Friday, July 31, 2009

Voyageur 2009

Before Saturday I was already pretty sure that this was my favourite race. Now I am certain! I know that is easy to say after having a great race but I would like to think I’d be saying it regardless. I just love how low key this event is - the small town start, the wonderful volunteers, the variety of terrain, most of it challenging, and knowing more than half the field of runners.

I was feeling pretty good going into this race. Since Grandma’s I’d been trying to improve my eating habits and that seemed to be paying off. I’d also started taking Hot Yoga classes again – something I realized had probably help me deal with the heat in summers gone by. I usually fit in 3-4 classes a week but it’s been mostly the Vinyasa class this year which is heated but not hot. The Bikram style classes are in a room above 100 degrees for 90 minutes so I create a nice puddle of sweat. Afton had gone well but my IT band had given me problems so I’d been foam rolling the heck out of it a few times a day since then. A long training weekend on the SHT 2 weeks prior and a few other solid runs had me feeling as ready as I was ever going to be. And thankfully we wouldn’t be getting anywhere close to the record temperature for Carlton of 98F dating back to 1931. I could live with muddy Power Lines but no amount of hot yoga was going to help me survive that kind of heat wave for 50 miles.

Myself and Valeria drove up Friday evening. We decided not to leave until 6pm to avoid traffic but there was no avoiding road works so it was after 10pm when we reached the hotel. Kami had arrived a little before us. I’d had a good sleep Thursday night so wasn’t too concerned. We got our drop bags sorted and read for a while – I am reading Born To Run and funnily enough I was ready the part about Scott Jurek’s first ultra at Voyageur. We were up around 5:30am and left the hotel soon after 6. A little more organized than last year when we showed up at the start with about 3 minutes to go. Though even that wasn’t as bad as Tracy & Rasmus who woke up about 3 minutes before the start this year!! What a nightmare. Still it didn’t stop them both having good races! It was great getting to meet them at the finish.

But first the start... after chatting to lots of folks I lined up just behind the fast boys and got ready for off. As always the runners are asked if it’s anyone’s first ultra. And sure enough a few young guys - in the front row no less - rose their hands. We haven’t even started and I’ve already decided I’m beating these guys. And then we were off. I couldn’t believe the speed of the lead guy taking off – I later realized it was Dusty Olson who recently won the half Voyageur (and is also mentioned in the book – he remarked later than there is plenty of embellishment in the book, though not as bad as a Dean Molasses book. Wouldn’t be hard). He was gunning for the CR but had hamstring issues later on.

The first few miles passed easily enough. Several of the lead guys disappeared ahead once we hit the single track. The kids passed me a bit later and then I realized Valeria was right behind me so we chatted as we continued along across the swinging bridge to AS 1. We both got a bee sting in the woods but thankfully didn’t really bother us much after the initial shock. After the race I heard that Robert Wehrner (RD at Glacial) also got stung and had to drop due to a bad reaction. We decided the bee should be on next year’s t-shirt and finishers mug.

I had planned to wear my Garmin (not that the useless battery would last the full run but I figured it might help on the way out to keep pace) but had forgotten it at home so just wore a regular watch. I also managed to lose my sunglasses that morning (and my camera later… ultra brain before and after the run!) but it wasn’t too bad as we spend a lot of time in the woods on this race. Also, for the first time ever in a race and ever on a trail I decided to listen to music. I think to avoid the misery of Afton where I couldn’t get a particular song out of my head! I am not sure if it helped though I do know I need to update my shuffle selection before the next race… no surprise there to anyone who knows my music library.

Like last year, I decided not to carry a water bottle given the regular AS – the longest distance being 3.4 miles. But I did have one in each drop bag and was pretty sure I’d pick one up at halfway if not before. I ran by myself through the next section along wide ski trails. I was trying to decide if I should stick to the worn track or try to run tangents through the grass – I know, saving a few yards in a 50 mile trail might seem a bit excessive but I figure it all adds up! The kids were a little ahead of me through here and I ran into AS 2 just behind them. I was looking forward to the next section zigzagging around more ski trails with a short trot on the bike trail. I passed the 4 guys (who later became 3) and continued on. I felt like I was running a reasonable pace but shortly after as we started to climb the switchbacks I saw Tony Kocanda ahead and thought no, this is not good! Though to be fair it was only 2 weeks after Tony paced his friend to 2nd place at Hardrock so I expect there was just a little residual fatigue in his legs! I enjoyed the single track here and came into the next AS just behind Tony and another guy who I think must be Joe Winch from IA (he was wearing a LBL finishers shirt). We were zipping along and then hit some nice downhill so I had fun following Joe (we’ll call him Joe anyway) through this section though I knew I shouldn’t be doing 50K pace this early on a 50 miler… after that I held back a bit as we approached the next AS.

