Feeling the Power! Voyageur Trail Ultra 50 Recap

WHAT A RELIEF.

Two months after my crash-and-burn DNF at Glacier Ridge, I successfully completed the Voyageur Trail Ultra in Carlton, Minnesota, a little 50-mile jaunt to Duluth and back along a picturesque, and often treacherous, set of trails.

The Voyageur was a dress rehearsal for my upcoming 100K attempt at Run Woodstock, and I ran it with just two goals: 1) finish the damn thing, and 2) have fun doing it. And I did! I ran the entire race on an even keel, and though my feet and legs were plenty sore, I had energy in reserve. I’ll sure need it for those 12 extra miles in September!

That doesn’t mean the race was easy – far from it. In some ways it was the toughest ultra I’ve run to date.  Here’s a recap of this memorable race. I will let the pictures do most of the talking. Enjoy!

Me at the start, all geared up. The field was about 250 - their largest ever. 211 finished.

Me at the start, all geared up. Details on the gear and hydration strategy changes I made in an upcoming post.

Early on - the trail gets tricky.

The trail gets tricky early on. Yes, you would really have a bad time if you slipped. And this was just a warmup.

Gorgeous views throughout.

Gorgeous views throughout.

Some of the course isn’t so much a trail as a suggestion of one. The official name of this part is the Carlton Trail, but I prefer what the Chippewa call it: Crazy-Paleface-Break-Ankle. (*)

Voyageur - Treacherous Trail

The ropes in this section are NOT optional. You won’t get up (or back down) without them.

Voyageur - Ropes

The good news here is, you’re out of the woods. But you’ve entered the infamous Power Lines. There were about five of these ravines to deal with – muddy on the way out, broiling hot on the way back. And don’t slip.

What goes down...

What goes way down…

Must come way up - on hands and knees.

Must come way up – on hands and knees. But don’t worry, there are handy thorn bushes to grab onto. (Ask me how I know.)

Creek dancing - the new craze.

Creek dancing – the new craze.

Duluth at last! Hey, we could use a lift right now.

Duluth at last! Hey, how about a lift? We won’t tell.

Turnaround! Dry socks and fresh shoes! Woohoo! Now run the entire thing in reverse.

Voyageur - Turnaround Station 2

Another spectacular view.

Another spectacular view.

Did I mention there were gorgeous views throughout?

Did I mention there was gorgeous scenery throughout?

Finished! Mission accomplished!

Voyageur 2015 - Finish Line

And a big shout-out to this guy (Joe) who was running his first-ever 50-miler, and supporting the Noah’s Hope Foundation. “Sure is a big difference from a 5K,” he told me. Wait – for real? Yep, he’d run nothing in between. And he finished!

Voyageur - Joe - Run for Noah

Next up: The changes that made all the difference.

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(*) Okay, maybe the Chippewa don’t really call it that, but I’m sure any of them would agree with it.

Congratulations! And Here’s Your Citation, Sir

“Did you hear about Scott Jurek?” someone asked me recently during a Saturday group run.

“Yeah,” I said. “He set a record for running the Appalachian Trail.” The ultrarunning legend had completed the 2,200 mile trail in just over 46 days. One 50-mile run is a real challenge for me; Jurek averaged 50 miles a day.

“When he finished he got a littering citation,” my friend added, “for spilling champagne on the trail.”

"You can see for yourselves the damage that can be wrought by an inferior brand of bubbly."

“You can see for yourselves the damage that can be wrought by an inferior brand of bubbly.”

That sounded like one of the ludicrous but true stories in the This Is True newsletter (which I subscribe to, and recommend). But I suspected there was more to it than Prohibitionist park officials. And as an Outside magazine subscriber, I received an email linking to their story on the subject. If you’re at all interested in our National Parks, you should read it (click here).

Jurek had finished on Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park, and the park’s director decided to set a public and highly visible example. The champagne wasn’t the real issue; rather, it was the commercial aspect of his finish, which hadn’t been authorized by the park. There were also far more people there than park rules allowed.

It’s ironic that efforts to get people exercising outside, and to experience our wilderness areas, can lead to overstressing the wilderness. We entrust park officials to preserve and protect the parks but also to permit public access to them. It’s a fine line to walk.

