Monday, July 7, 2014

Afton Trail Run 50K 2014 Race Report

Executive summary:

50K in 6:38:49 on a warm, windy, hilly course. About 35 minutes faster than my "A" goal, and only 10 minutes off my 50K PR. 23rd of 55 women -- my first finish ever in the top 50%! So much sunshine, breeze, and unexpected joy. One of those runs that left me absurdly, inarticulately happy.
This sums it up well. Credit: Afton Trail Run

Prologue: Time to Learn Something New

Every time I run the Afton loop, I learn something new about myself. There's a lot to challenge a runner out there. It's hilly (2300 feet of ascent and 2300 of descent in a 25K loop). It's got open prairie, wooded singletrack, steep climbs (one's called "The Meat Grinder") and descents, and a lethal stretch of long, straight, level railbed along the river. There's sunshine, cool shade, a little sand, plenty of mosquitoes.
Source: aftontrailrun.com
Source: aftontrailrun.com
I signed up for Afton this year instead of volunteering again because I wanted a hot, hilly, long run before committing to Voyageur 50 Mile later this month. I've been running with a coach for the last 5 weeks: David Roche, with Some Work, All Play. It's been a great way to add some intensity and speed into my run, mostly in the form of pickups and hill sprints. It's a kind of suffering I wouldn't undertake on my own.

Key workouts in the four weeks between Chester Woods and Afton included a tough session of 200m hill strides, short strides or hill sprints after most runs, and a back-to-back weekend with the 25K Afton loop with pickups, and the next day a 14-mile trail run with 4 miles hard, then 1 mile hard, then hill sprints. That one took some recovery! But by race day, I was feeling well rested, healthy, and ready to see what the day brought.

I really wasn't sure what the day would bring. Based on a 25K loop at Afton back in April, McMillan claimed I could run a 7:13 50K... but the temperature that day had been in the 50s. So, with the forecast 20+ degrees warmer, I decided to make 7:13 my pie-in-the-sky "A" goal. My "B" goal was to beat my Superior time of 7:41. My "C" goal was to finish happy, and avoid heatstroke and injury.

Loop 1: Among Friends

I was at Afton by 5:30 and saw lots of familiar faces directing parking, managing packet pickup, and otherwise making thing run smoothly. The sun was up and it was about 70 degrees, with a promise of sunshine and high temperatures in the low 80s.
Rather cool by Afton standards. But still hot.
Lots of friends at the start line. John's pre-race briefing included asking, "Who's doing their first ultra?" Lots of hands went up. So cool! "Who's done Afton five times?" Lots more hands. "Ten times?" A couple of hands. Without much further ado, a countdown, and we're off!

Last instructions and encouragement from the race director
Ready to run!
About 200-250 of us headed out for the 50K. A jog down the gravel road quickly turned into a power hike up to the "Africa" loop, a big open section of prairie.
Beautiful morning for a run.
Along here, I joined up with Harriet, who I knew from several other runs, but had never run a significant distance with before. We'd last met at Zumbro, recovering from hypothermia after a crazy thunderstorm. Our paces seemed to match, and we kept going together, talking about kids, books, summer vacation, and whatever else came to mind.

The loop flew by. Soon we'd run the Back 40 and finished the Africa Loop, climbed Northern Hill and descended again, and along the way picked up Arika and Kevin. They'd met at the Savage 100 race earlier in the year, when Kevin was attempting his first 100 (he made it 80 miles! Badass) and Arika was the "Crazy Aid Station Lady." Together, we worked on talking Kevin into running Icebox 480 in November. Arika slowed down after Northern Hill, but Kevin, Harriet, and I climbed Campground Hill together, ran through the campground and down the hill, and hit the long, flat, straight river road section. A few fast 25K runners started passing up as we climbed Campground Hill. They were flying!

I loved running the open prairie sections on this loop. It wasn't hot yet, but the sun was shining, the wind was blowing, and it was a beautiful place to be. Didn't take many pictures, but the few I have capture the big, open sky and abundant sunshine.

