Race Report: Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon

Official Results: (added 7/16)
Time: 7:22:17
Pace: 16:53
Placing:
Overall: 358/440
Gender: 117/157

Watch Results:
Time: 7:22:22
Pace: 16:49
Distance: 26.28
Heart Rate: N/A

Goals: (I didn’t make the time to do a goals post on Friday, but I swear these were my goals! I have the time chart to prove it.)
A: 7:15
B: 7:30
C: 8:00

Food:
What I ate the night before: Thai steak salad
What I ate on race morning: bagel and peanut butter
What I carried with me: 5 gels (ate one), water, some candy I didn’t eat

Gear:
What I wore: t-shirt, shorts, trucker hat, prescription sunglasses
Gadgets: GPS watch, fitness tracker, hydration vest

Discussion: I love a good revenge race!

Last year, after training hard for Curnow after I added to my calendar out of fear I wasn’t even close to ready for the Moose Mountain Marathon, I did not start the race. It was a low moment, one I didn’t crawl out of until 2 weeks later when I volunteered at Voyageur. I was afraid to start my first ever marathon without any sleep, so I didn’t run it.

I improved on that sleep total by about 30 minutes this year. Despite feeling calm about the race this week or just ignoring its looming presence, running the PP5M on Thursday to get out pre-race jitters, minimizing my caffeine intake on Friday, and taking a relaxed approach to race prep, I went to bed around 10:45 and immediately felt anxiety about the race hit me. I actually considered not running, again, once I realized my chances for sleep were dwindling.

This might sound off the wall, but even half an hour (estimated) of sleep is better than none. Giving my conscious mind even a small amount of time to shut off is preferable to staying awake all night. I would have liked a few hours of sleep, but at least I got a little bit. It turned out, I could have gotten about an hour more, thanks to some dumb mistakes.

I hadn’t done much race prep on Friday night, because I thought I didn’t have much to do. I didn’t, but it took enough time that by the time I left my house, I realized I wouldn’t make it to Carlton in time to take the bus. This was all really stupid stuff, like getting dressed, putting condiments on a bagel (I spent probably 5 minutes looking for cream cheese, only to realize in a moment of absent-mindedness, I had thrown it in the trash Friday morning instead of putting it back in the fridge), and filling my pack. I realized once on the road that I would have to drive to the start after all, which meant I needed to tell my husband (fortunately, he was still up) that I would need a ride after the race. It also meant I was ridiculously early to the start – I could have slept another 45 minutes! But at that point there was no reason to go home and sit for half an hour. I ended up lounging in my car listening to music until about 5:30, when I joined the line for the bathroom. At least I got a great parking spot at the race!

The start was very low-key. Everyone lined up near the parking lot, the RD gave a short speech acknowledging the members of Gene Curnow’s family who were running the race (I ran near 3 of them for awhile and they were a blast) and acknowledging a runner going for his 25th finish (Dick Hogan, who I ran with for a short time at Moose Mountain Marathon last year), and then we started.

Start to Skyline Parkway (3.5 mi, 53:28, 15:17 section pace)
After leaving the zoo, there are a few bottlenecks as the trail contracts and widens, and I found myself walking quite a bit. Then I found myself running uphill, which was stupid but I had early-race eagerness to get out. The first 2 miles are uphill, first gradually, then steeply as the course climbs toward Spirit Mountain. One of the interesting things about this race was finding out “oh, that’s where that goes” for several trails I’d seen from my usual routes. This section went past the “Stairway to Heaven” climb out of Spirit Mountain on the SHT, so I figured out where I’d end up if I went straight down instead of turning off to the stairs on the Spirit Mountain – Kingsbury Creek section of the SHT. We turned onto an access road about halfway up the ski hills, and followed that through the ski area. The ski hills give a sweeping view of the St. Louis River and the Duluth-Superior harbor, so several people stopped to take pictures. I’m super uptight when racing so I don’t take time for pictures, but sometimes I wish I could run a trail race (or even a training run) for enjoyment and take time to enjoy the views and take some photos.