And then the Power Lines. The first few climbs are tough, then it eases off a bit before a few more steep ones. Not bad though. At least not on Round 1. I don’t remember much about the next section – I think this is where there was some trail markings incorrect or changed but I either wasn’t paying attention and managed to go the right way or they were correct when I went by. I did almost miss a sharp left turn off the ski trail a bit later. It’s easy enough to lose concentration along the grassy sections. Back on the paved bike trail and through AS 5 at mile 13.5. I enjoyed the section of solid ground on the way out though on the way back it always feels like I’m running really slow along here. Which I suppose by then, I am. Back to the ski trails and down through Mission Creek before quickly coming into the next AS at mile 15.5. OK, less than ten to go to the turnaround. I was checking my watch at each AS. 2:20. I commented to Erik who had been at a few of the AS that I was going too fast and his response was that I was wearing number 2. Point taken! Grabbed a few gels from my drop bag and off I went.

I have to say the next section felt longer than 3.1 miles. No really steep climbs that forced me to walk but enough to slow me down and start me thinking I’d probably overdone it a little in the early sections. It’s as much mental as anything of course. I knew my legs were plenty fresh but I was looking forward to the road section after the next AS and it wasn’t coming quickly enough. I was also busy trying to calculate how I was doing overall. Last year on the way back I’d fallen somewhere along this section and broken my watch - it had read 5:17 so I’d covered the remaining miles in just over 3 hours. So reaching the AS at mile 18.6 in 2:54 had me wondering if I’d really be able to get back from there in 3 hours today. With this in mind I made the wise decision to run the next 3 miles at 7:30 pace. Making the most of the road section and then getting plenty of mud on my legs going through the horse trails. Out of the woods again at AS 8 (21.7 miles, 3:18 on the clock), downed a few cokes, orange pieces and off I went towards the turn around. I love this section with the awesome views of Duluth. Funny I don’t even remember seeing the town last year! I think I was too busy wondering if the trail was suddenly going to take a left hard turn up a ski hill... thankfully it doesn’t! Still, I couldn’t remember a lot of this section – it switches between paved road, gravel road, single track, rocky trail – a fun section. I knew I was going to get to the turn around faster than planned when I still hadn’t met the front runners by the time I crossed the rocks. A few minutes later Andy and Dusty come towards me. And then back on the road section I met Joe and John. John was smiling. I knew something wasn’t right. I’m not sure if Chris was ahead or behind those guys and then another young guy just before the turnaround. I was surprised not to see Joe who I’d fallen back from earlier – I didn’t actually get chance to talk to him at the finish but I’m assuming he must have taken a wrong turn as I met him on my way back a little later. I did spend a few minutes wondering if I’d somehow taken a wrong turn and skipped part of the trail – but my legs were telling me otherwise!

About a minute at the turnaround and it was time to do it all again. 3:45 on the clock. I’d been aiming for 3:55. Compared to 4hrs last year (4:05 when I was leaving after changing my socks – can’t quite recall why I decided to do that since it was my stomach that was bothering me not my feet!). My goal for this year’s race was 8:10. I think I decided on that back at the end of last year as I was planning the (supposedly light) race calendar for 09. I had finished in 8:19 last year with not having a watch for the final few hours – not sure if that made a difference – nor was I aware that the CR was 8:14 so really all I was trying to do was not get caught! Considering I’d made it back in 4:14 last year the thought of 8hrs did cross my mind. Briefly. I told Kim Holak later that she’d have to come back next year to aim for that - which she could easily do if she ever stops running Hardrock :)

The first section on the way back was grand. Met a lot of familiar faces. Brian, Tony, Matt(s), Scott, Kevin and several others who all seemed to be running strong. I met April along the ski slopes and then shortly afterwards Val who was running with Chris and still smiling. Many times I had to remind myself what of she’d shouted as I left the first AS – ‘have fun out there’! For the most part I was. Though I suspected that was all about to change. Back at the Skyline Drive AS, one of the guys, Ben I think, was stocking up as I came through. Doug Hansel was also here on his way out – telling me he’d hate me and my good humour if I wasn’t such a nice person... I missed his company on the early sections of the race this year! I enjoyed the next section meeting many more people including Kami who was enjoying herself. Kept a good pace through here, back onto the road for the descent towards mile 31.4, meeting Maria and a few others and then Alicia. It was raining quite a bit now but felt refreshing. Left the AS just under 4:41. I didn’t actually think about it at the time but that’s faster than my Afton finish (31 miles). Can that be right? I’d love to know the elevation profile at Voyaguer if anyone’s watch is capable of tracking it accurately?

