Thursday, October 13, 2016

Cloud Forests, Whale Song and Bonus Miles: 2016 Grand Traverse Report

Something new this year

When I realized I'd be on call this year the weekend of Wild Duluth, I started looking around for another event to take its place. I was spoiled for choices: there are awesome local trail races in September and October at every distance from 10 miles to 50 -- including four or five just the weekend of September 24! I listed a few possibilities on my coaching spreadsheet, and my awesome, life-affirming coach suggested I go with "what inspires you."

It didn't take much reflection. I wrote back, 
"What inspires me on this list, hands down, is the Grand Traverse. Great scenery, great trail, nice distance, point to point, it's a timed event even if it's not a "race," organized by the cool kids in Duluth, ends at a brewpub that has excellent burgers, really it's kind of a no-brainer."
Since the 27 mile course was essentially identical to Wild Duluth, minus the first 5 miles, it seemed like the perfect WD50 substitute. I signed up and started getting excited. 
Elevation profile, courtesy of the Wild Duluth website
The day before the race, I wrote to my coach, "Race goals are to smile every mile, WOOHOO the downhills, eat delicious questionable food, meet friends, take pictures, make memories." I was ready for whatever the day in the woods might bring.

No good plan

The 27 mile started at Saturday at 6:30. The shuttle left Fitger's at 6. Sign in by 5:30. I hatched a plan to drive to Duluth Friday night and camp, then rethought it when work ran late, picking up the rental car ran late, and it was pouring rain. Camping sounded like a bad plan, so I went with another bad plan instead: I set my alarm for 1:55 a.m., got up and out of the house by 2:45 a.m., and drove to Duluth in the quiet dark wee hours of the morning.

(The other bad part of the plan? Grand Traverse was the day of the fall Cub Scout campout, so after running, I got to drive to Grantsburg, WI and camp in our "4 person" tent with Chris and the very excited children. The upside was that I was so tired by then, I slept great. Even when it poured down rain.)

I reached Fitger's with plenty of time to spare and visited with Jamison and Lisa and Rick, made repeated trips back and forth to my car to retrieve headlamps and forgotten gear, and messed around with my well-stocked hydration pack till it was time for the school-bus shuttle. Up the road to the start, at the edge of Jay Cooke State Park, a quick countdown, and a few dozen of us were off, running by headlamp, downhill along a gravel road.

Start to 123rd Avenue (~6 miles, plus some extra): Bonus miles are the finest miles

We started in twilight, running a bit faster than we planned to down the hill. My goal for the day was to run at my "easy," low heart rate pace (by feel; I don't carry a monitor) at least to mile 17, then see how I felt. We turned onto the Superior Hiking Trail and ran, in a lengthening line, along the singletrack. The sky brightened and our headlamps winked out, one by one.

I enjoyed the chatter and seeing friends and strangers out on the trail, but was happy to truck along at my own pace. A few miles in, as we traversed a wood whose leaves were just beginning to turn, a runner ahead of me stopped.

"This isn't the trail," he said, a bit uncertainly. "I recognize this section. It's not on the SHT."
Well, it was possible. The Grand Traverse didn't have many of its own signs, relying instead on the SHT blue blazes most of the way. I hadn't been paying much attention to blazes, and couldn't recall when I'd last seen one. On the other hand, I hadn't noticed any other trails.
"Are you sure? Maybe we should go a little further and see if there's a blaze," I suggested.
He wasn't entirely sure, so four of us pressed on, down a long gentle slope.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler,
I tried them both anyway.
After another quarter-mile or so, we stopped again. "This is definitely wrong," he said. We hadn't seen any blazes, and he was more certain now. We turned back, heading uphill and sweeping another couple runners coming toward us, down the wrong path.

Half a mile from our turnaround, we spotted a blaze... marking the spot where the trail branched left. "Hey, I recognize this!" I exclaimed. "That's the turn I missed at Wild Duluth last year!" I laughed at the memory and decided to enjoy the bonus miles I'd gotten. After all, 27.4 miles was going to be an instant PR. Why not get my 28.6 mile PR instead?
I passed Rick and Steve some time in
there and made them stop for a selfie.
The rest of the section was scenic but uneventful, and I  reached the mile 21 aid station about 1:45 in. I decided 15 minute miles sounded like a great goal for the day -- it was a pace comparable to my fastest Superior 50K time, and would result in about a 7 hour finish time.

123rd Avenue to Magney-Snively (~5 miles): Ely's Peak and whale songs

The section over Ely's Peak is one of my very favorite parts of the SHT, and I couldn't wait to get on it. I refilled my water, grabbed half a banana to supplement my gels, and trucked out. After a short gravel road section, the trail started climbing the rocky peak, with views of the St. Louis River and the lake unfolding as the climb grew higher.
The climb begins!
It was a cool, overcast day, and I was comfortable in shorts and a tank top, though I also carried a wool shirt and a rain shell, in case the weather worsened or I slowed down. (I learned something from my Zumbro DNF!) 

