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: 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


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