Friday, November 20, 2015

Fun in the November Sun: Icebox 480 2015 Race Report

The Icebox Fan Club

Mom and I are charter members of the Icebox 480 fan club. She visited me from Vermont to run the race in its inaugural year (2013), and got 18+ miles on its singletrack trails. I got 50K and my first pacing experience. Last year, we were a few miles into our second loop when she fell and broke a rib, cutting the day short. But we still made it to the ceremonial post-race feast at Brasa, and her rib healed by spring, so we call it a win.

This year, Mom had already come to town for one timed race -- the FANS 12 hour -- where she got her first 50K, walking in hiking boots. It's hard to describe how proud I was of her then and now. 

That's a 5-0!
Yes, she did 50K in hiking boots.
When she told me she was up for Icebox again, I was thrilled.

Plans, Goals, and Taking What the Day Gives

I'd been trying to recover from knee trouble in the three weeks following Wild Duluth. I'd run 7 very easy miles with Janet at her first 50 mile finish at Surf the Murph two weeks previously, then run into trouble (literally) the previous weekend on a training run with recurrence of the same pain. But by the Thursday before race day, with some barefoot running, things seemed okay. I notified my coach of my race plan:
(Screenshot cropped to remove coach's
encouraging but... colorful... comments.) 
Mom's plans were even more dialed-back than mine: She wanted to hike a couple of loops, see how things went, and, of course, Brasa.

We arrived at Whitetail Ridge with plenty of time to spare and enjoyed a spectacular sunrise...
... and caught up with friends. One of my favorite things about this race is its timing: It's at the end of the fall trail racing season, and so for many runners, it's a low-pressure, see-how-things-go "fun run". It was great being able to introduce Mom to some of my favorite runners, including Kevin, Julie, and Janet and Mike Hausken.  
Ready for a day in the woods!
Dramatic lighting at the race start

Loop 1: Warming Up, Taking Stock

Chris the race director made a few announcements, counted down, and we were off, following, as usual, a guy in a red union suit riding a fatbike. Why not?
Photo credit: Shawn Severson, who came to run,
not realizing there's no race-day registration, and
decided to stick around and take pictures. Thank you! 
Mom was with the walkers in the back, and I seeded myself near the back as well, settling into a very laid-back run. I'd kinesiotaped my peroneal and posterior tibialis tendons and, at the last minute, put on an older pair of trail shoes, and so far everything felt great. I was planning on 15-ish minute miles.

I let people pass me, judging that, this time anyway, running my own pace was more important than conversation. Soon I was running mostly by myself, warming up in the growing sunshine, enjoying the dry and mostly clear trail (I did spot Leaf Blower Guy later in the loop!).
Bare trees and bare trails -- conditions were perfect!
I ran for a bit with Wally from Wild Duluth.
Fun to see him again, with both of us feeling better!
The trail curves and recurves back on itself, and at one point I spotted Mom a switchback or two down from me. We yelled greetings and encouragement at each other, and continued on.
Go Mom go!
Sections along the open fields were greener than in some years.
The second aid station was between miles 4 and 5. I was surprisingly hungry when I got there, and one of the volunteers offered me cheese curds. Delicious! I told them, "Say hi to my mom when she comes through!" and headed out.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and the miles were just ticking along.
The crazy curving track in the last few miles...
Happy on the trail!
... and the final straightaway into the start/finish!
Loop 1: Complete!

Loop 2: Too Good To Walk

I dropped my jacket off, grabbed another Beard Brothers bar (not bad; like a Larabar with chia seeds), got some bananas and Heed, and headed back out. My plan, as written, was to walk this one. But everything felt good. I broke into a jog not far out of the aid station and decided I could alternate walking and running.

Some of the speedier runners were lapping me now, but there was plenty of room in most places to step off the trail and let them past. At the top of the hill at mile 1, I stopped to bang on a barrel with a little girl. (On the same hill on loop 1, I'd stopped to joke around with Jenny, who was volunteering.) It was nice to feel unhurried but still purposeful.

It was warming up and I was down to my base layer. The woods smelled like dry sweet leaves, and it was windy at the top of the ridge, calm at the bottom. The miles ticked by as I thought of nothing in particular, breathed the November air, and loved being there.