The sumac leaves were beginning to turn and a few trees seemed to realize it was fall, but most were still green and lush. In the railyard below, trains called to each other, their booming horns echoing like great whales. I ran easily, soaking in the sights and sounds.

Midway up, among the sumac
I passed a few other runners, exclaiming, "This is my favorite part! Isn't it great?!" Yeah, I'm annoyingly cheerful when I'm having a good day. But most of the time, I had the trail to myself, and that was great too.

... and near the top
After following the peak, the trail undulates through woods and emerges on a road. I reached the second aid station about 3 hours into my run. So far I was keeping pretty close to my goal of 15-minute miles.

Magney-Snively to Highland-Getchell (~6 miles): Rockin' the big W

I chatted with the two awesome volunteers at Magney-Snively, a mother and son, while I emptied out my trash and picked out a few more gels. Today, Gu gels were my fuel of choice -- they were sitting well and that's what I ended up eating pretty much all day. They checked me in on their list, I thanked them, and headed off for the next, and biggest section of the day, the part of the trail Lisa Messerer calls "the big W."
The elevation profile shows you why.
The section starts by winding its way to Spirit Mountain, followed by a long gentle descent that steepens as you run along the river. I ran a lot of the initial section with Wendi Baldwin and we had fun recapping the Superior 100 (again) and chatting. Eventually I pulled ahead and enjoyed the descent to the river on my own.

When I ran the Wild Duluth 50k last year, I was already having knee pain in this section. This year, by contrast, I felt great. No, more: I felt amazing. Being able to run the sections I'd hiked, painfully, last year was awesome, and I had a huge grin on my face all the way down to the bridge...
Crossing the first point of the W!
... and back up along the river again, even up the ridiculous steep stairs that are the #1 reason I say I'll never do the Wild Duluth 100k (because who in their right mind wants to see those twice?).

I felt strong and happy and uninjured and it was magnificent

Clouds rolled in as I traversed another rocky section, and there was light misty rain. I passed Jamison and Lisa along this section and said, "We're running in a cloud forest! This is so cool!"
Cloud forests, lichens, beauty
The views just keep unfolding along the
second half of this leg. So amazing!
Not far from Highland-Getchell, I ran into Lisa and Ron, out for a run in the other direction. We stopped to catch up -- I hadn't seen her in a while, and we had races and running to discuss. After a good five minutes' talking and laughing, another runner came around the corner, and I remembered I was trying to run this thing. "Oops, gotta go," I said. We yelled our goodbyes as I charged up the trail. I didn't stop till I got to Highland-Getchell. 
Still crazy happy.

Highland-Getchell to 24th Ave (~5 miles): Keeping the focus 

Highland-Getchell was where I almost dropped last year at Wild Duluth, so I was elated to still feel so good when I arrived. I was still pretty close to 15 minute miles for my overall pace. I chatted with Mae, who I'd met earlier in the month volunteering at Fall Superior and who was volunteering here. I searched for more vanilla Gu. I refilled my water. And I headed out on a trail section I recalled being "runnable but not memorable."

I'd hiked this entire section last year, and it was great to be able to run it. I was now 18 miles in, and I was starting to feel the miles piling up, in my legs and hips and back. Now that I thought about it, the last time I ran longer than 18 miles was... uh... FANS? In June? Yeah, I think it was. Well, I decided, I can definitely finish, and probably in good style, but the final third is going to be harder.

I worked hard to maintain focus as the trail wound across boardwalks, up and down, and across more rocks. I walked a little more. My pace fell off my 15 min/mile goal, but I was still running. I kept eating gels (they were still working), and busted out my secret magic Roctane stash. It helped. I was glad to reach the final aid station feeling tired, but still in the run.

24th Ave to finish (~5 miles): I'm still running

At the final aid station, I spent a few minutes talking, used the porta-jon, and grabbed a handful of pretzels. (Salty food sounded really good by then!) And then, I was off. A final climb to Enger Park, and then a long descent to the waterfront. And, different from Wild Duluth, a 1.5-ish mile section along the waterfront before finishing.

The climb to Enger Park seemed like nothing today, and I ran most of it feeling tired but overall pretty good.

I passed the bell as some visitors rang it, and I imagined its vibrations sinking into my bones.

I remembered hiking this section with Wally Goettl last year, and the good conversation we'd shared.

Down, down, down the boardwalks and roads. Past the turn Wally and I had missed last year. (I was watching the SHT blazes like a hawk after my early navigational error.)

Run across the highway pedestrian overpass. Run down the ramp. Run along the railroad tracks, and across, to Bayfront Park where Wild Duluth ends.

Keep running. It wasn't fast, but I was still running.

Around the DECC, along the waterfront. Passed by joggers. They hadn't run 27 miles on the SHT today. Up to the drawbridge. Juuuuuust as it was going up.

I stopped dead. Tried to take a picture for posterity, but my phone battery was dead. The bridge creaked slooooooly up. Boats went in and out with no sense of hurry. The bridge creaked slooooowly down. All I could do is stand there and laugh, so I did.

