Saturday, September 10, 2011

How to Run a 9 Hour Marathon: Moose Mountain Marathon 2011 Report

Saturday, September 10, 2011
Lutsen, MN

Moose Mountain Marathon is held up on the North shore of Lake Superior near Lutsen, MN. It's up North. Waaaayyyy up North. You might as well call it Canada; that's what it felt like. The entire race is on the Superior Hiking Trail and follows the last 26.2 miles of the point to point Sawtooth Superior 100 mile course, which started the day before.

This was supposed to be my first marathon, but thanks to some unnamed friends, I ended up running my first ultra back in May and another trail marathon in July. Honestly, I'm glad I had some experience under my belt. The course is tough and I under estimated just how long I would be out there. After all, Sawtooth Superior isn't a Hardrock 100 qualifier for nothing. This race is technically a marathon in distance, but I was treating it like an ultra. I finished my trail 50K in a little over 7 hours. Thanks to the elevation and technicality of the course, I knew this race was going to take me longer. Just how much longer was a mystery to me.

As we made the long drive up scenic highway 61 to Lutsen, I was amazed and how much the terrain changed the further North we got. What are those things on the horizon looming in the distance? Hills? Oh, those are bigger than hills. Mountains? Kind of. While they certainly weren't the Rockies, they were, uh, big. Big enough that I thought, "Now just what did I get myself into?"

The race started Saturday morning on an isolated and desolate dirt road in the middle of nowhere. To get to the start, you turned off the main highway and drove up, up, and more up to get there. There were approximately 150 marathon runners ready to brave the forest. We all had to check in before the race started; the RD did a good job of keeping track of every racer while we were out on the course. He gave a short speech about rugged and remote trail and told us to stay safe and we were off. Just a short little half mile jaunt on the dirt road before we turned onto the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT.)

Marathon start.

I'm ready to go!

How to run a 9 hour marathon:

Step 1: Pick a tough course. This marathon had 5,500 feet of elevation gain, which equates to over 200 feet per mile. There were climbs that had me with my hands on my knees. There were climbs that I had to stop and take short breaks on because my heart rate was through the roof and I could barely breathe. There were climbs that had me gripping rocks, trees, anything I could find to pull myself up. There were descents that I had to side step because I didn't have a sled and couldn't figure out any other way to get down. This trail also happens to be some of the most technical out there. The ground was completely littered in roots, rocks, and numerous planks/bridges. I'd try to get a rhythm going only to stub my toe on a huge root and almost fly off a cliff.

Step 2: Have no goals other than to finish, not get lost, and take a lot of pretty pictures. I had no qualms about leaving the trail to get a good shot, stopping to gaze over scenic vistas and just taking my sweet time in general. I wandered off into rivers, hopped over rocks, and even slightly bushwacked my way off trail.

Step 3: Help a fellow racer in need, with no regards as to how long it will take you. More on this later.

Step 4: Run with a sprained ankle. Sprain said ankle around mile 18. Again. For the 10th time since spring. Curse repeatedly.

The first section of the SHT is deceiving and lures you into over confidence. It was maybe a mile or so in and I was thinking, "Oh, this isn't so bad. Pfffttt, I run at (insert name of hard trails at home) all the time. I can handle this." Then it goes on to smack you in the face for your ignorance.

It was an absolutely beautiful day, but warm for Northern Minnesota in the high 70s. I was happily running the flats and downs, power hiking the ups, and stopping to take pictures when I felt like it. With only three aid stations on the course, I opted to wear my pack so I had plenty of water and food on me. I was feeling good and enjoying the beautiful scenery that the North had to offer. I spent the first few miles with this man on my tail who seemed content just to stay there and not pass. I got tired of it and stepped off the trail to take a picture and let him go by. After that, I was happy to just roll along by myself for a while.

Lake Superior in the distance.

Lots of these little bridges.

Does this even need a caption?

We did a lot of running along side the Temperance River, which was beautiful. I passed my first 100 mile runner somewhere in here. He was stumbling along, not looking well. I asked him how he was doing and he replied, "Horrible." I then asked him if he needed anything and he said that he needed a new pair of feet. Touche. My feet would begin to feel beat up later in the race and I was only going 26.2.

I knew that I had a steep downhill to tackle before the first aid station at 7.9 miles. We were up high now with breathtaking views of Lake Superior on the horizon. I kept thinking that we had to hit the downhill soon, but we just kept going up and up. Finally, we hit the switchback filled downhill. There hadn't been any rain lately (evidenced by the fire raging up there currently), so the trail was quite dusty. Our trails at home are very solid, but this one was loose dirt and I almost felt like I could slide down. I was worried about slipping, so I didn't quite let myself fly like I would normally do on a downhill in the beginning of a race. I made it down unscathed and into the aid station.

