Sunday, May 24, 2015

In Beauty May I Walk: Spring Superior 50K 2015 Race Report

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
- William Butler Yeats, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

Game face ON.
Executive summary: 50K in 7:29:13, a 12 minute course PR on a slow muddy course (the median finish time was 10 min slower than last year). I was third masters woman (of 10). I went out too fast, held on until the last leg, stayed in the race the whole time, ran this one as well as I could. I'm very, very happy.

Spring Superior. It's a special race. I did my first 50K here two years ago. It was my first introduction to the Superior Hiking Trail, the site of a beautiful race last year that kicked off an amazing season, and Fall Superior was a great way to bookend that season with some intense volunteering and pacing.

This year, after managing to register for the race, which was in incredible demand (there's a lottery next year), I had big plans. I'd had some good training in the months leading up, starting with my 40th birthday 40K and including a 34-mile, 13 hour slow and steady pacing gig at Zumbro and a recent loop at Afton (25K) that I managed to turn around and run well, despite a rough start. On the other side of the endurance vs. speed spectrum, I had just run a 5K PR (25:12) the previous weekend, coming in second woman in a small, laid-back field. I didn't have a lot of really big long runs heading into this, but I'd managed some quality running, some stairs and strength work, and -- a race week hip flexor freakout aside -- I was uninjured and ready to run.

In 2013, I ran this race in 8:00:18. In 2014, my time was 7:41:15, feeling great and with a few bonus miles on Mount Levaux. This year, my goals were big. I figured if the trail was in good condition and I had a great day, I could go under 7 hours. McMillan claimed, based on my recent Afton loop, that I could run a 7:15, so that was my B goal. My C goal was to PR the course, and my final goal was to finish, have a joyful day, and soak up the beauty of the North Shore.

On Friday morning, I packed my gear (so much less than Zumbro! I kept thinking I was forgetting something. I didn't) and headed north.
The first glimpse of Highway 61 in Duluth!
It was a gloomy, foggy day. I knew the forecast was for at least partial clearing the next day, but it was still a surprise to feel the temperature drop 20 degrees as I hit the North Shore.

The drive up Highway 61 seemed different after working the Fall Superior race. Every waypost between Gooseberry Falls and Lutsen made me think of a milestone along the 100 mile course. I'm not even considering running it at this time, but somehow its landmarks have still found their way into my consciousness.


I arrived at Lutsen slightly bug-eyed after four hours in the car, and picked up my race number, running into lots of friends who had come to race, volunteer, or spectate and support. John and Cheri Storkamp, the race directors, had settled in at a corner table, watching their well-oiled machine run. I came over to say hello and John wanted to know whether I was looking forward to another bonus summit of Mount Levaux. I replied that it was an integral part of my plan to negative-split the course.

While waiting for a table for dinner, I ran into Dale and Scott, the irrepressible Manitobans. If I was bug-eyed after driving four hours, they were stir-crazy following ten hours of driving, and ready to race. They were great company at dinner. By eight, though, I was ready to find my room, get things organized, and get some sleep.

My alarm sounded at a very civilized 5 a.m.; I had already been awake a few times wondering whether I'd remembered to set it. Breakfast, too many layers of clothes, packed up, and headed to the starting line.

Oh, and one more pre-race preparation:
Because fake knuckle tattoos are cool!
Photo credit: John Storkamp
At the starting line, the sky was a cloudless blue and whatever the weather report said, it looked like it would be a warm, sunny day. I shed an outer layer and took the obligatory INKnBURN pre-race photo with the excellent Kevin Langton. Circulated around and said hello to lots more friends, until it was time to start.
Our feet are so clean! That didn't last.
Photo credit: Lisa Langton
Awaiting the start
What's a race director without his stepladder?

Up on the ladder, John made the customary race-morning announcements, encouraged people to just go through the mud instead of around it ("your feet will be soaked in the first few minutes anyway"), and counted down. And off we went.

Start to Oberg: 7.75 miles, 1:35 minutes (or, Possibly Regrettable Fun)

Photo credit: Todd Rowe
One of my goals for this race was to avoid the conga line up Mystery Mountain this year, a project which entailed going out a bit faster than usual. I'd been trying to prepare mentally (and physically) to run, not jog, up the paved road and gravel road to get closer to the front of the line that would stretch, single-file, all the way up the singletrack for the first mile or two. I was pretty successful. On the singletrack, I found myself in a line of people moving efficiently, going straight through the mud -- which was already ankle deep in places -- and moving well.

Perhaps a bit too well. Now that I was moving with the faster kids, I didn't want to slow down the line. In contrast to previous times I've run Superior, I was a little hashed getting to the summit of Mystery, and a little more so at the top of Moose. But, on the other hand, it was fun to be moving a little too fast, the sun was shining, the company was good, and I was a little curious to see how it would all turn out. So on I went, maybe a little too fast.

