Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Superior 100 Mile: Pacing Report


I agreed to pace Travis about two weeks before the Superior 100, when his original pacer became injured. I hadn't "officially" paced a runner before, though I did some improptu pacing for the last 20 km of last year's Icebox 480. There were a lot of unknowns: Was my runner going to still be in the race? I'd heard a rumor he had dropped at mile 50, but it turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Would he be well fed, uninjured, and ready to run, or would we be contending with problems in the last part of the race? Cutoff times could be a problem. On the other hand, would I be able to keep up with him? Irrational, but it crossed my mind. More realistically, would I be able to take care of myself and be an asset to him, rather than a distraction?

Despite working overnight at the Sugarloaf aid station, I focused on doing everything I could to be ready. 3 hour nap the night before, hydrating, eating. Arika saved me by taking me to the Coho Cafe for a real meal after I finished up at the aid station. She dropped me at Temperance early and I changed into my running clothes, loaded my pack, and made sure everything was ready when Travis arrived. 
Waiting for my runner in the afternoon sunshine!
At 2:30 pm, 30 hours and 30 minutes into the race, Travis and Steph ran into the aid station. Go time.

Temperance River to Sawbill (5.7 mi)

A quick shoe change, a few pancakes, and we headed out. I knew the last 15 miles of the course, but had never seen Temperance River to Carlton Peak. It was staggeringly beautiful.
Temperance River. So beautiful.
"And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards..."
I ran ahead and Travis followed. It was exciting to see that he was moving well to be 85 miles in. His main problem was exquisitely sensitive feet, but his stomach was good, his legs were feeling good, and he looked to me like a finisher. We gradually gained speed up to a sustainable run along the river. An occasional 50 mile racer passed with words of encouragement.

The climb up the back of Carlton Peak was long and steep. Exposed to the sun, we were getting hot. I tried to aim for a steady pace heading up. We talked as we climbed and, on reaching the high point of the trail, we both gasped at the cobalt blue of Lake Superior and the lighter blue of the sky. I pointed out a spur trail. "Want to summit Carlton?" "Ehh, not today," he said.

A few tense moments as we hit a long section of descent without blazes or trail markers. When a marker finally appeared a quarter mile and a lot of downhill later, we breathed a big sigh of relief. Now we were on the Spring Superior 50K course, which I had run twice. Travis hadn't seen it before and I tried to let him know about what was coming up. It mostly worked well, though the section into Sawbill aid station was (as usual) longer than I expected. Pro tip: Don't use the expression "We're almost there" when pacing unless you're really, really almost there.

Sawbill to Oberg (5.5 mi)

We rolled into Sawbill in just under 2 hours, at about 4:40. We were both concerned about the next cutoff, which was at 7 pm at Oberg. But Travis needed a different pair of shoes with more cushioning, and he needed to eat. He sat down, I plied him with turkey ("Hey! The package says it's 'ultra thin' slices, so it must be good for this!"), Steph swapped out his trail shoes for road shoes. She was a pro at crewing and really kept him on track, which was great.

Five minutes later, we were on our way. "We did that in just under two hours. We're going to do the next one in two hours too," I told him. "It's shorter and you don't have to go over Carlton Peak. No problem."

Right and wrong. It's a runnable section with only a few climbs. But it was also a very muddy section, especially after hundreds of racers had passed through. Nowhere near the mud we saw this spring, but plenty nonetheless. Travis's new shoes were doing great things for his feet, but they didn't perform well in the mud and we wanted to keep them as dry as possible.

We tiptoed around the edge of mud puddles, walked on logs and rocks, and even detoured through the woods. It slowed our pace, but Travis's foot pain was so much better in these shoes that it seemed worthwhile to keep them functional. I tried to find the best route, and Travis made full use of his hiking sticks to balance. Whenever we hit a stretch of non-muddy trail, we tried for a run, but it was hard to get a rhythm going. Still, Travis was moving well and making decent time. I was very impressed.

"Hey, you should drink your energy stuff. Oh, and go this way around the mud."
"You're bossy."
"I'm the closer. We're getting this thing done."

Two miles from the next aid station he was tiring and slowing down. It was time to do something new. I considered what it could be. Just then, we passed two local runners we knew who had stopped for a pee break. "Hey Travis," I said. "We just passed LaPlante. Let's bury him."

He didn't need further encouragement, and broke into a very respectable run. Soon we were doing decent 12 or 13-minute miles down the trail, and kept it up almost all the way into the aid station. "I haaaave no leeeegs," Travis sang.

"That was awesome," I told him, as we got within ear-shot of the aid station cheers. "You look great."
"Oh, I don't really get warmed up till mile 95 or 96," he replied. "Now I'm good to run."
"Good thing this race is 103 miles and not just 100, then," I said.

Steph met us at Oberg. We'd run the section in 1:53 and were 21 minutes under the cutoff. "BOOM! Under two hours!" I exclaimed. He was going to finish this thing!
Oh yes.

Oberg to Finish (7.1 mi)

Fastest aid station stop yet. He didn't even sit down. Slugged down a shake, Steph filled his pack, we pulled out headlamps. Our mood was high. We had 3:15 to do the last 7.1 miles. This was going to happen! We ran out of the aid station and even started running the first hill, before calming down a little. Optimism abounded. Could we do it in just over two hours? We would see.

I explained to Travis that this section has three parts: the gradual runnable climb to Moose Mountain, the steep climb up Moose, and then the long section through the saddle between Moose and Mystery, and the descent all the way to the finish. We'd take it one stage at a time.

We quickly established that his road shoes didn't like running on the damp, slightly slippery run-up to the mountain, and settled into a well paced power hike instead. We approached and climbed Moose with a few other runners and it was fun to have people to talk to. It was still light out, but from the summit of Moose we could see that the sun was setting. It would be dark for our last few hours.

Along the Moose Mountain ridge, I turned on my headlamp for the first time. My, that was dim. That's not good. After a bit, I paused to swap in my one remaining spare battery (I'd given the others away at the aid station... oops). Hmm, that didn't really help. I was leading a little train of about four people, and every time someone behind me shone a light, mine became a shadow. Not bringing my brighter headlamp with the fully charged batteries was the biggest mistake I made at Superior. I think I could have paced better in this section without the distraction of not being able to see where I was going. Lesson learned.

