Friday, October 23, 2015

Race report: 2015 Wild Duluth 50K

Executive summary

Any day you can go 50K on a beautiful trails in crisp fall weather is a good day. Wild Duluth didn't go as expected, with some knee/calf pain flaring up around the halfway point, making the downhills difficult. I was ready to drop at mile 22, and maybe should have. But it was a beautiful sunny day, and I was hours ahead of the cutoff. I hiked it in for a new personal worst 50K time of 10:07. I kind of figure you only get so many days of sunshine, great views, and spending trail time with old and new friends. Why not soak it in?
Yeah, guess I finished! Photo by Shane Olson


Wild Duluth is an awesome race, whether you want a tough run on challenging terrain, or just a late-season jaunt through some incredible autumn North Shore scenery. There's a burly out-and-back 100K, the 50K is point-to-point on the same route, and the "fun run" is called the "Harder'n He!! Half Marathon", and lives up to its name. The terrain, mostly along the Duluth section of the Superior Hiking Trail, is leafy, rooty, rocky, and mostly singletrack. The elevation changes aren't massive -- this year's 50K gained and lost about 3690 ft --  but there are some memorable climbs and descents. Many local runners have logged their "personal worst" 50K times here.

Two years ago, Wild Duluth was my second 50K. I loved the low-key vibe, the crisp cool weather, and the sweeping views of Lake Superior. I was excited to be back this year, especially after a summer of battling knee issues that probably began at Spring Superior (or possibly even Zumbro). Things finally felt back to normal, and I'd gotten in a couple of good 3- to 4-hour training runs, including one up on the Superior Hiking Trail at Fall Superior. I still felt a bit undertrained, but I was well rested and felt healthy.

Race morning dawned with the first frost of the year in the Twin Cities. The forecast was for a chilly start, but clear skies suggested the weather would warm quickly. I was up at 2:30 a.m., and out the door by 3:40 to catch the 7:00 shuttle from the finish line. (Once again, this was barely enough time after stopping for gas... but at least this time I knew where the shuttle stop was, which made for much less panic at 6:58.) The 100K runners had already started their out and back journey in the 6 a.m. chill and darkness.

Two schoolbuses with heaters turned up to "greenhouse" transported us out to the 50K start at Chambers Grove. I hung out by the playground, lined up for the porta-potties, and ran into some old friends.
Kevin (of Sugarloaf aid station fame)! He had an awesome race.
Mike, looking ready to rumble.
The sun was already up and brilliant by the time we lined up for the race start. I dropped my jacket off and knew I'd be shedding my gloves, hat, and wool shirt soon. The race director gave a few final instructions (follow the pink ribbons, follow the SHT blazes, if they disagree the blazes win), we counted down, and we were off.  
Truck beds: Almost as good as stepladders.

Start to Grand Portage (5.4 miles)

The initial part of the course was different from two years ago, and I didn't recognize anything until I got to Ely's Peak around mile 12, though there may have been some overlap before that. The first 4 or 5 miles were on a beautiful section of bike singletrack that weaved through the woods and around ravines. It reminded me quite a bit of the Theodore Wirth bike trails, where I did a lot of my training this summer, and I worked on finding a rhythm that was efficient but sustainable.
Moving so fast we're a blur! Or the
trees are a blur! Or, um, something.
Despite the rapid transition onto singletrack after about 1/4 mile on pavement, there wasn't much of a "conga line" effect on the trail, and I pretty quickly found myself running in small groups of three or four. I ran for a bit with Mike, and for a longer time with Andrew Sandor and his dad. After stopping to pull off all my extra layers, I was alone on the trail, and that was nice too.
At the end of the bike trail, there's short section on
ATV trail and logging road, then a steep climb up...
And... Look!!! The Powerlines!
The Powerlines were an unexpected and entertaining section of this first leg. It was fun to see how different they looked and felt in the cool fall, compared to midsummer at Voyageur. We only saw a little short section of them, though, before rolling into the first aid station.