At the top of Mystery Mountain, there's a bend in the trail and you come out to the first view of the saddle and Moose Mountain. The runner ahead of me threw his arms out in an expression of pure joy at the sight. I knew how he felt. "Nature therapy!" I exclaimed. "The doctor is IN!" 

It was a beautiful morning. In contrast to last year, the snow was long gone and spring was well underway on the Superior Hiking Trail. Leaves were budding and flowers were blooming. The air smelled damp, but later as the day went on, areas smelled of warm pine needles, crushed wild onions, water and wet rocks. I could feel my mind relaxing and moving into ultramarathoning headspace. I was blessed to have a whole day to spend here, in the woods, with good people, experiencing this amazing place. What a good day to be alive.
Leading the train.
Photo credit: Todd Rowe
Coming along the top of Moose Mountain, I led a little train of people that eventually caught up to the next train ahead. Another mile, and suddenly it was the steep technical descent down Moose. The train broke up as the faster people passed the cautious ones, and the really fast bombed past us all. I'm not bad at downhilling; I took it pretty aggressively. (My quads were screaming for four days afterwards). Then some shockingly muddy sections, a gradual uphill I didn't recall and that hardly seemed necessary, and suddenly we popped out at Oberg aid station. I had been aiming for a 1:45 first segment; my watch said 1:35.

Oberg to Carlton Peak turnaround: 7.75 miles, 2:00 (or, Everyone Loves a Mud Run)

I went through Oberg fast, stopping only to drop off some extra layers and grab a handful of Endurolytes to supplement the S-Caps I was carrying. It was a warm day, and I was trying to be aggressive with the electrolytes since I had some cramping and hand swelling at Zumbro and wanted to avoid that. Off on the next leg, about 5 miles to Sawbill.

In theory, this section should be very runnable. It's got a few steep sections but is mostly rolling hills and flats, without anything technical. However, every time I've been through it (and this was trips #6 and 7), there's mud. No big deal, I figured this time, I know about the mud and I'm prepared to plow right through it. Problem was, it was deep enough, and unpredictable enough (am I stepping into an inch deep puddle, or one that will come up to my shin?), that it was tough to run through. I was glad I'd been snowshoe racing this winter -- the motion and the muscles were surprisingly similar.

I plowed through mud, ran the runnable dry sections, plowed through mud, repeated. I met some great friendly people along this section and ran with them for a while. I kept eating -- Larabars were great, my black cherry Shot Bloks were way too sweet, gels were sitting pretty well -- and throwing back Endurolytes with my water.

The Mount Levaux spur trail was marked with about nine flags and a pile of brush to block the trail. As I told John afterwards, "I wanted to take it. Really! But it was SO WELL MARKED, I just couldn't bring myself to do it."
Mount Levaux spur trail. No bonus miles today!
Through a deep mud patch and, with a sucking sound, my heel popped out of my shoe. Rats! I pulled off the trail and laboriously began peeling back a mud-soaked Dirty Girl gaiter, then untying my lace. Suddenly, my hamstring cramped and I shot back up again, dancing around and trying to unkink the muscle. It relented and I cautiously returned to a kneel to put my shoe to rights. I wiped my hands off on some handy nearby plant life, threw down a few more Endurolytes, and continued on.

The front runners began coming back through, but I was further along than in previous years when I started seeing them. I could tell that I was going faster than I had before, and it was a good feeling. 

I pulled into the Sawbill aid station still feeling good, and stopped long enough to refill my hydration pack and put some sunblock on my face -- the sun was getting bright! As it turned out, I got some sunburn on my upper arms. I was glad I'd worn a short-sleeve shirt and not a tank top, just from a sun protection standpoint.

Todd was at Sawbill (and had been on the trail earlier, taking pictures.) He helpfully kicked me out of the aid station, almost before I had time to grab a salted potato and some Endurolytes, and I was off to Carlton Peak and the turnaround.

If the Oberg to Sawbill trail is long, muddy, and largely featureless, the short 2.25 miles to Carlton Peak are the opposite. The trail was gratifyingly dry -- my feet almost dried out! -- but quickly transitioned from flat boardwalks to the steep rocky climb. I welcomed the opportunity to power-hike instead of run and moved pretty efficiently. Before I knew it, I was at the top of the peak, shaking Charlie Hubbard's hand and taking a sip of cold beer. The sun was shining and a blanket of fog lay over Lake Superior. It was an incredible spring morning. I paused to breathe it in. This moment, at the turnaround, was something I'd been thinking of all year long.
Carlton Peak.
Photo credit: Charlie Hubbard

Turnaround to Oberg: 7.75 miles, 2:00 (or, Moving Along) 

I looked at my watch as I headed down Carlton Peak. 3:35 on the clock, and I was feeling good. Could I get in under 7 hours? Maybe. I felt optimistic I could beat 7:15. I descended as efficiently as I could, cheering on lots of runners who were still climbing. My left outer knee began to ache, a spot that had given me trouble a few weeks ago. But it wasn't bad, and it wasn't getting much worse.

