Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Warm One: Spring Superior 50K 2016 Race Report

I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and
exclaim or murmur or think at some point,
"If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
- Kurt Vonnegut

At the starting line, experiencing that moment
of limitless possibility when anything could happen
I ran the Spring Superior 50k for the fourth time this weekend. It's always a special weekend -- the first trip of the year to the North Shore, a trail family reunion on the Superior Hiking Trail, and it's my ultra-versary: in 2013, this was my first ultramarathon. I've run some miles and more than a few other ultras since then, but Spring Superior will always have a special place in my heart.

I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of performance this year. I'd run this one faster each year, with finishing times of 8:00 in 2013, then 7:41 in 2014, then 7:29 last year, and wondered if I could do it again. On other hand, although I'd gotten a few really solid training weeks in this spring, injuries had limited my training volume for part of the season so far. However, most of those seemed to have damped down, though, and my only worry now was pain in my right medial calf thanks to a race-week hill workout with Jon. I rested it, massaged it, and tried not to worry about it.

On Friday morning, I packed up my race gear (so much less packing than Zumbro! No headlamps, no sub-freezing gear, no camping gear, no giant cooler of food!) and headed north with Amy and Lynnea.

Lumbering our way northward. Photo: Random guy with a baby
 At Lutsen, I checked in and met up with my roommates for the weekend, Janet and Dawn. It was sunny and surprisingly warm, and it was easy to believe tomorrow's forecast of temperatures in the high 60's. (In fact, it ended up much warmer than that!).
Obligatory Moose Mountain selfie.
 After dinner, we headed to bed pretty quickly and our lights were out by 8:45. With a 5:15 wake-up time, this race felt downright luxurious!

Race morning dawns clear and sunny, and we're all awake before the alarm. I get dressed, tape my calf and hope it'll behave, drink coffee, and eat my rice, chicken, and peas. I'm a little jittery, but it's coming through as happy excitement, rather than anxiety. It's a race day feeling. There's nothing else quite like it.

By 7 am race start, it's sunny and already pushing 50. I am feeling better and better about my choice of tank top instead of T-shirt, SWAP trucker hat, sunglasses, and sunblock before the race start.

However, I regret forgetting to bring a buff to wipe off sweat. I always forget the buff.

But I remember the fake knuckle tattoos, so it's all good.
Gonna be a good day!
Photo: John Storkamp
I spot John Storkamp before the start and he snaps the picture. "Second year in a row," he says. "In 30 years, you'll have 30 of these pictures!"

I do a few lunges to warm up, and Janet asks if I'm going do to burpees. I do one and ask her if she's going to do hill repeats. She declines.

Waiting at the starting line, I stop worrying about sore calf muscles, heat, and 50 kilometers of gnarly trail, and start to get genuinely excited. I snap giddy smiling pictures of friends and bounce around, just a little.

John publicly embarrasses a few people who didn't check in this morning, and makes some quick pre-race announcements. "The trails are mostly dry, except for a few low spots. Even a little... crunchy." The crowd goes nuts.

With a countdown from five, it's "GO!" and we're off up the ski hill road. I'm running with Gregg, who's out for his first ultra, and we're discussing nutrition, pace, and moderation. Clearly I'm not persuasive because he blasts ahead after the first mile.
Race start! Photo: Mike Wheeler
Outbound across the Poplar River. Photo: Kevin Langton
To my surprise, I catch and pass Janet, who's normally going my pace or a bit slower. We play back-and-forth the whole day before finishing the race together.

The first climb up Moose Mountain passes quickly. The sun is getting strong but it's still cool, it's not humid, and there's a light breeze. I raise my arms and yell "WOOO!" as we crest the first big climb. It's a glorious day. What could be better than being here, doing this awesome thing?

The trails are in unbelievable shape. No mud, even in the places that are always muddy. They're even a little dusty and slippery in places.

I run in a little train with Janet and Ben and some others for quite a ways along here. We're having fun and moving well. Things feel exactly the way they should in the first few miles of an ultra. My calf is quiet. All is well.

There's a little more trail than I remember heading into the Oberg aid station, but we get there 5 minutes ahead of my last year's time. I'm pleased. Janet is a bit apprehensive. "My strategy so far has been 'RRR' -- 'Run Robyn's Race!'" she exclaims. I'm glad to have her company, though.
Loving the descent into Oberg.
Photo: Todd Rowe
At Oberg, I consider that I'm going to be drinking a lot today, and ask the volunteers (hi, Sam!) to fill my hydration pack with Heed instead of water. I grab some Endurolytes and salted potatoes. It's heating up. Janet and I head out together.

Oberg to Sawbill is 4.5 miles but has fewer landmarks so it feels long. There are lots of runnable sections, especially with the dry trails. I run the flats and downhills, admiring the blooming flowers (many more than usual! Spring came early this year) and the still, reflective water of the beaver pond.

By halfway through this section my skin feels hot and I'm fantasizing about ice. The breeze seems to have died along this section and it's really warm now (I later heard close to 80 degrees.) I'm still eating and drinking fine, but feel like going much faster would do Bad Things to my gut.