(Funny story here: Right at the beginning of the Powerlines, I stepped off the trail to pee. Started down the first hill and realized I'd left my phone behind. As I turned around and went back up, the awesome runners behind me asked what was wrong, and actually stopped and dialed my number so I could more easily find it. Thank you!)
Ridiculously steep, and brilliant blue skies.
So awesome.

Grand Portage to Munger Aid Station (11 miles)

Grand Portage was a quick stop ("Hi! Thanks for being here! Do you have salty potatoes?" "No, sorry." "Oh well, I'll take some potato chips. Thanks!"), and I was off on the next section. I don't recall much about it -- runnable trail, for the most part, with a few climbs to slow me down. In lots of sections, the ground was carpeted with yellow leaves, and with no wind to speak of, the trail seemed hushed and blanketed. There was a nice section through mature white pines, where the ground was covered with sharp-smelling red needles.

Along one of the yellow-carpeted sections, I had my only course-following problem of the day -- I stepped over some sticks and logs and continued straight where the course branched to the left. A runner behind me yelled that I was off course, and I re-oriented and found the course again easily. But a couple of runners were coming back along the trail I'd mistakenly taken. "Is the aid station around here somewhere?" one asked. "You mean the FIRST aid station?" "Yes, I got lost and haven't been to it yet," she replied. Uh-oh, she'd gotten significantly off-course, I thought. "It's back there," I pointed, "about 10 minutes' run from here." She thanked me and headed back along the trail.

I was amazed to see a couple of the lead 100K runners blaze by on this leg. First John Storkamp came cruising by, looking remarkably fresh, then the eventual winner, Garrett Peltonen, just 4 minutes behind him. I didn't see any more 100K runners for a long time after that -- they were way out in front.

At some point, I tripped on a rock or stick hidden by leaves and fell full length and rolled, but I landed in leaves, the dirt brushed off, and nothing major seemed to be hurt. I was a little more anxious than usual that at some point, my relatively light training was going to catch up with me in the form of an injury or just bonking, but I focused on eating (Larabars and Shot Bloks), drinking, and enjoying the day.

Munger to Magney-Snively to Spirit Mountain (17.3 miles):

Munger Aid station was staffed by super friendly, helpful volunteers, who deftly filled my hydration pack, offered me food (potatoes this time, still no salt), and raised an eyebrow when I asked for six Endurolytes but cheerfully gave them to me. I felt more tired than I should have at 11 miles, but I was ready to keep going.

The next section included some of my favorite terrain: Ely's Peak. After following an SHT detour along an old railbed, it felt good to get onto the rock and start power-hiking up. I was feeling stronger climbing than I was running on level ground. Lots of 100K runners streamed by, on their way down.
The climb up Ely's Peak. Beautiful!
At the top, the trail traverses along rocks for a long way. I backtracked once, after not seeing any markers or blazes for a long time, but I was indeed on the trail. I continued along.

At some point in this leg of the race, I began to develop pain in my left lateral posterior calf and knee. It was a similar spot to where I'd had trouble previously, and in fact I'd kinesiotaped my left peroneal tendon to head off any trouble from it. Despite this, and despite a week of fairly steep tapering, it seemed to be becoming a problem, worse going downhill than up.

By the time I arrived at Magney-Snively aid station at mile 15.3, I was getting worried. I had been mostly power-hiking for the last mile or two, which seemed to help, but I was only at the halfway point and didn't want to do any harm.

Samantha was volunteering there. I told her, "I'm not sure I'm going to be able to finish. I might drop at Spirit Mountain." (It was just 2 miles further down the trail). Samantha considered. "Well," she said, "You know, the cutoff isn't until midnight. The weather is great -- you're not going to overheat, and you're not going to get hypothermic. You could keep going and see what happens."

(Side note: Samantha finished her first Superior 100 this fall, the last 25 miles of it on a torn meniscus. "But the tear is in a good place!" she told me. "It's got circulation. It's healing!" This is a woman who knows something about keeping going.)

