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!


Sunday, May 24, 2015

In Beauty May I Walk: Spring Superior 50K 2015 Race Report

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
- William Butler Yeats, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

Game face ON.
Executive summary: 50K in 7:29:13, a 12 minute course PR on a slow muddy course (the median finish time was 10 min slower than last year). I was third masters woman (of 10). I went out too fast, held on until the last leg, stayed in the race the whole time, ran this one as well as I could. I'm very, very happy.

Spring Superior. It's a special race. I did my first 50K here two years ago. It was my first introduction to the Superior Hiking Trail, the site of a beautiful race last year that kicked off an amazing season, and Fall Superior was a great way to bookend that season with some intense volunteering and pacing.

This year, after managing to register for the race, which was in incredible demand (there's a lottery next year), I had big plans. I'd had some good training in the months leading up, starting with my 40th birthday 40K and including a 34-mile, 13 hour slow and steady pacing gig at Zumbro and a recent loop at Afton (25K) that I managed to turn around and run well, despite a rough start. On the other side of the endurance vs. speed spectrum, I had just run a 5K PR (25:12) the previous weekend, coming in second woman in a small, laid-back field. I didn't have a lot of really big long runs heading into this, but I'd managed some quality running, some stairs and strength work, and -- a race week hip flexor freakout aside -- I was uninjured and ready to run.

In 2013, I ran this race in 8:00:18. In 2014, my time was 7:41:15, feeling great and with a few bonus miles on Mount Levaux. This year, my goals were big. I figured if the trail was in good condition and I had a great day, I could go under 7 hours. McMillan claimed, based on my recent Afton loop, that I could run a 7:15, so that was my B goal. My C goal was to PR the course, and my final goal was to finish, have a joyful day, and soak up the beauty of the North Shore.

On Friday morning, I packed my gear (so much less than Zumbro! I kept thinking I was forgetting something. I didn't) and headed north.
The first glimpse of Highway 61 in Duluth!
It was a gloomy, foggy day. I knew the forecast was for at least partial clearing the next day, but it was still a surprise to feel the temperature drop 20 degrees as I hit the North Shore.

The drive up Highway 61 seemed different after working the Fall Superior race. Every waypost between Gooseberry Falls and Lutsen made me think of a milestone along the 100 mile course. I'm not even considering running it at this time, but somehow its landmarks have still found their way into my consciousness.

I arrived at Lutsen slightly bug-eyed after four hours in the car, and picked up my race number, running into lots of friends who had come to race, volunteer, or spectate and support. John and Cheri Storkamp, the race directors, had settled in at a corner table, watching their well-oiled machine run. I came over to say hello and John wanted to know whether I was looking forward to another bonus summit of Mount Levaux. I replied that it was an integral part of my plan to negative-split the course.

While waiting for a table for dinner, I ran into Dale and Scott, the irrepressible Manitobans. If I was bug-eyed after driving four hours, they were stir-crazy following ten hours of driving, and ready to race. They were great company at dinner. By eight, though, I was ready to find my room, get things organized, and get some sleep.

My alarm sounded at a very civilized 5 a.m.; I had already been awake a few times wondering whether I'd remembered to set it. Breakfast, too many layers of clothes, packed up, and headed to the starting line.

Oh, and one more pre-race preparation:
Because fake knuckle tattoos are cool!
Photo credit: John Storkamp
At the starting line, the sky was a cloudless blue and whatever the weather report said, it looked like it would be a warm, sunny day. I shed an outer layer and took the obligatory INKnBURN pre-race photo with the excellent Kevin Langton. Circulated around and said hello to lots more friends, until it was time to start.
Our feet are so clean! That didn't last.
Photo credit: Lisa Langton
Awaiting the start
What's a race director without his stepladder?

Up on the ladder, John made the customary race-morning announcements, encouraged people to just go through the mud instead of around it ("your feet will be soaked in the first few minutes anyway"), and counted down. And off we went.

