Sunday, July 27, 2008

Minnesota Voyageur Trail Ultra

I love the sub-heading on the race website "50 Mile Foot Race" - just in case anyone wondered what mode of transport we might be using to cover the distance. 50 miles - on two feet? You're nuts! How often have we heard that?

Yesterday was another amazing part of an ultra running journey that began last year with a trip to Moab for the Red Hot 50K. Running that race with Kami and new friends we met along the way I knew that if I ever needed a reason to run I'd found it. This year has continued to bring new adventures both locally and around the country. Not to mention a few surprising results. At least surprising to me. At some point I suppose I will have to stop sounding like I never expect to do well. But for now, I'll enjoy the novelty of crossing the line first on a wonderful day in northern Minnesota...

What made the race extra special yesterday was having friends in town from Ireland. It was such a buzz seeing them along the way at several aid stations and then hanging out at the end in the sunshine. Along with Kami and Pam, and so many friends from the local trails, it felt like one big family get-together.

And we're off! (Photo taken by Jen Pierce)

I was excited to be running this race for the first time as I love discovering new trails. Though I had an idea of what lay in store for me from listening to stories of people who'd done it several times. The infamous Power Lines were mentioned more than once. Funnily enough they were my saviour yesterday. At least on the first visit. I won't go into too much detail but let me just say that my five bathroom breaks was the least fun part of the day. I have to figure out a better pre-race diet! After 2 stops in the first 10 miles I was glad to have to walk those hills as it seemed to give my digestion system a chance to do its thing... at least for a few hours. The return journey was almost comical at one point when I had to make 3 stops in the space of 10 minutes. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Or throw up. Or...

Anyway, enough about that. I drove up to Carlton Friday evening with Geraldine and Clive, and got to packet pick-up just before 7pm, running into Jeffrey there. The small town of Carlton was full of life with their summer festival including a 5K race that had just finished. We headed back to the hotel and met up with Kami and Pam. We decided to just chill in our room and nibble on a variety of food (the nutritional content of which I mentally reviewed numerous time on the trail!) while Ger and Clive went for food. An early night for us as we attempted to get much needed sleep. It had been a series of late nights and some particularly long work days for the girls.

Still, 5:45am came way too soon. We got our stuff together, ate some breakfast (will not be eating flaxseed bread pre-race again...) and headed into town. I think folks were a little worried if we were going to make it as we rolled in at 6:55am. No point in adding to the pre-race nerves by getting there too early! Chatted to John and Kevin, and Julie, Steve and others. Great to see lots of the crew from the SHT run a few weeks ago. Took John's advice about starting off with people whose pace I wanted to run as it would be hard to pass on the singletrack that followed the bike path. Not that I wanted to start out too fast but it was a tricky section getting through the rocks and roots so it was good to be in a line of people running the same pace. Through this section I got chatting to Doug (Hansel - bit of a legend by all accounts) who was great company for the next several miles as we made our way to the Power Lines running with several others along the way. I found myself running beside April for a few minutes - I knew she'd had a great time here last year so I was questioning whether or not I should be running with her. Though she was saying she wasn't as well trained this year and as it turned out she ended up twisting her ankle and taking a few spills in the grassy climbs that followed. Of the varied terrain that we covered today the grassy sections on the Power Lines and even the other flatter grassy sections through the woods were my least favourite. I'm probably running the same pace on the grass but it just feels a lot slower.

The Swinging Bridge (Photo taken by Jen Pierce)