At AS #1

My crew was there to greet me and I grabbed my standards at the aid station: potato chips, crackers and oranges. I chatted a bit with a French couple and got back on the trail rather quickly. Not but a half mile down the trail, we were greeted with amazing views of the river. There was waterfall after waterfall and every turn seemed to more gorgeous than the last. I stopped frequently to take pictures, admire the scenery and soak in the experience. Sometimes when I stopped, a racer would pass me, but other times I saw no one. The pack was separating and getting very thinned out.

Yep, definitely went off trail to get this shot.

Gorgeous. I did not feel like we were in Minnesota.

Oh hi, don't mind me. I'm just off trail again.

We ran along side the river, crossed over it, and along side it again before we started what felt like the biggest climb on the course. It actually was not the tallest, but definitely the longest. I've done some longer climbs on trails at home, but this was much, much steeper than anything that I have ran before. It involved a very slow hike, and I even stopped to catch my breath a few times and ogle just how high we were going. There was a huge rock formation up top and I thought, "Oh no, we're not going up there, are we?" Time and more trail passes..."Yep, we're going up there. Shit!" I wasn't feeling well at this point. I felt a little nauseous and light headed. I took a gel and tried to compose myself. I eventually started feeling better, I think thanks to the gel. I probably had just needed the electrolytes and calories.

We were almost to the top of the peak when the French couple, who was just slightly ahead me at this point, and I ran into a girl who was not looking well. She was hunched over on the trail with an inhaler. We stopped to ask her how she was doing. Not good. She hadn't been feeling well the whole race and it had gotten progressively worse on the long climb. She was ready to DNF, but didn't know if she could make it down to the aid station, which was probably 2 miles away. The husband of the French couple down to the aid station to let the volunteers know and to find this woman's husband while we waited with her. She was wheezing and told us that she felt very sick. We made her sick down on a rock. She was very pale and I was a little worried about how we were going to get her off the trail. We hadn't quite made it to the top of the climb and then we had to go downhill to the aid station.

I don't know how long we sat with her before she declared that she wanted to try walking again. She was able to stand up on her own and wasn't wheezing anymore, but she was still white and nauseous. We let her set the pace and very slowly we made our way up the trail, stopping to take breaks. We made her sit down during these breaks and she would put her head in between her legs, which seemed to help. I was able to take in the spectacular views from up top while we were slowly making our way to the top of the big rock formation. I had no qualms about extending my race and wasting as much time needed to help get this girl to the aid station. I was only out here to have fun and enjoy the trail anyway. It never even crossed my mind to leave her.

The three of us made it to peak and we stopped for an extended break for our new friend to compose herself. Both of them were out of water, but thankfully I had plenty in my pack, so we divided it up. After our rest, we made our way down the other side of the "mountain." Going downhill seemed to help her and she was able to walk for longer periods of time now. She was very insistent about wanting to just get to the aid station and not be stuck on the trail, so we kept walking. She still felt sick, but was able to walk, so I figured that was a good sign. Eventually we ran into her husband, who had been alerted and came up the trail to find her. While she was very happy to see him, she really needed to get to the aid station and sit, which was now less than a mile away. Her husband insisted and he would take care of her and it would be okay, so the French woman and I wished her well and took off jogging to the aid station to let the volunteers know that the girl was okay and her husband had found us.

Part of the rock formation.

It's hard to tell, but you could see far off into the distance.

Trail off to the right.

It wasn't too long before we hit the aid station at mile 13.6. I was so happy to arrive and grab some food after our extended section. My French friend went to the bathroom while I went back out on the trail. I figured that she would eventually catch back up to me, but she never did so I was alone again on the trail.

Tired and only half way.

A couple of miles later, I was going up a slow uphill filled with switchbacks. I was walking a lot. I was tired and out of my rhythm. This was the first of my major low points. I slogged along, trying to decide whether I should keep going or wait for the French girl so I could have some company. I opted to keep going -- relentless forward motion, after all. Around mile 16 or 17, I ate some fig newtons and put on my headphones. The music got me going again. It was an instant lift. I was running again. This section was "flat," so I was able to make up some lost time and find my legs again. It felt good to run and I enjoying myself. The trail was a little less technical now, so I was moving well. Of course this is where I rolled my ankle. It's those easier sections that always get me. I let my guard down just slightly and BAM. Rolled ankle. I had to stop for a few minutes and lean on a tree and compose myself. My left ankle has been getting rolled all summer, so I'm used to it by now. I gingerly stepped on it. It would be okay, I just needed to walk again for a little while. Eventually I was able to start running again and pretty soon I made my way into the last aid station at mile 19.1.

Some of these were a little unstable!

Nope, I never tripped once. Honest.

Coming into this aid station, I had a list of things I needed to get done and was repeating in my head: Bathroom, fill pack, tape toes, eat. I was going to have my crew help me with some of this, but when I came into the aid station, they were no where to be found. Huh. However, no one else was at this aid station, so I got first class service. A guy took my pack from me as I went to the bathroom. When I came out, he had it filled with ice and water upon my request. Next I took off my right sock and shoe and another guy gave me duct tape to tape my big toe, which was already blistered and giving me a hot spot. Sock and shoe back on and hey, there's my crew! Just a little late to this aid station. One of the guys asked me what I wanted from the aid station. "Uhhhh, something..." "How about some coke?" My eyes lit up! Yeah, Coke would be great. I downed two cups of Coke, ate more chips, grabbed some gels and my crew walked me up to the trail. Only 7 more miles to go.
This final section just about killed me. 6 something hours had passed and I knew I was in for two big climbs on the way to the finish: Moose Mountain and Mystery Mountain. Since the marathon was named after Moose Mountain, I figured it had to be a doozy. I had a few miles to get there and I didn't know if there would be signs to alert me that I was on Moose Mountain or if I would just know from the grade of the trail. I just knew. I turned a corner on the trail and looked...up. "F$%ck." Climb. Use my hands to grab roots to get up. Climb. Turn a corner. "Ohhh, f$%ck." Climb. Grab onto trees to pull myself up. Rest. Climb. Turn another corner. "F$%CK ME!" Is this over yet? My heart was pounding out of my chest. I don't know where I could have run at home to prepare myself for this. It was, uh, a little steep.

View from the top of Moose Mountain.

I think I got to the top of the mountain before a 50 miler caught up to me. We exchanged out of breath pleasantries and he told me that at least the worst was over. I asked about Mystery Mountain. His reply was something about how it's much more gradual. Oh, thank you. I stopped to take a few pictures and admire Lake Superior, but my picture taking was starting to slow. I just wanted to be done with this race already. I was tired and longing to sit down.

Somewhere on top.

Then we had to go down Moose Mountain. F$%ccckkkkk. Can I fashion a sled out of something? No? Uhhh, okay, maybe I can just, uh, no, that won't work. Well, I can't RUN down this slope. Side stepping it is, I guess. I gingerly picked my way down Moose, but I almost think that I would have rather gone up it again. Going down may have been slower than going up.

Part of the downhill; this was MUCH steeper than it looks.

More trail. More looking at my watch. Run. Walk. Run. Walk. I'm tired. Is this over yet? Tired. I'm only at mile 23?! Walk, walk, run, walk, run. Long, slow, switchbacks heading up. This must be Mystery Mountain. Finally get to the top. I can see ski hills and chairlifts off in this distance, which is Caribou Highlands Lodge and where we are finishing. I am elated, but still have 2(ish) miles left to go. The last part of trail was just concentrating on getting done. I was exhausted. I wasn't sure if I was going to finish in under 9 hours or not. Then I decided that it would be kind of cool to finish in over 9 hours because I have run 8:XX hours before, but never 9:XX hours.

I could make out the ski hills! Finally!

Just down the road and around the corner is the finish.

Finally, we pop off the Superior Hiking Trail and onto a dirt road, which leads us past a bunch of cabins and tourists (who do not cheer at all) and to the ski lodge. So close. Just keep running. I see my watch flip over to 9 hours. Any minute now. And finally, down a slight little hill and I can see the finish line. There's a fairly big crowd, lots of people from the lodge are sitting outside and there's a wedding reception happening as well. Cross over the line to big cheers. I am done. 9:06:XX. Not the longest distance that I have run, but definitely the longest time on my feet.


Clearly not my time in the background.

This race was a challenge. I think most finishing times are 5-7 hours and the winner usually comes in around 4 hours. Amazingly, I was not even DFL at 9 hours. I think 3 or 4 people came in after me. The trail is stunningly beautiful, but also the hardest I have ever ran. Aid stations, volunteers, and the RD were top notch. I can't recommend this one enough if you're up for it.

Elevation profile.

My gross feet/legs, along with swollen left ankle.

Very cool finisher's award.

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