The river section is a little over a mile, and mentally, it's hard to keep going. It's flat, so you feel you should run it, but I always have to bargain with myself on it. This time, Harriet pushed the pace, running steadily and a little faster than I would have. I kept thinking about stopping and walking, but I stuck with her and Kevin -- they were good company! I worried a little about whether I would later regret going faster than planned, but it felt okay. Just took more focus.
The view didn't change for a very long time (it seemed).
We reached the end, where it was a relief (!) to turn up onto the Meat Grinder and walk, and I said, "Thank you for pulling me! No way I would have gone that fast on my own!" To my surprise, Harriet and Kevin swore they wouldn't have either. What happened there? Oh well, onward we go.

The Snowshoe loop was beautiful singletrack, and much more lush and green than I remembered. Kevin had pulled ahead. Despite being passed by many 25Kers, we made good time through it and were soon heading through the open prairie, uphill to the start/finish line.

As we approached the start/finish, the race clock read 3:11. My previous PR on the loop (a single loop!) was 3:24. "Oh, shit," I said to Harriet. "This is either going to be really great, or really, really bad."

Loop 2: Really great, or really, really bad?

At the start/finish, I hit the bathroom, re-loaded snacks and water, and put on more sunblock. "Ready to go?" asked Harriet. "I guess I am!" I said. We headed out. I didn't look at the time, but we spent 5-10 minutes at the start/finish.

Loop 2 was getting warmer, and the Africa loop and Back 40 felt slower this time. We stopped at the aid stations for cold wet sponges. I drank water and started drinking Heed and Coke and eating salty potatoes. Coming out of the Back 40, I was a little queasy but things settled down as we walked the climb back up to the Africa loop.

"I love this section," announced Harriet as we ran the Africa loop. I looked around. The sky was huge and perfectly blue. The air was dry and the breeze ruffled the tall lush grass and carried away fatigue and soreness. The trail stretched ahead and we were moving steadily. Some days the Africa loop is a struggle for me. But today, I found I loved it too. 
So much sunshine.
Maybe it's because I know the course well, but everything just seemed doable, even though we were many miles and hours into the run. I enjoyed running the downhills. I could run the flats without suffering. I could hike the hills. It all just felt fine. I kept waiting for something to stop working, and assumed that it would at some point... but it never did. Wow.

Harriet and I got to the river road again. We hadn't been talking much, just focusing on moving along steadily. We ran the river road. No conversation, but we were moving. We passed people. I focused on the shade, the breeze, the steady rhythm of my breathing. It took concentration. My right hamstring tried to cramp up and I took more S-caps. At last, we reached the end of the road. I was inarticulate but joyful. "Damn. Wow. Shoot. We did it. That was amazing," I said. Once again, we'd run it faster than either of us had planned, or would have done alone.

At the top of the Meat Grinder, I ventured my opinion: "I think we're going to make it!" "Of course we are!" she agreed. "I think we're doing pretty well," I elaborated. "I was thinking that if I PR'd this, I might do Voyageur," she said.

Just before the Snowshoe loop, the amazing people at Aid Station 5 pulled out all the stops for us. What other sport has so many volunteers who are incredible badasses in their own right? Multiple-time Barkley racer Alan squeezed ice water over my neck and back. Christy, who has won every ultra she's entered this year (and saved me from hypothermia at Zumbro), filled my hat with ice. John, who's run dozens of hundred-milers and never gets injured, draped a cold wet towel over Harriet's shoulders. I drank ice water, Heed, and Coke. We ran out onto the last 5K of the course refreshed and renewed. I couldn't believe how good I suddenly felt.

Snowshoe loop flew by. Harriet and I stuck together for the first half, and then I began pulling ahead. I passed a few people. I ran with a few others and encouraged them. Landmarks ticked by, one by one. Suddenly, I was out on the prairie, climbing the last hill, running the last, always unexpectedly long section along the road to the finish line.

