Race Day: Friday, April 7, 2017 – 11:59pm

Never in my life have I had such a perfect training block leading up to a race. I guess that is a bold statement to make, but I feel like there is always some sort of question or apprehension, some little nagging injury or training fall-out that makes you question the pending performance. This year, this race, and with race week taper in full force, I was so content with every single mile I had put in and the output of fitness it produced. I was running faster and stronger than ever.

With a second-place finish last year at Zumbro, and no Kurt Keiser (2016 winner and course record holder), no definite slam dunk winner on the start list, I had one thing on my mind. One goal, one mission, a singular reason to toe the line. I wanted to win. Bad. It’s a tough thought to have, and an impossible one to wash out of your mind once it creeps in. As fit as you are, you can’t control who else is on that start line and what sort of shape they are in. Well, if you’re Tonya Harding you have that control, but I don’t own a baton. Either way, I was racing for the top spot.

12 months prior, I ran 8:32 while pacing for 9 hours. I hit just under my goal of 8 hours at Voyageur 50 with less-than-ideal training, and so I figured that 8 hours would be a good benchmark or time to pace off of. Then again, Zumbro is a hard course. The midnight start adds a different level of complexity, but 2:40 each 16.7-mile loop works out so nicely! My plan was to try to hit a tad under 10 minute pace for two loops and then let ‘er rip.

The weather was looking simply perfect for the run. Low 40s and dry for the whole night. I drove from Duluth Friday morning after getting a solid 11 hours of sleep, plus took a nap. It’s such a weird day just milling about, waiting for midnight. I left from Minneapolis around 8:30pm for bluffs country and got there in a breeze, but didn’t have much time to take a nap. I got my packet and hung out around the bustling start/finish/lap area and drank Mountain Dew until the start.

I saw a few friendly faces from last year, Jeff Vander Kooi and Bennett Isabella, and before long the countdown began. Watch on, headlamp on, “GO!”, start watch, start running.

I got swallowed up by a pack of guys, which was perfect. It’s a little freaky starting out the run in the pitch dark and not knowing exactly where the trail goes. This is race is so incredibly marked with reflective ribbons and a clear trail that’d truly be difficult to get lost on, but you don’t remember that in the anxiety-provoking first minute of the race! So we started towards the woods. It is not long before the trail turns onto some technical singletrack that goes up, up, up. It is comical how the first mile or two of the race is so incredibly challenging!

We were trucking pretty well, everyone was on the same page of walking up hills, and we were making good time. Jeff and I were up front and chatting away, which was nice. Bennett chimed in, and I talked to fellow Duluth resident Ryan Braun a bit. With the first aid station in sight, someone sprinted out from the group into the night. We looked around to each other and Jeff even asked, “who was that??”, almost offended that he’d run away like that this early in the race. I was offended because I wanted to win. It is way, way, way too early in a race like this to go after him. So either this guy is the real deal or he’s a clown and will blow up. It’s not like we were going slow, but this guy blasted way out in front and sprinted out of sight.

I made a point to eat something at the first aid station, as was my goal and plan for every aid station. The pretzels were not appetizing whatsoever, and I was the only one in the group to stop. I had to pee so bad, and lost my spot up front after the stops. There was a group of perhaps eight guys in one big pack, and I weeded my way back up. I didn’t recognize half of them, but started talking to TJ Jeannette, who chimed in when he mentioned he was from Duluth. I recognized his name from ‘Superior’, a book I read about the 100 mile race with the same title. We were all chatting away and running well–nice and fast but manageable–so the miles clicked away in the night. I peed at least twice before the third aid station.

For some reason, I felt like I had to break from the pack. I was good on water, and certainly not hungry, so deviated from my plan and skipped the third aid station of four per lap. Jeff was the first one out of the aid station and could have hung with me, but probably saw what I was doing and let me go. I was pushing the pace at that moment anyways, and kind of felt the time for chit chat was over. We hadn’t reeled the other mystery dude in at all, and it was time to focus.

