Photo from Mount Royal, Frisco, Colorado.

"That is happiness; to be disolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep." - Willa Cather

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Superior 50 (?) Miler: The Math and The Aftermath

How exciting to win the Superior 50 Miler. I was confident going into it. The Saturday before I ran a 5k PR in 18:49. I broke that 19 minute mark and it felt... easy.??
Post Lake Country 5k, North Lake in the background (my parents' house)
So surprisingly easy that I actually measured out the course with Google Earth and it was 5k give or take 1 or 2 meters. I wrote to the race director and asked if it was precise--- and yes, it was precisely measured at 5k, she assured.

That was also good news for SR, who ran a 16:11. Hard to believe there was a guy there who ran a minute faster!

Hmm. So what had I done right or differently? (I thought maybe it was because I didn't eat dinner the night before the race, and I have no doubt that was part of it since it is almost always my stomach that holds me back in 5k's)

Then I went with SR to the University of Minnesota-Duluth stadium and we ran 5 x 400 meters. My times between 1:20 and 1:22. Woah. I finally believed the 5k PR. And SR for the first time said he had trouble running my interval pace. "I'm actually getting a workout", I believe he said.

In the middle of a hectic life, the track is a peaceful place for me. I had however never been on such a high quality track. It felt so bouncy. There are good things about Duluth. A city that produces a Kara Goucher and a Scott Jurek can't be all bad.

The Race

The Superior (formerly) "Sawtooth" Trail Races are legendary. "Superior" was the first ultramarathon I had heard of, way back in 2007. A guy I knew in La Crosse (Jim) told me it was the toughest race in the US and basically no one ever finished it. "You'd love it", he said.

To get a real flavor for the race, I volunteered with Christian at the 100 miler the day before.

Jarrow, yawning Divesh, Wild Knits. Hard not to love the volunteers at these races. Jarrow, I should say, is a 2:23 marathoner. I only mention it because volunteers at these events tend to seriously care about the sport.
The 100 miler starts at Two Harbours and travels northeast along the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) to Lutsen. The 50 Miler starts 22 hours later in Finland and also travels northeast along the SHT. to Lutsen.
Point to point races. Hundreds of volunteers and fans awaited at each aid station. A race like this takes a community.
I chose to not obsess about the details of the course beforehand, other than the distance (and approximate times) between the aid stations. I had heard (through no intent of my own... thanks, Steve Q) that "Crosby- Manitou" (about 65 miles into the 100 miler and 15 miles into my race) was the killer, that the entire course "eats its young" and that the trail is "relentless". 

A couple more details about the race:

-- actual distance was between 52 and 53 miles (I didn't wear a Garmin, but heard this from many), a couple miles longer than last year (not sure why)
-- it was a hot and humid weekend. Very hot for Duluth
-- times in the 50 miler were about 40 minutes slower than last year on average due to a combination of these.

Uber Mother Runners Unite at the pre-race meeting. Congrats, Lacy on an awesome 50 miler!

Anyone look ready to race? Over here! Number 617! Photo by Todd Rowe
 Here we are in Finland. Finland, Minnesota. Just short of 6AM and the nearly 200 starters are readying.

John Storkamp, the race director (no big businesses or money making involved in this race), greeted us all and set us free. I loved the feeling of this race: volunteers and fans lining the course, a family dedicated to making it happen.

I started out in 5th place overall. A bit ambitious. We almost immediately hopped into the woods and I almost immediately fell. I did not start with a headlamp since it was getting light. That would be the ONLY time I fell the whole race!

The first 15 or so miles, Laurie Kocanda was right on my tail. I knew all about her. Not because we talked, but because she has written a book about running as a mom that you can buy on This fact was intimidating. Somehow it seems unlikely my outfit could have been as or more intimadating than her book, but I guess you never know.

Before we entered Crosby Manitou State Park at about mile 15, my stomach was bothering me. I summoned my inner Pam Smith and The Bible of ultrarunning, which she wrote after Western States. I switched over to (almost) all liquid calories from a mixture of sports drink and Ginger ale.
A welcomed sight at every aid station, which I mixed with water and easily filled into my two 500 mL Salomon "chest bottles" (brilliant system!)