Back through Sawbill aid station. Todd was still there, practising his best aid-station bedside manner. 
"Hey, how much time I got till the cutoff?" I asked him. 
"Only 55 minutes. Get out of here," he replied. 
"Wait, I need some Heed!"
"You can drink Heed at the NEXT aid station! You're not getting any closer to Oberg standing around here chitchatting!"
I turned to another volunteer. "Hey! The mean aid station worker is making me leave!" Once she saw that we were both laughing, she relaxed. I ran out of Sawbill with a grin on my face.

The Sawbill to Oberg section was muddier than before. There were sections where I'm pretty sure the trail was tracking along a streambed, and others with long, long stretches of muddy standing water.
Mmm, juicy.
I wore my new gaiters! Can you tell??
Lots of things happen on a long run, but sometimes despite this there's not much to tell. I felt good; I felt tired. I ate a packet of chocolate hazelnut butter, then decided that wasn't exactly what I had wanted. My knee was a little achy, but my hip didn't bother me at all, and I was grateful. I remembered how this section of trail had looked last fall when I came through with Travis. I talked to other runners. I composed this race report in my mind.

The miles ticked by. Nothing felt too difficult, but I didn't feel like I could go any faster. I didn't feel like I needed to. I was spending the day in the woods, my mind was right, my body was good. It was good.

Oberg to finish: 1:55 (or, A Little Bit Slower And A Little Bit Worse)

I ran into Oberg feeling tired, but hopeful. I didn't think I could make it back in the blazing 1:35 I had come out in, but I was still hoping for a 7:15 overall time. I dropped a few final layers off for my drop bag, said hello to the excellent Kevin and Jordan, who were volunteering, drank more Heed and a little Coke, and set off.


I'd broken this leg into several segments in my mind: The runnable but muddy section up to Moose Mountain. The steep climb up Moose. The saddle between Moose and Mystery. And the descent from Mystery to the finish. It was nice to be on a section I knew well, and it was good to know that I was on the way home.

The first section was runnable, but I could tell I was getting tired. Last year, I'd had incredible energy in this section and passed dozens of people. This time, I was still occasionally passing people, but I could tell my faster early running had taken some out of me. I started up Moose Mountain and ate the first of the two Roctane gels I keep as my race-end secret weapons. It gave me a physical and mental lift, and I moved steadily, staying in the moment the whole time. Along this section, I passed a few 25K runners, including one who had stopped part way up Moose Mountain and was doing something on his phone! "Updating Facebook?" I asked, jokingly. "Yep," he replied. "'On Moose Mountain. Send help.'" I suggested, and I kept going, with a word of encouragement.


I crested Moose and tried to run the very runnable rocky section at the top, but I was taking more walk breaks. My knee began to bother me more on the steep descent, and I couldn't run as the pain in my outer knee and the back of the knee was clearly worse when I did. With five miles left, it made more sense to finish than to go back, and it didn't hurt badly enough for me to consider doing otherwise. But it was certainly more painful in this section. The muscles still felt like they were on the verge of cramping, but never quite got there. Thank goodness. I fantasized about hosing my feet off at the finish, and about being done. I hiked the switchbacks up the back of Mystery, and felt better going uphill.


Somewhere near the top of Mystery, I hooked up with Kamie, who was also finishing the 50K. We worked well together, running the runnable sections and keeping each other motivated. We started passing lots of 25K runners, trying to cheer on everyone we passed. My knee began to feel better.


Along the top of Mystery. Another little descent and climb. Then, the campground that marks the last of the climbing, and the beginning of a steady, rocky descent all the way to the Poplar River. Around this point, you can actually hear the cheering and music from the finish line, and even through it's still a few miles away, you begin to feel like you're coming home.


The trail descends and you can hear the Poplar River long before you see it. The air cools down. The mud is deep and boards placed across it are slippery. But it's hard to care at this point; you're almost there.

Cross the Poplar River bridge. One last little uphill; was that really necessary? The gravel road. The paved road. Kamie and I speed up, then halfway down the paved road I realize I can't keep the pace and wave her ahead. Keep going, keep moving forward.

Getting it done at the finish line.
Photo credit: Arielle Anderson
Off the pavement, over the dirt and grass, around the pool, and there's the clock: 7:29! Run it in. Stop, deep breaths, hands on knees, amazed to be here and alive and finished and, suddenly, in another world, one with people, music, running water, hot food, no need to keep moving.


Final reflections

When I finished and drove home, I was a little disappointed with my finish time. Looking at my splits, it was clear I'd been on track for at least my 7:15 goal till I slowed way down on the last leg. As the week went by, though, I began feeling better and better about my performance. The median finish time this year was 10 min slower than last year, possibly due to mud, and 25 min slower among the women. I was on track until the last section and stayed mentally with it almost the entire time. And I was SORE after this race, in a way that I normally am not after a trail 50K. Like, Lamaze-breathing-on-the-stairs levels of quad soreness. My knee still hurts, though it's much improved. I gave this one a lot of effort. I could have paced it a little smarter, and perhaps run the second half harder if I'd been able to keep the muscle cramping away more effectively. But I'm pretty content with how it went.

