Monday, May 1, 2017

The PRs We Choose: Chippewa Moraine 50K Race Report

Executive summary:

My first 50K of the year in 6:51, my third-fastest time. The weather was perfect and the trails were too. I ran an almost perfectly even split and felt good the whole way. I set a PR for cheering on other runners, volunteers, random hikers, and dogs. Smiled my face off, yelled WOOHOO, airplaned a downhill, told stories about parasitic worms to everyone in earshot, and had a ridiculous amount of fun the whole way.
New training goal: Spend more time feeling like this.
(photo: Mike Wheeler)

How I got there

This was my first 50K race in almost a year; my last one was Spring Superior. In the intervening 11 months, I'd started training by heart rate (in August), which seems to have kicked my lingering left peroneal/knee problem (along with diligent foam rolling and taping), and made my "slow easy" pace considerably faster.

With guidance from running/life coach David, I was steadily able to add more mileage, and more miles beget more miles, until my mileage in the first 4 months of 2017 (689) was almost double that of 2016 (389). I'd covered marathon-plus distances in three events (pacing at FANS, Grand Traverse, and 36 miles at Icebox 480), set official and unofficial PRs at the 10K and an unofficial PR on the Afton loop, and done more, and harder, and for longer, than I'd been capable of a year ago.

I still didn't really know what to expect on race day. My longest training run this cycle had been 19 leisurely miles at Afton, at the post-Zumbro Pie Run, but on the other hand, I had more miles on my legs than ever before, and I felt ready to race.

On Wednesday of race week, in an email detailing nutrition and hydration minutiae, David ended up with these words:
Thank every single volunteer and encourage every other runner. Positivity is a performance enhancer. I want people to come up to you after and thank you for being so great on the course. This is one of the main SWAP rules... Fuel well, run the downhills with purpose, and smile your fucking cheeks off. You guys are amazing!"
I tend to run pretty happy anyway, but I took it as a challenge. No matter how the running went, I was going to do my best to PR in positivity in this race.

Sunshine and breeze

I got up stupid early on race day, had an omelet (2 eggs, Brussels sprouts, don't kick, it works for me) and coffee. Since race start would be 3 hours after breakfast, I packed an almond-butter apple and a hard-boiled egg and ate them on the drive, with a second cup of coffee. This worked out well. I headed two hours down the road to New Auburn, WI, enjoying an incredible sunrise. 
Worth the crazy wake-up call!
The Chippewa course is an out-and-back on the Ice Age Trail, and starts at an interpretive center set up on a hill. The morning was brisk, so it was nice to have some indoor space at the pickup.

Kari was running, Erik was cheering
Stephanie and Travis were there in the infamous pink van!
I got to run with Jenny!
There was plenty of time to pick up my shirt and bib, wander around seeing friends, and conclude that I'd be OK without my buff and gloves, which I had forgotten.

With 10 minutes to go, we started to line up...
Not very organized, yet
Dave and Janet
Starting-line picture with Janet!
The sun was shining and the temperature was in the low 40's by the time race director Jeff gave a few instructions (follow the pink flags, thank the volunteers), and we were off, down the big hill.

Start to turnaround: Finding my place

It felt great to be running with almost 200 friends, down the hill and across the grass for a mile before we got to the woods. Unsure of the course or my fitness, I'd decided to aim for 3:30 to the turnaroud, a negative split, and a sub-7 hour finish, if possible. My goal for the first section was to stay comfortable.

The course reminded me a lot of Lebanon Hills -- small but continuous hills pushed up by the advancing glacier, which left behind little wooded lakes as it retreated. We climbed and descended gentle hills on leafy trails with an occasional rock or root to keep your attention.

Airplane at mile 2!
(photo: Chase Nowak)

I wanted to run comfortable at least to the turnaround, so periodically I'd back off my speed and let the people ahead of me go. In this way, Jenny Marietta and her friend Taylor eventually caught up to me and we stuck together for the rest of the way outbound. 

Several little plank bridge crossings like
this one -- a little scary and lots of fun!
The trail wound past lakes, beaver dams, and Jenny stopped me to point out a wetlands with three tall trees containing big messy nests. Bald eagles? Maybe so.