1000 ML divided between two soft bottles in the front and an extra small 200 ml bottle tucked in the back. I never ran out of fluids and it did not feel heavy.

Again from Pam Smith: "Cooling Points"
cooling spots
Insert ice into hoo-haw and over head at every aid station.
The above strategies were implemented just before the dreaded "Crosby Manitou" and then throughout the race.
And here, the race got even more fun!

There were a few, nice moments of plank running in Crosby-Manitou State Park.

But here is what the trail looked like for most of the race. I think there was 0.001% pavement (the very beginning and the very end)

George Crosby Manitou State Park
View to the East from Crosby-Manitou State Park (off the race trail), unknown photographer.
As far as I could tell, my lead over Laurie was increasing, but I had no way of knowing and no one at the aid stations seemed to know either.

A big surprise for me was the wicked ascent to Carlton Peak at around mile 30.
Part of the climb to Carlton Peak
When running a 50 miler, there are constant mental and physical highs and lows. This time I was ready. Every time I hit a low, I knew the high would come again and it always did.

Things that went right:

1. I concentrated on positive thoughts.
2. I focused on the rapid cadence and active lifting of my feet that I have been working on for over the last 6 months. 
3. My shoes were a delight to run in. I had never run a technical race in Salomon Sense Ultras and these were so incredibly superior on the downhills to my New Balance minimalist shoes. (I think I could take a couple hours off my last year's Hammer Trail time just by this shoe change)
4. I drank my calories (no stomach problems) except eating 4-5 small salt covered potatoes at the aid stations.
5. No salt tabs
6. Believing in myself and having a ton of fun

The finish

John Storkamp congratulated me and there was a huge gathering of people at the finished who all cheered when I appeared. I was happy, but didn't feel well.

I looked at the results and saw Alicia Hudleson and Chris Scotch had both finished the 100 miler and I was extremely impressed. 50 was enough for me! (by the way, I loved hanging out with them and their wonderful spouses :o)!!).

Still on course vs. drops just before I finished. I forgot to mention there was also a marathon.

Post Race

Yes, so I felt I needed to get a hotel room quickly. I hadn't reserved one in advance and had planned on driving the nearly two hours back to Duluth to meet my parents and the boys. I was stupidly all alone at the finish. 

The nice lady at the Caribou Highlands Resort had seen me win and also saw how desperate I looked. She gave me a "not usually used" room for almost free and as I was heading up with my luggage, I fainted. 

A nurse and another guy saw me. I told the nurse I needed to get into trendelenburg. I knew it was post-exercise postural hypotension. (basically, the calf muscles are so fatigued that they can't pump blood back to the heart like normal)

If you feel faint after an ultra or marathon, get your feet and calves above your head. Your brain needs blood and your calves need the help of gravity for venous return.

They brought me to my room and I thought I was fine, but despite lifting my legs over my head while on my bed, I could only see spots, lost feeling in my hands and needed to throw up. It was terrible. I couldn't move or get any help. It lasted for nearly an hour. I missed the awards. I knew collapsing after racing is considered generally "non-dangerous" in and was comforted I knew what it was, but it was still terrifying and I would do anything to prevent it.

On my way home the next morning, I heard a show about a high school football player who had to get a craniotomy after sustaining a serious concussion. Any time you participate in a sport at a high level, you take risks. While running an ultra like this, you are pushing your body to its limit. When the adrenaline of racing is gone, damage becomes apparent. 

Clearly, I and so many people reading this love racing, but never take your body or your life for granted.

What I did wrong:

1. I raced without a support crew and had no one to help me at the finish.
2. Rather than grabbing something to eat and drink and putting my feet up straight away, I scurried around getting my luggage. 

Next time, I won't race alone and I will drink and eat something shortly after finishing, lay down and get my feet up. I know the heat, humidity and difficult terrain made me susceptible and I should have been more cautious. I AM glad I didn't attempt to drive!