The course comes out onto Skyline Parkway, which I’ve conveniently scouted a couple times over this short training cycle. This whole section is fairly runnable, but I walked the hills of Skyline in order to preserve my legs, even though they are relatively gentle hills. I went right through the first aid station set up near the Magney-Snively trailhead, and turned onto the Magney X-C ski trails (though a driver was for some reason stopped in the road and obstructing me from taking a clear route onto the trail). While I didn’t stop at the aid station, I did have a gel during this section (s’mores flavor! Actually tasty!), the only one I’d eat during the whole race. Real food (and by real, I mean store-bought, mass-produced cookies) seemed much more appealing than artificially flavored slime.

Skyline Parkway to Becks Rd (2.7 miles, 43:12, 16:00 section pace)
This section was ok. I don’t like the cross-country ski trail section, since I don’t like running in grass (especially not in my shoes, the traction nubbers on the bottom get caught in long grass), but it wasn’t a hard section. I trotted along at a decent clip, walking when needed. The trail jumped back onto Skyline Parkway, and then just before Beck’s Rd, took a quick turn, with a short but steep uphill. A volunteer was standing at the top of that hill offering continuous, enthusiastic encouragement, and there were funny signs like “This is a lot of work for a free banana.” The aid station was just across the road. I stopped there quickly to chug some pop and eat a cookie.

Since this was an odd year, this section included neither Jarrow’s Beach nor the ropes course. These are infamous sections of the course that I have yet to have the pleasure of experiencing. The 1.2 miles of the course removed here were added to the Peterson’s to Forbay Lake section later on.

Becks Rd to Fond du Lac (3.3 mi, 52:41, 15:58 section pace)
This section is awesome, thanks to its extremely runnable trail. I cruised along, splashing through a few creek crossings, which reminded me that I need to find some serious socks before my 100K attempt. I’ve been running in cheap socks without consequence for awhile, but I was really tempting fate by squishing along in crappy socks and wet shoes. During this section, I was leap-frogging with this guy who was listening to either a podcast or a book on tape, and I was not thrilled. I run trails so I can enjoy the scenery, not so I can listen to someone else’s music/podcast/gossipy conversation. I encountered him several times during the race, leapfrogging with him a lot due to his run/walk strategy (it was very odd, because he was often running the harder sections and walking the easier sections, but whatever works, I guess?), so I’m going to say with about 95% confidence it was a book on tape. My attention span is pretty short as it is, but during a race sometimes my mind goes completely blank for several minutes at a time, so I’m not sure what value a book on tape would have during a trail race. How much of the content could possibly register? Maybe other people have better concentration than I do. There was one final creek crossing before the aid station, at which I had pop and cookies, threw away my garbage, and continued.

Fond du Lac to Seven Bridges (2 mi, 35:26, 17:43 section pace)
I ran most of this section without seeing that many people. It consisted of a big climb and then a runnable section. I think. Now I can’t remember. I remember a lot of climbing, but my GPS data says that it flattened out a bit. This was another new section of trail for me that intersected with some familiar trails (including some of my least favorite parts of the SHT in this area, but at least they were short). I need to start being more adventurous and try out some new trails. I rolled into the aid station on the Munger Trail, grabbed some cookies and pop, and re-applied sunscreen.

Seven Bridges to Grand Portage (2.8 mi, 1:00:32, 21:37 section pace)
I joined up with my friend Rita (with whom I ran Wild Duluth) and her friend for the first part of this section. It was a bit technical, and we were all very apprehensive about the powerlines section ahead. Last year, Rita ran Curnow for the first time, and the powerlines section about killed her (that and not eating anything during the race – she had a massive bonk!), so we were all pretty anxious. And then we came out on the powerlines, and I saw why.

The powerlines portion of the race starts with a steep downhill. The other 2 ladies stopped to take a quick photo, and I started the descent (resulting in a photobomb, shown below), ready to get it over with. This photo of course does not do it justice.

Powerlines

The first ascent is by far the worst – it was so muddy I nearly lost my shoes as I put my feet in the footholes of other runners, grabbed at bushes and branches to pull myself up, and slipped a few times, covering my hands and legs in mud. And there’s not a lot of shade. It was fortunate that this came slightly earlier in the course than in other years – that meant I was a little less tired and the sun wasn’t quite as high yet.

I struggled to the top of the first hill, thinking there was no way I’d be able to complete several more climbs like that. It was steep and slippery and frustrating. Fortunately, it was the worst of them, and while I can’t say it was pleasant to duck-foot my way down the steep descents and then haul myself slowly up the next ascent, while the sun beat down on me (no tank top this time though, so my shoulders were covered!), I had imagined it being way worse.  One of the powerline hills had a skeleton wearing a hydration pack, shoes, and a 2013 race bib – it was a nice touch!

