Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Euchre, Power Lines and Killer Bees – Kevin Grabowski’s 2009 Voyageur Race Report

Our gear was all stuffed into the trunk of Julie Treder’s Taurus by 9:30 am Friday as we got set to make our way north to Duluth for the 2009 Voyageur 50 miler.  This trunk full of gear would not smell quite the same on the return trip…

 Julie drove and Jeff Mallach rode shot-gun as we barreled off towards Mauston to pick up Angela Barbera, completing our LPTR posse for the weekend.   The trip north went by quickly and we were in Duluth by 4:00. 

 Our motel was right downtown and offered a great view of lake Superior.  It was also less than a block from a shop advertising urine cleaning  (I’m guessing they never saw my pee after a hot day and 50 miles).  

 After check-in we stopped in at the Duluth Running Co.  This is a great local running store with tons of gear and supplies.  Another stop at the grocery store and then off to dinner.  Our pre-race last supper was at Luce’s for pasta – Three vegatarian lasagnas and one fiery Tortellini Diablo.    A quick and satisfying meal and we were back at the motel with an hour or so to kill.

 So what would four ultra-runners do with time on their hands when the night is young? Euchre of course!  An outdoor patio, a lake-view, a deck of cards, and Julie Treder going strong with trump to force the right bower.  It was a magical evening. 

 Saturday morning we were up bright and early and greeted with a forecast calling for a high of 68 degrees and scattered storms.  We weren’t crazy about the prospect of rain, but temps under 70 sounded appealing.   Soon we were back in the car and off to the high-school in Carlton  - a 25 minute drive south of Duluth.  As we pulled up, we spotted fellow LPTRunner Robert Wehner who had driven up Friday and camped with his family.   Five fit runners and a full day ahead of us – What could go wrong?  Ummmmm…  I can only speak for my day….

 Thirty minutes to race time and I found myself in line for a bathroom with no lights.  As one person would stumble out rubbing their eyes, another would venture into the dark to feel their way for the toilet.  When my turn came, I shuffled forward with deliberate steps, arms groping ahead ala Helen Keller.  I was able to identify the sink, then the garbage can and then… another sink? I felt around some more – Ahhhh… my hands are in the urinal.  Excellent.

 Back at the start area there were lots of familiar faces and I enjoyed chatting with the Minnesota contingency.   The race began right at 7:00 and we were off.  The out and back course starts with a short road section followed by a quick stint on a asphalt bike-path.  Some technical trail was not too far away, however, as much of the first three miles contained rocks, roots, twists and turns.   This section forced the field to string out quickly and passing was somewhat difficult.   I passed a pack of runners as we left the technical section and headed off solo for a while.  

 It was easy to get a rhythm for the next few miles as the trail rolled easily through the woods.  I got into such a rhythm that I didn’t notice the lack of flags for several minutes.  Approaching an abrupt T in the trail, I was alarmed to see no markings.  Panic.   I should have immediately known that neither way was right and headed back the direction I came from.   I didn’t, of course, and wasted time dashing down the T in both directions, desperately looking for flags I knew wouldn’t be there.  Resigned, I turned back and started running back the direction I came from.   It wasn’t too long before I saw Robert down the trail, headed in my direction.  He was just at the turn I had missed. The course had turned left onto a more narrow section of single track than the one I had continued forward on.   Crap. 

 Robert waved me on and I bolted off, aggravated with myself for not paying attention.  I would find out later that Robert was among several runners that got stung by bees.  He got tagged 7 times in quick succession and had a strong reaction.   His skin got very red, his heart raced and nausea was not far behind.  He spent over an hour at an aid station where he vomited and sat dazed.  He eventually tried to continue the race and made it several more aid stations before realizing that the down-time had cost him a chance to stay ahead of the cut-off time and he wisely to called it a day. 

 Meanwhile, I was bearing down on the infamous Power Lines and fighting negative thoughts less than 10 miles into the race.  Then there was another mini-detour.   Vandals had re-marked the course into dense vegetation.  I followed two other runners and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that this could not be the way.  We back-tracked and headed off in the most logical direction which, fortunately, was correct.  (This sabotaged section was corrected later by Matt Patten, co-race director of the Chippewa 50K,  who took the time from his race to re-mark the area so no-one else behind him would make the same mistake – I feel like an idiot for not thinking to do that myself…Thanks Matt!)

 It wasn’t long before were headed right for the Power Lines.  This section has some geographical features that are truly hard to describe.  The best description I can think of is a series of GIANT ditches.  And I mean GIANT.  As you approach the first one, you can only see about half of the total rise.  Right before you get to the steep incline the trail surprises you by dropping down an equal distance, seemingly into the bowels of the earth.   This, of course, doubles the anticipated climb for anyone new.  I was new.

 Two rises are nearly back-to-back but the next four are separated by a short wooded section.  Here I found going down-hill was almost worse than the up-hill.  At least uphill you were in control and could go as slow as needed to maintain your composure.  Down-hill was a different story.   The steepness forces you to use every available muscle to prevent yourself from free-falling.  I considered curling into the fetal position and rolling down. 

 Relieved to be done with the Power Lines, I continued on.  At this point I was only 13+ miles into the race, but it already seemed like a full day.  I was okay physically, but mentally, I was starting to check-out.

 As the race progressed, there were several asphalt road and bike-path sections that I didn’t expect.  I really didn’t like running them and was thankful every time the course turned back onto the trail.   Eventually the course cut across Spirit Mountain – a ski-slope outside Duluth.  The views were incredible and definitely the highlight of my race.  I silently thanked the Ultra-Gods that the race directors had not routed the course up the ski-hill as the incline was steep and long in both directions on either side of the trail.

 Another short asphalt section (I thought this would be all trail !?@#$) and I was at the turn-around.  After all my inner-whining and two missed turns, my time was still 4:13.   But I still had a case of the I-Don’t-Wannas… Not sure why, but I just wasn’t motivated at all.   I knew I couldn’t drop with-out any legitimate physical  reason, but I sure thought about it.  Instead, I spent 4 or 5 minutes devouring water-melon and PB&J’s.   Good and full, I had no choice but to turn around and finish this one.  At least I would be seeing more people with the out and back format.

 About two minutes down the trail I saw Matt Patten - “Hey Matt!!”  He didn’t call me bait, but I knew I was.   Further along, I was happy to see Julie, followed closely by Jeff and Angela a little later on (with LPTR secret hi-signs exchanged of course).

 On the way back there were several asphalt downhills I should have been able to take advantage of, but I just didn’t feel like turning my legs over.  Back on the trail it wasn’t long before Matt Patten caught up to me.  I wished him well as looked really strong and I knew I didn’t feel like picking it up with a long way to go. 

 The miles flowed by without much incident.  I was starting to be passed with some regularity as I continually down-graded my race goals with every passing aid-station.   I didn’t feel too bad coming through the Power Lines the second time and actually increased my pace for a short time afterwards.  I was anxious for this to be over. 

 About three or four miles from the finish I saw someone walking ahead.  “Patten??!  Is that you!?!?”  Matt had looked so strong before, I was sure he had finished already.   I pulled up and walked with him for a while.  He said he was still running well before the Power Lines but the humidity really red-lined him in the hills and he was cramping badly.  I knew any of my goals for the day were already reduced to finishing so we just walked the next three miles and shot the breeze.  It was probably pretty merciful as this was the most technical section and it felt good to just walk instead of trying to navigate it with tired legs.  By the time we got back on the bike path for the last ½ mile or so, we started running again as we could see any minimal effort would put us under 10 hours.

 After the finish I kept an eye out for the rest of the LPTR crew.  Julie would cross the line in 10:48 and Jeff was not far behind in 10:51.  (Jeff’s time was almost 15 minutes faster than in 2008!)  Angela was doing the race for the third time with her two previous attempts within one minute of each other.  Not this time… She dropped over thirty minutes to finish in 11:53!  Robert was in good spirits despite being disappointed about having his race hijacked by bees.  What a goofy sport this is…

 Our post-race re-hydration campaign was executed a few blocks from the motel at Fitger’s Brewery in true LPTR style.  Amazing what a few beers will do to correct your attitude.  I’m thinking Superior 100 in 5 weeks… what could go wrong?!


  1. Great to see the Wisconsin contingent out there (beer and euchre? count me in!)

    The wrong turn you made, I've made twice - I warn people about it, but it still sneaks up. And we all try to tell people about the power lines, but I guess you have to experience 'em to understand.

    What could go wrong with Superior in 5 weeks? I think it's 7 weeks, for one thing!

  2. After all of the battle comments to the finish, the official race results show you beat me (you 28, me 29). I have photo proof that I won! I guess the finish line staff said "Don't give it to that ass!"

    I wasn't the only one who remarked the course. There were about 5 of us. Ironically, it gave us a nice rest after the power lines and helped.

    You also left out your commentary in the last 3 miles "Is like Superior? What about this part?... How about this section?"

  3. I just remembered to start checking the LPTR blog. All is well in Pittsburgh. I have found plenty of trails, but no trail runners! Bizarre. The trails are great, but in five trail runs I have yet to see another person running. Moreover, I have checked the web and talked to people, but have not found any trail running group in the area. So it goes. Plenty of hills has been making me strong! I am doing the Grindstone 100 in Virginia in October and am very excited. I wanted to do the MMR with Jeff, but it has already filled. Oh well.

    I have really enjoyed reading about everyone's races- especially involving Matt Patten- too funny! I love the picture of both of you at the Voyageur finish.

    Say hi to everyone!

    Dave Ruttum