Sunday, May 24, 2015

In Beauty May I Walk: Spring Superior 50K 2015 Race Report

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
- William Butler Yeats, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

Game face ON.
Executive summary: 50K in 7:29:13, a 12 minute course PR on a slow muddy course (the median finish time was 10 min slower than last year). I was third masters woman (of 10). I went out too fast, held on until the last leg, stayed in the race the whole time, ran this one as well as I could. I'm very, very happy.

Spring Superior. It's a special race. I did my first 50K here two years ago. It was my first introduction to the Superior Hiking Trail, the site of a beautiful race last year that kicked off an amazing season, and Fall Superior was a great way to bookend that season with some intense volunteering and pacing.

This year, after managing to register for the race, which was in incredible demand (there's a lottery next year), I had big plans. I'd had some good training in the months leading up, starting with my 40th birthday 40K and including a 34-mile, 13 hour slow and steady pacing gig at Zumbro and a recent loop at Afton (25K) that I managed to turn around and run well, despite a rough start. On the other side of the endurance vs. speed spectrum, I had just run a 5K PR (25:12) the previous weekend, coming in second woman in a small, laid-back field. I didn't have a lot of really big long runs heading into this, but I'd managed some quality running, some stairs and strength work, and -- a race week hip flexor freakout aside -- I was uninjured and ready to run.

In 2013, I ran this race in 8:00:18. In 2014, my time was 7:41:15, feeling great and with a few bonus miles on Mount Levaux. This year, my goals were big. I figured if the trail was in good condition and I had a great day, I could go under 7 hours. McMillan claimed, based on my recent Afton loop, that I could run a 7:15, so that was my B goal. My C goal was to PR the course, and my final goal was to finish, have a joyful day, and soak up the beauty of the North Shore.

On Friday morning, I packed my gear (so much less than Zumbro! I kept thinking I was forgetting something. I didn't) and headed north.
The first glimpse of Highway 61 in Duluth!
It was a gloomy, foggy day. I knew the forecast was for at least partial clearing the next day, but it was still a surprise to feel the temperature drop 20 degrees as I hit the North Shore.

The drive up Highway 61 seemed different after working the Fall Superior race. Every waypost between Gooseberry Falls and Lutsen made me think of a milestone along the 100 mile course. I'm not even considering running it at this time, but somehow its landmarks have still found their way into my consciousness.

I arrived at Lutsen slightly bug-eyed after four hours in the car, and picked up my race number, running into lots of friends who had come to race, volunteer, or spectate and support. John and Cheri Storkamp, the race directors, had settled in at a corner table, watching their well-oiled machine run. I came over to say hello and John wanted to know whether I was looking forward to another bonus summit of Mount Levaux. I replied that it was an integral part of my plan to negative-split the course.

While waiting for a table for dinner, I ran into Dale and Scott, the irrepressible Manitobans. If I was bug-eyed after driving four hours, they were stir-crazy following ten hours of driving, and ready to race. They were great company at dinner. By eight, though, I was ready to find my room, get things organized, and get some sleep.

My alarm sounded at a very civilized 5 a.m.; I had already been awake a few times wondering whether I'd remembered to set it. Breakfast, too many layers of clothes, packed up, and headed to the starting line.

Oh, and one more pre-race preparation:
Because fake knuckle tattoos are cool!
Photo credit: John Storkamp
At the starting line, the sky was a cloudless blue and whatever the weather report said, it looked like it would be a warm, sunny day. I shed an outer layer and took the obligatory INKnBURN pre-race photo with the excellent Kevin Langton. Circulated around and said hello to lots more friends, until it was time to start.
Our feet are so clean! That didn't last.
Photo credit: Lisa Langton
Awaiting the start
What's a race director without his stepladder?

Up on the ladder, John made the customary race-morning announcements, encouraged people to just go through the mud instead of around it ("your feet will be soaked in the first few minutes anyway"), and counted down. And off we went.

