by headlamp and would for the next 11 hours. It’s counter intuitive, but running at night makes
it easier to find the trail. The headlamp is focused pretty much straight down in front of me and creates kind of a cone of light in a completely dark world. With no sunlight filtering through the trees casting shadows and catching the light of the leaves, it’s easier to see the worn path through the brush and branches encroaching on the path.
The tactic of running at night first also seemed to help for the duration of the run. For some reason I just can’t seem to pace myself to slow down appropriately at the beginning of long trail runs like this. We live outside the Minneapolis area where there are no hills and no off road trails of any real distance, so it’s hard to get into a consistent training pattern of running slower as if I were on a trail. Darkness forced me to slow down and by the end I was definitely thankful.
The thing I missed most during the dark were the expansive views over the palisades. Rather
than the sweeping views out over the Wilderness and into Canada, the overlooks by night were more akin to my headlamp shining off and disappearing into the abyss. The Wilderness already makes a person feel small amidst the vast landscape. Staring off a cliff into the depths of a black unknown is smallness amplified.
It is hard to fully describe the darkness of this run. It was a new moon and the sky was cloudy so there wasn’t even any star light filtering through. I would stop every 9 miles to eat, give my legs a short break, and assess how I was doing - change socks, shirt, get food ready for the next segment, etc. On one of these stops, shortly after midnight, I turned my headlamp off to get the immersive darkness feeling. The absolute dark enveloped me and felt like a thick, heavy blanket. I’ve never felt dark like this before. Other overnight runs have had the moon, or stars at least, but this night in the absence of any light was unlike anything I’ve experienced.
During this immersive dark was perhaps the most magical experience of the run. On top of the palisades between Clearwater and Mountain Lakes two loons on the lake 200 feet below me started calling out. Their signature wailing call echoing out across the expanse of the lakes and bouncing off the cliff walls pierced the darkness to a point they almost sounded like a pack of wolves. Loons hold special significance for our family, we’ve been watching a pair raise their chick all spring and summer near our cabin. As I write this,
“Puff” - the chick we’ve watched grow up all summer is now a fully grown adolescent loon marked by grey and white feathers and is on his own. The parents fly off middle/late September leaving the adolescents to gather together and fly south as a group. Here on this break around mile 21, in the middle of the night, their haunting calls echoing through the darkness around me I felt I was surrounded by a lifetime of friends and love from the Wilderness.
Things that go bump in the night…and Karma.
Things that go bump: 1) Me!
Just before midnight, I came across my first backpacking campers. They either got a late start and were settling in (my assumption because they were camped off trail, not in an official campsite) or they were just up late. Either way, I didn’t see them until their tent was in my cone of light and as I was about 10 feet from their tent passing them by I heard from inside “WHAT THE F*&K WAS THAT?!” This gave me a good laugh for the next few miles as I imagined myself being the next Boundary Waters legend of a near Bigfoot sighting!
Things that go bump: 2) Ruffed Grouse
I have a track record of grouse being less than welcoming on Boundary Waters Trail runs. This night being no exception. Grouse are notorious for waiting almost until you’re right on top of them when they explode in a fury of feathers and wings beating as they fly away to safety. Now, take that heart stopping moment and multiply it by a thousand when in the dead of night, a grouse roosting on a branch directly above the trail suddenly explodes and takes flight. I’m sure my heart skipped several beats and I nearly hit the ground as if I were being attacked from all sides by an invisible enemy. This happened 3 times during the night portion of the run and every time was as frightening as the last. Perhaps they were just trying to spike my adrenaline to keep me going for the next couple miles…or the Grouse King of the Sioux Hustler trail [link] was sending his regards.
Things that go bump: 3) Falling Trees
During one break as I was packing up and about to get back on the trail a giant tree an unknown distance behind me cracked and crashed to the ground. I’ve always wondered what the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” is for giant trees. What is the final stress that makes a tree fall? They can grow for centuries and stand dead for decades. Then in just a few seconds…down. In the overall lifespan of a tree, the moment when it comes crashing down, particularly for an old growth pine is a monumental moment in time, the end of an era. Some of these old growth pines have been around before the beginning of this country and seen by the original native peoples of this land. The forest of course is meant for this, an old tree becomes nutrients for the forest floor, habitat for its creatures, and opens up a spot in the canopy for the next tree to reach for the light. I feel lucky to witness in real time the natural evolution of the forest. And if a tree falls in the forest and you're there to hear it - yes it does make a sound...
