Monday, September 16, 2013

Superior Trail Races Moose Mountain Marathon

Sam's Rules of Life:
1. Never give up.
2. See Rule #1
3. Don't be a bi***
4. Pay attention
5. It's probably your fault (different from his official post, but certainly discussed as Rule 5)

Mile 18. Stabbing lateral pain in the left knee. "I remember this pain!" Reminiscent of an attempted 18-miler in June when at mile 15 the same thing happened. Sudden searing pain in the knee, forcing me to walk/hobble the final three miles back to my car. Back then I blamed the brutally rocky terrain of the backside of Bass Lake, along with my desire to run farther than I probably should have at that point in my training. It was a failure to observe Rules 4 and 5.

These rules came back to me again at my first ever marathon, set dramatically against the backdrop of Lake Superior, high above in the forest along the Superior Hiking Trail on a beautifully sunny day. Going into the race, I truly had no idea if I was really ready. Allow me to explain.

Five months earlier. Since recovering from yet another foot ailment in April and adding my first DNS to my record with the Superior Trial Races 50k in May, I signed up for the marathon as part of the fall series of the same race with five months to get myself back in order. No problem! I would have the summer off completely and would be living in Ely, MN, with Superior National Forest and the BWCA as my training grounds. With no other obligations, I could focus on doing it right. Eat well, get plenty of sleep, and train smart.

And that happened...until around the end of July. I had some amazing runs in the early summer, with cool temps in the Great Northwoods and plenty of shade from the dense, rapidly growing forest. Aside from the previously mentioned ugly run, I was progressing nicely and feeling awesome. I even had the chance to run in the mountains of California and participate in my first ever mountain race (detailed in my last post). Upon returning from California and talking a lot with my "running Jefe" Joe, I decided to change my focus in a big way that - theoretically and with all hope - would yield greater gains than the way I was currently training. In one word - Maffetone. I started Maffetone training with a heart rate monitor, a method that I wanted to detail more before writing this post, but haven't had the time for it, so perhaps I'll go back to it later and describe it in more detail for those who are interested. The short and sweet of it is that I wore a heart rate monitor for every run starting in mid-July, and would not run any faster than my pre-determined maximum aerobic function heart rate, which is 144bpm. This is to stimulate and improve aerobic function and avoid going anaerobic, a function that more heavily leads to injury and muscle imbalance. As it happens for many people, this slowed me waaaaaay down. I'm comfortable at a sub-8:00 mile pace for long distances, and now I couldn't go faster than 10:30 miles at that heart rate. I realized that my aerobic function was truly awful, and that I've been running in an anaerobic state for a huge chunk of my life and for most all runs. The number of injuries I've had is a big indicator of this.

In any case, this training slowed me down and did not allow me to do much strength or speed training. I just ran slowly, trying to improve my pace at the same heart rate over the weeks following. It's a slow process, but I was seeing progress. My mechanics were also a little messed up, because it's hard for me to run at that slower pace with good form. Then, at the start of August, a few things got in the way. I went to North Carolina for two weeks to visit a good friend, and the running was sporadic at best, and nothing more than about four miles, although I did do a run on the Appalachian Trail and my longest fully barefoot run along the beach at the Outer Banks. Nonetheless, I didn't feel it was enough. Upon returning, the heat cranked up here and the stress of the impending school year wreaked havoc with my heart rate, slowing me back down to where I started mid-July. With not a single run that was even moderately fast, nor on truly technical terrain, I couldn't say if this race - arguably the most rugged marathon in the country - would make or break me.

Race weekend. After an extremely stressful first week of school, I headed north early Friday afternoon, arriving just in time to catch friend Sam Jurek at an aid station during the 100-miler, unfortunately only to see him drop due to several legitimate factors (still love and respect you, brother). I joined my wife at the Mountain Inn and we had a relaxing evening, and finally the stress was wearing off. Unfortunately, Negative Factor #1 appeared - my allergies had kicked in full blast, now, the afternoon before the race, without any time to get them under control. That night, I couldn't breathe a single breath through my nose, and the "sleep" I got was really only a poor excuse for the real thing. I woke up with a terribly scratchy throat along with completely plugged sinuses. Super.

