"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

2011 Superior Trail 25K Race Report

This was my first time doing the "kid's race" rather than the 50K. It seemed like the right choice, as last fall I had been deathly ill and even a partial recovery would take a long time. I got in some good, if not great training early in the year - and then got sick again and lost a great deal of fitness. I tried to get back to training too quickly and had a relapse, so I ended up doing only an occasional hard workout and hoped I could get by on experience and determination.

This year, the races filled for the first time and they filled very early, meaning that a lot of the serious competition wouldn't be there and the races would be wide open. I looked at the names of those signed up and there wasn't anyone unbeatable, though there were some real horses on the wait list. Just before the race, the wait list was down to two names, but the others weren't on the confirmed entrants lists, so I assumed they decided not to run it. WRONG! To spoil the 50K results, Chris Lundstrom broke his own course record in 3:48. He'll eventually have a race report here. All my training runs had been in cold rain and it was expected to be rainy at Superior; I run well in rain and in mud, so there was good news for my chances. I had managed a hard 25K at Afton the week before, but I wondered whether it was a sign that I was in better shape than I thought, or if I had unintentionally turned it into a race and killed myself before the real race.

I didn't want to announce my goal before the race, but I was thinking I could run 2:25, give or take a minute per mile. If everything worked perfectly, that'd be 2:10, guaranteeing a master's division win and, given the weakened competition, perhaps an overall win. 2:25 would probably mean a third-place master award. The worst-case scenario would be 2:40, which was my time at the 50K half-way turnaround mark last year.

I planned to awake at 4 AM, hop in the car and drive up, grabbing coffee along the way. I awoke at 2:00, unable to breathe (sinus and nasal congestion - part of recovery) and decided to make breakfast, so I wouldn't b hungry at the start. It turned out to be a mistake; I spent my time before and after the race in the men's room and spent the entire race feeling bloated and gassy.

It rained the entire way of the 4 hour drive, until I got to Lutsen, where it was unusually warm and humid. Duluth had had a much warmer spring than Minneapolis this year - freakish weather all around - but I figured further north would be cooler. WRONG! It had barely rained there and it would be quite warm and sticky by race's end.

A very uncomfortable analogy

I couldn't get up for this race. It happens to all guys sometimes, but it had never happened to me.

(Now it's really one of my reports.)

I've always been able to count on a competitive drive and an almost scary focus to get me through any race. I just didn't have it. I didn't care. If the race went as planned, all's well and good, but I didn't feel a sense of urgency.

The course

For those who haven't read my previous descriptions: the first mile is largely a gradual uphill on a gravel road, the next goes up 400 feet in elevation over roots and rocks to Mystery Mountain, the next down the mountain, the next another 400 feet up the much more difficult Moose Mountain, then 650 feet down a very perilous and steep descent, then a bit of non-descript up and down with a gradual rise to the turnaround (and then back). This year, there were a lot of blown-down trees on the Moose Mtn. summit ridge. This year, the course was prettier, more fleshed out, than previous years, due to the warmer weather; from the roads, one saw the chartreuse birches accented with the deep dark green pines and flashed of white from the trunks of the birch. This is the time of year to be in Minnesota (the weather's good and the mosquitoes aren't out).

The race begins

We started off following Donnie (if you're a trailrunner here, you know him) in his cart up the road to the trail. There were two guys who took the lead and I was just behind them. I took a glance at my Garmin and we were running 7:22 pace, which was the same as how I started the 50K last year, so I wasn't going out very hard. I cut across the road to run the shortest distance, but the first guys didn't, meaning they had some weaknesses to exploit; they were running more easily than I was, chatting, and were young and fit. It was a question of whether or not they could run hills.

Going up the first climb, I was taking it easy, knowing that pushing too hard here would make the second half of the race difficult. I didn't feel good. Very quickly I decided it'd be the next downhill and next climb that would determine whether I was really in this to race. I let a few more pass me and noted that they were mostly masters runners; already I figured it would take a hard finish from me and faltering by them for me to get anything from this race.

The downhill was pleasant compared to previous years. The course was less crowded (being up front) and I didn't have to worry about braking to avoid others who couldn't run downhills well. There was still hope.