I ran most of this first section with a woman I recognized from the Harder ‘n Hell Half. I remembered her cheering me along at several sections along the course, and I told her that she had really made my day with her unexpected support. I saw her a few times during the race (though the powerlines was the last), and each time, she was offering helpful advice in a kind tone to any runner nearby.

There was a short shaded section of non-powerlines, then a couple more, and then one last little one before I rolled into the aid station feeling more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, etc. A few piece of this section are part of the Wild Duluth course, although it includes only that last one little powerline hill.

A woman in the aid station was dealing with nausea (certainly not the only person out there), the first signs the heat was starting to take its toll on runners. I drank some pop, had some cookies and potato chips, and left.

Grand Portage to Peterson’s (2 mi, 39:09, 19:35 section pace)
So while “the worst” was over, according to the volunteer at Grand Portage, that wasn’t entirely true. This section was pretty hard. It was basically all uphill, and I wasn’t interested in doing more climbing. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I had run parts of this section during a training run, so it was somewhat familiar, but it was still kind of frustrating. Peterson’s aid station is in the middle of the woods, which I thought was really cool. I got a high five from a young girl as I trotted in. The aid station was littered with tired looking runners, but I was in and out, despite the frustration of the climb, after grabbing – guess what – pop and cookies. I stuck with what worked.

Peterson’s to Forbay Lake (4.2 mi, 1:08:02, 16:12 section pace)
This section seemed to go on forever, although at first I was loving it, because there was a nice descent and I was cruising. But what goes down must come up, so up I went. Forever. At one point I swear I went up a trail that wound all the way around a hill twice. So that sucked. I knew at some point the trail would come out at the Munger Trail and I could pick up speed for a little while, although I was worried about getting hit with full sun. It was really getting warm (I reapplied sunscreen again during this section), and while it seemed pretty warm in the woods as there wasn’t much breeze, I knew direct exposure to sunlight would be worse. I’m not really sure what part was added to compensate for removing the Jarrow’s Beach section, as there were a couple trail intersections that could have led to the alternate routes. I suppose I’ll have to run it again to find out.

During this section I encountered a guy I dubbed “flypaper guy.” He was wearing a sticky piece of flypaper on his hat, to attract deer flies. It looked like it had been previously used, as the flypaper was blue but there were smears of yellowish-brown on it. So that was really, really disgusting, even if it was actually just some kind of bug repellent. I followed flypaper guy for awhile before I was able to get ahead of him for good. I also encountered two larger groups of people (one group of 4 and one group of 5) who seemed to be totally half-assing the race. I mean, one group actually admitted it as I passed them. I commented that didn’t make me feel that great, because I was working my butt off and it took me 18 (19? I don’t know) miles to catch them. Hooray for me, I beat both groups, but still, it’s somewhat demoralizing to know that people can saunter their way through a race at a pace that I’m working my butt off to achieve.

At this point I was trying to get back on track for a sub-7:30 finish. Before I hit the powerlines, I was ahead of 7:15 pace, but I gave that back and more over the powerlines, and during the Grand Portage-Peterson’s section, I gave back the rest. They aren’t fast sections, so I wasn’t mad about it, I was just hoping there was enough easy terrain remaining to make up time, or avoid losing time. I knew if I got to the aid station before… um… 11:56, maybe? I can’t remember. I think it must be, I know it was :56. Anyway, I knew if I made it there before that, I’d be on 7:30 pace again. I tried to run as best I could on the Munger Trail, and then turned onto the easy, flat section leading into Forbay, the aid station I’d volunteered at for Voyager last year. From that experience, I knew there was “less than 10K to the finish,” since I’d said it probably 100 times last year, and I was really excited to get in to the aid station. I made it at 11:55 and was out of there pretty quickly after slamming some Coke and ginger ale. No cookies though. I knew I wanted to run, and didn’t want to upset my stomach.

