Monday, April 14, 2008

Chippewa Moraine 50k (part 2 - the long part...)

It’s been months since I wrote up a ‘proper’ race report. Not for lack of races. I just seem to have lacked my writing inspiration and have taken the easy option with a quick blog. But this one was an epic journey and so deserves the real deal…

It’s always fun to take part in something new so when I saw the posting for the inaugural Chippewa Moraine 50k I didn’t hesitate to sign up. I hadn’t much on the calendar for spring (a misnomer for April in the Midwest if ever there was one…) but knew I wanted a few early 50k’s so that I could get up to 50 milers in the summer in preparation for the big one – Sawtooth 100 in September. It’s been on my ‘to do’ list since my first adventure up on the Superior Hiking Trail back in 2005 and needless to say Kami was easily roped in. Fingers crossed we will be ready for it...


According to Wikipedia - "Most mammoths died out at the end of the last Ice Age" - I guess this one survived and hung around the Northwoods for a few more years until Wynn was out hunting one day..."

Whatever it is about Kami and I driving to a race (recall snowstorm on I-70 enroute to Moab last year) we can’t do it without a little drama and Saturday morning was no different. Given that it was about a 2hr drive we decided to just drive out that morning rather than stay overnight. Even when the weather took a turn for the worst it still seemed like a good idea. It wasn’t so bad for me but Kami living an hour west of the Twin Cities had to leave her place at 3am. I had the luxury of setting my alarm for 4am, hopping out of bed seconds before the doorbell rang. We were on the road by 4:30am, hot tea in hand. I-94 was fine but once we headed north towards Chippewa Falls it was a different story. It didn’t help that I couldn’t follow the Mapquest directions but luckily I had a road map in the car and we found our way after a few moments of indecision. As we made our way onto the smaller roads close to the race start it was a little hairy not knowing how slippery the roads were but it got easier with the sun coming up. Got to test the road conditions at a junction close to the park entrance - hopefully I didn’t frighten the other driver when my brakes struggled to stop me just in time to avoid going through the stop sign – I know my heart rate got higher than it would be for the rest of the day!

It was about 6:35am when we parked the car with race start at 7am. So we quickly got our things together, filled water bottles, stuffed a few gu’s in the pockets, all the while I’m chowing down my bowl of cereal. We warmed-up by jogging up the hill to check-in, picked up a very nice technical t-shirt and dropped it back to the car. Close to 180 people had registered for the race but only 120 had checked in ahead of us. I guess some thought better of it upon reading the race directors blog the previous day describing the trail conditions and weather forecast. A few minutes later we were back at race start to listen to Wynn’s race briefing before lining up at the race start – essentially a few flags lining the course in a field of snow! A hint of what was to come…

We started off by heading back down the hill on the road and then crossed over onto the trail. It became immediately apparent that the guys at the front had their work cut out for them. It must have been like doing the high-knee drill… for 15 miles rather than across a football field. And while it was definitely a little easier for us followers it was impossible to find a steady running pattern. I would try to follow the person in front of me but inevitably they would have a shorter or longer stride than me. I tried keeping my legs close together so that my feet would stop sliding off to the side – but then I’d end up kicking my ankles. All trail races require more focus that road running where you can sometimes lose yourself and still maintain a steady pace. But this was something else. But damn it was beautiful. The snow that had fallen steadily all day Friday and through the night was that wet and fluffy kind that sticks to everything. The trees looked picture perfect as we meandered our way by the first of many lakes. Almost all the trail was single track so we arrived at the first aid station in a long line of runners. We were wearing gaiters for the first time and of course we’d put them on the wrong way but thankfully they did the job. Kami adjusted hers while I grabbed a handful of gummi bears. Ok, two handfuls of gummi bears. The mile marker sheet read ‘2’ but it was half covered so I figured it was 3.2 as it seemed like that first section had taken forever. But upon closer inspection it was simply 2! A little rounding perhaps – but I was glad to know for the way back how long it would take to the finish line from that last aid station. It was a straight out and back course.

The next few miles passed quickly enough and we got to the mile 5 aid station in the middle of much the same bunch of runners. Another handful of gummis and a few M&Ms and I was good to go. I’d started the run well-hydrated but knew that I should be drinking more. I was carrying a 24oz water bottle so I told myself it would be empty by the next aid station. Along the next section of trail I passed maybe ten or twelve runners – stepping off the beaten track into the knee-deep snow – a little taste of what the leaders were going through! The trail itself was not particularly difficult in that the hills were mostly runnable and the footing would likely be pretty good under decent weather conditions. But there was nothing decent about the slushy snow that provided no resistance so that each time my foot went slightly to the left or right it just kept going… it would have been easy to get frustrated but it was a little too early for that and anyway we knew what we were getting ourselves into here and we still came. I recalled “No whining” being top of the list of race rules on the website!