It was an incredibly scenic course, my favourite part being the trip across the swinging bridge. I don't like crossing bridges by car but running across a moving one with fabulous views to each side was very cool! I believe I even slowed down to take it all in. I managed to stay on course the whole way though several times I was convinced I had missed a turn. Many of the wooded sections were singletrack and there were long stretches without pink ribbons. At one point I was going downhill at a nice pace and realized I hadn't seen any markers for a while. I began to slow down thinking I might have to turn around and climb back up the hill but luckily I caught sight of the next ribbon. I had cause for another sigh of relief later on when I hit Spirit Mountain. I remembered something about ski slopes in the course information but didn't know if we actually had to climb one. I was following the track across the slopes until I couldn't see any markers up ahead and found myself looked nervously up the ski slope praying that I wouldn't see any in that direction. There was no one close behind me so I continued for a few steps and was very happy to spot more ribbons directly ahead and not up or down the slopes. I've only once before run an out-and-back course and I have to say I quite enjoy it. Every time I would hit an uphill on the way out I told myself how nice it will be to run down on the way back. But I was not prepared to run straight up a ski slope at that point in the race. Enough of that on Tuesday evenings at Hyland!

Back in the woods - my favourite place to be! (Photo taken by Jen Pierce)

Of course the best thing (at least for the competitive minded!) about an out-and-back course is knowing where you're placed at half way. I knew that Rochelle Wirth, last year's 2nd place woman, was running again so I expected to see her first. And sure enough after I'd gotten through the ski area I met her. A few minutes later another lady came along. Then before I knew it I was the turnaround. At 4 hours! I couldn't believe it! Obviously I knew I was doing fairly well from the mileage markers at the aid stations but I had missed the last few and I find it so hard to know what pace I'm doing, especially on a course like this where the terrain changes so much, so I was expecting it to take longer than that to reach half way. I'd met the lead men while still in the ski area. Wynn was in first place at that point, followed by Chris and then Joe. A few minutes later another guy and then John. I counted a few more guys and figured I was in about 11th spot overall at the turnaround.

Everyone was so friendly and they all looked like they were running strong. Wynn shouted to me "No water bottle. Impressive!" - Or stupid I thought to myself! I was well hydrated starting the race but I knew how hot it could get on this course so I had stashed water bottles in both drop-bags along the course. I hadn't picked any up on the way out but planned to take one from aid station 6 to get me through the power lines which I knew would be a slower journey on the way back. I would normally carry one for a 50 mile race but the longest distance between aid stations was only 3.4 miles so I figured I was safe enough. Also, I wanted to keep my shoulders as loose as possible. I'm happy to report no pain at all in my right shoulder/neck area. Dr. Pete is working wonders. Though I expect he'll tell me I'm a mess when I see him tomorrow morning!

At the turnaround I decided to change socks. I'd kept my shoes pretty dry but my left sock was beginning to catch me a bit on my heel and I knew I'd feel fresher if I changed them. Also I wanted to check the tape on my feet. I've been having a few problems with my arches recently. The increase in mileage is causing the slightest hint of
Planters - which I suffered badly from in early 2006. I find that taping my feet gives that added support. I was a bit nervous the tape might cause blisters for this length of a run but it worked well. So I quickly changed socks, grabbed a few gels and a packet of clif-blocks and hit the road again. Easily worth the few minutes, my feet felt great.

At least for a few miles. Before long the ball of my left foot started to hurt and I knew I'd suffer a little for the rest of the race. I don't know what's causing it but the exact same thing happened two weeks ago during the 40+ mile training run on the SHT. I ended up with some bruising on the top of my foot at the base of my middle toes. And sure enough it's a nice purple colour again today. I'm starting PT for my shoulder this week and will ask about the foot. It's quite swollen also which means I probably won't be able to run for a few days. Other than that I don't feel so bad. Must have been the dancing in Duluth last night that worked out a few kinks! That was after my 20 minute ice-bath which I highly recommend. My left hamstring is quite tight but I have a massage tomorrow evening so hopefully that will sort it out. I was pleased that it didn't cramp yesterday as it had done at Afton. It started to hurt a little right around 35 miles but never as bad as Afton and once I'd gotten through the hilly section after the power lines it didn't bother me again.

Because my stomach wasn't feeling good all day I stuck with energy gels (vanilla) and clif-blocks (cola). I think I got through about 6 or 7 gels and 2 packets of blocks. Along with 10-12 electrolyte tablets. I munched on pretzels at the last few aid stations to balance the sweetness of the gels but knew that I was better off not trying to take in anything more substantial.

