Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Race report: Wild Duluth 50K 2013

I had a great time running the Wild Duluth 50K this last Saturday. This is a friendly, old-school trail race with options for 100K (the final event in the 5-race Gnarly Bandit Ultra Series -- incredibly, 8 people completed it this year), 50K, and half marathon distances.

I had decided not to run the TC Marathon two weeks ago, reasoning that with spotty training, I could probably do it or Wild Duluth, but probably not both. And I wanted to do Wild Duluth. So on marathon weekend, I opted instead for a solid 6 hour, 24 or 25 mile run at Afton, then 5.5 miles the next morning, just as the TC 10 Mile was starting. Looking at my training schedule over the summer, I think this was the right choice: I had gotten in a number of good long trail runs, but nothing on roads longer than 11 miles since July. Hard to imagine that 26.2 road miles would be a Good Idea.

Wild Duluth 50K is a point-to-point race, starting this year at the UMD outpost (previously started at Jay Cooke State Park, but last year's massive floods washed away road access and trails) and ending in the heart of Duluth, at Bayfront Park. The 100K is an out-and-back, starting and finishing at Bayfront Park.
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There's a total of 3400 ft of climbing and 3800 of descending on the 50K course -- much less than at the Spring Superior or Afton 50K courses, but finish times are generally 45-60 min longer. The reason seems to be the character of the trail -- lots of big blocky rocks and a fair bit of steep rocky climbing and descending makes the trail less "runnable", especially from miles 11-22.

My Superior finish time was 8:00:18. My "A" goal for this race was sub-8 hours, my "B" goal was sub-9, my "C" goal was to run happy and feel good.

I was up at 3:45 to drive to Duluth, and drove through spotty rain showers and a little bit of sleet coming into town. I felt bad for the 100Kers, who had started by now and were experiencing semi-frozen rain in the dark while climbing rocky trails. After a brief panicky driving-around-the-harbor interval, I found the buses just in time and scrambled aboard, forgetting my gaiters but managing to grab my other essentials -- hat, gloves, socks, hydration pack, camera.

By the time we reached the start/100K turnaround, the sun was reluctantly coming up and the rain had mostly stopped. It was about 35 degrees, but not much wind. I knew I'd warm up once I got going.
Keeping warm before the start
112 runners started the 50K, and 110 finished. Not bad!
 There was a short race briefing from the director (follow the orange flags, follow the Superior Hiking Trail blue blazes, if they disagree, stay on the SHT), a countdown, and a few minutes after 8 am, we were off!

The very first section followed a rocky trail along the Saint Louis River gorge. Beautiful! The roar of the water was loud and the woods smelled damp and fertile. The trail was narrow (RD had warned us about the bottleneck), but it was okay to hike it and get a feel for the traction on damp rock.

A crowded start, but hey, I'm not going for the course record.
 After just a few tenths of a mile, the trail opened out onto the paved, level Munger Trail, which we followed to Aid Station 1 at 3.5 miles. It was odd to be running on a straight, paved bike trail at the beginning of a trail ultra, but a good chance to meet some of the runners and talk a little before the trail got more demanding.
A beautiful day for a run!
 By the time we reached AS1, I had shed my long-sleeve T-shirt, hat, armwarmers, and gloves, and was down to just my T-shirt and shorts. I would be comfortable in this for the rest of the race, putting my gloves back on a few times when the wind picked up.

The course left Munger trail and headed onto the Superior Hiking Trail.
The trail started wide and well graded, and narrowed to singletrack in a few miles.
 The next 7.5 miles, to AS2, were very runnable and a real pleasure. The sky remained overcast, the trees were just past peak but still full of color, there were giant puffball mushrooms growing in a meadow (GIANT! at least 18" across). I drank water, ate Picky Bars and Larabars, and enjoyed the day.

Near AS2, the first 100K racers came by, moving incredibly steadily and fast. I think there was a new course record set? It was great to see them looking so strong.

AS2 was staffed by the Upper Midwest Trail Runners -- my people -- and they were having a great time. In no time, my water was refilled, my trash disposed of, I had been offered Swiss Cake Rolls ("Don't worry, they're paleo!") and instead taken a hard-boiled egg and some salted potatoes, and I was on my way.

