Sunday, June 24, 2012

Superior Trail Races 25km

Photo Eve Stein
Well, it's been more than a month since the race and more than that since my last post. So much for the one-post-a-week goal I set for myself. The adventure season has truly begun, and there is less time to sit and collect my thoughts as I would like, but I shall take the time now to pin down this incredible experience in a bit of detail, so here goes...

I am a changed man. I knew this race would be fun, but it's now clear that I am built for trail running. Not only did I enjoy it a helluva lot more than any road running I've ever done, but it's also much easier on my body. Let me back up for a moment to give more insight into the latter statement.

Leading up to this race, my expectations were relatively low. After the half marathon at the end of April, I had a mysterious pain in my right foot which gave the threat of stress fracture. My doc told me to take at least 3 weeks off to let it heal, just in case it was, and guess how many weeks it was until the trail race? You guessed it, three exactly. It sucked that I injured myself in the warm-up for the important race, but one must adjust and adapt in such situations. After seeing the doc, however, the little bit of manipulation he did while checking my foot acted as massage, and the next morning I felt great! I waited a bit still until I started running again, just to be sure, so in the week before the race, I managed to get out twice to run on trails. It was at least nice to know things were back to normal, even if I didn't get the chance to train properly. I consider it an ''extended taper.''

The wife and I headed out on what was a lovely Friday afternoon, excited for a mini-vacation. We picked up friend and talented ultrarunner Samuel Jurek in Hinckley, not without a pause at Tobie's bakery to get doughnuts and coffee of course. It was great to catch up with Sam, especially on such a beautiful drive to the North Shore, pulling in to the Caribou Highlands Lodge parking lot around 8pm. We were lucky enough that Anna's family had come up to watch the race and cheer us on, and her brother Jerod managed to pick up our race packets for us, since we arrived after packet pick-up had ended. One less thing to worry about on race morning. We unloaded everything in our room, had a short walk outside to see the start/finish, and chilled out in the room until bedtime. I had a good long foam rolling session, which will undoubtedly be pre-race tradition from here on out.

I woke up suddenly around 5am to the 120db alarm on Sam's cell phone. Since he was running the 50K, his start was at 7am, and ours not until 9:00, so it was a bit unsettling, but I managed to fall back asleep for a while longer. I did, however, get up in enough time to see the lad off on his own adventure. From what he had relayed to me, his strategy was to stick with the leaders as long as possible, particularly Chris Lundstrom, the former champion and course record holder. If nothing else, Sam would impose his grand stature and balls-out running strategy on the other racers enough to shake up the crowd in front.

 The Man in Black, Sam Jurek

After listening to the RD give his spiel and watching the 50k-ers take off, it was time for breakfast! We brought with us a sizeable container of homemade granola, expertly crafted by my awesome wife in the first week of her newfound freedom as a recent graduate from vet school. Complete with yogurt and banana, this has proven to be the perfect pre-race fuel for me, although it must be eaten at least 1.5 hours before the race, as it's a bit heavy. A quick shower and some relaxing, and it was time to suit up. When I got up to see Sam off, it was already quite pleasant outside, proving that it would definitely be a shorts and t-shirt day, with little worry about clothing choice. Additionally, I would take with me my Fuel Belt with two gels and some Aquaphor - should I run into any foot problems, and Anna's old Camelbak Water Pro with about 3/4 liter water, which has proven to be an awesome long run companion: it fits well, doesn't bounce much, and gives me the comfort in knowing I have plenty of water. On my feet I wore my Merrel Trail Gloves and a new pair of Injinji No-Show toe socks, which have proven to protect my feet from blisters on the trails.Of course, suncscreen was liberally applied as well, despite the assumption that we would be in the cover of the forest for most of the race. The sun and hot weather affect me greatly, particularly when sunburned, so I was taking no chances.

To the start! Anna's family was there waiting for us, and it was nice to know that we had some ''fans'' to cheer us on. I suppose it helps to know that in a way I was performing for someone, and not just for myself. I spent some time obsessing over the tying of my shoes, wanting to be sure it was perfect, although the timing chip that I had tied in was a little awkward with such minimal shoes, and I knew then that I hadn't done a thorough enough job of attaching it and would probably lose it along the trail somewhere, yet I didn't take the time to fix it. The time was tight, so I decided not to worry about it. We also applied some bug spray, mostly to ward off ticks, but the DEET was so strong that it melted the plastic on my shoes! After retying them (for the third time?), my hands were coated in black plastic! Gross. 