There's a bike trail along the route called "Joyride". Every time I passed the sign for it, I made a point of smiling and thinking about joy. It wasn't hard.

At the second aid station, the volunteers told me, "We saw your Mom! We told her you say hi!"

I was still feeling great, and still working on holding back a bit, when I jogged into the start finish to complete the second loop. I was pleased to see that I'd been running pretty consistent 14-minute miles on loop 1, and 15-minute miles on loop 2, and everything still felt great.
Loop 2: Complete!

Loop 2.7-ish: Knowing When To Hold 'Em and When To Fold 'Em

We were 3.5 hours or so into the race, and I'd decided I wanted to try and find Mom and spend some time on the trail with her. We'd both been noncommittal about how long we were really going to go, and I didn't want to miss getting at least a few miles together.

The volunteer tallying miles told me she'd left on her second loop about 25 minutes before I came in. This changed my plan -- I'd originally been considering running the loop backwards to catch her, but it seemed she was closer to the start than to the finish. I ate some chicken cold cuts and potatoes (a combination that rocked my world, at that particular moment), and considered. Finding her was more important to me than getting credit for a complete third loop. I headed straight up the hill, cutting off the first mile of the course, so that I could catch her sooner, and started running.

I think I actually did my third [partial unofficial] loop at a faster pace than either of the first two. I had a goal, and my knee and ankle felt fine, and so I ran. Still not fast, but steadily.

It was great. The first two loops had been fun, but this was awesome. I felt purposeful, and happy, and warm, and a little hungry, and I was going to find Mom somewhere on the trail.

I spotted her a bit after mile 4 but before the second aid station; she was on a section of trail after the second aid station. I cut across a small section of woods and we hugged and continued on. Mom had been doing great; she said that around mile 8, in particular, she felt terrific and thought about going further than she had planned.

She told me people kept passing her saying, "Hello, Robyn's Mom!"

We walked and talked for a mile and a half, heading into the last mile long section of trail before the finish. As we started down a long switchbacked hill, though, her knee started to bother her. It's been a season-long injury spot for her, and we were both delighted and astonished that it had held off for 13 miles of happy hiking. At the bottom of the hill, I pointed out a section of trail leading straight back to the start/finish. "Want to cut the trail?" I asked her. "You mean that's the end, right there?" she asked. "Yep, or we could stay on the course and it's about a mile." She decided she didn't care about her official tally either, and that walking on her knee, now that it hurt, didn't seem like a good idea. Without hesitating, we stepped over to the final stretch and came into the start/finish.
1.75 loops: Complete!

An Early Finish, But A Good One

Mom had knocked down 13 miles, and I guesstimated that I had enjoyed 18 pain free miles. It was about 1:30 pm. We got cups of hot noodles and broth from Lisa (GENIUS idea, by the way, cooking the noodles separate from the broth! I am totally stealing that for my next aid station), and loitered around the bonfire, catching up with more friends. I briefly considered doing a few short loops -- I was having so much fun! Nothing hurt! -- but concluded that there was very little potential upside to that plan, and a lot of ways it could be regrettable. Without too many regrets, I handed my race number in and thanked Chris for organizing another awesome Icebox 480.

Icebox 480 continues to be an outstanding race. The timed trail race format is nearly unique to the region, and this format and the timing of the race in November gives it a laid-back, fun vibe that differs from other races I love. Finally, it's only 45 minutes from the Twin Cities, it's over by midafternoon, and you can buy New Glarus beer on your way home. What's not to like?

We'll be back again next year. After all, we're Icebox regulars!
See you all next year!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Race report: 2015 Wild Duluth 50K

Executive summary

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


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

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

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

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

Start to Grand Portage (5.4 miles)

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

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

Grand Portage to Munger Aid Station (11 miles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spirit Mountain to Highland/Getchell Road (22.2 miles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North 24th Ave to Finish (mile 31)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Making the magic happen: How volunteering, pacing, and crewing can make you a better runner

Pacing my Mom to her first 50K at FANS 12 hour!
This is a piece I originally wrote for the INKnBURN blog. Excited about volunteering after reading this? Wild Duluth and Surf the Murph are still looking for volunteers this year!