We passed backpackers who graciously stepped aside for us. "WOOHOO backpackers! Thank you!"

We passed a hiker with a dog that patiently sat. "That's a good dog!" ("Sometimes," the hiker smiled.)

We reached the mile 9.5 aid station just after the 2 hour mark. I'd breezed through the mile 3.5 aid station stopping only to pound blue Gatorade and effusively thank the volunteers, but now it was time for a water refill and to grab some snacks. Bob Marsh, Janet and Mike Hausken, and the other awesome volunteers helped me out, then kicked me out as I kept thinking of things I'd forgotten, like throwing out my trash.

Jenny, Taylor and I continued up the trail to the turnaround, talking about her "surprise" going-away/birthday party, our kids and their doings, friends and trails we knew. The temperature climbed into the low 50's and I pulled off my arm sleeves. A steady breeze kept things cool and ruffle the water on the lakes. Everything felt easy and fun.

We joked about "fake running." This was something I'd invented at Icebox last November. I'd dragged Jenny and Jon Matthiae out on a fifth loop (miles 28-35) by promising, "We're not running. We're fake running!" By running verrrrry slow and easy (fake running!), we'd gotten it done in good style. Plus, it cracked us up to say "fake running." Still does!

Runners ahead of us began coming back, first one by one and, as we neared the turnaround, more and more. We yelled and cheered for everyone, told the first five women their rank and splits, stopped to hug a few. I regretted not bringing along a cowbell. As always, out-and-backs are the best for seeing everyone in the race. Not far from the turnaround, we passed Kevin Chem. "I'm too old for this shit," he told me, grinning anyway.

Turnaround to finish: Taking care of business

My goal was to hit the turnaround at 3:30, and we ran in right around 3:20, still feeling great. I was really happy, and excited about turning around and running back home.
Awesome AS volunteer went beyond the call of
duty by taking a picture of me. Thank you!
After a five minute stop to move nutrition into the front of my pack (Larabars, Clif organic food, Shot Bloks, and a few Gu and Roctanes), I took off again, this time with Taylor and Ross Jilk. Jenny stayed behind to run in with her cousin, doing his first 50K.

The three of us set a comfortable pace and had a merry time of it for the better part of an hour, picking up a few more runners in our train. I told stories about parasitic worms (don't know why it was on my mind, but fun to talk about). Ross told us about his work in plant biochemistry, and Taylor told us about textile design. It was fun and relaxing. We hiked the hills, ran the flats, and moved along.

A bit before the mile 9.5/21.5 aid station, Ross began to drop back a bit. "Too much biking, not enough running," he explained. Taylor and I pulled ahead and ran into the next aid station together.
Finish line selfie with Taylor!
She'd spotted a tick on my calf a mile or two out, so I was of course imagining I had them everywhere. When we got to the aid station, I asked Bob to check my legs for more ticks. Thankfully, he found none. Thank you, Bob! We grabbed a few snacks and went on.

The next section had a bit of breezy cool road, then a run through an open, meadow-like area. The sun was overhead and I was glad I'd brought my sunglasses. The humidity was low and the breeze felt energizing. We both still felt good and moved well.

Back across another plank bridge!
As the trail to the final aid station wound on, conversation faltered. We were still moving well, but for me, it helped to focus on keeping that forward movement going. We passed lots of people on our return trip, probably 15 or more. All were still looking strong, and afterwards, a few told us they'd picked up their pace as we passed. It was good to feel progress on the long trail.

We went down another decline, and started walking up another hill. "We're taking care of business," I said. Taylor agreed. "We're doing pretty well!"

The first/last 5 miles had mile marker signs, and I whooped when I spotted the first of them. "Only five more miles?" exclaimed Taylor. "Yes!" I exclaimed. I guessed we had only a little more than an hour to go.

Just before the final aid station, we passed Kevin Chem, who was power-hiking but looked strong, then Kari Gibbons, who was working out a cramp. They both caught up to us at the aid station as we attacked the delicious orange slices (me) and pickles (Taylor), and finished close behind us.
This may be the last time it ever happens
Out of the final aid station and through terrain neither of us remembered well. "I remember this hill, but I didn't think it was this long," I said, more than once. But we were still running! The mile markers slowly counted down. 3.... 2... then we were on the grass and could see the visitors' center up on the hill... 1...