I've given a lot of thought recently to what it is that I get out of a run like this. I've decided it's very simple -- it's an entire day, set aside and cordoned off, when my only goal is to get from here to there. In a life that can be complicated and difficult and involve many different threads of thought all at once, it's a chance to clear your mind, focus on a single goal, find a rhythm between breathing and movement and nothing else.

We've been reading a lot of poetry with the kids recently. I ran across this one in Caroline Kennedy's Poems to Learn by Heart, and later saw it in this excellent ultrarunning blog. It's a Navajo prayer, and it evokes a lot of what I get from a day in the woods. I'll finish this overly long race report with it: 


In Beauty May I Walk (from the Navajo; translated by Jerome K Rothenberg)

In beauty                                                        may I walk
All day long                                                   may I walk
Through the returning seasons                         may I walk
Beautifully I will possess again
Beautifully birds
Beautifully joyful birds
On the trail marked with pollen                       may I walk
With grasshoppers about my feet                    may I walk
With dew about my feet                                  may I walk
With beauty                                                  may I walk
With beauty before me                                    may I walk
With beauty behind me                                   may I walk
With beauty above me                                    may I walk
With beauty all around me                              may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively
                                                                     may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again
                                                                     may I walk
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty

Monday, April 20, 2015

60 hours at Zumbro 2015 (volunteer and pacing report)

One of the best things about being between jobs this spring was the chance to spend a few days volunteering and pacing at Zumbro Endurance Runs, the Minnesota ultrarunners' annual April rite of spring. With a 17, a 50, and a 100 mile race, 580 runners, and well over 100 volunteers, it's a big production. The terrain on the 17-mile loop has something for everyone: steep climbs, technical descents, ankle-deep sand, and miles of shoe-sucking mud. The weather can be hot and sunny, below freezing, thunderstorms, snow showers... and sometimes all of the above. 

It's got a special place in my heart as the race I still haven't quite gotten a handle on. Two years ago, I broke my elbow at mile 2 of the 17 miler, my first long trail race. I finished with a smile, but still wanted redemption. Last year, I attempted the midnight 50 miler and DNF'd with hypothermia at mile 34 in a thunderstorm. 

This year, I wanted to volunteer for a few days and see more of the work behind the scenes, and then I jumped on the opportunity to pace. I did laps 5 and 6 of the 100 mile with Jordan, a runner I've admired and respected for his grit and determination during the Gnarly Bandit series last year.

60 hours is too much to cover in a linear manner, so here's two and a half days of Zumbro, in fragments, impressions, and moments:

Wednesday night

- Look at the weather forecast, throw up hands, pack everything I own. Three pairs of mittens, four pairs of shoes, four buffs, two raincoats, shorts, wool hat, sunblock. Who knows? It's Zumbro.


Thursday

- Drive down Thursday morning under ominous clouds. But the rain is only beginning to get started when I arrive early at the start/finish, so a quick jog up the trail. The mud is already getting a little juicy...
- Race director and a half dozen volunteers trickle in and we admire each other's raingear. There is some scouting around for a place to park the truck that isn't underwater. We eventually begin unloading gear in steady, cold rain. Pair of mittens #1 and shoes #1 are soaked.
- Cheri appears with a carload of sandwiches, Doritos, and amazing cookies. She teaches us how to work the coffeemaker. Life is getting better.
- Change mittens, hang banners, string a mile or two of Christmas lights, set up for cookout, at some point the rain stops. Hurrah!
- More volunteers show up, bringing new energy to the undertaking.
- 100 mile runners start showing up to check in. And it starts raining again. Hurrah!
- Around 7 pm, with the cookout beginning to wind down, head to Lake City to enjoy a warm, dry motel bed. Double hurrah!

Friday

- Somehow, the rain has changed to ice pellets overnight. Congratulate self for choice of motel over camping. Scrape ice off the car before heading back to Zumbro. 
- 100 mile race start is a magical thing. The ground is icy but the rain/whatever has stopped. John makes his ceremonial speech from atop the ladder, counts down, and the runners are off!
- I make the drive to Aid Station 1/4 and prepare to walk the mile or so to AS 2/3, where I am volunteering. I share the walk with Ciersten, who is crewing for Andrew, a first-time hundred miler. We are passed by a steady trickle of runners. Everyone looks happy to be on the trail.
- AS 2/3 is already rocking, with Lin, Rob, Jonathan, and John in the house. Probably some other people too. It's a little blurry, sorry, guys. We make PB&Js and gummi bear shots, pour drinks, search fruitlessly for coffee filters and butter.
Not only did Rob have the best hat, but HE BROUGHT US BACON.
Lin, aid stationing LIKE A BOSS.
So well organized, before the runners arrived and ruined it all.
Jonathan, volunteer and Western States runner
- Runners are coming through steadily and everyone's looking good. We attempt to start a bonfire with wet, wet wood. The race directors and Larry Pederson show up in time to help. 
Somehow, Zumbro always happens on Cherie's birthday weekend.
John and the wet woodpile
Larry Pedersen, father of the Zumbro race showing us how it's done

