Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Moose Mountain Marathon 2017

I experienced my first Moose Mountain Marathon as part of the fall Superior Trail Races this weekend. Coming off a poor summer of training due to recurrent Achilles tendon injuries my goals were mainly to not re-aggravate this injury and finish at whatever pace necessary. I was able to pull this off and had a fun time in the process. This race is unlike any I've ever done before and is easily my new favorite. I will likely enter the lottery for this one again in 2018 as long as my old fragile legs continue to hold up.

The starting area pre-race had cool temperatures around 45 degrees and sun. A robust group of runners had gathered at Cramer Road near the intersection with the Superior Hiking Trail. Beastie Boys played over the loudspeaker adding to the energetic atmosphere. I eyed up the other runners and observed every combination of running gear under the sun. Some looked like they were leaving on a backpacking trip for the weekend while others were flying light as if starting a 5K. I left the heart monitor chest strap at home thinking it would just be a distraction and instead wore a hydration vest. With it I carried two 18 ounce water flasks, 9 gels (Honey Stinger and Clif Shot), and Nuun electrolyte tablets. I would take a 100 calorie gel every half hour and follow it with some water. The last deciding factor to bring this pack was the distance between aid stations and my planned pace. It was a good move in retrospect.

I positioned myself about midpack when the group was assembling at the starting line. After a countdown we were off and running (walking) down Cramer road with a left on another gravel road and then another left onto the Superior Hiking Trail. There was a bottleneck at this point that forced a complete stop and very slow walking as the runners ahead filtered into single file onto the greatest single track trail in the Midwest. Lots of playful banter was heard amongst the runners during this easy pace very early in the race as well as the cheers of the fans and volunteers around the starting area and aid station.

We crossed Cramer Road again and then went through the Cramer Road aid station at the trailhead parking area. The cheering was incredible running through this area but it was for the most part the last fan support until the Temperance River aid station. I was executing my plan to be conservative effort-wise and maintaining good running form. I knew the first 7.9 miles to the Temperance River aid station was a net downhill, so I wanted to conserve myself for the climbs later in the race. I was part of a long train of single file runners and had no choice but to slow down and walk at every obstacle when there was no place to pass. I had to restrain my instincts to start exerting huge amounts of energy to pass when it was still so early in the race. Eventually, at about mile 5, I started passing a few people here and there when the opportunity came up. Also, finally, the runners started to separate and space apart a little more allowing for easier passing. I was able to run at a more natural pace from about mile 6 and caught some runners that I was comfortable to just run with. The ever-changing scenery was beautiful and somewhere in this section I crossed the bridge over the lively Cross River.

The trail leading up to the Temperance River aid station was downhill, smooth, and relatively flat. It was a nice change from the choppy running previous to it. I could hear the aid station before seeing it. There's nothing like some cheering and positive noise to give you a buzz to pick up the pace. I had my two water flasks open and ready to be filled before getting there. Two volunteers were right there with pitchers of water to simultaneously fill them and I was on my way out in seconds. Goodbye to the low elevation point of the race. Once across the the river you turn left and go upstream along the riverbank on the other side. I knew it was the start of a long three-mile stint of mostly uphill. I've run this section up to Carlton Peak hard a few times. We come to Lamb's Resort in Schroeder for a family vacation every August and I routinely sneak away for some excellent runs on these trails in and out of Temperance River State Park. I know that I could put myself in rough shape if I ran this climb even moderately hard. So I let off the gas pedal again and latched onto some guys that were running a good, steady pace. It starts out along the river going upstream and mostly flat after the bridge, then we get to some awkwardly spaced steps for a tough climb. It switches back and climbs some more but then flattens out again. Then we got up Carlton Peak with two more sections of hard rocky technical climbing. To get to the actual summit for the astounding views you have go left on a spur trail that is not part of the race course, but worth the trip on another day. This was tough and draining and to add to it there was some technical terrain to descend shortly after the high point. I seemed to recover alright and was feeling relatively good nearing the halfway point of the race.