We ran, and ran, and I kept waiting for the final big climb. (I wanted to have an excuse to stop running and walk! I'd been running a long time!) Taylor pulled ahead a bit as I started walking too early. Finally, after a false climb and little descent, it was unmistakeably there.

Power hike up the big grassy hill, past the "NO WALK HILL" and "EMPTY THE TANK" signs, and at the top, the flag-lined 100 yard run to the finish. The clock ticked to 6:51 and change as I crossed the mat, grinning and cheering like a little kid.
... and we're back where we started!

The PRs We Choose

I set out to set a PR for positivity and joy in running on Saturday. And really, it was a pretty easy PR to set. After all, the weather was perfect, the trails were beautiful, and I felt pretty good the whole way, enjoying the company of new and old friends. But the act of consciously choosing to be joyful and to embrace the run with all it brought changed how I experienced it, and made it greater than it would have been without that "race plan."

I reached my sub-7 hour goal, my "beat the women's median time" goal, and got decently close to my "beat the overall median time" goal. I set a benchmark for my fitness this season. And I figured out something about setting process oriented goals and making this run and every run worth celebrating.

A little while after I got in, Janet finished her fourth Chippewa 50K. She checked her phone messages, hoping to see her son's prom photos. Instead, it was full of photos of her brand-new, first grandson, born that morning right as we started the race. Her face lit up with joy as we gasped and yelled and hugged.
NEWLY MINTED GRANDMA!
(photo: David Shannon)
A fast race is nice. But some race day events stay with us forever!

Friday, April 28, 2017

Unstuck in Time: 2017 Zumbro Volunteer Report

Back to Zumbro

For the fifth year in a row, I spent an April weekend at the Zumbro 17/50/100 Mile Endurance Run. It's the site of a lot of "firsts" for me. It was my very first "big" trail race, back in 2013 (when I broke my elbow at mile 2), my first 50 mile attempt (and DNF) in 2014, my first encounter with a 100 mile race. It's been a place of struggle, and beauty, and wonder, and accomplishment. It's also an annual trail family reunion, the first time in 6 months that many of us come together to celebrate a winter of training or recovery, and the year to come.

This year, instead of running Zumbro and Spring Superior, I'm planning Chippewa 50k at the end of April and Western States Training Weekend at the end of May, so I didn't sign up for any of the Zumbro races. I decided instead to volunteer Friday and Saturday, and run the race loop myself on Friday, during the day, when things weren't too busy at the aid station.

Un-Zumbro-Like

After an abnormally warm February and dry March, the weather forecast for race weekend was... warm? sunny? I packed rain gear, merino wool, gloves, and spare shoes anyway, because, well, Zumbro is defined by its wildly unpredictable weather and trail conditions. But in deference to the forecast, I also included a sun hat, sunblock, and sandals. Unlike every other year I've been there, there turned out to be no rain, no snow, and mostly clear blue skies.

I drove down to the start/finish early Friday morning and arrived an hour ahead of the 100 mile start.
I have never seen Rob K without this smile. I'm not sure I'd recognize him!

Bob came down early and ran the 17 the next day.

Alicia and Cheri, radiant and caffeinated
The merch table was jamming!
To our everlasting disappointment, Rob
took off the hat before the race started.


9 of our 11 Gnarly Bandit contenders!
Rob, wondering why everyone else is so overdressed
Susan and Erik, two returning Gnarly Bandits

Radek's first 100 mile start!

Kevin and Wendi, spreading joy
As the sun streamed down in a cloudless sky, John gave some words of guidance from his traditional stepladder, made a few jokes so terrible I won't repeat them here, counted down from five, and the race started. It was a perfect day to run. With runners on their way, I headed out to AS 2/3.