We hiked along the ridge and descended the back of Moose into the saddle. We were moving well, but we weren't running, because of rocky trail and dark. With the coming of a second round of darkness (and now 36 hours and 98 miles into the race), the high of being on the last section had faded and Travis was getting tired and a little low. He talked with Ben, a 50 miler, for a long way. I was out ahead, trying to stay on the trail and set a manageable pace.

"Don't run this downhill," I suggested. "If you f*ck up your knee, that would really suck."
"Hey, you shouldn't talk that way."
"You're right. If you f*ck up your knee, you'll be very disappointed."

Coming up Mystery, we joined a half-dozen runners, mostly 50 milers and one 100 miler, as they hiked up the switchbacks. They were moving just a bit faster than us, and they pulled ahead around the summit of Mystery. We passed the 100-mile mark, according to Ben's GPS, and gave a cheer. The descent down Mystery felt very long. Travis said, "I'm just ready to be done." I said, "We're going to put this puppy to bed." We kept moving. We hit some more mud and were much less careful going through it. We were in the home stretch.

Around a bend, and I stopped. "Do you hear that?" It was a faint roar. "I believe that is the Poplar River. When you can hear that, you're almost there." Our spirits lifted and we went on. And on. And on. Where the hell is that bridge? Are we still on route? Yes, there's another reflective marker. So glad this section was well marked -- even my Petzl POS could light up the markers.

The air temperature dropped, like being in a refrigerator. The river roared louder. Then, around another bend: "Gentlemen, I present to you... The Poplar River Bridge!" I whooped in the night and a few spectators on the bridge laughed.

We were at the gravel road. 0.3 miles to go! We had already discussed it -- Travis was going to run it in. We started slowly, then gained speed as stiff legs loosened up and muscles remembered how to move. Up ahead we spotted the half-dozen runners we'd seen on Mystery Mountain. "Hey Travis, wouldn't it be funny if you passed them on the road?" Once again, he needed no further encouragement. After 103 miles of rugged, relentless, remote trail, he accelerated into a sub-8 minute mile pace, zoomed past the group ahead, and picked up even more speed. I was glad I'd been doing regular speedwork -- suddenly, we were flying!

"I don't know if this has all sunk in," he said.
"Don't worry, you've got all the days and weeks and years to let it sink in. This is really happening," I said.

Down to the end of the line of cones, off the road onto the grass. "Careful! Rocky here!". People sitting on a lodge balcony saw us coming in and cheered. I yelled as loud as I could, "Hundred miler, coming in!" and they cheered louder.

We sprinted to the edge of the pool. I peeled off and he headed around the corner and into the chute. 37 hours, 28 minutes. One hundred miles (and 3.3 bonus) done.
This is what a 100 mile finisher looks like.
Congratulations, Travis!

Final thoughts

I feel so lucky that I could be part of this day and this achievement. Somewhere on the trail, I think I realized how much ultrarunning is a team sport. The runner is out there all day (and night, and day again...) and has a clear, single goal: keep moving till the finish. Massive credit to the runner at Superior. That course takes physical and mental strength like few other things I've seen. The crew, on the other hand, does all the little things to make that happen, and puts the wheels back on when something goes wrong. I was amazed by the selflessness, hard work, and strength that I saw in support crews and pacers all weekend long. Steph and Arika were amazing crew and were incredibly supportive -- not just of Travis, but of me.

I know so much more about what it takes to do this thing and do it well now than I did before. I'm so glad I could be part of it. I hope I can do it again and do it better.

Travis, huge congratulations on finishing your first hundred. You picked a beast! You told me every step of it was just as hard as you expected it to be... and you did every single step of it. That wasn't just the stars aligning -- that was your hard work. Own it, and remember it, and be proud of it. 

Superior Fall 100, 50, and Marathon: Volunteer Report

Well, that was pretty awesome.

Ever since last year's Fall Superior trail races I knew I wanted to be involved this year. The Superior 100 is a classic, long-running, point-to-point hundred miler (actually 103.3 mi) on the Superior Hiking Trail. It is, as the motto suggests, Relentless, Rugged, and Remote. In terms of the number of runners, the scale of the operation, and the volunteer force needed to make it go, it's probably the biggest trail running event of the season around here.

I volunteered to work the overnight aid station at Sugarloaf, mile 72.3. Then, two weeks before the race, I ran with Travis, who needed a pacer for the final 18 miles. Well, sure, I could do that. Then we decided to all go to the North Shore, instead of me going solo. The schedule was filling up. In retrospect, the weekend was a bit overfilled, and we won't do it that way again... but every part of it was pretty great. 

This is the aid station volunteer report. The pacing report is here.  It really needed its own post. Apologies for the relative lack of pictures; it was dark, and then I was busy. It's still a good story, though.

En Route: Jay Cooke and the North Shore

Friday morning, we packed up and took off for the North Shore, stopping off for lunch and a hike/rock scramble at Jay Cooke State Park.
It was great to be back at the swinging bridge!
 The weather was unbelievably beautiful, with clear blue skies, sunshine, and crisp air. It was just cool enough that the fire in the Jay Cooke fireplace felt nice.
Rock scrambling on his 8th birthday
Wildflowers and wild mushrooms
Playing in the river channels
 We made the rest of the drive up to Tofte and checked into our cabin. After making some dinner and exploring the lake shore, we headed up to my aid station. The first runners wouldn't be through till after 10 pm, but the volunteers, headed by Jan and Joe O'Brien, were already setting things up when we got there at 7. We took a short hike up the Superior Hiking Trail. It was muddy and wild king bolete, lobster, and Amanita muscaria mushrooms were everywhere -- the first two delicious edibles, the latter a hallucinogen. The 8 year old loved running up and down the trail (yelling "CANNONBALL!!!"), and the 5 year old kept asking incredulously, "Do people really run on this?"

Overnight Aid Station

As darkness fell, the boys headed out and aid station prep continued. The tents and tables went up, the generator fired up Christmas lights, we set up camp stoves, and Karey and I cut up fruit and made dozens of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. As the sun set, the air cooled off, eventually reaching temperatures in the 40s. Runners coming through would be comfortable in a base layer and shorts, but standing in the woods with a little dampness in the air, we cooled down quickly. Everyone dug out more clothes.