Front runners start passing me on their return leg. I cheer them on as they come. Mike Borst is once again killing it out there, running at least 7 minutes ahead of second place. He finishes the 50K in sub-4 hours. Awesome.

I roll into Sawbill, don't recall what time. A volunteer has a portable camp shower set up and is spraying runners down. He does my back and neck and I whoop at the shock of the cool water.
"That is AMAZING!" I exclaim. "Did you think of that?"
"No, the guy over there in the blue shirt did."
I go over to the the guy in the blue shirt. "Was the shower your idea?" He nods. I give him a sweaty, disgusting hug. "I LOVE YOU, MAN!" I tell him.

Volunteers put ice in my hydration pack and ice in my hat. I put on more sunblock, slam some water and another salty potato, and head for Carlton Peak and the turnaround.

It's hot heading up Carlton, but on one side we catch both shade and a breeze, and I revive as I power-hike up. Then, around a corner, it's back in the sun and the breeze is gone. I'm grateful for ice-cold Heed and ice in my hat.

I do like the climb up Carlton. It's steep and rocky and I exclaim, "Now we're getting somewhere!"

We top out and I yell, "Woohoo!" I hear an answering whoop ahead. Around a couple of trees and there's my friend Kevin, ultrarunner, writer, and human being extraordinaire, volunteering at the turnaround.

I eye his outfit -- a long gray wig, headband, stars-and-stripes tank top, and jean shorts two sizes too small. 
"Where on earth did you get those shorts?" 
"Ragstock," he answers. 
"They shouldn't have sold them to you," I proclaim. "I think there's a law."
Yes, we're glamorous.
This is what he was wearing. Avert your eyes.
Janet tops out a little behind me and we snap some pictures and admire the view to infinity off the peak. It's a glorious day, despite the heat. 
On Carlton Peak.
I offer Kevin some of my sunblock and we head back down with a final "Woohoo!" It's a little less than 4 hours into the race.

The descent is steep and dusty, and I cheer on runners who are still climbing up, as well as a backpacking group that looks terribly hot with their full packs and long pants. On the descent, my calf, which has been quiet all day so far, begins to ache a bit.

Back into Sawbill, well ahead of the cutoff. I consider the state of my calf and decide that it can certainly handle the next section, which has no big climbs or descents to speak of. With my pack topped off and fresh ice in my hat, I head out, again just a bit ahead of Janet.

Salt has crusted on my face from sweating in the dry breeze. The ice in my hat melts and drips into my eye, and the mix of sweat and sunblock stings. Eventually it gets better, and I'm grateful.

Sawbill to Oberg still feels long, but whether it's the ice in my pack and hat, or whether it's a turn in the weather, I've got a bit of a lift now. There's a little bit of breeze and though I'm still not going as fast as I'd hoped, I'm moving a little better now. I eat Clif beet-ginger and mango-banana puree and Shot Bloks and move along, hiking mostly, running some.
Feeling the heat. Photo: Kevin Langton
I pass Jamison, who's slowing down in the heat. I wish him luck. "Don't do anything too stupid," I tell him. "Remember, it's only May. You've got all summer to be stupid. Don't use it all up now!"

I pass Stu, who wants to know if there's going to be pie at the end of this run, like the one we did at Afton a few weeks ago. "That's an awesome idea!" I exclaim. "Next time we're bringing pie!"

(Hours later, he finishes a few minutes behind me. 
As he crosses the line, I ask him, "Where's the pie?!" 
"I thought YOU had the pie!" he replies. 
"Darn it, I thought YOU did!" I answer. His family laughs at us.)

I pass another runner -- Ryan? Don't recall. We talk a bit. It's his first ultra. "Enjoy it," I start to tell him. But we're both suffering in the heat on the trail, and that doesn't seem quite right.
I think of an analogy. 
"Wait," I say. "Do you have kids?" 
"Yeah," he says. 
"You know how people tell you, 'Enjoy every minute!' and you're like, 'Fuck you'?" (Huh, I think, that came out a little blunt. But he says, "Yeah...") 
I continue, "It's kind of like that. But it's got its moments."

I'm getting tired and my calf is getting worse as I come into the last section before Oberg aid station. I had passed Nicolle earlier and now she passes me back. Not long after that, half a mile before the aid station, I hear a cry of pain. Around the bend, Nicolle is sitting down and holding her ankle.
She's rolled it and heard a 'pop.' After we ascertain she's otherwise okay, I look around and find a couple of stout sticks for her to use as trekking poles. She stands up and tries it out. It's obviously very painful but she manages a few steps and looks like she can hike out if she takes it slow. Another runner has caught up to us and hikes with her while I run ahead to the aid station to let them know she's coming in with an injury.

I get to Oberg at about the 6 hour mark and let the crew there know that there's an injured runner not far up the trail. Then, while the excellent volunteers drape ice-cold towels around my neck and fill my hydration pack, I sit down under an awning and take a stab at dealing with my own injured calf, which is now causing enough pain that I'm thinking of dropping here.