I got some water at the aid station at mile 8 though I hadn’t drank much more than half of my bottle. Didn’t eat anything here. That’s probably the worst thing about running in colder conditions, you don’t feel much like eating or drinking. Most unusual for me. Especially given the selection of goodies available at trail race aid stations. We soon came to a section of road which felt like heaven (I know, a blasphemous thing to say about a trail race) but the solid footing provided a much needed reprieve. If only for a few minutes. The next aid station came quickly at mile 10 so I didn’t stop here. Which as it turned out wasn’t a great idea as the next one wasn’t until the turnaround. The course description and aid station details that I had printed out were somewhere in my car but of course I hadn’t actually gotten around to reading them. I guess I’ll know for next year…

The next five miles were tough. No question about it. Although, I was one of the lucky ones that didn’t take a wrong turn at around mile 12. The lead pack had done so and traveled up a ‘trail’ about a quarter mile or more until standing in waste deep snow they came to agreement that bad and all as the course was this couldn’t be it. Another group in front of me had done the same thing and were just back at the junction when I got there. I felt bad for them. We were about 2.5 hours out there at this stage and no one was in the mood for bonus miles but in fairness they were all pretty jolly about it! I was hoping to see the race leaders on their return any moment now. It would be bit hairy stepping off course to let them by but I figured the sooner I saw them the closer I was to the turnaround. Sure enough along came Adam, with a big hello for me. He looked in flying form. I knew from reading his blog that he’d logged plenty of miles and it certainly seemed to be paying off. A few more runners passed me and then John who I’d had the pleasure of running with the previous week at Zumbro Bottoms. I was having fun again now, and I got the sense that I was doing pretty well out here which of course helped me push harder. It’s all in the mind! The pack had spread out a lot by this stage but I could always see a few in front of me and knew there were runners not far behind. I’d passed a few ladies earlier on and a few more in the last few miles but I figured there were still a few ahead of me. Not so, I arrived at the turnaround aid station to be told by Wynn that I was the first female – nice one. Downed a few cups of coke, some pretzels and yet another stash of gummi bears (I tell myself I could be addicted to worse things). Heading down the hill from the aid station I met a bunch of people including two of the ladies that I had passed. Under pressure now! I was guessing the return course would be a little easier given that the snow would be more packed. But of course some sections would be worse where the snow had melted and the mud had taken over. Still, my legs felt good and I felt like I had plenty of energy to get through it. Strangely enough my back and shoulders had been giving me the most problems. I think the hot yoga class on Friday might not have been a great idea. It has been a while since I’d taken that class and there are a lot of back bends. But I knew it wasn’t something that would really slow me down. Unbeknown to me Kami was having a pretty rough time out there. She was suffering from a severe lack of sleep (work and school) and was probably coming down with something. But fair play to her she gave me one of her huge smiles when I met her. Meeting people on the way back was really motivating – almost everyone had a smile on their face and it was just amazing to see so many people pushing through these kinds of conditions knowing how worthwhile it would be at the finish line.

The first few miles on the way back passed really quickly. I had definitely picked up the pace – helped by a guy from Michigan who was doing his first 50k. What a way to start your ultra career! We ran together for a few miles. Then I ran for a bit with Steve who I’d run with the weekend before also. His feet weren’t doing so well. I’d managed to keep mine reasonably dry until about mile 10. The first time my foot landed squarely in the puddle of mud and water was a nasty shock but after a few more it didn’t seem so bad and eventually I forgot what it was like to have dry feet. I only felt pain in one of my toes for short while around mile 20 and thankfully they went a little numb after that. I’d stopped counting the number of falls long ago. Most of the time it was just down on one knee as my foot went too far in one direction. Though there was a particularly graceful one just after the turnaround when I met Todd and I’d half turned to exchange a few words. Down I went, face first.

By the time I reached the aid station at mile 21 the effort was catching up with me. I filled up on water and had another cup of coke but didn’t feel much like eating. But after this aid station was the section of road so it was nice to get a break again. I’d been exchanging positions with a guy in a neon yellow vest which served as a great visual aid to focus on when I started to fall behind. I eventually finished a few paces behind him and had to thank him as he really kept me going in those last few miles. And another huge thanks must go to the volunteers – I can imagine it got pretty cold for them at times standing around waiting for us all but they all had a smile and words of encouragement for us. Every time I say I’ll pass on entering the next race and volunteer instead. Someday I’ll actually follow through on that. Before long I was at the mile 23 aid station and took another gu knowing I still had well over an hour to go. Most of the next section was considerably better on the return journey but there were a lot of muddy sections and sure enough as I was navigating through one my leg got caught in a branch and down I went right into it. I put my hands down first so I made a nice mess of my gloves – and my water bottle. Of course I was more worried about anyone seeing me fall yet again so I hopped up and tried to clean myself up grabbing handfuls of snow as I went along. I was able clean the bottle well enough to keep drinking and when I got to the next aid station with about 5 miles to go I dumped the gloves. I thought I was so smart to have put a spare pair in my jacket pocket – until I pulled them out and they were soaked. So much for my super technical water proof windbreaker – clearly not road tested by multiple rolls in the snow! I kept the neon yellow vest in my sights well enough for the next few miles and was running just behind when we came to the last aid station. I felt like I was keeping a good pace but I will admit to having looked behind me several times by this stage – not that I could see more than 20 meters back on the winding trail – and not that I was at all sure I’d be able do anything about it if the next lady came along behind me! But no sign of anyone. We’d passed one or two guys along this section but mostly it had been a quiet old time for the last several miles. Decided I may as well take my third gu after we left the aid station. It might say 2 miles to go but I knew it would be a good 25 minutes to the finish. My legs were still feeling pretty good - no ill effects from running with the two Eric’s on Wednesday night after all. I was giving them a hard time for making me run fast but maybe it loosened out my hamstrings which have been giving me trouble.

