I waited at the back of the crowd, listening to last minute directions from race director John Storkamp as he reminded us of the other runners on the trail and taking last minute roll call for runners who were registered but had not checked in. This was to make sure they know exactly who was and who was not on the race course for safety purposes. The former is because two and a half hours before us marathoners started, the 50 mile runners had started and the previous morning, Friday morning at 8:00 am, the 100 milers had begun their trek north to Lutsen, MN on the Superior Hiking Trail. We would encounter these hardy people as we ran past with our fresh legs and they would need space, some having already been up twenty-four plus hours. I scanned the crowd looking for other runners I might know and only finding the one guy I already knew. I looked at the garb my fellow trail runners were wearing and almost all of us had hydration packs on. This made me feel better as I had doubted my choice to wear my vest with all its pockets and bottles and bladder and tube and whatnot for the distance. I was about to run the Moose Mountain Marathon.
|Amber and I|
Before the start, I was prematurely separated from my friend, Amber, so while a shout of “Go!” sent the two hundred fifty of us down a gravel road, I held to the back because I was not going to hit the trail without hugging and thanking her for coming with me. I found her roadside, came in for the hug and left with tears migrating down my cheeks. I needed both the hug and the tears. I had been as nervous as all in the weeks leading up to this race and as I crunched softly on the wet road, the tears released the final nerves. There was certainly no turning back and no more questioning what I was doing or if I could do it at all. I was firmly focused now. I noticed the gravel road and chuckled to myself because my training had been for the majority on gravel roads and not so much on gnarly trail like this race would have.
|I'm in this picture way in the back. You just can't see me. Fine. I'm not in this picture.|
The gravel road was meant to help stretch out the lot of us before we hit the trail but because I was so far back, I got held up in the runners who wanted to pick their way through the mud. I tried to super hard to be patient with this. A fellow runner told me she didn’t have morning coffee but now had consumed an espresso gel so she was good to go. I recounted how I had not had my normal cup of coffee before a race earlier in the year and how that was a disaster for me. We agreed that missing your regular morning coffee is never a good idea. There was joking and bantering amongst us as we walk/ran through the first section. I was so happy to be on the trail, to be running, to be here, I thought to myself that I would like to give the race director a hug when I saw him. About five minutes later we cross over a section of road and standing alongside is John. I was surprised to see him and didn’t go with my impulse to pop out of the congo line snaking down the trail and hug him but soon after I wished I had. However, I’m a 42 year old woman who’s happily married and has a small pile of offspring and I’m from the Midwest and a conservative background and a firstborn. In short, there’s not much in me that would compel me to carry out that impulse.
|The race director was standing right along the edge with those men. I could have gone back!|
My plan was to make my way conservatively over the first twenty miles of the course and arrive at the last aid station in as best shape as possible before the final push up the last two mountains and into the finish. I had run this last section a couple of years ago in the spring for a total of 25k (15-ish miles) and knew it needed my attention. What I didn't know was what the first twenty miles of the race would have in store. What I started to find was that the trail was rocky and rooted and there was mud as it had rained all the night before and into the morning until about an hour before the start. But it wasn’t that bad of mud. Maybe other runners will say it was bad but unless you have run through pouring rain with a literal stream coursing down the middle of the trail up to your shins (ankles for taller people), fought with snow and ice in the shady spots of a spring trail race on a mountain, or slid down a trail with mud slick like a hog lot (Midwest farm girl here), this was no real mud. I had started the race with a long-sleeve layer but had to take it off quickly. In another muddy hold-up, I asked the woman behind me to bungee it down onto my pack as I zipped something from the runner in front of me into her pack. While I tried to be patient and knew going slower in the beginning was actually my plan, I became aware that small groups of people ahead of me were holding back many of us and there was no one in front of them. I had to start passing people.
