Thursday, September 15, 2016

Moose Mountain Marathon - The Ramblings of a Mediocre Runner

I've always geeked out over reading other runners blogs & race reports, but until the Spring Superior 25k earlier this year, I'd never really felt inspired enough by a race that I cared to write about it.  I still regret never starting a blog then, as now only months later, I know I'm forgetting many of the small details I wanted so badly to remember about my first race on the Superior Hiking Trail.  After running Moose Mountain, I knew it was time to put pen to paper.  I loved this race. LOVED IT. And I want to remember every detail, every mud hole, every river I crossed, every view and even the pain - everything!  So, here we go....

Friday Morning

Temperance River
6:30 am -  The alarm goes off. Finally. It's here. Race Weeeknd! Time to pack up and head to the North Shore.  I fell in love with this place after we brought the kids up in 2010 and every trip, I fall in love just a little more.  My sister in law decided to come along for the ride to keep me company, be my crew and do a little volunteering at the race.  So we hit the road early and after a few roadside stops to take in the views along the way, we arrived in Lutsen just in time to work packet pickup for the marathon and 50 mile races.  I had a lot of fun working and met a lot of great people.  The Storkamp's are awesome people who do a great job with their races and they have a way of making you want to be a part of what they do. One of these days, I'll forego the race and spend a weekend volunteering.  After a pre-race meeting and dinner, it was off to the hotel to load up my pack and lay out my gear and TRY to sleep!

Palisade Head

Packet Pickup - Caribou Highlands

Saturday Morning

6:15 am -  The alarm goes off. Finally. Finally! Race Day!!  The race I've been waiting more than a year for. I fumble around in the dark for my glasses, trying not to wake up Vicki. My first thought is coffee (shocker) so I stumble right from my bed to the hotel lobby to get a cup before I start getting ready.  I look out the front windows of the hotel to see a dark, gloomy morning, with a steady drizzle coming down and a parking lot full of puddles.  It's going to be a mud fest out there. The spring races were "dry" as far as that race goes and there was still a good bit of mud out there.  I had a feeling we were in for a sloppy day.  I head back to the room to get dressed and sip on my coffee trying to simultaneously wake up and calm my race morning jitters.  We get ready, pack up and stop in the lobby for breakfast where we visit with a couple as they're tracking their son who is out running the 100.  They told us there was a thunderstorm that rolled through about 2:30 am and dumped quite a bit of rain. Yep, a mud fest it will be.  We finish breakfast, and head out into the the damp, drizzly, chilly morning. The closer we get to the starting line at Cramer Road, the more excited I was getting. I love the race atmosphere, the comradery, the buzz in the air.  The nerves were gone and I couldn't wait to get going.

Start to Temperance River - 7.1 miles

After checking in and a quick pre-race talk from John Storkamp, complete with wolf howl and moose mating call - (whatever that was?!) It was time to start! Before I knew it, 300-ish of us were running down the gravel road and heading for the trail.  One quick left turn through a gap in the trees and we were filing in one after another finding our place in the line of runners through the woods on our way back to Lutsen.  It felt great to be back here running on this trail. It's hard to explain how or why I love it so much. Running here feels effortless. It just feels natural to want to keep moving forward, to take it all in, to see everything. Which in itself is kind of funny, because lets face it, if you take your eyes off the trail for more than a second or two, a rock or root is going to grab you and you're going to get a face full of dirt. The mud started right away. It was unavoidable, although I did manage to skirt around some of the deepest patches in the beginning. Running the full 26.2 miles with soaked, muddy feet didn't sound like a great idea, so I did what I could to keep them dry for awhile. It wasn't long before I came upon my first 100 mile runner. It was hard to even fathom that these people had started running more than 24 hours ago and were still at it. Some were reduced to a slow shuffle, but they were still going, one foot in front of the other a full day in front of them yet. One of my favorite parts of the day was offering encouraging words and cheering on each of the "Hundred" runners I passed along the way.  A few miles in, when we had all settled into our paces pretty well, I ended up chatting with "Anna" who was once right in front of me and after she took a spill on the trail, caught back up and was now right behind me. I had no idea what she even looked like. I just knew that we'd been hanging together for a couple of miles and we seemed to have the same pace.  I knew she was a friendly voice behind me in a very long trek through the woods.  The first seven miles were fairly forgiving. Although there were the mud holes, there weren't a lot of big climbs and there were the gorgeous views of the Cross and Temperance Rivers.  About 4 miles in, my IT band decided it was going to throw a tantrum today and there was nothing I could do about it, so I focused on the scenery and my new found running buddy. We talked running, skiing, jobs, family and this gorgeous place we were lucky enough to spend the day. We had similar time goals, though our first priority was to enjoy every minute. Before we knew it, we could hear the cheers and the cowbells coming from the Temperance River aid station. I was actually disappointed to realize we were already 7 miles in...

Temperance River to Sawbill Road - 5.7 miles

The final climb up Carlton Peak
Heading up Carlton

Anna & I rolled into Temperance together, but immediately went our separate ways to find what we needed at the aid station and fill up our packs so we could get back out quickly.  As I headed out, I figured the next stretch I'd be solo and was barely back on the trail when I heard Anna's voice behind me! She saw me head out and caught up to me, which was a nice surprise. I typically enjoy running alone, but it was fun to have a partner out there. We set off on the long downhill to the bridge over the Temperance river. I normally love to bomb the downhills on a trail, but my knee wasn't having any part of that today.  Every step down felt like a knife in my knee. I never thought the day would come that I'd prefer the climbs to the downhills, but today would be that day! Soon enough we were over the river and headed up the 900 foot climb up the backside of Carlton Peak.  After hearing everyone say that Moose and Mystery were the hardest climbs in this race and having done those before, I underestimated the climb up Carlton a bit.  Although not as steep, it was much longer than I'd anticipated, with a grand finale of climbing boulders to the summit. The view from the top was breathtaking of course, but I told myself to quit gawking and get moving. That seemed to be my biggest challenge for the day - to not stop and take pictures of everything. It's all so beautiful, sometimes it seems a shame to rush through it. But I guess that gives me reason to go back again.... Shortly after heading down Carlton, we heard the familiar sounds of cowbells and cheers of an aid station in the distance. Although a welcome sound because I knew Vicki would be there to greet me, and I needed a water fill and a bathroom, I was disappointed that nearly another 6 miles had clicked off. 