The first of three alarms went off at 5am. Thankfully we were both up right away and didn't need the other two. My hyper-organizational German side was a godsend on this morning, because I had laid out everything the night before. I need only eat, suit up, and go. We were out the door by 6:15 to catch the shuttle to the start, meeting up with Anna's friend Liz, who was also running the race. Negative Factor #2 -  It was already quite warm, but even worse was the extreme humidity! The air hung heavy in the clear, calm morning sky, threatening to smack you in the face like a hot, wet towel. Once I was finally on the bus, however, I was relaxed and ready. We arrived at the start with at least a good 45 minutes before go time, but it was good to have time to relax, warm-up a bit, and pee about five hundred times. A few of the hundred-milers came through while we were waiting, which heightened the mood all around.

The Start - Does my heart rate not realize how flat this is?
The start was a bit strange, heading out on the road, running in the opposite direction of the trail, then looping back onto the trail and crossing the road again at the AS. The transition from road to trail left us standing and waiting while everyone funneled onto the trail single-file, and since I was toward the back, I ended up walking for quite a bit until the trail opened up a little to pass. I was, however, none too eager to pass too quickly, for I had a plan. I took some good advice: give myself the first half hour or so to get my heart rate under control but not to exceed 150bpm, then stay at my MAF rate of 144 for the first half, and then "let 'er rip" on the second half. This was easier said than done. With the humidity, heat, and allergies, I had trouble keeping my heart rate below 150 when walking briskly! The start of the race is even the easiest part, with flat, fast singletrack for at least the first three miles. Needless to say I was concerned, but stayed focused. I gave in to walking briskly to maintain my heart rate, admitting that finishing was much more important than not walking. The benefit to sticking to my heart rate plan was that I got to run with Anna and Liz for quite a while, and they were even getting ahead of me at times. It's always nice to have people to run with, and I think it helped me relax a bit as well.

The first seven miles is quite flat, and is also the most open part of the course. Hitting the bright morning sun was already a bit zapping, and I regretted having no visor nor sunglasses, but knew it wouldn't be long before I would be happy to not have to carry them. Soon enough, the course drops down to the Cross River, whose beauty surprises you when suddenly arriving at its dramatic, rocky stature with swift yet elegant waters. Here the trail skirts very close to the river for quite some time, offering glistening sunlit water with its calming white noise. I think this was one of the most enjoyable parts of the race for me. It was cool and well-shaded, with a spectacular view that joins you along your travels.

Climbing up and away from the river, it's not long before the trail takes a steep and continued descent into the Temperance River AS. If you're not paying attention, you might just run right into the table there, as the station is tucked tightly between the woods and the road, which seems more like a wide access trail than a road. A friendly and efficient volunteer refilled my Camelbak while it was still on my back, and I grabbed some fuel. I only had one gel in the first section and was feeling hungry. A banana with peanut butter, a square of PB&J, some Heed and ginger ale, and a few potato chips and I was ready. Anna and Liz had arrived just after me, but were taking a potty stop, so I went on ahead. It was slow moving with all that in my stomach, but I knew it would pay off later.

Carlton Peak - Never before have I so wished for cold lemonade!
Magnificently scenic river #2 - Temperance. It was almost deja vu, skirting the edge of yet another gorgeous river, but this time, it was bigger and more dramatic. The trail actually heads out onto the rocks before folding back into the woods, and here is where I spotted a hundred-miler soaking in the water to cool off. The idea was tempting, but I kept moving, even though it was feeling a lot hotter by now. Crossing to the other side and heading back up away from the highway, I decided that some cool water would do me good. I found a spot where the river was most quickly accessed and splashed some water on my neck and head, not really noticing the family there enjoying the landscape, even though I was about three feet from one of the kids. I'm sure there were some strange looks, but I moved on, focused on my task. It was here that things got much more difficult.