Once again, the RD gave us the rundown of the race, and as I was listening, I wondered how many others might be racing in minimal footwear, a question I always ask myself, because I'm curious to know how popular it's becoming. As I looked down, the guy next to me had Trail Gloves on, and a few feet away there was a guy in Five Fingers and another in huarache sandals! It seems that minimalism is indeed popular. I wondered how we would all fare on this trail that I had never seen before.

The start was relatively relaxed. We headed out on the service road past the skilifts, where it turned to gravel road, in total perhaps 3/4 of a mile, before it turned onto an access trail that led up to the Superior Hiking Trail proper. Because I hadn't truly warmed up, my heart was racing a little bit from nerves and the energy of the crowd around me. It was interesting to see a few people carrying no water whatsoever, as if they were out for a leisurely 5k road run, when in fact we'd be running 7.5 miles of gnarly, isolated trail until the only aid station at the turnaround, and then the same thing on the way back. I can't imagine they were feeling too good after the first 4 miles or so. Anyway, once on the actual SHT (be careful how you read that), I realized quickly that I was going faster than I'd like, but couldn't quite get myself to slow down. I was running with the crowd and didn't want to be an obstacle for people to pass, so I figured that I just needed some time to warm up and calm down, which usually can take 20-30 minutes for me nowadays. Most people around me were still feeling chipper and were chatting along the way. I focused on running well at the beginning and staying as relaxed as possible, but the trail was both rolling and technical from the start, so I was constantly dodging rocks and roots, which became much easier after I was warmed up.

It wasn't until after the first 2 miles or so when I was finally in rhythm enough to start passing people with confidence. I got stuck behind a long line of guys on a rocky uphill, the last of whom was wearing NB Minimus Trails, so I figured I was in good company for the time being. Once at the top, I started making my way forward and eventually passed them. At this point, we had reached the top of Mystery Mountain, which then stretched out into about a mile of smooth downhill switchback. Most people were taking it slow down the hill, and I couldn't quite understand why, as it was easy trail and not so steep that one must focus too much, so I decided to make a big move and open 'er up. It was a little crazy passing people off trail in the tall grass, hoping that there was nothing hiding there to destroy my feet, but I must have passed 20 people or so in that section alone, cruising comfortably downhill, really using my hips to open up a comfortable yet extended gait, and it worked brilliantly. Along the way I passed the guy I saw at the start wearing huarache sandals. He was now totally barefoot! I gave him major props and continued cruising downhill. My experiment was successful and I felt great when I hit the bottom. I also managed to put myself into a gap between runners, so I could run comfortably at my own pace and not have to focus on the feet of the runner directly in front of me, which quite literally can be nauseating.

Photo Eve Stein
Still feeling good

After a while I caught up with the next group, which consisted mostly of women, one of whom I recognized. It was Jan Guenther, owner of Gear West Bike and Ski, and former women's Birkebeiner champion! If I'm not mistaken, she has also won the 25km once or twice for the women, so I knew that I was in decent standing at the moment. Several other women were wearing ski fanny packs, and it occurred to me that there must be a fair number of Nordic skiers who run trails in the off-season. In any case, it was at this point that we hit the climb up Moose Mountain, the steepest section of the whole race. There was at least one part where it was necessary to grab on to the trees to help get up the hill. I felt that although it was steep, the runners ahead weren't going fast enough, so I hopped up around a few of them and continued on, only to regret it a bit further up when I realized that it was a long climb and the bit of passing had cost me some energy. By the time we got to the top, they all took off and I was sucking wind in a slow jog for a few meters. Live and learn.

