Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Moose Mountain Marathon Race Report

So, how to begin this report....I am not sure.  There are so many elements to this past weekend and they all interweave in strange and wondrous ways. It's hard to really grasp what to include and what to leave out.

I guess I'll start by telling you all that I did successfully complete my goal race of the Moose Mountain Marathon, and it only took me 8:04:23.  Yes, you read that right.  Eight hours, four minutes, and 23 seconds.  The scary part is that I am actually happy with that time.

It seems like lately every race I do I describe as "the hardest race I have ever done," but Moose Mountain is definitely, unequivocally, without a doubt, THE HARDEST RACE I HAVE EVER DONE.  The folks who organize it seem to think they have the hardest marathon in the northern hemisphere even.  And, after running it I ain't gonna argue with them.  Now, the confusing part in telling this tale is that while this was THE HARDEST RACE I HAVE EVER DONE, doing this event I felt the strongest I have in a long time.  This was the easiest and most comfortable I have ever felt going 26.2.  Clearly, I am at odds with myself.

So, let's begin.

My weekend started with a six hour drive to the north shore of Minnesota - north of Duluth - on Thursday.  There were to be two parts to my weekend really.  Part 1, which I will gloss over, was supporting my husband in his race.  See, while my BIG goal was to simply do the 26.2, Andy's big goal was to do the 100-mile version of this event.  This was to be his second 100-mile race and it was one that would leave him questioning why he does this to himself.  Part II, of course, is my marathon.

Part I - Crewing

The start of Andy's race was to be at Gooseberry Falls State Park in Two Harbors, Minnesota.  After arriving Thursday evening and checking in to our motel, Andy and I decided to take about an hour's walk along this gorgeous walking path right outside our door.

The path had grassy little offshoots like this one....

...which led to a gorgeous beach on Lake Superior.

Eventually, though, we had to get back to our room to eat the rice, sweet potato, and zucchini dish we had packed from home in a cooler, before heading to the mandatory pre-race meeting for Andy's race.

Mandatory 100-mile pre-race meeting. With the exception of one year, this race has been going on since 1991.  For the first time ever, they met their cap of 200 runners.  178 would actually start.

Andy in front of the all-important elevation profile of this event.
The awards table - just to show us what we wouldn't be getting. lol
The pre-race meeting took about an hour and was filled with all sorts of fascinating information on course markings, crew instructions, what to expect at the aid stations, etc. 

After the meeting it was time to head back to the room for final preparations and a good night's sleep.

Friday morning dawned bright and clear, the promise of a beautiful day - unless you are endeavoring to run 100 miles.  It was going to be a warm one with temps in the 80s and high humidity.  Despite the temps, warnings of high bee activity had Andy dressing a little warmer than he probably would have otherwise just to protect himself a bit more.

After a brief recap of the previous night's announcements and a final check to see if everyone was there who was planning to be there, they were off!

Once the runners started, I had about four hours to kill before Andy would get to the first crew-accessible aid station at mile 20.  So, I went to the motel and checked out, drove up the coast a bit to take in the views, stopped at a gas station to use the restroom and buy water, and then finally headed to the aid station still with about two hours to go until Andy's projected arrival.  Kicking the seat back in the car and setting my phone's alarm, I attempted to grab some zzzz's, but that wasn't working for me, so I grabbed my chair and Andy's crew bag and walked to where everyone else was waiting for their runners.  And, I waited.  Once Andy got there it was the usual activity of fetching and filling and making sure he was good to go.  I could already tell he was a bit in awe of the course and was feeling the heat, but he was making good time and seemed in good spirits.