The Superior Trail Race series is touted as one of the most rugged in the country, and I'm sure people from places like Colorado or California where the mountains are real mountains would scoff at such a claim, but they haven't been on this trail, nor have they climbed from Temperance River to the top of Carlton Peak. In about a three-mile stretch, the trail climbs from 600 feet above sea level to 1500 feet, varying between root-gnarled trail, gravel, and exposed jagged granite. Although there's no serious altitude to deal with, it is nonetheless as challenging as some of the climbs I've done in Colorado. Running was absolutely out of the question, and here is where I had to let my heart rate jump to 170. I had managed the first section mostly below 150, and was trying to stick to an increase of 10bpm with each section, but here is where that fell apart. Pace did not matter; I could have taken a step every 30 seconds, and I still would have been at 168, so I went with it. Liz had caught up to me at the start of the climb, so we at least had some good conversation to take our minds off of the daunting climb. The top section, albeit strenuous and challenging, is incredible. It becomes almost a scramble out on granite boulders, entering a vertical zone of fissures, cracks, and aretes above that loom with cool, ancient graces. I was picking out my vertical lines as I passed, remembering it for future climbing exploration. Finally we hit the summit and rolled back down again, and I felt good. I let 'er rip on the down and my heart rate played along. I also observed here that running a steady pace actually helped keep my heart rate down as opposed to walking! Strange, but the steady movement with feet underneath me seemed to control my heart rate better than plodding along with bigger steps requiring more muscle recruitment. Mental note for the future. It was simply good to finally have some speed.

Having some sweet, fast downhill was a godsend, and it was like this almost the entire way to the next aid station, aside from a climb toward the end, where the trail heads out into open skies, and yet still feels tight with thick, wetland vegetation that's just a bit over head height. Liz and I caught up to a guy and we all ran in to the aid station together. Sawbill is a cool spot and it's also where I volunteered last fall to get a taste of what this series is all about. The Immerfall family runs this AS and has been doing it since the race's inception nearly (or more than?) 20 years ago. It was fun to see some familiar faces, and wasn't surprised in the least to see one of them offering cold showers from a hose hooked up to the water there. I declined the shower, but got some snacks and was on my way. Liz stuck around to deal with some hotspots that were becoming blisters.

The Sneaking Snake of "Schnell!"
Although I had never run this third section before, I remember the Immerfalls and several other runners saying that the section from Sawbill to Oberg is rolling and easy, comparatively speaking. I was excited to see if that was true, and finally speed up a little, since I was now past the half-way mark. No craziness at this point, but faster and measured at or below 170bpm. It was actually quite easy, because all of the beta I received on this section was correct. It's a thoroughly enjoyable 5.7 miles of rolling, wooded trail, cool in the shade with soft, peaty soil underfoot. It was hard not opening up completely and blazing this section, but because I'm very familiar with the last section, I knew I had to keep plenty in the tank. There *may* have been a short stint at the start of this section where I ran faster than I should have, but no one needs to know that. Needless to say, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I came upon the woman I had started behind, knowing this because I recognized her shoes. She had the same shoes as my wife, so we chatted as we rolled, and the conversation helped keep things relaxed. I was in no hurry to pass her, and in any case, she had a solid pace going. Secretly, I added a sub-goal to make sure I passed her before the finish, which I figured would be a decent challenge. She looked fresh and was moving swiftly and consistently.

Negative Factor #3 - With about a mile to go before Oberg AS, it happened. (Insert sharp, echoing metallic sound here) Suddenly and without warning,  I felt a stabbing pain in the outside of my left knee. It forced instant hobbling until I could slow down and walk a few steps. My IT band had been getting tighter and more sore in the previous few miles, and it finally decided to take out its anger on my knee. This was a familiar sign that I was: a) running too hard after so many miles, and b) I had not been paying enough attention to my mechanics, or had simply lost my reference point for what is efficient after significant muscle weakening. Rule #4 broken and rule #5 in full admittance. I was now in new territory, having run farther than I ever have before in my life. I can't say I was surprised, but damn it hurt! I managed to keep running in to the aid station, keeping my form together as best as possible as I came out of the woods to a crowd of spectators, including Sam's mom and her entourage. I smiled and waved and didn't stop until I reached the aid station. As soon as I stopped, my knee started improving, so I did some mini-stretches as I drank my Heed. At this point I made eye contact with a fellow AS volunteer from last year who was helping out again, and we struck up a conversation. It was fun to run into someone I knew, and he was excited to tell me about his return to running after double knee surgery last year. A cool story indeed, as he was told he'd never run again. Although I enjoyed the conversation, I was itching to go, and it was hard to break away from his excited news, but I politely wished him well and mentioned that we would certainly run into each other in the future, and made my way out for the last stretch.