- Julie Berg, aid station captain, runner extraordinaire, and all-around cool person, arrives.
- A couple of runners stick around long enough to be photographed.
Rick, running for Aaron Buffington. The running community misses him.
Jordan and John.
- It rains for an hour. I heard it snowed in the higher elevations.
- Eventually the rain stops and I decide to get serious about starting the fire. Spend an hour slowly feeding it fuel and drying wood until it's actually going. This is my major achievement of the day.
Credit: Todd Rowe
- The aid station is going strong. Runners have come through the rain and still look good. Eventually the sun breaks through and the air warms. It's past 4 pm, and I'm ready to go get some rest so I can pace.

Friday night into Saturday

- Check where my runner is. Attempt to do math. Set alarm for 12:30 a.m. 
- Attempt to sleep in car. First it's too warm and bright, then it cools off. 
- Turns out the car is actually not quite big enough to stretch out in. I'll know better next time.
- Dude in car next to mine is playing NPR. Loudly. I want to kill him.
- Wake up at alarm. Check with ham radio guys. Runner is still 12 miles out. Dammit. Re-set alarm.
- Wake up at 2 a.m. 
Check with ham radio guys. Runner is still 7 miles out. Dammit. Decide to stay up.
- Stand by fire, drink coffee, eat rice and chicken I packed, commiserate with other pacers wondering where their tired 100 mile runners are. Bob Coolidge and Janet are good company.
- Return to car and put on some more layers. The sky has cleared, and 32 degrees is cold when you're not moving!
- Runner shambles in, having been paced by Linnea. She did an amazing job, but they're both cold. He warms up, eats Cheetos and soup, adds layers. 4:30 am. Let's go!
- Aaaaaaaand.... we're walking. It's a decent pace and there's a bit of running here and there, but, as Jordan had warned me, it's not going to be speedy.
- Every star in the universe is up in that sky. Half moon has risen. It's an amazing night to be out on the trail. I make Jordan stop at the top of the ridge to take it in for a minute. It's possible I get more from this moment than he does.
- Mile 74 or so: The first light appears in the sky. The first birdsong of the morning. Incredible sunrise, mist pooling in the valleys. 
What a morning!
- Mud from yesterday's rain is drying as we go, and the trail is getting steadily better. We continue to hike and sometimes run through the loop. Jordan is moving well and the sunrise gives him new energy.
- At some point, we're no longer freezing, and even shed some layers.

Loop 5, into AS 2 and feeling good with the new day!
- Mile 80: inbound aid station 4 just as hundreds of 17 mile runners are coming through outbound AS 1. They are wearing bright, clean clothing and smell like soap and toothpaste. They look impossibly well rested.
- Aid station volunteer shakes his head: "One of the 17 milers just asked for 'a half cup of two-thirds HEED, one-third water'. AT MILE THREE."

- Mile 83: Back at the start/finish of the looped course. Sheila, who is volunteering, brings me a bacon and egg burrito. It tastes like manna from heaven. I strip off my tights and change socks as fast as I can, but Jordan's still out ahead of me.
- The sky is blue, the birds are singing, the sun is shining. Suddenly, it's spring at Zumbro.
The start/finish from the first climb. I missed seeing this sight last year!
Mile 87: Lisa is the aid station medic here, and she's a little concerned. "Is he drinking?" "Yes," I say, "he's been sipping from that bottle." She shakes the bottle; it's nearly full. She eyes my runner critically. "Are you drinking, or are you fake drinking?" He is noncommital.
- Eventually, she shrugs and tells me, "you can walk him to the next aid station."
- One of the aid station volunteers gives Jordan his own personal Red Bull. Jordan drinks half of it and, amazingly, RUNS out of the aid station. Me: "You look great!" Him: "Red Bull gives you wiiiings!"
- Mile 91. We're in a darker place now. My runner is cranky. "We're going, like, one mile an hour." We roll into AS 2 and Julie Berg looks him over. "I see he's at the rebellious stage." She feeds him her homemade Oreo brownies. He revives enough to move on.
- We complete the last big climb. Jordan is all smiles. The view from the ridge is amazing.
"We're pretty awesome." "Yup. We're kind of a big deal."
-  Last technical descent. We are passed by another 100 miler, paced by Wayne. I envy their blistering 16 min/mile pace.
Mile 97: Jordan is moving along at a zombie like shamble. When we stop at the final aid station, he's jittery and isn't talking much. He downs the rest of the Red Bull they've kept for him and mumbles, "Let's go!"
Mile 99: We hit the final dirt road. Jordan, who has been largely noncommunicative for the last hour, looks surprised. "This is the dirt road. We're almost there!"
The dirt road!
As we've arranged, I run ahead to the finish line and video his finish. In the last hundred feet, he breaks into an antalgic run. He is beaming. He finishes, looking better than he has in hours.
- I stop moving and realize I've been on my feet for 13 hours. I stagger around, take off my shoes, and change clothes. I'm shaking and am not much for conversation myself until I eat a whole bunch of food.
- By the time I return from my car, Jordan has left (his ride was ready to go). The race is shutting down. I hear an owl at the edge of the campground asking, "Who cooks for you?" 
- It's time to go. See you next year, Zumbro. I can't wait to see what will happen next. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

