Race Report: Superior 25K 2017

Official Results:
Time: 4:06:15 (45 minute improvement)
Pace: 15:52
Placing:
Overall: 215/301
Gender: 111/185
AG (F 30-39): 59/95

Watch Results:
Time: 4:06:20
Pace: 16:56
Distance: 14.54 mi
Heart Rate: N/A

Goals:
A: 4:15
B: 4:30

Food:
What I ate the night before: chimichurri burger and fries
What I ate on race morning: bagel with cream cheese and hazelnut spread
What I carried with me: 4 gel packets (I ate 1), candy (had one Jolly Rancher), mints, water.

Gear:
What I wore: t-shirt, shorts, ball cap, buff, arm warmers
Gadgets: GPS watch, fitness tracker, hydration pack

Discussion: Writing a race report feels wrong. Initially I considered not writing one, because celebrating a PR or even dissecting the successes and failures of the race seems trivial and disrespectful. A runner passed away on the trail during the race. It’s a terrible loss for his family, friends, and students, and a traumatic event for the race staff and runners, especially those who were involved in trying to save him. We take risks we don’t even realize when we run these remote races, with miles between aid stations. A couple of miles seems endless in an emergency. All we have out there on the trails is each other, and dozens rose to the occasion.

I don’t want to dwell on this story; it isn’t really my business, nor is it about me. I’ll share that I asked myself what I would have done, had I been the first person to come upon the runner. I can’t say for certain, but I know that I was in no way as prepared as the runners and hikers who were assisting, and I need to update my first aid and lifesaving skills. I am not a medical professional, but I need to do the best I can to be prepared to help on the trail.

The rest of the weekend is worth talking about, even though in perspective, it seems small.

My husband and I drove up on Friday afternoon, arriving just in time for me to start my volunteer duties. I helped sell merchandise this year, which I haven’t done before. It’s a little different than checking people in, which I really enjoy doing – I like chatting with each runner as they pick up their bib or race shirt. However, selling merchandise is a bit less stressful – packet and shirt pick-up can have a tinge of drama, and it can be rushed. Since people choose whether or not they want to look at all the swag for sale (and it’s great, the race director creates it all and he has an incredible eye for design), they’re not in a hurry and have time to chat. I made some new friends, which is basically the reason I volunteer (besides giving back to the trail running community), and reconnected with some others, including one guy I knew from high school, who I hadn’t seen in probably 20 years.

After I finished volunteering, my husband and I went to dinner at the Poplar River Pub at the Lutsen lodge. I ate an actual meal the night before a destination race – I think this might be a first. It wasn’t the world’s healthiest meal, but it was more substantial than the junk food I ate before Chippewa. We went back to our resort for the evening and watched a movie and went to bed around midnight. I tossed and turned a bit, especially since I realized while laying out my gear for the morning that I had forgotten my bib in the packet pickup room. Or at least, I hoped it was there. Overall I got a decent night’s sleep, and got up around 6:45, walked down to check in and find my packet (it was there, of course), and then back to my room to get ready.

The weather was cool and it was overcast, but the forecast had improved and it appeared the rain would hold off until the evening. I packed my ultralight rain jacket and a pair of gloves in my pack, just in case. I decided for a shorter run, I wouldn’t bring along anything other than water and a couple of gels. I think I might have put a Clif bar in there just in case I needed something substantial, but I can’t remember. I got dressed, ate, putzed around worrying, and then left for the start at about 7:40. Staying at the race start/finish takes away a lot of my race day anxiety. I didn’t even make a checklist this time, and still felt like I had everything I needed before, during, and after the race. I’m starting to get the hang of this.

I ran a little less than half a mile to warm up, just enough time to worry that my legs felt like lead weights. I met up with some friends from the Twin Ports I met at Voyageur who had driven up that morning (crazy!), and then fell into place with a new friend I’d met during my volunteer stint. She was helping to sell surplus tech tees (2 for $5!) and pint glasses ($1 off your first pint at the bar! One of the mainstay volunteers negotiated that deal) while I was next to her selling surplus race shirts from previous years (I bought one for myself). Her husband was also volunteering, but I recognized them both from my first volunteer experience, working the finish line at the Superior Fall Trail Races in 2015, when he finished the 100 miler. They’re both really cool people, and she and I discovered we had similar race goals, so we ran together at the beginning. We separated when we reached the single track – she took off and I hung back. She ended up finished about 20 minutes ahead of me, so we both outperformed our goals significantly.

