Tuesday, October 20, 2009

First Ultra - Wild Duluth 50K

It's Thursday night before the race: Wayne has arrived and dinner has been eaten (in typical Wildknits household fashion the dinner party grew and grew and Wayne got a fine introduction to my friends and family - poor guy). Somewhere during the evenings' discussions about the race it occurs to Mr. Wildknits that I haven't supplied him with the location of aid stations or when I might reach each one. Obviously not very prepared for my first ultra!

That meant I had to really think about pace. After visiting the Wild Duluth website and printing out the aid station directions I set about figuring out what times I would arrive. I based my calculations off of my Half Voyageur times, with a range of 12 - 14 min/mile. This would give me a finishing time between 6 and 7 hours which seemed reasonable based on my long runs on this course. I scribbled the times down on the aid station direction sheet and left it at that.

Friday I had to work (Job A, over at 1:30 pm, no Job B as school was out). When I got home it was time to run some final errands, prepare food for the dinner with running friends planned for that evening and do a little bit of prep work for the race the next day (thanks Wayne for all of your help with that!). Got home from the dinner and realized I still had stuff to prepare! Where was the food I wanted along? How about an extra change of clothes - just in case? Needed to lay out the inhaler, body glide, allergy med, blister pads... all the things I did not want to forget in the morning. Even prepped the water and oatmeal for the next morning and made sure the coffee pot was set-up. I am not very coherent in the mornings and take a while to wake up.

Got up Saturday morning around 5:00am, had some breakfast and the first cup of coffee, changed into my running gear and headed up the hill shortly after 6:00 am with Wayne to watch the first runners in the 100k race pass by. It is very dark at six in the morning and those folks were running a steep, rocky course up to where my spur trail intersects the SHT. We hiked out along the trail a bit before stopping on a nice rock outcrop to admire the stars and wait for approaching headlamps. Saw the first two runners (Sean Andrish and ??) pass by - wished them well and then headed back down the hill to Wayne's truck and the drive to Bayfront to check in and catch the bus to Chamber's Grove Park.

I was not feeling nervous - should I have been? I kept thinking - "long training run". I knew Mr. Wildknits would be out there with the red backpack I had filled with food, extra clothes and a bottle of E-Gel (for refilling my flask). I knew there would be plenty of aid stations to stop at and lots of great support. That left it to me to get myself from place to place in one piece. The calf no longer hurt, but I had been having a nagging discomfort/tightness in the back of my knee/hamstring on the left side. I was hoping this would not prove to be a problem during the race.

It was cold! 33 - 36 degrees F at the start (depending on where your thermometer was in Duluth) and I was a little worried about staying warm initially (ample evidence of that in the photo).

Photo by Rick Bothwell

Gathering prior to the start of the Wild Duluth 50K - three of us were running our first Ultra. Leslie (to my right), myself (#8) and Ron (in back - middle guy). Steve - any clues by looking at our faces how we would do?!?

Andy and Kim Holak had a wonderful setup at Bayfront Park - warm building to gather in and a warm bus to transport the runners. They put in a monster day - as did their volunteers - who I can't thank enough!! Andy arranged to have the bus stick around at Chamber's Grove Park until the start so that runner's had the option to sit on the heated bus. Turns out the bus driver is a runner and had thought about doing this race!

Eventually it was time to shed all the extra layers, run to the bathroom one last time, gather for final photos and then make our way to the starting line. Andy gave a great introduction to the course and some of the features and landmarks we would be passing on our way to the finish line. The trail was marked not only by blue blazes (white for spur trails) but also by orange flags (same ones seen at the Superior Trail Races, etc). And then it was time to start! Andy led the way (with Wynn) around the starting loop in the park and up onto the start of the course.

Chamber's Grove Park to Grand Portage Aid Station(4.3 miles)
This section involved some steep climbing initially as we followed the deer trail across a ditch alongside Hwy 210 and then up onto the ridge. Eventually we picked up a local use trail which then morphed into an old ATV trail and in time joined up with a part of the Mission Creek Trail (familiar to those who have run the Voyageur races or Zapp's Loop - an NMTC race). It was pretty easy running once up on the ridge with rare rocks. The biggest challenge, once the climbing was done, may have been the ruts from ATV's and the downed trees, until you got to the last bit when we hit one end of the infamous "powerlines". A couple of steep ascents and descents later and it was out onto 210 again and then over to the trail to the Grand Portage parking area and our first aid station. This was an out-and-back so I got a chance to see some of the runners ahead of me and cheer them on.

