Monday, February 17, 2014

Race report: Full Moon Frozen River Run 2014

Ever since reading Joel Button's account of last year's Full Moon Frozen River Run, I knew I wanted to come along on this year's outing. A loosely organized, moonlit, nighttime group run on the frozen St. Croix river sounded pretty awesome, and seemed like a great introduction to nighttime running. Joel's emails promised 12-16 miles of scenic running, with four hours of aid station support and a potluck afterwards. Free! It's been plenty cold this winter, ensuring good ice on the river, but the really cold weather broke for us just in time: the forecast was for 19 degrees (ABOVE zero!) with light wind.

Since I wanted some more miles for the day, I started my Saturday out bright and early with a nice easy 2 hour trail run with Stephanie, who's training for the Spring Superior 25K. The singletrack bike trail at Theodore Wirth was in great condition and we got a nice 7-ish miles in the chilly, clear morning air and wrapped up by 8:30 am.
Sunrise: Worth getting up for!
Check out the ice lashes!
I headed home (by way of breakfast) and spent the day doing ordinary Saturday things -- hanging out with boys, grocery shopping, the usual -- and took a two hour nap after lunch. (Which was, by the way, AWESOME). Kids are getting over a cold, so we had dinner around 5:30, did the usual bath-storytime-bed routine, and everyone was asleep by 7. I changed back into running gear (minus a few layers, since it was now a good 15 degrees warmer), gathered inordinate amounts of snacks, spare clothes, coffee, headlamp, and other running junk, and hit the road for Stillwater.

By the time I reached Joel's office at 8:15, there was already a good crowd there, gathering for the 8:30 run briefing and 9 pm start. We signed waivers and loaded the table with potluck treats. It was great to see lots of trail friends there -- Janet, Mike, Pam, Shannon, Julio, and lots of others. Last year's run had 15 participants, but this year there were about 38!

The briefing covered the route -- 3 miles south, then back to the aid station on the riverbank, then 2.5-5 miles north and back. It covered the wind direction (blowing from the north, take it easy on the first part because you'll be coming back into the wind). And it covered the "trail" conditions. Which were, he warned us, challenging. We would be following snowmobile tracks on the frozen, snow-covered river, but there was fresh, unpacked snow, and it was lightly crusted. Joel's email from a few days before had warned: "The most difficult part is punching through the snow unexpectedly, like riding a trike with one wheel the shape of an egg and the other the shape of a triangle."
Joel (in the center), giving a pre-run briefing.
With a few more words of advice and wisdom (check in and back out at the aid station, don't get lost in the river channels), we were off. First to the aid station, staffed by fantastic volunteers right on the riverbank, complete with bonfire, tent, and a propane stove with two kinds of hot soup. And then, off and running!
Heading toward the lift bridge
 We crossed the lift bridge (welcome to Wisconsin!) and immediately descended onto the river. It was very quickly clear that this was going to be some difficult running. There was a snowmobile track, but it hadn't been used heavily. Much of the trail looked like this:
The view, for much of the run!
 The snow varied in depth in most places from 4 to 8 inches. It was lightly crusted over, so if you ran an unbroken section, about one step in three you'd be on top of the snow, then you'd break through. If you went in other people's tracks, it was like running in 4-8 inches of mashed potatoes. But it was a nice temperature, the wind was at our backs, my gaiters and the cool temperatures kept my feet dry, and by throttling my run down to a slow trot, I found a sustainable pace.
Lights across the river in Stillwater
Janet and I ran together and quickly found ourselves bringing up the back of the pack. No worries, we were both comfortable at our pace and pretty sure at least a few of the people who had taken off faster would come back to us. We trotted along past the pilings for the new bridge (giant concrete cylinders rising from the river), and past the lighted power plant (I think?) on the Minnesota side. A couple of miles in, we overtook Mike and Anjanette. Mike and I pulled ahead and caught up as we ran -- we met at last spring's Superior 50K and did a lot of the same races last year, but hadn't run together since the Turkey Trot.

About 60 minutes into the run, we reached the turnaround a little more than 3 miles in, at a pavilion on a little peninsula.
Jacket off, red cheeks, having a good time!
Anjanette, Janet, and Mike at the turnaround
We started back, now heading into the wind. But thanks to some advice from Joel, we got onto a slightly better track closer to the Wisconsin shore, and made decent time heading back. Janet and Anjanette walked a fair bit of the return trip. I pulled a little ahead of Mike and was back at the aid station in about 1:45.