It's difficult for me to remember which sections of trail are where and in what order, but somewhere in here I took my first gel, at about 45 minutes. After a smoother section of trail at the top of Moose, the roots and rocks became more prominent, and I felt like I was dancing my way through the forest rather than running. It felt smooth and quick, however, and I don't feel like it slowed me down, at least not on the way out. At some point in this next section my right shoe felt loose, and I looked down to see that my timing chip was gone, just as I had predicted. It wasn't worth going back to look for it, so I continued on, not worrying if I would have an official time or not. By this time the 50k-ers began blowing by in the opposite direction on their way to the finish. Immediately I began looking for Sam, hoping that he was at least top five, and sure enough, as I stopped to retie my shoe, he ran by in 4th place looking decent, but with some tension in his face. More on that later.

Further on down the trail, there's a flatter section with plank walkways stretching across wet sections, making it a little awkward to deal with the opposing traffic. At one point on a slight downhill curve, a 50k-er came right through the middle and I nearly ran off the steep edge of the trail, plummeting to my doom.Thankfully I recovered with some flailing of arms and tiptoeing in the soft dirt along the edge, making sure from then on to find sure footing when others came by. (this section may have been later on after Rollins Creek, but I can't remember)

The descent down Moose Mountain was crazy, and I felt like I was stuck in a speeding car in San Francisco, heading down toward the ocean with no brakes. The trail was littered with big sharp rocks and gnarled roots, ready to devour the inattentive racer, and combined with the steepness it's enough to make one woozy. It was less stressing on the body to go fast, although keeping the eyes focused on the features of the trail at that speed was difficult, and a little scary. I wondered how long it could go on, hoping that my body would hold up and that I wouldn't catch a toe on a root or rock, throwing me down the mountain into what would probably be a bloody faceplant. Thankfully, I'm good at pushing those thoughts out of my head quickly and I remained focused until I finally reached the bottom, crossing the bridge at Rollins Creek, then heading into the last climb until the aid station. This is where I started feeling a little sluggish, especially now with a steady stream of both 50k-ers and 25k-ers heading back toward the finish. At one bend in the trail, I recognized a runner coming toward me. It was Grant Nelson, current Duluth resident with whom I skied at the U of MN quite a few years ago. Just as I remembered him, he was incredibly friendly as we passed each other, all while he was kicking ass (he came in 16th place overall).

Surely I must be close to the aid station, I thought. Down some wide steps and onto a wider gravel path, and sure enough, I hit the road into the Oberg Mountain AS. Anna's family were the first people I saw at the edge of the AS, taking photos and rooting me on. As I stopped at the food table, I checked my watch - 1:13:00! I was two minutes ahead of my highest goal! That was good, but I knew at that moment that I had run way too fast in the first half, and that the second half would be some serious work. A salted potato, some Heed, a Twizzler, and a refill of water and gels and I was off again in just three minutes, thanking the volunteer who helped me get that dang Camelbak open, as my hands were too sweaty to untwist the cap. Waving to Anna's family once again, I headed out, realizing only once I hit the trail that I had forgotten to suck the air out of the Camelbak as it sloshed around and bounced something fierce. I fixed the problem and took off.

It's not polite to blog with your mouth full.

Enter the long lonely climb of loneliness! Heading back up the steps was murderous. Not having digested my food yet, my body was not ready for such a steep and brutal climb. I checked my pulse, and even walking it was at 190! Uff. A 50k-er came up from behind me and passed me, only to stop a little way up the path to puke. I asked him if he needed anything, but he politely declined as he jumped in behind me for a while. Soon enough, however, he found his 2nd (3rd, 5th, 8th?) wind and took off.

The whole second half of the race is mostly a blur. I was by myself for the majority of the time, aside from meeting people in the opposite direction. Heading back down toward Rollins Creek I heard my name and looked up to see my lovely wife with a big smile on her face and moving swiftly. A quick high-five and some words exchanged and that was that. I was happy to have run in to her so soon after the AS, which meant that she was doing much better than she had originally planned. It also appeared that she had found a trail buddy who she was chatting up as I passed them. From then on it was a grind, and only vague memories of the trail. Surprisingly, it went rather quickly. Along one of the more rolling stretches, a woman caught up to me and we played the I-pass-you-you-pass-me game for a while, keeping each other in check. A guy friend of hers was running with her, but having some trouble and was further back. At one point when she was behind me, she started singing this song, which immediately started playing on the Brain iPod. I told her that I now had it in my head, and we agreed that it was a good song for pacing. Soon after that we reached the last major climb of the race, the climb up Mystery mountain and the switchbacks that treated me so well on the way out, but now decided to cash out on my karma points and grind me into pulp. I took another gel and tried to run as much as possible, but I must have walked 90% of it, even on the slight uphills. My heart was racing again, and the legs just wouldn't go. Whereas the previous four or five miles seemed to pass without notice, this stretch lasted for an eternity. Several runners passed me, most of whom I had passed well before the AS. What will I add to the training regime before the next race? Hills! 

