Monday, May 19, 2014

Sunshine, Mud, and Euphoria on the Trails: 2014 Spring Superior 50K Race Report

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest. Keep us here
All simply, in the springing of the year.
- Robert Frost, "A Prayer in Spring"

"Adventures are not all pony-rides in May-sunshine."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Turning around at Carlton Peak

The summary:

50K + a little extra up and down a spur trail, in 7:41:15, a 19-minute PR. Shoe-eating mud puddles, May sunshine, cascading rivers, wild onions, great people. Another well paced run with a 20-minute negative split (only partly due to getting off-course on the way out) and a strong finish. I feel like I ran this one very well.


This was my spring goal race and one I'd been looking forward for a year. Last year's Spring Superior was my first 50K and it was amazing. My finishing time was 8:00:18 (with an official 8-hour cut-off time). I did it five weeks after breaking my arm -- it was still in a brace -- and just getting to the starting line was a major triumph. Finishing was too.

This year, training had gone well. I'd gotten a few good long runs, including six and a half hours on snowy trails33 miles at Zumbro five weeks before the race, and 20 miles ending with a well-paced half marathon three weeks beforehand. My weekly mileage peaked at 52 miles, a few weeks before Zumbro -- by far the biggest weekly mileage I've ever done. I'd been lifting weights and doing core regularly, and recently added a bit more intensity (and fun!) with a weekly November Project workout.

I felt like I was ready to PR the heck out of this course. Four weeks before, I ran the 25K loop at Afton in 3:24. Based on that, McMillan claimed I could run a 7:16 50K on similar terrain. Well, we'd find out.

My "A" goal for this race was 7:15. Why not go big? My "B" goal was sub-8 hours, which would be a 50K PR. My "C" goal was to finish happy and not severely injured. 

I rode up to Lutsen the day before the race with the incomparable Stephanie, and we met up with some friends and scoped out the trails.
Mystery Trails! Where do they go??
The out-and-back course goes up over Mystery Mountain and Moose Mountain, then descends to the Oberg aid station. The 25K "fun run" turns around there, while the 50Kers continue through more runnable boggy highlands to the Sawbill (Britton Peak) aid station. Then there's an ascent up Carlton Peak, turnaround at the top, and return to the start.
Y-axis elongated for extra excitement.
The most noticeable climbs/descents on the course are
Moose and Mystery Mountains and Carlton Peak.
We admired Moose Mountain.
It isn't big by non-Midwestern standards,
but the trail is rocky, rooty singletrack.
 Maranda and Theresa were just coming back from a trail run as we checked out the course. Thanks for volunteering!
Look at that joy!
The rivers were all very high, due to recent snowmelt and rain. Beautiful!
There was still some snow on the trail, and a whole lot of mud.

 Race day!

I was up at 5:15 for a 7 am race start -- downright luxurious compared to my usual 3:55 weekend long run wake-up call. Chris and the boys had driven in and arrived late Friday night -- I would see them after the race was over. I'd made it a point to get lots of sleep in the week before the race and I felt well rested, healthy, and excited to run.
Ready for a day in the woods!
After race morning check-in, we gathered at the starting line for the pre-race briefing.

Race director John Storkamp. The trail conditions?
"Long sections of dry runnable trail alternating
with deep mud and standing water."
 Then, without further preamble, a quick countdown and we're off!
 It was fun to be running this race for a second time. I felt like I had some idea of where to push my pace and effort, and where to walk. I'd thought about the course, and how I would feel, and what I would do.
In the first mile, the course goes from pavement
to dirt road to doubletrack to singletrack.
We found the mud right away.

Start to Oberg, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Mud

 Even with almost a mile before the singletrack began, there was still a steady line of runners moving up the trail, initially. The trail climbed pretty steadily up Mystery Mountain, and I couldn't figure out what the periodic slowdowns were. Finally, it became clear: people were slowing to detour around or pick their way through the mud.

I was similarly cautious... for a while. Then, three or four miles in, I decided my feet were going to get wet and muddy no matter what. I started plunging straight through the mudpits. Yeah, my feet got wet. But I was wearing gaiters to keep out anything solid, and my Peregrines had meshy uppers -- the water drained right out, and my feet returned to merely damp on the long dry stretches. And it was much easier and more fun than tiptoeing around the increasingly wide, long, and deep mud patches!