Friday volunteering and running

At AS 2/3, Matt Patten was in charge and the setup was well underway. It was my fourth year volunteering here, and though the cast of characters shifts a bit from year to year, the drill is much the same: mix the HEED, put out the gels, organize the drop bags, figure out what one item didn't make it into the (exceedingly well-organized) bins this year. (It was the salt.)

One big difference from last year and other prior years? No mad rush to light the bonfire or set up the camp stoves for hot food. We'd do all that a bit later, but meanwhile, it was already beginning to warm up in the sunshine.

With the trails unusually dry and lacking in mud, ice, and snow, we expected the first runners through in near-record time, and they didn't disappoint. The 100 mile had 74 starters this year, and after the front-runners came by with barely a pause for more water, or just a wave hello, a steady stream of mid-pack runners came through in ones, twos, and threes. We rang cowbells as they appeared around the bend and came in through a sand coulee, and again as they departed, bound for Picnic Rock. It was fun to see so many familiar faces among the runners, from Doug Kleemeier, who led from wire to wire, to Kevin Langton, who had been injured and was happy to even be on the course, to Allan Holtz, the oldest 100 mile starter and determined to get some great mileage.

By the time the front of the pack wound back around to the AS 3 side of our tent, we had music playing, a fire was burning, and the first wave of snacks was out and ready. I renewed my acquaintance with Brian the HAM radio operator, who's been at AS 2/3 every year for a long time. Matt handed out bags of Peet's coffee as a thank-you gift to the volunteers. We broke open the box of race T-shirts, this year an alarming shade of pink.

Once the last of the 100 milers came through AS 3, I changed into my running shoes and headed out for a loop of the course.

It was sunny, breezy, dry, and in the low 50's. The trails were dry and firm. It was a perfect day for a long run.
The sandy parts were... very... sandy, however.
 I plowed through the deep sand coulees, waved at my AS 2/3 compadres, and headed up the ridge.
Is it crazy that this climb and this ridge
are my very favorite parts of the course? 
I never get tired of the view from the top!


 It was a smooth run along the ridge, and before I knew it, I was at the rocky, steep Ant Hill descent.
When you hit this only 5 miles into your run, you can actually run it! Fun!
I'd been running alone for an hour now. (I only saw two runners the whole time I was out.) As I came down Ant Hill, my mind began to wander back to other times I'd been on this course. Last year, at the bottom of Ant Hill, Mike Madden and Dave Shannon were out hiking and seeing Mike there filled me with joy. Two years ago, Jordan and I had made two slow descents down the rocky slope -- but on the second one, we were celebrating, because all the major climbs were over. Three years ago, a sudden thunderstorm turned it into a river course, and I was as cold and wet as I've ever been.

Remembering these years past, I began to feel a little unstuck in time. My present self and my past selves were all running together, existing now, existing then. I thought about what my future self might be thinking, next year, coming down Ant Hill.

I reached the gravel road.
It went on
and on
and on


 ... but again, not so bad on a perfect spring day early in a run. It seemed like no time before I reached AS 1/4. I spent a little too long there shooting the breeze with Bill Pomerenke and getting my forgotten run nutrition out of my parked car, then headed off to the start/finish.

Turns out, when you take the trail to the start/finish at the midpoint of your 17 mile run, it's much easier than when it's at the end of the loop! I ran easily and steadily, listening to birds and breeze, and spotting early green growth on the forest floor.

Near the turnout to the field, Doug Kleemeier caught up to me at the end of his second loop. Every single time I saw him at Zumbro, he looked happy. He was having an incredible race. I waved him on, and made sure I ran wide of the flags as I came into the start/finish area behind him.

The start/finish had the laid-back vibe of the other aid stations: the race was underway, the music was playing, and people were around, but with the runners spread out, there was plenty of time to talk, laugh, and catch up on the winter's doing. I talked for a while with Lisa and a few others, then looked at my watch and said, "Gotta go!"

Up the hill, take in a view of the camp below, and into the "Hobbit woods."
Ahhhhh
It was my fifth year doing the Zumbro loop, and parts of it are sharp in my memory. Start to AS 1/4 was known territory, and after the initial climb, a fun runnable jaunt. Back through AS 1/4, and I began the longest, final section of my circuit.