After that third aid station, it’s relatively easy running until the next lap. I was getting a little carried away all alone, running fast and breathing hard. My watch didn’t seem to be splitting every three miles like I set it to, or I couldn’t hear it and was missing it. I was frustrated about that. Either way, my pace was on point for a 2:40 loop and I felt pretty decent. My fueling was going good. Perfect, really. I got some varied feedback from 100 milers and volunteers from the fourth aid station, and the guy in front of me was probably 5-10 minutes ahead. A lot of race left to run, I thought.

The moon was great, the temperature ideal, and trail in pristine condition. I sprinted across the finish line, grabbed some goodies from the finish aid station, got a fresh couple of gels from my stash, and ran out onto my second lap exactly at 2:40. I even said “two more of those and I’ll be all smiles”. I forgot to put my extra batteries in my waterbottle pouch. Do I turn around? No.

It was a bit harder to pace the start of the second lap without the big group to pace. I tried to hit an intensity that was mild but deliberate, especially on the uphills. You don’t want to really run or push it too hard, because that is where you blow up. There are plenty of hills that will destroy you at Zumbro. I had fun running in the night going into the first aid station on lap two, and was feeling spry and energetic. I altered my gel-and-hour plan, which pretty much threw my whole nutrition plan out the window after I’d skipped one aid station already. Oh, well, it’s better than trying to stick to a stupid plan just because, and throwing up or pooping my pants or getting terrible stomach pains.

Across the Zumbro River bridge, left into the flats, and I started to feel the first signs of fatigue. 20 miles in and that’s expected! I was pretty baffled that I was almost half way through already. Then, I felt bummed. Dang, it’s so fun running out here. Just me and the trail, the beautiful night. The conditions were so ripe that I wanted to keep going. Well, still not at the half way mark yet…

Between the first and third aid stations is hard. The sand couloir section was really terrible, and I got a little frustrated with that and the unrelenting hills. My legs were definitely starting to feel it, and time slowed down. 21 miles. 22 miles. 22.5 miles. 22.6 miles. Gah, just get to half way!! Things could be much, much worse, though, and I was still running well. I figured that I was breathing too heavy on the second part of that first lap and paying for it now.

At the second and perhaps third aid station (as they are the same physical aid station), I talked to my cousin-in-law Dan, who was volunteering once again. He said that the guy in front of me was at least 17 minutes up, and how he sprinted up the steep hill out of aid station two, and how he’s twice my age. Well, CRAP! So the win is unreachable. No way, no how. I did some quick math, but didn’t have to do any calculations to know that either I’d have to speed up quite a bit, or he’d have to slow down a lot, for me to have a chance at this stage in the race. But second place is still great. That’s better than third, and I can still race the clock for the sub-8, which had only been done once in race history, last year when Kurt said the course record at 7:49.

After the third station, I put the crank on. I wanted to get another perfect 2:40 lap, and for that I’d have to run really consistent down Ant Hill and back to the finish. I was breathing really pretty heavy, and blasted through the fourth aid station in a hurry. My legs were pretty weary running the winding singletrack and fast horse trail into the finish line and start of the third lap. My stomach was feeling good, and it was nice to see Ryan Saline at the start of the third lap with my drop bag held open for me to grab away. I quickly snatched the last gels I’d need, kept my half-open bag of caffeinated chews with me, and sprinted off with about 5:21 on the clock. A 2:41 lap is not bad at all! Just one more of those…

I made a point to let ‘er rip right out of the gate. I was pushing up the big first hill and passed a few hundreds and even some 50 milers. There is still plenty of race left to completely explode, I reminded myself, but felt good cresting the peak and looking down at the mini-village of the start/finish area still in the dark of night. I was running hard.

I put the lap on quite a few 50 milers, and we were all exchanging nice words of encouragement. I noticed in the warmth (compared to 2016), the 100 milers were in much better spirits. My pace was really good and I wasn’t giving up a second. However, the pain was nearly overwhelming and I couldn’t help but grunt, especially bombing down the technical descents. I was dreading the stupid sand cooler (as I called it in my mind), but knew once I hit daylight and that third aid station, it was time to really push it.