The Long Lonely Road of Loneliness
With my knee situation and familiarity of the last section of the course from the last two years of doing the 25km in the spring, I knew this would be my greatest challenge yet. The final section is by far the toughest, with two gutbusting climbs up Moose and Mystery mountains, respectively, the first of which climbs 600 feet in about three miles, and the latter which drags on and on in a neverending sea of switchbacks, reminding me of the movie "Labyrinth", sans David Bowie and his unsightly codpiece. I must have walked a good mile before I tried running again, which was touch-and-go at best. I could run perhaps a few minutes before the pain increased enough to force me back to walking. The steep climb up Moose was actually quite welcome, as it gave me license to hike, and since my knee didn't hurt when walking or going uphill, I made some decent time and passed a few people, including the woman I ran with earlier and vowed to pass. I thought she might duck in behind me and follow me up, but suddenly I was alone, and would be so for the majority of this last section.

When listening to people talk about running marathons, many - if not most - talk about hitting "the wall." I can now say from personal experience that this is a very real thing. Although avoidable in most cases, it seems to overtake many people around mile 21 or so, perhaps because this is new territory for those following traditional training plans who run only a maximum of 20 miles for their longest long run. I was well into this territory, and was happy to have made it this far, but around mile 21, my mental state took a faceplant, and I entered a sufferfest. Had I been smart and fueled better at the top of Moose, I might have avoided it, but alas, my brain was too preoccupied with my knee and how to overcome my mechanics problem. For about two or three miles, I plodded along, lamenting that I could not run, as it would extend my time on the course even more, when I just wanted to be done! The finish line seemed to get farther and farther away, and it was hard to see my goal time vanish as if it were a dream all along. While climbing the neverending switchbacks on Mystery mountain, a hundred-miler came upon me rather quickly, patted me on the back and asked how it was going. I remember feeling a bit confused and astonished at how peppy he was, as if he had just hiked out a mile or two to see runners and then jaunt back for a latté and scone. We wished each other well, and he took off running up the trail. He is the only person I have ever seen run that section of the trail. I'm still not sure he exists. He very well could have been a figment of my suffering imagination. In any case, it was a much needed interaction.

Hitting the top of Mystery, I pulled myself out of Megaslump and decided that I had been on course long enough. Walking was no longer an option, and I didn't care how much it would hurt; I was gonna run that finish down if it killed me! Strangely, once I made this decision and started running, the pain became constant which made it entirely manageable. A swifter pace also allowed better mechanics, which helped a good bit too. All I wanted now was to see the campsites - the greatest landmark in the whole race for me, signaling the near exit of the Superior Hiking Trail and the rushing Poplar River at the bottom of the hill, leading out to the final stretch. It took much longer than I had hoped, but finally the small wooden sign appeared with blue paint identifying the campsite. I took off! The downhill from there can get scary if you don't control your speed, and after 20+ miles my legs were a little wobbly. I stumbled at least once, but not enough to throw me down. Making a sharp right turn out onto the access trail, I let gravity do the work and flew down the trail, passing one runner who I thought might have been the hundred-miler I saw earlier, but didn't have the same pep in his step. At the bottom of the hill, I looked at my watch and my pulse had hit 200! "Holy cow, I need to slow down!" Although this is the final stretch of trail, there's still a section of gravel road and paved road that are much longer than they should be, and definitely sort the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