Crews lining the trail leading to the "T" intersection of the Superior Hiking Trail where runners were going through.
The rest of Friday was spent crewing for Andy as best I could at the three aid stations I had time to go to.  Also during that time I picked up our friend Doug O., who had arrived in town to be Andy's overnight pacer.  We grabbed lunch and met Andy at a couple more aid stations, before I finally dropped him off at the mile 43 aid station to wait for Andy.  He would eventually be able to start running with him about two hours later.  That was at about 5:30 p.m. on Friday, and the last time I would hear from them until about 1:45 p.m. the following day.  For me, though, it was time to head north to the hotel at the race finish where I would pick up my packet, hand over my one drop bag, grab some dinner and attend my own pre-race meeting.

Part II - Marathon

After setting three alarms and getting a so-so night's sleep, I woke up Saturday morning to another picture-perfect day.  Luckily for me, my race day was not to be quite so warm as Andy's, but it was still warm.  I outfitted myself with my new Pearl Izumi shirt, a running skirt, and calf sleeves.  I wore my new pack with its two bottle holders, placing one bottle in the holder and carrying one in my hand.  Maybe I am a masochist but I really don't mind having a handheld.  The pack was great though for carrying my extra bottle and everything else I needed.

The shuttles were waiting for the marathoners in front of the hotel, and at 6:45 we began the half hour drive to our start.  At the start, pictured below, we had about 45 minutes until the race began.  Despite picking up our packets, bibs, and timing chips the night before, we were required to check in once again as we got off the bus.  This was a safety feature to ensure that they knew exactly who had started the race.  They took this quite seriously, as during the pre-race announcements they went over the names of people who had not checked in about three times.  Finally, satisfied that they had everyone they were going to have, it was time to start.

Not pictured here, but exciting nonetheless - FOUR porta-potties.  A boon when we had been told to be prepared to go in the woods at the start because there wouldn't be potties.  :)
Me before the start.  See that road behind me?  Starting out on that for about a quarter of a mile would be the smoothest footing we would have until about the last mile. 
The start was an informal affair.  There was no national anthem.  In fact, the closest we got was the approximately 200 participants partaking in a group wolf howl.  After the announcements were made, we were told to line up behind the car that would take us down the dirt road to the trail head.  There was a verbal countdown from ten or five (I can't remember), then a "Go!" and we were off.

It would be impossible for me to go through a blow-by-blow, mile-by-mile reporting of this event.  First of all, there were no mile markers, just orange flags along the trail and stern instructions to watch for the Superior Hiking Trail markers.  For me, mentally, I was prepared for a hard event.  I knew it would take me a long time, but I wasn't sure how long.  I just determined before getting underway that I would take it from aid station to aid station.  There would be three of those during the marathon, with my first section being about seven miles, then five miles, five miles, and finally seven miles to the finish.

For once I didn't really start out with a plan as far as running, walking, etc.  I decided I would just let the terrain decide for me.  When I could run, I would; when I had to walk, I would. 

Starting out along the dirt road, I think the idea was to string the runners out a bit before funneling them all onto the trail head.  As it was, though, it wasn't really enough time to thin things out, so by the time we reached the trail head there was a bit of a logjam as everyone filtered on to the single track.  Once there, you could really only go as fast as the person in front of you until about a half mile down the trail when it widened out a bit for a brief span.

So, like I said, I don't really have a blow-by-blow.  What I can tell you is that this was the most challenging terrain I have ever run/walked on.  It was rocky and there were tree roots everywhere.  There were uphill climbs that seemed to go on forever.  There were downhill descents that had me lowering myself with my hands on rocks or grabbing trees.  This race simply consisted of a series of going up, up, up over peaks, running along the exposed bluff at the top for a while, then going back down, down, down.  We would run along the bottom for a bit before starting the pattern all over again.  Some of the names of the peaks we scaled were Carlton Peak, Britton Peak, LeVeaux Mountain, Oberg Mountain, Moose Mountain, and Mystery Mountain.

The climbs were tough, but once you got to the top, the views were amazing!  

There was a bit of a drop-off factor, so you wouldn't want to go running up to the edge to take a photo, but I didn't find it too terrifying.

