Minnesota Voyageur 50 Miler
Race Day: Saturday, July 29, 2017 – 6am
With a race that has so much history and a legendary course, it’s hard not to derive some enjoyment out of the Voyageur Trail Ultra, even though it requires 50 grueling miles of running in the heat of the summer. On race week, all I could do was dread that heat.
I was feeling pretty fit leading up the Voyageur, despite having spotty running mileage through Grandma’s half. In fact, I hadn’t been able to get into a solid build up of mileage since after Zumbro. Either way, it was paying off with PR’s in every race I entered: 5k, 5 Mile, half marathon, 50 mile at Zumbro and aspirations to set another PR on Saturday. Tester runs had positive results, I thought I knew what to do, and so it all came down to getting into a good race day mindset.
An old tri buddy Bennett Isabella bunked at my house, coming up from the Twin Cities to race Voyageur. We went for pizza beforehand and I had a nice relaxing beer along with Emily and her sister. I ate a lot of pizza, despite a burrito debacle Grandma’s weekend… But being overly full plays a positive role in a 50 mile, as opposed to a major hindrance when trying to run under 6 minute pace!
I woke up early on Saturday, with the race start a harsh 6am. Breakfast was cereal and Mountain Dew. Standard. I took a bagel on the road to abide by the “full when you start” strategy. When I parked, I got greased up with sunscreen, since it was forecasted to be a day with abundant sunshine. There were a lot of familiar faces in the start line. Before long it was 6am and Kris instructed the mass of people to line up. I wiggled my way to the front and “GO!” – we’re off.
Phot credit: Nick Nygaard (but probably Elizabeth or Rhonda??)
I took two steps and heard a very peculiar sound. It sounded exactly like a gel pack sliding across the ground. I felt my right pocket and noticed that it was empty, although 8 seconds earlier it held a gel. I checked my left pocket and noticed that its only contents were a baggie with emergency toilet paper, although 8 seconds earlier it also held a gel. I looked down and behind me and only saw a stampede of 300+ feet. Oh well, what can you do! 2 gels gone. I figured the TP was a higher value anyways, since every aid station would surely have gels. I had four more on me, anyways. The front runners took off and I wanted to get into some sort of secondary chase pack. There was a lotta testosterone up there, though.
Onto the Munger Trail, things started to take shape. About 6 guys took off out of sight, and there a couple more spread out in front of me when we hit the woods into Jay Cooke, the hardest and most technical singletrack on the course. Matt was right in front of me and I knew he wanted to try to pace together in the early miles. A mile later and I noticed Matt and I were leading a long train of runners along the great Saint Louis River. The morning sun’s angle made some rocks and roots difficult to see.
We cruised through the first aid station. I didn’t stop or look behind me to see if anyone else did. Onto Jay Cooke Park’s horse trails and our chase group narrowed. Matt was still leading, right in front of me, and we had Ray and Jacob, all chattin’ away. Ray was Nick’s old UMD cross country buddy, and Jacob was a first time ultramarathoner going to post-secondary college in the Cities. A Canadian runner Steven even latched onto the pack. We rolled quite a few miles together and just clicked off the aid stations until we hit the some singletrack a bit after an hour. I was having the indistinguishable swishing feeling inside my stomach and unfortunately had to stop off the trail. We had lost Jacob and so saw him run by me. I pulled up my shorts and caught him shortly. We ran a mile or two together and I dropped him on the second round of powerlines.
I wondered where the pack of three, the chase pack, was in front of me. Were they far? Steven had a few good finishes at past Voyageurs, who knows what Ray can do, and Matt had won the Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon a few weeks prior and so the course was fresh in his mind. They could be putting big time on me. I wanted to speed up, but tried to hold back. It didn’t work and I knew I was pushing too hard out in no-man’s land. Although, I wanted to be running my own pace and own race at some point, and here I was. Time and miles went by quickly early on in the race.
Photo credit: Shane Olson
After a few more aid stations, and nearly after the loop, I passed pre-race favorite Mike Borst while he was going quite slow. He said it wasn’t his day. I got to the Beck’s aid station about 18.5 miles in, on track for a pretty fast race and feeling good. I was being smart with nutrition and drinking a lot–a lot of Powerade, water and trying to eat at least something at each station while my bottle was being filled by helpful volunteers. Nothing to say at this point in the race. So far, so good, like a jog in the woods.