Start to Oberg: 7.75 miles, 1:35 minutes (or, Possibly Regrettable Fun)

Photo credit: Todd Rowe
One of my goals for this race was to avoid the conga line up Mystery Mountain this year, a project which entailed going out a bit faster than usual. I'd been trying to prepare mentally (and physically) to run, not jog, up the paved road and gravel road to get closer to the front of the line that would stretch, single-file, all the way up the singletrack for the first mile or two. I was pretty successful. On the singletrack, I found myself in a line of people moving efficiently, going straight through the mud -- which was already ankle deep in places -- and moving well.

Perhaps a bit too well. Now that I was moving with the faster kids, I didn't want to slow down the line. In contrast to previous times I've run Superior, I was a little hashed getting to the summit of Mystery, and a little more so at the top of Moose. But, on the other hand, it was fun to be moving a little too fast, the sun was shining, the company was good, and I was a little curious to see how it would all turn out. So on I went, maybe a little too fast.

At the top of Mystery Mountain, there's a bend in the trail and you come out to the first view of the saddle and Moose Mountain. The runner ahead of me threw his arms out in an expression of pure joy at the sight. I knew how he felt. "Nature therapy!" I exclaimed. "The doctor is IN!" 

It was a beautiful morning. In contrast to last year, the snow was long gone and spring was well underway on the Superior Hiking Trail. Leaves were budding and flowers were blooming. The air smelled damp, but later as the day went on, areas smelled of warm pine needles, crushed wild onions, water and wet rocks. I could feel my mind relaxing and moving into ultramarathoning headspace. I was blessed to have a whole day to spend here, in the woods, with good people, experiencing this amazing place. What a good day to be alive.
Leading the train.
Photo credit: Todd Rowe
Coming along the top of Moose Mountain, I led a little train of people that eventually caught up to the next train ahead. Another mile, and suddenly it was the steep technical descent down Moose. The train broke up as the faster people passed the cautious ones, and the really fast bombed past us all. I'm not bad at downhilling; I took it pretty aggressively. (My quads were screaming for four days afterwards). Then some shockingly muddy sections, a gradual uphill I didn't recall and that hardly seemed necessary, and suddenly we popped out at Oberg aid station. I had been aiming for a 1:45 first segment; my watch said 1:35.

Oberg to Carlton Peak turnaround: 7.75 miles, 2:00 (or, Everyone Loves a Mud Run)

I went through Oberg fast, stopping only to drop off some extra layers and grab a handful of Endurolytes to supplement the S-Caps I was carrying. It was a warm day, and I was trying to be aggressive with the electrolytes since I had some cramping and hand swelling at Zumbro and wanted to avoid that. Off on the next leg, about 5 miles to Sawbill.

In theory, this section should be very runnable. It's got a few steep sections but is mostly rolling hills and flats, without anything technical. However, every time I've been through it (and this was trips #6 and 7), there's mud. No big deal, I figured this time, I know about the mud and I'm prepared to plow right through it. Problem was, it was deep enough, and unpredictable enough (am I stepping into an inch deep puddle, or one that will come up to my shin?), that it was tough to run through. I was glad I'd been snowshoe racing this winter -- the motion and the muscles were surprisingly similar.

I plowed through mud, ran the runnable dry sections, plowed through mud, repeated. I met some great friendly people along this section and ran with them for a while. I kept eating -- Larabars were great, my black cherry Shot Bloks were way too sweet, gels were sitting pretty well -- and throwing back Endurolytes with my water.

The Mount Levaux spur trail was marked with about nine flags and a pile of brush to block the trail. As I told John afterwards, "I wanted to take it. Really! But it was SO WELL MARKED, I just couldn't bring myself to do it."
Mount Levaux spur trail. No bonus miles today!
Through a deep mud patch and, with a sucking sound, my heel popped out of my shoe. Rats! I pulled off the trail and laboriously began peeling back a mud-soaked Dirty Girl gaiter, then untying my lace. Suddenly, my hamstring cramped and I shot back up again, dancing around and trying to unkink the muscle. It relented and I cautiously returned to a kneel to put my shoe to rights. I wiped my hands off on some handy nearby plant life, threw down a few more Endurolytes, and continued on.

The front runners began coming back through, but I was further along than in previous years when I started seeing them. I could tell that I was going faster than I had before, and it was a good feeling. 

