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Mind over miles: Hermantown’s Koppy prepares for 238.3-mile race in Utah

67-year-old Michael Koppy runs along a path near his home in rural Hermantown on Friday morning. Koppy is running the Moab 240 in Utah, a 238.3-mile endurance race through the desert, canyons and mountains. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Physically, Michael Koppy believes he's ready to run 238.3 rugged miles over gnarly terrain in and around Moab, Utah. A veteran of eight 100-milers, Koppy also is confident in his ability to navigate the mental hurdles that will litter his path like jagged red rock.

What the 67-year-old isn't quite sure of is how he will manage the inevitable sleep-deprivation that is sure to fester during the Moab 240, a footrace with a 112-hour cutoff that begins at 7 a.m. mountain time Friday (the 13th).

Hopefully better than the guy who thought cellphones were chasing him near the end of the Tahoe 200 a few years back.

That fried runner engaged his tracking device, which emitted an SOS signal, 189 miles in, prompting his removal from the course. He was, Koppy says, "out of it."

"The bottom line was he hadn't slept much, or enough, and he was delusional," the Hermantown resident recalled.

The retired teacher hopes to avoid a similar fate while finishing in less than 80 hours.

It won't be easy, and that's precisely the allure.

The Moab 240 website calls it a race "through desert, canyons, slick rock (and) two mountain ranges surrounded by Canyonlands and Arches national parks." Run on a single, massive loop, the route features 29,467 feet of ascent and, of course, the same distance of descent.

If you're not sucked in yet, perhaps the following warning from race organizers will seal the deal:

"Runners often experience hallucinations and sleep deprivation. Extreme weather in the canyons (heat) and in the mountains (cold, snow, high winds) is normal. In a few cases, participants must go over 20 miles between full aid stations and carry important, recommended gear and water. ...

"Please note that there are very exposed sections, dangerous cliffs, rock fall, snakes, spiders, scorpions, wildlife and other hazards throughout the route."

And they call this marketing.

Koppy did his research while building a training plan. But, he says, it's not like there's a wealth of literature out there for 238.3-mile treks. That's akin to running from Duluth to Forest Lake. And back.

"It's one of those things you have to almost figure out for yourself, what's going to get you through," Koppy said.

A typical week was about 80 miles, including 31 on Saturdays. Koppy would turn around and bang out another 15 or 16 on Sundays, allowing him to simulate running on tired legs. Midweek, he did hills or speed work. Weights, for core strength, also were a focus.

Koppy especially likes running on trails, slicing through the woods alone with his thoughts. In Moab, he will be among a field of less than 150 entrants. Solitude, then, will be abundant. Reprieves will come at the aid stations, specifically the ones reachable by Koppy's support crew — his wife, Carol Bonde, and their daughter, Cathy Bonde.

Cathy lives in Moab, one of the reasons Koppy entered this event. Beyond that, well, he wanted to see if he could do it.

"Part of it is the challenge," said Koppy, a 2:49 marathoner who already has completed two 100s this year. "There are a lot of things coming into this race that are totally new for me, that I don't know how to really prepare for."

Exhibit A: sleep.

Koppy initially planned to rest for two hours at each of the five sleep stations. He audibled after reading about commercial fishermen in Alaska who get by on three hours a day. The trick, Koppy read, is hitting REM cycles. Now, he is considering skipping the first station, which comes 55.9 miles in, "if I feel good." Still early in the race, Koppy said.

He's likely to reach another station midday, which could make sleep a struggle. Thus, his retooled strategy as of last week was three, three-hour naps.

"But, you know, it's a guess," Koppy said. "I don't know how my body's going to perform with sleep-deprivation like that."

His wife and daughter will follow Koppy's progress online, meeting him where they can. Carol, herself a runner, didn't let on to any concern last week. She's watched her husband reach enough finish lines, and crewed for enough of his races, to know he's capable.

"I'm so used to these that I just sit back and let it happen, and hope for the best," Carol said.

Koppy, who sports a salt-and-pepper beard atop a lean frame, knows he will encounter feelings of despair. They've surfaced during the 100s, where he's felt incapable of taking another step. Koppy always negotiates his way out of those low points. It's where endurance running becomes more psychological than physical.

That, he says, is part of the adventure.

"Even though it seems like there's a lot of pain and discomfort and mental anguish that you put yourself through, part of that is the draw of the event," Koppy said. "It kind of helps you find out what you're made of."

MOAB 240

What: 238.3-mile footrace

When: Starts Friday morning, with a cutoff time of 112 hours

Where: In and around Moab, Utah

Elevation: 29,467 feet of ascent and descent

Trail-work requirement: All entrants required to perform eight hours of volunteer trail work

Online: moab200.com

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