There were sections along here where I was absurdly, ridiculously happy. I think the stretch between Mystery and Moose Mountains (to be fair, it was a long, gentle downhill) was pure absolute bliss. It was a beautiful day, I felt great, it was incredible to be out in the woods, doing this thing that I love, and doing it well.

I ran a lot of this race by myself, at my own pace. I had a few good conversations over the day, but not the hours-long discussions I'd had at my first Superior race. It was a different kind of day. I really enjoyed having big periods of time in my own mind, interspersed with meeting some great people.

I'd figured that if I was on a 7:15 pace, I should hit Aid Station 1 at about 1:40 into the race. I was there at 1:50, and felt fine with that.
 The starting temperature had been in the high 30s or low 40s, but now that the sun was well up, it warmed up rapidly. At AS1, I left behind the hat and gloves I'd worn briefly at the start, and my "Zumbro security blanket" -- the wool shirt and rainjacket I had carried out of caution. (Thanks, Chris Rubesch, for improvising a drop bag for me!)

 Oberg to Sawbill, or I Liked It So Much I Did Some Extra

After the first aid station at 7.75 miles, the trail continues to go up and down, but there aren't any big climbs or descents for a while. My plan was to run more of this than the first leg, which required some hiking. I crossed rivers and a beaver pond.
See the lodge in the middle?
 Along this stretch, I was running with a group of 3 or 4 others when we accidentally went off onto a spur trail up Mount Levaux. We started climbing, hit three switchbacks, and came to a patch of snow with no footprints. Then I noticed the blazes had turned from Superior Hiking Trail-standard blue to white. Uh-oh. We turned around and descended, meeting another runner on the way up who'd also taken the spur trail. I later heard a larger group had gotten some bonus Levaux miles too. I'm not sure how much time we lost here, but I doubt it was more than 10 minutes.

Back on the marked trail, I could see where we'd missed the markers -- three flags before the fork, then one that was a little difficult to see, on the correct trail after the fork. Whoops! The upside? The marked trail was a lot easier to run than the climb up the mountain! Heh.

The fast runners began passing on their return trip along this stretch. The leaders were flying. It was great to see Christie blazing through for a big win, and to see Rob running his first ultra and zooming in for a top-20 finish. Julio met me with a big sweaty hug. Everyone had an encouraging word as they passed by.

Sawbill to Carlton Peak to Sawbill, or Wait, This Mountain's Got a View! 

At the Sawbill aid station, I was 13.2 miles in and it was getting warm. I put sunblock on my face and arms, (bringing sunblock = WIN, not bringing sun hat = OOPS), grabbed a salted potato, and headed out for the 4.5 mile Carlton Peak out-and-back section.
A runnable, gradual climb on trails and boardwalks...
... eventually becomes a steep climb through birch forest. Beautiful!
 This was close to the turnaround, and I saw everyone. One of the joys of an out-and-back! Shelly said, "Did you get lost?" Well, yeah, a little. Rick said, "Isn't this great?" I told him, "I liked it so much I did a bonus Mount Levaux summit!"
Todd was excited to see me.
Amy looked fabulous. So much sparkle! 
 I made the last, steep climb to the Carlton Peak summit. Last year, it was 40 degrees, drizzling rain, and about 20 yards visibility. This year, on the other had, you could see forever.
I stopped long enough for a few pictures and a sip of beer with the race marshalls and volunteers at the summit. Got ready to start back down, and then said, "Wait a minute. I promised myself that if there was a good view this year, I'd stop and enjoy it." So I stopped, breathed in the cool air, and drank in that amazing view of the lake and the woods and the sky. It was 30 seconds well spent. I headed back down, refreshed.