Sawbill Road to Oberg Mountain - 5.5 miles

Vicki took my pack & refilled my water, I stretched my knee, got some PB&J and oranges in my belly (my fave trail foods) and was ready to make up a little time after that Carlton climb. Anna was nowhere in sight, so I hit it on my own. The next section proved to be a little tough on my knee. The downhills hurt so bad, I felt like I had slowed down to a crawl. I finally caved and ate some ibuprofen.  So many people had been over this section of the trail, the mud was getting thicker, deeper, greasier. I finally gave up on avoiding it and just went straight through.  Many times it was ankle deep and it tried to suck my shoes off with each step.  The footbridges were getting slick and I slid off one of the less sturdy bridges into a pile of muck.  Not that it mattered much at that point since I'd already been ankle deep a few times.  Just about the time I started feeling myself get whiny, I came across another Hundred. His pacer was plodding along, just trying to keep him moving forward. I cheered him along, told him what a badass he was, trying to be encouraging as I passed. It was a good reminder to just shut up and run. These guys had 75 miles on them before I even hit the trail. I had nothing to whine about.  Onward I went, trying to ignore the knife in my knee and remembering what lies in front of me after I reach Oberg...

Oberg Mountain to the Finish - 7.1 miles.

The relentless climb
The Poplar River Bridge
As I was coming into Oberg, I caught up to Susan Donnelly. I recognized her face. I'd read about her. She's a machine. I knew she was going for her 16th finish of the Hundred miler and I was inspired.  Vicki greeted me with a hug, some encouragement and my beloved purple Gatorade and it was the best damn Gatorade I've ever had in my life.  I grabbed a fist full of potato chips, stretched my IT band/knee and took my Susan Donnelly inspired ass back out on the trail. It felt good to know what was in front of me for the next 7 miles. All along I'd been telling myself that time didn't matter, but deep down that wasn't true. Somewhere I read that the average finish time was about 7.5 hours. And I wanted to beat that. Even if my knee hurt like hell.  The downhills coming out of Oberg are fun. Like really fun. My IT band was freshly stretched and not feeling too bad, so I let loose. I felt like I was flying. It felt so good to finally be able to bomb a downhill after wanting to do it all day. I looked at my watch and realized that if I could keep going, I could still come in under 6:30 and I'd be happy with that. Except I looked at my watch a little too long and my foot caught a root and sent me flying for real.  I hit the ground hard and laid there for a second, long enough to do a quick evaluation of whether or not anything was actually hurt - besides my ego. Turns out the only other injured party was my watch, which decided to die.  Super.  I'm sort-of addicted to my watch, so taking on the final stretch with no idea what mile I'm at or what my time or pace is, is going to make me crazy.  So I picked myself up and went on and over one last foot bridge before the climb to Moose began.  As I started up Moose, I began leap frogging with another runner who I would later find out was named Mary Maas.  She was just what I needed at that point. I'd been out on the trail alone for quite awhile and with those two climbs staring me in the face, it was nice to know someone was in it with me. The climbs up Moose and Mystery were pretty much exactly as I remembered from the spring. Moose was steep. Very steep. And the never ending switchbacks to get up Mystery were long. But like every other peak along the way, you're rewarded with a spectacular view of the Big Lake at the top and it may have just been the runners high, but I swear Superior was particularly blue that day.   After reaching the top of Mystery Mountain, I found myself in an almost laughable situation.  Throughout the whole race, many people (including myself) will say "Just wait til you reach Mystery - it's all downhill from there, literally!" And that's supposed to be a good thing. Except that the knife in my knee was killing me at this point and the thought of running that technical downhill for that long had me frozen at the top not even wanting to begin. I sucked it up and started down.  I found a way to half -ass gallop along that didn't really hurt too bad so I went with it as long as I could. I'm sure I looked like an idiot, but really - after 25 miles and in that much pain, I didn't care either way. After what seemed like an eternity of pounding, I heard that sound. That beautiful sound that anyone who's run this race knows.  The Poplar River.  The end of the race - almost. Just a short stretch (although it seems like an eternity) on a paved road and it's back in to Caribou Highlands, around the pool and up the grass across the finish line.
View from the top of Mystery Mountain

The Finish
Only twice in my life have I ever finished a race and was sad that it was over. Both times it finished here at Caribou Highlands. Knee pain aside, I finished this race feeling great. I didn't want to be done. I wished it was longer. I loved the trail, the people, the atmosphere, the community of runners.  I didn't know what my finish time was coming in since my watch had died miles ago, but I ended up at 6:39:45.  Almost 10 minutes off where I'd hoped to be when I started up the bottom of Moose Mountain, but nearly an hour better than my original goal.  You'd think I'd be happy with that, but of course my first thought was "What if my knee didn't hurt? What could I have finished in then?" Typical for me. And a number of other runners, I would guess.

 Of course I'll be back to do it again. I have to.  The question is - next year will it be another Moose? Or will I take the plunge and go after that Bear? Right now I feel like it will be time to go for the Bear.  I guess time will tell......