I passed people two or three at a time. It just worked out that way. We’d come up to a muddy spot and work through it and if I had a faster go than them, I got by. I would often wonder if this would come back to haunt me later on thinking I would pass them now, they would blow by me later. I even gave them permission to. But it never happened. I finally came upon a group of people who had a good pace going and determined I couldn’t get by them and keep ahead of them so I stayed with them at the back. The two back runners were together and I think they might have been a bit annoyed with me being back there. I know I was probably a bit too close at some points and it is a bit annoying with someone one on your heels like that. I am still learning how to handle trail racing. We stretched out and I let them go. I couldn’t keep at their pace. The descent into the first aid station at Temperance River was a bit of work. It felt like down, down, down and not a frolicking down but an unrelenting down. It was a good reminder to go at my own pace. Soon I heard the whoops and hollers of aid station volunteers and hoped the downhill would stop. Often you can hear the aid stations before you can see them and on some courses you run ever so close to them only to still have to loop around for a while before actually getting to it. I popped out onto a road crowded with volunteers, crews and spectators and jostled my way to the food tables. I scanned quickly, grabbing a piece of bacon, a few orange slices, and a cup of Coke and got back on the trail. I gobbled the food and carefully sipped the Coke as I walked, realizing a bit too late that I would have to stash the cup somewhere on me until I could find a garbage. I crumpled it up and stuffed it into my back pocket as that is normally my garbage pocket anyway (you all have a garbage pocket, right?).
I was covered in the residue of my aid station raid but I had flown through it and got back onto the trail in short time, passing a lot of people who took more time than I. I did not see Amber there as that A.S. was only open for crew of 100 mile runners. I had told her where she could park and then make her way to the trail further down in hopes of seeing me. I texted her and told her what I wanted from my race bag if we did meet up. I made my way up and over slabs of giant rock that doubled as trail, playing peekaboo with the Temperance River and guessing as to the spot where Joe and I jumped off into it a few years back. Everything was so pretty. Soon I bounded over the bridge which sucked all my rebound and spotted Amber. I had her put Body Glide on my back and shoulders where the slider that keeps the water bladder shut was digging into. I grabbed a few baby wipes and cleared myself of my snack, dumped my garbage and took off.
From what I heard from other runners, a good amount of climbing was ahead of me and that some sections were faster because they were more runnable yet I was tremendously surprised at just how runnable this trail was. From the elevation chart, there is not one section that doesn’t look like a hurt-fest. For this marathon there is 5,500 feet up climbing and equal amount descending. But I found there was plenty of sections that flowed so nicely that the only way to handle it was to stretch the legs a bit and I definitely enjoyed it. I kept myself moving carefully through the muddy sections. While I stayed patient with the climbs knowing that I never could tell if I was at the top or not, I found myself continually passing people. I could grind out the climbs faster and then I could recover better at the top to keep going and not have them catch back up to me. It was amazing. The only time this didn’t work out was a section of the trail made of giant boulders. Sure, I’m not that big of a person but I was scrambling, using my hands and then crouching my legs on up. I was entirely glad that section did not last long. At the top was a photographer. Exhilarated but exhausted from the climb yet still moving, I followed the trail and missed an arrow pointing me to the right and headed left. Thankfully, oh so thankfully, a guy called out to me and directed me back onto the right trail and I tucked in behind him.
|This is the trail. These are the small boulders.|
The Superior Hiking Trail works its way through parts of the Superior National Forest and we almost alway had tree cover. Some parts wind near a lake or across a creek. Some parts dip down into boggy sections which have wood planks laid across to keep the trail intact. Some parts tuck themselves up against the sides of mountains you don’t ascend but feel their cool shadow breathe down on you. The few occasions that the trails opens on top, you must remember to look around to see Lake Superior shining from the southeast. A white sailboat skimmed across and knew the sailors and I were both enjoying our day.
Amber and I had discussed that she would meet me at the two aid stations she could be at- Sawbill and Oberg, named for locations on the trail. At one point, I just called them Sawberg. I ate fig newtons, drank water and Tailwind, and used GU energy gels as my fuel. When I came into the aid stations, I almost always grabbed oranges and a cup of Coke (which helps me burp and burping is my thing. If I’m burping I feel like my stomach is in check.) and then I would scoop up various other things. I dropped into Sawbill, making my way to the food and reaching for a pancake while scanning for Amber. I downed the Coke faster this time and left my empty cup with a volunteer or crew person or some other awesome person. Amber wasn’t there or I couldn’t find her and I left, again passing people. I texted her to let her know I had come through.
At Sawbill I was only halfway done. I didn’t dwell on that for one second. I managed my calories and body. My left knee was starting to twinge and instead of a teary surrender, I started power hiking to keep moving. I ran until it started hurting and then hiked and back to running. The mantra that stuck in my head was a quote from John Wooden I had just heard- “Be quick but don’t hurry.” Power hike, power hike. Move, move, move. I could do all those things.