Sawbill to Oberg, or Picking Up Speed

 It was 5.5 miles back to the Oberg aid station, then another 7.75 back to the finish. The first half of the race had taken longer than I expected; I started back down Carlton at about the 3:55 mark. On the other hand, I was feeling good, my energy was fine, I seemed to be keeping up on fluids and salt, and I was in great position to make good time back. Hey, with my bonus miles on the way out, I figured I could negative-split my return trip if I stayed focused and moving. I grabbed some Endurolytes at the aid station to supplement my S-Caps, and off I went.
Back through the wild onions by the Onion River.
They'd been stepped on in places and the trail smelled like onions.
I think I left Sawbill at about 4:20 on the clock and got into Oberg at about 5:45 -- about 40-45 minutes ahead of the cutoff in each case. I wasn't exactly flying on this leg (15+ minute miles), but clearly I was doing well relative to my position in the race, because I started passing people, sometimes one person and sometimes a group of three or four.

Many runners really weren't moving much more slowly than me... until they got to the mud. And by this point in the race, hundreds of feet had run these trails. It was muddy! I plunged straight through where some people stepped more carefully, and I passed a lot of people that way. To my great surprise, nobody passed me back, all the way to Oberg.

Oberg to Finish, or There And Back Again

I left Oberg on a mission: I wanted to cover the last leg in under 2 hours. That seemed feasible -- after all, I'd done that leg in 1:50 on the way out -- and would still bag me a 10 minute PR. As it turned out, I did it in 1:45 -- a true negative split! Mentally, I divided the 7.75 mile leg into three segments: the run-up to Moose Mountain, which I would run as much as possible; the steep, long Moose Mountain climb, which I would power-hike, and the saddle over to Mystery, short climb up Mystery, and long steady descent to the FINISH LINE!, which I would run. 

This section of trail had seen both 50K and 25K traffic -- twice each! -- and it was absurdly, farcically muddy. Parts were like running through a buffalo wallow. There was no way to avoid the mud, so I didn't.
 Mud splashed me all the way up to my waist. My goal, going through mud holes, wasn't to avoid getting wet... it was to avoid losing a shoe. (I succeded.)

Chunks of wood and dirt got in my shoes despite my gaiters, but my feet were surprisingly comfortable, so I just kept going.

I was still passing people! People who are normally faster than me! I was a little embarrassed to be moving so much better, but I was exhilirated too. I passed people going uphill, and downhill, and even a few 25K runners. I was getting excited.

I ate my last gel -- a Roctane I'd saved for an extra energy boost. I drank more water and took my last S-Caps. I started the final descent down Mystery Mountain.

I could still run! I had so much energy, and nothing hurt -- just an all-over fatigue -- but I could still run! I passed a few more people and told them, "We're getting close!"

I hit the doubletrack, then the bridge, then the dirt road, then the pavement. About half a mile to go. I was determined to run all the way.

Just before the turn into the finish area, I had a great surprise.

I hadn't expected to see the boys and husband were there!
They'd been exploring Temperance River in the morning,
then came back after the 7 year old fell into Lake Superior.
Of course he did.
 I high-fived my boys and said, "See you at the finish line!" Absurdly, I passed a few more people.
 The last few hundred yards across snow, through mud, around the swimming pool, and through the finish. A glimpse of the clock -- 7:41:xx. I couldn't stop smiling. I stopped for a few deep breaths, hugged everyone I knew, eventually remembered to get my massive wooden finisher's medal. Found my family. Saw everyone at the finish line. Hugged all the people I'd passed who came through a few minutes later. Eventually peeled off my truly appalling shoes, socks, and gaiters and hosed off the worst of the mud. Took it all in.

Epilogue, or Pony-Rides in May-Sunshine

Bilbo Baggins observed that adventure isn't always pony-rides in May-sunshine. But this day... it was pretty close. I got to spend 7 hours, 41 minutes, and 15 seconds out in a beautiful place, doing what I love, with amazing people (and tasty snacks!). I spent the rest of the weekend with my incredible husband and children. I am so blessed to be able to do these things. I am so excited that I am learning to do them well. I am so eager to keep doing them.

A friend described my approach to ultrarunning as "Relentless Unending Positivity." I like that. Because -- as an insightful ultrarunner recently said -- when you're doing something like this, it's because a lot of things have gone right for you. It's good to be able to appreciate that, to be in the moment, to love what you're doing, and feeling, and experiencing right now.  
Thank you, Superior volunteers, John and Cherie,
Stephanie and Mike, Chris, William, and Karl,
and everyone who stands behind me and holds me up.
You are all amazing.

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