Once down Mystery, the access trail seemed to jump out at me, and I couldn't believe I was almost out the woods (literally). I passed a few families goofing around on the access trail who cheered me on, and then it was out into the open. Pavement. Blip! My right hamstring shot out a quick threat of cramping, and then again, blip...the left calf. 

''Crap! I can't cramp now, I'm too close!'' 

With all of the focus I could muster, I concentrated on my form. Hips, abs, relaxed feet. Although the climbs on the way back were brutal, this was definitely the most painful part of the race. The road stretched on and on, and I felt slower with every step, until the glory that is the path to the finish appeared. I dipped down and around the pool and crossed the line. I quickly informed the timer that I had lost my chip, and he recorded my number and time. Done!

Anna's family met me at the finish and fetched me a beverage while I sat down in the shade and tried to avoid cramping. Final time - 2:42:51 in 64th place out of 291 runners. Despite the relative blow-up in the second half, I was pleased with my time.

Wandering through the crowd, I found Sam, shirtless and barefoot in fine Sam fashion. In discussing his race, he had led until mile 24, but due to an error with drop bags, his hydration pack did not show up at any of the aid stations, and he was forced to run the last 7 miles with only a water bottle, which he emptied quickly and spent the last 4 or 5 miles in less than stellar condition, thus the tense face when I saw him run by. Chalk it up to the unpredictable measures at races, and I'd say he still did awesome.  

After some post-race chili, I ran into Anna's friend from vet school and her boyfriend, and we chatted in the shade for a while, only to find out that Anna had just crossed the line! I ran over to meet her and we celebrated a successful race for both of us.

Post-race Celebrations included: several dips in the hot tub, beer, a delectable meal at the lodge restaurant, and more time in the hot tub. The next day provided more of the same, and it was then when I realized that I am a trail racer. I had no major soreness at all! All in all, it was a thoroughly successful weekend with great weather and immense fun. 

Overall this was an amazing experience. The weather was awesome, perhaps even too warm (70's and sunny), it was great to see Sam and race in the company of both him and my wife, and for a first experience on the SHT, I can say that I'm now hooked, on this trail and with this race series. I'm stoked for the fall and my first marathon!

To give you an idea of the course, here's the elevation chart. Not bad for a trail race in the Midwest.

If you're interested in the race series and want more info, check out the website -

And now for the evaluation...

Fitness - B-
Despite the lack of running in the 3 weeks before the race, I was quite happy with what I accomplished, although I realized that I had trained way too much for the road race in April and not nearly enough hills and trails. Glute work and hills will definitely be part of the training regiment from here on out.

Mental Toughness - A-
Although I certainly hit some rough spots, I remained positive and determined throughout. I need to experiment more with my limits, however, to see if I could have run more of the parts I walked.

Pacing - C
The first half was definitely better than the second. I did, however, realize from the start that I was going too fast and would pay for it later. One can expect times to get slower as the race progresses, so perhaps it wasn't all bad that I had a quicker first half, but the splits show a drastic difference between first and second half. 

Hydration/Nutrition - B+
I was relatively disciplined with hydration and nutrition, keeping an eye on my watch to take gels, and remembering often to sip on the Camelbak. The only thing I missed toward the end would have been an S Cap, as I was retaining water and had a mild bit of ''sloshgut''. Had I just one S Cap, the threat of cramping also would not have occurred, so I shall invest in some for the next race. The fine-tuning will simply improve through more experience. I had never run this distance or terrain before, thus I'm happy with how I managed these issues with little experience.

Mechanics - A
I had no soreness the next day, and I managed to ward off the cramps at the finish through good form. There is always room for improvement, but on this day, I nailed it.