There it was. The finish line clock said 6:38. I could hardly believe it. I crossed the mat, grinning from ear to ear. Again, words failed me. "Wow. Damn. Holy crap. I can't believe it."

Two minutes behind me, Harriet charged in, looking amazing. I cheered like a crazy person. We shared a sweaty hug. "What was your PR?" I asked her. I couldn't remember if she'd told me. "Um, THAT!" she said, pointing to the clock.
Who needs words?

Epiloge: Damn. Wow. Holy crap. And other deep thoughts.

So, yeah. This was a breakthrough run for me. I performed far better than I imagined I could, in hot conditions, on a difficult course. So many things went well.

Working with a coach: I know we've only been doing this for a month, but, um, I think it's working. Whether it was physiological or psychological, I always felt like I could keep going at a greater intensity than I would have believed possible. I blame all those hill sprints.

Hydration and nutrition: Lots of people who dropped or had a tough race did so because it was hot (even if low 80s is cool by Afton standards). Whether by luck or practice, my combination of Larabars, Picky Bars, Gu, Shot Bloks, salty potatoes, and S-caps (plus water, Heed, and Coke) worked well for me. I dropped my two Roctanes at some point on loop 2, which was sad, but I always felt well fed and fueled.

One thing that went very, very well: all the fantastic people who made this happen. So many volunteers cleared the trail, marked and swept the course, checked us in, kept us all fed, hydrated, and cool (I'm looking at you, Aid Station 5!), and provided medical support and more great food at the finish line. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Race directors John and Cherie Storkamp put on incredibly well organized, challenging, fun races, every single time. My husband, when I told him my time said, "That's badass! Hey, at this rate, you'll be winning your age group by the time you're your mom's age!" (And I think he meant it.) My kids manage to live without me every Saturday morning when I run long.

Finally: I wouldn't (and probably couldn't) have gone this fast without my race friend Harriet to pull me along the hard parts and share my joy in the good parts. Thank you. It was a little piece of race day magic.
A moment of bliss. Credit: Ninja Runners

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Chester Woods 50K 2014 Race Report (or, The Day I Ran a 73 Minute PR)

Executive summary:

50K in 6:28:40, a 1:13 PR. It was a very runnable, moderate course, the trails were dry, the weather was overcast and breezy. After a series of 50Ks (and my 50 mile attempt) on rocky, rooty singletrack over mountains, this was a totally different experience! 
On the last lap, still running happy!

Prologue: Wait, I signed up for a 50K?

Chester Woods 50K came only three weeks after a big 19 minute PR and all-around fantastic run at Spring Superior 50K. I really wasn't sure what to expect. I'd signed up way back last winter, thinking it would be a good training run for Voyageur and that why not, it was only $35. I'd never run the course, I wasn't sure whether my legs were going to want to race or just run a catered training run, heck, I wasn't even sure till the week before that I was going to actually run it. But by race week, I was feeling pretty recovered from Superior (I'd done short "long runs" of 12 and 8 miles in the intervening weeks) and figured, why not go run?

At the last minute, I decided not to drive down the morning of the race (6 am start + 1.5 hour drive to Chester Woods = 3 am wake-up call) and rode down Friday night with Brad and Julio. Thanks, Brad, for driving! And many thanks to Julio's cousin Linda for letting the three of us sleep in her basement guestroom and bump around her kitchen at 4:30 am fixing breakfast. She lives only 10 minutes from Chester Woods, so it was a perfect place to stay the night!
Me, Misty, Bob, Julio, and Brad.