I knew that if I was going to pace 18 miles the next day I needed some rest. At 9 pm, when preparations were well underway and no runners were arriving yet, I went off to the tent for a 3 hour nap. Surprisingly refreshed, I emerged at midnight to find that a half-dozen runners had come through. Two or three crews were settled in folding chairs with their dogs, waiting for their runners. There was quiet conversation, punctuated by cheers and excitement when a runner and pacer came into the aid station. (No cowbell; people were taking turns napping).

"Woohoo! Runner in! Lookin' good. What can we get you? We've got hot coffee, hot soup, bacon, lefse with sugar and butter..."
... and the usual aid station deliciousness, of course.
 Sugarloaf comes just after one of the longest, hardest sections of trail: 9.4 miles from Crosby Manitou, through a steep technical descent and climb out of a gorge, then a long run along a ridge. Runners looked relieved to be through and on to a new section. It was nice to be able to tell them, "There are no more sections that are that long. And the next sections's only 5.6 miles and more runnable!"

So many amazing runners and crews. After three minutes of chat, one pacer said to his runner, "Well, this has been delightful, but it's really time to be going now." And off they went. One frontrunner exclaimed, "This is harder than Badwater!" April beamed at everyone and looked like she'd started running about 10 minutes ago. Grant came through and gamely tried the lefse, and a bit of everything else. Several runners complained the course was poorly marked, then one came in and said, "I moved some of the markers so they're easier to see now." Lesley's crew ran down a printed checklist with her. She saw me goggling at this incredible level of organization and said, apologetically, "We're engineers." I said, "Will you come do that for me? Not at a race, just for my life?"

Marcus's dad hung out with us for a long time, chatting. So did Mike Jambor. Todd showed up, having paused in his pacing duties to escort a sick runner back to Crosby-Manitou. He gave us updates on who had dropped and who was still running well, then got impatient and headed backward on the trail to find Kathy. A runner who had dropped at an earlier station showed up and waited for a ride. We wrapped him in a space blanket and a sleeping bag and he crashed in a chair for a while.

A couple running the 100 cheerfully announced that they were dropping. Why? I asked. "This really isn't running. This trail isn't runnable." "You both look great and daylight is coming. Why don't you do one more section and think about it?" I suggested. "No, we're going to go get breakfast. Bye!"

Around 6 am, the sky began to glow in the east and runners told us about the incredible moon-set they had witnessed on the trail. With the brightening sky, everyone's mood lifted. The air began to warm.

Runners coming in now had been on the trail for 22 hours, and some of them were beginning to have difficulties. The leaders had all blazed through looking strong, but now we began to see a few runners who stared at the aid-station food as if nothing looked appealing, a few who collapsed into a chair and began stripping off muddy shoes hesitantly, as though they were afraid of what they'd find inside, one or two whose crew surrounded them and began intense resuscitation work.

The sun climbed. We shed layers, Joe cooked bacon and bratwurst, we made more soup, drank coffee. Now we had three or four runners at a time in the aid station and things were busy. I taped a few gnarly-looking feet, handed out Tums and Vaseline, dug in my own stash for ginger chews, K-Tape, and spare batteries. I made peanut-butter bananas for a runner who didn't know what to eat, mixed Tailwind for a few runners, put Tegaderm on a friend's chafed back. Gave hugs to friends who were coming through, and encouragement and cheer to everyone else.

Things got really busy once the 50-mile racers started showing up around 8 am. The front-runners looked so fast compared to the 100 milers we'd been seeing for the last 10 hours! We all woke up a bit more so we could do fast water-bottle refills for runners in a hurry.

By 9 or 10 am, the sun was warm and the aid station was in full swing, with crowds of 50 and 100 mile runners, crews, pacers, friends, kids, and dogs filling the station and the road. We went through water, ice, oranges, we even ran out of Coke by the end. Lots of friends came through, killing it in the 50 and 100 mile. I got sweaty hugs and big smiles. My runner, Travis, came in with Arika and we handed him off to Steph to run him the next 13 miles, where I would pick him up. Jordan, who's running Gnarly Bandit, came in looking a little rough, and Rick revived him with bratwurst and Cheetos. A few friends running the 100 came in looking like they were having trouble. Their crews descended on them and rendered aid. I was busy with blisters, queasy stomachs, and iffy ankles. I, then Lisa, then Joy the medic, spent a while with a runner who had unusual chest pain and tingling hands.

The tide was slowing by 11 am, and the station's cut-off time was 11:45. The sweep crew arrived and stood around looking ready to go. By 11:30, we were focusing on keeping runners moving through efficiently. "You can't stay here long, but let's pack you some food to take along. What sounds good? Sandwiches? Okay, here's a bag."

At 11:40, Beth rolled in, running the 50-mile. Her husband and kids ran to meet her and I heard her little boy say, "Mommy, you made the cutoff you were worried about! Now I KNOW you'll win!" It was the awesomest thing I had heard all morning.

At 11:42, a runner came in and asked if I could tape his ankle. Yes, but quickly. I taped, he taped some more. "You've got to go now," I said. "Shoes on? Great. Stand up. Hat on. Stick in this hand. Bag of sandwiches in this hand. You're set. Go!" He went. The sweep crew headed out. The aid station was closed.

After some clean-up and break-down work, part one of my 24 hour Superior adventure was over. It was time to get ready to pace.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Voyageur 50 Mile 2014 Race Report

Executive summary:

50 miles (!!!!) in 13:06. My second 50 mile start, and first finish. Warm weather (temps reached the 90s) on a course that alternated between runnable trails and laughably steep hills. To everyone who told me Voyageur is special: you're right. Joy, sunshine, heat, thunderstorm, pain, laughter, weirdness. Special thanks and congratulations to Todd "Always a Threat to Finish" Rowe, who ran the last 16+ miles with me and was the first to congratulate me on my finish.
Finish line thunderstorm: Me, Todd, and a photobomb by Julio

Prologue: Always a threat to finish

After a pretty excellent training cycle (3 50K races -- Spring Superior, Chester Woods, Afton -- and a few other big weekends of running hills and heat, plus lots of weekday hill repeats), the wheels had kind of come off during my taper. Big work related stress and nagging heel and hamstring aches dogged the three weeks before race day. I was prepared to not start if things were bad, and to drop at any point if they became bad. I'd already had a great season, I had big things to look forward to in the fall (Wineglass Marathon, Icebox 480), and more immediately, I was going on vacation the day after Voyageur and wanted to have epic times in Colorado.

