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.