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.

Garmin Fenix 3 Data

Results

Time: 7:28:05
Pace: 8:57
Place: 6/289

Shoes: Brooks Ghost size 11.5

Hydration: 19oz Nathan insulated handheld

Race Day: Saturday, June 17, 2017 – 6:15am

It was fun to go back to the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon after running Grandma’s Marathon the past three years (2014, 2015, and 2016). Leading up to the infamous Grandma’s weekend in Duluth, my training was pretty good. I was running faster and stronger than ever, had a huge bank of running volume from the Zumbro ramp-up in March, and had done a pretty nice job of sharpening up and running fast on top of big miles.

I set a 50 mile PR and a 5k PR both in April, but took a few weeks nearly entirely off shortly thereafter with an achilles tendon scare. Luckily, I nipped any injuries at the bud and felt pretty decent with my half marathon training. My workouts, tempo runs (NMTC spring race series), and long runs were consistent and I felt pretty spry on race week. Long ago, my goal was 1:15. I thought I could break 1:15, but barely, while plotting my racing calendar in January. I thought 1:14:59 would be a great goal time, but started to think I had a sub-73 minute run in me. High expectations.

I felt like an idiot going to sleep on Friday night because I had a huge burrito and was really full. Why did I overstuff myself?? I woke up at 4:25am the next morning and nailed my morning routine. Cereal, Mt. Dew, and the bathroom stop was perfectly according to plan. I jogged down to the corner and met Savannah and a few other of her running buddies. We walked to Fitger’s, about a mile from my house, to catch the bus. This was the first time in 9 consecutive years not taking the bus from University of Minnesota-Duluth. I nibbled a few caffeinated jelly beans and drank some Mt. Dew and felt good. Ready to roll.

My legs felt OK once we got to the start line. Maybe a little heavy. I waited in line for the bathrooms and the final step of my pre-race routine was executed. I had plenty of time to find my way to the start line and do some warm ups. With around 7,500 people starting the race, it’s always an anxiety-provoking thought to get caught behind thousands of 2-hour half-marathoners.

It felt like no time before the race organizers corralled us behind the line and got the race start sequence underway. National anthem, equipment check, everyone is lined up, flags up, checking watches, and nervous energy of the fast runners all around me at the front. I could only image the throngs of people behind me.

Photo credit: Duluth Eastern Observer

Without further ado, the horns blasted and we were off. I had talked to Gregg before the start and he wanted to go sub-1:15. I had my sights set on Gregg right away. He’s a seasoned racer and knows exactly what to do, so if I could pace off of him I’d probably get my goal.

Otherwise, my pacing strategy was to go out at 5:40-5:45 pace and hope to feel good through mile 6. If the first six miles didn’t feel smooth, I’d have to reassess, but I figured they’d click right off given my fitness level. In training, 5:30’s felt easy to hold for a couple of miles, which is a good sign.

I couldn’t believe how fast the first mile went by. My watch beeped 5:30 and I remembered Savannah saying I’m an idiot if my first mile is the fastest one and there is no way I can do a 5:40 first mile. Well, what does that say about how my race will go, I thought? The second mile seemed to come and go in a flash and I was worried that the race would go by too quickly!

I saw Gregg and passed him. Another local runner, Adam Swank, latched on to my heels. We were with a little pack of people, a few elite women that came and went, but Swank did not waver from his place right beside me. My pace was right on track, in the low 5:40 range, and I was pleased to have a little buffer with the fast first mile. I was doing great mile after mile as they whizzed by until Brighton Beach.

I wasn’t super comfortable, but managing the pace really nicely. I felt a few stomach pangs. Nothing serious, really, but my systems felt a little off. I thought how I have to pee. No, that is a non-factor. Whatever. I have to poop. No, not this in a half marathon… My thoughts were a bit negative as we crossed the Lester River, and Adam ran away from me. Should I stop? Nah. But running was hard and getting slower. I lost my fluid rhythm. I didn’t feel right, to run at my pace was labored and it was because of some general discomfort with my systems. Then, I felt the unquestionable quench of the bowels around 4oth Avenue East, after a couple of slower miles. I still had the buffer, but truly could not decide if I’d be best to stop and get it out. I knew I could do my business quickly, and it would likely make the remaining five or six miles much more comfortable. Or could I gut it out and save the stop? OR would I poop my pants in front of hundreds of spectators on Superior Street and Lake Avenue? I’d have to move away from Duluth and never do Grandma’s again!

My pace slowed further by a few seconds, and I knew I was in the 6:00 per mile range. My legs felt OK, my breathing was fine, but it was some heaviness slowing me down. A heaviness that I could leave in a port-a-pottie. I didn’t know if it would help or hurt, but ate my one gel at the Glensheen Mansion. It went down fine.