I saw Dan again when I was coming through the second aid station, and he said it’s a lost cause. This old guy in the lead was still far up–15 minutes or so. I said to him that it’s no matter, and asked that he at least time the person behind me and let me know how comfortable I should be in second when I come back through. I pushed and pushed, daylight came and it was wonderful. That in itself made my pace increase even more. I wanted to just run, and felt my fitness in that. Every hill I’d have to stop and walk, then start running at the top. My hamstrings throbbed on those first few running strides over every hill. Then, my brain told them that this is how it’s gonna be and the pain subsided. Weird how that is…

When I got back to the aid station, they told me Dan left. Well, crap!! I didn’t stick around to chit chat, or eat food or drink, and just ran off. I didn’t care about much except the clock. I wanted to win but that’s out. I wanted under 8 and that’s totally feasible. I had timed out from the fourth aid station to the finish to be around 20 minutes if I’m running well. So that was my goal, to hit that fourth station by at least 7:40. I did not feel good down Ant Hill, but was cruising well on the road below. This is where time is made up, I thought, and was passing other racers like they were standing still. I was breathing really heavy and making strange noises. I saw a photographer ahead and tried to look smooth and strong despite the discomfort.

Photo Credit: Zach Pierce

I hit the last aid station at 7:35 and skipped it. Two in a row! That is risky, but I wasn’t hungry, wasn’t thirsty, and had some water. I knew I needed to eat a bit, so had a couple of chews to blast me off. It worked, and I was really moving on the trail section before the final road stretch. It was a lot longer than I’d remembered on the previous two loops. Finally, the trail snaked down to the gravel road and I knew I was close.

With minutes to spare, I caught a glimpse of the gate, then campers and cars, and then the finish line. I ran up, feeling pretty well. My time was well under my goal of 8, but it was hard not to be bummed about second place once again. It was a hell of a race, though, and truly perfectly executed. What can you say when you believe there is no way to run even a minute faster? It was even harder, though, to see the results and know that Jason won by barely over two minutes. HOW?? He came up to me and congratulated me, but I was in a daze and didn’t get much time to pick his brain.

Photo credit: Julie Ward

Despite a few fleeting thoughts during the race of how running is terrible, immediately after finishing I acknowledged how fun the night run was and my excitement to do it all over again. Weird how that is.

Results

Garmin Data

Race Stats:

Place: 2/148
Time: 7:54:57
Pace: 9:30

Lap 1: 2:38:21
Lap 2: 2:42:27
Lap 3: 2:34:09

Shoes: Brooks Cascadia 11 Gore-Tex size 11
Food: Too much to count/remember

Race Day: July 30, 2016 6am

I had a whole host of questions and doubts in my mind going into the revered Minnesota Voyageur 50 Mile. A race with such history and such talent every year, coupled with my severe lack of focused training, made me question and doubt my ability to hold together a good race. I looked at my stats, and I’d ran triple the mileage in March compared to July (150 miles versus 50 miles), but had a big increase in steps logged (295,000 in March versus over 450,000 in July), for what it’s worth. I knew the course was really runable, but I had the fitness to walk endlessly. 50 miles slows you down, sure, but I should run the whole thing, and believe it or not, running is always the best training for a running race. Imagine that!

I had no expectations going into the race, with the goal simply to have fun and enjoy myself. I can’t not have a time in mind, and I was thinking 8 hours is realistic. Under 10 is a slam dunk, even if I crash and burn, so to speak. I did some math and aimed to stick 6 miles per hour, or 10 minute miles right out of the gate. I was feeling good and ready to race the night before, and set my alarm nice an early for the next day.

I woke up at 4:45 on Saturday, in the dark, awaiting the sun to shine on what was forecasted to be a perfect day. I drove myself to Carlton High School to get my packet, I was lucky enough to get some sunscreen from Jarrow of Austin-Jarrow, despite his competitor’s jersey on my back! I saw some friendly faces, and there was some great positive energy in the wee morning hours.