I came up upon the Sawbill aid station (mile 13.6) running with most of the same group that lead me up Carlton Peak. I efficiently filled my waters, high-fived a couple familiar fans, and kept right on moving. Up ahead was Britton Peak followed by a series of unrelenting ascents and descents each higher than the previous. This would undoubtedly test how much was left in my legs. It was noticably testing some fellow competitors as I witnessed more falls and "near falls" as time went on. The guy that I paced off since before Carlton was beginning to fade and took a spill in a quagmire of slick roots and mud. He actually said, "I guess this is the point of the race where this starts to happen." I snagged my right toes a couple times on rocks or roots but was able to catch myself before going down. Later on I was in a group of five, with three individuals ahead and one behind me when the leader (female) went down hard. The other two ahead of me and myself stopped to help her up and and check if she was alright. The female runner behind me in a light blue tank top and hat flew past all of us using this opportunity to pass without any hesitation. I was not impressed by this lack of concern for others and poor sportsmanship. I made a point to remember her appearance and hoped to catch her before the finish but my feeble fitness level couldn't deliver. I was feeling good anyway so I kept moving up from group to group until I was alone and nearing the next aid station.

The final aid station was Oberg Mountain at mile 19.1 shortly after crossing the Onion River. I came into it running by myself. A volunteer quickly greeted me and helped refill my water flasks so fast I barely stopped. This place was rocking with music, volunteers, and fans. It pumped me up and I was ready to start pushing the pace. Also, at this point, I noticed my Garmin had me at 18.4 miles. This later played a role in my not knowing exactly how much race was left as it continued to lose distance to the actual race course. I ran up and over Oberg Mountain with no walking and no other runners in sight. On the descent, at about mile 20, I was cruising the muddy, rocky, slippery trail. I took a gel and slammed some water to wash it down. In mid-drink my right toe found a rock that actually had my name on it. In fancy cursive writing was written: Carl Wallin. I couldn't believe it, such a beautiful piece of art randomly located on a 26.2 mile course. Actually, I'm not sure what was written on it or if it was even a rock because I NEVER SAW IT. I only saw the ground at point blank a millisecond later. I think my carcass actually bounced and skipped forward a little during this crash. I yelled like a caveman, got up, checked my teeth, felt the bump forming on my forehead, and started moving again very slowly. It was clear that my left knee, wrist, and shoulder took the worst of it. I had gone to the ground so fast that I couldn't get my hands out to break my fall which was probably for the better. The word "relentless" popped into my head as I assessed what had just happened. I wasn't hurt too badly but it crushed my momentum and caused me to be much more cautious for the rest of the race.

The remainder of the race contained two more challenging climbs. After getting up and over Moose Mountain my legs were starting to feel used up. Mystery Mountain, the second big one, was tough and I was back to walking the steep sections. My quads and hip flexors had become fatigued and stiff, effecting my ability to descend anything steep and technical. I felt like an old man needing a cane or walker to get down anything with rocks. Thankfully, there were no other marathoners around me over these last miles so I didn't need to worry about a sprint finish. The only challenge was actually knowing when I'd be finishing thanks to my Garmin being off. The last 3-4 miles of a marathon usually seem to take forever but thinking there could be 2.5 miles left or as much as 4 miles left started messing with my mind. Also, when I got to the road in the ski area I was eyeing the surrounding ski hills warily, half expecting to be directed up one of them as one last soul-crushing challenge in the race. But it didn't happen, just some downhill road running and a short trail around Caribou Highlands into the finish area. I was handed my finisher's medal, a unique slice of birch with the race's logo stamped on it, offered a seat and something to drink. It was over. What an awesome day. It was time to find a beer and eat some chili.

The setting of this race sets it apart. The Superior National Forest via the Superior Hiking Trail is the perfect venue for this race. The course is relentless, constantly challenging you, making you focus every second. Constant rocks, roots, and mud or a combination of all three. It will wear you down and test your true level of endurance. I have a recurring dream where I am running a race on a long, obstacle filled course requiring hard effort and strategy that is tough to put into words. This is the closest real-life race I have ever run to that.      

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