But, as race week approached, with a lot of rest and some major intervention from my awesome ART guy, things were looking up. By my final run, two days before the race, things felt decent again. The hamstring was painless and the heel only ached a bit. I was cautiously optimistic. I would start the race, and we'd see how it went. I gave myself a 50% chance of finishing.

My goals were extremely loose: McMillan claimed I could run a 12:05 on an Afton-like 50 mile course, so I decided that would be a good "A" goal. And the course cut-off was 14 hours. That was my "B" goal. My main goal, really, was to stop before I did something stupid.

Thursday night I packed everything for race day, and (separately) everything for a week's vacation. Friday before the race I was at work at 5 a.m. to blast through my backlog of work. I finished at 5 p.m., stopped at home long enough to grab some dinner and kiss boys goodbye, and headed up to Carlton. Not exactly the relaxing pre-race day you'd hope for, but it would do.

Jenny, Harriet, Julie and I shared a motel room the night before the race. Thank you, Jenny, for sharing your room! With only slightly more nervous laughter and conversation than necessary, we were asleep by 9.

Race morning: Gonna be a warm one

We were all up at 4:15 and ready to roll. After looking at the weather forecast, which predicted heat and humidity, Harriet and Jenny decided to take the 5 a.m. race start (regular start was at 6). Julie and I moved a bit more deliberately through our race-morning rituals: she brewed coffee, I ate hard-boiled eggs and a sweet potato. I fussed with my drop bags (one for the 10/40 mile aid station, one for the 25 mile turnaround) and made sure my hydration pack was set up.
Race day hotel selfie
When I stepped out of the hotel at 5:15, it was 65 degrees and foggy. Hmm, gonna be a warm one.

Race start/finish were at Carlton High School, which provided bathrooms, a kitchen for the post-race meal, and, theoretically, showers (we discovered, at the end of the race, that the women's locker room showers weren't working... bummer!). Got there and parked in plenty of time, dropped off my drop bags, and said hello to some friends while I finished breakfast.

Soon, it was time for a brief pre-race briefing (follow the orange flags, tell someone if you're dropping... oh, and by the way, there's a 5K mud run happening on the route at Spirit Mountain -- don't climb the cargo net! Just go around it. I didn't ask whether people who skipped the cargo net had to do burpees), a quick countdown, and off we went!
Pre-race briefing and race start

Miles 1-25:Outbound, Carlton to Duluth (or, Sunshine, Hills, and How About a Mud Run?)

Voyageur is an out-and-back race that uses singletrack, multitrack and cross-country ski trails, paved bike trails, and a few miles of road to take you from Carlton to the Duluth Zoo and back again.  Many sections are very runnable, a few are technical (particularly the first/last 3+ miles)... aaaand a few are just bonkers. Yes, I'm talking about the Powerlines.
We started on a short section of bike trail...
... then a beautiful section through Jay Cooke State Park, following
the St. Louis River. The technical singletrack made a bit of a bottleneck.
Soon we were at the iconic Swinging Bridge
and coming into the first aid station!
Coming across the swinging bridge.
Photo credit: Shane Olson
Shafts of sunlight on a hazy morning.
The AS1-2 segment was on runnable XC ski trails.
So far, everything was feeling shockingly good. My hamstring was quiet. My heel occasionally ached a bit, but seemed to respond to altering my gait. I think the bottleneck in the first section kept me from going out too fast and let me find my pace.

I started implementing my nutrition plan -- 200 kcal/hour, with a mix of Larabars, Shot Bloks, and gels. An S-Cap every 30 minutes, and water ad lib. I front-loaded the Larabars, figuring I might not want solid food later in the day. I also ate salted potatoes and drank Heed at every aid station. (Later in the day, a few of them ran out of potatoes so I enjoyed salted watermelon instead.) There are some days when this feels like too much food, but today my stomach was handling it all just fine. To credit Chris McDougall, today, it really did feel like "an eating contest with some exercise and scenery." I decided to just stick with the plan as long as it worked.

The race route was mostly back to its original, after historic floods in 2012 had damaged many of the trails in Jay Cooke State Park. Still, there were a few areas where we skirted areas of damage. I particularly enjoyed the trail markers:
Yes, that's a fence marked "Trail Closed For Your Safety"...
and a course marker routing us right around it.
And this one said "Hazardous Area" and
routed us through a dam construction site.
I chatted with a few people as we went along, but was mostly enjoying running alone. I was still nervous about my heel and didn't want to get pulled into running someone else's pace.
If you were careful, you could probably do all the
stream crossings with dry feet. (I didn't.)
Before I knew it, I was at aid station 3 (hello, Mike!), re-loading from my drop bag and preparing to face the Powerlines. A preface, for non-Minnesota trail runners: The Powerlines are hands down the most widely remarked-upon feature of the Voyageur (and Curnow Trail Marathon) course. Exposed, ludicrously steep, frequently overgrown, and notoriously slick and muddy if there's been any rain in the last several weeks. Great works of literature have been written about them. (Seriously, go read that. Now. I'll wait.) Bumper stickers have been made singing their praises. Julie Berg had told me they were her favorite part of the course and made her laugh. I was looking forward to meeting them.

Not too far out of the aid station, I had my chance.
Yes, you go up that.
I crested the first ridiculously steep climb (I could reach forward and touch the trail with my hands) and skidded down the other side.
Zach: "So, what do you think of the Powerlines?"
Me: "They're completely bonkers!"
Photo credit: Zach Pierce.
... aaand back into the woods for a half-mile. Someone told me, "That was Purgatory. The big Powerlines are up ahead." Oh, really?
Yup, really.
Not sure how long the Powerlines were, but from AS3-4 (Powerlines, plus some less exposed sections and stream crossings) was about 3 miles. I was delighted to get through it in under an hour.
Another insane descent on loose soil!
Voyageur veterans tell me the Powerlines were in the best shape they'd ever seen -- dry and even a little dusty. Last year, it rained all day and they were almost perfectly impossible to climb (or descend in a non-life-threatening way).

Powerlines behind me, it was on to the second half of the outbound trip. Up a section of trail so steep there were ropes to help climb and descend:
As usual, the picture doesn't really fully communicate the ridiculousness
... along a long runnable section with gradual climbs and descents down to Fond du Lac and back. At this point I started seeing the front runners coming back through. I nearly missed Michael Borst, the eventual winner -- I was taking a drink and he was flying effortlessly past. And Christie Nowak once again killed it for the women. She's unstoppable this year!

