A few days ago, I ran my 5th Voyageur 50 Mile Ultra Trail Race. This event has become a favorite of mine since I started running ultras in 2012. The low-key feel of the race, great volunteers, well stocked aid stations, and a challenging course keep me coming back year after year.
I always have a few goals going into a race. The first is to finish. Anytime you step up to the start line of a race, you are taking a chance that you might fail. This becomes even more of an issue as the race gets longer. I always respect the distance; a lot can happen in 50 miles, and 10-11-12 hours on the trail. You just never know what can happen or what condition the trail will be in or what Mother Nature might throw at you. My second goal is to finish in less than 11 hours (and try to pace myself in such a way that my first half time & my second half time aren’t that different.) My third, and stretch (if everything went perfectly) goal would be to finish as close as possible to 10 and a half hours.
I made my first goal, and nearly my second goal. I finished in 11:05. I am actually really happy about this, even though it isn’t a personal best time on this course. I’m happy because I didn’t quit.
That’s right. I didn’t quit. I wanted to. I thought about it. I wondered why the heck I was even doing it. My favorite race, on well trained legs, with previous experience on this course, and I wanted to quit. I got to mile 20 and I was really considering hanging it up.
What went wrong?
Well, I started the day out great, running the first 3 miles with 2 amazing ladies, laughing, enjoying the trail, picking our way through the rocky, technical section that leads to Jay Cooke State Park. Once we crossed the swinging bridge, the trail opens up and becomes very runnable. I let my legs speed up and enjoyed the grassy ski trails. The next few miles were good. I was feeling good coming into the third aid station where I saw Matt, and our puppy, Raleigh. I wasn’t sure when I’d see them again, so after a few words, grabbing some peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I was back on the trail.
The next section was ok, but I was starting to feel tired. It was about 10-11 miles in. I kept pushing on, and made it to the power lines section. This section is what makes this race so great – you go up and down these huge hills that are under power lines cut through the woods. There is no shade, and the climbing and descending can feel never ending. It’s steep enough that going down is tricky and climbing up sometimes requires the use of grabbing onto the vegetation along the trail. I powered through this section well enough, and came out on the paved trail to another aid station. I don’t know if I grabbed anything to eat here, and if I did, it wasn’t enough.
I left that aid station on the paved trail, and continued on. But as I went, I was getting more tired, my left calf (that was bugging me in the weeks leading up this event) was nagging me, and as a result I was unloading it in such a way that the right side of my back was starting to hurt. My mind started to panic. I’m already tired??? I’m only 15 miles in to the 50 total!!! My leg hurts, am I doing permanent damage?? My back hurts, and I’m tired, how am I going to make it?? The negative voices started getting louder. The voices that tell you you can’t do it. I was walking up a gravel 2 track at this point, really considering dropping out. But I had 2 tylenol tucked way in my pack, and I decided that I would start with those, and if they didn’t help or they wore off and I was painful, then I would quit. But I wouldn’t quit until I gave those a chance to work.
I walked into the next aid station at mile 20 with a glazed look on my face. Luckily this aid station was packed with ultra-savy volunteers that recognized that I probably needed more calories. One volunteer refilled my pack with water while I grabbed some coca-cola and a handful of cookies. I wandered out of the aid station with a full pack, caffeine in my belly & a handful of sandwich cookies to eat on the way. I continued to walk up the paved road that leads to the next section of trail. When I reached the trail, I started to run. And I actually felt ok. The Tylenol was working; the sugar & caffeine were working. I was moving a bit faster!
The next section is open, rolling horse trails before another aid station, and then it’s the final kick to the turn around at the Duluth Zoo. The final kick to the zoo takes you across Spirit Mountain ski area and a lovely, long down hill to the aid station. During this long downhill, I passed many of the runners coming the other way who were ahead of me and we waved, smiled, and cheered each other on. My favorite part of this section came when I was passed by a large group of (what looked like) high school cross country runners running up the trail towards me, every single one held their hands out for a passing high five as we met on the trail. It was so great! Their energy and enthusiasm carried me to the turn around aid station at mile 25.
I rolled into the aid station at 5 and a half hours on the clock - way behind my estimated time of 5 hours that I had told Matt to expect me in. I grabbed some more coca-cola, and something to eat as Matt and Raleigh met me there. He asked how I was doing, and we walked out of the aid station and up the hill together. Apparently, he had been at the 20 mile aid station and left before I got there because he thought he missed me. I have a sneaking suspicion that had I seen Matt at mile 20, I would have turned in my number and called it a day. I guess everything happens for a reason.
Matt and Raleigh turned off the trail to head to the river to hang out as I continued my power hike back towards the start - 25 miles away. I was feeling more like myself. I was able to alternate running and walking the uphill section towards Spirit Mountain ski area. I was starting to pass a few other runners along the way.
The second half of the race was great. I felt strong; I ran every section I could. I climbed up and down the power lines, enjoying the sting of sweat in my eyes as I baked in the mid-day sun. I cruised through the aid stations grabbing another sip of coca-cola, and pb&j on the way. I had gone from wanting to quit to “Beast Mode.” Soon, I was back to the last aid station, 3.4 miles from the start/finish area. I knew the last few miles were really rocky and slow, so I tried to stay patient, but move efficiently across the trail. After 2 miles, I turned onto the final section of paved path before turning into Carlton for the finish at the high school. I didn’t know what time it was, as my GPS watch had died hours before, and honestly, I didn’t care. I was so happy to have made it through mile 20, find my groove and run a solid second half, that the time was not important.
Another reason I like this event, is that everyone sticks around to cheer other runners in at the finish line. The lawn next to the school was packed with racers, spectators and volunteers. You really feel the love when you cross that line.
Post race notes:
My calf still feels ok – not sure why it got so crabby mid-run and now feels ok.
I don’t recommend always fueling for an ultra on coca-cola, & sugar. This was one of those times that what had worked for me in the past was not working. So I did what I could to keep the calories coming in to keep moving forward.
The mind is a powerful thing. I always tell my coaching clients and athletes, “Where the mind goes, the body will follow.” I KNEW the negative thoughts were getting to me. I also had learned that if I keep eating, drinking and moving, it would usually pass.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to run, and be surrounded by amazing people who are a part of this community. But most of all, I am grateful for a wonderfully supportive husband who is willing to spend his day going from aid station to aid station with puppy in tow, and a smile on his face.