The awesome volunteers checked me in, fed me soup, and thawed out and refilled my frozen water bottle. Lots of people had recently gotten into the aid station. Many were calling it a day, surprised by the difficult trail conditions. (I think about 15 people went out again after the southern out-and-back). A runner just ahead of my looked at his GPS, laughed, and exclaimed, "753 calories? I don't think so!"

The potluck party was getting rolling up in Joel's office. The bonfire was warm and smoky. Someone asked me, "What about you? Are you going back out?" I didn't really have to think hard about it. I had come here to run! I was a little tired, and it was hard, but hey, nothing felt injured. I'd made time to do this. I wanted this run. Yes, of course I was going back out.

A group, including Joel, was heading north as far as the ice falls at mile 2.5 and offered to wait for me, but I wasn't sure how much time I was going to take. Janet and Anjanette got in and decided they were done, but Mike was up for more, once he got his snowshoes out of his car. It was actually great snowshoe conditions, with the crust of snow.

I switched to a heavier jacket and a volunteer gave me some handwarmers. Mike and I started back out. I forgot to check my watch, but it was probably 11 pm. We headed up the river, passing under the lift bridge (the only place I saw bare ice) and past town. We chatted and watched a little constellation of headlamps heading toward us, from the far distance. A group of seven or so fast runners on snowshoes were returning. Mike decided to head back with them. I looked at my watch, saw that we'd been out for 15 minutes, and decided to keep going. I came here to run! "See you back at the office!" I said. "I'll buy you a beer!" he offered.

I kept heading north, alone now. It was nice. The wind was still in my face but I was warm now from moving along, and the snow was better going this way -- a runnable crust in many sections. I followed the snowshoe tracks and passed a few other returning runners. I kept on eating (I had a Picky Bar, a gel, a Larabar, and some soup, all told) and drinking. I looked at my watch and decided I'd turn around at 11:50.

Right around then, a returning runner pointed out some lights ahead and told me, "That's Joel's group up ahead by the ice falls. He's waiting for you!" Well, okay, then. The ice falls it is! I picked up the pace and met up with Joel as the rest of his group started back.

"I'm so glad you made it!" he said. "Do you want to see the falls?" I'd come this far; of course I did. We plunged off the track into knee-deep, unpacked and untrodden snow. We crossed a small channel island and a channel, and clambered up on the Wisconsin shore to the base of the 60-foot, frozen waterfall cascading off the steep bluffs. Beautiful.

We turned around and started back. We were the last ones out on the river, and we'd been out for three hours now. It was a slow return trip, walking and jogging, hunting around for the best track. It was great to talk to Joel, in the dark, about racing plans, training, balance with family, seasons of life... we were getting tired, but the time went clicking by and soon we were back under the bridge, retrieving the lamp that marked the route across the river, and heading back to the aid station. We pulled in at about 12:50.

I made my way back up to the office, where a dozen runners were still hanging out, eating, drinking and thawing out. Suddenly, I was starving, and my back was achy, and, come to think of it, so were my ankles and hips. And my shoes, socks, and gaiters were soaked. Yikes! It was like I'd just spend four hours swimming through ankle-deep mashed potatoes. Or snow. A baked sweet potato hit the spot, and so did sitting down and talking with Mike, Janet, Pam, and the others who'd gotten back before me. According to friends with GPSs, I had run about 11 miles. It wasn't fast, but I got my 4 hours' worth!

The next day, I was surprised to feel fine. No aches, no deep fatigue, and after another afternoon nap yesterday, I felt pretty close to normal.

What a cool run, with a great group of people. Huge thanks to Joel for organizing it, Kyle for helping, the aid station volunteers for running an awesome operation, Mike for running with me and helping clean up, and Janet and Anjanette for running with grit and determination. And especially thanks for Joel for waiting for me at the frozen falls, and keeping me company on the return trip. Great to get to know you better. Can't wait for next year's fun!
Random selfie from today's snowy run, back in Minneapolis!


  1. This sounds like such a fun event. I love how you did a run before the run to get in more miles. The pictures are great!

  2. Wow! Just wow. Sounds pretty epic. Great job.

  3. Robyn, great "race" report! It was a pleasure meeting you at Joel's office; I was the one who made you keep running to the ice falls. I look forward to seeing you on the trails this season.

    1. Thanks! I'm really glad I did! See you on the trails soon.

  4. OH so epic! It's adventures like these that make life so rich. Sounds like a killer workout besides, but...frozen waterfall? Full moon? Good company? Great post-run food and fire? So many elements that add up to what sounds like a great night. Love it!