I was still feeling great pulling into Beck's Road Aid Station at mile 19, staffed by my peeps, the Upper Midwest Trail Runners. Smiles, hugs, and encouragement all around. I started putting ice in my hat at every aid station somewhere along here, and ice into my hydration pack. The day was heating up, and the ice felt great!
Stephanie, me, Amy, Maria. Thank you, ladies! You rocked!
There was a mile-long road hill after Beck's Road, followed by a long runnable descent. Before I knew it, I was at the Spirit Mountain ski area. And, as promised, there was a mud run happening.
Great views of Lake Superior, and the promise of a long descent
into Duluth (and a climb back out)
The 5K mud runners were easy to distinguish from the 50 milers. We were cleaner! And, although we were all 22 (or 28) miles into a 50 mile race, I think we looked a little less wiped out.

I cheered everyone on as I crossed Spirit Mountain, ultrarunners and mud runners alike. We were getting near the turnaround now, and there were lots of familiar faces.
I decided not to climb the cargo net...
... or go down the giant inflatable Slip-N-Slide.
From Spirit Mountain, there was a long gradual descent, lots of friends to pass and greet (some looked great, some looked hot, nearly everyone finished in good style), and suddenly I was at the turnaround. I looked at my watch: 6:05. Holy crap, was that 12:05 going to happen? With the growing heat of the day and the net-uphill return leg, it seemed unlikely... but I was in good shape, and feeling great.

Miles 26-50: Inbound, Duluth to Carlton (or, All You Have To Do Is Manage)

I was at the turnaround! I was halfway finished! I was elated. I put on a new layer of sunblock and bug spray (the sun was fierce, the bugs weren't so bad), re-loaded my backpack, ice in my hat, and headed out. (Note: I lost my drop bag from this site, I think because it was brown and blended in with the dirt and woods. Next time, use a brightly colored bag!)

Back up to Spirit Mountain. I felt strong. I was running a significant portion of the uphill and passing people! It all felt fine. Back up and down the hill to Beck's Road. Still running strong, even on the hills!

Pulled into Beck's Road, now mile 31. Joel was there with his sons, volunteering. "Joel, I think I'm going to do this," I said. It was the first time I'd really had that thought. Joel's about the most levelheaded guy I know. He looked me in the eye and said, "Remember: All you have to do is manage for the next few miles. Then, if you feel good at the last aid station, go!"

I headed out on the Fond du Lac loop, thinking about managing.  Not far out of the aid station, I overtook Todd, power-hiking a section of runnable trail. He explained he'd been having muscle cramps despite salt and fluids, and was having trouble running. I hiked with him. Despite his troubles, he was moving only a bit slower than I was, and we stuck together through the next few miles. As we hit a stretch of paved bike path, we ramped up to a run.
Photo credit: Shane Olson
By now, the day was growing seriously hot. We hit the Powerlines in mid-afternoon, when the temperatures were reaching the 90s. It was humid, though the breeze at the top of the hills felt amazing.
"Look noble!"
It was good to have share this part of the return trip with someone else. Stories of friends, trails, tattoos, races past and races to come seem to flow naturally. The miles went by. They didn't fly, but they ticked steadily on.

My heel and hamstring hadn't bothered me in hours. In fact, aside from a developing hot spot on the ball of my right foot, and one on my left heel, from many hours of wet socks, I still felt pretty good! At the mile 40 aid station, I had a spare pair of socks and shoes. I considered changing socks, and maybe shoes, but decided that with only 10 miles left to go, I could just get it done. (Note: as it turns out, this was a tactical error).
We kept going, through the construction site, through the cross-country ski trails, down to the swinging bridge. The last aid station!
This is really going to happen!
(Protip: Next time, get the photo BEFORE putting ice in my hat)
The last section was long. That beautiful technical wooded trail through Jay Cooke along the river? Long, and dark since it was clouding over, and boy, my foot was getting more sore all the time. Neither of us wanted a sprained ankle, and we power-hiked most of the section.

We must be near the bike path, right? Think we can get under 13 hours? Say, was that thunder? No way, it won't rain. It started raining. We hit the bike path, and it started raining harder. We ran, for the first time in a long time. "I gotta walk," I gasped. I took a couple steps. "Nope! Hurts more to walk than to run! Guess we'll run!"

The rain got heavier. Off the bike path, to the street crossing. Janet was volunteering as crossing guard, waving runners in, in the thunderstorm. There's the finishing chute. Through  the chute. 13:06.

We did it.
Into the finishing chute!
Photo credit: Amy Clark

Epilogue: This really happened

Despite the rain, which was now a downpour, there was a big crowd of runners out by the finish line cheering in finishers. What a great way to finish a race! I collected my awesome finisher's mug, got a few quick pictures, made a badly-needed bathroom stop. 
Finish line, with rain and photobomb
I was a little afraid to take off my shoes, not sure what I'd find. I had an impressive, silver dollar-sized blister on my right foot, and a smaller one on my left heel. My feet swelled for a few days and I could only wear Luna sandals. But all in all, the damage wasn't bad. And if I'd changed socks (+ shoes?) at mile 40, I think it would have been much less.

This race was the culmination of a season's worth of training and planning. After my first 50 mile attempt at Zumbro, I feel like I trained well for this race, and came into it as well prepared as I could be. I'm thrilled that I didn't have any problems with injury during the race, especially after a stormy difficult taper. I think on an ideal day (cooler weather, similar trail conditions) I could have gotten my 12 hour finish, but I'm pretty darn happy with my 13:06.

What's next

I just took a week off from running, while on vacation. We hiked, but I didn't run a step until yesterday, 9 days after the race. My blisters healed, my feet got back to normal, my body and mind rested. I loved it.

I'm stupid excited about the rest of my season -- in large part because it's so different from everything up till now. I've got nothing on the books for August. In September, I'm running a road 10K, a trail half marathon, and volunteering at the Superior 100 Mile. In October, it's the Wineglass Marathon with my mom, and a few weeks later we're going to make her an ultramarathoner at Icebox 480. I can't wait to do some faster stuff, some fun stuff, and some volunteering stuff.