It's taken me a long time to learn the rhythm of this section. There are lots of minor features, but no big defining ones. There's a long wooded ATV track, a gentle descent to the river, a U-bend around a field, some crazy steep climbing and a washed-out final descent through the woods back to AS 2/3. Running the decline to the river, I passed Don Clark and Lorien, maker of owl hats. They were walking the loop, and when I paused, they showed me the earliest spring flowers, and little white snails, and tomato-red fungus growing on the bank.
Spring ephemeral
 Again, I had the sensation of being unstuck in time. I'd seen this section in misty sunrise, and the dark of night, and in brilliant sunshine. I'd run it joyfully, walked it painfully, and all my past selves ran alongside me, encouraging me to finish the loop strongly.

As I finally got back to AS 2/3, 4.5 hours after leaving, it took a few minutes to bring myself back to the here and now. But I felt refreshed, renewed, and ready to take on the care and feeding of 100 milers once again.
It was a good thing I was fully right in my mind
the T. rex walked into camp. He'd come all the
way from AS 1/4 in that getup!
 Most runners still looked strong coming through loop 3.
Wendi and Jeremy showing off their
matchy-matchy SHARK ATTACK gaiters!
As director of the Gnarly Bandit Ultra Trail Series this year, I paid close attention to my 11 Gnarly contenders, and was pleased to see that they were all still in the running, and all still looking happy and well. Tina Johnson and Jeff Leuwerke were crushing it up in front; Erik Raivo a crazy, blissful grin every time I saw him; Susan Donnelly was -- as ever -- unstoppable; Allan Holtz was a steady presence.

A few runners were struggling. After a strong start, Rob Henderson was having one weird problem after another. He dropped onto a blanket near the fire and we watched his calf muscles twitch involuntarily, like small animals burrowed under his skin. He wasn't feeling it today. His gut wasn't cooperating. He said, "I think I want to drop." After 20 minutes of resting, eating, and both of us working on his eerily twitching, cramping legs, he still wanted to drop. As soon as he'd turned in his chip, making it official, he looked substantially happier. When I saw him a week later, he told me, "Best decision I ever made."

Kevin had come through on his first loop in a train of 6 runners, all looking delighted to be with such a happy runner, all echoing his joyful "WOO!" But by now, his IT band injury was catching up to him. Without a word, he headed for a chair by the fire and curled in on himself, negotiating silently with pain and injury.

As evening began to set in, we continued to greet runners with cowbells, cheese quesadillas, and Matt's incredible homemade pizza. Between waves of runners, we told stories, complained about the quality of the music, stirred up the fire. It felt a bit like an all-day cookout, a bit like the end of a laid-back fatass or a long day in the woods.

The night crew of volunteers arrived, headed by the capable Dan Harke, and we handed the aid station over to them, explaining which soup was vegan, where we'd put the cheese, which cutting board we were using for which foods. By 7 pm or so, things were in the capable hands of the night shift. Dave Koch gave me a ride to AS 1/4 in his ATV (that was fun!), and I headed out for the evening.

Saturday volunteering

The sunrise was achingly beautiful as I headed back down to Zumbro.
Just, wow.
I imagined seeing it from the perspective of runners and pacers, out all night, and remembered how the rising sun was a source of energy and renewal the years I'd been out on the trail at night into the day.

AS 1/4 was a subdued scene at 6:30 a.m. Music played softly, the fire was banked low, and a few runners and crew wrapped in blankets sat around it, not talking. On the walk to AS 2/3, a few 50 mile runners passed me, moving with the steady, unhurried gait of runners who were in the middle of something but not yet near the end.

The vibe was similar at AS 2/3 as we relieved the overnight crew. As 100 mile runners tricked in in ones and twos, I greeted them with "You're still here! Good morning!" Indeed, most were still here, though a few had dropped yesterday and overnight. 50 milers were coming through on their second and third laps. We fired up the music, fired up the quesadilla pan, drank coffee, and set to work.

I started my late-stage aid station patter: "You know what I'm making special for my 100 milers this morning? Peanut-butter bananas. Banana because it's super digestible, peanut butter to coat your stomach. Sound good?" It's not really about the PB bananas; it's how you sell it.