First one across the reopened bridge. Still running. Then out around the pier. It was windy and cool. The SHT signs were ridiculosuly tiny, the size of a credit card. Back along the lakewalk, dodging visitors, families, kids.

Then back onto the shore, past the veterans' memorial, and now I could see the finish banner at Fitger's. I passed a few Grand Traverse hikers and they cheered me.

Finally, up the stairs (really? ow), past a few cheering spectators, and to the finish.
At the finish line, all smiles!
My unofficial finish time was 7:20. Bonus miles and drawbridges considered, I was happy. Good, happy, strong, uninjured running considered, I was really happy. It was a great day.

Final thoughts: Miles of smiles

This was a fun event and a great day. I'm happy my heart-rate training is paying off, both in terms of training consistency (I've logged 150+ miles/month three of the last four months, which is my most ever) and in terms of injury prevention/healing. I'm delighted that I could still run and feel good at the end of 28 rocky technical trail miles. And I loved being on the Duluth sections of the SHT again -- they truly are some of my very favorite.

Grand Traverse is outstanding training for Wild Duluth, and a great event in its own right. Thank you, organizers and volunteers. And thank you, Jamison, Lisa, Wendi, and other friends who shared trail miles and a memorable meal afterwards!

Let's do it again some time.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Superior 100 Volunteer and Pacing Report 2016

I spent the weekend at the Fall Superior Trail Races (100, 50, 26.2 miles), volunteering and pacing. It was my third year at Fall Superior, and it continues to be, to me, the premier event of the seasons, the Big Dance of Minnesota trail running. Participating is a privilege and a joy. 

I'm so glad it's time again.

My plan is to volunteer at Finland aid station at mile 50, from the 5 pm opening till my runner, Travis, comes through around 10. Then I'll pace him through to Sugarloaf (mile 72) and work Sugarloaf till it closes around noon Saturday.

Friday afternoon/evening: Finland (mile 51.2)

- I arrive at Lutsen on Friday afternoon and take a quick nap, the last I'll sleep till tomorrow night. It's great spectator weather, clearing to sunshine and in the 70's, though for the runners this is warm and surprisingly humid. I meet Bob and Colleen for a ride to Finland. Colleen is pacing too, and Bob's been volunteering today and will run the 50 mile tomorrow.

- About 10 miles down Highway 61, Bob says, "By the way, you'll have to tell me how to get there. I don't know the way."

- Colleen and I exchange looks. Neither do we, and there's no cell reception. Finally, Bob retrieves written directions from his car trunk, and we're back in business.

- After only a few missed turns and backtrackings, we're at Finland, right on time. Eric is the AS captain and there are already another 4 or 5 volunteers making PB&J sandwiches, mixing HEED, and doing other AS setup things. The first runner has already been through. I jump in to help and so does Colleen, even though she's not on the volunteer roster. Thanks, Colleen!
Finland, getting set up
- Chris and Angela are working here after driving all night in their camper van to reach the race. I met them at this spring's Zumbro, where they singlehandedly kept the entire start/finish area in coffee, among many other heroic things. They've got music playing, van positioned to provide extra light, and Angela has organized the drop bags in alphabetical and numeric order. Dang.
Angela and Chris showing off their masterpiece!
- It's after 5 pm now, and the lead runners start coming through one by one. They're well attended by their crews and have few needs. It's warm and sunny, and I'm eating a hot dog, catching up with Angela, and laughing at her music mix, which is made entirely of songs with titles that could be about running. My favorite is The Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere."

- This is my first time at Finland, and I'm impressed: It's got amenities. A constructed picnic shelter, electricity, running water (even a bathroom!), and -- wait for it -- wi-fi! Also a big parking lot, so crews and spectators are congregating here, awaiting their runners.
Even a playground!
- I meet 2014 winner Adam's mom, Vicki, and hear stories of when he was a toddler. I show pictures of my kids to Bill, who's crewing. Kate, her sister, and her adorable niece and nephew are here awaiting their runner. We all cheer and cowbell every runner coming through.

- It's starting to get busier. Janet G. picks up Janet H., and they're off before I can even ring a cowbell. Susan Donnelly comes through and says hello, downs a vegan hot dog, and heads off, all with the incredible focus and unflappability that I'm learning is her hallmark. We're filling water bottles, pouring Coke and ginger ale, handing out hot dogs, and ladling soup. The station is in full swing.

- An isolated thunderstorm passes just north us and the sky begins to darken in a spectacular sunset. Travis's wife Steph texts me that he's running an hour or so behind. No problem, there's plenty to be done here. She also sends word that Colleen's runner, Rob, had just left the last aid station, hurting but moving forward. In between helping runners find drop bags and distributing hot dogs, I eat some more and make sure my gear is ready to run.
Dramatic sunset, ominous skies.
- An inbound runner has told his crew he was "peeing Dr. Pepper" at the last aid station. Dehydration? Hematuria? Myoglobinuria? We don't know, but I'm concerned. He arrives a few minutes later and I come over and say, "So, tell me about your pee." I realize afterwards that perhaps I should have introduced myself first.

