This morning, I ran the Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon. It’s a point-to-point race on rugged trails in northern Minnesota, between Duluth and Carlton. The course follows one leg of the Minnesota Voyageur Trail Ultramarathon, which is a 50 mile race with an out-and-back course. There’s an extra 1.2 miles at the beginning that’s not part of the Voyageur course.
The marathon serves two purposes. For runners who aspire to do the Minnesota Voyageur Trail Ultramarathon, it’s a chance to learn the course without running the full 50 miles. It’s also a way of rewarding the volunteers. Anyone who volunteers at Voyageur can enter this race for $10.
Prior to 2013, this race was known as the Half Voyageur Marathon. It was renamed after its founder, Eugene Curnow, after he passed away. I’ve met Gene. He and his wife Barb were regulars at the FANS 24-Hour Run in Minneapolis.
I have a long-term goal of running every marathon in Minnesota. Even if I didn’t have that goal, I would have wanted to do this race to honor Gene’s memory. This year, it also fit into my plans to start doing more trail races. From what I had heard, this race would take me way outside my comfort zone.
When I registered for the race, I was healthy and racing well. I didn’t know I’d be coming into this race with a nagging injury. I also didn’t know that I’d go into it after a long period without any quality training.
Even if I was healthy and prepared, this race would challenge me. Under the circumstances, it scared me to death. Last week’s triple was too much for me. I aggravated my groin injury. That was on relatively flat road races. A trail race like this one would put more demands on my legs, because of all the off-balance landings and lateral movements.
I probably should have skipped this race. I could have used an extra week to heel. Because it was a local race, my only non-refundable expense was the $35 entry fee. I didn’t want to cancel for two reasons. First, I’ve already missed three races. One was a DNS and the other two were DNFs. If I miss any more, it won’t be able to stay on schedule to reach my long-term goals. Second, when I saw Barb at FANS, I told her I was doing this race for Gene.
I stayed in Carlton, where the race finishes. The race provided transportation to the start. I drove to Carlton Friday afternoon. After checking into my motel, I drove to where the race finishes. I wanted to see where I would catch the bus to the start, so I wouldn’t waste time in the morning. On a map, it’s not easy to see where the trailhead is. When you drive into town, it’s hard to miss.
Later, I drove into nearby Cloquet to pick up some groceries. Finally, I had dinner with my sister Betty and her husband John at Trapper Pete’s.
I tried to get to sleep early, because the air conditioner was too noisy. Even wearing ear plugs, I couldn’t tune out the noise. After about two hours of tossing and turning, I turned off the AC. I eventually got some sleep, but only about two and a half hours. I’ve made do with less.
When my alarm went off, I started getting ready. I needed to be at a trailhead in Carlton by 4:45 to catch a bus to the start. I got there early. After we were dropped off in Duluth, I picked up my race number, did my warm-up exercises, made a final bathroom stop, and put my warm-up clothes in a drop bag to be delivered to the finish line.
Although I wasn’t 100 percent, I felt better than I did earlier in the week. On the advice of my physical therapist, I wore an elastic bandage on my right leg for the entire race. I knew that would be a little bit uncomfortable, and I also knew it might slow me down. My main priority was to finish without further injury. Under the circumstances, I could accept a slow time. I looked at last year’s results and saw times up to 10:49. Having enough time to finish wasn’t going to be an issue. I just had to keep moving. Ideally, I didn’t want this to be my slowest marathon ever, but I tried not to worry too much about pace.
It was hot and humid, but compared to last weekend, the weather seemed reasonable. The overnight low was in the 60s, and the high was in the low 80s. There was a thunderstorm in the forecast for later in the day, but we didn’t have to worry about any severe weather during the race.
Although this is a marathon, it seemed more like an ultra. Aid stations were about three miles apart. Since some sections take a long time, I wore a fuel belt that could hold one bottle. I knew for a variety of reasons that I would be slow. In a way, that was kind of liberating. I didn’t have to try to rush through the more technical sections. I could go at a pace that I could handle, without worrying too much about my overall time. I could also stop and take pictures along the way.
The first mile was a combination of dirt road and wide dirt trail. The surface was runnable, but there was an uphill trend. Where others were walking, I walked too. Otherwise, I maintained a slow steady run.
There were a number of stream crossings. The early ones had small wooden bridges. Later, we would have to get our feet wet.