Crossing over the Poplar and taking a quick glimpse to the side to enjoy its splendor, I made my way up the gravel road to where it evens out, and settled in to a swift, yet manageable pace. I passed a  hundred-miler with what sounded like a South African accent and his entourage of pacers bringing him in, along with a "tagalong" marathoner who was walking with them and was complaining about her knee. Before I passed them, she had asked how far the finish was, and the guy said, "Oh, it's just up there." Now, when you ask a hundred-miler how far something is, be mindful of his perspective! She exclaimed, "Ok, I got this," and started chuckin down the road at what I would call a sprint. Her long bounds, along with what looked like a heavy Camelbak pack on her back made me cringe just a little. Shortly before I reached her, she let out a gasp, an "Oh my god!" and stopped. As I ran by, I encouraged her to settle in to an easy pace with short steps and come with me. When she asked me where the finish was, my retort of, "Oh, about a quarter mile, it's not far," was not what she wanted to hear. She ran a few more steps and then resorted to walking. Hey, I tried.

The pavement always hurts in this race, but since I was already in pain, it seemed to go faster than the previous two races (which were only 25km). I hit the gravel path leading down to the final stretch and kicked it in with as much composure and as big a smile as possible. Done! And it only took me seven hours and ten minutes! Not a very impressive time for a marathon, but all things considered, I was pleased with how it went. In cases like this, I'm ok with a sub-par performance, because it gives me more reason to do it again and improve. It was also pleasing that my greatest fear - that my stomach would go south as often happens when I exercise with allergies - did not come to fruition.

Liz finished about thirty minutes behind me, and we hung out and ate snacks waiting for Anna to come in. Because Anna's training was "a little scant," I honestly had no idea when she would arrive, but had a good hunch that she wouldn't be too far behind. She arrived at eight hours and thirty minutes, smiling and running smoothly. Impressed is an understatement to describe my thoughts. For having run her longest long run at ten miles a month or more before the race, and then only two to four miles a few times a week, I must admit that she's more of a badass than I. All in all, it was a fabulous day with feelings of success all around, followed by a soak in the hot tub and dinner with Sam and his fam.

Anna and I post race, pre-hot tub.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I LOVE this course, and the RD John Stohrkamp organizes a helluvan event. I'd like to throw out a huge personal THANK YOU to the all of the volunteers who make this possible. They were all super friendly and eager to help. My ultimate goal would be to do the 50-mile next year, but after a 7+ hour finish for the marathon, I'm not sure I want to spend 14+ hours on the trail, even with the love I have for it. We'll see what the next year brings. On that note, I'll post the elevation chart for your enjoyment, which includes all three races. Check it out.

Fitness - B?
Clearly I knew that my aerobic fitness was crap since starting Maffetone training in July, but it had been so my whole life, so that would be less positive in this category, but I had no idea how my legs, core, and feet would hold up. Other than my knee, I felt good for most of the race, and my feet gave me no trouble at all in my Merrell Trail Gloves. My lower back did get sore, signaling that my core needs work. Had I been running faster, this may have been a different story.

Mental Toughness - C+
I would say that I was solid - and following Sam's rules 1-3 - for the whole race until I hit the wall. This grade carries over into hydration/nutrition as well, as I think that was partially to blame for my dark times. I let myself walk too much and for too long.

Pacing - A-
I followed my plan to the best of my ability. The Trail Runner Nation podcast I listened to on the way up helped a ton with a new mantra: "Plan to flow, and flow when it doesn't go according to plan." I started conservatively and increased pace as I moved on, adjusting my plan based on what my heart rate was doing. Had my knee not gone out, I would have had a stellar finish.

Nutrition/Hydration - B+
I don't feel like the problems I had were food or hydration related until the last section. I didn't take enough water at the last AS and was more thirsty than previously in the race, and I should have fueled sooner before I hit the wall.

Mechanics - D
If for no other reason than my knee injury. Clearly I wasn't balanced left to right, and my IT band took the brunt of it, leading to the knee being pulled out of whack. Due to my allergies and perhaps also the Camelback (although the Camelbak has never given me trouble before), I had horribly tight shoulders and neck, threatening a terrible headache, which thankfully never came. I'm sure this forced my shoulders up, head forward, and form to suffer.

Now only eight months until the spring series! Until then, here's your parting shot.

Marathon feet, complete with unofficial trail swag.