I came into this aid station about 10 minutes ahead of the optimistic end of my schedule and dropped my waist belt and ran for the woods. The first three miles of any run with a waist belt equals an intense need to urinate. Came back out to friends Sam and Kyle having topped off my water bottle and holding my belt and mittens for me. Gave them my jacket to deliver to the next aid station (where Mr. Wildknits would be taking up crewing duties) and headed back out on the trail. I later learned that this section may have been a bit shorter than the advertised 4.3 miles - which may help explain my time!

Grand Portage to Munger Trail (5.8 miles)
I love this section of trail and have a lot of good memories of hikes and runs here. After the out and back section from the aid station you start climbing back onto the ridge via a series of switchbacks. The woods were beautiful as the morning sun lit up the leaves. The trail meanders along ridges and dips and climbs quite a bit on it's way back towards Mission Creek (we almost parallel our journey out) and then on towards Sargent Creek (site of an amazing bridge with a great story as to how it got built) and into the Munger Trail aid station. This is where I encountered the first 100K runner of the day (Sean Andrish). This is also where I decided to take some ibuprofen as my left leg/hip was bugging me a bit. In my experience it seems like it takes an hour for it to really kick in, so taking it early in a race might prevent some problems later on, or so I was hoping.

I arrived at the aid station still ahead of schedule and feeling like the distance was flying by. There were hikers just starting out on the trail and I saw them pause at the directional signs and heard some amazed mutterings about the distance of the races ;->

Munger was the first aid station Mr. Wildknits was to meet me at and I was glad to see he was there! I came in with gel flask in one hand, water bottle in the other and handed each off - the flask to my "crew" for refilling and the water bottle to Helen. Val was busy trying to keep track of all the runners coming in and going out of the aid station. I complicated matters for her by stopping midway through leaving as I had remembered my jacket! It took us a bit to figure out that Mr. Wildknits had not connected with Sam and Kyle and then to locate where they had left the jacket. Luckily it was obvious from my perspective looking back at the aid station. I was concerned about the temperature dropping as we neared the Lake so wanted to be sure I had all layers available - just in case.

Munger Trail to Magney-Snively (4.3 miles)
The first quarter mile or so of this section is on the paved Munger Trail. Ouch. Pavement is never my favorite medium to run on. I had been joined by a few other runners at this point and was able to direct them - and another runner who had missed the turn - up onto Ely's Peak, one of the bigger climbs of the day. At first glance there does not appear to be a trail onto the rocks as you turn left off the Munger Trail. A much easier one (used by climbers) goes off along the face of the cliff. But no, we were headed up, and up and then up some more. The reward is some spectacular views along the St. Louis River Valley.

Ely's Peak is 1.1 billion-year old basaltic lava that was later cleared off and shaped by glaciers. Whenever I am up there I like to take a moment to look around and imagine Glacial Lake Duluth filling the river valley (a day when the fog is laying in the valley will give you a good visual of what it was like 10,000 years ago).

This section involves a lot of scrambling up rocks which can be a challenge when your legs are shorter than the 'steps'. It can be hard to get a running rhythm going as the trail transitions from bare rock, to wooded trail, to a jumble of sharp upturned stones. Eventually though you clear the Ely's peak area and move on to a nice patch of woods around the North Branch of U.S. Steel Creek. As I approached the bridge over the creek a group of 100K runners was also coming along the trail. I stepped aside to let them pass and then had, what to me is a typical Minnesota moment: the last runner in the group paused to allow me to cross the bridge first.

This section also includes some pretty spectacular old growth hardwoods and, like most sections of the SHT, I have some special memories of the area: scouting and flagging the trail, finding my first morel, spotting a pine marten, yellow ladyslippers, Porter's first close encounter with a porcupine... the list goes on. On race day I just enjoyed the colors of the leaves. Soon enough we made the climb out onto the first crossing of Skyline Boulevard and entered the Magney-Snively area. It was in this section that I saw Shelly, running her first 100K after a spring, summer and early fall of Ultras and marathons. Then it was on to the second crossing of Skyline (Mr. Wildknits was waiting here on his bike) and down through some large white pines and then an eventual climb towards the Magney-Snively parking area and aid station.

