Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Voyageur: No expectations, Just results

Race Background

Founded the year before I was born, the Minnesota Voyageur 50 mile is one of the oldest ultramarathons in the US.  My coach described it as one of the most laid back and competitive ultras he knows.  In other words, very Minnesotan. This was Scott Jurek's first ultra, and he held the course record for 20 years.  As a Minnesotan, this was a "must run" kind of race.

Course description/elevation

The course runs from Carlton High school to the Duluth zoo, and back, through a mix of rugged single track, cross country ski and hiking trails, paved trails and and some streets.  The combination of very runnable trail/road, and laughably steep climbs/descents, makes Voyageur a race that is as thoroughly enjoyable and fast as it is difficult.
Cours elevation profile according to Garmin
You can see, from the course profile. that there is very little "flat" running on the race. With total elevation gain of 5552 (Garmin) or 5882 (Strava), the course doesn't have huge elevation, but is more than punishing enough.  The climb from the turn around, on legs that just ran a sustained descent, you can tell that you are in for a grind on the return.

Race morning

Range Runners ready to roll
Carlton is only a 90 minute drive away from home, so I opted to sleep in my own bed the night before Voyageur.  Up at 0345, and on the road by 0400, I knew it was going to be a LONG day of running and driving.  In Carlton, it was still cool, around 53 degrees.  Perfect.  Voyageur can be HOT, starting off cool was a good sign for the rest of the day.  After picking up my bib and shirt , I met up with fellow Range Runners Shane, Doug and Bobbie.  We talked race strategy, conditions and goals for the day.  Then it was time to line up and start.  The race is low key in this way.  There is no chip mat at at the start, no gun.  The RD makes some announcements and then shouts "GO!" and we were off.

Start to turn around (miles 1-25 km 1-40)

The race started on the streets of Carlton and moved to the paved Munger trail.  After the first half mile we turned on to rugged single track trail and then were cruising over the swinging bridge of Jay Cooke State Park and to the first Aide Station

After the Aid Station, We ran on wide grassy trails and low maintenance gravel roads.  I was cruising, running sub-10 miles and enjoying the run.  Reaching the second AS, I was still feeling good, but knew that I needed to start taking it easy.

After AS2, There was a big descent and a somewhat big climb.  I was taking it more easy, but I was still managing a pace that was faster than I have gone on my training runs.  I was feeling GOOD!  I stopped for some Coke at the AS and kept on running.

The next section was a long, steady downhill for 2 miles.  Here, my training paid off.  I was able to pass some others because my technical downhill running has gotten a lot better than it used to be.  At the Grand Portage AS, I did a quick weight check of my water reservoir, decided that I had enough, and headed straight out.

Right out of the AS, I hit the double climbs of Purgatory.  These STEEP hills give you a taste of the what is to come.  After a brief reprieve, I hit the Power Lines.  This is a mile of steep, undulating  hills with VERY little shelter.  I was fortunate.  The temp was maybe in the upper 60s when I passed through.  What is normally my personal hell, was now just a difficult run/hike, that I got through pretty easily, with the added bonus of getting passed by Laurel, another runner I know.  Just saying hi to friends on trail is a real boost!  The reward for the torture of the power lines was some amazing running through beautiful woods, on rugged single track, and then an easy jog on the Munger Trail to the next AS.

Again, at the AS, I only stopped briefly, for some potato chips and some soda, and I was off again.  Crossing the Mission Creek and through the forest on flat trail.  Then it was over a small creek and onto rolling single track before tackling the steady climb to the next Aid Station.  Running along I was certain that I knew the runner ahead of me, but I couldn't, for the life of me think of who it was.  Well, it was Stephanie, another Survivor of Zumbro 2018.  Running and chatting with her until she took off, was a great boost that helped me keep going.  Up next I got another real treat.  Rick, who had paced me at Zumbro was hiking along the trail and I got to stop and chat with him for a little while.  I was going a little slower here, taking it easy, but keeping a pace that was still pretty respectable.

Coming up to the Beck's road AS is like coming to a reunion.  Staffed by members of the Upper Midwest Trail Runners Association, this AS really brightened my day.  Also here was my friend Bob and his bulldog Pearl.  Seeing both of them really brightened my day.  This wasn't the first, nor the last time that they would give me a boost.  

After Beck's I was on the road, for a bout a mile, heading mostly uphill.  Then it was onto the ski trails and finally to the last AS before the turn around.  This really did seem like a quick hop.  Seeing the front runners, including my Coach Jake, and his coaching partner Michael was great.  Having them both say hi and tell me I was looking good, while they raced hard, was an amazing boost! Before I new it, I was at the AS, and heading on the long descent to the Duluth zoo.

I was FLYING.  Despite tired legs, and feet that were starting to get sore, this was an awesome part of the run.  I just let myself cruise.  I passed a few runners, and saw even more runners slogging it up the hill.  This tempered my enthusiasm, steeling me for the climb ahead.  Before I knew it, I was at the AS.  I stopped and got my vest off and one of the AMAZING AS volunteers took my vest and refilled my reservoir for me while I was able to get some food and more Coke.  The best part? When I finally looked at my watch, I had gotten to the turn around in just over 5 hours!  I had NINE HOURS to go back and still get a finish!

