“Where are you headed?” a voice from the bedroom asked as I slowly and quietly slipped into my running shoes early one summer morning, so as to not wake anyone else in the cabin. Apparently, I had failed.
“Saukeye,” I mumbled back in a half asleep voice as I fumbled with the bug spray and my grandpa’s old baseball cap.
“SAUKEYE!” my dad responded – my lazy tone ineffectual in diminishing the task I now had verbally committed myself too.
The legendary “Saukeye” route – it has brought grown men to tears. Well, more like made grown men run for their lives to escape aggressive horse flies (more on that later), forced others to walk for parts because of the prolonged exposure to the sun and heat (more on that, too), and given everyone who has completed the loop a sense of satisfaction and desire to retrace the route in the future that is unexplainably more fervent than the average trail. In the process, it has become the ‘holy grail’ of running routes, at least in my family; as if being able to complete it means you are ready to compete with the elites of Kenya at the next Olympics. Even though it is comprised of several connecting loops of different names – “the” county road, Lloyd Larson, etc., it is known by one name: Saukeye (I guess “The Moulton Forest Lake route” doesn’t have the same ‘ring’). How exactly did that come to be? Well, I suppose it is akin to any other cherished Bad Medicine Lake tradition – it invokes in us an acute awareness for the majesty of creation, it provokes deep, internal self-reflection, and it is simply what we know and have, and therefore, it is a piece of our heart and home.
“Yeah, it’s only like 13 miles – you know the top collegians are doing weekly long runs between 16 and 18 miles, right?,” I reasoned with my parents. Had I been a little faster in getting ready, they probably would have not even realized my coming and going until I came up from a post run dip in the lake, the best reward known to man after putting in 18 miles before the rest of the cabin even wakes up.
Then, from the loft above, where the ‘kids’ slept, came another voice: “Oh, Riz, you’re doing Saukeye?! I wish I could come.”
It was my oldest brother, Tom, an accomplished runner from his first mile run race at age 6 until his final NCAA cross country meet during his 5th year of college, when he bravely gutted out a 37th place finish, a mere seconds away from his first All-American honors. I say bravely because he had been hurt the majority of that year, unable to really compete to his full potential, which had revealed itself slightly the prior season, when he decimated a string of fields containing current and future NCAA champions. The last 10 months, his total mileage could probably have been counted with one hand, a result of a seemingly endless dual against ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory disease in the large intestine. The last 4 years had seen him get very sick, lose 25 pounds (which, at 6’3 and 150 pounds, he really didn’t have anything to lose anyway), attempt a stint with a J-pouch treatment, until finally resigning to his current fate: a full removal of the colon.
Tom was one of the first to really make a big deal out of the route, albiet his groundwork was laid when I really couldn’t have cared less about running at all, as my athletic focus was squarely on hoops. He probably did the route once every weekend as he trained for the upcoming cross country seasons at Concordia College, usually sometime in the middle of my 3-hour afternoon trumpet practice sessions in the basement. I’d see him get ready to leave about halfway through my scale routine, and then watch his skinny, sweaty body bound down the steps to the lake, by my window, 80 minutes later to jump in and cool off. Sometimes he’d open the door and give me crap for still working on the same scale as when he’d left…which I sometimes was.
I’m not sure exactly how many times he did the route, but since those days nine years ago, I became a runner myself, and over the course of the approximately 30,000 miles logged, developed a firm understanding of the depth of meditation and peace that can result from being alone on your favorite road. I’m certain my brother eagerly awaited the hot afternoons at the lake when he could blaze his way up and over the dozens of rolling hills on the east side of the woods. He craves the afternoon heatwave the same way I crave the cool, quiet early mornings. I do remember one particular Saukeye tale – in fact it may have been the first time he did the route – and it involved my mom, my cousin Lisa, who at the time was a runner for the Golden Gophers, and our family dog, Jake. They set out for Lisa’s prescribed Sunday long run, and, despite it being around 90 degrees and humid, felt it was ok for Jake, a black golden retriever/border collie mix, to tag along. The four of them set out, but about 10 miles in, the heat had become too much, and they needed to be rescued by our other cousins, the Slette’s, on fourwheelers. Jake was never the same afterwards, and refused to run with me at the lake, I’m sure for fear of the fact that he might be brought out to a place devoid of shelter or water.
After turning away from basketball in college, I joined the cross country team at Concordia as a sophomore, gradually building up my weekly mileage until one day, I too wanted to see if I could muster up the courage to complete the famed Saukeye loop. Heading out from the Larson road, I completed the first downhill mile with ease. Then, one has a choice: take a left and complete the route “backwards” (not sure why this direction is backwards, but….it is….just adds to the mystique I guess), or go right on the county road towards the Forest Township hall. We elected to do the route backwards, because I was told it would be “easier” (another completely illogical – albeit true – idea that you can only understand if you’ve run the route as it deals with the bad uphills in the early miles.) One of the best and most cruelest elements that likely has added to the lore of the Saukeye loop is the fact that it is a “no turning back” route. Essentially, once you get to the actual road called “Saukeye Trail,” it is the same distance to run the loop as it would be to just turn around and go home. But, if you go on the loop, there is no short-cut or way to safety, should anything go wrong, as you are surrounded completely by forests at its middle point on the route. You have to channel your inner ‘Star Trek’ as you embark into uncharted lands.