In the meantime, I'm still processing this one. So many things happened. So many miles happened. It was so good. It was hard. It was fun. It was great. Thank you, race organizers, incredible volunteers, and runners. This was something amazing.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Afton Trail Run 50K 2014 Race Report

Executive summary:

50K in 6:38:49 on a warm, windy, hilly course. About 35 minutes faster than my "A" goal, and only 10 minutes off my 50K PR. 23rd of 55 women -- my first finish ever in the top 50%! So much sunshine, breeze, and unexpected joy. One of those runs that left me absurdly, inarticulately happy.
This sums it up well. Credit: Afton Trail Run

Prologue: Time to Learn Something New

Every time I run the Afton loop, I learn something new about myself. There's a lot to challenge a runner out there. It's hilly (2300 feet of ascent and 2300 of descent in a 25K loop). It's got open prairie, wooded singletrack, steep climbs (one's called "The Meat Grinder") and descents, and a lethal stretch of long, straight, level railbed along the river. There's sunshine, cool shade, a little sand, plenty of mosquitoes.
Source: aftontrailrun.com
Source: aftontrailrun.com
I signed up for Afton this year instead of volunteering again because I wanted a hot, hilly, long run before committing to Voyageur 50 Mile later this month. I've been running with a coach for the last 5 weeks: David Roche, with Some Work, All Play. It's been a great way to add some intensity and speed into my run, mostly in the form of pickups and hill sprints. It's a kind of suffering I wouldn't undertake on my own.

Key workouts in the four weeks between Chester Woods and Afton included a tough session of 200m hill strides, short strides or hill sprints after most runs, and a back-to-back weekend with the 25K Afton loop with pickups, and the next day a 14-mile trail run with 4 miles hard, then 1 mile hard, then hill sprints. That one took some recovery! But by race day, I was feeling well rested, healthy, and ready to see what the day brought.

I really wasn't sure what the day would bring. Based on a 25K loop at Afton back in April, McMillan claimed I could run a 7:13 50K... but the temperature that day had been in the 50s. So, with the forecast 20+ degrees warmer, I decided to make 7:13 my pie-in-the-sky "A" goal. My "B" goal was to beat my Superior time of 7:41. My "C" goal was to finish happy, and avoid heatstroke and injury.

Loop 1: Among Friends

I was at Afton by 5:30 and saw lots of familiar faces directing parking, managing packet pickup, and otherwise making thing run smoothly. The sun was up and it was about 70 degrees, with a promise of sunshine and high temperatures in the low 80s.
Rather cool by Afton standards. But still hot.
Lots of friends at the start line. John's pre-race briefing included asking, "Who's doing their first ultra?" Lots of hands went up. So cool! "Who's done Afton five times?" Lots more hands. "Ten times?" A couple of hands. Without much further ado, a countdown, and we're off!

Last instructions and encouragement from the race director
Ready to run!
About 200-250 of us headed out for the 50K. A jog down the gravel road quickly turned into a power hike up to the "Africa" loop, a big open section of prairie.
Beautiful morning for a run.
Along here, I joined up with Harriet, who I knew from several other runs, but had never run a significant distance with before. We'd last met at Zumbro, recovering from hypothermia after a crazy thunderstorm. Our paces seemed to match, and we kept going together, talking about kids, books, summer vacation, and whatever else came to mind.

The loop flew by. Soon we'd run the Back 40 and finished the Africa Loop, climbed Northern Hill and descended again, and along the way picked up Arika and Kevin. They'd met at the Savage 100 race earlier in the year, when Kevin was attempting his first 100 (he made it 80 miles! Badass) and Arika was the "Crazy Aid Station Lady." Together, we worked on talking Kevin into running Icebox 480 in November. Arika slowed down after Northern Hill, but Kevin, Harriet, and I climbed Campground Hill together, ran through the campground and down the hill, and hit the long, flat, straight river road section. A few fast 25K runners started passing up as we climbed Campground Hill. They were flying!

I loved running the open prairie sections on this loop. It wasn't hot yet, but the sun was shining, the wind was blowing, and it was a beautiful place to be. Didn't take many pictures, but the few I have capture the big, open sky and abundant sunshine.

The river section is a little over a mile, and mentally, it's hard to keep going. It's flat, so you feel you should run it, but I always have to bargain with myself on it. This time, Harriet pushed the pace, running steadily and a little faster than I would have. I kept thinking about stopping and walking, but I stuck with her and Kevin -- they were good company! I worried a little about whether I would later regret going faster than planned, but it felt okay. Just took more focus.
The view didn't change for a very long time (it seemed).
We reached the end, where it was a relief (!) to turn up onto the Meat Grinder and walk, and I said, "Thank you for pulling me! No way I would have gone that fast on my own!" To my surprise, Harriet and Kevin swore they wouldn't have either. What happened there? Oh well, onward we go.

The Snowshoe loop was beautiful singletrack, and much more lush and green than I remembered. Kevin had pulled ahead. Despite being passed by many 25Kers, we made good time through it and were soon heading through the open prairie, uphill to the start/finish line.

As we approached the start/finish, the race clock read 3:11. My previous PR on the loop (a single loop!) was 3:24. "Oh, shit," I said to Harriet. "This is either going to be really great, or really, really bad."

Loop 2: Really great, or really, really bad?

At the start/finish, I hit the bathroom, re-loaded snacks and water, and put on more sunblock. "Ready to go?" asked Harriet. "I guess I am!" I said. We headed out. I didn't look at the time, but we spent 5-10 minutes at the start/finish.

Loop 2 was getting warmer, and the Africa loop and Back 40 felt slower this time. We stopped at the aid stations for cold wet sponges. I drank water and started drinking Heed and Coke and eating salty potatoes. Coming out of the Back 40, I was a little queasy but things settled down as we walked the climb back up to the Africa loop.

"I love this section," announced Harriet as we ran the Africa loop. I looked around. The sky was huge and perfectly blue. The air was dry and the breeze ruffled the tall lush grass and carried away fatigue and soreness. The trail stretched ahead and we were moving steadily. Some days the Africa loop is a struggle for me. But today, I found I loved it too. 
So much sunshine.
Maybe it's because I know the course well, but everything just seemed doable, even though we were many miles and hours into the run. I enjoyed running the downhills. I could run the flats without suffering. I could hike the hills. It all just felt fine. I kept waiting for something to stop working, and assumed that it would at some point... but it never did. Wow.