We congregated in the street, there were a few words said, then GO! And we were off. I had to laugh immediately as Michael Borst and Dusty Olson set off in a dead sprint to take the lead ten seconds into the race. I was recommended to jockey for a decent spot while the course was really wide, soon to shrink to technical single track, as not to get caught behind slowskis. I did have a good spot as we turned right into the woods for a long day on the trails.

13661991_1075324429171899_6142023065205201825_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

I was with Jakob Wartman right off the bat. I raced against him at Wild Duluth last fall, and he seemed unsure of his abilities at this race, too. He said he was in 15:40 5k shape, which is insane fast, but hadn’t been doing much long stuff. We chatted on some really rooty and uneven trail, talked strategy and about the course.

In a flash, we were crossing the iconic St. Louis River bridge and already at the first aid station.

13667921_1075326059171736_574075702606081673_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

13913585_1075326079171734_347945126482192629_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

13641066_1075326099171732_2876342939810081124_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

13723995_1075326122505063_4088954353072720656_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

We started running on ski trails and Jakob tried to pee while running. It didn’t work. The morning was beautiful, although extremely humid, the temperature was low and almost chilly in scant clothing. I took some more caffeine via Coca Cola at the second aid station. Jakob seemed worried about our pace and told me about his last Voyageur race where he went through the halfway at 3:15 or 3:30 or something, and really struggled the last half. I thought we were running pretty conservatively and it felt so easy. Jakob sped up…

We bumped out to the paved Munger Trail and I’d caught back up to Jakob after he stopped to pee. Another guy was right there, too, and we chatted with him. Garrett was from Madison, WI, and studying post-grad physical therapy or exercise science or something. I joked how he knows the exact tendons and muscles that are getting sore throughout the race. I stopped at the Duluth Running Co. aid station on the Munger Trail, and it was nice to know there were friendly faces at the station. Here, I drank a cup of Coke mixed with ginger ale, and a shot of pickle juice. Running away, I had major regrets as I felt the fluids mix together inside my belly like a witch’s brew.

13680166_1075349412502734_1895561371291083_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

13909149_1075349445836064_7590829621893520622_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

13913902_1075349485836060_6255512310338326558_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

13640912_1075349502502725_3049026828769886050_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

We spread out in the trails nearby Mission Creek. Jakob was way out front, I wouldn’t see him for a long time. Garrett and I switched positions a few times. I was more or less running by myself. The aid stations were spread out really nicely, and I could chug my water and spray it on myself right before the next one. I was still feeling good just clicking off the sections: Mission Creek, Skyline, Magney Park. When we got to the Magney trails, I ran with Garrett a bit more and we considered our energy levels. We were both getting a bit tired, but feeling good. It was swampy on this section, but nice and shaded.

Through Skyline once more into Spirit Mountain, I went ahead of Garrett because he noticed I was going faster on the downhills. Soon after, it hit me and I started scanning the side of the trail. It’s an unmistakable feeling in any life situation and I knew then and there–I had to take an emergency dump. No, no, no. I wondered if this would happen, and sure enough, it’s coming. And quickly! I know I can’t fight it, so just hopped right into the woods and wished Garrett farewell. As I squatted, I saw the first place runner Michael Borst sprint past in the other direction. I also saw, like 4 people pass me. What?! I didn’t realize it was that tight. So I made it as brief as possible and hopped back onto the trail. Runners were exposed in the sun at the top of Spirit Mountain. I had fun seeing how the top was panning out. A minute back was Jake Hegge, 45 seconds behind that was Erik Elmstrand, who I jog with from time to time, right in the mix. Not a minute back was ageless wonder Kurt Keiser, who smoked the Zumbro 50 Mile course record earlier this year, where I came in second. It was shaping up to be a tight race!

We then turn down into the woods and it’s down, down, down to the zoo. I was surprised to see Jakob sprinting up the hill like it was a 5k workout. And that after the talks of starting out too fast!? But he looked fresh. High intensity paying off, I guess. I didn’t dawdle at the aid station, and was able to pass a few people, like Garrett as he changed his socks.