As I ran up Skyline, I noticed the heat. It was getting a bit warmer out, and perhaps my legs were feeling the first twinges of soreness, but nothing too much. Nothing out of the ordinary. I saw a runner in red shorts and tried to track him down, although I definitely didn’t seem to be making up any ground. Onto the Magney ski trails and I caught him, Adam Doe, and slowly moved past him. He was running well, but I had some pre-race intel that he was nursing a sore Achilles and I wondered if I’d see him again. It was a long day yet. I started feeling a little beat down… you get the sensation of exhaustion, like its impossible to pick it up even a tiny bit. But, that feeling would wash away quickly and I was making pretty good time back up to Skyline, to the Magney aid station and road to Spirit Mountain.
By the time I reached the end of traversing Spirit, the sun was high in the sky, beaming down and hot. The temperature was rising every second. I saw Jakob Wartman on the way down, he was pushing a stroller up Spirit, and he said very seriously and dad-like to be VERY careful because it’s hot. Very careful. My nipples had started to pain me more than anything else, which was very unfortunate, and I asked Emily to track down bandaids from the last time I’d seen her.
At the turnaround, I had a 10-minute buffer to go under 7 hours, so well on pace to hit my goal time of 7:20. My watch was at 3:22 or so. I had to stop completely and assess the food table for a second. I drank powerade and spent time looking for salt. Chips will do. I took watermelon cubes. Emily ran up and looked confused when I said I need band-aids. I had eaten my watermelon and was good to go, so essentially just ran off mid-conversation, without allowing her to respond or react. I felt bad for my rude and abrupt behavior, especially because that was the last I’d see her– her preliminary plan was to hit a few aid stations and turn back for Duluth while she’d be the closest at the Zoo turnaround. Oh well, no time to lament because the race was really about to begin.
Up front, Nick was in the lead, which was great to see. I counted 7 other guys in front of me before the turnaround, putting me in 8th place. Not bad. I don’t know when I passed Ray, but saw him behind me. There wasn’t too much going on back there. It was impossible to say who could make a push, but definitely nobody breathing down my neck by the time I started back up to Spirit Mountain, which made it easier to walk. Now is not the time to burn out, I said to myself, and figured I’d have much more juice on the runable sections ahead if I take a hit on time and power hike up. Nobody passed me, so that was good.
Back on Skyline, it’s nice to pass the whole rest of the field. I was pretty encouraging right away, then just started saying “thanks” or an inarticulate mumble as the heat of the day became increasingly challenging. Others’ words were helpful, though.
In the direct sun, my ears would feel so hot that a splash of water on each side would provide just a few glorious seconds of cool relief. When I got onto the ski trails and into the shade, I felt more in a rhythm. My legs were starting to feel sluggish, but I could still push. It was hard to pick up the pace… just a overall clamp on that springy feeling while running easy miles early in the day. I overtook Steven through the woods and he looked like he was struggling. I made my way through the heaviest pack of people and bombed down Skyline back to Becks Road feeling pretty good. At the aid station, I drank a lot of water, poured some on my head, drank powerade, and ate some chips. It was a longer stop, but necessary.
Photo credit: Ryan Saline
While passing the last racers, it was a grind. I was running, which was good, but my pace had slowed. There was no getting around that fact. By the time I got to Mission Creek, at mile 34, it was a death march. Every step was tedious. The heat was unbearable and the only relief was water on my head. My legs didn’t feel overheated, or my chest, or arms, or anything but my head. My ears were burning, face on fire, head so hot that if I had to wear a stocking cap for one moment, it would push me over the edge and I’d die. I saw Emily and the dogs at the Fond du Lac aid station and it was a wonderful feeling. I figured she’d be long gone by that point, and her smiling face gave me a huge boost. I told her and dogs each it was good to see them, but did not dawdle. I ate a few pieces of fruit, some chips and pop, and poured water on my face on my way out.
The next couple miles to the powerlines were very tough. Just a death march. It was a constant battle to convince my body to run with a higher cadence and longer stride, and felt like it took a quarter mile to even get up to running speed of 10 minutes per mile. The heat was a reminder to use water carefully. Drinking was as important as dousing my head and it seemed like every splash evaporated in a minute. I told the helpers at 7 Bridges that the wheels were falling off. I felt like the wheels did fall off in the brutal heat of the powerlines.
In 2016, the powerlines were kind of my savior. Then, I remember it was enough of a switch-up of running that I was able to stretch my back out a little and set me up for the last 10 miles of pretty flat and runnable terrain into Jay Cooke State Park. This year, I felt as if each hill, exposed to the hottest, muggiest death ball that is the Sun, was sucking my energy to near depletion. I was passed by a guy whose name I did not catch, but he was in all black. I looked at my white singlet and wondered how he was not overheated. He crushed me on a hill, and before long was a black dot in the distance. The powerlines seem vast. But they were over soon enough, and I looked forward to running on the flats.