Going up Moose Mountain, though, I was struggling and even had to stop and walk. This was the pits. Fast training run, then, not a race. Just get through it without injury and see what kind of (bad) shape I was in. I started to look at the terrain to see if I could pinpoint the exact spot that always trips me on the way back: there's two trees that form a "V" and you can go between them or around them and it's just beyond that - but where?

The race for me ends

People were passing, but there were some who seemed content to follow my lead. I could hear a woman and a man talking behind me and I started chatting with them. Sometimes in a race, I'll talk with someone to guage how they're feeling and get a sense of how to beat them, but this was just escapism - I didn't want to think about the race. I'm an "associative" racer, constantly checking how my body is doing and where I am in the race, whereas others are "dissociative" and just zone out, not recalling much of what happens; I had changed camps.

I told the woman behind me about the course ahead - how far to the top, the length of the downhill, the easy-to-miss right turn at the bottom and the guy was asking "Is this Moose or Oberg?" Not looking back to see who I was runing with, I asked - and it was Jan Guenther behind me. We've met at least 10 times (I was wearing shoes she sold me, for example) and maybe 30 times, but she had no idea who I was and it was obvious that she wouldn't remember this meeting either; perhaps she only pays attention to female competition or perhaps only to those in her favorite sport (cross-country skiing). Knowing she also does triathlons, I decided to say some things that I knew would stick with her, e.g. "In a triathlon, you're laying down for the first section and sitting for the next, before you finally stand up and run." Triathletes hate that. She tried to counter with how boring it would be to be an ultrarunner who always goes at the same slow pace. "You obviously don't know me very well," I countered, adding that I went from first place to last in my first 100 miler. I mentioned knowing Erika, who works with her at Gear West and she asked me how I knew her - I considered saying, "I'm her biological father," or "I gave her a kidney," but decided on the dull truth.

In shorter trail races, you need more landmarks per mile than in long ones. For the Superior 100, you think in terms of aid stations and only a few, very difficult obstacles. In trying to recall this course from memory of previous runs, it was a blank from the first rise past Rollins Creek to just before the Oberg parking lot. It was all familiar again as I ran it, but sharp turns with short ups and downs just blend together. I tried to pick out features to recall for the next time, but to no avail.

The way back

I hit the halfway mark in 1:12, so I was exactly on the pace I'd hoped, but there was no way I was going to keep it up, so I refilled my water bottle and reluctantly started back, letting Jan and about 6 others hit the trail well before me. I was starting to have trouble with the heat and I'm more of a hot weather runner than cold, so nothing was right.

I was passed by a steady stream of runners and I didn't care if they were in the 50K or 25K, whether they were my age or not. I didn't really converse with anyone, though at least one woman seemed to try, going up the long Moose Mountain climb, where I slowed to a 17 minute per mile crawl - exactly the same as in the 50K last year. A lot of people gave me encouragement if they were meeting me as they were still on the way out and I thanked them, but though the thanks were meant, I was... not discouraged... blasé (and yes, I can type accent marks, I just usually choose not to)... and I didn't feel tired or sore or anything, I didn't really feel anything but numb. And old. I felt old for the first time in my life.

Perhaps this is the real end of racing. With a whimper, not a bang. No last hurrah. No career-ending injury. Just apathy, time to move on and do something else. The chorus to Foster the People's "Pumped-Up Kicks" started repeating in my head:

"All the other kids with the pumped up kicks you'd better run, better run, outrun my gun. All the other kids with the pumped up kicks you'd better run, better run, faster than my bullet."

This was not motivating, but annoying.

As I got to the top of Mystery Mountain, I remembered that I wanted to pick out the point where you can first hear the Poplar River, as crossing that bridge is the point to make a final kick. It turns out that on that day at least, it was possible to hear it faintly from the very top and it just gets louder as one goes. My original race plan had been to push hard down this hill, but I didn't, and I let more people pass me without a challenge. As I got to the road, Leslie Semler (first woman, and nearly overall winner) was there to cheer. This is where I always shine - I have a great kick, I rely on it, I love to use it.