The grind back up to Spirit Mountain was hard. It took a lot out of me as I strongly considered walking. I decided I had to run up it, despite the high possibility of dipping too deep into the tank. A little overexertion, spread out for many hours, and mean a terrible last few hours of walking/hobbling. It was a great feeling to get back to the top of Spirit, and I was actually feeling OK after all. I knew that was the biggest uphill, really, and all just backwards from here. Garrett had passed me again on the uphill, and we were right together once again. He took off, and I wouldn’t see him for a long time.

It was pretty tough getting back to Magney. The uphill, running across Spirit was OK, and I started feeling pretty run down on Skyline. I ate a gel and kept plugging away. It was nice to see the high-density of runners going the other way. I had a second wind in Magney in the shade and the swampy conditions. It didn’t seem so bad this time around. I caught up to another guy in cutoff jorts, but passed him with ease.

Out of Magney ski trails, I knew it was a nice downhill on the road, but I didn’t think it would thrash my quads. I tried to be economical with running downhill, but I was just bashing my quads with every step. The jorts guy caught back up to me, and he told me we used to train together. I got a look at the guy’s face, and realized it was Marc Malinoski, a tri bro from right when I started in the triathlon game. He was training for Ironman in 2012 or 2013 or so, and I was such a newbie back then. So it was kind of cool to catch up and talk as a way to distract from the arduous task of running. I stopped only briefly at the aid station at Becks, and left Marc. It didn’t take long for him to catch up, but then I felt the familiar feeling of my stomach turning over.

Twice in a race… terrible. I wasn’t timing my stops or anything, but knew that if I didn’t pull off into the woods I’d pay for it. Marc said he saw me stop at Spirit, too… sorry bro. And so I pulled off once more. With a handful of the plentiful and large-leafed thimbleberry leaves I let ‘er rip. Just so unpleasant, taking a dump in the woods. I think the thimbleberry leaves were a bad choice, and realized my butt has been babied by Charmin for years.

Back onto the trail, I ran by myself through the steeps through Mission Creek. On the ropes section, I saw my long lost friend Garrett. I think he was doing pretty rough, because I passed him, and quickly out of sight. I went through the Mission Creek/Fond du Lac aid station and started slowing big time. My legs were heavy, and I couldn’t run up even the smallest incline. I foresaw the downward spiral in my mind’s eye, but somehow pulled through to get to the wider piece of trail, just as Garrett found his second wind and passed me just as easily. Out of sight, I didn’t think I’d see him again. I wondered where Marc went. I was all by myself and didn’t want to think about who else was behind me. The wheels were falling off.

I got to the DRC aid station once again, and Tina Nelson had a huge dollop of Vaseline on her hands asking me where I’m chafing. Do you count leaf-related abrasions as chafing? I told her nowhere… my filter kicking in as I almost blurted “taint”. I stopped for a good moment at this aid station and loaded up on tasty blue Powerade. I didn’t think… couldn’t think of food. I wasn’t hungry and wondered if I’d pay for that later. I told everyone the wheels are falling off. They told me to keep them on.

Into the powerlines, I had my third wind. It was perfect timing, and getting a chance to walk up some steeps reenergized me big time. It was painful to slog down the other side, but it was enough of a difference with the muscles you use, in this very steep up-and-down section, compared to trying to run 8 minute miles on flat, tame trails. I saw Marc once again, and he wasn’t doing so hot, no pun intended, in the summer heat of the exposed powerlines. I was luckily feeling just fine, but definitely spraying water on my face more and more. I soaked it up on Purgatory, the last section of the steep up-and-downs of the powerlines, and knew that it was a jog of 10 miles or so to the finish. I was pretty much right on my 8 hour goal, and maybe 12 place or so. I wondered who else I could pass, and so thought of my long lost friend Garrett. Into the woods and down a big hill to a creek bottom, then back up the other side and I saw him once again.

