Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Voyageur 50 Mile 2014 Race Report

Executive summary:

50 miles (!!!!) in 13:06. My second 50 mile start, and first finish. Warm weather (temps reached the 90s) on a course that alternated between runnable trails and laughably steep hills. To everyone who told me Voyageur is special: you're right. Joy, sunshine, heat, thunderstorm, pain, laughter, weirdness. Special thanks and congratulations to Todd "Always a Threat to Finish" Rowe, who ran the last 16+ miles with me and was the first to congratulate me on my finish.
Finish line thunderstorm: Me, Todd, and a photobomb by Julio

Prologue: Always a threat to finish

After a pretty excellent training cycle (3 50K races -- Spring Superior, Chester Woods, Afton -- and a few other big weekends of running hills and heat, plus lots of weekday hill repeats), the wheels had kind of come off during my taper. Big work related stress and nagging heel and hamstring aches dogged the three weeks before race day. I was prepared to not start if things were bad, and to drop at any point if they became bad. I'd already had a great season, I had big things to look forward to in the fall (Wineglass Marathon, Icebox 480), and more immediately, I was going on vacation the day after Voyageur and wanted to have epic times in Colorado.

But, as race week approached, with a lot of rest and some major intervention from my awesome ART guy, things were looking up. By my final run, two days before the race, things felt decent again. The hamstring was painless and the heel only ached a bit. I was cautiously optimistic. I would start the race, and we'd see how it went. I gave myself a 50% chance of finishing.

My goals were extremely loose: McMillan claimed I could run a 12:05 on an Afton-like 50 mile course, so I decided that would be a good "A" goal. And the course cut-off was 14 hours. That was my "B" goal. My main goal, really, was to stop before I did something stupid.

Thursday night I packed everything for race day, and (separately) everything for a week's vacation. Friday before the race I was at work at 5 a.m. to blast through my backlog of work. I finished at 5 p.m., stopped at home long enough to grab some dinner and kiss boys goodbye, and headed up to Carlton. Not exactly the relaxing pre-race day you'd hope for, but it would do.

Jenny, Harriet, Julie and I shared a motel room the night before the race. Thank you, Jenny, for sharing your room! With only slightly more nervous laughter and conversation than necessary, we were asleep by 9.

Race morning: Gonna be a warm one

We were all up at 4:15 and ready to roll. After looking at the weather forecast, which predicted heat and humidity, Harriet and Jenny decided to take the 5 a.m. race start (regular start was at 6). Julie and I moved a bit more deliberately through our race-morning rituals: she brewed coffee, I ate hard-boiled eggs and a sweet potato. I fussed with my drop bags (one for the 10/40 mile aid station, one for the 25 mile turnaround) and made sure my hydration pack was set up.
Race day hotel selfie
When I stepped out of the hotel at 5:15, it was 65 degrees and foggy. Hmm, gonna be a warm one.

Race start/finish were at Carlton High School, which provided bathrooms, a kitchen for the post-race meal, and, theoretically, showers (we discovered, at the end of the race, that the women's locker room showers weren't working... bummer!). Got there and parked in plenty of time, dropped off my drop bags, and said hello to some friends while I finished breakfast.

Soon, it was time for a brief pre-race briefing (follow the orange flags, tell someone if you're dropping... oh, and by the way, there's a 5K mud run happening on the route at Spirit Mountain -- don't climb the cargo net! Just go around it. I didn't ask whether people who skipped the cargo net had to do burpees), a quick countdown, and off we went!
Pre-race briefing and race start

Miles 1-25:Outbound, Carlton to Duluth (or, Sunshine, Hills, and How About a Mud Run?)

Voyageur is an out-and-back race that uses singletrack, multitrack and cross-country ski trails, paved bike trails, and a few miles of road to take you from Carlton to the Duluth Zoo and back again.  Many sections are very runnable, a few are technical (particularly the first/last 3+ miles)... aaaand a few are just bonkers. Yes, I'm talking about the Powerlines.
We started on a short section of bike trail...
... then a beautiful section through Jay Cooke State Park, following
the St. Louis River. The technical singletrack made a bit of a bottleneck.
Soon we were at the iconic Swinging Bridge
and coming into the first aid station!
Coming across the swinging bridge.
Photo credit: Shane Olson
Shafts of sunlight on a hazy morning.
The AS1-2 segment was on runnable XC ski trails.
So far, everything was feeling shockingly good. My hamstring was quiet. My heel occasionally ached a bit, but seemed to respond to altering my gait. I think the bottleneck in the first section kept me from going out too fast and let me find my pace.