- He takes it in stride, though, and assures me repeatedly that since then he's been drinking more and it's cleared up. We discuss the importance of talking to an aid station medic if it gets dark again or bloody. "I want you to finish the race," I say, "but not to finish your kidneys." He agrees and heads out.

- Jason Husveth sits down. "How's it going?" I ask.
"Good," he says, smiling beatifically.
"Good?" the guy next to him says, incredulously.
"Not great, but good," he replies, absolutely serene.

- Rob is in. He finds me and says, "I need a professional opinion. Am I dead yet?"
    I look him over thoughtfully. "You're moving around an awful lot. But I don't have all my diagnostic tools out here. You'll just need to check with me when you get to the finish line."
    He grins and agrees. He says he's hurting, with bad cramping early on, but he looks like he might be rallying. I cowbell him and Colleen out onto the trail. Later, I learn that they power-hike the next 25 miles, he rallies, and he blows the doors off his final 25 miles to the finish, for a big course PR.  

- Another runner comes in; he can't stop throwing up. His crew says, "We've done races with him before and we just haven't seen this before." He's laying down in the driver's seat of a car with his eyes closed. He tells me he's been throwing up everything he takes in for a few hours, he hasn't been peeing much, no, he's not hungry or thirsty, and yeah, maybe his mouth is a little dry.

- I bring over half a ginger chew (my bag of Gin-Gins is almost gone, I notice) and tell him, "This is made from real ginger. It's really good for nausea. Put it in the corner of your mouth and just suck on it. I'll be back in 10 minutes and we'll see how it's going." He nods.

- I return and he's out of the car, dry-heaving. So much for my sure-fire "psychology plus ginger" approach to vomiting. I talk it over with AS captain Eric, who turns out to have extensive, personal experience with mid-race nausea and vomiting. He comes over to talk with the runner.

- "You can go a long way on no nutrition, if you want to," Eric tells him. "And sometimes things eventually get better. You have to decide if you want it." The runner nods and says he'll think about it, but he looks like he's hurting. Later, I hear that he dropped.

- Eric tells me about a race he did where, the last 15 or so miles, he took in nearly no calories due to nasuea and vomiting. "You learn something from every race you do. Even the bad ones. Especially the bad ones."

- It's getting late now and though it's still warm, the breeze is picking up. I spot a runner sitting in the picnic shelter, wrapped in a blanket and shivering uncontrollably. Craig is vegetarian and our soup is not. Two people crewing for another runner make him miso soup out of their own stash, while he downs two veggie hot dogs. I give him one of my buffs (I've brought several) and persuade him to sit by the fire. I end up leaving the aid station with my runner before he does, but when we see him at the next aid station many hours later, he looks dramatically better. (He even gives me back my buff!)

Friday night/Saturday morning: Pacing, Finland to Crosby-Manitou (mile 62.9)

- It's midnight and Travis is finally in. After a good start to his race, he's been vomiting for the last few miles and has bad nausea now. He drops into a chair and tells Steph and me, "I'm a trainwreck." "That's okay," I respond, ready to bury him in optimism. "I love trainwrecks."

- Steph plies him with an energy shake, a shirt change, and his trekking poles, while he slumps in the chair and looks discouraged. "You're going to have your work cut out for you," he tells me. "I can't keep anything down. I'm going really slow. Make sure you pack warm clothes."

- I change into running shoes (inadvertently leaving my pants and standing-around shoes at the aid station and later leading to a "HONEY, WHERE ARE MY PANTS?!" moment; luckily, they get returned with the drop bags), shoulder my pack, loaded with water, spare clothes, and enough snacks for 10+ hours, and at the last minute, wrap my windfleece jacket around my waist. After all, getting too cold on the trail sucks. We're off, just before 12:30.

- Travis is feeling bad but still takes the time to thank me for pacing, apologize in advance for being grumpy, and warn me that we're going to be power-hiking, not running. As we enter the woods on a moderate, not-too-technical stretch, I'm happy to see that the trail is nearly dry and that we're going at a good clip. It's 7.4 miles to the next aid station, Sonju, with no crew access, then another 4.2 to Crosby-Manitou, the next place we'll see Stephanie.

- Despite his warning that he's not going to be much for conversation, we talk for the next hour or two. It's magnificently, densely dark in the woods. Clouds obscure the half-moon and our headlamps pick out reflective trail markers far ahead. In the dark and quiet, smells are amplified: pine bark, damp ground, night air. Light rain comes on and off, and we occasionally see lightning flashes and hear the rumble of thunder, but always far away. I'm intensely happy to be on the trail, and grateful to Travis for asking me to pace. "I would never be out here, deep in the woods, in the middle of the night, doing this awesome thing, if you hadn't invited me. THIS IS AWESOME." At mile 50+, I think he's skeptical, but it's true.