Never once did I plug in my headphones. I was fully present for every step of the trail. I heard the day, the river, the occasional bird, the wind. It was quiet but not lonely. My thoughts turned to my summer of training. I thanked our racing friends who let me run the hare scramble trails early in the morning before the bikes got on them. I thanked the Logan race for being so hilly it left my calves screaming to stop. I thanked the Dayton racers for not making fun of me as I ran back to back first on the gravel and the next day on the trail (and also for the biscuits and gravy that I don’t normally eat but swallowed pretty much whole after 12 miles). I thanked the other races I did in preparation for this one, Dizzy Goat and Summer Pyscho Wyco. Each one etched a new toughness into my mental and physical preparation. I was thankful for the hours alongside gym members this summer as we did single leg squats, burpees, wall balls and other stuff until we were numb with fatigue. I thought of the conversation between a member, Bob, my sister and I and how he finally put words to who I am in the gym or on the trail- determined, focused, unrelenting. These words came to mind, giving me freedom to dig into myself for more. I didn’t solve my daily problems. I worked and enjoyed the mystery of this trail.
The marathon was broken into easy to remember sections marked by aid stations. Rounding down, it was 7 miles from start to Temperance, 5 miles from Temperance to Sawbill, 5 miles from Sawbill to Oberg, 7 miles from Oberg to the finish. Getting closer to Oberg, I texted Amber again to tell her I needed BioFreeze. My left knee was still functional but a little numbness might help, even if just mental. I turned the corner and everyone at the aid station cheered for me as I came in. A surreal feeling. Amber stepped to meet me with the spray. I asked her to empty my entire pack of extra stuff to keep me light. An aid station worker asked about refilling my bottles and I told him I didn't need them refilled as I pulled wide the waistband of my shorts and sprayed my, um, hips. Potstickers were available but I turned those down, taking Coke, oranges, a boiled potato dipped in salt and a handful of potato chips instead. Amber headed out with me on the trail and gave me a pep talk of my progress. I had only been looking at my watch to keep a general idea on my pace, which at any given moment can be good or bad, depending on the trail, and what mile I was approximately on. I didn’t look at the time. I had told Amber that I wanted to finish in under seven hours and if at all possible to finish as close to six and a half hours. The seven hours was because Ultrasignup had projected me to finish around that time. I’m super bad at uploading all my training and then analyzing the data so I figured this was fairly close to reality even though it made me mad. I secretly picked six and a half hours because why not? Amber said I was doing really well and to keep it up. She apologized for missing me at Sawbill. She went to get breakfast at a little cafe in Lutsen that I had suggested she go to. Unfortunately, the cafe was inundated with the number of people who came for the race and was running behind. She made friends with half a dozen people while waiting for food and even ended up bringing another runner’s crew their breakfast as they had to leave to meet up with him. This is the way trail runners work and it is truly humbling to me the amount of servant-like work everyone does on behalf of the runners.
Amber turned back as I continued on. This was the section of trail I had already run and knew in general what to expect though it had been a couple of years. It was still so pretty. As in all trail races, we were reminded to carry out what you carry in. The trail was amazingly void of trash except for what was that? A Twizzler. Someone must have dropped one accidentally because no one purposefully drops a Twizzler. Well, I, being the careful and conscientious trail runner that I am, picked it up. And then I ate it. Listen, it hadn’t been bit into already. It had landed on a lovely green tuft of moss, like a gift of sugary, chewy red rope. It wasn't like I rescued it from being trampled into a muddy muck although I did so with a fig newton that I had dropped earlier; it had a bit of grass stuck to it but I couldn’t taste it. My other options were to let some forest creature, probably a moose that I have still yet to see, get hopped up on this vine of delight and would then haunt aid stations in search of their next high fructose corn syrup hit or to stash it into my pack and then toss it out at the end which would be a true waste of resources. It was delicious.