I pulled into the Sawbill aid station still feeling good, and stopped long enough to refill my hydration pack and put some sunblock on my face -- the sun was getting bright! As it turned out, I got some sunburn on my upper arms. I was glad I'd worn a short-sleeve shirt and not a tank top, just from a sun protection standpoint.

Todd was at Sawbill (and had been on the trail earlier, taking pictures.) He helpfully kicked me out of the aid station, almost before I had time to grab a salted potato and some Endurolytes, and I was off to Carlton Peak and the turnaround.

If the Oberg to Sawbill trail is long, muddy, and largely featureless, the short 2.25 miles to Carlton Peak are the opposite. The trail was gratifyingly dry -- my feet almost dried out! -- but quickly transitioned from flat boardwalks to the steep rocky climb. I welcomed the opportunity to power-hike instead of run and moved pretty efficiently. Before I knew it, I was at the top of the peak, shaking Charlie Hubbard's hand and taking a sip of cold beer. The sun was shining and a blanket of fog lay over Lake Superior. It was an incredible spring morning. I paused to breathe it in. This moment, at the turnaround, was something I'd been thinking of all year long.
Carlton Peak.
Photo credit: Charlie Hubbard

Turnaround to Oberg: 7.75 miles, 2:00 (or, Moving Along) 

I looked at my watch as I headed down Carlton Peak. 3:35 on the clock, and I was feeling good. Could I get in under 7 hours? Maybe. I felt optimistic I could beat 7:15. I descended as efficiently as I could, cheering on lots of runners who were still climbing. My left outer knee began to ache, a spot that had given me trouble a few weeks ago. But it wasn't bad, and it wasn't getting much worse.

Back through Sawbill aid station. Todd was still there, practising his best aid-station bedside manner. 
"Hey, how much time I got till the cutoff?" I asked him. 
"Only 55 minutes. Get out of here," he replied. 
"Wait, I need some Heed!"
"You can drink Heed at the NEXT aid station! You're not getting any closer to Oberg standing around here chitchatting!"
I turned to another volunteer. "Hey! The mean aid station worker is making me leave!" Once she saw that we were both laughing, she relaxed. I ran out of Sawbill with a grin on my face.

The Sawbill to Oberg section was muddier than before. There were sections where I'm pretty sure the trail was tracking along a streambed, and others with long, long stretches of muddy standing water.
Mmm, juicy.
I wore my new gaiters! Can you tell??
Lots of things happen on a long run, but sometimes despite this there's not much to tell. I felt good; I felt tired. I ate a packet of chocolate hazelnut butter, then decided that wasn't exactly what I had wanted. My knee was a little achy, but my hip didn't bother me at all, and I was grateful. I remembered how this section of trail had looked last fall when I came through with Travis. I talked to other runners. I composed this race report in my mind.

The miles ticked by. Nothing felt too difficult, but I didn't feel like I could go any faster. I didn't feel like I needed to. I was spending the day in the woods, my mind was right, my body was good. It was good.

Oberg to finish: 1:55 (or, A Little Bit Slower And A Little Bit Worse)

I ran into Oberg feeling tired, but hopeful. I didn't think I could make it back in the blazing 1:35 I had come out in, but I was still hoping for a 7:15 overall time. I dropped a few final layers off for my drop bag, said hello to the excellent Kevin and Jordan, who were volunteering, drank more Heed and a little Coke, and set off.

I'd broken this leg into several segments in my mind: The runnable but muddy section up to Moose Mountain. The steep climb up Moose. The saddle between Moose and Mystery. And the descent from Mystery to the finish. It was nice to be on a section I knew well, and it was good to know that I was on the way home.

The first section was runnable, but I could tell I was getting tired. Last year, I'd had incredible energy in this section and passed dozens of people. This time, I was still occasionally passing people, but I could tell my faster early running had taken some out of me. I started up Moose Mountain and ate the first of the two Roctane gels I keep as my race-end secret weapons. It gave me a physical and mental lift, and I moved steadily, staying in the moment the whole time. Along this section, I passed a few 25K runners, including one who had stopped part way up Moose Mountain and was doing something on his phone! "Updating Facebook?" I asked, jokingly. "Yep," he replied. "'On Moose Mountain. Send help.'" I suggested, and I kept going, with a word of encouragement.