Garrett was walking up the hill and seemed to be in pain. Sure enough, he said he wasn’t doing well as his quadriceps were cramping. That sounds like the worst pain. But the constant pounding of downhill running is enough to do it to ‘ya! I passed him, wondering if we were in 10th and 11th place. I used it as motivation–whatever I could scrape up mentally at this stage in the race–to run. We got to the ski trails in Jay Cooke State Park, where the miles were just clicking away 6 hours prior. I realized this was the part of the race where mantras are the only thing to pull me through. My mantra was “keep the wheels on, Mike”. Keep the wheels on, keep the wheels on, and I kept working. This was probably my favorite part of the race. I don’t know what is so gratifying about being so tired that your mind tells you to stop. The signals from every muscle and tendon are saying they’re done, but you just keep working ’em. It’s all mental. I was feeling surprisingly well, and could feel my speed pick up to a nice consistent rate on these flat and runable trails. Even a small hill was enough to nearly derail my efforts, though.

I eagerly anticipated the next aid station, and was checking my watch’s mileage counter way too often. By the time I got to Forbay Lake, I figured I was decently ahead of both Garrett and Marc, both struggling the last time I’d seen them. I asked the volunteers at Forbay Lake what place I was in, and they said 11th. I joked how I wanted to get top 10, and then was promptly notified that 10th place was 10 minutes ahead. A few 5 minute miles, I muttered… Joke of the year…

I kept chugging along, craning my neck when I could to scope for any quickly closing runner behind me. Nothing. I sprinted across the crowded swinging bridge, and figured my adrenaline would carry me through the last really technical section of this long, long race. My legs were killing me, so hot and tired, and I hadn’t been eating. I wasn’t hungry, but knew I was in quite the calorie deficit. I saw some tourists on the trail, stepping carefully over rocks and roots, as I notified I was right behind them, and then cruised over the technical trail with relative ease. I seemed to surprise the couple, who yelled “I’m impressed!!”, but I really surprised myself and felt pretty cool. THIS would be the section to bend my ankle in half. Then again, my tendons were that of an overstretched rubber band. They’re probably bending in half every step as it was.

I started swearing at the roots. It was tough going through here, and I couldn’t help but yell bad words when I’d get to a precarious jumble of sharp rocks and oddly shaped roots. The adrenaline kicked in, especially when I started to calculate the last few miles of the race. If my GPS mileage held true, I’d be VERY close to going under 8 hours. Now, that is my motivator.

13908857_1075393342498341_6832053647950477752_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

13667722_1075393379165004_4450086445068698035_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

13669257_1075393399165002_7201649851976583820_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

13662211_1075393425831666_9118813251566635690_o

Photo Credit: Tone Coughlin

I was overly excited to see the bridge across to the Munger Trail. 2 minutes to 8 hours. How far do we run on the Munger? I saw Carlton, and recognized the turn-off as my watch clicked to the 59’s. I saw the finish line from afar, looked down to see 7:59:15. I gritted my teeth and picked it up hard. I was not going to jog in in for an 8:00:15. The all out sprint was terribly painful, and in hindsight, embarrassing as the spectators looked at the sheer pain plastered on my squinched face. The clock confirmed I had a few seconds to spare as I crossed the line and stopped my watch at 7:59:45.

“Sub 8”, I muttered as I hobbled to the grass, climbed onto my hands and knees and panted like a dog. Nobody said anything, but I noticed my friends Jakob, Erik and Chris Rubesch relaxing in the shade. I felt like crying as I realized the scope of the accomplishment. I somehow kept my wheels on to bring in a stellar time of under 8 hours, definitely smashing my expectations. The deep field was really crazy, as four people, including Jakob, who had a truly incredible race, went under 7 hours. My time would have yielded a top 10 or even a top 5 finish in any other year’s race.

Looking back, the Voyageur was an awesome race. I definitely achieved my goal of having fun and enjoying myself, and I’m afraid that I like the 50 mile distance too much. ‘More miles, more fun’ seems to be the theme. I ought to look at a 100k or 100 miler in that case!

Results

Garmin Data

Race Stats:

Place: 11/271
Time: 7:59:45
Pace: 9:45

Shoes: Mizuno Hayate size 11
Food: Too much to name


1 2 3 4 6