- I pull off the trail and turn off my headlamp to pee while Travis waits on the trail. Just then, Troy and his pacer Willow come by.
Willow: "Hi, Travis! Where's Robyn?" [starts looking around with her headlamp]
Me: "I'm peeing! Don't shine your light over here!"
Her: "I've got some Poo Pourri if you need it!"
For the next 45 minutes, I ponder what the hell Poo Pourri is.

- Travis is still fighting nausea and reluctant to try any food. Everything sounds awful. He's not throwing up, but he's not taking calories either. He tries a sip of his "weasel juice" energy drink and feels worse. Finally, he takes me up on my offer of a ginger chew. I give him half of one to suck, hoping this will go better for him than the poor nauseated runner at Finland. After five or ten minutes, just as I'm about to ask how it's going, he develops painful hiccups that persist all the way to Sonju. I'm 0 for 2 on the ginger chews.

- "There's no dropping allowed at Sonju, you know." (It's a remote aid station with no crew access.)
"Yeah, I know." The possibility is in the air. He's been considering it for a while, even if I haven't let him say so.

- As a light rain picks up to a more steadily moderate level, we slow down a bit from our initial pace to arrive in Sonju around 4:15 am. I've got high hopes that we can get Travis reset and eating here. He sits down and is quickly asleep. I shoot the breeze with the volunteers while eating soup and coffee.

- After 10 minutes, I wake him up. His hiccups are gone, for the moment. He manages half a cup of ice water and two bites of pancake. Then he stops and stares fixedly at the ground.
"Not good?" I ask.
"Not good," he replies.
"Want to hang out and let it settle, see if you can handle some more?"
He considers, comes to a decision. "No, let's just get outta here." He pushes up out of the chair, sways for a moment, takes his poles, and we're out, in a light rain.

- It's "only" 4.2 miles to Crosby-Manitou. Travis has been suffering and not eating now for over 4 hours and, though I'd love to take him all the way to Sugarloaf (and have Steph take him all the way to the finish line), I'm beginning to accept that dropping might be the right thing to do. The section from Crosby-Manitou to Sugarloaf is 9.4 miles through some of the most technical terrain of the entire course, beginning with the rocky and steep Manitou Gorge. It's not a section you want to start in a worsening calorie deficit.

- The rain increases from light to moderate and then rather abuptly, it's pouring down. Travis puts on his rain shell. I've got a wool shirt and a rain shell in my pack, but I'm already wearing my windfleece jacket, which has a hood, so I decide to stick with that. We pick up our pace as much as Travis can handle.

- Now the rain is bucketing down and running into my face. Our feet, dry till now, are quickly and irredeemably soaked, as the trail is transformed into a waterway, with standing water alternating with ankle-deep mud and slippery rocks. I'm still in front, and keep pausing to look back at Travis as we both laugh incredulously. "Could this be any worse?" I exclaim. As if in response, it starts raining harder.

- Sonju to Crosby-Manitou is known for its crazy tree roots, and they don't disappoint. We're hiking as fast as we can go while high-stepping over roots and going up and down with the undulations of the trail. It's certainly cooling off, but we're moving fast enough that we're both okay, for now. I think, but do not say to Travis, that this sure feels like the weather gods are trying to persuade him to definitely drop.

- As the rain finally begins to slacken, we hear the slam of a car door ahead, then another. We come out to a road, a volunteer with a huge umbrella waves us ahead, and we pass the "Crosby-Manitou State Park" sign. It's still a quarter-mile up the gravel road, but the rain has slowed down and we know the end is in sight.

- Travis and I confer one more time. Is he sure he wants to drop? It'll be light soon. We're under the cutoff. He's sure. "It wouldn't be safe to go into the Gorge this way." He's clearly running on fumes, and he's right. I agree.

His image, not mine.
- At the aid station we are greeted by Matt Patten, who exclaims, "Welcome to Crosby-Manitou, where the food is hot and the coffee is too! Oh, wait, we're out of hot coffee. Sorry." It's just before 6 a.m. and the sky is beginning to lighten. We fight off volunteers' attempts to talk Travis out of dropping (it's their job, after all), he lets Stephanie know, and she goes for the van. He collapses in a chair while I stand by the fire. Now that I've stopped moving, I'm shivering uncontrollably.

- After a long enough time to talk with other runners and pacers, Jim, Todd, Matt, and Maria -- and to destroy the last pierogi and a few other things -- Steph's back with the van. We load up, me in the heated front seat, Travis on a sleeping bag in the back, and head for Lutsen. The rain has all but stopped, though the water and mud on the trail impacts the runners for the rest of the day.

- Stephanie is a rockstar. She's been up all night patching up her runner and hauling things from one aid station to the next, and now she drives our sorry asses home. I return the favor by falling asleep in mid-conversation with her. Sorry, Steph! I try to reciprocate by offering them a shower at the volunteer condo.

Saturday morning: Sugarloaf (mile 72.3)

- At 8 a.m. I'm showered, in dry clothes, and have devoured a bag of Cheetos and a slice of ham. (Clearly, I've moved into the "bad food choices" phase of not-sleeping.) I leave the condo in search of coffee before I go to work at Sugarloaf. The clouds are clearing and the sun is coming out.