There was nothing typical about how I felt on this race. The conditions meant that every core stabilizing muscle was being called upon and I was building up lots of tension in my shoulders but my legs felt good most of the run and while I wasn’t wearing a heart rate monitor – or a watch for that matter – I knew that apart from a few of the hills on the way back when the footing was really bad I hadn’t felt really winded too often. But the last mile and a half I was trying to pick it up a little. It was a race I will remember with pride but at that stage I just wanted to be done! And there was always that risk one of the ladies would come whizzing by… Seeing the cars parked along the road high above the path I knew it was less than a mile to go, around the edge of the lake, winding up and up until eventually seeing the clearing. Though I had remembered it differently from the start as I thought we immediately came out onto the road but there was still about a quarter mile of trail along the edge of the woods and then onto the road and back up that hill, crossing back to the trail and onto the last stretch of snow I plan to run on for several months… And across that finish line… first female… sweeeet!

It was a surprise to win this race. Ok maybe not a big surprise by the time I crossed the finish line. But standing at the start line that morning I didn’t have much aspirations. I had run a decent 50k out in Orcas Island in February but have really been taking my time getting in shape this year. And I’m not very comfortable with winning races. It’s not false modesty. I know I’m a good runner. It’s just that I never expected to be a good runner. I’m strong, I have endurance, I’m determined and I have my head in the right place (most of the time). But I’m not naturally athletic and it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of winning a race was absurd. I’ve always been into outdoor activities but I was pretty unfit as a teenager and that continued through college. When I moved to Japan I started making it to the gym pretty regularly and eventually worked my way up to running 5km in 30min on the treadmill (so you can imagine how good the recent 20:12 PR felt!). But after tearing my meniscus while skiing and then moving back home a few months later I easily fell into my old habits and it took me a few years to find the gym again. I drew a lot of inspiration from a friend training for her first marathon and after a few short road races during the summer of 2003 I just sort of stuck with it. Starting to run outdoors helped a lot. I’d always run on the treadmill at the gym. But soon heading out for an hour long run was just something I did. And the amazing this was that I was no longer running to get fit, or to lose weight. I was simply running to run. And to compete of course – against myself mostly. Though beating the skinny bean with the matching Nike gear felt good too.

Anyway, that’s enough sharing for one day. All this blogging has made me a bit soft in the head…

Special word of thanks to Wynn for the awesome award. I look forward to finding an appropriate place to hang it and having to explain it many many times! And for the lovely ‘finishers print’ from a scene along the trail that each runner received after crossing the finish line – what a neat tradition to start. The post-race grub was excellent too. I was driving so had to pass on the beer but it doesn’t get much better than vegetarian chilli followed by hot chocolate and blueberry pie!

Looking forward to next year already. Delighted to hear it is a little later in April. I am glad to have experienced Saturday’s conditions but I’m excited to go back and have a completely different trail race. Though the same outcome would be nice...

6 comments:

keith said...

Helen that was an awesome run you smacked down.

looking forward to hearing about more inspiring stories from you. you run like it's second nature to you.

WynnMan said...

Helen what a great report! Congratulations on an incredible race and win. This one will go down for the ages! I hope to see you toeing the line next year when the weather is warmer. Registration is up for 2009 and you can also see photos, report, results and race blog for updated info and race recap. You, Molly and Meghan ran a very tight race!! It was awesome to see such a close battle at the turn. Hope you liked the nice hill climb before the finish. Check out the race blog as I have kindly named some of the unique course features.

See you at Afton, Voyageur, Superior 100 and Glacial 50m! I'll be there!

I am very proud of you and was so nice to meet you. Sorry for the harsh course conditions. Must be that Welsh blood in me. I like technical courses though (:

recover well
Wynn

Kel said...

Helen, I found your blog by reading all of the other Chippewa reports by Minnesota trail runners. Congrats on winning a tough race! Hope to meet you out on the trail one of these days...

PS> The world needs more Irish people ;)

marie said...

Hey Helen,

Just read your race report from the weekend - wow, well done!! We have lots to celebrate at the moment...It was a really welcome break from all the college stuff that I'm trying to get finished.

Chat to you soon,
Marie x

aharmer said...

Great job Helen! You beat some stiff competition out there, looking forward to seeing you at Trail Mix.

caroline said...

Hey Helen, Congrats on the win last weekend - you did class, great race report too ! It looks like it will probably be Sept when I see you now as I dont think I'll be home in June. Chat soon, Caz xx

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