I let two more people pass me instead. I just didn't care.

Finishing time 2:43:27.  34th place of 132 finishers (Yawn.)

As I drove home, it rained for three hours.
Other reports:
Chad's 25K
Chris' 50K
Dave's 50K
Matt's 50K
Brian's 50K


wildknits said...

It may not be the end of your racing career it just may be a bad day mentally. Had one of those at Voyageur last year where I just didn't care/wasn't too into the run (my first 50) for 30 odd miles. I can loop back and attribute it to overtraining and the toll Afton took on me (I am not a heat runner).

Oh yeah - it has NOT been warmer up here. Maybe about the same temps some of the time, but not warmer - at least near the Lake. Rather we have had a long, cool, wet spring and having the race a week later this year made for a bit more greenery (and finally getting some warmer temps this past week).

Jean said...

I was up on the North Shore the entire week and drove home Saturday morning. Saturday was the worst weather all week, and every day leading up to that was near perfect.

Agree with Wildknits, I hope it was just a bad day mentally. I am really impressed with your time on that course. That is still the hardest race I have run. I wish you much success this season!

Unknown said...

Steve! I remember you returning from Oberg mountain as I was heading up. I think I said, "Great job, Blue!" After the race, I ran into you again in the conference room scooping up chili. You really did look unhappy, and I wanted to cheer you up, I just didn't know what to say. I'm sorry you had a blase day (with or without the accent).

I'm sorry to hear about your illness, but you made it back for a race! You're on the mend, and I'm sure you'll bounce back quickly enough! Of course, now that I'm hooked on this trail running, I'll be asking you lots of questions! :)

shannon said...

Congrats on your 2:23:27 finish, that's 1 minute and 33 seconds under your goal time!

Colin said...

"the first mile is largely a gradual uphill"
"I took a glance at my Garmin and we were running 7:22 pace, which was the same as how I started the 50K last year, so I wasn't going out very hard"

7:22 pace would have given you a 15 minute overall victory, how is that not going out too hard?! Sure it wasn't the most technical part of the course, but it was uphill!!

I realize this was a disappointing race, and I'm not trying to make you feel worse about it. As an observer, though, it's frustrating to see you kill any chance you might have had at a decent result by cooking yourself in the first few miles (especially when as you admit your buildup had been lacking)!

You've got tons of talent, and plenty of time to rebound before the Superior 100 in September. I'm confident that with consistent solid training you can be in great shape by then, and with smart execution you can arrive at the finish line with a satisfying result. Just keep at it, and stop killing yourself with every hard workout ...

Good luck; I'm rooting for you!

SteveQ said...

@Shannon: OOPS! Need to correct the typo. 2:43, not 2:23!

@Colin: The first mile is by far the easiest part of the course. There's no way that one can think in terms of even pacing there. Did EVERYONE go out too hard - as at least the first dozen runners were bunched together by the time the gravel road ended? Garmin paces, particularly in trail runs, can't be considered as absolutes; mine measured the course as 7.00 miles out, 7.11 back and it's been wheeled as 15.2.

Colin said...

Steve, I agree the first mile is the easiest, and I'm not suggesting completely even pacing. But it still seems to me that you killed your chances with an overoptimistic start.

According to your DailyMile logs, you'd only run 11 times in the 5 weeks prior to this race. You reported feeling "Alright" for three of these, "Blah" for two, "Tired" for four, and "Good" only twice. Yet still you started out with the lead pack. I'm just suggesting that you'd do much better with a more realistic assessment of your fitness going in, coupled with a more relaxed starting pace.

SteveQ said...

Colin, last year I started easy, mid-pack, intentionally holding myself back as much as possible and this year I ran the same pace in a race half as long. That pace put me up front, as I figured, because of lessened competition and was the right pace for running what I thought was reasonable. Those I ran with early finished where I expected to be.

Sure, I misguaged my fitness. But, had I started at an even slower pace, I would've just mentally given up even earlier. Just jogging through the course and picking it up a bit at the end (besides being anathema to me) would've told me nothing - at least now I know.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a day on the trails, they are not all good in terms of how easy the effort felt. Glad you were on the SHT either way.