Harriet and I got to the river road again. We hadn't been talking much, just focusing on moving along steadily. We ran the river road. No conversation, but we were moving. We passed people. I focused on the shade, the breeze, the steady rhythm of my breathing. It took concentration. My right hamstring tried to cramp up and I took more S-caps. At last, we reached the end of the road. I was inarticulate but joyful. "Damn. Wow. Shoot. We did it. That was amazing," I said. Once again, we'd run it faster than either of us had planned, or would have done alone.

At the top of the Meat Grinder, I ventured my opinion: "I think we're going to make it!" "Of course we are!" she agreed. "I think we're doing pretty well," I elaborated. "I was thinking that if I PR'd this, I might do Voyageur," she said.

Just before the Snowshoe loop, the amazing people at Aid Station 5 pulled out all the stops for us. What other sport has so many volunteers who are incredible badasses in their own right? Multiple-time Barkley racer Alan squeezed ice water over my neck and back. Christy, who has won every ultra she's entered this year (and saved me from hypothermia at Zumbro), filled my hat with ice. John, who's run dozens of hundred-milers and never gets injured, draped a cold wet towel over Harriet's shoulders. I drank ice water, Heed, and Coke. We ran out onto the last 5K of the course refreshed and renewed. I couldn't believe how good I suddenly felt.

Snowshoe loop flew by. Harriet and I stuck together for the first half, and then I began pulling ahead. I passed a few people. I ran with a few others and encouraged them. Landmarks ticked by, one by one. Suddenly, I was out on the prairie, climbing the last hill, running the last, always unexpectedly long section along the road to the finish line.

There it was. The finish line clock said 6:38. I could hardly believe it. I crossed the mat, grinning from ear to ear. Again, words failed me. "Wow. Damn. Holy crap. I can't believe it."

Two minutes behind me, Harriet charged in, looking amazing. I cheered like a crazy person. We shared a sweaty hug. "What was your PR?" I asked her. I couldn't remember if she'd told me. "Um, THAT!" she said, pointing to the clock.
Who needs words?

Epiloge: Damn. Wow. Holy crap. And other deep thoughts.

So, yeah. This was a breakthrough run for me. I performed far better than I imagined I could, in hot conditions, on a difficult course. So many things went well.

Working with a coach: I know we've only been doing this for a month, but, um, I think it's working. Whether it was physiological or psychological, I always felt like I could keep going at a greater intensity than I would have believed possible. I blame all those hill sprints.

Hydration and nutrition: Lots of people who dropped or had a tough race did so because it was hot (even if low 80s is cool by Afton standards). Whether by luck or practice, my combination of Larabars, Picky Bars, Gu, Shot Bloks, salty potatoes, and S-caps (plus water, Heed, and Coke) worked well for me. I dropped my two Roctanes at some point on loop 2, which was sad, but I always felt well fed and fueled.

One thing that went very, very well: all the fantastic people who made this happen. So many volunteers cleared the trail, marked and swept the course, checked us in, kept us all fed, hydrated, and cool (I'm looking at you, Aid Station 5!), and provided medical support and more great food at the finish line. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Race directors John and Cherie Storkamp put on incredibly well organized, challenging, fun races, every single time. My husband, when I told him my time said, "That's badass! Hey, at this rate, you'll be winning your age group by the time you're your mom's age!" (And I think he meant it.) My kids manage to live without me every Saturday morning when I run long.

Finally: I wouldn't (and probably couldn't) have gone this fast without my race friend Harriet to pull me along the hard parts and share my joy in the good parts. Thank you. It was a little piece of race day magic.
A moment of bliss. Credit: Ninja Runners

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Chester Woods 50K 2014 Race Report (or, The Day I Ran a 73 Minute PR)

Executive summary:

50K in 6:28:40, a 1:13 PR. It was a very runnable, moderate course, the trails were dry, the weather was overcast and breezy. After a series of 50Ks (and my 50 mile attempt) on rocky, rooty singletrack over mountains, this was a totally different experience! 
On the last lap, still running happy!

Prologue: Wait, I signed up for a 50K?

Chester Woods 50K came only three weeks after a big 19 minute PR and all-around fantastic run at Spring Superior 50K. I really wasn't sure what to expect. I'd signed up way back last winter, thinking it would be a good training run for Voyageur and that why not, it was only $35. I'd never run the course, I wasn't sure whether my legs were going to want to race or just run a catered training run, heck, I wasn't even sure till the week before that I was going to actually run it. But by race week, I was feeling pretty recovered from Superior (I'd done short "long runs" of 12 and 8 miles in the intervening weeks) and figured, why not go run?

At the last minute, I decided not to drive down the morning of the race (6 am start + 1.5 hour drive to Chester Woods = 3 am wake-up call) and rode down Friday night with Brad and Julio. Thanks, Brad, for driving! And many thanks to Julio's cousin Linda for letting the three of us sleep in her basement guestroom and bump around her kitchen at 4:30 am fixing breakfast. She lives only 10 minutes from Chester Woods, so it was a perfect place to stay the night!
Me, Misty, Bob, Julio, and Brad.

Plan? I don't have a plan

I woke up with Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" stuck in my head. No explanation for that one, but it was my mental accompaniment for much of the day. Despite that, it was a beautiful morning, with temperatures in the low 60's, though there was an 80% chance of rain and thunderstorms predicted for the day. I caught up with friends at the starting line, did an Upper Midwest Trail Runners group photo, took some pictures, milled around. I still wasn't sure of my race plan. The format is based on a looped course of 9.5 miles per loop. There's an extra section around a meadow at the beginning of the first loop to bring it up to 31 miles. I figured I'd try and run it like a training run at Lebanon Hills -- 12 minute miles, or so. I estimated I'd take 2.5 hours on the first, 12 mile loop, and then see what happened.
Ready to run!
Team INKnBURN, with Kevin.The last time we'd met
was at Zumbro (he was running the 100), and we didn't know it,
but we were both about to get knocked out of the race
by the weather gods. Fun to meet under better conditions!
Bob ran the 50K, then volunteered at the FANS 24 Hour
race all night! What a guy!
Jon burned it up, as usual. His shirt is for Break The Stigma,
the group Julio started to talk about and promote mental health.
Check them out!
Willow and Misty (finish line)
Misty and John (finish line)

 First loop (12 miles, 2:30): Look! I'm running a 50K!

A quick pre-race briefing, a countdown, and we're off! I took off, still sort of bemused to be out there running a 50K race. We started with a 2.5 mile one-time loop around a wooded meadow, and I chatted with Stephanie, who was out running her second 50K, on the spur of the moment. It was a beautiful morning, overcast and a little breezy. I tried to hold a "training run" pace and take it all in. On the loop, I could see the race leaders, with John Storkamp in front, far ahead already.

We finished the meadow loop and ran a brief stretch on the road before turning onto a gravel road, then onto a series of horse trails through the woods and prariries.
A short paved section leading to the woods.
The route had several out-and-backs, lollipop loops, and other hazards to navigation, but it was quite well marked and I never got lost. It was fun seeing other runners, both 50K and 10 mile racers (who started two hours later) on all the out-and-backs.
Blurry, but fairly typical trail.
The whole route is very runnable, with grass and gravel trails, alternating areas of woods and prairie, no mud, rocks, or roots to speak of, and only one hill of note.
It's even got a name!
And coming off Superior and my Afton training runs, Big Dam Hill was not a Big Dam Deal. You could make good time on this course.

One of my favorite features of the Chester Woods course was the mile markers, which were laminated signs in the style of Burma Shave road signs. In fact, I'm pretty sure the rhymes were actual Burma Shave rhymes. Funny enough to entertain for three loops!
Of note, the mileage on the signs is distance to the 10 mile finish, while the start/drop bag area is actually another half mile or so further. The first time through, that last "mile" felt r-e-a-l-l-y long.

I finished my first loop at about 2:20. Took about 10 minutes to replenish food (I ate Larabars, Picky Bars, and a Gu Roctane at the end, used two S-Caps per hour, and drank water), hit the bathroom, and put on sunblock. On my way out at exactly 2:30.
Loop 1 finished!

Second loop (9.5 miles, 2 hours): Weather? Whether?

As soon as I put on sunblock, the weather went from looking like the clouds were going to burn off, to looking foreboding. The sky darkened, the breeze picked up. I grabbed my "Zumbro security blanket" (rain shell, didn't bring the wool shirt this time) and tied it around my waist. My plan must have worked, because although it continued to look threatening throughout this loop, even with some distant thunder, it never rained. Win! I later heard they weren't so lucky in the Twin Cities. FANS 24 Hour was delayed a half hour by lightning, and it rained cats and dogs there until midafternoon. I had come ready for crazy rain, but was so glad not to have it.
Ominous skies over Chester Woods
Loop 2 felt faster than the first loop, since there wasn't the meadow loop to contend with. I cruised along, chatted with Misty and with Nora, who was running the 10 mile race, and passed a couple of other 10 milers. It was lots of fun to see the fast 10 milers racing through the aid stations, and there was a lot more cheering and chatter than on my first loop, which had been 50K runners only.

Around mile 5 (17 overall), as I came onto a big section of prairie, a runner flew by me. "Good job, Robyn," said John Storkamp, and headed off at a scorching pace. He won the race with a sub-4 hour time, just seconds off the course record. Nice work!

Near the finish, I passed three racers (10-milers and 50K runners), one of whom had his arm in a full length cast! "Been there!" I exclaimed. "You rock!"

I finished loop 2, still feeling well, in 1:55. Ditched the unnecessary raincoat, more snacks, more S-caps. Stephanie was there -- she'd dropped after one loop, feeling sick. I'd come into the drop bag area with Misty, but headed out ahead of her. I didn't want to waste any time, and didn't want to think too hard about what was still ahead. Headed out right at 4:30 on the clock.
Loop 2 #selfiefail

Third loop (9.5 miles, 1:58): Don't Stop Believin'

Yeah, Journey was still stuck in my head.

For the first time in the race, I did math. And realized that if I ran the third loop in under 2.5 hours, I could get a sub-7 hour finish, a huge PR (I'd PR'd Superior in 7:41). It didn't seem likely, but if I could do it in under 2 hours, I could get a 6:30. I had a goal.

Although the beginning of the loop had flown by on my second lap, I was starting to get tired and lose focus in the first 4 miles this time. I ran some 4 minute run/1 minute walk intervals, and walked the hills. I kept eating, but sweet food didn't seem appealing, and though I didn't have bad GI upset, my stomach seemed to be tired of accepting and digesting food.

Then, something amazing happened. I crested a rise onto the prairie loop where John had lapped me on the last loop. The terrain leveled out. A breeze picked up and refreshed me. And I suddenly felt like I could run.
Running happy again.
I ran the prairie loop. Then, there was a long gentle descent so I ran that. Then it leveled out, and I found I could keep running. I walked some hills, but suddenly the miles were clicking by again. The course in front of me was growing steadily shorter, and the course behind me lengthened out into the past. I came to a downhill. "I'm good at downhills," I reminded myself. I am. I came to a straightaway. My watch beeped. A walk interval? "I can walk when I'm finished," I told myself.

I pulled into an aid station with about 4 miles to go. Happy hour was just getting started, with a case of beer arriving by truck. "Want a beer?" the volunteers asked me. "I'd love to, but I think I'm going to get a PR," I told them, and took off.

I watched mileage signs, looked at my watch, tried to do math. Whoa, it was going to be close to 6:30, my "A" goal. Nothing hurt, and it didn't seem like feeling tired was a good enough excuse to walk, so I kept running.

Off the trails, around the playground, through the boat launch, turn up to the sign marked "FINISH", along another hillside... and there it was! I was stunned to see 6:28 on the clock as I ran across the mat. Wow.

Epilogue: Why yes, I will take that 73 minute PR, thank you.

I'm still a little weirded out by this race. I went in with zero expectations for anything other than a finish and a fun day with friends. I didn't even consider a sub-6:30 finish time until mile 21 of the actual race. It's a little hard to get my head around.

I don't quite understand how much of what happened was from the course and conditions (runnable, moderate, good weather, very different from everything else I've run), how much from my training, how much was maybe even just that I've been underperforming up till now. What I do know is that it was me who did this. My legs, my lungs, my heart, my brain. For some reason, it all clicked and for the third race in a row I paced it right, ran it right, kept my head and my stomach and my legs happy.

It's kind of a weird feeling, but I think I like it.