Monday, April 20, 2015

60 hours at Zumbro 2015 (volunteer and pacing report)

One of the best things about being between jobs this spring was the chance to spend a few days volunteering and pacing at Zumbro Endurance Runs, the Minnesota ultrarunners' annual April rite of spring. With a 17, a 50, and a 100 mile race, 580 runners, and well over 100 volunteers, it's a big production. The terrain on the 17-mile loop has something for everyone: steep climbs, technical descents, ankle-deep sand, and miles of shoe-sucking mud. The weather can be hot and sunny, below freezing, thunderstorms, snow showers... and sometimes all of the above. 

It's got a special place in my heart as the race I still haven't quite gotten a handle on. Two years ago, I broke my elbow at mile 2 of the 17 miler, my first long trail race. I finished with a smile, but still wanted redemption. Last year, I attempted the midnight 50 miler and DNF'd with hypothermia at mile 34 in a thunderstorm. 

This year, I wanted to volunteer for a few days and see more of the work behind the scenes, and then I jumped on the opportunity to pace. I did laps 5 and 6 of the 100 mile with Jordan, a runner I've admired and respected for his grit and determination during the Gnarly Bandit series last year.

60 hours is too much to cover in a linear manner, so here's two and a half days of Zumbro, in fragments, impressions, and moments:

Wednesday night

- Look at the weather forecast, throw up hands, pack everything I own. Three pairs of mittens, four pairs of shoes, four buffs, two raincoats, shorts, wool hat, sunblock. Who knows? It's Zumbro.


- Drive down Thursday morning under ominous clouds. But the rain is only beginning to get started when I arrive early at the start/finish, so a quick jog up the trail. The mud is already getting a little juicy...
- Race director and a half dozen volunteers trickle in and we admire each other's raingear. There is some scouting around for a place to park the truck that isn't underwater. We eventually begin unloading gear in steady, cold rain. Pair of mittens #1 and shoes #1 are soaked.
- Cheri appears with a carload of sandwiches, Doritos, and amazing cookies. She teaches us how to work the coffeemaker. Life is getting better.
- Change mittens, hang banners, string a mile or two of Christmas lights, set up for cookout, at some point the rain stops. Hurrah!
- More volunteers show up, bringing new energy to the undertaking.
- 100 mile runners start showing up to check in. And it starts raining again. Hurrah!
- Around 7 pm, with the cookout beginning to wind down, head to Lake City to enjoy a warm, dry motel bed. Double hurrah!


- Somehow, the rain has changed to ice pellets overnight. Congratulate self for choice of motel over camping. Scrape ice off the car before heading back to Zumbro. 
- 100 mile race start is a magical thing. The ground is icy but the rain/whatever has stopped. John makes his ceremonial speech from atop the ladder, counts down, and the runners are off!
- I make the drive to Aid Station 1/4 and prepare to walk the mile or so to AS 2/3, where I am volunteering. I share the walk with Ciersten, who is crewing for Andrew, a first-time hundred miler. We are passed by a steady trickle of runners. Everyone looks happy to be on the trail.
- AS 2/3 is already rocking, with Lin, Rob, Jonathan, and John in the house. Probably some other people too. It's a little blurry, sorry, guys. We make PB&Js and gummi bear shots, pour drinks, search fruitlessly for coffee filters and butter.
Not only did Rob have the best hat, but HE BROUGHT US BACON.
Lin, aid stationing LIKE A BOSS.
So well organized, before the runners arrived and ruined it all.
Jonathan, volunteer and Western States runner
- Runners are coming through steadily and everyone's looking good. We attempt to start a bonfire with wet, wet wood. The race directors and Larry Pederson show up in time to help. 
Somehow, Zumbro always happens on Cherie's birthday weekend.
John and the wet woodpile
Larry Pedersen, father of the Zumbro race showing us how it's done

- Julie Berg, aid station captain, runner extraordinaire, and all-around cool person, arrives.
- A couple of runners stick around long enough to be photographed.
Rick, running for Aaron Buffington. The running community misses him.
Jordan and John.
- It rains for an hour. I heard it snowed in the higher elevations.
- Eventually the rain stops and I decide to get serious about starting the fire. Spend an hour slowly feeding it fuel and drying wood until it's actually going. This is my major achievement of the day.
Credit: Todd Rowe
- The aid station is going strong. Runners have come through the rain and still look good. Eventually the sun breaks through and the air warms. It's past 4 pm, and I'm ready to go get some rest so I can pace.