Plan? I don't have a plan

I woke up with Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" stuck in my head. No explanation for that one, but it was my mental accompaniment for much of the day. Despite that, it was a beautiful morning, with temperatures in the low 60's, though there was an 80% chance of rain and thunderstorms predicted for the day. I caught up with friends at the starting line, did an Upper Midwest Trail Runners group photo, took some pictures, milled around. I still wasn't sure of my race plan. The format is based on a looped course of 9.5 miles per loop. There's an extra section around a meadow at the beginning of the first loop to bring it up to 31 miles. I figured I'd try and run it like a training run at Lebanon Hills -- 12 minute miles, or so. I estimated I'd take 2.5 hours on the first, 12 mile loop, and then see what happened.
Ready to run!
Team INKnBURN, with Kevin.The last time we'd met
was at Zumbro (he was running the 100), and we didn't know it,
but we were both about to get knocked out of the race
by the weather gods. Fun to meet under better conditions!
Bob ran the 50K, then volunteered at the FANS 24 Hour
race all night! What a guy!
Jon burned it up, as usual. His shirt is for Break The Stigma,
the group Julio started to talk about and promote mental health.
Check them out!
Willow and Misty (finish line)
Misty and John (finish line)

 First loop (12 miles, 2:30): Look! I'm running a 50K!

A quick pre-race briefing, a countdown, and we're off! I took off, still sort of bemused to be out there running a 50K race. We started with a 2.5 mile one-time loop around a wooded meadow, and I chatted with Stephanie, who was out running her second 50K, on the spur of the moment. It was a beautiful morning, overcast and a little breezy. I tried to hold a "training run" pace and take it all in. On the loop, I could see the race leaders, with John Storkamp in front, far ahead already.

We finished the meadow loop and ran a brief stretch on the road before turning onto a gravel road, then onto a series of horse trails through the woods and prariries.
A short paved section leading to the woods.
The route had several out-and-backs, lollipop loops, and other hazards to navigation, but it was quite well marked and I never got lost. It was fun seeing other runners, both 50K and 10 mile racers (who started two hours later) on all the out-and-backs.
Blurry, but fairly typical trail.
The whole route is very runnable, with grass and gravel trails, alternating areas of woods and prairie, no mud, rocks, or roots to speak of, and only one hill of note.
It's even got a name!
And coming off Superior and my Afton training runs, Big Dam Hill was not a Big Dam Deal. You could make good time on this course.

One of my favorite features of the Chester Woods course was the mile markers, which were laminated signs in the style of Burma Shave road signs. In fact, I'm pretty sure the rhymes were actual Burma Shave rhymes. Funny enough to entertain for three loops!
Of note, the mileage on the signs is distance to the 10 mile finish, while the start/drop bag area is actually another half mile or so further. The first time through, that last "mile" felt r-e-a-l-l-y long.

I finished my first loop at about 2:20. Took about 10 minutes to replenish food (I ate Larabars, Picky Bars, and a Gu Roctane at the end, used two S-Caps per hour, and drank water), hit the bathroom, and put on sunblock. On my way out at exactly 2:30.
Loop 1 finished!

Second loop (9.5 miles, 2 hours): Weather? Whether?

As soon as I put on sunblock, the weather went from looking like the clouds were going to burn off, to looking foreboding. The sky darkened, the breeze picked up. I grabbed my "Zumbro security blanket" (rain shell, didn't bring the wool shirt this time) and tied it around my waist. My plan must have worked, because although it continued to look threatening throughout this loop, even with some distant thunder, it never rained. Win! I later heard they weren't so lucky in the Twin Cities. FANS 24 Hour was delayed a half hour by lightning, and it rained cats and dogs there until midafternoon. I had come ready for crazy rain, but was so glad not to have it.
Ominous skies over Chester Woods
Loop 2 felt faster than the first loop, since there wasn't the meadow loop to contend with. I cruised along, chatted with Misty and with Nora, who was running the 10 mile race, and passed a couple of other 10 milers. It was lots of fun to see the fast 10 milers racing through the aid stations, and there was a lot more cheering and chatter than on my first loop, which had been 50K runners only.

Around mile 5 (17 overall), as I came onto a big section of prairie, a runner flew by me. "Good job, Robyn," said John Storkamp, and headed off at a scorching pace. He won the race with a sub-4 hour time, just seconds off the course record. Nice work!