It seemed like forever before I reached the horse trails in the State Park and to the Petersons aid station. I realized then that I wasn’t coming back… this race was one of slow dying. There will be no recovery, no second wind, only to hold on for whatever I can muster. The tent was a sight for sore eyes as I refueled and relished the stop at Petersons. Emily was at there, too, and I was lucky enough to sneak a kiss from her. Poor Emily, as Diamond saw her chance to jump on another nearby dog on a leash and Emily was yanked violently. Nice, Diamond… I shook my head at her and sped off.
Photo credit: Emily Andrews
The only way to make it through was to micromanage the race, and I made it a goal to run the whole way to Forbay. There was no trick or method, just a stubborn attitude and refusing to accept a slower pace. It didn’t always work, and I found myself in a few moments of funk while running just so slow. My GPS watch confirmed this. Any tiny hill seemed to break my rhythm, but every now and again I’d build back up to a strong form. On the Munger Trail, my second to last split alarm sounded to alert me that the previous seven miles were in 1:20, an 11:30 average mile pace. Not good. That was a big hit on my time. I brought it in hard to Forbay and was delighted to see Emily once more. It sounded like there was a few people in front of me who were not doing so well, but I felt like I was on the fringe of complete exhaustion myself. I did what I could to refuel with some salty chips, coke and fruit. My sweat and however many cups worth of water was making my skin nasty and slimy, and the feeling of fresh and cool water on my forehead was incredible. It only took a few miles for the water in my handheld to warm up, so I could notice the difference after each fresh fill-up at aid stations.
Photo credit: Emily Andrews
I saw a local trail runner Amy spectating past Forbays, and she was very encouraging by telling me that the three guys in front of me were having a really hard time and that I was looking good. Oh man, that got me going. The adrenaline kicked in and I could feel it. The end was in sight… just one more aid station and it was all runnable. Downhill even. All downhill!! I tried to lie to myself and it worked. My pace picked up, but my rate of acceleration was hilarious. I had no power, but somehow my legs would churn just incrementally faster. Bit by bit, until I was a running a blazing 9 minute pace. I was hasty and smart at the last aid station, quickly refilling and drinking coke for any last minute boost of high fructose corn syrup and caffeine.
Across the swinging bridge, I felt so speedy just zinging by the tourists on the bridge, clamoring to the side to allow me to pass. The first few steps onto the singletrack, however, were defeating. I had no energy, no stamina, no power, no nothing. Done. It took some grunting and wincing to get up the hills and to stay speedy afterwards. Perhaps it was the extreme focus it takes to navigate the puzzling rocks and roots, but I eventually got into a rhythm and was chugging away. I even passed someone who I’d seen so long ago cruising back up Spirit, who was now really struggling. That was a source of energy and I felt faster. The sun hid behind clouds and that was a source of energy and I felt faster. When I could sense the end, and envisioned crossing the bridge onto the Munger, I sped up on the coattails of adrenaline. When that last curve in the trail occurred, I saw Nick in front of me. That was a source of energy but I couldn’t go any faster. It would be funny to pass him in a dead sprint on the street, in a way, but that would be HIGHLY improbable as I dug deep to push across the bridge. Once onto the Munger, the sun came back out and I tried to focus as much as I could on my form and cadence. Nick looked back a few times and wasn’t going to give an inch. He must’ve had a really tough 25 miles since I’d last seen him in the lead…
I looked at my watch and figured I could sneak in in the 7:20’s. My goal was 7:20 flat but I was several minutes ahead of that at the moment. One last turn, the clock in sight, and I knew I’d finish under 7:30. Nick crossed the line and I cruised in right behind him. I immediately felt a bit overwhelmed. The relief to finish was coupled by pain and fatigue. Nick and I both gravitated towards two folding chairs conveniently side by side. I asked about his race but he didn’t want to talk to me. I didn’t really want to talk either. Our respective support crews were asking questions but neither of us had the gumption or energy to respond assuredly. I took my shoes and socks off in the grass, which felt good, but really no position allowed my body comfort. Laying on the grass felt much better than running would, though.
I got a mug with “6th Place” etched in the side. I wanted to finish in the top-10 in a stacked field and was happy to do so handily. My time was off from what I thought I could do on the very top end, but given the day, given the heat and humidity, I thought it was an excellent result. 7:20 could have happened with 60 degrees and cloudy. Next is Sawtooth.
Shoes: Brooks Ghost size 11.5
Hydration: 19oz Nathan insulated handheld