The story remains controversial. (For another perspective, read the Runner’s World article here.) But perhaps that’s the point. Hopefully it will bring abuse of park property into focus and help educate people how to enjoy wilderness while preserving it for others.

In an upcoming post I will address my disgust with another controversial “athletic” activity taking place in our National Parks. While “following your passion” sounds great and fulfilling on the surface, it can wreak havoc with other people who don’t deserve to have to clean up when things go wrong.

In the meantime, I’d welcome your thoughts on whether the Baxter State Park director acted appropriately or went overboard with Mr. Jurek.

How Not to Taper

“We have to go light today,” I told Mark, my Body Specs trainer, on Thursday afternoon. “I’ve been feeling sore all week, and I have a long trail run Saturday morning.”

Monday’s workout, while not like the previous two weeks (shall we say, “Bru-tall”), had still been fairly intense, and I was not up for another one like that. Besides, I’m in the taper period before my July 25 race.

“What did you do after Monday’s session?” he asked.

Well, the usual – Aikido Monday night, then a Tuesday evening run with PR Fitness that had somehow or other turned into a tempo run. On hills. On Wednesday I’d volunteered at the Pterodactyl Triathlon, which hadn’t involved anything strenuous, but I’d been on my feet for over five hours doing this and that.

Mark looked at me. “So what you’re telling me is that you didn’t take a day off on your own taper week.” He shook his head. “I’d be sore, too!”

Guilty as charged, sir.

In my relatively short marathon and ultramarathon career, I’ve found the taper period to be, at times, more difficult than the training. Not in exertion, but the lack thereof. It takes discipline to cut back, to not run as far or as hard, before a race.

Pace too fast 2

What makes taking it easy so hard?

I know the reasons for tapering. Rest and recovery are needed to be at peak form before a race. And gains from strength training, or long running, take about three weeks to be manifested. So hard training the two weeks before a race provides zero benefit and could easily mess me up. Overworked muscles and injury, for example.

And there’s the ol’ competitive nature to deal with. Like with Tuesday’s run. I’d planned to go easy, but the group started off fast and I didn’t feel like being left in the dust. Then we hit the uphill repeats, and what was I supposed to do? Let people pass me?

Never met a hill I didn't want to charge up. (Channeling T.R.?)

Never met a hill I didn’t want to charge up. (Channeling T.R.?)

Ah, the ego. Despite ten years of Aikido it remains stubbornly unconquered. Or, as we say in my profession, “always further opportunities for improvement.”

Fortunately, I have another week to get my act together. Saturday’s 16-miler will be a dress rehearsal for the Voyageur Trail Ultra, with a fully stocked drop bag and trail backpack. I will also be trying out a revised strategy for hydration (carry more water, drink more water), electrolytes (salt tablets), and heat protection (a cap with UV blocker). Then everything short and easy next week.

And I promised myself to take it easy until Saturday morning. (With the exception of a stretching clinic yesterday evening. It was brief. And Skip from Body Specs was teaching it. How could he be mad at me for going?)

Ultras Up Ahead: Power Lines and LSD

DWD Devils Lake - Halfway Point - cropped 2I MUST REALLY LOVE running crazy long distances in the woods. Otherwise, why would I keep signing up for the silly things?

My 2015 race calendar is less ambitious than 2014, however, when I had over 30 events mapped out in a color-coded spreadsheet. This year I’ve run seven so far, with only two others officially signed up for. There will be more, but I’m being more selective and giving myself more time to train. Still feels odd to have all this time between races.

No need to get quite so fancy this year.

No need to get quite so fancy this year.

But fewer races doesn’t mean an easier schedule. Here are the upcoming races I’m committed to:

Saturday, July 25 – Voyageur Trail Ultra 50

From the website.

From the website.

Billing itself as, “one of the oldest trail ultras in the nation,” this race treks through Minnesota’s Jay Cooke State Park from Carlton to Duluth and back. As its name implies, it’s a 50-miler, promising “scenic overlooks of Duluth and Lake Superior, the iconic Swinging Bridge over the St. Louis River, and the infamous Power Lines.” I can only guess what’s “infamous” about those lines. If I survive I’ll let you know.