- I wander to the finish line looking for coffee, and instead find John Pitera, his wife Catherine, Kevin Langton (who has dropped with cramping), and a few other volunteers. John offers me a hug, introduces me to his wife, and points me to the coffee. He tells me he's going to run Superior in 2018. I can't wait. A hummingbird methodically strips every flower in a nearby bush of nectar. It is a tiny perfect moment. Refuelled, I head to Sugarloaf.
Kevin took a good picture of me!
- Sugarloaf Aid Station is at mile 72, and when I get there around 9 a.m., there's a steady stream of 100 milers and the front of the 50-mile race. Jan O'Brien is AS captain again and, after hugging me hello, immediately sends me over to check a 100 mile runner who's concerned she may have a stress fracture.

- I'm glad to be back in the thick of things. We peel off Katie's shoe and sock and I start examining her foot. There's no tenderness when I palpate the bone, but when she flexes and releases her big toe it hurts, and when she inverts her foot, it hurts more. "Well," I say, "I think it's more likely a problem with the tendon and soft tissue than the bone, so that's good. But it's always hard to say how much harm you'll be doing by continuing."
    We talk around the problem a little more. Then she mentions, "It doesn't hurt when I walk, only when I run."
    I break into a big grin. "In that case, put your shoe back on, get out of the aid station, and walk to the finish! You can definitely get your 100 mile finish hiking. You've got plenty of time." She grins back, puts on her shoe, and heads out. She finishes.

- I cruise around looking for runners in need of help. In between, I shoot the breeze with Jan and Joe and Loren and Rick and Eve and the other volunteers, eat about a half dozen of Joe's quarter-hamburgers with bacon, and drink coffee. The sun's out now, a breeze is coming up, and it's going to be another beautiful warm day. It's hard to remember being cold and wet now.

Vaniply and psychology

- A runner comes in and announces he's dropping. "Let's sit down and talk," I suggest. From his chair, he tells me he's got lethal chafing and his feet feel terrible. I'm not surprised; everyone's got macerated feet after the early-morning rain and the wet trails. We talk through his options: his crew could get dry shorts for him to change into at the next aid station. He could try yet another anti-chafing remedy (he's tried many already). He could find some sticks to use as trekking poles. . I kneel down by his chair and give what I'm starting to think of as the Aid Station Come-to-Jesus Talk:
    "These are problems you can keep going with, but ultimately this is your show. This is a hundred mile race. We sign up for these because they're hard. And at some point in every race, you're going to reach a point where it's going to get hard, and you're going to have to decide if you want to finish. This is that point."
    I leave him to come to his own decisions. He decides to drop.

- A spate of runners come in with wet, macerated feet. It's juicy out there. For a while, I'm handing out Vaniply ointment and bacon hamburgers, and searching drop bags for dry socks. I tell another aid station worker, "What I'm doing today is 90% Vaniply and psychology. And the other half is distributing hamburgers."

- Jordan comes through, looking like a new man. "Remember two years ago at this aid station?" he asks. "When you brought me Cheetos?" I sure do. I told him then, "You look like a finisher." I tell him again. He does.

- A little after 10 a.m., Allan comes in and announces he's dropping. "It took me four hours to come through that last section!" he exclaims.
I intercept him and steer him to a chair. "What, have you got a bus to catch?" I ask. He starts laughing.

- He's been moving slowly, his toe hurts, he's got chafing, and -- most seriously -- he's been doing race math. "At the rate I'm going, there's no way I can make it to the cutoff at Oberg," he tells me.
"Never do race math!" I admonish him. "Sugarloaf Aid Station is a math-free zone." He laughs again.

- "Hey, as long as you're sitting here, how 'bout a hamburger? With bacon?"
"Well, that sounds good."

"Yes, lots of ketchup."

- I bring him two quarter burgers, bacon, lots of ketchup. He plows into it and I tell him, "You're eating like a finisher. Let's get you fixed and get out of here."

- He eventually agrees to take off his shoe and sock and look at his hurting toe. 
"It hurts when I go downhill."
"Well, yeah, I see a bruise near the end of your big toe. And your toenail's ugly as shit." We both laugh.
"You know," I say, "There are only three major descents left on this course."
"Huh," he says, looking at his laminated elevation profile.
"If you can handle the pain on just three descents, you can finish this race."
He starts looking at his mileage chart. "Stop it!" I say. "No race math! Here, have another hamburger."
"I haven't finished a hundred this year," he tells me, eating a fourth quarter-burger.
"Then today's your day!" Maybe he's starting to believe, or maybe he's humoring me.

- I refill his homebrewed nutrition from his drop bag. He puts Vaniply on his foot and slowly wriggles it back into the wet double layer of socks. Puts on his shoe. Slings his belt with dangling headlamps and a giant flashlight that looks like a lightsaber. (I may have called him "Jedi master of the Superior Trail Race.") Stands up, and heads out of the aid station. I cowbell him like crazy and the whole aid station cheers. 