I started implementing my nutrition plan -- 200 kcal/hour, with a mix of Larabars, Shot Bloks, and gels. An S-Cap every 30 minutes, and water ad lib. I front-loaded the Larabars, figuring I might not want solid food later in the day. I also ate salted potatoes and drank Heed at every aid station. (Later in the day, a few of them ran out of potatoes so I enjoyed salted watermelon instead.) There are some days when this feels like too much food, but today my stomach was handling it all just fine. To credit Chris McDougall, today, it really did feel like "an eating contest with some exercise and scenery." I decided to just stick with the plan as long as it worked.

The race route was mostly back to its original, after historic floods in 2012 had damaged many of the trails in Jay Cooke State Park. Still, there were a few areas where we skirted areas of damage. I particularly enjoyed the trail markers:
Yes, that's a fence marked "Trail Closed For Your Safety"...
and a course marker routing us right around it.
And this one said "Hazardous Area" and
routed us through a dam construction site.
I chatted with a few people as we went along, but was mostly enjoying running alone. I was still nervous about my heel and didn't want to get pulled into running someone else's pace.
If you were careful, you could probably do all the
stream crossings with dry feet. (I didn't.)
Before I knew it, I was at aid station 3 (hello, Mike!), re-loading from my drop bag and preparing to face the Powerlines. A preface, for non-Minnesota trail runners: The Powerlines are hands down the most widely remarked-upon feature of the Voyageur (and Curnow Trail Marathon) course. Exposed, ludicrously steep, frequently overgrown, and notoriously slick and muddy if there's been any rain in the last several weeks. Great works of literature have been written about them. (Seriously, go read that. Now. I'll wait.) Bumper stickers have been made singing their praises. Julie Berg had told me they were her favorite part of the course and made her laugh. I was looking forward to meeting them.

Not too far out of the aid station, I had my chance.
Yes, you go up that.
I crested the first ridiculously steep climb (I could reach forward and touch the trail with my hands) and skidded down the other side.
Zach: "So, what do you think of the Powerlines?"
Me: "They're completely bonkers!"
Photo credit: Zach Pierce.
... aaand back into the woods for a half-mile. Someone told me, "That was Purgatory. The big Powerlines are up ahead." Oh, really?
Yup, really.
Not sure how long the Powerlines were, but from AS3-4 (Powerlines, plus some less exposed sections and stream crossings) was about 3 miles. I was delighted to get through it in under an hour.
Another insane descent on loose soil!
Voyageur veterans tell me the Powerlines were in the best shape they'd ever seen -- dry and even a little dusty. Last year, it rained all day and they were almost perfectly impossible to climb (or descend in a non-life-threatening way).

Powerlines behind me, it was on to the second half of the outbound trip. Up a section of trail so steep there were ropes to help climb and descend:
As usual, the picture doesn't really fully communicate the ridiculousness
... along a long runnable section with gradual climbs and descents down to Fond du Lac and back. At this point I started seeing the front runners coming back through. I nearly missed Michael Borst, the eventual winner -- I was taking a drink and he was flying effortlessly past. And Christie Nowak once again killed it for the women. She's unstoppable this year!

I was still feeling great pulling into Beck's Road Aid Station at mile 19, staffed by my peeps, the Upper Midwest Trail Runners. Smiles, hugs, and encouragement all around. I started putting ice in my hat at every aid station somewhere along here, and ice into my hydration pack. The day was heating up, and the ice felt great!
Stephanie, me, Amy, Maria. Thank you, ladies! You rocked!
There was a mile-long road hill after Beck's Road, followed by a long runnable descent. Before I knew it, I was at the Spirit Mountain ski area. And, as promised, there was a mud run happening.
Great views of Lake Superior, and the promise of a long descent
into Duluth (and a climb back out)
The 5K mud runners were easy to distinguish from the 50 milers. We were cleaner! And, although we were all 22 (or 28) miles into a 50 mile race, I think we looked a little less wiped out.

I cheered everyone on as I crossed Spirit Mountain, ultrarunners and mud runners alike. We were getting near the turnaround now, and there were lots of familiar faces.
I decided not to climb the cargo net...
... or go down the giant inflatable Slip-N-Slide.
From Spirit Mountain, there was a long gradual descent, lots of friends to pass and greet (some looked great, some looked hot, nearly everyone finished in good style), and suddenly I was at the turnaround. I looked at my watch: 6:05. Holy crap, was that 12:05 going to happen? With the growing heat of the day and the net-uphill return leg, it seemed unlikely... but I was in good shape, and feeling great.

Miles 26-50: Inbound, Duluth to Carlton (or, All You Have To Do Is Manage)

I was at the turnaround! I was halfway finished! I was elated. I put on a new layer of sunblock and bug spray (the sun was fierce, the bugs weren't so bad), re-loaded my backpack, ice in my hat, and headed out. (Note: I lost my drop bag from this site, I think because it was brown and blended in with the dirt and woods. Next time, use a brightly colored bag!)

Back up to Spirit Mountain. I felt strong. I was running a significant portion of the uphill and passing people! It all felt fine. Back up and down the hill to Beck's Road. Still running strong, even on the hills!