Volunteering, pacing, and crewing. We all know they're critical components of any ultramarathon -- and volunteering is critical to any race of any distance. Doing them is certainly good "karma". But more than that, I'm convinced that spending time on the "other side of the table" can help make you a better runner. Here are five ways I've benefited from spending hours at races without a number pinned to my shorts.

1. Dip a toe into the world of trail and ultrarunning.

Considering signing up for a first trail race, or a new distance? Volunteering, pacing, and crewing are all opportunities to learn what you're in for. It's difficult to imagine what it's like to run all night, run xx (or xxx) miles, or run when you've already been running for many hours. But spend time at the mile 72 aid station, or pace a runner from mile 85 to the finish, and -- BAM! -- a quick education. It's not the same as running all those miles yourself, but spending time helping those who are running all those miles is a great way to begin getting a clearer picture of what it's like, and what it takes.
Much more excited than my runner at mile 85 of
last year's Superior 100.

2. Give back to the running community.

Okay, it's the obvious reason to volunteer, right? Maybe it even sounds trite. But look deeper. First of all, when you work an aid station or pace a runner, you're helping people who share your interests, goals, and values. Friends and potential friends. Second, volunteering/pacing/crewing models the actions and ideas that make our running community positive, supportive, and fun. (Check out this recent Ultrarunning article for a nice articulation of this idea). Finally, your mere presence can provide a huge lift. What's better than running into an aid station, deep into a difficult race, and seeing familiar faces behind the table? An encouraging word from a friend can be as much a lift as a slice of ice-cold watermelon. 
The volunteers at Voyageur last summer absolutely made my race!
Yay for Stephanie, Amy, and Maria!
It's an open secret that my kids volunteer with me at the
Endless Summer Trail Races just for the free Coke.

3. Quality time.

Time spent on the trail with another runner passes in a different way from time spent anywhere else... or so it seems in the middle of the night, while navigating rocky trails or the emotional ups and downs of 24 hours of running. It might not be what you expect: lots of talking, no talking at all, laughter, silence, inexplicable highs and intractable lows. But however it plays out, it's an amazing shared experience. And whether you're pacing a 5K or a 100 mile race, there's a thrill to crossing the finish line with your runner, especially if you can do it with a shared smile. 
Mom and I on our way to a half marathon PR...
... and Janet and I getting 50K done at Icebox 480.

4. Be part of the running community even when you're injured.

When you're injured, missing out on connecting with friends at weekend runs and races can hurt as much as your plantar fascia. It's easy to feel isolated from the running community and quietly withdraw until you're back on the trails. Volunteering and crewing are opportunities to be in the running community, whether or not you can run a step. Working an aid station or crewing a runner is a way to stay engaged, excited, and connected.
Irresistably delicious aid station food at Superior 100.
It looks even better in the dark!

5. Vicarious thrills.

The Western States lottery only accepts 400 runners per year. Want to run that course? If your number doesn't come up, your best chance might be to pace a lucky friend. Along similar lines: I've got no plans to run 100 miles at this time. But I want to understand more about what it's like. Short of signing up for a race, what better way is there to learn more than to support a runner who's living the dream? 

Ultramarathoners often say that as your time on the course lengthens, the highs get higher and the lows get lower. But in my still-young pacing career, I can say that it was still a pretty amazing high running out of this aid station...
Last stop before the finish at Superior 100!
... and finishing the last technical climb of Zumbro 100 with this guy:
Bad picture, happy runners
And the feeling of bringing my runners into the finish line? I'm sure running 100 myself would be amazing... but the contact high was still pretty awesome.

The bottom line

Looking for a chance to make a fellow runner's dreams come true? Think about opportunities for volunteering, crewing, and pacing. Not only will it make you a better runner, it just might make you a better, happier person.

Monday, September 14, 2015

2015 Superior Fall 100, 50, and Marathon: Volunteer Report

This weekend was the Superior Fall 100 mile, 50 mile, and Moose Mountain Marathon trail races, on the North Shore of Minnesota. It's one of the highlights of the local running calendar: point-to-point races on the Superior Hiking trail, almost 100% singletrack.