This is just to say


Dear Coach:
This is just to say

I have run
the 70 minute workout
that was on
my schedule

and which
you were probably
saving for
Wednesday
Forgive me
it was delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Sunday, January 4, 2015

40K for 40 Years

With my birthday falling between Christmas and New Year's Day, it's usually pretty low-key. I like it that way -- maybe a cake and a little celebration, but not a big deal. But with my 40th birthday rolling around this year, I thought it might be fun to do something different. Something on the trails, with friends. Running 40 miles would take all day, I thought... but how about a 40K? Or, since I didn't have a GPS thingy, how about a 6-hour run? My birthday fell on a Tuesday, so I looked at the following Saturday, January 3.

I pitched the idea on the Upper Midwest Trail Runners' Facebook page and got a good response, even though it was the same weekend as Tuscobia. The weather forecast looked perfect (mid 20s-30 degrees), with a big cold front coming through the next day. I packed up a carload of gels, candy canes, and lollipops and headed out to Lebanon Hills early Saturday morning.

Arriving a little before 6 am, a dozen people were there to run. A few more headlamps joined us, and we took off around the lake. It was a great day to run. The trails had packed snow and the lakes were frozen. There was just a light breeze, shielded by the hills. The world was quiet except for the crunch of our footfalls and our conversation.

We took a long tour around the park, hitting all the highlights: Dodd Road, the visitor center, the bunker, Touch-A-Butt Hill. I caught up with Matt, Janet, Arika, Mike, Julio, and Jan. Back to the parking lot at 8 to pick up another crew, and to peruse the impressive pile of snacks that had joined Matt's coffee pots at an impromptu aid station. Teresa's muffins were a huge hit, and Erich's salted nut cookies inspired a cult following. 

A quick group picture...
Thanks, Christina, for taking the picture!
and we were off again. I hung with Amy, Matt, Shannon and Erin for a while as they blazed along. Met up with Ryan and Christina, who had come all the way from Brainerd for the run. I ran the loop in with Kevin, who threw down 20 miles in preparation for his Zumbro 100-miler. We talked Zumbro, new gear, Christmas adventures, and whatever else came to mind.
Mark, me, Janet, and Ryan. Another great Christina picture!
We rolled in from loop two a little after 10. My right knee was hurting (it's given me trouble off and on for a few months), but everything else was great. There were lots of people in the parking lot, coming and going, and even more food at the "aid station". Spent a while faffing around and eating, then looked at my watch and realized it was already 10:20. Time to run!

Jon, Mark, and I ran the last loop together. Jon looked surprisingly good for someone recovering from the flu, and it was great to catch up with him, and to talk to Mark, who I hadn't run with before. We took it slow and easy, which was good for my knee. Aside from a little navigational difficulty around Holland Lake (and some excellent shortcuts through the woods, and another visit to the bunker), the loop went smoothly. I was getting tired by the end, but never felt like I couldn't run.

We were back at the parking lot a few minutes after noon. 6 hours, 40-ish kilometers, longest run since my early October marathon. And better yet, this crew in the parking lot, complete with folding chairs, hot coffee, and birthday presents:
Hello, Maria, Amy, Willow, Troy, and what the heck is Matt doing?! Not pictured: Todd
As I said, my birthday is usually not a big affair. What a cool surprise to have presents (thank you, Wendi, Amy, Willow, and everyone who signed my card!), a balloon, and a specially composed BIRTHDAY POEM! from the amazing Amy! So awesome. Makes me want to have a birthday every year.

This was a pretty excellent way to ring in a new year, a new decade, and a new age group (I'm a Master now! Woooo!). How amazing to spend a day with great people, friends and new friends, in a beautiful place, doing what I love.
Number fail. Photo credit: Todd Rowe
Thank you, my trail running family. I know 2015 -- and my 40s -- will be awesome. Thanks for seeing it in with me!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Superior 100 Mile: Pacing Report

Pacing

I agreed to pace Travis about two weeks before the Superior 100, when his original pacer became injured. I hadn't "officially" paced a runner before, though I did some improptu pacing for the last 20 km of last year's Icebox 480. There were a lot of unknowns: Was my runner going to still be in the race? I'd heard a rumor he had dropped at mile 50, but it turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Would he be well fed, uninjured, and ready to run, or would we be contending with problems in the last part of the race? Cutoff times could be a problem. On the other hand, would I be able to keep up with him? Irrational, but it crossed my mind. More realistically, would I be able to take care of myself and be an asset to him, rather than a distraction?