It was slow going once getting onto the single track, as there was a muddy section to start off, plus some small hills. I walked all the hills, even the little ones, because I knew I had to save energy for Moose Mountain, my bff. I like the way this race starts – the half mile or so stretch of road helps everyone separate before reaching the single track, but the single track slows everything down again – it’s so tempting to go out too fast on the road, so the trail helps check that impulse. The first section is kind of funny at the back of the pack, because of the people who appear unprepared for the terrain or elevation, trying to pick their way through the mud unscathed, or trying to recover from taking the hill too quickly. I tried to hang back, avoided passing anyone, and let others pass me without concern. I had my own race plan, and I wasn’t going to abandon it a mile in just to feed my ego.

I ended up in front of a couple of runners also from Duluth, who were running together and having a conversation. It was just like Chippewa all over again. They ended up talking to me for a little bit, then they stopped to pee, and then they caught me on Moose Mountain. We climbed up together, with one of the women keeping up her end of the conversation. I was pretty amazed she was able to keep talking as we climbed up the steep trail; I was huffing and puffing and my legs were howling at me. Once we got to the top, we ran in a line for awhile before they passed me, and I didn’t see them again until we neared the aid station. I ate a gel about 5 minutes before I started the Moose Mountain climb, which was a great idea.

I started to see the first 25K runners as we crossed the top of Moose Mountain, including the first woman (who I believe finished 5th overall!), and as I started my descent, I ran into a UMD hockey alumnus, kicking butt in a new sport (he was 8th overall!) I caught up with a self-professed “flatlander” who ran with me from the bottom of Moose Mountain through to Oberg. People seemed to be a lot more spread out this time around, so I wasn’t having as much trouble passing as I did the previous year, or at Chippewa. Or maybe I was just in a better mood. On the switchbacks heading up Oberg, I saw the 50K winner come flying down with wild abandon. He ended up setting a course record, and I’m not surprised, considering how he looked. A man on a mission. He also runs wearing glasses so I felt some solidarity.

I reached the Oberg aid station in under 2 hours, and when I hit the lap button when I left, it read 1:59:59. I was probably about 15 minutes ahead of the previous year at this point, although I’m not 100% sure since I didn’t take a lap reading last year. Right before the aid station, a guy was sitting cheering on runners and playing music, which perked me up. At the aid station, I had a couple of cups of Coke and a cup of ginger ale, which tasted so delicious. I chowed down on some potato chips, stowed a couple of Fig Newtons in a pocket in my pack, got a hug from a volunteer friend, and turned around.

The run out of the Oberg aid station is much nicer than the run in, since it’s just a short uphill section followed by some nice runnable downhill sections. I passed runners that I knew from previous races, and offered encouragement to those who were looking like they couldn’t wait for the aid station. I understood – I’d been lusting after a pop for probably an hour. I was passed by a 50K runner I recognized – last year, he was the dude who was totally fried and out of water. He looked great this year in comparison, and he remembered me, too. I knew the backside of Moose Mountain awaited me, and I wanted to get it over with. I ate one of my cookies “fruit and cake” just before the ascent began, and then slowed down to a moderate walking pace when the familiar terrain of the mountain began. It was a tough climb, and I took it as slowly as I could. I was passed by some 50K runners whose climbing skills were impressive. I was jealous – I have got to get better and faster at the steep ascents.

When I finally reached the top (well, it’s the first “top,” as it’s more of a saddle profile), I cheered out loud, because I knew I’d finished the hardest part. I tried to run as much as I could across the top, but I slowed to a walk several times if I hit even a hint of incline. I was able to scramble down the other side pretty easily, other than one big step down off a root which my legs weren’t quite ready for. I trotted across the flat section between the mountains, trying to decide if I wanted to have another gel. I’d finished the other Fig Newton while crossing Moose Mountain, so I wasn’t really hungry. I decided to eat a Jolly Rancher while I plodded up Mystery Mountain.

I slowed to a walk as I reached the start of the Mystery Mountain ascent. I knew to take it slow: it wasn’t a steep ascent, but it took a long time. I started singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” in my head, to keep busy while I was going up. I saw a group of people on the switchbacks above me, and thought it was a group of spectators cheering runners on during this last tough climb. When I reached the group and realized what was actually going on, that I had come upon a fallen runner receiving CPR, my heart sank.