As I made my way back across the ski slopes I began to meet lots of people including many familiar faces. It was fun seeing everyone out there having a great time and even those who were struggling were happy to exchange a quick hello. Several people told me I was not far behind the next lady. Upon leaving the turnaround aid station I figured I was about 4 minutes behind number 2 and maybe another 2 minutes behind Rochelle. Then again I had no idea how they were feeling - certainly they both looked very strong when I'd met them. I was trying not to think too much about them and instead focus on how I was feeling. There was still a very long way to go. But the section of road allowed me to stretch my legs a little and I felt safe to pick up the pace. I was delighted to be told at the next aid station at mile 28.3 that I was about 2 minutes behind though I knew it was probably a rough estimate.

Refueling at Mile 28.3 AS (Photo taken by Jen Pierce)

This was also where I met Kami and Pam who were running together. Steve and Jim were there too and I think I'd met Julie, Pierre and a few others a bit before this. I continued on through the woods, really enjoying this terrain and having fun meeting people, many of whom I recognized from other races (and blogs!). Somewhere in this section I passed the girl in second place. I chatted to her later after the race - she's from California and this was her first in Minnesota. I also read in the paper this morning that she had won Angeles Crest 100 in 2006. Nice one! The next few miles passed pretty easily and then we were back on the road for the downhill to Beck's Road. It was great to see Geraldine and Clive at this aid station again! I'd also spotted Rochelle up ahead. I was nervous about passing her. It was only mile 32 and I didn't know whether or not I could keep up this pace. A few minutes later, deep in these thoughts I knocked my foot off a rock and THUMP. Down I went, skidded along the dirt on my front and ended up with a delightful amount of mud caked onto my shirt, skirt (I was wearing a running skirt for the first time in a race - dare I say there is something oddly powerful about passing guys while wearing a skirt :) sad or what?!)... cut my chin, my knee and both shoulders! And broke the watch off my wrist. At exactly 5:17 on the clock. But luckily no major damage and once I got back on two feet and dusted myself off I continued on in pursuit of the lead... about a half mile later I passed Rochelle. We exchanged a few words and I got to meet her briefly at the end.

Despite the increasing temperatures as the day went on - I think it hit 80 by the end - we were blessed with a nice breeze through many of the open sections. It did get quite humid in the wooded areas but overall I think we got lucky compared to what I'd heard from other years. All the same I was glad to have my water bottle waiting for me at the next aid station. After cleaning up a little with the help of the wonderful volunteers I headed off through Mission Creek. Before long it was time to attack the Power Lines once more! This time I had company as Matt, who I'd passed just before half way, came along behind me. He was running so strong and it was motivating to have him ahead of me on the hills that followed. I tried to keep him in my sights as we went up and down over and over again. Though he disappeared from my view pretty quickly! (p.s. Matt finished 6 minutes ahead of me which goes to show how strong he was running in the final 10 miles). I have to say, despite the heat in this open section, I do enjoy hills and because my hamstring was cooperating I felt pretty strong by the time we hit the final, seriously steep descent and the aid station at mile 39.4. Who other than Anne F was working the aid station - it was so cool to see her again. We met at Lutsen in 2006 and then again last fall at Glacial Trail. Ger and Clive were here also - they'd even heard about my fall from the radio volunteer!! I gave them my empty water bottle and continued along.

I remembered Doug saying he found the next section tougher than the power lines. A few miles of winding, grassy trail that climbs through the woods. It did seem to go on forever but I was feeling pretty strong by the time I reached the next aid station where I had my last drop-bag. I grabbed a few gels and some water and asked the volunteers how long I had left. I had sort of last track of miles as I hadn't been looking at the signs at all of the aid stations and without my watch I didn't know what time I was at. For some reason I had it in my head that this drop-bag aid station was at 6 miles... so you can imagine my reaction when I was told I still had 8.5 miles to go. Suddenly I didn't feel so strong after all!