Saturday noon: Sugarloaf

- As cutoff time at 11:45 approaches, there's still a steady stream of runners coming into the aid station, mostly 50 milers. The sweep crew has gathered and we've given everyone in the station a five-minute warning. Four minutes later, Scott comes in. He's running the 100, and he sinks onto the grass. 
"Sweeps are about to head out," I tell him, "but can I get you something to go?"
"I'm done," he says.
I look him in the eye. "You need to decide right now whether you're really done," I tell him.
"I'm really done," he confirms. His calf got pulled and has been worsening. He's done.

- The sweeps head out and just a few minutes later, four 50 mile runners come in. Nobody seems to be prepared to tell them they've missed the cutoff, so I do it, as gently as possible. They aren't happy. They pull their timing chips off their bibs, discuss among themselves, and continue down the trail, no longer racers, but private citizens out for a trail run.

- Bob comes in, among several other 50 milers. It was slow going out there, he said, but he didn't fall. I'm sad he's missed the cutoff, but delighted that he's looking cheerful and noninjured.

- As a dozen or more runners come in after the cutoff, it becomes clear that although some have crew or family who can give them a ride out, several have no way to get back to Lutsen. We're 2 miles from Highway 61, 20 or more from Lutsen, and there's no cell signal. I tell Bob I can give him a ride, then tell Dave and Lisa, other runners, the same thing, and finally decide it makes sense to take them back now, rather than wait till the aid station's broken down.
    Five of us walk back to my car. "We're kind of muddy," one runner warns me. "That's okay," I say, "It's a rental!" We pack in and head down the road, telling stories of other runners and of the day on the trails.

- By the time I'm back at Sugarloaf around 1 p.m., everything but one table is taken down and they're loading the truck. I help with the final breakdown, though Jan, Joe, Eve, and other have done all the really hard work. 
The last of the drop bags.
- Sugarloaf aid station is done for another year. Watching it transform from a tiny parking lot to a small busy city and back again never ceases to amaze me. By the time we're finished, only the trampled grass tells our story. 

- There are two runners still on the course, and they trickle in over the next 30 minutes, followed by the sweeps. I'm heading back to Lutsen, so they again pile into my car. I hug Jan, Joe, and Eve, and hope we'll be together again next year for the party in the woods.

- It's time to go back to the finish line, to soak in the joy, and elation, and disappointment, and all the emotions of the day. It's time for a square meal and, eventually, for sleep. There's still lots that will happen this day, but my immersion in the meat and bones of the race has ended for now.

It's okay. I'll be back. Superior gets a hold on you, a longing at unexpected times to be out in the mud, in the dark, in the woods. I'll be back.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

More fun, more ice cream, more chain grease: Babes in Bikeland 2016 Race Report

I rode the Babes in Bikeland women/trans/femme alleycat bike race last weekend for the fifth time. It's the only organized bike event I do each year, and it's become one of my favorite late-summer events. It hits the sweet spot of competition, hilarity, community, and --at a $5 entry fee -- value. Every race has been memorable: Three years ago, it was in pouring rain. Two years ago, I won free beer for life from Sidhe Brewing (!). Last year, with great conditions and hard riding, I posted my best finish, just out of top 10 on the long course.
Obligatory pre-race selfie
This year, I rode for the first time with a friend, Stephanie. We've run together at Endless Summer and at Afton, but this was her first Babes. The humid and warm weather prompted us to choose the short course (estimated 13 miles, compared to 25 in the long course). I'm pleased to report that we were entirely successful, despite mechanical failures, lost gear, and an impromptu ice cream stop. Here's the story.


We met up at Kenwood Park with 600+ of our best friends, an hour before race start. So many people! It was the 10th Babes and it was a big one. I hauled out my giant Minneapolis street map, survivor of two previous races, and we planned our route as the field around us filled up with riders, many in costume, and bikes.
Bikes and riders assembling. The
line was long but it moved fast.
This year's manifest was cleverly designed -- the long and short courses had different checkpoints (four for the short course, five for the long course) to minimize crowds and make the courses distinctive, and then three common ones, including a mystery stop, to be announced at one of the other checkpoints.

Our route planned, I made some ballpoint pen notes on my left forearm (why haul out the map?) and we were ready just as the organizers called the prerace meeting. After a 10-minute briefing and mosquito attack (yikes! the only place we needed bug spray was there), we were off.

On our way

Stephanie and I mounted up and headed for our first checkpoint at Bryant Park. It was great to start riding and feel the warm damp breeze. We rode south a dozen or so blocks, passing and being passed by small and large groups of riders. All evening long we would see Babes riders everywhere we went, and it was a great feeling of fellowship and joy to see so many amazing women on the roads.

At Bryant, we tossed beanbags into tires and collected our first stamp. We were on our way!
Challenge level: Moderate
Next stop was over in my neighborhood. We got on the Midtown Greenway and rode, catching up on each other's lives as we went. It was fun to bring Stephanie over the stunning Sabo footbridge (she'd never been on it) and onto familiar ground.