At the intersection of the main trail with the spur trail to the parking lot was Zach who was taking pictures. Damn, that meant I had to run up the hill - at least until I passed him!
Photo by Zach Pierce

Mr. Wildknits was waiting, ready to fill my gel flask and to take my fleece vest; Jim had the water bottle filled before I could even ask for help. Ate a couple of bananas, had a half a cup of Ultima, chatted briefly with Bonnie - who told me to get moving - and was headed out when I remembered I had wanted to grab a bar to carry along in case I got hungry for more than gels. Returned to the aid station long enough to grab this from the pack and headed down the road.

Magney-Snively to Kingsbury Creek aka the Zoo(4.6 miles)
For whatever reason this is one of my least favorite sections of the the trail. It has some great features: the stonework on the bridge over Stewart Creek; the old bridge and walls channeling a creek near an old cellar along what once was the upper end of Gogebic Street; and an old excavation site. There are several creek crossings and some beautiful views. And still not my favorite. It can be challenging to find a rhythm in here as you seem to do a lot of climbing as you descend to the base of Spirit Mountain. There are also a lot of rocks along the trail, making footing treacherous at times. At one point I landed on the outside of my right ankle - totally bypassing rolling it. Ouch! Amazingly what came out of my mouth was "son of a gun!" Loud enough to stop the runner ahead of me, who looked back to make sure I was okay. Nothing hurt so on we went. It occurred to me later part of my dislike for this section may have to do with injuries - I once took a spectacular fall and slide in the mud here.

Reached the bottom of Spirit and then began the ascent back towards the top. Ron aptly describes this as the "W" section of trail. Part of the climb involves a lot of steps - according to the SHTA trail guide 138 steps. The reward: a beautiful sugar maple forest. I stood at the top for a minute to catch my breath so that I could enjoy running on some of the nicest trail around. The surface is quite soft and it just meanders it's way through the woods for a bit, rolling and dipping into little creeks before crossing some open areas and then dropping down and joining the Kingsbury Creek trail. Andy and crew had marked this intersection well, directing runners down to the aid station alongside the Zoo. There were lots of families out enjoying the day (and an event at the Zoo). Being an out and back it was a great time to see the runners ahead and cheer each other on.

I was greeted by the sight of Rudy on his unicycle (municycle?) and came into the aid station ready for a refill on all items and wishing for a bathroom. Connie and her family were also working this station and she had been telling everyone it was "all downhill from here". Hah! I knew better, the climbing was just beginning!

Kingsbury Creek to Highland and Getchell (3.2 miles)
Headed back up the trail and looked for likely bathroom spots, which I found just past where the spur trail rejoined the main trail. I took it as a good sign that I had to pee - must have been doing something right. My energy was still good and I knew exactly what this section contained. Lots of running across open meadows, some scrambles up and down rocks and then eventually a long climb next to Keene Creek. The trail passes very close to, and under, the freeway and the road noise is ever present. It also passes under a sewer line and an active railroad track (source of the taconite for the last place finishers awards) and involves a few blocks of road running.

My stomach had gotten kind of bad and I would feel nauseous off and on - especially if I pushed the pace. Was it the bananas I had at Kingsbury? I just set the discomfort aside as best I could and plodded on. By the time I hit Cody Street I had my strategy planned for the next mile or so. Run when I could but know I would be walking a lot. I find the road bit on West Gate Blvd to be draining - it is not all that steep, but after all the other climbing it just... well, I walk it every time. I did see a patient of mine along here (led to an interesting discussion last night when he came into clinic - first non-runner I've told about the race who hasn't thought I was crazy).

Keene Creek is really quite beautiful and I always mean to return and play in the pools. There is a lot of evidence of old structures along the trail and I could see others out enjoying the nice day. It had really warmed up by now and the mittens were off for good, as was the wool hat. I made the decision that I would jettison both at the next aid station and even thought about taking off my long-sleeved top. Made the final climb up to Highland Ave, climbed the barrier and crossed the 5-way intersection and headed into the aid station.
Photo by Chris Amley

Mr. Wildknits was there as was my friend Chris (didn't recognize him at first behind the camera). I had to convince my "crew" that I would not want the hat or mittens (he knows me well - the clouds were moving in and the wind was picking up and I get chilled easily) for this next section. Eyed up the offerings, almost left my water bottle behind, and headed across the road.