I nervously pressed on, trusting my brother to not forget to take the correct turns, another element that has left some people, myself included, wandering back and forth and around the Bass Lake natural forest preserve area, looking at every tempting turn off with the same false hope and deception as Odysseus listening to the sirens.
The infamous “Go Go hill” at the end of the Larson Road (another fixture worthy of its own feature article), 12.8 miles into the 13 mile route, leaves most runners breathing at near capacity, assuring themselves they will never attempt another run anywhere ever again. In my family, however, the entrance to the Larson road serves as the initial gut check, with someone putting in an acceleration as if to say, “I know the go-go hill is still coming up, but I’m ALREADY speeding up…can you stay with me?” I live in a great family, I know. After running for over a decade up and down the “go-go,” a name given to the steep slope because our family’s cars needed to start speeding up in Detroit Lakes in order to properly crest the top (the 1991 Toyota Previa family van once got stuck halfway up and we had to walk the rest of the way to the cabin), I still feel a lump in my stomach when I descend it at the start of every run, knowing full well that I can’t get back to the cabin until I run back up the darned thing.
I probably did the Saukeye loop only once or twice with my brother before he got injured and then sick. It is sad thinking how few miles we put in together, as I was a basketball player when he was in his prime, and my college running years coexisted with his season ending achilles injury and life-halting battle with an intestinal disease. As a music major at Concordia, pretty much every run I ever did was done in solitude, as the band rehearsed at the same time the track and cross country teams met. I ran in the morning, after practice, and in my final three years, at both times, amassing weekly mileage totals that amazed my brother and scared my parents. The hailed Saukeye Loop that was once seldom even attempted in my family had grown for me from a 13 mile run to a 19 or 20 mile loop that I would routinely do practically in secret on early mornings before the rest of the family arose – half because I wanted to get it done in the cool air and half because I didn’t want to explain to everyone else that I indeed would survive it. “Saukeye” to me also included “Shangri La,” a trip to the Chapel of the Good creation, a traverse down the Lockrem Road and around Veronens resort road, and even out to Highway 113 for good measure.
One time I even attempted to ‘race’ the backside of the road – the part where, if anything goes wrong, you are a 3 mile bushwack to the county road. I had gained an heir of confidence in myself that I no longer worried about simply surviving the loop, but was ready to take it on with a hard effort. My interval workout (where repeated periods of hard running are separated by rest, walking, or jogging) turned into a straight 6-mile long surge at near race pace as a horde of angry horse flies pursued me away from their territory. Images of me succumbing to a painful death of swelling bites and allergic reactions motivated me to maintain a solid tempo.
Like sitting out on a quiet lake to fish in the morning, taking a walk in the woods, or viewing the lake late at night as the loons start to sing, there is certainly something meditative about a long run on familiar roads. Most of my best thoughts and dreams have matured on a nice run – many on the roads and routes that my parents did a thousand times before I was even alive. Thoughts seem to go from ideas on how to fix my trumpet embouchure to creative dates with my wife. Sometimes I’ll think about words to say to a teammate, co-worker, or family member to smooth over a disagreement, offer advice, or provide encouragement. Many miles are put in daydreaming that I am actually a professional athlete and this is just what I do – sort of like how a nine-year old throws a baseball up in the air to himself in the backyard, pretending to be Dan Gladden winning the 1991 World Series. Along the Saukeye loop in particular, my dreams often hovered around winning an NCAA meet or becoming an All-American – for my brother – who came so tantalizingly close, as if I would then fill the void in my family’s life that his all too early exit from athletics had left. Sometimes (particularly in the thick of high mileage weeks) the entire run is spent thinking about how great breakfast will feel at the end. Amazingly, the highest percentage of time is probably spent actually just thinking about the skill of running itself:cadence, pace, and an awareness of my internal physiological signals.
We use different means to accomplish it, but the idea of connecting with yourself, your inner thoughts, creation, and the God who runs all of them is something we all desire. Deep thoughts like this remind me of a verse:
…since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” – Romans 1:19-20
If someone ever asked me how I know there is a God, my response would have to be, “The same way you do.” We all know there is a God, but some have suppressed that truth. When I’m at Bad Medicine Lake, on the Saukeye loop, healthy, running faster and farther than seems reasonable, hearing the birds call, feeling the complex thoughts and ideas and emotions in my brain and heart as I meditate and reflect on all of the areas of life ….it is pretty hard to suppress that truth!