I chose this race over Burning River, a much larger event on the same day in Cuyahoga, Ohio that attracts top ultra talent from all over. The BR was much closer to home, and I’d actually begun the signup process. Then an innocent little question on the entry form changed everything:

Bus ride to start? (Yes / No)

Turns out the race is point-to-point, and you’re expected to park (and/or stay) in the finish area. The 50-miler starts at 6:00 a.m. (okay), but the runners must be on the bus by 4:30. That means dragging my butt out of bed at 4:00. Sorry, that time of morning doesn’t exist. Oh, and the 100-milers? They must be on their bus by 2:30. Yikes!

So I chose the Minnesota race instead. I like that it’s smaller, and that it was half the price. And my motel is just a few miles from the start (and finish).

Friday/Saturday, September 11-12: Run Woodstock LSD 100K

Run Woodstock - Randy StepThe Pinckney trail system was the site of my first 50K (2012) and first 50-miler (2013). Last year was supposed to be my first triumphant 100K, but Nature and my body had different ideas. So it’s back to Hell Creek Ranch to give it another go.

This ultra starts at 4:00 in the afternoon – a very civilized time if you ask me. Of course, my likely finish time of 15-16 hours means I will be running literally all night long. Still beats getting up in the middle of the night in my book.

LSD, by the way, can stand either for “Long, Slow Distance” or for the substance you suspect I might have been on when I signed up for this. Your choice. I have read several accounts of runners experiencing hallucinations during ultras, so maybe the traditional definition wins out anyway.

I’m also intrigued by the Speedgoat, a 50K in Utah that has nearly 12,000 feet of climbing – all at 7,600 feet or above. What a shame it’s the same weekend as the Voyageur! Oh, well, maybe next year.

How Runners Have Fun

WARNING: This post contains material of an “adult” nature. If it offends your sensibilities in any way, then I’ve done my job. And thanks for reading.

YOU NON-RUNNERS OUT THERE may wonder what runners do for fun. Well, the first answer of any runner would be, “running, of course.”  But contrary to what you may believe, we do know how to throw a party.

Me Playing Disc GolfHow good a party? Let me ask you this: at what kind of party can one have the opportunity to taste wine, drink a shot, sit in a Corvette, swim fully clothed, play disc golf, eat ice cream, and (gasp!) bare it all – while running? The answer is the Running Fit Events Dash and Burn Soiree, which took place Thursday night at a secret location near Northville.

The D&B is the annual “thank you” party for event volunteers, so only volunteers get invited. (See the end of this post for how to get involved.)  It’s low-key but a lot of fun. And this year the Events staff spiced up the pre-party run by adding a scavenger hunt. The mission was to locate area landmarks and/or perform certain activities, and Instagram photos back to the staff. As I (very happily) don’t own a smartphone, I brought along my daughter Rachel, who lent her social media expertise to the effort.

We teamed up with two nice ladies (Jen and Kelly), and were handed a hand drawn map of the Northville area and a checklist of things to find or do (including, yes, a “run naked” item). At 6:00 we were sent off. We had until 7:15 to return and hand in our checklist, along with the photos of items completed.

I believe this "half price for men" is grounds for gender discrimination.

I believe this “half price for men” is grounds for gender discrimination.

Some items were easy, such as climbing a tree or doing sit-ups. Others required exploring the Northville area – on foot, of course. Unfortunately, Kelly was injured and had to drop out, so our team of three hotfootted into town. Jen’s knowledge of the area proved incredibly valuable as we went through the list. Here’s a sampling of the things we were able to accomplish in 75 minutes.

Rachel scores big for our team!

Rachel scores big for our team!

Runners are very sophisticated drinkers.

Runners are very sophisticated drinkers.

The church people hoped we'd win. I didn't tell them what I thought we needed to do to win.

The church people hoped we’d win. (I didn’t tell them what I thought we needed to do to win.)

Lucky break: finding a real horse in the Northville Downs parking lot.

Lucky break: finding a real horse (big bonus) in the Northville Downs parking lot.

One downer in an otherwise great hunt: the Corvette owner rudely denied our request to sit in his car. And he worked in a sewing shop! Well, we know where we’re never going to buy embroidery supplies.