Turn around to Carlton (Miles 26-50 Km 41-80)

Going back up
Now the "fun" began.  Hiking back up Spirit mountain was my first indication that I was in for a hard return trip.  Despite the heaviness creeping into my legs, I still felt good.  I was running at least some of the flats, and all of the small dips along the long climb from the turn around.  I was doing OK, though my left foot was really starting to feel the pounding.  As much as I love my Altra Superiors, the road sections were taking their toll on my feet through the light cushioning.  

I once again sailed through the skyline Aid Station, just grabbing a cup of Coke and powering on.  Cruising up and then back down hill, I once again found myself at the friendly confines of the Beck's road AS.  I stopped here a little longer, talking with Rick, drinking some Coke, Ginger Ale and water.  But I was only 50k into the race and I knew that I had to keep moving.  

Beck's to Fon Du Lac Was total cruise control.  Running down the long dirt Mission Creek Road, I just kind of put myself into a trance and went with it.  Fon Du Lac to Seven Bridges was much the same.  I had tired legs and was just putting one foot in front of the other, relentless forward progress.  One thing I noticed though, was the thunder.  Storms were moving in as I neared the AS.

The power lines were...Fun???
At Seven Bridges, I reloaded with straight up water and ice, anticipating the coming Power Lines and hills of Purgatory.  Along this stretch, I went with another runner who's name I have, sadly forgotten.  I knew the course a little better and kind of played tour guide as  to when the power lines "officially" started and where Purgatory was.  There was a fair amount of hiking in this section, though I did manage to run when I saw the photographer, and flash him the "shaka" sign. Dare I say it?  This section was enjoyable.  The sky clouded up and there was a breeze!  I don't know if the power line section could have been better!

Grand Portage was more potato chips and some pickles.  I think my body was telling me that I needed salt because, I couldn't even look at the sweet foods, but the salty stuff looked like mana from heaven!  Leaving Grand Portage, I knew I was looking at a lot of climbing ahead of me, on legs that were tired.  I was almost thankful for it though.  I can climb/hike decently well on tired legs.  Descending is another story.  My quads were really starting to tell me that I was abusing them.  The uphills were slow but steady hiking, with a little bit of running where I could,  The few downhills were stutter stepping and painful, not the free-flowing runs of the outbound leg.  Peterson's AS was something of a Blur, but I was seriously thinking that a sub-12 50 mile could happen, not that I let myself believe it.

Peterson's to Forbay, was actually a little slower than I might have liked.  The short jaunt on the paved Munger Trail did a real number on my left foot. Again, I was cursing my shoe choice, despite how awesome they worked the 95% of the run.

At Forbay AS, I spent longer than is normal for me.  At the AS, I met Joyce, who's husband Doug was somewhere behind me and, in awesomeness, Jim, who had lent me his gloves at Zumbro.  It was here that I realized that I was feeling pretty good.  It took some willpower to go on again though.  Talking with other trail people always pulls me in.

After crossing the dam I was once again on grassy ski trails.  I was able to run fairly well down the hill down the dirt maintenance road, but the chafing that had started earlier was really getting to me, and I began walking more.  Finally though, I came to the Jay Cooke AS, the last one before returning to Carlton.  Another quick stop for some Coke, and I was on my way, across the famous swinging bridge that spans the St. Louis River.  A quick selfie stop was necessary.  The view of the river, from the bridge, is amazing, and totally worth the lost seconds to this mid-to-back of the pack runner.

After the bridge it was onto the rugged single track that punctuates this section.  Here, finally, I was totally bogged down.  Rain had fallen, I can't quite remember when, turning the technical single track into MUDDY technical single track.  I had to move cautiously.  I passed one runner, but was caught and passed by several.  That's OK, the winners had already finished hours ago, this was the time for us slow sloggers to do our thing.

Finally, FINALLY, I reached the paved Munger trail again.  My foot was painful, so I wasn't looking to run it, so I began power walking.  That's when these two older guys, and I call them that because they called THEMSELVES that, came up and encouraged me to run with them. At first I declined, citing a blister on my foot.  Then I thought better of it, and started jogging with them.  Then I took off!  My pace might have only been a "fast easy" pace on a normal run but, at the end of 50 miles, I felt like I was really powering.  I flew around the curve, from the trail to the city streets and sailed the last few blocks to the finish line, official time 11:26:23!

Closing thoughts: No expectation? No problem!

Voyageur was not an "A" race for me.  It was a, in a way, a training run with bling.  I really wasn't even planning on running it this year, until I wanted to add another ultra to my calendar, and Jake recommended it as one that fit my schedule well.  I had trepidation signing up for this one.  With a reputation for some nasty hot weather, I knew it could be a struggle.  That's how I got my focus for the day.  Knowing that it could be a slog, I went in with no expectations for result, other than relentless forward progress until I finished or was pulled due to time.

It turns out that I chose the perfect year to run Voyageur for the first time.  With a high only near 80 (26C), and moderate humidity, in the 60% range, it was a great day to run!  Constantly reminding myself that this was a fun run, made a huge difference.  My second half was 1:20 slower than my first half, but I really didn't care.  I really only started thinking about finish time around mile 42, on the power lines, when I started to think that a Sub-12 was possible.  That was it.  Other than that I just sailed through the day, chatting with runners and AS volunteers and, of course, making sure that I stopped and chatted with Bob and gave Pearl a pat. 

From this race, I learned that not every race has to be a "race" sometimes it's good to go in with zero expectations, and just run.  Sometimes the results come all on their own.

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