Near the finish, I passed three racers (10-milers and 50K runners), one of whom had his arm in a full length cast! "Been there!" I exclaimed. "You rock!"

I finished loop 2, still feeling well, in 1:55. Ditched the unnecessary raincoat, more snacks, more S-caps. Stephanie was there -- she'd dropped after one loop, feeling sick. I'd come into the drop bag area with Misty, but headed out ahead of her. I didn't want to waste any time, and didn't want to think too hard about what was still ahead. Headed out right at 4:30 on the clock.
Loop 2 #selfiefail

Third loop (9.5 miles, 1:58): Don't Stop Believin'

Yeah, Journey was still stuck in my head.

For the first time in the race, I did math. And realized that if I ran the third loop in under 2.5 hours, I could get a sub-7 hour finish, a huge PR (I'd PR'd Superior in 7:41). It didn't seem likely, but if I could do it in under 2 hours, I could get a 6:30. I had a goal.

Although the beginning of the loop had flown by on my second lap, I was starting to get tired and lose focus in the first 4 miles this time. I ran some 4 minute run/1 minute walk intervals, and walked the hills. I kept eating, but sweet food didn't seem appealing, and though I didn't have bad GI upset, my stomach seemed to be tired of accepting and digesting food.

Then, something amazing happened. I crested a rise onto the prairie loop where John had lapped me on the last loop. The terrain leveled out. A breeze picked up and refreshed me. And I suddenly felt like I could run.
Running happy again.
I ran the prairie loop. Then, there was a long gentle descent so I ran that. Then it leveled out, and I found I could keep running. I walked some hills, but suddenly the miles were clicking by again. The course in front of me was growing steadily shorter, and the course behind me lengthened out into the past. I came to a downhill. "I'm good at downhills," I reminded myself. I am. I came to a straightaway. My watch beeped. A walk interval? "I can walk when I'm finished," I told myself.

I pulled into an aid station with about 4 miles to go. Happy hour was just getting started, with a case of beer arriving by truck. "Want a beer?" the volunteers asked me. "I'd love to, but I think I'm going to get a PR," I told them, and took off.

I watched mileage signs, looked at my watch, tried to do math. Whoa, it was going to be close to 6:30, my "A" goal. Nothing hurt, and it didn't seem like feeling tired was a good enough excuse to walk, so I kept running.

Off the trails, around the playground, through the boat launch, turn up to the sign marked "FINISH", along another hillside... and there it was! I was stunned to see 6:28 on the clock as I ran across the mat. Wow.

Epilogue: Why yes, I will take that 73 minute PR, thank you.

I'm still a little weirded out by this race. I went in with zero expectations for anything other than a finish and a fun day with friends. I didn't even consider a sub-6:30 finish time until mile 21 of the actual race. It's a little hard to get my head around.

I don't quite understand how much of what happened was from the course and conditions (runnable, moderate, good weather, very different from everything else I've run), how much from my training, how much was maybe even just that I've been underperforming up till now. What I do know is that it was me who did this. My legs, my lungs, my heart, my brain. For some reason, it all clicked and for the third race in a row I paced it right, ran it right, kept my head and my stomach and my legs happy.

Yeah.
It's kind of a weird feeling, but I think I like it. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sunshine, Mud, and Euphoria on the Trails: 2014 Spring Superior 50K Race Report

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers today
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest. Keep us here
All simply, in the springing of the year.
- Robert Frost, "A Prayer in Spring"

"Adventures are not all pony-rides in May-sunshine."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
Turning around at Carlton Peak

The summary:

50K + a little extra up and down a spur trail, in 7:41:15, a 19-minute PR. Shoe-eating mud puddles, May sunshine, cascading rivers, wild onions, great people. Another well paced run with a 20-minute negative split (only partly due to getting off-course on the way out) and a strong finish. I feel like I ran this one very well.