Friday night into Saturday

- Check where my runner is. Attempt to do math. Set alarm for 12:30 a.m. 
- Attempt to sleep in car. First it's too warm and bright, then it cools off. 
- Turns out the car is actually not quite big enough to stretch out in. I'll know better next time.
- Dude in car next to mine is playing NPR. Loudly. I want to kill him.
- Wake up at alarm. Check with ham radio guys. Runner is still 12 miles out. Dammit. Re-set alarm.
- Wake up at 2 a.m. 
Check with ham radio guys. Runner is still 7 miles out. Dammit. Decide to stay up.
- Stand by fire, drink coffee, eat rice and chicken I packed, commiserate with other pacers wondering where their tired 100 mile runners are. Bob Coolidge and Janet are good company.
- Return to car and put on some more layers. The sky has cleared, and 32 degrees is cold when you're not moving!
- Runner shambles in, having been paced by Linnea. She did an amazing job, but they're both cold. He warms up, eats Cheetos and soup, adds layers. 4:30 am. Let's go!
- Aaaaaaaand.... we're walking. It's a decent pace and there's a bit of running here and there, but, as Jordan had warned me, it's not going to be speedy.
- Every star in the universe is up in that sky. Half moon has risen. It's an amazing night to be out on the trail. I make Jordan stop at the top of the ridge to take it in for a minute. It's possible I get more from this moment than he does.
- Mile 74 or so: The first light appears in the sky. The first birdsong of the morning. Incredible sunrise, mist pooling in the valleys. 
What a morning!
- Mud from yesterday's rain is drying as we go, and the trail is getting steadily better. We continue to hike and sometimes run through the loop. Jordan is moving well and the sunrise gives him new energy.
- At some point, we're no longer freezing, and even shed some layers.

Loop 5, into AS 2 and feeling good with the new day!
- Mile 80: inbound aid station 4 just as hundreds of 17 mile runners are coming through outbound AS 1. They are wearing bright, clean clothing and smell like soap and toothpaste. They look impossibly well rested.
- Aid station volunteer shakes his head: "One of the 17 milers just asked for 'a half cup of two-thirds HEED, one-third water'. AT MILE THREE."

- Mile 83: Back at the start/finish of the looped course. Sheila, who is volunteering, brings me a bacon and egg burrito. It tastes like manna from heaven. I strip off my tights and change socks as fast as I can, but Jordan's still out ahead of me.
- The sky is blue, the birds are singing, the sun is shining. Suddenly, it's spring at Zumbro.
The start/finish from the first climb. I missed seeing this sight last year!
Mile 87: Lisa is the aid station medic here, and she's a little concerned. "Is he drinking?" "Yes," I say, "he's been sipping from that bottle." She shakes the bottle; it's nearly full. She eyes my runner critically. "Are you drinking, or are you fake drinking?" He is noncommital.
- Eventually, she shrugs and tells me, "you can walk him to the next aid station."
- One of the aid station volunteers gives Jordan his own personal Red Bull. Jordan drinks half of it and, amazingly, RUNS out of the aid station. Me: "You look great!" Him: "Red Bull gives you wiiiings!"
- Mile 91. We're in a darker place now. My runner is cranky. "We're going, like, one mile an hour." We roll into AS 2 and Julie Berg looks him over. "I see he's at the rebellious stage." She feeds him her homemade Oreo brownies. He revives enough to move on.
- We complete the last big climb. Jordan is all smiles. The view from the ridge is amazing.
"We're pretty awesome." "Yup. We're kind of a big deal."
-  Last technical descent. We are passed by another 100 miler, paced by Wayne. I envy their blistering 16 min/mile pace.
Mile 97: Jordan is moving along at a zombie like shamble. When we stop at the final aid station, he's jittery and isn't talking much. He downs the rest of the Red Bull they've kept for him and mumbles, "Let's go!"
Mile 99: We hit the final dirt road. Jordan, who has been largely noncommunicative for the last hour, looks surprised. "This is the dirt road. We're almost there!"
The dirt road!
As we've arranged, I run ahead to the finish line and video his finish. In the last hundred feet, he breaks into an antalgic run. He is beaming. He finishes, looking better than he has in hours.
- I stop moving and realize I've been on my feet for 13 hours. I stagger around, take off my shoes, and change clothes. I'm shaking and am not much for conversation myself until I eat a whole bunch of food.
- By the time I return from my car, Jordan has left (his ride was ready to go). The race is shutting down. I hear an owl at the edge of the campground asking, "Who cooks for you?" 
- It's time to go. See you next year, Zumbro. I can't wait to see what will happen next. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