Start to Oberg: 7.75 miles, 1:35 minutes (or, Possibly Regrettable Fun)

Photo credit: Todd Rowe
One of my goals for this race was to avoid the conga line up Mystery Mountain this year, a project which entailed going out a bit faster than usual. I'd been trying to prepare mentally (and physically) to run, not jog, up the paved road and gravel road to get closer to the front of the line that would stretch, single-file, all the way up the singletrack for the first mile or two. I was pretty successful. On the singletrack, I found myself in a line of people moving efficiently, going straight through the mud -- which was already ankle deep in places -- and moving well.

Perhaps a bit too well. Now that I was moving with the faster kids, I didn't want to slow down the line. In contrast to previous times I've run Superior, I was a little hashed getting to the summit of Mystery, and a little more so at the top of Moose. But, on the other hand, it was fun to be moving a little too fast, the sun was shining, the company was good, and I was a little curious to see how it would all turn out. So on I went, maybe a little too fast.

At the top of Mystery Mountain, there's a bend in the trail and you come out to the first view of the saddle and Moose Mountain. The runner ahead of me threw his arms out in an expression of pure joy at the sight. I knew how he felt. "Nature therapy!" I exclaimed. "The doctor is IN!" 

It was a beautiful morning. In contrast to last year, the snow was long gone and spring was well underway on the Superior Hiking Trail. Leaves were budding and flowers were blooming. The air smelled damp, but later as the day went on, areas smelled of warm pine needles, crushed wild onions, water and wet rocks. I could feel my mind relaxing and moving into ultramarathoning headspace. I was blessed to have a whole day to spend here, in the woods, with good people, experiencing this amazing place. What a good day to be alive.
Leading the train.
Photo credit: Todd Rowe
Coming along the top of Moose Mountain, I led a little train of people that eventually caught up to the next train ahead. Another mile, and suddenly it was the steep technical descent down Moose. The train broke up as the faster people passed the cautious ones, and the really fast bombed past us all. I'm not bad at downhilling; I took it pretty aggressively. (My quads were screaming for four days afterwards). Then some shockingly muddy sections, a gradual uphill I didn't recall and that hardly seemed necessary, and suddenly we popped out at Oberg aid station. I had been aiming for a 1:45 first segment; my watch said 1:35.

Oberg to Carlton Peak turnaround: 7.75 miles, 2:00 (or, Everyone Loves a Mud Run)

I went through Oberg fast, stopping only to drop off some extra layers and grab a handful of Endurolytes to supplement the S-Caps I was carrying. It was a warm day, and I was trying to be aggressive with the electrolytes since I had some cramping and hand swelling at Zumbro and wanted to avoid that. Off on the next leg, about 5 miles to Sawbill.

In theory, this section should be very runnable. It's got a few steep sections but is mostly rolling hills and flats, without anything technical. However, every time I've been through it (and this was trips #6 and 7), there's mud. No big deal, I figured this time, I know about the mud and I'm prepared to plow right through it. Problem was, it was deep enough, and unpredictable enough (am I stepping into an inch deep puddle, or one that will come up to my shin?), that it was tough to run through. I was glad I'd been snowshoe racing this winter -- the motion and the muscles were surprisingly similar.

I plowed through mud, ran the runnable dry sections, plowed through mud, repeated. I met some great friendly people along this section and ran with them for a while. I kept eating -- Larabars were great, my black cherry Shot Bloks were way too sweet, gels were sitting pretty well -- and throwing back Endurolytes with my water.

The Mount Levaux spur trail was marked with about nine flags and a pile of brush to block the trail. As I told John afterwards, "I wanted to take it. Really! But it was SO WELL MARKED, I just couldn't bring myself to do it."
Mount Levaux spur trail. No bonus miles today!
Through a deep mud patch and, with a sucking sound, my heel popped out of my shoe. Rats! I pulled off the trail and laboriously began peeling back a mud-soaked Dirty Girl gaiter, then untying my lace. Suddenly, my hamstring cramped and I shot back up again, dancing around and trying to unkink the muscle. It relented and I cautiously returned to a kneel to put my shoe to rights. I wiped my hands off on some handy nearby plant life, threw down a few more Endurolytes, and continued on.