I'd been planning all season to volunteer and maybe pace this one again. I had an amazing time doing just that last year (reports here and here), and I knew I wanted to be part of the biggest race of the season again, one way or another. But I've spent much of the summer recovering from a hamstring/knee injury that dates all the way back to Spring Superior 50k, and while my running has been going well lately, I'm not quite back in ultra-shape. I was going to pace Arika, but when she decided not to start the 100, I didn't seek out another runner to pace, and instead just upped my volunteer commitment. I ended up working two aid stations, from Friday afternoon into Saturday afternoon.

Here is my recap of 21 hours of volunteering.

County Road 6 (Friday, 3:30-11 pm)

- Arrive at my first aid station, at mile 43, carrying two extra jackets, a headlamp, and a Burrito Union burrito the size of my head. The aid station captain is Leslie, a previous year's top five finisher, an engineer, and an all-around excellent person. She's already got the place jamming.
- A runner comes in after a fall on the trail with a bleeding gouge in his hand. Lisa, a nurse and ultramarathoner with vast race medical experience, hauls out her field kit, which is comprehensive enough to perform minor abdominal surgery or deliver a baby. She rather gleefully announces that she's never used the sterile saline wash before. 
Lots of crews and pacers awaiting their runners.
There was a bit of a party vibe.
- We fill hydration packs, hand out PB&J, make quesadillas. A few runners drop with injuries. One or two who probably should drop decide not to and gimp off onto the next 7.7 mile section of trail.
The clouds cleared and we got an hour of beautiful sunshine. 

Even the random roadside sloughs are beautiful around here.
- The sun sets and we all start piling on more layers. The temperature is headed into the high 30s overnight. A runner tells us about an injured runner three miles up the trail, moving slow and getting cold. One of his crew heads up the trail with a jacket and a blanket.
- "I've been peeing blood," a runner tells us. After discussing with our race medic, we sit him down and push beverages to see if rest and hydration will clear things up. After an hour and a half, things aren't clearing up and he reluctantly drops out of the race.
Sun is down, but the aid station is rocking!
 - Bill comes in, collapses into a chair, and refuses to move. He's had problems with salt balance leading first to GI distress, then to cramps. Lisa, his crew, his pacer (who is a psychiatrist), and I all work on persuading him to get out of his chair and onto the trail. He is having none of it.
- We tell him, "Your pacer is a doctor. You'll be in great hands!"
- (I turn to him and say, "Psychiatrist? I'm a pathologist!" We shake hands. Lisa rolls her eyes and says, "So I really AM the most qualified person here, aren't I?" Without hesitating, we both reply, "OH YES.")
- I leave Bill to his crew and go make some more PB&Js. When I next look over, he's on his feet and heading for the trail with his pacer. His crew can't quite believe it either. We all congratulate ourselves vigorously.
- Susan Donnelly strides into the aid station, working on her FIFTEENTH! Superior 100 finish. She's a legend.
- She browses the food table. "Quesadilla?" I offer.
"Vegan-ish," she demurs.
"We've got some vegan soup," I tell her. "Made with real vegans," I add. She snorts. "Organic, free-range vegans!"
She's playing along. "Where do you get the vegans from?"
"We just use the ones who hang around at the aid station too long," I tell her. Leslie the aid station captain adds, "You've got three minutes!"
- The aid station is winding down as we approach cutoff time. I spend a little time with Rick, who is dropping with persistent vomiting. I help pack things up and take down tents and tables. At 11 pm I say goodbye to the crew and head to my next aid station.
- On the walk to the car, there are thousands of stars, anad a streak of faint green Norther Lights paints one quadrant of the sky. It is breathtaking.
Runner headed into Finland aid station.
Credit: Kelly Doyle

Sugarloaf, night (Friday, 11:30 pm - Saturday, sunrise)