Well, it was only midday, and I did feel better after stopping and stretching out for a while at the aid station. It was two downhill miles to Spirit Mountain. I decided to re-frame the day as an "outside all day" training run-followed-by-hike (an idea courtesy of my coach, David Roche). At Spirit Mountain, I'd see how things were going, and make a decision there.
The views of Lake Superior began to unfold. Just as
breathtaking as I remembered them. And that sky! Wow.
Any day in a place like this is a good day.
I power-hiked to Spirit Mountain, making decent time on the short leg and feeling okay. Maybe it was a mistake, I thought, but I'll give the next section, with the next-to-last sustained downhill, a shot. I ate some amazing homemade potato soup at Spirit Mountain, made sure I had enough food and water to carry me through a longer section, and headed out.

Spirit Mountain to Highland/Getchell Road (22.2 miles)

This section is long. Not so much in miles (4.9), but in terrain -- it's the latter 3/4 of the "W" in the course profile. I recalled from my last Wild Duluth that it goes and goes, and somehow that made it easier and less worrisome this time.

There's a steep climb up a staircase, and more climbing through sweet-scented yellow woods. There's a long descent along a beautiful creek (Knowlton Creek, according to the course description), then a crossing and a climb back up. There are sections through Duluth neighborhoods. There are parts where you begin to wonder whether you missed the aid station (even though you know it's still ahead.)  
In the middle of the woods, there are random pipelines
and road bridges, a reminder you're nearing Duluth.
I met up with Eric, who was making Wild Duluth his first trail race. "I live right on the trail in Duluth," he told me. "This section is my standard training run!" He was doing great. We hiked together for a long ways, enjoying the unfolding views and not-quite-enjoying the proximity to the highway. Then, at a highway underpass, he decided to run it in. Great race, Eric! I enjoyed your company.

My knee/calf was fine while power-hiking on level ground and uphills. In fact, I was passing people! But going downhill was steadily getting more painful.

I hit a short downhill right before Highland/Getchell Road aid station and realized that I wasn't having fun, on that part anyway. I pulled into the aid station with that thought in mind.

Highland/Getchell Road: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

"I have to drop," I told Marcus, who was volunteering at Highland/Getchell Road. He asked me what was going on, and I reviewed my ongoing leg troubles and worries. He reiterated what Samantha had said -- I was many hours ahead of the cutoff. The weather was good. He didn't seem to be trying to talk me out of dropping, but he wanted to give me a chance to think it over.

"Sounds kind of like the problem I had at Superior this year," he commented. He'd dropped from the Superior 100 at mile 50 with calf and shin problems. "You know," he said, "I came into Finland and said, 'I'm dropping', and my crew didn't even try to talk me out of it. They were just like, 'Okay!', and told the volunteers, and before I knew it, I was in the truck headed home going 'What just happened?' They didn't even make me try to hike to the next aid station."

We talked some more. Runners came and went. I was still standing up, eating food, had refilled my water bladder. Marcus said, "You know, I ran into trouble at Wild Duluth once and hiked the whole second half of it. You can definitely finish that way."

I looked up at the next section of trail. The afternoon sun was shining. The air was the perfect temperature. It was still a beautiful day. I wavered.

"You know, I'm fine on the level sections and the uphills. It's just the downhills that are hurting."
"The next section is pretty level, no big downhills," Marcus said helpfully.
"Yeah, but the last 3 miles are all downhill," I pointed out.
"No, it's only actually about a mile downhill. From Enger Park to the waterfront is only a mile."

Well, shoot. I realized I really didn't want to be done for the day, not yet. I'd been standing around for at least 15 minutes, maybe 20. How would things feel after that rest? I did a brief experimental hike back down the trail the way I'd come. Not all that bad. If it was only one more mile of downhill...

"Okay, I'm going to give it a shot," I said. Not sure whether it was a good idea or not, I grabbed a last handful of potato chips and headed out.