Things that go bump: 4) Moose butt
My only large mammal sighting was a moose. And just its butt. As I’m lumbering along, crashing through the branches, stepping over rocks and roots, and disturbing the natural quiet of the Wilderness at night I scared up a few animals. More than once something crashed off through the woods next to me, but I couldn’t see it. The grouse explosions are obvious, but I also assume at least one was a deer. At one low lying spot along Clearwater Lake I probably woke up a sleeping moose that bolted off to my left. I turned just in time to see two very long legs and a moose butt fade into the dark behind me.
Things that go bump: 5) Me part two
Gogebic Lake floods over the trail. Last summer I couldn't find the trail and this year was
hoping maybe a dryer fall would have exposed the trail, but alas, around 3 am in the dead of night when I came across the section again there it was, covered in water. I assume backpackers more prepared for slogging through the water until they find the trail again but I wasn't about to wade through water I couldn't see for an unknown amount of time and in doing so permenatnly soak my shoes that I'd still have to run another 30 miles on. So, only option is to bushwhack around the flooded section - which at 3 am feels like a Blair Witch segment in the making. So, in the dead of night, in my cone of light surrounded by darkness, I pushed through the dense forest until I found the trail again.
A bit after the infamous climb up the Rose Lake switchbacks, as I was tired and exhausted, head down and moving along as best I could, to my right suddenly was a “Hey dude!” I didn’t see the backpacker or his tent, but his joyful shoutout caught me completely off guard and I shrieked a bit. I could hear him laughing to himself as I kept moving along - and balance was restored in the world.
The dirt naps
I’ve become a fan of the dirt nap. It’s akin to a power nap mid afternoon, or back in college days, just resting my head on the library table for a few minutes. It’s amazing what a quick 5 minutes can do to recharge the batteries. Twice in the dead of night I stopped quick for a dirt nap. I knew I’d probably pull over at some point but didn’t quite know exactly when was
a good time until around 2 am a fallen tree obscured the trail. To the right of the tree was a short path leading to an overlook, which at night is mostly a sudden loss of trail into a dark pit of nothingness. Unaware I was on a spur trail, the trail started to go down and went alongside a 15 foot rock shelf to my left. Ahead 10 feet was the edge of the palisade and after that…nothing. Startled into reality, I realized I was definitely not on the main trail any longer, pulled out my phone to check my gps dot, realized where I was and turned around. I found the trail again, after having to navigate around a giant fallen white pine and decided a rest was in order to keep myself alert.
A dirt nap is as exciting as it sounds. Lie down on the trail (or next to it) and get some shut-eye. Not wanting to close my eyes and wake up 4 hours later at dawn, I set an alarm and surprisingly quickly drifted off. 5 minutes is enough to feel a jolt of energy, not let my legs get too cold, allow my system to reset itself and be able to take in some food and get going again. The alarm blared, I woke up, ate a quick few bites and was on my way.
The trail by day with the views and the leaves
The Border Route Trail is probably best known for the views out over the 200-300 foot palisade cliff walls. The challenge of running/hiking up those is rewarded by sweeping views of the Wilderness and the best vantage points anywhere in Minnesota. It’s as close as we have to mountains here and worth every step getting there.
Fall in Minnesota makes these views even better. This run was just before peak leaf season, but we were pretty much there. The aspens were turning yellow, the maples were all orange and red, the alders a brilliant golden and the birches were still green but fading into more lime green territory. Really though the forest is a pine forest and while there’s the colors that are changing, they’re mostly as pockets surrounded by the dark greens of the red and white pines, cedars and spruce along the way. I was sad to have missed the views above Clearwater and Mountain Lakes, but Rove, Rose and Gunflint Lakes after dawn made up for them. The rest of the day’s journey was a painter’s palate of every color nature can provide.
The middle 30 miles of this trail is the most brutal with the constant up and down grind of the palisades, scramble along rocky trail and through mud in the lowlands. However, there is about a 3 mile section between Rove and Rose lakes that runs along a small river that serves
as the US Canadian border. These three miles are the only section of the entire trail that are actually “runnable.” It’s flat. Like for real - flat. And part of it is pretty well worn because it’s a portage between Rose and Daniels Lakes so well traveled. This is also where Donnie and I went for his first trail run this summer on our trip and I was looking forward to this moment the past 35 miles where I could text him from my GPS and let him know where I was because he’d know exactly what I was talking about!
I hit this spot around 8 am, so the day was still pretty young. The feeling of sunlight after an
all night run is invigorating and an energy source all to its own. I also was able to stop and watch three river otters playing and enjoying a morning swim. They’d make me out, bob their head up and down trying to decide what I was, ultimately deciding I wasn’t too much of a danger. They’d stick their head up out of the water, dive down, come back up a little ways off and slowly make their way toward me again until I had to keep moving along and left them behind.
When I got to Rose Lake I stopped at the portage landing where Donnie and I had been a few months earlier and threw a few rocks into the lake in his honor and moved on. Unfortunately, some other people were camped at our campsite from this summer (I was hoping to stop there for breakfast) so I moved on past and stopped along the lake to eat and enjoy the view. I also had to mentally prepare for the Rose Lake switchbacks. It was these switchbacks last year where I knew I wouldn’t finish. Having to dig in with my broken toe in order to climb pretty much straight up did the little guy in. This year however - no broken toe, better nutrition and gear planning and I was set to go.
After the climb (which I also love because the whole hillside is old growth white cedar stands and looks like climbing through Endor and I was just waiting for the Ewoks to run around the corner) and after the karmic revenge, I stopped for a bit at Rose Lake falls to refill my water, eat a bit and dangle my feet - now definitely feeling the 40 miles of rocky rooty trail - in the water and change socks. Refreshed after listening to the rush of the river coming out of Duncan and plunging 45 feet down to Rose Lake, I carried on.
Rose falls is about the 42nd mile and I knew I had about 10 more miles of serious climb/decent repetition ahead of me until the trail flattens out - relatively of course. The valleys between the palisades here were the best part of the run. By now it was fully daylight and the sun off the maples and aspens against the sky and pine forest was stunning. Two eagles soared level with where I was as I took in the view but again I had to move on.
The last segment
By the time I made it to Loon Lake Road, the spot I had to stop last year, I knew I was going
to finish. The thought of having gone 56 miles but feeling like I could keep moving forever put any fear or doubt that I couldn’t finish away. I had refilled my water at Loon Lake where last year at that time Brendan had met me and was escorting me with my broken toe and nothing in my stomach out. We sat at a bench along Loon Lake and stared at the stars. I was so depleted at that time I remember my eyes not able to even track the stars and they appeared to be dancing in the sky. This year I was in such better shape at the same time! Loon Lake Road was a planned pit stop - no water, but was going to serve as a checkpoint for me to assess if I had it in me to keep going. The trail weirdly scrambles over a boulder field seemingly out of nowhere before getting to the road - the first road crossing in 44 miles. Feeling the last 56 miles on my legs but knowing I could go on, I crossed the road and hit the last stretch.
This part is harder to follow than the rest of the trail. I had left the wilderness border behind and the trail now winds through a mixture of national forest and private lands. The trail is crossed by snowmobile trails, forest service logging roads, horse trails, ATV routes and ski trails. Thankfully the BRT Association has this section marked with flags and blazes on trees so it wasn't too challenging. Since this is a much more traveled section than any other part of the trail the path was relatively cleared, much fewer downed trees or thickets of bramble getting in the way. It winds itself along some Ridgeline overlooking Gunflint Lake and then heads toward Magnetic Rock - a giant 60 foot monolith left from the glacial age known for the magnetite in the rock which will confuse a traditional compass.
Magnetic Rock is about 3 miles to the end and the rush of finishing provided some late trail adrenaline and I was booking it at the end, my fastest pace for the entire trail of around 12 minute miles and I felt like I was flying.
The best part of finishing these runs is reuniting with my family. They’re always there, waiting after having followed my gps dot, this time for almost 24 hours. Erica was there with the camera to video my emergence from the woods, the kids cheering and clapping balloon sticks together and running up to give me a hug and a big congratulations.
I finished the Border Route Trail for a new Fastest Known Time for unsupported runs in 23 hours, 37 minutes and 25 seconds!
I’ve never gone on a run without promising I’d come back to Erica and the kiddos and when taking into account Wilderness survival - a lot of preparation and planning goes into these runs. Below is a lot of my thinking, gear, food, etc. And all of that after many many trial and error attempts at finding out what works for me. But of course every person and every run are different so before anyone undertakes a run like this do what you can to absolutely prepare and get ready - both physically and mentally.
The what-ifs - always be prepared
(Brand names listed below are when I definitely recommend that brand from my own experience. No sponsorship dollars paid for their mentions).
So much of trail running, particularly on a longer, solo 24 hour all day and night expedition is learning from previous runs, trial and error, and doing the best to be as prepared as you can day of.
I always bring some basic safety gear for runs through the wilderness. When you’re moving through 44 miles of wilderness and there’s no option but to keep moving forward it’s important to have a few potentially life saving essentials along with:
GPS tracker. Not only for people to follow along but for me to call out if I was in a desperate situation
Foil emergency blanket
Basic first aid. I can’t carry everything but I do carry bandaids, antiseptic cream, a small sewing kit (for stitches), Tylenol and Advil.
Paracord bracelet. I have a braided paracord bracelet that could unfold into approx 30 feet of rope - think for an arm or leg brace, tie the foil blanket down in a wind and rain storm, lasso a bear…well probably not that.
Imagine how hungry you are if you skip a meal. Now think how hungry you’d be if you fasted for 24 hours. And add on top of that also traveling by foot for 65 miles and climbing up Mt Everest. Food is important to say the least.
I’ve learned after so many trail runs what works for me at various distances and what doesn’t. Some unfortunate advice to bring oatmeal pies along, for example, has now led to a lifelong aversion to those. Guess that’s one way of learning.
For me, I can start my runs eating most anything for the first 20 miles. After that I have to start being more selective. I start usually with some thicker/denser foods. Rx Bars, PB&J sandwiches, Skratch Labs bars are mainstays for the earlier sections of the run. After that, I think it’s probably partially what my stomach can handle and partially a texture thing but I can’t chew through those items any longer. Forcing myself to eat them yields some unpleasant stomach issues making intaking any other foods worse off. Around this time I start craving a sense of real food, so I bring along strawberry and banana chips that I dehydrate ahead of time. Mango slices are great and if I have the room, clementines and apples. They’re heavy and bulky but worth it at mile 40 when the sweet tang of a clementine hits the spot and keeps me moving forward. At a certain point though the only thing that is quick and easy to eat is just candy. I still really like and need some strong flavors so Skittles usually fit well and I have prepacked baggies of roughly 200 calories of Skittles.
Water! And lots of it. The best part of running through the Boundary Waters is that of course
- there’s clean water everywhere! Any large lake and rivers connecting them are generally fair game to drink straight from. I’ve never filtered water on any of these runs. I fully realize this goes against what most health professionals would suggest, but at the same time - even in all our Boundary Waters trips and with our kids, we’ve only purified water maybe 2 or 3 times and that was only because our campsite was close to a beaver dam. On these trails - avoid beaver dam water and you’re good!
But I do also bring an assortment of electrolyte powders and powdered broth to mix into the water. My running packs have a 2L bladder that I usually have Skratch Labs (non-endorsed plug - I love their athletic drink mixes. They’re made with real ingredients, sugar, some are caffeinated, and taste really good) mixed into the water. I don’t have a set brand, but I try to also bring a mix that specifically has not just sodium but calcium and potassium in it as well. Our muscles and nerves need those to keep firing consistently. Trial and error, maybe a touch of placebo (the science at least makes sense at face value) but it works for me!
The last two items seem a bit odd but I swear by them. I bring powdered broth - veggie, chicken, beef…doesn’t matter - that I can mix with some water and down quickly. I bring a foldable silicone cup so I don’t have to mix that into my bladder. It also works great to use that to stop at a water source and down a few cups of water and not have to go through the pain of taking the pack apart and refilling the bladder.
And the final item - A1 sauce. Yes, really. There’s a theme of my needing strong flavors and A1 is definitely a strong flavor. It’s also basically liquid salt and replenishes the sodium I need. I carry a small squeezeable silicon bottle (wrapped in its own ziplock!) and always have that at the top of my pack. I know it sounds disgusting but try it sometime - around mile 50 and 20 hours straight you’ll crave a handful of skittles and a swig of A1 sauce too!
My gear list has evolved over time and I generally probably bring too much with. But with 65 miles overall with 44 miles of true Wilderness with no options but to make it to the other side and I’d rather have an extra dry pair of socks that I don’t end up using than not having them when I needed them.
Patagonia 14 Trails hiking pack. It’s a hiking pack - not a running pack to be sure. However given the amount of food I need and the time of year, I needed some changes of dry clothes for emergency, an extra jacket, and extra socks. That in addition to the first aid/safety stuff and food since this is a solo trip and I had to carry it all with me.
Patagonia Torrentshell jacket
Patagonia capilene hoodie
Running tights and running pants
Balega no-blister socks (and two extra pairs)
Petzl reactik+ headlamp and a waist light (2 angles of light cuts shadows down)