- Sugarloaf aid station is at mile 72. By the time I arrive, the two front runners are hours further on, but nobody else has come through yet. (The winner ends up crushing the course record by a 90 minute margin.) It's near midnight now, and crews are quietly talking or sleeping. It's quiet and mellow after County Road 6.
- The early runners through here are generally fast, feeling good, and well crewed. I get a two hour nap in aid station captains Jan and Joe's tent, emerge around 3 am, and start alternating black coffee and bacon. After a couple rounds of this, I am ready for anything.
- Temperatures are down to the high 30s and I'm barely keeping warm in two wool shirts, two jackets, and a wool hat. Kevin is volunteering here with me and burrows under a blanket when he's not busy. It's not his first aid station rodeo, but it's his first overnight gig. He's 17 and has been running ultras for two years. I invited him up because I thought he'd be great company, and so that he could see how much of the world there is beyond high school. He is rising to the occasion and is a great addition to the aid station.
- There's no medical person at this aid station, so I cruise around and look for runners with a thousand yard stare, or who come in and look blankly at the food, mumbling, "Nothing looks good," or the ones whose water bottles are still ominously full after 9.4 very difficult miles from the last aid station. We have terse, bluntly worded conversations about puking, pooping, cramping, and bloating. I push hot soup, bananas, and reassurance.
- A runner comes in wearing a tank top and armwarmers. He's cold, and his extra clothes are at the next aid station, 5.7 miles up the way. I hand him one of my buffs to wear around his neck, and say, "Just leave it by the drop bags at the finish line." Incredibly, that's where I find it, 18 hours later.
- Shawn stumbles in and announces, "I'm very sleepy. I fell asleep on the trail. I think I need a nap." I lay out my Thermarest pad and a blanket. She burrows in and I set my watch for 15 minutes. Then, another 10. Finally, I return with a cup of coffee and a pep talk about the effect of sunlight on cortisol levels. (She's a doctor, the sun is rising, I don't know, it made sense when I was doing it.) She gets up and head out with no further problems.
- I explain to Kevin the difference between civil twilight, nautical twilight, and astronomical twilight. He accuses me of making it up. I point out that it's now civil twilight regardless. We all begin to warm up and awaken as the sun rises.

Sugarloaf, day (Friday, sunrise - 1 pm)