SR keeps asking why this picture is here--- well because when you are afraid for your life, these things fill your mind.

After eating and going to the after-race party, I was able to enjoy my bear. I was 1/21 Female Finishers and 13th overall of around 200 starters. It was a good race for me!! Ok, it was a great race for me.

John Horns, the winner of the 100 mile race. Lake Superior, the world's largest fresh-water lake, in the background. Photo by Todd Rowe.

More about the Superior Hiking Trail here.


cherelli said...

Simply windfall, sounds like the race itself could not have been more perfect for you? Alas, I found today that I cannot stay in Colorado any longer than next Sunday, but have a great time at UROC! One day we may yet meet up (guess it would help if I ran at all to at least have a chance of running into you! Ah, perhaps i should volunteer at some crazy ultra in the meantime right? Any news on how your recent interviews went? )

cherelli said...

"Windfall", really IPad??? "Wonderful" was of course the intended word....

sea legs girl said...

Haha. Your IPad did get me, Cherelli! I was like "windfall?" I was excited to learn this new usage of the word. I only assumed you meant it.

I am sorry about Colorado! I wish I could meet you. Someday I will follow you to one of your gorgeous hiking destinations, I swear.

Pam said...

Congrats on the win! Obviously a well earned victory. Glad you are ok. Thanks for the shout out (twice now). While I think "bible of UR" is a little extreme, I am glad to know it helped people or at least made them think.

Jacqueline said...

That is a very scary thing at the finish, but I'm glad you shared it so the rest of us know what to do if we ever feel that way.

Congrats on a wonderful race and a first place finish! I had a few friends from here who headed up to race, too.


SteveQ said...

I'm not sure if it's better to know that course ahead of time or to just take the surprises as they come. Every year, I laugh at someone in the first miles who says, "We don't have anything like this where I'm from. [which, inevitably, is the Twin Cities]"

Caption for El Guapo's photo: "It's..." a la the start of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

I can't find anyone who'd crew for me in any race (much less drive to Lutsen to do it), but I wouldn't try to run the 100 there again without crew - the finish rate more than doubles, I think, with crew.

Ingunn said...

Congratulations, but ugh, so scary, I would have freaked out all alone in the hotel room like that. How long did it take until you felt normal(ish) again?

sea legs girl said...

Pam, here is the deal. There is a lot of advice out there about how to run an ultra, but yours was written in a language that my brain could digest. You made decisions based on sound scientific reasoning or evidence and you didn't write things like "I do it because it seems to work". I am the type of person who needs a certain amount of science before my brain turns on and starts listening. Anyway, your "How the West(ern) was won" is a diamond in the rough. Maybe it is because we have a similar educational background, but it is probably the only piece of advice on ultras I have sat down and read --- THREE times. So, thank you!! Good luck at RRR :o).

sea legs girl said...

Ingunn, it lasted until about 9PM and I finished the race at 6PM, but the symptoms didn't really start until 6:45.

Robyn said...

Congratulations on your awesome race! When I looked up the Superior results, I was excited to see your name at the top of the 50 mile list.

So glad you're loving Duluth. I'm going to try to make it up for Wild Duluth, but I'll be at the back of the pack :-)

Robyn said...

Say, you're a doc (like me) and smart about medical running stuff (unlike me). Got any advice about whether I should continue marathon/ultra training with iron deficiency anemia, vs. waiting for it to correct? Details here:

wildknits said...

So good to meet you at Beaver Bay!

Great job on the race!

I missed your finish, think I was off taking care of "my" runner at the time.

It is a course that is everything you describe - and more. I had hiked most of the SHT long before I took up ultrarunning and yet I was still shaking my head and laughing when I reached Carlton Peak last year (my 100 mile debut). What else can you do when the boulders that you need to climb over are almost bigger then you are?

Welcome to Duluth! It is a great town and has a wonderful trail running community. Possibly see you and family at one of the NMTC runs ( or at Wild Duluth?

Kinthelt said...

Great job. You were looking really strong when you passed me and my runner right before the bridge at the end. You looked ready to run another 50!