Since there were at least 10 people already assisting, and I had no specific skills or tools with which to assist, after ensuring someone had called for help, I continued. I really don’t know if this was right or wrong. It felt wrong. If there had only been one or two people, I would have stopped. It felt wrong to stop, too; since I couldn’t provide any real help, it seemed like it would have just been self-serving. But maybe there was some specific way I could have helped, if I’d stayed. Everything felt wrong. It still feels wrong. Of course it does. The only way for things to have turned out “right” was for the whole thing to never have happened.

I kept walking in a daze, up the hill. I reached the top of the hill, started down, and met a woman coming to provide medical aid. I described his approximate location to her, so she could relay it back on her phone. I kept going, trying to run, lacking the motivation. Again, running seemed wrong.

I snapped myself out of the daze and pushed a bit, passing two other first responders on their way up the hill (giving them the right of way, of course), and passed a few other people on my way down. A woman went by me the other way and told me I only had a couple miles to go. “Listen for that river, girl, then you’re almost there!” I passed a couple of women picking their way along the sides of a muddy section, and just charged through like a buffalo. There was a spectator at that point, and she was cheering us on. “There are hoses at the finish! Just keep going!” she encouraged the others as I stampeded my way through the muck. I listened for the river, and when I hit the bridge I knew I needed to run it in.

Once on the road, I got passed by a couple 50K runners who looked strong. One was singing “Amazing Grace” aloud. I picked up the pace, running the last half mile at about an 11 min/mile pace (according to my grossly inaccurate watch). I turned off the road toward the finish and kicked it into high gear. I heard myself announced as “our friend Donna Carpenter from Duluth, completing her second Superior 25K,” and accepted my medal at the finish line, and then a hug from my friend, the finish line coordinator. He asked if I was ok, and I sort of waved my hands, and asked if he was ok, but I could tell he wasn’t. I got some lemonade and watched other runners finish. Each time a runner came around, the volunteers would shout “RUNNER!” and rev up the crowd, reminding everyone “we all need it today!” And we did. We cheered so we didn’t have to cry. Or we cried anyway.

I threw my shoes in the garbage and hosed off my feet, then ran into one of the women I’d met earlier (the one who had the breath to still talk when climbing Moose Mountain). We hugged and she made sure I wasn’t alone. We all did our best to take care of each other.

I went back to my hotel to shower. Physically I felt ok; a little tired, a little cold, a few tight muscles. No chafing. I changed into comfy clothes and watched TV for awhile, then once my hair was dry, I went down to get my post-race chili, met up with my friend from the start, and cheered on some more runners. My friends from Voyageur finished and we talked for a little bit, then they left to drive back (crazy, but they are used to it!) and I returned to my hotel. We drove up to Grand Marais for a little while, just to see it, and then drove back and had dinner at Caribou Highlands.

It was a difficult day for most runners, crew, and volunteers, though that pales in comparison to how hard that day and the days ahead will be for the loved ones of the runner we lost. Run gently out there, everyone, and look out for one another.

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7 thoughts on “Race Report: Superior 25K 2017

  1. Hi Donna, I kind of know how you feel. My wife and I were at a race a few years ago when something bad happened. It made everything feel small and somewhat pointless. I felt bad, and I felt wrong to feel bad given other people’s very real pain. It took a while for those feelings to fade. In the end it helped me understand that things can change very quickly, I should enjoy the present, and life is too short to spend huge chunks of it on things that bring no fulfillment. I can’t really give you advice, other than to expect and accept some ups and downs for a bit and take care of yourself.

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    1. Thanks Seamax. I appreciate your wisdom. I thought of you doing your Big Scary Thing and was so glad to hear you made it unscathed. We feel how we feel, and can’t always control it, but we can control what we do with it. The response from the community has been unbelievable yet totally believable, considering the people surrounding this event. The best thing I can do is arm myself with the tools and skills to be able to help someone in need on the trail.

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    1. Thanks for your support! It’s a very strange feeling. Seeing the response the trail community has had, from the concerted effort to save the runner, to the emotional support for each other (the RD even emailed us today to tell us there is a counselor available for people who are struggling), to the outpouring of financial help for the runner’s family, has been more healing than anything else.

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