The front runners began coming back through, but I was further along than in previous years when I started seeing them. I could tell that I was going faster than I had before, and it was a good feeling. 

I pulled into the Sawbill aid station still feeling good, and stopped long enough to refill my hydration pack and put some sunblock on my face -- the sun was getting bright! As it turned out, I got some sunburn on my upper arms. I was glad I'd worn a short-sleeve shirt and not a tank top, just from a sun protection standpoint.

Todd was at Sawbill (and had been on the trail earlier, taking pictures.) He helpfully kicked me out of the aid station, almost before I had time to grab a salted potato and some Endurolytes, and I was off to Carlton Peak and the turnaround.

If the Oberg to Sawbill trail is long, muddy, and largely featureless, the short 2.25 miles to Carlton Peak are the opposite. The trail was gratifyingly dry -- my feet almost dried out! -- but quickly transitioned from flat boardwalks to the steep rocky climb. I welcomed the opportunity to power-hike instead of run and moved pretty efficiently. Before I knew it, I was at the top of the peak, shaking Charlie Hubbard's hand and taking a sip of cold beer. The sun was shining and a blanket of fog lay over Lake Superior. It was an incredible spring morning. I paused to breathe it in. This moment, at the turnaround, was something I'd been thinking of all year long.
Carlton Peak.
Photo credit: Charlie Hubbard

Turnaround to Oberg: 7.75 miles, 2:00 (or, Moving Along) 

I looked at my watch as I headed down Carlton Peak. 3:35 on the clock, and I was feeling good. Could I get in under 7 hours? Maybe. I felt optimistic I could beat 7:15. I descended as efficiently as I could, cheering on lots of runners who were still climbing. My left outer knee began to ache, a spot that had given me trouble a few weeks ago. But it wasn't bad, and it wasn't getting much worse.

Back through Sawbill aid station. Todd was still there, practising his best aid-station bedside manner. 
"Hey, how much time I got till the cutoff?" I asked him. 
"Only 55 minutes. Get out of here," he replied. 
"Wait, I need some Heed!"
"You can drink Heed at the NEXT aid station! You're not getting any closer to Oberg standing around here chitchatting!"
I turned to another volunteer. "Hey! The mean aid station worker is making me leave!" Once she saw that we were both laughing, she relaxed. I ran out of Sawbill with a grin on my face.

The Sawbill to Oberg section was muddier than before. There were sections where I'm pretty sure the trail was tracking along a streambed, and others with long, long stretches of muddy standing water.
Mmm, juicy.
I wore my new gaiters! Can you tell??
Lots of things happen on a long run, but sometimes despite this there's not much to tell. I felt good; I felt tired. I ate a packet of chocolate hazelnut butter, then decided that wasn't exactly what I had wanted. My knee was a little achy, but my hip didn't bother me at all, and I was grateful. I remembered how this section of trail had looked last fall when I came through with Travis. I talked to other runners. I composed this race report in my mind.

The miles ticked by. Nothing felt too difficult, but I didn't feel like I could go any faster. I didn't feel like I needed to. I was spending the day in the woods, my mind was right, my body was good. It was good.

Oberg to finish: 1:55 (or, A Little Bit Slower And A Little Bit Worse)

I ran into Oberg feeling tired, but hopeful. I didn't think I could make it back in the blazing 1:35 I had come out in, but I was still hoping for a 7:15 overall time. I dropped a few final layers off for my drop bag, said hello to the excellent Kevin and Jordan, who were volunteering, drank more Heed and a little Coke, and set off.

I'd broken this leg into several segments in my mind: The runnable but muddy section up to Moose Mountain. The steep climb up Moose. The saddle between Moose and Mystery. And the descent from Mystery to the finish. It was nice to be on a section I knew well, and it was good to know that I was on the way home.

The first section was runnable, but I could tell I was getting tired. Last year, I'd had incredible energy in this section and passed dozens of people. This time, I was still occasionally passing people, but I could tell my faster early running had taken some out of me. I started up Moose Mountain and ate the first of the two Roctane gels I keep as my race-end secret weapons. It gave me a physical and mental lift, and I moved steadily, staying in the moment the whole time. Along this section, I passed a few 25K runners, including one who had stopped part way up Moose Mountain and was doing something on his phone! "Updating Facebook?" I asked, jokingly. "Yep," he replied. "'On Moose Mountain. Send help.'" I suggested, and I kept going, with a word of encouragement.