I crested Moose and tried to run the very runnable rocky section at the top, but I was taking more walk breaks. My knee began to bother me more on the steep descent, and I couldn't run as the pain in my outer knee and the back of the knee was clearly worse when I did. With five miles left, it made more sense to finish than to go back, and it didn't hurt badly enough for me to consider doing otherwise. But it was certainly more painful in this section. The muscles still felt like they were on the verge of cramping, but never quite got there. Thank goodness. I fantasized about hosing my feet off at the finish, and about being done. I hiked the switchbacks up the back of Mystery, and felt better going uphill.

Somewhere near the top of Mystery, I hooked up with Kamie, who was also finishing the 50K. We worked well together, running the runnable sections and keeping each other motivated. We started passing lots of 25K runners, trying to cheer on everyone we passed. My knee began to feel better.

Along the top of Mystery. Another little descent and climb. Then, the campground that marks the last of the climbing, and the beginning of a steady, rocky descent all the way to the Poplar River. Around this point, you can actually hear the cheering and music from the finish line, and even through it's still a few miles away, you begin to feel like you're coming home.

The trail descends and you can hear the Poplar River long before you see it. The air cools down. The mud is deep and boards placed across it are slippery. But it's hard to care at this point; you're almost there.

Cross the Poplar River bridge. One last little uphill; was that really necessary? The gravel road. The paved road. Kamie and I speed up, then halfway down the paved road I realize I can't keep the pace and wave her ahead. Keep going, keep moving forward.

Getting it done at the finish line.
Photo credit: Arielle Anderson
Off the pavement, over the dirt and grass, around the pool, and there's the clock: 7:29! Run it in. Stop, deep breaths, hands on knees, amazed to be here and alive and finished and, suddenly, in another world, one with people, music, running water, hot food, no need to keep moving.

Final reflections

When I finished and drove home, I was a little disappointed with my finish time. Looking at my splits, it was clear I'd been on track for at least my 7:15 goal till I slowed way down on the last leg. As the week went by, though, I began feeling better and better about my performance. The median finish time this year was 10 min slower than last year, possibly due to mud, and 25 min slower among the women. I was on track until the last section and stayed mentally with it almost the entire time. And I was SORE after this race, in a way that I normally am not after a trail 50K. Like, Lamaze-breathing-on-the-stairs levels of quad soreness. My knee still hurts, though it's much improved. I gave this one a lot of effort. I could have paced it a little smarter, and perhaps run the second half harder if I'd been able to keep the muscle cramping away more effectively. But I'm pretty content with how it went.

I've given a lot of thought recently to what it is that I get out of a run like this. I've decided it's very simple -- it's an entire day, set aside and cordoned off, when my only goal is to get from here to there. In a life that can be complicated and difficult and involve many different threads of thought all at once, it's a chance to clear your mind, focus on a single goal, find a rhythm between breathing and movement and nothing else.

We've been reading a lot of poetry with the kids recently. I ran across this one in Caroline Kennedy's Poems to Learn by Heart, and later saw it in this excellent ultrarunning blog. It's a Navajo prayer, and it evokes a lot of what I get from a day in the woods. I'll finish this overly long race report with it: 

In Beauty May I Walk (from the Navajo; translated by Jerome K Rothenberg)

In beauty                                                        may I walk
All day long                                                   may I walk
Through the returning seasons                         may I walk
Beautifully I will possess again
Beautifully birds
Beautifully joyful birds
On the trail marked with pollen                       may I walk
With grasshoppers about my feet                    may I walk
With dew about my feet                                  may I walk
With beauty                                                  may I walk
With beauty before me                                    may I walk
With beauty behind me                                   may I walk
With beauty above me                                    may I walk
With beauty all around me                              may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, lively
                                                                     may I walk
In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again
                                                                     may I walk
It is finished in beauty
It is finished in beauty

Monday, April 20, 2015

60 hours at Zumbro 2015 (volunteer and pacing report)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday night

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


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


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

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

Friday night into Saturday

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

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

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