Despite working overnight at the Sugarloaf aid station, I focused on doing everything I could to be ready. 3 hour nap the night before, hydrating, eating. Arika saved me by taking me to the Coho Cafe for a real meal after I finished up at the aid station. She dropped me at Temperance early and I changed into my running clothes, loaded my pack, and made sure everything was ready when Travis arrived. 
Waiting for my runner in the afternoon sunshine!
At 2:30 pm, 30 hours and 30 minutes into the race, Travis and Steph ran into the aid station. Go time.

Temperance River to Sawbill (5.7 mi)

A quick shoe change, a few pancakes, and we headed out. I knew the last 15 miles of the course, but had never seen Temperance River to Carlton Peak. It was staggeringly beautiful.
Temperance River. So beautiful.
"And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards..."
I ran ahead and Travis followed. It was exciting to see that he was moving well to be 85 miles in. His main problem was exquisitely sensitive feet, but his stomach was good, his legs were feeling good, and he looked to me like a finisher. We gradually gained speed up to a sustainable run along the river. An occasional 50 mile racer passed with words of encouragement.

The climb up the back of Carlton Peak was long and steep. Exposed to the sun, we were getting hot. I tried to aim for a steady pace heading up. We talked as we climbed and, on reaching the high point of the trail, we both gasped at the cobalt blue of Lake Superior and the lighter blue of the sky. I pointed out a spur trail. "Want to summit Carlton?" "Ehh, not today," he said.

A few tense moments as we hit a long section of descent without blazes or trail markers. When a marker finally appeared a quarter mile and a lot of downhill later, we breathed a big sigh of relief. Now we were on the Spring Superior 50K course, which I had run twice. Travis hadn't seen it before and I tried to let him know about what was coming up. It mostly worked well, though the section into Sawbill aid station was (as usual) longer than I expected. Pro tip: Don't use the expression "We're almost there" when pacing unless you're really, really almost there.

Sawbill to Oberg (5.5 mi)

We rolled into Sawbill in just under 2 hours, at about 4:40. We were both concerned about the next cutoff, which was at 7 pm at Oberg. But Travis needed a different pair of shoes with more cushioning, and he needed to eat. He sat down, I plied him with turkey ("Hey! The package says it's 'ultra thin' slices, so it must be good for this!"), Steph swapped out his trail shoes for road shoes. She was a pro at crewing and really kept him on track, which was great.

Five minutes later, we were on our way. "We did that in just under two hours. We're going to do the next one in two hours too," I told him. "It's shorter and you don't have to go over Carlton Peak. No problem."

Right and wrong. It's a runnable section with only a few climbs. But it was also a very muddy section, especially after hundreds of racers had passed through. Nowhere near the mud we saw this spring, but plenty nonetheless. Travis's new shoes were doing great things for his feet, but they didn't perform well in the mud and we wanted to keep them as dry as possible.

We tiptoed around the edge of mud puddles, walked on logs and rocks, and even detoured through the woods. It slowed our pace, but Travis's foot pain was so much better in these shoes that it seemed worthwhile to keep them functional. I tried to find the best route, and Travis made full use of his hiking sticks to balance. Whenever we hit a stretch of non-muddy trail, we tried for a run, but it was hard to get a rhythm going. Still, Travis was moving well and making decent time. I was very impressed.

"Hey, you should drink your energy stuff. Oh, and go this way around the mud."
"You're bossy."
"I'm the closer. We're getting this thing done."

Two miles from the next aid station he was tiring and slowing down. It was time to do something new. I considered what it could be. Just then, we passed two local runners we knew who had stopped for a pee break. "Hey Travis," I said. "We just passed LaPlante. Let's bury him."

He didn't need further encouragement, and broke into a very respectable run. Soon we were doing decent 12 or 13-minute miles down the trail, and kept it up almost all the way into the aid station. "I haaaave no leeeegs," Travis sang.

"That was awesome," I told him, as we got within ear-shot of the aid station cheers. "You look great."
"Oh, I don't really get warmed up till mile 95 or 96," he replied. "Now I'm good to run."
"Good thing this race is 103 miles and not just 100, then," I said.

Steph met us at Oberg. We'd run the section in 1:53 and were 21 minutes under the cutoff. "BOOM! Under two hours!" I exclaimed. He was going to finish this thing!
Oh yes.

Oberg to Finish (7.1 mi)

Fastest aid station stop yet. He didn't even sit down. Slugged down a shake, Steph filled his pack, we pulled out headlamps. Our mood was high. We had 3:15 to do the last 7.1 miles. This was going to happen! We ran out of the aid station and even started running the first hill, before calming down a little. Optimism abounded. Could we do it in just over two hours? We would see.