Pulled into Beck's Road, now mile 31. Joel was there with his sons, volunteering. "Joel, I think I'm going to do this," I said. It was the first time I'd really had that thought. Joel's about the most levelheaded guy I know. He looked me in the eye and said, "Remember: All you have to do is manage for the next few miles. Then, if you feel good at the last aid station, go!"

I headed out on the Fond du Lac loop, thinking about managing.  Not far out of the aid station, I overtook Todd, power-hiking a section of runnable trail. He explained he'd been having muscle cramps despite salt and fluids, and was having trouble running. I hiked with him. Despite his troubles, he was moving only a bit slower than I was, and we stuck together through the next few miles. As we hit a stretch of paved bike path, we ramped up to a run.
Photo credit: Shane Olson
By now, the day was growing seriously hot. We hit the Powerlines in mid-afternoon, when the temperatures were reaching the 90s. It was humid, though the breeze at the top of the hills felt amazing.
"Look noble!"
It was good to have share this part of the return trip with someone else. Stories of friends, trails, tattoos, races past and races to come seem to flow naturally. The miles went by. They didn't fly, but they ticked steadily on.

My heel and hamstring hadn't bothered me in hours. In fact, aside from a developing hot spot on the ball of my right foot, and one on my left heel, from many hours of wet socks, I still felt pretty good! At the mile 40 aid station, I had a spare pair of socks and shoes. I considered changing socks, and maybe shoes, but decided that with only 10 miles left to go, I could just get it done. (Note: as it turns out, this was a tactical error).
We kept going, through the construction site, through the cross-country ski trails, down to the swinging bridge. The last aid station!
This is really going to happen!
(Protip: Next time, get the photo BEFORE putting ice in my hat)
The last section was long. That beautiful technical wooded trail through Jay Cooke along the river? Long, and dark since it was clouding over, and boy, my foot was getting more sore all the time. Neither of us wanted a sprained ankle, and we power-hiked most of the section.

We must be near the bike path, right? Think we can get under 13 hours? Say, was that thunder? No way, it won't rain. It started raining. We hit the bike path, and it started raining harder. We ran, for the first time in a long time. "I gotta walk," I gasped. I took a couple steps. "Nope! Hurts more to walk than to run! Guess we'll run!"

The rain got heavier. Off the bike path, to the street crossing. Janet was volunteering as crossing guard, waving runners in, in the thunderstorm. There's the finishing chute. Through  the chute. 13:06.

We did it.
Into the finishing chute!
Photo credit: Amy Clark

Epilogue: This really happened

Despite the rain, which was now a downpour, there was a big crowd of runners out by the finish line cheering in finishers. What a great way to finish a race! I collected my awesome finisher's mug, got a few quick pictures, made a badly-needed bathroom stop. 
Finish line, with rain and photobomb
I was a little afraid to take off my shoes, not sure what I'd find. I had an impressive, silver dollar-sized blister on my right foot, and a smaller one on my left heel. My feet swelled for a few days and I could only wear Luna sandals. But all in all, the damage wasn't bad. And if I'd changed socks (+ shoes?) at mile 40, I think it would have been much less.

This race was the culmination of a season's worth of training and planning. After my first 50 mile attempt at Zumbro, I feel like I trained well for this race, and came into it as well prepared as I could be. I'm thrilled that I didn't have any problems with injury during the race, especially after a stormy difficult taper. I think on an ideal day (cooler weather, similar trail conditions) I could have gotten my 12 hour finish, but I'm pretty darn happy with my 13:06.

What's next

I just took a week off from running, while on vacation. We hiked, but I didn't run a step until yesterday, 9 days after the race. My blisters healed, my feet got back to normal, my body and mind rested. I loved it.

I'm stupid excited about the rest of my season -- in large part because it's so different from everything up till now. I've got nothing on the books for August. In September, I'm running a road 10K, a trail half marathon, and volunteering at the Superior 100 Mile. In October, it's the Wineglass Marathon with my mom, and a few weeks later we're going to make her an ultramarathoner at Icebox 480. I can't wait to do some faster stuff, some fun stuff, and some volunteering stuff.

In the meantime, I'm still processing this one. So many things happened. So many miles happened. It was so good. It was hard. It was fun. It was great. Thank you, race organizers, incredible volunteers, and runners. This was something amazing.


  1. You made me feel like I could actually do this!! I am wanting to do my first 50 at the Murph this yr but not sure....

  2. I am SO glad you had such a great experience. It's just a great race, isn't it. Yes, I laughed again at the powerlines. They are just so ridiculous and absurd. Where else does one get to run something like that? I love it! Not so much on the last 3 mile section after the bridge though. That section seems to last forever...every single year! Congratulations, Robyn!

  3. Congrats on your 50 finish! It was SO hot that day, nice work pulling through with minimal damage!