Preparations

This was my spring goal race and one I'd been looking forward for a year. Last year's Spring Superior was my first 50K and it was amazing. My finishing time was 8:00:18 (with an official 8-hour cut-off time). I did it five weeks after breaking my arm -- it was still in a brace -- and just getting to the starting line was a major triumph. Finishing was too.

This year, training had gone well. I'd gotten a few good long runs, including six and a half hours on snowy trails33 miles at Zumbro five weeks before the race, and 20 miles ending with a well-paced half marathon three weeks beforehand. My weekly mileage peaked at 52 miles, a few weeks before Zumbro -- by far the biggest weekly mileage I've ever done. I'd been lifting weights and doing core regularly, and recently added a bit more intensity (and fun!) with a weekly November Project workout.

I felt like I was ready to PR the heck out of this course. Four weeks before, I ran the 25K loop at Afton in 3:24. Based on that, McMillan claimed I could run a 7:16 50K on similar terrain. Well, we'd find out.

My "A" goal for this race was 7:15. Why not go big? My "B" goal was sub-8 hours, which would be a 50K PR. My "C" goal was to finish happy and not severely injured. 

I rode up to Lutsen the day before the race with the incomparable Stephanie, and we met up with some friends and scoped out the trails.
Mystery Trails! Where do they go??
The out-and-back course goes up over Mystery Mountain and Moose Mountain, then descends to the Oberg aid station. The 25K "fun run" turns around there, while the 50Kers continue through more runnable boggy highlands to the Sawbill (Britton Peak) aid station. Then there's an ascent up Carlton Peak, turnaround at the top, and return to the start.
Y-axis elongated for extra excitement.
The most noticeable climbs/descents on the course are
Moose and Mystery Mountains and Carlton Peak.
We admired Moose Mountain.
It isn't big by non-Midwestern standards,
but the trail is rocky, rooty singletrack.
 Maranda and Theresa were just coming back from a trail run as we checked out the course. Thanks for volunteering!
Look at that joy!
The rivers were all very high, due to recent snowmelt and rain. Beautiful!
There was still some snow on the trail, and a whole lot of mud.

 Race day!

I was up at 5:15 for a 7 am race start -- downright luxurious compared to my usual 3:55 weekend long run wake-up call. Chris and the boys had driven in and arrived late Friday night -- I would see them after the race was over. I'd made it a point to get lots of sleep in the week before the race and I felt well rested, healthy, and excited to run.
Ready for a day in the woods!
After race morning check-in, we gathered at the starting line for the pre-race briefing.

Race director John Storkamp. The trail conditions?
"Long sections of dry runnable trail alternating
with deep mud and standing water."
 Then, without further preamble, a quick countdown and we're off!
 It was fun to be running this race for a second time. I felt like I had some idea of where to push my pace and effort, and where to walk. I'd thought about the course, and how I would feel, and what I would do.
In the first mile, the course goes from pavement
to dirt road to doubletrack to singletrack.
We found the mud right away.

Start to Oberg, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Mud

 Even with almost a mile before the singletrack began, there was still a steady line of runners moving up the trail, initially. The trail climbed pretty steadily up Mystery Mountain, and I couldn't figure out what the periodic slowdowns were. Finally, it became clear: people were slowing to detour around or pick their way through the mud.

I was similarly cautious... for a while. Then, three or four miles in, I decided my feet were going to get wet and muddy no matter what. I started plunging straight through the mudpits. Yeah, my feet got wet. But I was wearing gaiters to keep out anything solid, and my Peregrines had meshy uppers -- the water drained right out, and my feet returned to merely damp on the long dry stretches. And it was much easier and more fun than tiptoeing around the increasingly wide, long, and deep mud patches!

There were sections along here where I was absurdly, ridiculously happy. I think the stretch between Mystery and Moose Mountains (to be fair, it was a long, gentle downhill) was pure absolute bliss. It was a beautiful day, I felt great, it was incredible to be out in the woods, doing this thing that I love, and doing it well.