Soon after I came to what I thought was the “3hrs to go” spot last year. Hmmm... how sweet would 8hrs be? STOP. Long, long way to go. The next section was mostly downhill towards the creek and then some climbing again. I always think I’ll be able to “pick up time” on these downhills but after 30+ miles that just doesn’t happen. Still, overall I was feeling strong and no sign of the IT band pulling on my knee. I’d been diligently foam rolling it 2 and usually 3 times every day since Afton and it appeared to have paid off. Arrived back at Fond Du Lac just after 5:15 and stocked up on gels and clif bloks from my drop bag. I’d picked up my water bottle at halfway so the kind volunteers filled that with ice and water. Perfect. Off again and back into the woods. OK. Two miles to the next AS. This has been a pretty quick trip on the way out. Under 16 minutes. Well, I guess the slowdown had started in earnest. I don’t think the elevation profile is much different on the return but it took me over 20 minutes! I was getting a bit annoyed with myself. My legs felt ok, but even though my stomach wasn’t giving me trouble I didn’t seem to want to eat anything. I’d had a few bad cramps on the way out around mile 18-19, similar to Grandma’s but they didn’t last too long. Now it just seemed like my stomach was shutting down. I took 2 clif bloks but that was it for the final quarter. Not enough calories. I think I did get a few more salt tablets into me and had been doing pretty well on those. I had a few close calls with calf and hamstring cramps towards the end but I’m not sure any amount of electrolytes is going to avoid that when you’re running hard for 50 miles.

Leaving the AS at mile 36.5 with 5:37 on the clock I was starting to wonder if I’d even hit the CR, much less my goal of 8:10 (the thoughts of 8hrs had dissipated in the last 2 miles!). I was trying to stay positive. Mostly I just wanted to finish quicker than last year. I did really want to challenge the CR but there’d be other years. I relaxed a bit and tried to remember Val’s advice. Have fun girl. You are running in the woods on a beautiful day (sort of), with a bunch of friends. It doesn’t get much better than this. It helped. Or the music did. Or something. Even the Power Lines didn’t seem so bad. I’d looked back at one point and spotted a white shirt that I assumed was Brian a few hills back. I was expecting Matt Aro to fly by at some point just like last year! And then my knee. Out of the blue something went awry just below my left knee cap. I’d started to feel the IT band pulling on the outside of the knee for a few miles now but nothing serious. But this was lower down and seemed unrelated. For about 30 seconds I was convinced something was terribly wrong. And then just as quick the pain disappeared and I trotted on down the hill! Phew.

More ice and water at the next AS. I didn’t realize until later that it was Rochelle helping out here. She’d had a great race a few weeks back at the Half Voyaguer but I heard she was hurt after that so I hope nothing serious. OK. 10 miles to go. Well, 10.6 but let’s be positive here. 6:15. 2 hours? It can be done. Struggling to hike moderately fast up the next climb I remembered Joe on the way out saying that if I could run up this hill on the way back I wouldn’t be caught. I hoped the opposite was not true! It was pretty slow going along here – in fact my pace wasn’t much faster than the power lines section. I was starting to get a bit fed up again. But luckily it’s not a very long section. Short jaunt on the paved trail – as I was running along here I started to imagine this being the bike path at the end of the race. How sweet would that have been? Left turn and into the AS with 8.5 miles to go and 6:40 on the clock. An hour and a half to hit my goal? Not if I continued at the same pace. I knew I had to start to pick it up a bit. Luckily there was a nice breeze off the lake here and I started to perk up a bit with some downhill to come and then the rolling sections meandering through the ski trails. Hit the next AS 33 minutes later – averaging close to ten minute miles. I was very happy with that and my mood was improving with every mile! 7:13. 5.2 miles. The CR was definitely possible and even my goal was doable.

Some more rain through the next section but I didn’t mind. My feet were doing well. I couldn’t feel any blisters despite managing to get wet at every creek crossing. I am loving the Montrail Masochists that I started wearing this spring. Lighter than all my other trail shoes but still enough protection. I used to avoid shoes with a flexible forefoot but now I’ve switched my road shoes also. The only thing that was really bugging me – which I don’t think has anything to do with the shoes themselves – I was continually kicking my ankle bones! And all week since the race I’ve continued to scrape them every time I run. Ow. I think I run slightly blow legged at the knee so I guess that could be the cause. Anyway, no falls this race so I guess I needed to create some blood.

Before I knew it I was back at AS 1 greeted by Wayne and Lisa. I was so happy to be so close! After a quick refill I was off again. Though not before Wayne informed me that John was just a bit ahead and I could catch him. Let the fun begin. No, really I am not that mean but once I caught him and established that he wasn’t injured, just not having a great run, I didn’t feel too bad giving him a hard time!