Highland/Getchell Road to North 24th Ave (mile 27.9)

As promised, the trail along here was runnable (or hikeable), with little ups and downs, but nothing big. I was fully into the power-hike now and enjoyed the feeling of purposeful movement. I felt like I could keep doing this all day (which is basically what I did). As the trail drew close to Duluth, the views just got more amazing.
Why Wild Duluth is one of my favorites: Exhibit A.
I rolled into the final aid station knowing that I could finish the race. They had a bonfire, and grilled cheese sandwiches, and the fire felt good despite the day's sunshine. I ate grilled cheese, drank Coke, joked around, and generally wasted far more time than usual, wanting to give my leg a rest before the final section, with its descent. An aid station volunteer said, "You're going on, then?" "Yes," I said. "Good," he replied, "You look too good to stop now."

North 24th Ave to Finish (mile 31)

I was nine hours in and ready to be done. On the hike out, I overtook Wally, who I'd met earlier on the trail. He was having some back pain, but he was hiking it in too. We joined up and finished the race together.

After doing much of the race on my own, aside from some short conversations along the way, it was nice to have someone to share the last miles with. We were both hurting, and we were both delighted to see the last few miles fly by once we started talking. "Is that Enger Park already?" I asked, shocked and delighted. It certainly was. We passed the Peace Bell (we could hear people ringing it almost all the way down), and began the steep descent.

It hurt, but it was manageable. We took a wrong turn on one of the roads and backtracked. We kept going, Lake Superior drawing closer and closer.

At last, we were down at lake level, and it was just a level hike along the railroad and around the park to the finish. We passed friends in the parking lot who'd already finished, and I joked about going out for pizza and a beer, and then finishing the race. After all, cutoff wasn't until midnight! We came around the corner and saw the clock just ticking over to 10 hours. We crossed the line at the same time.
Lisa called to me, "I thought you had dropped!"
Photo: Shane Olson
Happy to be here. Photo: Shane Olson
Thanking Wally for his company. Photo: Shane Olson
It was great to see so many people at the finish line, and many more inside enjoying post-race snacks. With finish times stretched out over 12 hours, I was impressed by how many people stuck around to cheer in friends and strangers. Lisa finished the 50K in good time and good style, after a season of injury. Doug did it as his second 50K, and Maria as her first post-injury ultra finish. Lots of triumphs, lots of personal-worst times, and lots of us had both. 


I love this race. I'm glad I started. I think I didn't do too much harm by finishing; I guess we'll see. (As Maria said, "You'll know in a few weeks!").

All the volunteers deserve a special thanks. It was a chilly day to stand around and they did great work taking care of us. Special thanks to Samantha and Marcus, for gently but persistently suggesting that I could, in fact finish.

Some things went very well for me in this race:
  • Nutrition. Larabars, Shot Bloks, and Gu gels seem to be a good combination for me, for the most part. (Black cherry Shot Bloks are way too sweet and cherry-lime Roctane tastes like Carmex, but otherwise I was good.)
  • Feet. I tried something new on race day and wore Smartwool toe socks with my usual Peregrines, and had zero foot problems.
  • Gear. My Nathan Intensity pack continues to be spot-on, and my awesome new INKnBURN kit looked good even after several falls in the dirt. The new skirt did not shift, chafe, ride up, or do anything but stay put and look awesome.  

Some things to work on before the next race:
  • My left leg, obviously. I'll start with rest, stretching, and ART, and see where that takes me. Since the race, I have had no pain with walking, mild tightness with easy running, but nothing like what was going on race day.
  • Hand swelling. This became significant by the end of the race, and I had similar problems at other races in the last couple years (notably Zumbro) -- perhaps cool weather makes it worse? It's possible I'm overhydrating or not taking enough salt with my water. I need to figure this out.

Hiking in with Wally was inspiring. He's 69, and is already looking forward to doing this again next year. I want to be out here, doing this and loving it, many years from now. There's enough beauty, joy, pain, excitement, and memories on these trails for a lifetime.