I crested Moose and tried to run the very runnable rocky section at the top, but I was taking more walk breaks. My knee began to bother me more on the steep descent, and I couldn't run as the pain in my outer knee and the back of the knee was clearly worse when I did. With five miles left, it made more sense to finish than to go back, and it didn't hurt badly enough for me to consider doing otherwise. But it was certainly more painful in this section. The muscles still felt like they were on the verge of cramping, but never quite got there. Thank goodness. I fantasized about hosing my feet off at the finish, and about being done. I hiked the switchbacks up the back of Mystery, and felt better going uphill.

Somewhere near the top of Mystery, I hooked up with Kamie, who was also finishing the 50K. We worked well together, running the runnable sections and keeping each other motivated. We started passing lots of 25K runners, trying to cheer on everyone we passed. My knee began to feel better.

Along the top of Mystery. Another little descent and climb. Then, the campground that marks the last of the climbing, and the beginning of a steady, rocky descent all the way to the Poplar River. Around this point, you can actually hear the cheering and music from the finish line, and even through it's still a few miles away, you begin to feel like you're coming home.

The trail descends and you can hear the Poplar River long before you see it. The air cools down. The mud is deep and boards placed across it are slippery. But it's hard to care at this point; you're almost there.

Cross the Poplar River bridge. One last little uphill; was that really necessary? The gravel road. The paved road. Kamie and I speed up, then halfway down the paved road I realize I can't keep the pace and wave her ahead. Keep going, keep moving forward.

Getting it done at the finish line.
Photo credit: Arielle Anderson
Off the pavement, over the dirt and grass, around the pool, and there's the clock: 7:29! Run it in. Stop, deep breaths, hands on knees, amazed to be here and alive and finished and, suddenly, in another world, one with people, music, running water, hot food, no need to keep moving.

Final reflections

When I finished and drove home, I was a little disappointed with my finish time. Looking at my splits, it was clear I'd been on track for at least my 7:15 goal till I slowed way down on the last leg. As the week went by, though, I began feeling better and better about my performance. The median finish time this year was 10 min slower than last year, possibly due to mud, and 25 min slower among the women. I was on track until the last section and stayed mentally with it almost the entire time. And I was SORE after this race, in a way that I normally am not after a trail 50K. Like, Lamaze-breathing-on-the-stairs levels of quad soreness. My knee still hurts, though it's much improved. I gave this one a lot of effort. I could have paced it a little smarter, and perhaps run the second half harder if I'd been able to keep the muscle cramping away more effectively. But I'm pretty content with how it went.

I've given a lot of thought recently to what it is that I get out of a run like this. I've decided it's very simple -- it's an entire day, set aside and cordoned off, when my only goal is to get from here to there. In a life that can be complicated and difficult and involve many different threads of thought all at once, it's a chance to clear your mind, focus on a single goal, find a rhythm between breathing and movement and nothing else.

We've been reading a lot of poetry with the kids recently. I ran across this one in Caroline Kennedy's Poems to Learn by Heart, and later saw it in this excellent ultrarunning blog. It's a Navajo prayer, and it evokes a lot of what I get from a day in the woods. I'll finish this overly long race report with it: 

In Beauty May I Walk (from the Navajo; translated by Jerome K Rothenberg)

In beauty                                                        may I walk
All day long                                                   may I walk
Through the returning seasons                         may I walk
Beautifully I will possess again
Beautifully birds
Beautifully joyful birds
On the trail marked with pollen                       may I walk
With grasshoppers about my feet                    may I walk
With dew about my feet                                  may I walk
With beauty                                                  may I walk
With beauty before me                                    may I walk
With beauty behind me                                   may I walk
With beauty above me                                    may I walk
With beauty all around me                              may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively
                                                                     may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again
                                                                     may I walk
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty