Race Report: Voyageur 50
I grew up in the land of 10,000 lakes. In reality, it’s more like 11,482 lakes of 10 acres or more. Thus, you’d think I spent a great deal of time on the water, and my youth was awash with typical lake activities like fishing, boating, and swimming. In reality, I lived relatively close to only one lake, and spent next to no time out on the water, aside from some “swimming” in depths that never went over my head. My asthma and the socioeconomic realities of life meant I spent more time reading about lakes and trails than I did enjoying them. Thus, when I discovered the North Shore of Duluth as an adult, and then discovered trail running even further along in my journey, I instantly fell in love with the trails that crisscross the shores, ridges, and bluffs of Lake Superior. As luck would have it, the epicurean, despite her high water standards courtesy of a youth filled with Atlantic fishing excursions with her father, developed a pretty quick love affair with Duluth and Lake Superior as well. Thus, when I realized that the Voyageur 50-miler just happened to be on the same weekend that we were planning to travel back to visit my family, it only made sense to plan a trip up north and spend some quality time on some amazing trails.
We rented a car and drove the short 2 hours 15 minutes up to Carlton, MN (race start location) on Friday the 29th. Luckily my mother was able to join us, and it had been a good 35 years since she had been to Duluth, so she was eager to see how drastically things had changed. We got checked into our hotel and drove down the road a mile or so to packet pickup, which was an easy-in, easy-out endeavor. Carlton was holding their annual celebration “Carlton Daze” over the weekend, and I walked up just as a youth run was beginning, and it made me smile to see so many young children lined up and ready to give it their all. Then we drove the 20 additional miles up to Duluth, and spent the evening walking around the lakeshore, and eating a delicious Italian meal at one of our favorite restaurants, which we happily discovered now had a gluten-free menu, which meant we were back in business!
After dinner, we walked around a bit more and then headed back to the hotel. I got all of my gear situated for the morning and we relaxed before hitting the hay relatively early. 4:30AM came early as it always does, but I was thankful that the starting line at the Carlton High School was mere minutes away so I didn’t feel rushed. The epicurean drove me to the start and I arrived around 5:30AM, in plenty of time for the 6:00AM start. This was the 35th running of the Voyageur, and you could feel the history in the air as runners young and old gathered to tackle this out-and-back course. For some, like myself, it was the first time running the race, and for a select few, it was incredibly the 35th time they had toed the line!
There were a few brief words of encouragement from the race director, and we were sent on our way with the characteristically unceremonious “go” being uttered from a megaphone. After a brief stretch on a road leading to a paved trail, the course hops onto a several mile stretch of rocky, rooty, technical single-track along the Knife River. The reviews of the race I had read indicated that getting to this section as quickly as possible to avoid being stuck too far back in a single-file conga line was important, so I pushed it the first mile or so to make sure I didn’t get stuck too far back. The sun was just rising and it was a beautiful sight to see the steam coming off of the rushing water. It was hard not to stop and take pictures, but I did manage to get my phone out while I was moving- it was too beautiful to pass up!
The first aid station was 3.4 miles in, just over a beautiful swinging bridge in Jay Cooke State Park. I’d run these trails before and was excited to cross the bridge and know where I was, which doesn’t happen very often! I was feeling strong, and only stopped long enough for a glass of water before continuing on. The next 7 or 8 miles flew by pretty quickly, and I fell in sync with two other runners just after the first aid station, so we started running together and had some great conversation along the way. One of the best aspects of the trail running community is how genuinely kind and social everyone is, and how easy it is to fall in step with someone and end up chatting for hours.
The three of us reached the infamous power lines section feeling strong and ready to tackle them. I’d heard this section referenced repeatedly as a challenging and difficult section of steep climbs so I was bracing for the worst. The climbs were definitely challenging due to the extreme grade, but they were all relatively short, so I didn’t mind them in the least bit. I was ultimately more nervous on the descents due to the slick, muddy path downward. The sun was still making its way up in the sky at this point, and the cool air gave us some much-needed relief, but also reminded us that it would be much hotter on the return trip!
After tackling the power lines, there was a short section of ridge line running, complete with ropes to pull yourself up on a particularly steep and precarious ascent, and I had a blast channeling my inner mountain goat. We emerged from the forest and spent a few miles on some rolling gravel roads before heading up to Spirit Mountain. As we were crossing under the ski lifts and looking down the ski slopes towards Lake Superior and Duluth, the views were absolutely incredible. I reached the top of the mountain, and other than a quick pit stop to allow for the end stage of digestion, I was feeling great. I had a blast bombing down the mountain on trails and service roads towards the final aid station and turn around point at the Lake Superior Zoo.
I reached the turn around point aid station and saw the epicurean and my mother immediately. I was all smiles as I rolled in and greeted them calmly. They helped me fill up my hydration pack and mix in some more Tailwind, and I ate some snacks and a few glasses of ginger ale, and I bid them farewell. They left to go spend the afternoon in Duluth, and I took off to tackle the course in reverse, beginning with an ascent of Spirit Mountain. I fell in step with another runner, and we began geeking out over ultrarunning related topics. It was fun to have a conversation with someone as passionate about the sport, and who followed the “stars” in the sport as closely as I do and we had a great conversation. Near the top of the mountain, we picked up another guy, and the three of us continued on together, making our way back to Carlton.
The return trip was relatively uneventful, other than to say that I was still feeling really strong, and could tell I had been doing a good job with hydration and nutrition. The temps rose into the low 70s, but after the brutal heat in Delaware for the past month, this felt like heaven! I eventually pulled ahead of the other two I was running with, or more accurately, they pulled up because they weren’t feeling as good, and I carried on alone for a few miles. This chunk of the race really allowed me to reflect on how thankful I was to have the opportunity to be out there, in a place I love, doing something I love. My concentration seemed to lock in and I noticed each foot fall as I hopped over roots and sidestepped rocks, splashed through small streams, and set small goals for myself during climbs. I reached the ridge line again, and enjoyed the slightly different perspective.
Near the bottom of this section, I caught up to a guy I had been leapfrogging for several miles. We got to chatting and ended up running together for the remainder of the race without ever really talking about it. Our paces seemed to mesh well and an unspoken understanding just sort of took hold. We approached the power line section again and tackled the hills with relative ease, despite the sun high in the sky. After this chunk of elevation change, the final 10 miles flew by relatively quickly. We took our time through the rocky final miles to make sure there were no twisted ankles, and enjoyed the comfortable pace. We reached the final section of the trail and emerged out onto the paved trail we had taken to start the course, and it felt great to know were close. With about a half mile left, he looked over at me and asked if I had anything left in the tank and I said sure. We picked up the pace and sprinted in strong across the finish.
I crossed the finish line in 10:15, which was good for 71st/ 271 and very respectable. I claimed my finisher’s mug, and took a deep breath. My mother and the epicurean were waiting for me at the finish, and I greeted them with the same smile I had given 25 miles earlier. Happily, there were showers available in the high school, which meant I could clean up a bit before hopping in the car for the drive back. My legs were certainly feeling the effects of 50 miles, but I still felt strong and happily felt as though I could have turned around and done it all over again. This was a great test of my endurance leading up to the Grindstone 100 on October 7th, and I’m looking forward to this final training block. More than anything, this race was an opportunity for some new memories and a chance to share something I love with the ones I love. Ultimately, that’s what #chasing42 is all about 🙂