I ran a lot of this race by myself, at my own pace. I had a few good conversations over the day, but not the hours-long discussions I'd had at my first Superior race. It was a different kind of day. I really enjoyed having big periods of time in my own mind, interspersed with meeting some great people.

I'd figured that if I was on a 7:15 pace, I should hit Aid Station 1 at about 1:40 into the race. I was there at 1:50, and felt fine with that.
 The starting temperature had been in the high 30s or low 40s, but now that the sun was well up, it warmed up rapidly. At AS1, I left behind the hat and gloves I'd worn briefly at the start, and my "Zumbro security blanket" -- the wool shirt and rainjacket I had carried out of caution. (Thanks, Chris Rubesch, for improvising a drop bag for me!)

 Oberg to Sawbill, or I Liked It So Much I Did Some Extra

After the first aid station at 7.75 miles, the trail continues to go up and down, but there aren't any big climbs or descents for a while. My plan was to run more of this than the first leg, which required some hiking. I crossed rivers and a beaver pond.
See the lodge in the middle?
 Along this stretch, I was running with a group of 3 or 4 others when we accidentally went off onto a spur trail up Mount Levaux. We started climbing, hit three switchbacks, and came to a patch of snow with no footprints. Then I noticed the blazes had turned from Superior Hiking Trail-standard blue to white. Uh-oh. We turned around and descended, meeting another runner on the way up who'd also taken the spur trail. I later heard a larger group had gotten some bonus Levaux miles too. I'm not sure how much time we lost here, but I doubt it was more than 10 minutes.

Back on the marked trail, I could see where we'd missed the markers -- three flags before the fork, then one that was a little difficult to see, on the correct trail after the fork. Whoops! The upside? The marked trail was a lot easier to run than the climb up the mountain! Heh.

The fast runners began passing on their return trip along this stretch. The leaders were flying. It was great to see Christie blazing through for a big win, and to see Rob running his first ultra and zooming in for a top-20 finish. Julio met me with a big sweaty hug. Everyone had an encouraging word as they passed by.

Sawbill to Carlton Peak to Sawbill, or Wait, This Mountain's Got a View! 

At the Sawbill aid station, I was 13.2 miles in and it was getting warm. I put sunblock on my face and arms, (bringing sunblock = WIN, not bringing sun hat = OOPS), grabbed a salted potato, and headed out for the 4.5 mile Carlton Peak out-and-back section.
A runnable, gradual climb on trails and boardwalks...
... eventually becomes a steep climb through birch forest. Beautiful!
 This was close to the turnaround, and I saw everyone. One of the joys of an out-and-back! Shelly said, "Did you get lost?" Well, yeah, a little. Rick said, "Isn't this great?" I told him, "I liked it so much I did a bonus Mount Levaux summit!"
Todd was excited to see me.
Amy looked fabulous. So much sparkle! 
 I made the last, steep climb to the Carlton Peak summit. Last year, it was 40 degrees, drizzling rain, and about 20 yards visibility. This year, on the other had, you could see forever.
Incredible.
I stopped long enough for a few pictures and a sip of beer with the race marshalls and volunteers at the summit. Got ready to start back down, and then said, "Wait a minute. I promised myself that if there was a good view this year, I'd stop and enjoy it." So I stopped, breathed in the cool air, and drank in that amazing view of the lake and the woods and the sky. It was 30 seconds well spent. I headed back down, refreshed.

Sawbill to Oberg, or Picking Up Speed

 It was 5.5 miles back to the Oberg aid station, then another 7.75 back to the finish. The first half of the race had taken longer than I expected; I started back down Carlton at about the 3:55 mark. On the other hand, I was feeling good, my energy was fine, I seemed to be keeping up on fluids and salt, and I was in great position to make good time back. Hey, with my bonus miles on the way out, I figured I could negative-split my return trip if I stayed focused and moving. I grabbed some Endurolytes at the aid station to supplement my S-Caps, and off I went.
Back through the wild onions by the Onion River.
They'd been stepped on in places and the trail smelled like onions.
I think I left Sawbill at about 4:20 on the clock and got into Oberg at about 5:45 -- about 40-45 minutes ahead of the cutoff in each case. I wasn't exactly flying on this leg (15+ minute miles), but clearly I was doing well relative to my position in the race, because I started passing people, sometimes one person and sometimes a group of three or four.