- I glance over by the bonfire and see a runner huddled in a blanket. H has developed worsening fogging of her vision over the last few miles, and removing her contacts and flushing her eyes hasn't helped. Her husband and pacer is helping her problem solve, but she's understandably worried.
- After getting some details from her (no pain, no headache, photosensitive), I suggest she face away from the sun, put on sunglasses, and rest her eyes, while she keeps warm and eats. It could be ultramarathon-related visual impairment, which is benign and reversible, but I want a medic's opinion. Our ham radio operator gets on on the wire and we discuss. She recommends that H drop.
- H has been listening to this conversation. I tell her, "You're still three hours ahead of the cutoff. You don't have to decide yet. Why don't you hang out a bit and see if it gets better?" I'm really sad for her. It's a sucky reason to drop, when everything else feels good. I tell her she's doing everything she can right now to fix it. Her vision clears a little over the next hours, but not enough, and she drops. Later, at the finish line, she tells me it resolved about six hours after she stopped. She'll be back. She's very strong.
- Another runner huddled in a chair. "What's going on?" I ask. J tells me, "I'm really nauseous and I'm going really, really slow." (It's still three hours before cutoff).
- "We're going to fix you," I tell him. I learned from Joe Hegman that nausea can be worsened by anxiety, and that it can be a vicious cycle. Being calm can sometimes make a huge difference. "First thing I'm going to do is bring you some ginger candy. Take just half of one. Chew on that. i'll be back in a minute."
- (The bag of Gin-Gins I brought and put on the table is going fast. I grab three.)
- A few minutes later, he's looking a little better. "Okay, now you need something that can sit well in your stomach. Can I make you a peanut butter banana?" He thinks that sounds all right. I hand him the extra ginger candies for later.
- After the banana, he looks nearly human again. "If that's working for you, remember, they can make that for you at any aid station. That can be your secret fuel today. You look good. (He does.) Ready to go?" In fact, he is. He heads out, looking strong. I punch the air and announce, to nobody in particular, "I LOVE fixing runners!" Hours later, I'm at the finish line when he comes in, still looking strong.
- Susan comes through again, still looking like she's out for an easy jog. I introduce her to Kevin. She says, "I wish I'd known about ultramarathons when I was 17."
- We're running low on Styrofoam cups; everyone has wanted hot soup and hot coffee. On the other hand, absolutely nobody is eating the Mike & Ikes. I begin to suspect our race director bought them to generate leftovers for himself.
- We get word that Bill dropped at the next aid station after his miraculous escape from County Road 6. I'm glad he got the chance to get in 50 miles, but I wish it had gone differently.
- As the sun rises, it rapidly warms up and we begin shedding layers. We all quickly go from completely bundled up to short sleeves in 60 degree sunshine. I eventually remember to put on sunblock. We even hand out ice to a few runners. The soup sits, suddenly unwanted.
- Around 9:30 am, the first 50 mile runners come through. The tempo of the aid station changes suddenly. It's been very mellow, with slow moving, tired 100 milers. By comparison, the 50 mile leaders look like clean, well dressed gazelles.
- My friend Mike comes in among the 50 milers. He's doing well today, if a bit slower than he wanted. After food and water refills, he asks for some lube. I squeeze Vaniply ointment onto his fingers. Without missing a beat, he shoves his hand down his pants to apply it. All I say is, "Don't look at me when you're doing that!"
- As cutoff time approaches, word comes up that there are a couple of injured runners on the trail coming our way. Our friend Bob has fallen and possibly broken a few ribs, and a woman has fallen and hurt her shoulder. We briefly imagine the trail strewn with bodies of the fallen. It's kind of funny, on two hours of sleep.
- All the 100 milers have passed us now. The last 50 milers come through and we troubleshoot nausea, cramps, injuries, and just plain moving slow. But everyone wants to keep going. I feed peanut butter bananas to anyone who looks like they need something extra.
- Two minutes before the cutoff, Bob shambles into the aid station. Kevin marches him to a chair, sits him down, and starts filling his hydration pack. He's walking decently, breathing and talking okay, I notice.
- "I fell. It hurts to breathe. I threw out my back. I can't keep doing this," he tells me.
"Bob," I tell him, "broken bones are, in fact, one of the very few legitimate reasons you're allowed to drop at my aid station. On the other hand, you probably won't make things worse if you keep going. So you need to decide."
"I don't think I can make the cutoff," he says, as I put an ice bag on his back and he dives into a plate of bananas and cookies.
"You're hiking really well. You trained for this. If you want to, you can hike all the way to the finish and get your 50 miles." He looks doubtful. "Bob," I go on, "You fell a mile after the last aid station. But you kept walking this way instead of going back. What were you thinking then?"
"I was thinking I wanted to keep going if I had any chance."
"What are you thinking now?"
"I don't know. This is hard."
- Without much further discussion, Kevin comes over and says, "Time to go." And damned if Bob doesn't stand up (on the second try), put on his pack, and start for the trail.
- At the last minute, Kevin says, "Um, maybe I'll go with him for a ways. To make sure he's OK." He takes off in his street shoes, without any food, water, or gear. I later learn he goes the entire 5.7 miles to the next aid station, jogging to keep up with Bob's very effective speed-hike, then turns around and comes back to get his car.
- (I later accuse him of leaving partly for altruistic reasons, and partly to avoid aid-station teardown and cleanup. He doesn't deny it.)
- Bob makes it to the last aid station at mile 43, five minutes ahead of the cutoff. He's endured several additional falls and now has persistent dizziness and light-headedness. He drops at mile 43. We're impressed, especially when we learn it's his first run ever on the Superior Hiking Trail.
- 20 minutes after cutoff, the runner with the injured shoulder is in, accompanied by another runner who gave up his race to help her. "Thank you," I tell him. "That was a good thing you did." He tells me, "It was the right thing," but I think he's pleased to have it acknowledged.
- There are still four 50 mile runners on the course. They trickle in, the last arriving over an hour after the cutoff. We break down the aid station, bu keep a few drinks and snacks out for them and the trail sweeps. One runner sites down in the shade and declines offers of food, saying "I don't deserve it." I carry over a plate of cookies and inform him that that's bullshit. I don't leave till he's taken some.
- At last we're done and the supply ruck has taken our aid station. What was a thriving little oasis in the woods is once again just a wide spot in a gravel road. It's fantastic and weird and I love it.
- I change into running gear and head out for a solo long run. It's time to decompress, before a shower, the finish line, and a very, very good night's sleep.

I'll be back soon, North Shore!