Here was the elevation profile:

The worst climb by far was from the Temperance River up to Carlton Peak.  That was serious, watch-your-foot-placement, step-up-rocks climbing. The others were just steady climbs, and to be honest I was kind of impressed with how not intimidated I was by the climbs.  I guess after hiking to the top of Pikes Peak and attempting the climb up the Jungfrau, the Minnesota mountains just weren't that scary.  The hardest part with them was that there were so MANY climbs; they just kept coming.  You would think you had almost reached the top, when you would go around a bend and find that it just kept going.  However, the good news was that compared to a fourteener, for example, I knew that the peak would come sooner rather than later. 

Like I said at the beginning of this long, discombobulated post, I felt really strong for the day.  I took it easy on the runs, repeating to myself over and over easy-peasy lemon squeezy - something my kids have taken to saying lately.  I just wanted to keep my run easy, and it was.  I ran all the flattish sections I could, most of the downhills that weren't slide-on-your-butt steep, the occasional boardwalk sections that had you going through swampy areas, and even some mild uphills.  I felt amazing throughout and managed to run up until the finish - except for when I was walking.

And, there was a lot of walking.  I didn't take too many photos of the trail, but I cannot overemphasize how difficult the footing was.  Here is a picture I took (more of the flag marker in the distance), which shows some roots.  However, this turned out to be nothing compared to other sections that awaited us.  Whole swaths of somewhat flat sections that you still couldn't run on because the roots were so thick there was no place to really put your foot.

Many uphills were so steep and rocky that you really were just reduced to climbing up at a snail's pace.

Then there were the parts of the trail that had loose rock or that were so overgrown that it was hard to believe we were on a usable hiking trail.  For all that, though, there was AMAZING beauty along the way.

Rushing rivers that we ran alongside.

Gorges that we passed over high up on a bridge.
Idyllic lakes that we passed.
I think I liked the nature of this particular beast because it was constantly changing.  You never had a chance to get tired of running because sooner or later there would be some section that had you walking.  Tired of walking over roots or rocks? A clearish section would appear that would invite you to dance over the obstacles.  For every uphill you were tired of scaling, there was a descent waiting for you.

Coming into the aid stations was something to look forward to, and you could hear them long before you got to them. The volunteers were amazing and it was almost embarrassing how well they took care of us marathoners, knowing that they had the 100-milers out there who were the real rockstars.  But they just look at this trail as hard, and regardless of goal they wanted everyone to succeed.  So, to that end, as soon as I walked into an aid station, my number was checked off by one of the ham radio volunteers and someone was coming up to me asking me what I needed.  My bottles were whisked away and filled, food was pressed upon me, ice was offered - even a shower from a hose when the day got hot.

At my last aid station, when I mentioned to a volunteer at the food station that I wondered how my husband was doing on the 100-miler (I hadn't heard from or about him since the previous day!), he took off to the ham radio volunteers with his race number.  A couple minutes later he came back and informed me that Andy had gone through the previous aid station five miles back a half hour before.  I was so excited to hear he was still on the course (when so many had already dropped out) that that gave me a boost.

Nutritionally speaking, I ended up sticking mostly to the Cliff Blocks and Gu Brew I was carrying with me.  Blocks every 45 minutes and Gu Brew whenever I felt like drinking.  At the aid stations I did grab some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips, orange slices and bananas.  Also, coffee poured over ice was my drink of choice at the first couple of stations.  Delicious!  Finally, with about three miles to go, my stomach started growling at me and I broke down and ate the dark chocolate Snickers I had stashed in my pack at the last minute.  I don't think I had ever tasted anything so good!

Approaching the final miles of the event, you can hear the river behind the hotel (where the finish line was) long before you actually got there.  We had been warned about that, so I didn't give that much thought.  We had also been warned that it would feel kind of funny coming out of the woods after so many hours only to finish up on the streets leading into Lutsen's resort area.  And it was.  Following the line of cones down the street, watching the ski lifts operating (not sure why), and running around the cars and pedestrians was a little strange.  It allowed for a bit of time for reflection, knowing without a doubt that the event was coming to a close.