Many runners really weren't moving much more slowly than me... until they got to the mud. And by this point in the race, hundreds of feet had run these trails. It was muddy! I plunged straight through where some people stepped more carefully, and I passed a lot of people that way. To my great surprise, nobody passed me back, all the way to Oberg.

Oberg to Finish, or There And Back Again

I left Oberg on a mission: I wanted to cover the last leg in under 2 hours. That seemed feasible -- after all, I'd done that leg in 1:50 on the way out -- and would still bag me a 10 minute PR. As it turned out, I did it in 1:45 -- a true negative split! Mentally, I divided the 7.75 mile leg into three segments: the run-up to Moose Mountain, which I would run as much as possible; the steep, long Moose Mountain climb, which I would power-hike, and the saddle over to Mystery, short climb up Mystery, and long steady descent to the FINISH LINE!, which I would run. 

This section of trail had seen both 50K and 25K traffic -- twice each! -- and it was absurdly, farcically muddy. Parts were like running through a buffalo wallow. There was no way to avoid the mud, so I didn't.
 Mud splashed me all the way up to my waist. My goal, going through mud holes, wasn't to avoid getting wet... it was to avoid losing a shoe. (I succeded.)

Chunks of wood and dirt got in my shoes despite my gaiters, but my feet were surprisingly comfortable, so I just kept going.

I was still passing people! People who are normally faster than me! I was a little embarrassed to be moving so much better, but I was exhilirated too. I passed people going uphill, and downhill, and even a few 25K runners. I was getting excited.

I ate my last gel -- a Roctane I'd saved for an extra energy boost. I drank more water and took my last S-Caps. I started the final descent down Mystery Mountain.

I could still run! I had so much energy, and nothing hurt -- just an all-over fatigue -- but I could still run! I passed a few more people and told them, "We're getting close!"

I hit the doubletrack, then the bridge, then the dirt road, then the pavement. About half a mile to go. I was determined to run all the way.

Just before the turn into the finish area, I had a great surprise.

I hadn't expected to see the boys and husband were there!
They'd been exploring Temperance River in the morning,
then came back after the 7 year old fell into Lake Superior.
Of course he did.
 I high-fived my boys and said, "See you at the finish line!" Absurdly, I passed a few more people.
 The last few hundred yards across snow, through mud, around the swimming pool, and through the finish. A glimpse of the clock -- 7:41:xx. I couldn't stop smiling. I stopped for a few deep breaths, hugged everyone I knew, eventually remembered to get my massive wooden finisher's medal. Found my family. Saw everyone at the finish line. Hugged all the people I'd passed who came through a few minutes later. Eventually peeled off my truly appalling shoes, socks, and gaiters and hosed off the worst of the mud. Took it all in.

Epilogue, or Pony-Rides in May-Sunshine

Bilbo Baggins observed that adventure isn't always pony-rides in May-sunshine. But this day... it was pretty close. I got to spend 7 hours, 41 minutes, and 15 seconds out in a beautiful place, doing what I love, with amazing people (and tasty snacks!). I spent the rest of the weekend with my incredible husband and children. I am so blessed to be able to do these things. I am so excited that I am learning to do them well. I am so eager to keep doing them.

A friend described my approach to ultrarunning as "Relentless Unending Positivity." I like that. Because -- as an insightful ultrarunner recently said -- when you're doing something like this, it's because a lot of things have gone right for you. It's good to be able to appreciate that, to be in the moment, to love what you're doing, and feeling, and experiencing right now.  
Thank you, Superior volunteers, John and Cherie,
Stephanie and Mike, Chris, William, and Karl,
and everyone who stands behind me and holds me up.
You are all amazing.