Thursday, October 13, 2016

Cloud Forests, Whale Song and Bonus Miles: 2016 Grand Traverse Report

Something new this year

When I realized I'd be on call this year the weekend of Wild Duluth, I started looking around for another event to take its place. I was spoiled for choices: there are awesome local trail races in September and October at every distance from 10 miles to 50 -- including four or five just the weekend of September 24! I listed a few possibilities on my coaching spreadsheet, and my awesome, life-affirming coach suggested I go with "what inspires you."

It didn't take much reflection. I wrote back, 
"What inspires me on this list, hands down, is the Grand Traverse. Great scenery, great trail, nice distance, point to point, it's a timed event even if it's not a "race," organized by the cool kids in Duluth, ends at a brewpub that has excellent burgers, really it's kind of a no-brainer."
Since the 27 mile course was essentially identical to Wild Duluth, minus the first 5 miles, it seemed like the perfect WD50 substitute. I signed up and started getting excited. 
Elevation profile, courtesy of the Wild Duluth website
The day before the race, I wrote to my coach, "Race goals are to smile every mile, WOOHOO the downhills, eat delicious questionable food, meet friends, take pictures, make memories." I was ready for whatever the day in the woods might bring.

No good plan

The 27 mile started at Saturday at 6:30. The shuttle left Fitger's at 6. Sign in by 5:30. I hatched a plan to drive to Duluth Friday night and camp, then rethought it when work ran late, picking up the rental car ran late, and it was pouring rain. Camping sounded like a bad plan, so I went with another bad plan instead: I set my alarm for 1:55 a.m., got up and out of the house by 2:45 a.m., and drove to Duluth in the quiet dark wee hours of the morning.

(The other bad part of the plan? Grand Traverse was the day of the fall Cub Scout campout, so after running, I got to drive to Grantsburg, WI and camp in our "4 person" tent with Chris and the very excited children. The upside was that I was so tired by then, I slept great. Even when it poured down rain.)

I reached Fitger's with plenty of time to spare and visited with Jamison and Lisa and Rick, made repeated trips back and forth to my car to retrieve headlamps and forgotten gear, and messed around with my well-stocked hydration pack till it was time for the school-bus shuttle. Up the road to the start, at the edge of Jay Cooke State Park, a quick countdown, and a few dozen of us were off, running by headlamp, downhill along a gravel road.

Start to 123rd Avenue (~6 miles, plus some extra): Bonus miles are the finest miles

We started in twilight, running a bit faster than we planned to down the hill. My goal for the day was to run at my "easy," low heart rate pace (by feel; I don't carry a monitor) at least to mile 17, then see how I felt. We turned onto the Superior Hiking Trail and ran, in a lengthening line, along the singletrack. The sky brightened and our headlamps winked out, one by one.

I enjoyed the chatter and seeing friends and strangers out on the trail, but was happy to truck along at my own pace. A few miles in, as we traversed a wood whose leaves were just beginning to turn, a runner ahead of me stopped.

"This isn't the trail," he said, a bit uncertainly. "I recognize this section. It's not on the SHT."
Well, it was possible. The Grand Traverse didn't have many of its own signs, relying instead on the SHT blue blazes most of the way. I hadn't been paying much attention to blazes, and couldn't recall when I'd last seen one. On the other hand, I hadn't noticed any other trails.
"Are you sure? Maybe we should go a little further and see if there's a blaze," I suggested.
He wasn't entirely sure, so four of us pressed on, down a long gentle slope.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler,
I tried them both anyway.
After another quarter-mile or so, we stopped again. "This is definitely wrong," he said. We hadn't seen any blazes, and he was more certain now. We turned back, heading uphill and sweeping another couple runners coming toward us, down the wrong path.

Half a mile from our turnaround, we spotted a blaze... marking the spot where the trail branched left. "Hey, I recognize this!" I exclaimed. "That's the turn I missed at Wild Duluth last year!" I laughed at the memory and decided to enjoy the bonus miles I'd gotten. After all, 27.4 miles was going to be an instant PR. Why not get my 28.6 mile PR instead?
I passed Rick and Steve some time in
there and made them stop for a selfie.
The rest of the section was scenic but uneventful, and I  reached the mile 21 aid station about 1:45 in. I decided 15 minute miles sounded like a great goal for the day -- it was a pace comparable to my fastest Superior 50K time, and would result in about a 7 hour finish time.

123rd Avenue to Magney-Snively (~5 miles): Ely's Peak and whale songs

The section over Ely's Peak is one of my very favorite parts of the SHT, and I couldn't wait to get on it. I refilled my water, grabbed half a banana to supplement my gels, and trucked out. After a short gravel road section, the trail started climbing the rocky peak, with views of the St. Louis River and the lake unfolding as the climb grew higher.
The climb begins!
It was a cool, overcast day, and I was comfortable in shorts and a tank top, though I also carried a wool shirt and a rain shell, in case the weather worsened or I slowed down. (I learned something from my Zumbro DNF!) 

The sumac leaves were beginning to turn and a few trees seemed to realize it was fall, but most were still green and lush. In the railyard below, trains called to each other, their booming horns echoing like great whales. I ran easily, soaking in the sights and sounds.

Midway up, among the sumac
I passed a few other runners, exclaiming, "This is my favorite part! Isn't it great?!" Yeah, I'm annoyingly cheerful when I'm having a good day. But most of the time, I had the trail to myself, and that was great too.

... and near the top
After following the peak, the trail undulates through woods and emerges on a road. I reached the second aid station about 3 hours into my run. So far I was keeping pretty close to my goal of 15-minute miles.