Zach Pierce negotiating the rocks on the return trip (Photo taken by Jen Pierce)

Oh well. Nothing to do but put the head down and keep plugging away. As I neared the next aid station my stomach started to play up again. I took a few pretzels here, crossed the dam and hoped that it would pass. No such luck. A few minutes later I was off the trail and into the woods. And again about a half mile later. And again a few minutes later. Enough of that! Though all of this I knew my legs were still in good shape, my foot was no longer throbbing and I wasn't having any stomach cramping so I decided since the next section was mostly downhill I'd try to run pretty fast to make up for the stops and hopefully it would take my mind off things. This seemed to work out well and by the time I reached the final aid station everything felt back to normal. Or at least as normal as one feels after 46.6 miles. I passed one guy in this section, he looked like he might have been having a hard time with cramping. As I turned to ask him if he was ok I completely lost my balance and went flying down face first in the grass. At least I provided a little entertainment as he dealt with the misery of being sidelined so close to the finish.

I'd been looking forward to hitting the technical singletrack. It was such fun even with tired legs. But before entering that section I had to cross the swinging bridge - now full of tourists snapping pictures of the gorge! I very much appreciated the guy at one end shouting to everyone "Runner on the bridge!" I hadn't been expecting to see anyone much for the last few miles so it was a nice surprise to suddenly have strangers cheering me on! Even though I enjoyed the rough trail and all the roots I was happy to reach the rocky section as I knew it couldn't be far now until the bike path. More than once I stole a quick glance behind me. Not that I'd likely have had the energy to do anything about it if one of the ladies had found another gear. Went down one more time in this section but luckily managed to land safely and not impale myself on a root. Rocks, rocks, rocks and then the wooden planks. I laughed, sort of, as I crossed the one Doug had told me a story about earlier - he'd been running the race several years ago and had slipped on this one and landed straddled across it, legs dangling in the water. Ow.

Finally, across the noisy bridge and up the hill to the bike path. I thought I had close to a mile to run on this but before long I saw the edge of town up ahead. Sweet. Another glance back. Empty path. Right turn onto the street and down the hill to the finish line. 8:19:28. Oh My God. How did I get here?

Several hours of fun followed... catching up with everyone, congratulating Joe on his win (7:36:12), meeting new people like Chris from Duluth and Valeria, originally from Argentina and now living just a few minutes from me. Delighted to chat with Tom and Nancy again. They are cool folks. Several other old and new faces. It was really cool to share the day with friends from home. Rosie and Padraig joined us at the finish and we all enjoyed a great feast of lasagna later on, with John's wacky sense of humour for company.

The race was very well organized, with the volunteers doing a wonderful job. We had great conditions and a record number of people started and finished the race. As well as getting well fed we all went home with a lovely piece of pottery. I hope to be back in 2009 to enjoy another day on this beautiful course just a few hours drive from home. For now, time to rest, recover, and train smart for a few weeks before a vacation in New Mexico (got to increase the red blood cell count) and then the BIG ONE September 5th.

p.s. Jen Pierce again took some wonderful photos along the course, capturing Zach's and all of our races. Thank you!! Check them out at this link.


Matthew Patten said...

Not bad for "not a real runner"

....and you got some nice press! The article even gave you the Afton win, how about that!

I love the quote about guys being passed by skirts. I will remember that, although I don't think I have started out ahead of you in any of these races so technically you did not pass me.

Sounded like a great day. Way to kick some, or slide on some, ass!

MN Ultra Runner said...

Great race Helen! You're rounding into perfect shape for the Big One...see you there if not before.

keith said...

Congratulations, Helen!!

Helen said...

I did notice the mistake about Afton. Sorry Eve! I swear I told the reporter 2nd place...

Julie B said...

Yay Helen! I enjoyed reading about your run very much. With the falls, the potty breaks, the change of bottle for most of the race and you STILL won! Yippee!! I love it. Recover well!

nwgdc said...

great run! despite all those potty breaks...

i guess, after reading such a great report, i can add ANOTHER run to the ever-growing "to do" list.

again, way to go!

Joe Z said...

Congrats - well done..

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