I wasn't sure how I would feel finishing up such a long event.  While this hadn't been my longest race distance-wise, it was time-wise; so coming in to the finish line, I felt that it should have been a really emotional, I-can't-believe-I-made it type of moment.  But it wasn't.  The fact was that despite being tired, I felt great.  I had been more positive during the race than I can remember being in a long time.  I felt strong. I had no great aches or pains.  My mind boggled at how my quads, hammies and various other body parts held up to the ups and downs.  (I can only credit all the biking and hill work I had done leading up to the race.) It was just a really great event for me.  I was never even bored!

I do wonder if I could have done a little better.  Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled with the eight hour finish.  Optimistically, I was hoping that I could come in by 7.5 hours, but pessimistically I thought closer to 9.5 was going to happen.  Eight hours?  That was phenomenal for me.  Despite that, though, I spent a lot of the race feeling I should hold back a little because I had read in a blog how the last two climbs were brutal.  When I made it through the second-to-last climb though and realized this was it, one more to go, I realized that I shouldn't have given so much credit to that one report.  Carlton Peak was by far the hardest for me.  Moose and Mystery Mountains were a walk in the park by comparison.  I knew then I could have pushed a little harder.

In the end, though, when you have fourteen hours to finish an event, and the scenery is so amazing that you just want to take it in, then why push things?  I wasn't out to PR this race.  A PR wasn't possible, so why not enjoy it?  And I did.

Finish line
So, finishing my race, I grabbed a bite to eat and took a quick shower (love staying in the hotel at the finish line).  Back out at the finish, I was able to greet my husband, who managed to finish this race under very hard conditions.  While he is still a bit shell-shocked, I think, by what he went through, I really did enjoy my race, and I would recommend it to other people who want a tough challenge or who are just prepared to spend a day out in some AMAZING surroundings.  For the marathon - with a fourteen hour cutoff - even a decent walker can finish with time to spare.  Looking to do the 100?  Well, that is a different story.  In this year's race, over half of the folks who started ended up DNFing.  Probably because of the conditions. Even more challenging, time-wise, might be the 50-mile event.  With a sixteen-hour time limit on their event, they definitely have the tightest cutoff with which to contend.

Someone asked me if I would do this event again, and I have to say I hesitated to answer that one.  I think I would.  The problem with that idea is that if I do do it again, I would feel pressured to beat the time I had this year.  And, the fact is that I enjoyed just being able to ENJOY this event.  So, if I do do this event again, it will be after I have trained much harder and can beat eight hours, OR it will be with the idea that I just want to spend another amazing day out on the trails. Both are possibilities.
"A footrace through the reaches of dark and
ethereal northern boreal forests. Not for
the faint of heart or the weak willed. Each
and every single footfall is greeted by earth
bound by roots and littered with rocks.
A challenge fit only for champions.
The ultimate test of man and woman.
Thus giving rise to its eternal name...
Rugged, Relentless, Remote - SUPERIOR."


  1. Sigh. You make me LONG to do this one (even more than I already did). That is by far my favorite place on the planet (I grew up in Duluth). Maybe next year :)

    It's something, isn't it, to finish an event that you set out to enjoy the heck out of, and realize that you did exactly that. Fantastic!

  2. Love the write up, THANKS!

  3. Beautiful photos from the race! Congrats on completing such a tough race!

  4. Thanks for the wonderful recap and beautiful pics!

  5. Thanks for sharing. The photos are absolutely beautiful!!

  6. Thank you for your average-runner race report, this is the kind of info I pine for. I'm average myself, and am looking forward to enjoying my maiden voyage of the Moose this fall. I've only ever been to the North Shore in Winter time, but your photos make the scenery look AH-MAZING!

  7. That was super helpful, thank you and I love the pictures!