Magney-Snively to Highland-Getchell (~6 miles): Rockin' the big W

I chatted with the two awesome volunteers at Magney-Snively, a mother and son, while I emptied out my trash and picked out a few more gels. Today, Gu gels were my fuel of choice -- they were sitting well and that's what I ended up eating pretty much all day. They checked me in on their list, I thanked them, and headed off for the next, and biggest section of the day, the part of the trail Lisa Messerer calls "the big W."
The elevation profile shows you why.
The section starts by winding its way to Spirit Mountain, followed by a long gentle descent that steepens as you run along the river. I ran a lot of the initial section with Wendi Baldwin and we had fun recapping the Superior 100 (again) and chatting. Eventually I pulled ahead and enjoyed the descent to the river on my own.

When I ran the Wild Duluth 50k last year, I was already having knee pain in this section. This year, by contrast, I felt great. No, more: I felt amazing. Being able to run the sections I'd hiked, painfully, last year was awesome, and I had a huge grin on my face all the way down to the bridge...
Crossing the first point of the W!
... and back up along the river again, even up the ridiculous steep stairs that are the #1 reason I say I'll never do the Wild Duluth 100k (because who in their right mind wants to see those twice?).

I felt strong and happy and uninjured and it was magnificent

Clouds rolled in as I traversed another rocky section, and there was light misty rain. I passed Jamison and Lisa along this section and said, "We're running in a cloud forest! This is so cool!"
Cloud forests, lichens, beauty
The views just keep unfolding along the
second half of this leg. So amazing!
Not far from Highland-Getchell, I ran into Lisa and Ron, out for a run in the other direction. We stopped to catch up -- I hadn't seen her in a while, and we had races and running to discuss. After a good five minutes' talking and laughing, another runner came around the corner, and I remembered I was trying to run this thing. "Oops, gotta go," I said. We yelled our goodbyes as I charged up the trail. I didn't stop till I got to Highland-Getchell. 
Still crazy happy.

Highland-Getchell to 24th Ave (~5 miles): Keeping the focus 

Highland-Getchell was where I almost dropped last year at Wild Duluth, so I was elated to still feel so good when I arrived. I was still pretty close to 15 minute miles for my overall pace. I chatted with Mae, who I'd met earlier in the month volunteering at Fall Superior and who was volunteering here. I searched for more vanilla Gu. I refilled my water. And I headed out on a trail section I recalled being "runnable but not memorable."

I'd hiked this entire section last year, and it was great to be able to run it. I was now 18 miles in, and I was starting to feel the miles piling up, in my legs and hips and back. Now that I thought about it, the last time I ran longer than 18 miles was... uh... FANS? In June? Yeah, I think it was. Well, I decided, I can definitely finish, and probably in good style, but the final third is going to be harder.

I worked hard to maintain focus as the trail wound across boardwalks, up and down, and across more rocks. I walked a little more. My pace fell off my 15 min/mile goal, but I was still running. I kept eating gels (they were still working), and busted out my secret magic Roctane stash. It helped. I was glad to reach the final aid station feeling tired, but still in the run.

24th Ave to finish (~5 miles): I'm still running

At the final aid station, I spent a few minutes talking, used the porta-jon, and grabbed a handful of pretzels. (Salty food sounded really good by then!) And then, I was off. A final climb to Enger Park, and then a long descent to the waterfront. And, different from Wild Duluth, a 1.5-ish mile section along the waterfront before finishing.

The climb to Enger Park seemed like nothing today, and I ran most of it feeling tired but overall pretty good.

I passed the bell as some visitors rang it, and I imagined its vibrations sinking into my bones.

I remembered hiking this section with Wally Goettl last year, and the good conversation we'd shared.

Down, down, down the boardwalks and roads. Past the turn Wally and I had missed last year. (I was watching the SHT blazes like a hawk after my early navigational error.)

Run across the highway pedestrian overpass. Run down the ramp. Run along the railroad tracks, and across, to Bayfront Park where Wild Duluth ends.

Keep running. It wasn't fast, but I was still running.

Around the DECC, along the waterfront. Passed by joggers. They hadn't run 27 miles on the SHT today. Up to the drawbridge. Juuuuuust as it was going up.

I stopped dead. Tried to take a picture for posterity, but my phone battery was dead. The bridge creaked slooooooly up. Boats went in and out with no sense of hurry. The bridge creaked slooooowly down. All I could do is stand there and laugh, so I did.

First one across the reopened bridge. Still running. Then out around the pier. It was windy and cool. The SHT signs were ridiculosuly tiny, the size of a credit card. Back along the lakewalk, dodging visitors, families, kids.

Then back onto the shore, past the veterans' memorial, and now I could see the finish banner at Fitger's. I passed a few Grand Traverse hikers and they cheered me.

Finally, up the stairs (really? ow), past a few cheering spectators, and to the finish.
At the finish line, all smiles!
My unofficial finish time was 7:20. Bonus miles and drawbridges considered, I was happy. Good, happy, strong, uninjured running considered, I was really happy. It was a great day.

Final thoughts: Miles of smiles

This was a fun event and a great day. I'm happy my heart-rate training is paying off, both in terms of training consistency (I've logged 150+ miles/month three of the last four months, which is my most ever) and in terms of injury prevention/healing. I'm delighted that I could still run and feel good at the end of 28 rocky technical trail miles. And I loved being on the Duluth sections of the SHT again -- they truly are some of my very favorite.

Grand Traverse is outstanding training for Wild Duluth, and a great event in its own right. Thank you, organizers and volunteers. And thank you, Jamison, Lisa, Wendi, and other friends who shared trail miles and a memorable meal afterwards!

Let's do it again some time.