|The planks are usually on the ground, not elevated.|
I crossed over a little bridge where a guy sitting in the stream with his phone startled me and then made a turn at a marked corner but where two hikers were also standing. Soon, I realized I hadn’t seen an orange course marker and started to worry I had turned wrongly. When this sensation hit, the trail stretched out forever in front of me. Should I go back? How far do I keep going before I decide I better go back and double check? I looked down at the trail and searched for footprints in the rain- softened ground from other runners. There were faint traces so I decided to keep going. Oh so mercifully, a trail marker appeared. I could have hugged it, I was so happy to see it. Now the long, long grind up Moose Mountain. I reminded myself that it would end. I passed a couple runners on the way up and fell into step with an another runner. I tried to keep up my end of the banter but eventually he took off and it was me alone. The decent down the north side of Moose is tough and for all the climbing, descending is harder on me. I didn’t have the pep in my step to loosely flow down and my knee twinged at every jarring step down. I felt as if I would go down forever and my spirit with it even though I pressed on. At packet pickup the night before, someone encouraged me to remember that this is all a gift. Overhead the clouds shrouded the sun and the valley between Moose and Mystery mountains closed in with the canopy of trees. I remembered the gift and gave thanks to the Lord for being here. I kid you not, the clouds lifted both physically and mentally.
I was finally at the bottom and then ascending the final mountain, Mystery mountain which was switchback after switchback. I spotted a fresh runner coming down the trail towards me, finally realizing it was Amber who came out to experience the trail for herself and to meet me. We swapped stories about our day. She got to hear me grunt as I willed myself to not let up. I can get a little vocal in my self-talk. It’s mostly things like “C’Mon!!” or “I love mud!” or “Pick up your feet!”. She then said she was going to tell me something that she would want to know if she were me. I stopped her short. I had no idea what she was about to say but I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to hear keep it up, you're doing great, you are on task to finish as you wanted but I didn’t want any more than that. I told her that I had to get to the lookout, then the campsite, then the bridge and finally the finish and I didn’t want anyone to pass me. There was a slightly rough section of trail to work though still in the last couple of miles and it could all fall apart. I felt the added pressure would not work to my advantage. She adjusted really well to me. As we crossed the Poplar River bridge, I mentioned she would have to figure out how to not finish with me because I didn’t want to be accused and disqualified for having a pacer so when we hit the parking lot she took off with her fresh on her way to Boston qualifying legs and I switched to turning my legs over and over, not quite so fresh. I switched my mind to turning my legs over as fast as I could. Turn over, turn over.
I rounded the corner of the Caribou Lodge and finished in 6:31!!
I couldn’t believe it! Amber met me there with a hug and I shouted with excitement over my finish time! So amazing! I’ve done one other trail marathon and finished with a faster time but it wasn’t nearly as difficult as this one. This was my best race by far. At the finish line was the race director and it was time. Time for me to thank him. I tried to be calm but got a little emotional in my gratitude and he gave me a hug. (“What’s with the hugging?” I can’t help it. I don’t know. It moves me, man.)
It was time for some food and a shower (no chaffing), assessing other potential injuries (swollen left foot and some scrapes from crossing over downed trees- I was never good at hurdles) some more food, meeting all of Amber’s new friends, more food, chatting with my friend Joe who was up riding in the area that weekend, packing up our stuff, grabbing some local beer, filling up and heading down the road to home.
I signed up to do this race because it was scary to me. Although I’ve completed two 50k’s (31 miles) and one other trail marathon, I never take for granted the distance. The terrain of this trail is pretty gnarly- rocks and roots take turns occupying the trail so footing is never a given. Maybe most challenging to me was the amount of elevation change this race had. 5,500 feet up and also down would be the most I would attempt to do and I really thought this would be the race I might not finish or come close to not finishing because of the difficulty of it. It is an incredibly awesome experience to go in with such trepidation and have it turn out to be my best race ever!
Now for some detail stuff that you may or may not care about. I am not a sponsored athlete. These are all my favorite products that I use over and over.
Shoes- Nike Terra Kiger 3
Socks- Injinji toe socks
Shorts and Tank- Roga shorts, Lux Winona tank both by Oiselle
Hydration vest- Jenny Vesta by Ultimate Direction, the original version
Nutrition- Tailwind in bottles, water in pack bladder, fig newton type cookies, energy gels, mentioned aid station food
Night before supper- homemade chicken burrito bowls, the Lord’s chips and guac, apples
Breakfast- yogurt with granola, banana, COFFEE
Post-race food- meat/veggie chili provided by race, Picky Bar, Amber’s carrots (she makes a mean raw baby carrot), mac and cheese I brought, Epic beef bar, Bent Paddle Brewery Black Ale