Highland and Getchell to 24th Ave W. (5.7 miles)
This section starts out with a gnarly bit of trail. First though you cross Keene Creek on an abandoned bridge. Where did it go?!? Seems to be a bit of a mystery still. Turn left and you start the descent and then climb along the creek, passing an old stone building, and then eventually crossing Skyline Blvd. and heading into Brewer Park. I am getting into trail I know well now. I often run this section before work as an out and back since it is located above my workplace and not far from home. I enjoy the view from the cliffs, though I have learned that Enger Tower is much closer than it appears ;->

After a little climb the trail rolls up and down small hills, paralleling the cliffs edge until crossing under the power line and descending to Haines Rd (known as 40th Ave W. below the intersection with Skyline). This can be a scary crossing as cars come flying down the road, luckily you can hear them coming so it is easy to pause and wait just off the road. A father and his three small children (one in a backpack carrier) were just getting out of their van as I started up the trail on the other side. I dearly hoped they would not catch me!

The Piedmont hills are where I spend a lot of time running, mountain biking and skiing - close to home and a variety of trails to play on. I really do know this area well and knew I was closing in on the end of the race. This is also a rolling section with lots of runnable trail interspersed with rocky climbs and descents and some great knobs. First is Ski Trail Knob, then you cross under the power lines and descend to Merritt Creek before climbing up to Firering Knob (anorthosite gabbro - like Mt. Trudee up north). Another descent and climb to an open area and then the big climb up to Piedmont Knob. From here you have a great view of the West End/Lincoln Park, Enger Tower, and Lake Superior.

The trail descends steeply to Skyline and I love bouncing along the trail here. It is hard to let loose though as the rocks will come up to trip you and the trail has a lot of twists and turns as it switchbacks it's way down the hillside. The steps on the downhill side of Skyline are steep and gravel covered - they make me nervous! I took it pretty easy here and then opened up my stride a bit on the nice flat section that winds its way through the woods before eventually hitting the board walk. From here the trail dips in and out of a lot of dry creek beds and alder thickets before eventually coming out alongside a reservoir which leads to a section of road running.

As I looked ahead I could see Mr. Wildknits standing at the turn back into the woods. I could also see another runner! For most of the race I had run alone (kind of like it that way, though at times I wouldn't have minded a companion). As I reached my crew he joined me for the run into the next aid station. There is a bit of a climb from the road and I walked that and then, eventually, commented that I should start running again ;-> I did. There is a huge willow in here and the trail is routed right under it. I have to crouch so I can only imagine how fun it had to be for tall runners. It was at this point that I ran into Jarrow and his daughter Veronica. Nice surprise and a boost as I headed into Lincoln Park and the climb to the 24th Ave W. Aid Station. Mr. Wildknits was telling me that Jim had moved to this aid station to help out, so I would see another friend! We made it across 24th Ave W and up the side walk to the parking area and the aid station. I requested a little more gel and water (it was only 3 miles but who knows what would happen or how long it would take?), chatted with Jim a bit about how my leg was feeling (hurt, but only if I thought about it, so I wasn't thinking about it) and realized I had now run further than ever before!

24th Ave W. to Bayfront Park
The trail leaves the aid station and climbs to Skyline Blvd. and the bridge over Piedmont Ave/Hwy 53 and then enters the woods again. This is "my section" of trail. Not only does it run just behind my house but I am the Section Leader for this portion. Needless to say I know this trail well! I rolled past Forgotten Park, up to the big tansy meadow, down to Coffee Creek, past the spur trail to my house and the big basalt boulder with the large quartz amygdules, down onto the new trail bed, across Skyline, across Hank Jenson Blvd. and into Enger Park. Then it was on by the Peace Bell (lots of park goers ringing it as I went by) and into the final descent towards the finish. After picking my way down the trail out of the park I crossed Skyline again and entered a little patch of forest before crossing 5th St, and entering more woods. I was happy that my legs felt good and I could run the downhills so well. Crossing 3rd St., the trail runs alongside an old quarry before coming out on 14th Ave W., crossing 1st St. and descending some old steps to another quarry. It was here I thought I may have heard bagpipes but the sound was soon drowned out by the noise of cars on the freeway below. There are some great rock steps in this section and soon I was running out of the woods and down to Superior St/Michigan St.

I saw Mr. Wildknits waiting with his bike and across the road... a bagpiper!! Mike, a dentist at the clinic I work at had said he would be there to pipe me in. It was a great moment, and a great lead-in to the final section of my first ultra.

Mr. Wildknits joined me for a bit, per my earlier request, as I have found this last road section to be a soul-sucker during training runs. As I crossed the freeway on the pedestrian overpass I realized I was going to finish and he commented that I was running strong so he was going to bike ahead to capture some pictures of me at the end. I made my final road crossing and saw Leslie waiting to cheer me in. I had no idea how Andy had set up the finish and soon realized there was no taking the shortest route to the finish line. No, instead it was around the road and through the "formal" entrance to the park. As in all good trail races there was even an uphill - small by most standards, but still there! As I got close I realized the clock had read 6:28: something and I was determined to finish under 6:30. I was able to find a little bit of a kick and crossed over at 6:29:34.