So – if you’ve gotten this far, I bet it’s because you want to know if people really ran naked. (That’s okay – I’d do the same). So here you go.

The “run naked” item was 250 points, and I felt that just might win it for us. So with Rachel out of earshot, I told Jen I would “take one for the team” when we got back to the party site. She was surprised but didn’t object, so I sprinted to the finish table and asked if there was time. But the clock was just past 7:15. Darn!

During dinner I moped a bit because of the missed chance. And the scuttlebutt (so to speak) was that at least one other team had done it. So I wasn’t expecting much when Randy stepped to the mike to announce the results.

“Wow,” he said. “This team really did all that stuff? The winning team, with 2,275 points. Jeff, Jen, and Rachel, come on up here!” We’d won it after all, and I hadn’t had to strip off. Just as well – I’m sure it saved at least one camera from exploding, not to mention my daughter’s head.

Jen on my left, Rachel on my right.

Me with race bag, Jen with camp chair and Rachel with her well-earned blanket.

Our prize was first crack at the swag table, piled high with shirts, mugs, and other race prize paraphernalia. I spied a Dances with Dirt gym bag – perfect as a drop bag for trail ultras. Mine!

And I got one more unexpected shout-out for my “Most Valuable Runner” performance in 2014, when I ran all 24 Running Fit races. Good grief. What am I going to do for an encore?

Actually, I got a possible answer to that the next day, when a friend of mine who lives in Portland helpfully told me about this:

World Naked Bike Ride website

It’s too late for this year, but in 2016? Do I dare? If I do, my devoted readers will be the first to know. Can’t promise any photos, though.

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Want to join the party next year? Volunteer for a Running Fit event – which you can do at an event’s website. (Click here for the 2015 race calendar.) In addition to a $30 credit for a race entry, you get on the “A list” for the D&B. Such a deal! And you don’t have to be a runner to volunteer, although it would help to study the language. (For example, “fartlek” is not an obscenity.)

DXA2 and Me: Five Years and Still an Item!

Recently I celebrated a special anniversary. Five years ago I ran my first half marathon – the 2010 Dexter-Ann Arbor Run. I’ve run many more since then, on roads and trails, but that first one will always be memorable to me.

Dark, heavy clouds were overhead that day and a storm had knocked a tree down onto the road, delaying the start. But then we were off through downtown Dexter and a crowd of spectators, followed by ten scenic miles along the Huron River and onto Main Street in Ann Arbor, with a soul-sucking uphill climb to the finish line. And I found out what happens to nipples that don’t get taped. (It’s not pretty.)

I was hooked, and I’ve run it every year since. Who says men can’t commit?

Yep, last year was hot.

Yep, last year was hot.

Last year’s race was particularly nasty. It was hot, and the long hard winter meant many people hadn’t acclimated yet. I heard later that several runners passed out. The heat along with a poor hydration strategy caught up with me at mile 8 and ended my streak of faster finish times.

This year I vowed to be better prepared. I hydrated early and brought a handheld water bottle so I wouldn’t be dependent on the aid stations. And with my training runs in Costa Rica this spring, I felt acclimated. Bring on the 85 degrees and broiling sun. I wuz ready!

DXA2 2015 - Starting Line

Obviously, Nature had other plans.

Weather Underground had originally forecast rain on Saturday, with race day fairly clear and warmer. Then it changed its mind and moved the rain to Sunday, with temps around 50. I got an email from the race director – lightning might delay the start, but the race was on!

I wore my triathlon outfit, which is proving more and more versatile. As it’s designed to shed water and dry quickly, it was perfect for the rain. I was wringing water out of my shirt, but the singlet and shorts kept me reasonably dry and warm. For shoes I wore my Kinvara RunShields, which are designed for inclement weather. My feet got wet, of course, but there was no squishing or waterlogged feeling.

Another great boost - the PR Fitness aid station at mile 6. Thanks again!

Another great boost – the PR Fitness aid station at mile 6. Gatorade and friendly faces – what more could you ask for?

I left the handheld behind. With the rain and cool temps I would have no hydration issues. And I ditched the poncho at mile 4, deciding it was better to embrace the rain than fight it. As I’ve said before, one can only get so wet.