The next leg summited Ely's Peak. Shortly after the aid station, there was a steep, rocky climb, blending at times into a class III/IV scramble. The rain had stopped early in the morning, but the rock was still pretty slippery. The sun began to break through and I was definitely glad I'd gone with shorts instead of tights.
What a view!
 From this point until AS5 at mile 22, the trail was pretty technical -- steep climbs and descents, big bouldery rocks in the trail, beautiful and challenging stuff. I just wound along the trail, following blue blazes, eating Shot Bloks and more Larabars, occasionally talking with other runners but often with the trail to myself. It was a great day to be out.

At mile 17.7, we reached Spirit Mountain, near the start of the half marathon. This was another super friendly and helpful aid station. The volunteers at Wild Duluth were really excellent.
Happy at Spirit Mountain
 Long sections of the trail ran alongside streams and rivers. There were lots of bridged river crossings and lots of boardwalks, which were dangerously slippery. I only fell once, on a slick muddy slope. If you were careful, you might be able to do the whole course without getting your feet wet (though mud was inevitable). I got a little wet and muddy, though. For this race, I was glad I was wearing Peregrines, which have pretty burly traction and are nimble, rather than Hokas.
Lots of rushing water, but all the crossings had good bridges
The segment from Spirit Mountain to AS5, mile 22, was a verrrry long 4.5 miles. I think it took me somewhere between 1:15 and 1:30. Lots of steep climbs and descents, not much runnable trail, I lost the trail once, briefly, but quickly found it again. But at AS5, Lisa, a local runner, told me, "We're through the 'W'. That's the hardest part. It's all runnable from here!"

Sure enough, heading out of the aid station, the trail climbed, but not so steeply, and we were on a ridge overlooking Duluth. The views gradually unfolded. First the lake in the distance:

See the sunbreak? It was turning into an amazing day
... then the edges of the city:

... and the cityscape unfolded far below us. Still about 8 miles to go from here.
I just kept chugging along, eating Gu and more Shot Bloks, salted potatoes when the aid stations had them, and Coke at the last two. My legs were getting tired, especially my going-downhill muscles, but everything still felt just fine. I actually couldn't believe how good I felt.

The last 3 miles of the trail climbs up to the watch tower in Enger Park in Duluth, then descends steeply to finish along sidewalks, across the interstate and the train tracks, at the park. In Enger Park the route goes right past a huge Japanese peace bell hanging in a pavilion. A few kids were ringing it as I passed and it deep resonance went on and on, for a long time. Then I plummeted down the hill into Duluth, and before I knew it I was rounding the corner coming into the finish line.
What a great day!
I was impressed by the fantastic finisher's prize -- a ceramic soup bowl and spoon -- and got a nice long sleeve tech shirt. There was hot chicken wild rice soup, and friendly volunteers serving it. A nice, low-key finish to a very nice race.

My finish time was 8:05:51 -- 82 of 110 finishers. I'm thrilled with this time, and I feel like it's an improvement on my performance at Superior. Which, considering my wonky summer of iron-deficient training, is pretty awesome.

Just as important, I felt really good the whole run, and three days later, I seem to be recovering well from the race. I'm really glad I did Wild Duluth and I think it'll stay on the schedule in the future. It's a rugged, challenging, and beautiful course, and it was well marked and well supported. It was fun to meet many local Duluth area runners, and inspiring to see the 100K runners on the course (including the Gnarly Bandits -- congratulations, you guys!). I came away from the race energized, inspired, and more in love with trail running than ever.


  1. Congrats and great race re-cap! What a beautiful course. I love point-to-point runs--you really feel like you're going somewhere, traversing the landscape on your own two feet. And, soup and pottery at the finish line--win!

    1. The point to point course was awesome, mentally. The whole time I was running, I was just heading back "home". And for me, pottery > medal!

  2. Looks like you are really getting past that whole iron deficiency problem. Well done!

    The course pictures are beautiful! Makes me glad trail racing season is here again.

    1. Thanks! Amazing what a difference hemoglobin makes :-)

  3. Great race report!! Thanks! I have been wanting to run this too!

    1. It's a good one! Come do the 50K or the half next year. I love fall running.

  4. That was a fantastic race report...so happy and beautiful pictures. I wish I could have met you! Congrats on a great race!

    1. Thanks! I always enjoy the pictures and the dry humor in your reports, too!

  5. I'm running the 50K this year. Thanks for the preview!