Susan Donnelly came in on her final loop, looked at the aid-station food offerings with distaste, told me, "This is hard work."  
The hard part of the race
After eating a peanut-butter banana, she headed out on the Table Rock loop. 40 minutes later, she was back on the AS 3 side, announcing, "I need another one of those peanut-butter bananas." Fuel in hand, she was off on the final part of her race. A few more 100 milers came in on their final loop. It was good to see so many people ready to finish a long, tough race.

Kevin Chem came by, taking race photos.
The presence behind the camera
Pretty sure he's smiling this much because
he's not running 100 miles this year
At 8:00, AS captain Matt called a brief all-hands meeting. "There are 500 people registered for the 17 mile race. They'll be here in less than an hour. We need a plan to deal with them all." We filled dozens of cups with water, HEED, and soda, moved the food back, and stationed volunteers in the coulee to spot and record race numbers. And none too soon -- the 17 milers started arriving, first in a fast-moving trickle, then a stream, then in droves.

For the next hour and a half, we worked all hand on deck, filling water bottles and cups, setting out more Coke, helping out the occasional runner who had gotten into trouble. I tried to make sure the 50- and 100-milers got the help they needed, offering them hot and cold food, ice (it was warming up!), and encouragement.

A few injured runners came through. After examining and troubleshooting, I helped get rides out for a woman with a bad quad pull, and one with a sharp foot pain that was getting worse, not better. ("Is this your goal race for the season?" "Oh, no. I have a half marathon in two weeks, then a marathon, then Ragnar..." "Hmm. It's up to you, but in that case, I don't think you need another 20 miles on that leg.") A runner was overheated, nauseated, and couldn't continue, even after sitting in the shade with ice on his neck. A 50 mile runner wanted to drop because she wasn't feeling well and wasn't enjoying the race. With so many runners on the course, our ATVs couldn't easily get around, so runners who dropped often had to wait quite a while for a ride out. Most of them took this with good humor and grace.

In the full sunshine, temperatures reached the 70's as the clock crept toward noon. Bob Coolidge arrived, hot but in good humor:
and dressed to SLAY
We cooled him down with cold drinks and a bag of ice on his neck, and he power-hiked out of the aid station, radiating determination.
James volunteered at AS 2/3 last year. This year, he
volunteered Friday, then ran the 17! WOOO!
Carl ran the 50. Katie ran the 17. He came into AS 2
just as she was leaving AS 3. We yelled, "COME
BACK!!!" She did. Best aid-station hug EVER.

Dawn and I matched! Oh, and check out my Unshoes
sandals! They were perfect for standing and walking all day.
Stephanie and Ava, killing the 17!


As the clock drew on toward noon, the stream of runners slowed. I fed and chatted with a hot 100 miler on his fifth loop, then kicked him out as politely as I could, but I don't think he made the loop 6 start cutoff. A few 50 and 100 milers came through on their final loop. I was especially excited to see Sally Hulbert still in the mix, and was thrilled to see her finish later that afternoon. In the early afternoon, we started packing up the aid station.

By 2:30, all the runners were accounted for. We packed up boxed, took down tents, consolidated tables. We stacked gear where ATVs could carry it out. Around 3, the sweep crew jogged in, looking like they were having the time of their lives. We shot the breeze with them and they headed out on the Picnic Rock loop, unhurried, unworried.

By 3:15, everything was packed up except one table with drinks and snacks for the sweeps. Volunteers took their leave, one by one. I gathered up all the layers I'd started the day with (gloves? hat? seemed ridiculous now!), the snacks I'd brought, the coffee Matt had given me. Thanked everyone and started the walk out. AS 2/3 was finished for the year.

Final Zumbro thoughts

I love habit and repetition. I love the ordinariness of things I do every day, every week, every year. The rhythms of Zumbro are part of my year now. I know when I arrive that I'll leave a little warmer, a little more saturated with campfire smoke, and with my heart a little more full than it was before. Whether I'm running, pacing, volunteering, or spectating, it's become my way to kick off the running season, and a link to friends and trail family.

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.