I loved being back in the rocky section. I know it is not everyone’s ideal way to finish a 50 mile race but no matter how bad I’m feeling I always get a bit of a buzz trying to pick up my feet and run as lightly as possibly across the rocks and roots. It challenges the mind enough to (almost) make you forget how awful you feel. And it is such a pretty section running along by the river. I had to smile a bit later when I saw one of the kids who’d been on the starting line that morning chilling out on the rocks. I’m assuming he packed it in somewhere after AS2 and made his way back here to wait for his buddies.

I’d left the last AS at just under 7:32 knowing it had taken me around 31 minutes on the way out. So I figured I could for sure do it in under 40 minutes. Of course you then start to realize that what appeared to be flat on the way out was a downhill section... once I’d caught up with John I ran just ahead of him through the last mile or so of the wooded area. Out of the rocks and the nice soft trail – though all I wanted was to see the wooden bridge! Finally. 8:02. It had taken me just under 5 minutes on the way out. Yes, I remember these critical details! I was so happy to see that bike path. Not that I could do much for a sprint finish but it sure as hell took the same amount of effort! I heard John say he had no kick although he later said he just didn’t want to ruin my finish line photo. Ah, how thoughtful. No, it didn’t stop me giving him a hard time.


I have never felt so happy crossing a finish line. I think I really mean that. Although I am sure I have said it before. Finishing Sawtooth was amazing but after that many hours I don’t think I could tell the difference between feeling ok, feeling good or feeling great. Last Saturday I felt GREAT! After two and a half years of running ultras with several 50K distances, a few 50 milers and one 100 miler I decided last year that I was best suited to the 50 mile distance and I suppose this cements that idea in my head. Chippewa and Afton were great races for me also but I don’t have the natural speed to be a seriously competitive 50K runner and while I love the challenge of 100 miles and will hopefully continue to do one every year I don’t think it will ever be my main focus. 50M requires sufficient speed but also allows for someone with inherent endurance – both mental and physical – to do well over how ever many hours the course dictates. 8 is definitely possible here at Voyaguer. 10 or 12 hours is a good time at other courses. I think that range is part of what I enjoy. Seriously challenging but at the same time very doable with the right training and focus. And good conditions don’t hurt. Certainly we were blessed with those on this occasion. I am already thinking about next year of course. I suspect a goal of 8:05 will be entered in the spreadsheet by year’s end. But yes, no doubt, I’ll be thinking about 8.

An awesome day in Jay Cooke State Park and beyond. Thanks so much to Rollie, Jarrow and all of the organizers and volunteers. Congrats to Andy on an awesome race. And to everyone who toed the line. Especially the latecomers! It was great to chat with Tracy and Rasmus at the end who were back from Denmark. And a wonderful evening spent catching up with many old and new friends.

Photos by Jen Pierce - thanks Jen for the Awesome Pics! - 'Awesome' part is you - I am just glad I'm smiling in some of them!

Checking the watch. Nice to have a bit of prep time this year!

Time for a smile before the fun begins. And before dumping the sunglasses that I decided to do without as they are not my normal running ones having lost them earlier that morning...
P.S. Duluth Running Co. is a great spot if you have not checked it out. No, I am not sponsored! But I'm open to offers :)

Getting a head start!

The Swinging Bridge

With Valeria.

The Power Lines. Round 1.

Still smiling. But I guess it's still early.

And this, folks, is why we do it.

I love this photo of Kim Martin running with her kids - they ran from the last AS to the finish as she was chasing down Valeria! It was so funny listening to them at the end - Val hanging on for life - ahead by about 30-40 seconds for the final 8 miles! Kim ran 121 miles at FANS in June! And her son - who was 10 at the time - ran the marathon distance at LBL in Kentucky last year. Good genes or what!


Wayne said...

You rock, Helen! Congrats on a great run and a new course record. And nice race report - it's amazing how many details you remember. Which makes me wonder how you could forget the "but don't tell him I told you!" part of our conversation. :)
Nice job!

bryan said...

You have convinced me to do this one next year... wow, sounds awesome! Terrific job.

SteveQ said...

Great race (of course)! And neither of us ended up covered in dirt for a change. See ya at Lean Horse.

So now you have to outkick Storkamp at the Arrowhead, right?

bryan said...

P.S. I'm also reading Born To Run right now -- sweet!

Beth said...

Congratulations! I love your detailed reports and that you love every minute of it. Your passion really comes through. It was great to meet you in person last Saturday. I'm sorry that we didn't have a chance to chat but hopefully our paths will cross again soon. Great race!

Carrie said...

Great race report, Helen! Congrats again.

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