I crested Lemon Drop Hill and did a few calculations. 4.1 miles left. I was slowing to about 20 seconds below my race pace. I was maybe 20 seconds down from my goal time of 1:14:59. Gregg had passed me, looking really good with a rock-solid group. I couldn’t latch on.

Lemon Drop Hill felt OK, actually, but I have run and raced enough in my life to know my body. And once you feel “The Clench”, it never gets better, it only gets worse, despite sometimes coming in waves. At 21st Avenue East, I couldn’t focus on the cheering fans everywhere. It was a terrible feeling, and I made the decision to stop at the john. Terrible. How do I have to make an emergency dump stop at a half marathon? At Zumbro 50 mile in March I’d run with less stops!! Crap!

Photo credit: Tone Coughlin – Endurance Kennels LLC

Photo credit: Tone Coughlin – Endurance Kennels LLC

Luckily, it was in and out, and I was determined to let ‘er rip on the final 5k with no mental (or physical) blocks. I sprinted out of the capsule feeling great, and with something to prove. I had to justify and offset the stop.

It was just what I needed to completely change the tone of the race. Shortly thereafter, my watch beeped to signify I was 10 miles into the race. The time it took to run the previous mile was 6:38. A full minute slower than what that mile should have been. Or could have been. That’d take a fast 5k to make it up! I couldn’t do the math, and figured I’d put that mental energy into finishing the race as fast as I could, without questioning what may have happened down that final stretch down Superior Street. With huge volume in my legs, and a decent threshold speed built up, it was time to shred.

Photo credit: Grant Johnson

I was finally able to soak in the crowd support, and I felt like I was flying. It was still a bit painful, but I could hold on and felt like I was running at a good clip. My watch’s mile splits confirmed that, and I was back on track with high 5:30’s/low 5:40’s per mile coming into Downtown Duluth. Duluth Running Company is always a welcome boost of adrenaline, and I ripped down that block. All downhill from here, I thought…

Photo credit: Duluth Eastern Observer

Photo credit: Duluth Eastern Observer

All I could do was hold it together through Lake Avenue, and I was passing people, which fueled the fire. I sped up. I glanced at my watch to see the mileage and time, and did some quick guesstimates. A fine consolation to sub 1:15 would be a finish time IN the 1:15’s, and I was going to be very close. So I picked it up. I bashed my quads on the up-and-down across 5th Avenue West, and passed a couple more struggling elites.

My face started to form a grimace, and my stride lengthened considerably as I dug deep to find higher gear. I remembered the Superior NMTC race where I consciously increased my cadence and pulled away from Nate (who was about to start the marathon at the moment the thought crossed my mind). I tried that method for a second but reverted back to overstriding. It was ugly but who cares. Another glance at my watch and I was disheartened to see that I missed my primary goal of 1:14:59. However, I was past the William A. Irvin and just had a few more seconds of pain left. I was breathing really heavy, and started to feel a drag while running under the Lake Avenue bridge. Around the hotels and the finish line was in sight. One final glance at my watch and I knew I had to kick it in in a major way to at least get a 1:15. I sprinted, my eyes on the clock perched high above the finish line.I knew I was close enough to the start line for that time shown to be accurate.

I passed the announcer line and heard my name. The adrenaline was pumping so hard at this point it would be impossible to slow down. My field of vision narrowed as I lunged across the finish. I remembered to stop my watch shortly after the finish, and and was happy to see 1:15:XX as my run slowed to a jog then to a walk. Good for a solid PR by nearly two minutes, but I hadn’t run a half marathon outright in over two years!

I was pissed as I finished. My immediate emotion was frustration. How could I dump during a stupid hour-long race? Weak! I blame the burrito! No, no, I can’t stay mad at burritos. My frustration changed to happiness and elation as I had a medal hung around my neck, and collected my shirt, beer ticket and chocolate milk. If anything, I was eager to find another half marathon to race soon while I have the fitness. Adam came in in the 1:13’s, and Gregg finished in 1:14:50. Double crap! I knew if I could stick with Gregg, I’d be right on the money. I figured that if I didn’t stop for the e-dump, my pace would have stayed around the 6:00 per mile region and my time would be much worse. Strategically, perhaps it was the right move. But a flub in race execution no doubt.

Photo credit: Duluth Eastern Observer

With Grandma’s Weekend over with, I am super excited to revert back to long trail training and racing. I think having a fast half marathon under my belt is a good base to pile trail mileage onto.

Results

Garmin Data

Race Stats:

Place: 68/7,337
Time: 1:15:54
Pace: 5:48

Shoes: Saucony Freedom ISO
Food: Gu Roctane Tutti Frutti


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