Solcana Crossfit volunteers greeted us. "You can check in at the back. But careful -- THE FLOOR IS LAVA!" Awesome! We climbed over boxes and hopped from one platform to another to reach the back of the gym. (Then realized we'd left our manifests at the front, so we did it again!)
My "forgot my manifest" face
On to the next stop, we crossed the Washington Avenue bridge and made our way to the Oak Street Hub bike shop. They stamped our manifest and, for fun, I attempted a handstand.
Stephanie: "We're not taking any more pictures, 'cause
no picture can possibly be greater than this one."
Next we headed onto campus and down to the footbridge. This was a photo stop checkpoint, and we paused to admire the view and smile for the camera.
Credit: Min Enterprises
Somewhere along here, we got the information about the secret stop. It was by the Convention Center, and we were supposed to pick up a piece of trash along the way to dispose of. We rode off the bridge watching for trash.

Having gathered a pop-top lid and a crumpled bottle, we rode into downtown en route to the secret stop. Right past Izzy's Ice Cream. It occurred to me that I wasn't riding to win it this year. And that I was a little hungry. "Hey, want to stop for ice cream?" We pulled over and locked up as another group of Babes riders in tie-dye shirts did the same. Into the crowded shop, through the fast moving line, and back out to enjoy the best mid race snack ever. (I had mint chocolate chip, Stephanie had raspberry sorbet.)
Refreshed and feeling sassy, we pressed on to our next stop, the Convention Center plaza. We rode through downtown Minneapolis, enjoying the rush of warm summer air and feeling effortless. With a minimum of random-walking (and only a small amount of following other riders headed the same way), we found our way to the plaza and it GIANT, interactive, pedal-powered moose and deer sculptures!
(Figure 2, Giant bike powered moose)
Also rope-powered
"This bike is tiny!"
"This is what it feels like to be tall!"
On we went, toward Cherry Cycles in Loring Park. As we rode up the Loring Greenway, I noticed my back wheel wasn't turning well. Huh. I stopped and messed around with it. Didn't seem to be rubbing anything, just... didn't turn well. But hey, we were heading toward a bike shop, so I got back on and kept riding.

As we entered Loring Park, the chain fell off. With minor effort and major chain grease on my fingers, I replaced it. Then Stephanie's chain fell off. "Whatever we're doing, let's stop doing it," she declared. I agreed heartily. We got back on our bikes.

Halfway through Loring Park, my back wheel skewer broke and MY BACK WHEEL FELL OFF. I semi-gracefully dismounted to the sound of grievous mechanical badness, prompting the pedestrian in front of us (who had witnessed the chains-falling-off episode too) to turn around and comment, "I think there's something wrong with your bike."

Thanks, dude. 

We were a block from Cherry Cycles. I picked up my bike and carried it in.

The checkpoint volunteers and Cali, the owner, saw us coming and Cali met me in front, saying, "Need that looked at? I'll take it." With absolutely no drama, she carried it into the shop, mounted it on a stand, removed my back wheel and started diagnosing. It seemed to be a problem with the wheel hub. Cali offered a temporary fix and I gratefully accepted.
Sick bay
While we were standing around in the shop watching her work magic on my wheel, I said, "By the way, my name's Robyn." Another woman, one of the tie-dye wearers we'd seen in Izzy's, had wandered in. "Hey, I'm Robyn too!"
"Wait a minute. Robyn... WITH A Y???"
"Yes! You too???"
20 minutes or so after arriving (and remembering to get my manifest stamped), Cali had repaired my bike hub "at least enough for tonight." We thanked her profusely and paid her for her time. We had one more checkpoint, and then it was a fast ride into downtown and the finish line.

In the early twilight, we turned on our headlights and rolled out, leaving downtown and crossing the bridge to Bryn Mawr. On the bridge, Stephanie discovered she'd lost her bike pump. We stopped, looked, backtracked. It was nowhere to be found. Declaring it a casualty, and keeping an eye on the clock (it was now after 8 pm), we pressed on to the final checkpoint on Glenwood Avenue.

The checkpoint guys were friendly, funny, glad to share our chocolate, and glad to share their observations about the sketchy people they'd been watching going in and out of the convenience store across the street. "Maybe they just need... uh... prepaid phone cards," I suggested. "Nobody needs THAT many phone cards," the volunteer assured me. We thanked them and headed off to First Avenue and the finish line!
The completed manifest!
Rack after rack after rack of bikes!
First Avenue was a pretty great spot for an afterparty, with the DJ, music, and professionally MC'd awards ceremony making up for the fact that we had to pay for beer. That's a deal I will take! We got in the interminable line to buy food (Foxy Falafel and Cafe Racer were there) and were the last people to get dinner before they ran out. Score! A couple of beers and we were well content. We didn't win the bike raffle, but that was okay. We'd still had an awesome evening.

Babes in Bikeland continues to be an amazing event, with a fantastic organizational and volunteer force. Thank you to the organizers for continuing to produce an even that creates community, fun, and laughter. I'll be back!
Yay Babes!!!