A volunteer hands me a cold can of soda to use as a roller. As I roll it up and down my leg, another runner drops into a chair beside me. "You know," I say conversationally, "this really is a ridiculous hobby. When you find yourself sitting in a gravel parking lot in the woods rolling a can of Diet Code Red Mountain Dew on your leg, you really have to question your life choices." He agrees.

Nicolle hobbles in and joins our little group of overheated, hurting runners. After briefly considering hiking it in, she wisely decides to drop here instead. I repeat my line about not using up all the stupid now. I may be trying to convince myself.

Janet comes in and is surprised I'm still here. I still haven't decided whether to continue, but the rolling and some half-assed homebrew ART on my calf have it feeling better and I've cooled off sitting in the shade. The volunteers have filled my pack and fed me oranges. There's still 10 minutes till the 6:30 cutoff. "Are you going to finish?" she asks. "What the hell. Sure, I'll run it in with you," I reply. I feel good enough to jog out of the aid station, the volunteers whooping and cheering us out onto the trail.

 We're mostly power-hiking this final 7+ mile section but occasionally break into a jog. Janet can outpace me on the downhills, which I'm taking cautiously, but I'm still climbing faster than her, so we're pretty evenly matched. We cover the runnable section leading to the Moose Mountain climb. Hardly anyone is on the trails with us -- we figure most people are ahead of us, or have dropped. But we're going to finish this thing.

We climb the steep "Stairway to Heaven" up the back of Moose Mountain and remind ourselves that there's only one more big climb to go. We manage a little running on the top and enjoy a breath of breezy air.

On the descent, we pass Greg, who's sitting by the trail.
"How ya doing?" I ask.
I eye him more closely. He doesn't look bad, but he's just... sitting there. I'm a bit concerned. "How ya doing?" I repeat.
"I just checked my blood sugar and it was low, so I ate something and I'm waiting for my blood sugar to come back up," he replies.
"Awesome." I breath a sign of relief that he's apparently not quietly having a heart attack. "Need any extra fuel? Need some water?" No, he says, he's good.
We wish him luck and continue on. I'm happy to see him cross the finish line not long after us.

A steep descent and trip through the usually-wet valley brings us to the switchbacks up Mystery Mountain. Up we go, passing another runner or two along the way. We're swarmed by little gnats that try to get into our eyes, and buzzing flies in our ears. But we're glad there are no mosquitos. 

I share my Roctane gels with Janet. "These are magic," I assure her. "They've got branched-chain amino acids and science-y shit in them. We're getting there, step by step."

We're on Mystery Mountain now, watching for the next landmark, the campground that marks the point at which it's all downhill. Around one bend, we can hear music and voices from the finish line, far below us. At last we're at the campground.
Glad to be nearing the end!
It's a long descent down blessedly dry trails now. We're past the 8 hour mark, but we're getting this thing done. The air begins to cool and at last we hear the Poplar River.

We follow the river down and down, and suddenly, there's the bridge. We're almost there.

We cross the bridge, hit the last little bump up, and we're on the gravel road. We start to run. We're going to run it all the way in.

We keep up our run. It's slow, but it's a run. From the gravel to the pavement. Under the gondola. To the end of the line of cones. Turn off the road and around the buildings. A few people cheer as we run by.

Around the pool, and Janet speeds up. I hustle to match her pace and we cross the mat together in 8:37, all smiles. It's not the race either of us expected, but it's a 50K finish and we're elated to be here, to be alive, to be among friends and noise and music.

It's a good day.

John Pitera and me. He's one of the guys who makes the
magic happen at every Rocksteady race.
Before the start of this one, he said, "When you finish,
I want to be the one who gives you your medal."
So he did.
This wasn't the race I expected. But when you're out on the trails all day, sometimes things don't go as planned. It was a day for heat training, for running the miles and hiking the miles and climbing the climbs, for the people and stories along the way that make these things memorable. It was a day for learning to adapt and accept what the conditions and the weather and my body brought.

Any day you can run 50K is a pretty awesome day. This one was no exception.

Thanks to the amazing volunteers at this event who took care of us all, sometimes literally waiting on us hand and foot. Thank you, John and Cheri, for continuing a joyful, life-affirming tradition. Thank you, all my friends who ran with me along the way, for a little distance or a long one. It is a delight and an honor to do these things with you.


  1. Great report Robyn! As one of the few on the last few legs the same time you were, I can say your descriptive accuracy is impeccable. Next time, there will be pie....oh...there will be pie! Let me know if you're coming up for the Curnow. We'll make it happen!

    1. PIE! I don't think I'll be at Curnow, but I'm fantasizing about a fun run through Jay Cooke followed by pie!

    2. I'll definitely let you know when the first ever Jay Cooke pie run happens. Good luck the rest of the season and hopefully we'll cross paths at the Superior fall races!

  2. 50k is amazing. And not an easy course! Glad u didn't have to give the guy cpr. haha

    1. Me too! It wouldn't have ended well for either of us!

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