This is just to say

Dear Coach:
This is just to say

I have run
the 70 minute workout
that was on
my schedule

and which
you were probably
saving for
Forgive me
it was delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Sunday, January 4, 2015

40K for 40 Years

With my birthday falling between Christmas and New Year's Day, it's usually pretty low-key. I like it that way -- maybe a cake and a little celebration, but not a big deal. But with my 40th birthday rolling around this year, I thought it might be fun to do something different. Something on the trails, with friends. Running 40 miles would take all day, I thought... but how about a 40K? Or, since I didn't have a GPS thingy, how about a 6-hour run? My birthday fell on a Tuesday, so I looked at the following Saturday, January 3.

I pitched the idea on the Upper Midwest Trail Runners' Facebook page and got a good response, even though it was the same weekend as Tuscobia. The weather forecast looked perfect (mid 20s-30 degrees), with a big cold front coming through the next day. I packed up a carload of gels, candy canes, and lollipops and headed out to Lebanon Hills early Saturday morning.

Arriving a little before 6 am, a dozen people were there to run. A few more headlamps joined us, and we took off around the lake. It was a great day to run. The trails had packed snow and the lakes were frozen. There was just a light breeze, shielded by the hills. The world was quiet except for the crunch of our footfalls and our conversation.

We took a long tour around the park, hitting all the highlights: Dodd Road, the visitor center, the bunker, Touch-A-Butt Hill. I caught up with Matt, Janet, Arika, Mike, Julio, and Jan. Back to the parking lot at 8 to pick up another crew, and to peruse the impressive pile of snacks that had joined Matt's coffee pots at an impromptu aid station. Teresa's muffins were a huge hit, and Erich's salted nut cookies inspired a cult following. 

A quick group picture...
Thanks, Christina, for taking the picture!
and we were off again. I hung with Amy, Matt, Shannon and Erin for a while as they blazed along. Met up with Ryan and Christina, who had come all the way from Brainerd for the run. I ran the loop in with Kevin, who threw down 20 miles in preparation for his Zumbro 100-miler. We talked Zumbro, new gear, Christmas adventures, and whatever else came to mind.
Mark, me, Janet, and Ryan. Another great Christina picture!
We rolled in from loop two a little after 10. My right knee was hurting (it's given me trouble off and on for a few months), but everything else was great. There were lots of people in the parking lot, coming and going, and even more food at the "aid station". Spent a while faffing around and eating, then looked at my watch and realized it was already 10:20. Time to run!

Jon, Mark, and I ran the last loop together. Jon looked surprisingly good for someone recovering from the flu, and it was great to catch up with him, and to talk to Mark, who I hadn't run with before. We took it slow and easy, which was good for my knee. Aside from a little navigational difficulty around Holland Lake (and some excellent shortcuts through the woods, and another visit to the bunker), the loop went smoothly. I was getting tired by the end, but never felt like I couldn't run.

We were back at the parking lot a few minutes after noon. 6 hours, 40-ish kilometers, longest run since my early October marathon. And better yet, this crew in the parking lot, complete with folding chairs, hot coffee, and birthday presents:
Hello, Maria, Amy, Willow, Troy, and what the heck is Matt doing?! Not pictured: Todd
As I said, my birthday is usually not a big affair. What a cool surprise to have presents (thank you, Wendi, Amy, Willow, and everyone who signed my card!), a balloon, and a specially composed BIRTHDAY POEM! from the amazing Amy! So awesome. Makes me want to have a birthday every year.

This was a pretty excellent way to ring in a new year, a new decade, and a new age group (I'm a Master now! Woooo!). How amazing to spend a day with great people, friends and new friends, in a beautiful place, doing what I love.
Number fail. Photo credit: Todd Rowe
Thank you, my trail running family. I know 2015 -- and my 40s -- will be awesome. Thanks for seeing it in with me!

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.