Just outside the finish chute

Mike, myself and Leslie

By the time I had made my way out of the finish area Mike had walked over and was playing some more for all the folks standing around. He had arrived at 2:00 pm (my earliest predicted time) and played as folks came down the trail. I get the impression he was a big hit, I know I was thrilled!

Kim and Andy were wonderful at the finish, as were all of the volunteers. I felt incredibly cared for, with Kim offering to get me food or drink and delivering whatever I requested. Once I had a moment or two to put my legs up, find my dry clothes and change I started trying to track down information about the other runners I knew on the course. Mr. Wildknits headed out and, after a brief stop at work and then back at the park, made his way up to 24th Av W. to track down the whereabouts of Wayne and call me with the information.

It was fun to hang around at the finish, watching friends, and ultra running mentors, finish the race and share stories of the day. Eventually Wayne and I headed back up the hill with the intent of cleaning up, eating some more, and enjoying a sauna. Then it was time to bundle back up and head out to watch Shelly finish her first 100K. We had gotten some updates on her location while still at Bayfront, and then had called Rudy at another aid station to check on her whereabouts. Around 11:30pm we headed to the 24th Ave. W Aid Station to wait for her. Visited with Andy there and once Shelly and her pacer came through we headed down to Bayfront to wait for her finish. It was pretty amazing to see her finish! We stuck around long enough to watch the sweeps come in (there was a sprint to the finish) and then called it a night.

What a great race! All aspects were top notch and the folks volunteering were incredible! Andy and Kim - thank you for all that you did! Can't think of a better place to have debuted at this distance!

And now... on to my next ultra - Surf the Murph on October 31st.


Chris said...


Kel said...

Awesome run Lisa! I've only ever done the short section between Munger and Magney Snively - beautiful piece of trail!

See you at Murphy-Hanrehan :)

SteveQ said...

Congrats. I'll come up with something more interesting to say once I feel better...

wildknits said...

Thanks Chris, Kel and Steve!

It is a beautiful trail and I acknowledge how spoiled I am to have it outside my door.

Steve - get better!! Little H1N1 complicated with a secondary bacterial infection?

Jean said...

Way to go, Lisa! Wow, awesome job. Your report was fantastic, and what a journey that must have been. Congratulations on your first ultra!

wildknits said...

Thanks Jean. It was a good weekend for racing!

Wayne said...

Congrats - nice job on a stellar first ultra! So are you hooked? Enjoying the slippery slope?? :)

I'd forgotten about the sprint to the finish - that was great! Helen isn't competitive at all, is she?!? hehe

Zach said...

Great job! It was nice meeting you out there, and thanks for the running pose for the photo hehe :)

wildknits said...

Ah Zach... think I earned a demerit at the aid station for saying something about having to run up the "damn" hill because of you...

It was a good thing really! Nice photo(s) by the way!

Good to meet you finally, as brief as it was!

SteveQ said...

Just noticed the shout-out to me in the post: No, I can't tell from the pic who looked like they would finish.

More importantly, you say you once spotted a pine marten!!! My understanding is that the Bell Museum has the stuffed remains of the last one ever seen in Minnesota - in 1959. Have they been re-introduced? I had a bit in a comedy routine about how you could get a hunting license for weasels and martens, even though the martens were extinct in the state.

wildknits said...

Boy Steve - you WERE sick!!

I have seen a number of pine martens in the Duluth area over the years. They are so cute - and curious. (though I know, being a member of the weasel family that they are ferocious in their own way).

I do not think they were reintroduced per se, but made a comeback on their own. . While not common, they are around. Worthy of stopping in your tracks and playing a game of hide and seek (as happened on the SHT in Duluth one fine day). ;->

Doug said...

Congrats Lisa on a great race. Must have been nice to run on your home turf for your first Ultra.

wildknits said...

Doug - thanks! It was great to run this trail, I certainly always knew where I was ;-> Plus I ran into one SHTA board member out there and made a point of telling him how great the trail was and how much I appreciated their hard work. Running the trail provides a lot of time for reflection and as I ran sections the hours spent scouting and flagging routes and hiking sections prior to official opening came back to me. What a gift to the community this trail is!