I explained to Travis that this section has three parts: the gradual runnable climb to Moose Mountain, the steep climb up Moose, and then the long section through the saddle between Moose and Mystery, and the descent all the way to the finish. We'd take it one stage at a time.

We quickly established that his road shoes didn't like running on the damp, slightly slippery run-up to the mountain, and settled into a well paced power hike instead. We approached and climbed Moose with a few other runners and it was fun to have people to talk to. It was still light out, but from the summit of Moose we could see that the sun was setting. It would be dark for our last few hours.

Along the Moose Mountain ridge, I turned on my headlamp for the first time. My, that was dim. That's not good. After a bit, I paused to swap in my one remaining spare battery (I'd given the others away at the aid station... oops). Hmm, that didn't really help. I was leading a little train of about four people, and every time someone behind me shone a light, mine became a shadow. Not bringing my brighter headlamp with the fully charged batteries was the biggest mistake I made at Superior. I think I could have paced better in this section without the distraction of not being able to see where I was going. Lesson learned.

We hiked along the ridge and descended the back of Moose into the saddle. We were moving well, but we weren't running, because of rocky trail and dark. With the coming of a second round of darkness (and now 36 hours and 98 miles into the race), the high of being on the last section had faded and Travis was getting tired and a little low. He talked with Ben, a 50 miler, for a long way. I was out ahead, trying to stay on the trail and set a manageable pace.

"Don't run this downhill," I suggested. "If you f*ck up your knee, that would really suck."
"Hey, you shouldn't talk that way."
"You're right. If you f*ck up your knee, you'll be very disappointed."

Coming up Mystery, we joined a half-dozen runners, mostly 50 milers and one 100 miler, as they hiked up the switchbacks. They were moving just a bit faster than us, and they pulled ahead around the summit of Mystery. We passed the 100-mile mark, according to Ben's GPS, and gave a cheer. The descent down Mystery felt very long. Travis said, "I'm just ready to be done." I said, "We're going to put this puppy to bed." We kept moving. We hit some more mud and were much less careful going through it. We were in the home stretch.

Around a bend, and I stopped. "Do you hear that?" It was a faint roar. "I believe that is the Poplar River. When you can hear that, you're almost there." Our spirits lifted and we went on. And on. And on. Where the hell is that bridge? Are we still on route? Yes, there's another reflective marker. So glad this section was well marked -- even my Petzl POS could light up the markers.

The air temperature dropped, like being in a refrigerator. The river roared louder. Then, around another bend: "Gentlemen, I present to you... The Poplar River Bridge!" I whooped in the night and a few spectators on the bridge laughed.

We were at the gravel road. 0.3 miles to go! We had already discussed it -- Travis was going to run it in. We started slowly, then gained speed as stiff legs loosened up and muscles remembered how to move. Up ahead we spotted the half-dozen runners we'd seen on Mystery Mountain. "Hey Travis, wouldn't it be funny if you passed them on the road?" Once again, he needed no further encouragement. After 103 miles of rugged, relentless, remote trail, he accelerated into a sub-8 minute mile pace, zoomed past the group ahead, and picked up even more speed. I was glad I'd been doing regular speedwork -- suddenly, we were flying!

"I don't know if this has all sunk in," he said.
"Don't worry, you've got all the days and weeks and years to let it sink in. This is really happening," I said.

Down to the end of the line of cones, off the road onto the grass. "Careful! Rocky here!". People sitting on a lodge balcony saw us coming in and cheered. I yelled as loud as I could, "Hundred miler, coming in!" and they cheered louder.

We sprinted to the edge of the pool. I peeled off and he headed around the corner and into the chute. 37 hours, 28 minutes. One hundred miles (and 3.3 bonus) done.
This is what a 100 mile finisher looks like.
Congratulations, Travis!

Final thoughts

I feel so lucky that I could be part of this day and this achievement. Somewhere on the trail, I think I realized how much ultrarunning is a team sport. The runner is out there all day (and night, and day again...) and has a clear, single goal: keep moving till the finish. Massive credit to the runner at Superior. That course takes physical and mental strength like few other things I've seen. The crew, on the other hand, does all the little things to make that happen, and puts the wheels back on when something goes wrong. I was amazed by the selflessness, hard work, and strength that I saw in support crews and pacers all weekend long. Steph and Arika were amazing crew and were incredibly supportive -- not just of Travis, but of me.

I know so much more about what it takes to do this thing and do it well now than I did before. I'm so glad I could be part of it. I hope I can do it again and do it better.

Travis, huge congratulations on finishing your first hundred. You picked a beast! You told me every step of it was just as hard as you expected it to be... and you did every single step of it. That wasn't just the stars aligning -- that was your hard work. Own it, and remember it, and be proud of it.