My strategy was to stick with the 1:35 pacer, my goal being any time better than that. All went well until mile 8 when despite a double knot, my right shoe came untied. With five miles to go at a strong pace, there was nothing for it but to stop and tie it, my target group disappearing down the road.

I tried but failed to channel my inner Denard.

I tried but failed to channel my inner Denard.

Not again, I thought. And I decided right then that it would not be “not again”. I stepped it up and ran through the next aid station instead of grabbing a drink. Thanks to the rain, I could afford it. Within a half mile I spotted the 1:35 sign again and in another half mile I’d caught up. Around mile 10 I went ahead of them, this time for good.

DXA2 2015 - Finish Area with PacerThe final climb on Main Street was still rough, and I came the closest I’ve ever come to tossing my cookies. But seeing “1:34″ on the finish line clock gave me a boost, and I finished in 1:34:39. A new best time for me on that course. Hard to be annoyed at the rain when it does that for you!

Hard to believe it’s been five years since that first half marathon. And next year will be five years since my first full marathon! Like they say, you never forget that first one. And – oops, gotta go. My wife is walking toward me holding a rolling pin. She must want to make me cookies!

Brave New Wearable World

My Garmin GPS watch has a built-in heart rate monitor. It communicates with a sensor that I strap around my chest. Then while I’m running I can read my heart rate real-time on the watch. It’s a very useful feature.

I don’t use it.

Why not? Well, the strap is annoying to wear. And I don’t know what my target heart rate should be for a given workout anyway. So even if I were to use it and collect all the data, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Which is one of the issues that wearable tech is bringing to the forefront, in particular in the medical device field. Here’s what just one new device called the Simband can collect and track:

Simband fitness trackerThe Simband … can keep tabs on your daily steps, heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, and how much sweat your sweat glands are producing.

I’m not disputing that this can be useful. And there’s nothing revolutionary about what it’s collecting. But this technology promises to disrupt the established medical model. We’re moving from doctors collecting selected information on an as-needed basis to handling floods of information coming in 24/7. It’s a change from assaying some ore samples to trying to filter out a few particles of gold from an onrushing river.

email_overloadThe fast growth in gadgets that can track your vital stats has the attention of the Food and Drug Administration as well. Medical devices are heavily regulated worldwide and must receive FDA approval before they can be sold in the U.S. The key is figuring out where an app crosses the line from providing information to attempting a diagnosis or prescribing treatment, and thus becomes a medical device.

So early in 2015 FDA published guidance that differentiates so-called “general wellness” products from those that pose risk to the user or provide medical advice. (If you’re one of those perverse individuals who likes reading government documents, you can access it here.) But here’s the gist of it: devices that strictly track information you would use for training or general health improvement are not subject to FDA regulation.

So the tracking of heart rate, calories consumed, sleep patterns and the like are fine. And the annoying app CARROT that I mentioned last time can suggest you are gravitationally challenged as long as it doesn’t diagnose you as clinically obese. (Some comfort, eh?)

It wasn't me! My phone said your butt looked fat!

It wasn’t me! My PHONE said you have enough butt for both of us!

Behavior is another hurdle to medical wearables becoming commonplace. According to a 2013 study, while one in 10 Americans owned an activity tracker, nearly half had stopped using them after six months. And the main consumers of wearable tech right now are millennials – young, healthy, and who readily embrace new tech. It’s unclear how the older and less affluent – those most likely to have chronic health issues – will embrace the new technology.

Finally, there’s the problem of protecting against those you don’t want seeing your training and/or medical history. Data privacy regulations like HIPAA are all well and good, but (surprise!) not everyone respects them. There are lots of people and organizations out there who would find your personal medical data very useful. Can a phone, watch, or other wearable keep data safe, or can the “cloud” can be made secure? I guess we’ll find out.

And perhaps I will be kicked into this brave new world anyway. Last week after the Dexter-Ann Arbor half marathon, my watch went kaput. So I will be getting a new one which will most likely have a heart rate monitor easier to access and use. And, no doubt, many other features I didn’t know I couldn’t live without. I can’t wait.

How did people ever run without all this stuff.

How did people ever go running without all this stuff?