Fast forward five or six years. It is November 24th, 2017, about 4:45, and dusk is about to set. No one has been at the lake for a couple of months. For those who only stay at Bad Medicine during the summer, when you do chance on a visit to the lake, it is sort of like chancing on a bear in hibernation. You know the cabin, the plants, the rocks, the water, the roads, are all there all year, but since you aren’t there to see them, it seems like everything just stays asleep – almost like it doesn’t even exist. That morning I had rollerskied about 15 miles in Duluth and then hopped in my car to drive to Bagley, Minnesota to meet with cousins and grandparents. I figured since Bad Medicine was sort of on the way, and my brother and I would probably want to run anyway, why not just stop and run at our favorite place – the lake. It was his birthday, and having slowly and surely learned how to live with colitis (he had three surgeries to remove his colon), Tom had even started running a decent amount. One of his long term goals that he dreamt about as he battled the illness and watched it ravage his athletic body, was to someday return to form and complete the task that would allow him to say, “I’m back:” the Saukeye loop. In texting him that day, seeing if he wanted to undertake my idea and meet at the cabin, I casually suggested the hallowed route. However, as we pulled up the go-go hill, sun setting, 14 degrees, ice sheets covering the entire Larson road, and tired from the 3 hour drive, I was beginning to wonder how I would somehow muster the stamina to even start a run – of any distance. 5 minutes after we parked, my brother and his wife pulled up behind us. We had come all the way from Colorado for this trip, and he had come from Northfield, MN, and here we were, at our special place, together, meeting within minutes. We hopped out of the car, hyper from the cool wind on our dryfit longsleeves – too cold now but probably perfect an hour from now – danced around in the cold, and in a few minutes, set out.
Thoughts at this point were definitely on the rest of our family as they huddled warmly around a fire and a nice warm meal 45 miles away at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s. I was fiercely regretting this decision now as we slipped across the skating rink road, and I mentioned that we could always just run part way down the road and turn around before the “point of no return.” However, I think we both knew that this thing was going the distance, despite the circumstances.
With my two pups running along with us, my brother and I completed the whole route, saying hi to all of our favorite markers, which had been dormant for the summer – and for my brother dormant for half a decade. We passed the point of no return, laughing at the proposition in front of us – what would mom and dad think?! We are doing the Saukeye loop on a dark, winter night – how epic! Engrossed in conversation about a myriad of topics, happy to be running together, we failed to take all of the right turns – in the pitch black we took a logging trail disguised as the Moulton Forest Lake Road, adding about 2.5 miles to our run – but it only added to the epicness of it. As we passed by the turn to the “Big tree” trail, our legs feeling heavy and still knowing there was another 3.5 miles to go, we reminisced about family hikes to our favorite tree (worthy of it’s own BMLA newsletter article from the spring 2016 issue) as the light from an aptly remembered headlamp on my brother prevented us from stepping on black ice or running off the road. We even sped up the last mile, testing each other just a little bit up the go-go hill. As we loaded the car and sped away, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky I was to add another chapter to the Saukeye loop legend and my Bad Medicine Lake chronicle of memories. It was a cool moment, no doubt, to be a part of my brother’s comeback trail, especially since I had seen him 30 pounds lighter in a hospital bed, when running seemed like the farthest things from reality or concern. He recently ran a 10k as part of the Fargo Marathon festivities, beating my winning time from 2014 by 3-seconds (of course, I achieved that while in the best shape of my life as a college junior!), delaying any notion that an interfamily changing of the guard has taken place.
My parents have recently started a new Saukeye tradition: fat tire biking the route at least once, every single month of the year. It is May as I write this, and they have completed their task, with four of the months being done in the snow. Jake has been dead for awhile, but every time I’m on the road, I think of him and his wagging tail and curly hair for a few moments.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll be running when I’m 50 or 60. Maybe even 70. I’m sure I’ll be doing something. If I can’t run, I’ll ski or rollerski. I’ve already told my wife that I will be that guy who is going out to bike Pikes Peak road when they are 90 – I don’t care how long it takes me. One thing I do hope is that whether or not I’m biking, walking, or running, that I’ll be able to go around the Saukeye loop and have it look and feel somewhat the same as it did when I was 20 and I didn’t think I could make it around. Or when I was 25 and I literally was running as fast as I could for a 6 mile stretch as a hoard of hundreds of horse flies tried to rip the skin off my neck and back. Or when I was 26 and my brother and I took in a full moon November night and ran around the quiet, dark woods in total, serene solitude.
And even if it takes me twice as long, hopefully the magic of completing the route will be enough to tell me that, “I’ve arrived,” and I can still “do it.”
Maybe the “Saukeye” in your life is getting up on skis at least once each summer, in hopes to trick your body that it is still young and invincible. Maybe it is even more basic: opening the cabin, planting the garden, swimming as soon as the ice is off, or always preaching once at the Chapel of the Good Creation. Whatever it is, may it remind you of how lucky we are, may it give you more memories, and may the magic remind you that life is meant to be lived.