Forbay Lake to Jay Cooke (2.4 mi, 33:34, 13:59 section pace)
I cruised through this section. I couldn’t even believe it, I was so surprised I had the legs to run it. I even ran some of the gradual inclines. After leaving the aid station at Forbay, I crossed the dam and ran along the river for a short bit. The section along the river after the dam is kind of annoying, because it’s on smooth stone gravel, so I wasn’t getting a lot of spring out of my legs. It’s also exposed to the sun, but there was a breeze off the river. I turned onto a grassy section after maybe half a mile, and that took me the rest of the way to the aid station. I picked off a lot of people during this section; there were probably 4 or 5 people walking that I zipped past (“zipped” being a relative term). At the aid station, I drank one warm cup of ginger ale and left.

Jay Cooke to finish (3.3 mi, 56:14, 17:02 section pace)
I knew this section got technical but… it was not great. I read a race report from last year awhile ago and forgot about his description of this last section. Maybe I’d have managed my expectations better if I’d read it more recently. The previous section of the course had given me a false sense that the worst was over and it was all gravy to the finish. Nope.

I crossed the swinging bridge at Jay Cooke just grinning, knowing I was a little over 5K from the finish. I soon learned the rockiest, rootiest section of the course was saved for last, and it was so frustrating. At one point I was on my butt going down a section of rock.  (I inadvertently hit the lap button on my watch about 4 times during this part – why don’t watch designers factor in that we trail runners find ourselves crawling, scooting, or otherwise bending our wrists during our adventures, and put the buttons somewhere the backs of our hands can’t squish them?) There was a lot of mud as well, which stuck to my shoes and made me worry about slipping. Oh, and there were plenty of little climbs in there, too. I ran when I could, but for the first 2 miles, those options were few and far between.

With a mile to go, the trail evened out and I was able to run, and then with half a mile to go, we spilled onto the Munger Trail and headed for Carlton. A guy fell in behind me during the beginning of this section after I passed him, and ran most of if with me, silently. I wasn’t sure what his deal was – was he annoyed that I had passed him? was he using me to stay motivated? was he hard of hearing and that’s why he was quiet? – but when the trail smoothed out and we finally stopped dodging mud, he encouraged me to pass a group of 3 guys, and I somehow found the legs to do so. We ran together until the Munger Trail when he pulled ahead (he had anticipated me pulling ahead, but I didn’t have the guts). It was hot on the pavement, as it was in full sun and the trail was radiating heat, but I wasn’t on it for too long. I’ve run this short section of the Munger Trail a few times recently (it is only a few miles from the trailhead near Jay Cooke, where Dalles Rd meets Hwy 210), so I was familiar with where we were, and knew the DNR park was just ahead, which was most likely the finish. I was grinning as the finish line came into sight, and SO HAPPY to see the clock was in the 7:20s. Some friends were at the finish line cheering, and I was handed my ceramic medal and race shirt after I crossed. Even though I was hot, tired, and a little out of it, I was so happy.

I drank some more pop and ate half a cookie while I waited for my husband to come to pick me up, and also for my friends to finish. It was probably stupid to sit in the sun for another 45 minutes, but I didn’t really mind that much. We stuck around until Rita finished, and then left to go pick up my car from the start. I turned on the air in the car so I could start recovering and bring my heart rate down.

I picked up my car at the start, then drove myself home. I took a shower and then a nap when I got home. I don’t normally nap at all because I usually feel terrible afterward, but I was really zoning out and I knew the alternative was to sit on the couch miserable, tired, and half-dead. I was worried about getting dehydrated further during my nap, but I didn’t wake up feeling terrible or with a monster headache. I don’t think I got super dehydrated during the race either, thanks to my hydration strategy (pop at almost all aid stations, and then sipping water from my pack whenever I needed it) and my cooling strategy (which was basically sunscreen reapplication – I didn’t take any ice or douse my clothes/head with water).

This race is awesome, but I am not 100% sure it’s going to become a staple for me. I don’t love the super hard sections like the powerlines or the end, but at the same time, now that I know what to expect, maybe I won’t mind as much. I also don’t love the heat, but the race offers same day registration, so there’s always the possibility of waiting til race day to see the forecast, and then signing up. The course marking, volunteers, and race organization are excellent. There was never a chance to go off trail unless someone really tried to. I do anticipate doing this race again in the future, but I am not sure if that means annually, or intermittently.

I do feel a sense of redemption completing the race after my DNS last year. I do think that it was a good choice, considering my lack of experience and the difficulty of the course, but I know it’s not a decision most runners would feel justified making. There is something special in going back to a race that went poorly and dominating it – I look forward to doing the same at FANS next year!

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4 thoughts on “Race Report: Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon

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