Jen and I took the kids up to Lutsen for the Superior 50K weekend. As I remarked to many people on the trail, Saturday was Jen's birthday, and she was gracious enough to offer to spend it on the North Shore and support me in the race. We had our new camera along and took about 500 pictures throughout the weekend and had a great family trip, despite the often disagreeable weather.
Friday night after we settled in to our room at the Caribou Highlands, I left Jen and the kids to enjoy the fire and I went down to the packet pickup and race briefing to get my essentials and visit with old and new friends. After the briefing, I headed back to our room. I went out on the balcony to take a few shots of the mountains just as the rain and wind really picked up. It would rain and the wind would howl pretty much all night.
In the morning, I put on my clothes, including some extra layers I hadn't anticipated ever needing at a May race, even on the North Shore. I still wasn't sure I'd need them, but am glad I brought them along. The start of the race on Ski Hill Rd was brutal. Very strong wind in the face as we ran up the road. I ran much faster than I normally would have just to get out of the wind and into the woods. Once in the woods, the wind only sounded menacing, constantly roaring through the treetops, but was seldom an issue. I was able to take my wind breaker off, but kept it around my waist for the rest of the race for fear that if anything happened to stop or slow me I'd quickly freeze.
The trail was at once familiar yet foreign to me. Looking down, it was all very familiar, but the woods around were hardly recognizable. Having never run the spring races before, I missed the foliage. I was shocked to find virtually no leaves on the trees when even 40 miles south there was pretty good coverage. At the briefing Donnie informed us that there would be about a dozen good sections of mud for us to play in, after the rain Friday night, it was more like 100, give or take a dozen. For the first half of the race I danced around the edges trying to stay dry. But on the way back, I realized I was wasting a lot of time. I was already drenched, and the mud had gotten significantly wider, so I just started plowing through it.
I ran the first section of the race quicker than I had planned. I'm not sure why, I had planned on taking it easy as my recent training runs have been far less than stellar and very unpredictable. I blame this on an overly aggressive return to normal running after Zumbro last month (lesson learned). I had low expectations other than to finish, and not put myself much further in the hole. I did plan on blasting through aid stations as quickly as possible. Partly for practice, and partly because I figured I'd need to make up time for a slow run.
After blasting through the first aid station in less than 30 seconds, I was still feeling pretty good so I kept up the faster than usual pace. I caught up to Steve Quick and enjoyed running with him and exchanging stories for 30 minutes or so. Still feeling good, Keith Krone passed us and I decided to see if I could hang with him for awhile and said good bye to Steve. Keith paused for something and I passed him and enjoyed some alone time in the woods.
For the next 30-45 minutes I had a serious need to go to the bathroom, but there was a woman not far behind me (didn't catch her name) that I felt like I kept pulling ahead of only to find her catch up shortly thereafter. I kept pushing harder hoping to get far enough ahead to have a solo bathroom break (with the lack of foliage, there wasn't any privacy to be had). Eventually I did, but the funny part about it was I met her after the race when she informed me that she was using me to push her pace by trying to keep up.. So there you have it, simple need for a bathroom break probably cut minutes off of both of our races :)
Later in this section the leader flew by me, I had hoped to be going fast enough to not see them until the last section, but since this guy shattered the course record, and was a good 15 minutes ahead of Andy in second place at this point, I didn't feel so bad.
I ran into Jen and the kids at the next aid station, and the kids were so cold they were waiting in the car. No matter, I was on a mission at this point, and I flew through the aid station again in less than a minute. I shot up to Carlton peak, shook the guy's hand at the top and headed back before he could finish asking if I needed anything. I checked my watch and it said 2:51. At this point I went from highly motivated to man on a mission. I had a real shot at breaking 6 hours, something that wasn't even on the radar for this race. I was just hoping to keep it under 7.
I got back to the Sawbill aid station in what seemed like no time to Jen and the kids waiting. Zoe was so excited she gave me a flying hug that almost took me out on the way to refill my drink. I hugged Xander and shot back out in roughly a minute. I grabbed a couple of gels figuring I'd need more energy since I was burning at a much higher heart rate than usual. I'm glad I did that as I ended up sucking down 2 gels in each of the last two sections when my legs started to feel heavy, and I never bonked and kept up the highest heart rate I've attempted in an ultra through the end.
In the second to last section while crusing down a hill I caught a root with my toe and took a good spill. Scraped up my leg and knocked the wind out of me, but thankfully everything was still functioning after a minute or so of shakeout. I continued on keeping close tabs on my energy, electrolytes, and hydration. I knew that even with my cushion, I couldn't make any mistakes if I wanted to break 6 hours. I hit the last aid station ready with bottle open, grabbing gels and heed, and I was off again. I checked my pace on the Garmin and it hadn't slipped much, was thrilled, I still had most of my cushion left, and I knew that I would need it in the last section with the monster climb coming up.
I pressed on through the last section, moving quickly, passing a number of 25k'ers, still feeling pretty good. I reached the big moose climb and just power hiked as best I could. It hurt like hell but I was making good progress and before I knew it I was at the top. The wind was wicked at the top of Moose, and that mile or so along the top was brutal. Once I started down the other side I could taste the finish. It's about that time I realized I forgot to turn the autopause feature off on my Garmin. The autopause feature is great for training, when you stop at a light or bathroom it pauses the timer until you start running again. I usually forget to turn it off for races which sucks because you start losing time with the race clock at every aid station or slow climb. I panicked, did a quick assessment of how long I thought I had paused, and realized it shouldn't be too bad since I flew through aid stations. I checked the real time, and it was only 4 min later than the timer. This was a bit of a relief, but who knows how close my time was to the RD's time at the start of the race. Either way, I wasn't going to miss 6 hours by a minute or something silly like that. I pushed as hard as I could for the last few miles. I ran most of the switchbacks up Mystery, something I've never done. I ran like hell from the top of Mystery, looking for the campsite that signals you are very near the end of the trail section. This campsite was much further than I remembered, either that or my fixation made it seem really far. I hit the river bridge and the road and hauled ass. I hit a 6:30 min/mi pace down the road to the lodge, a pace I can barely hit in a training run without 30 miles on my legs. I finally hit the lodge, rounded the pool and saw the timer, 5:55:29... Made it with time to spare, I was thrilled. Jen and the kids had just arrived, I nearly beat them, it was a great feeling.
So what did I learn from this race? Number one, as much fun as it is to take a break and visit at aid stations, you can make up serious time if you don't. Number two, having low expectations can make for a surprising performance. And lastly, I have learned I still have a very bad sense for the condition I'm in and apparently my brain is still wreaking havoc on my training. I had several crappy weeks of good then bad then good then terrible training runs. I don't know how or why I was able to run one of my best races after coming off of that, the mystery continues.