Next, we ran past Spirit Mountain. In the winter, this is a ski resort. In the summer, the slopes are barren, but the clearings gave us some views of the Duluth harbor.
The next section of trail was fairly runnable. We even had a more permanent bridge.
After 3.5 miles, we reached the Skyline Parkway aid station. This was the first of eight aid stations. They were all well-stocked and staffed my enthusiastic volunteers. I refilled my bottle and headed out.
The next section of trail was also fairly runnable. It was grassy, but nice and wide. I continued to mostly run, but at a slow pace. There were a few low spots that fill with water and become muddy. Sometimes, you could keep your feet dry. Sometimes you couldn’t.
Eventually, I was forced to step through a deep puddle, and my right foot went in up to my ankle. That happened twice. Then I misjudged a puddle, and plunged my left foot deep into some mud. I had trouble pulling it out. I felt like the Creature from the Black Lagoon had grabbed my ankle. I lost my balance and stepped in with my right foot too. I got moving again, but it was frustrating. I didn’t mind being slow, but I wanted to keep making forward progress. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d temporarily grind to a halt.
Eventually, we came out onto a paved road. I appreciated having clean dry footing. I was able to keep a good pace until the Beck’s Road aid station. After 7.4 miles, I was surprised how runnable the trails were. Aside from a few mud holes, it was easier than I expected. That would change.
Leaving Beck’s Road, the trail got narrow. From here out, it was mostly single-track. For the most part, though, it was still runnable. There were some hills, and they forced me to slow down or take walking breaks.
Most of the time, we were deep in the forest, so it was hard to see our surroundings. On the occasions where we had a view of a stream, I tried to remember to stop and take pictures.
There were also a few streams we had to cross on foot. Most appeared to have stepping stones, but I realized quickly that I was going to get my feet wet no matter what. The quickest way across was to just wade through it.
My first fall came on a section of trail that seemed innocuous. I felt my left foot catch on a twig. Then I couldn’t pull it free. What felt like a loose twig was actually a vine, and my feet came out from under me. I fell forward, but it was a soft landing. It was actually too soft. My hands went into a mud puddle. I tried to wipe them off on some ferns, but that didn’t help much. I had to live with muddy hands until the next aid station.
As we got deeper into the forest, I started to get hot. We were surrounded by ferns. It seemed like all the vegetation was adding to the humidity. Sweat was dripping into my eyes, but I couldn’t wipe them. My hands were still muddy.
After 10.7 miles, we reached the Fond du Lac aid station. A volunteer with a pitcher of water helped me rinse off my hands. With clean hands, I ate part of a banana. I got most of my calories from sports drinks, but I occasionally ate gels, banana pieces, pickle slices or potato chips.
The next section of trail was only two miles, but it was slow going. The trail was narrow, and sometimes went along the top of a narrow ridge. There were steeper hills. I had to slow to a walk going up and down. It was too steep to be runnable in either direction. In one spot it was so steep that there were guide ropes.
The steeper descents put more strain on my injured muscles. At different times, I felt stretching or soreness above or below my elastic bandage. The bandage was reducing strain on some muscles, but increasing strain on others. Everything’s a trade-off.
Next we came alongside a stream. I moved off the trail to take this picture, not knowing we were about to cross the same stream.
There was an aid station on the other side of the stream. As I looked for the shallowest place to cross, a volunteer on the other side said, “You can’t avoid getting your feet wet.” I knew that. I was hoping to avoid getting my shins wet. I didn’t. Where I waded through, it was about eight inches deep.
As I reached the Seven Bridges aid station, I checked my watch. I took roughly 2:32 for the first 12.7 miles. I was almost on pace for a five hour finish. The most difficult sections, however, were still ahead of us.
Leaving Seven Bridges, we re-entered the woods. The trail became a roller coaster. We had long uphill sections followed by long downhill sections. Going uphill, I had to walk because it was tiring. Going downhill, I had to go cautiously, so I wouldn’t trip on roots. Then I came into a clearing. We were now on the toughest part of the course, the dreaded power lines.
This section is named for the power lines overhead. Underneath them is a series of steep hills. We ran down a hill that was uncomfortably steep. I had to force myself to slow down. Then we crossed a stream. On the other side was a long steep climb. The ground was just muddy enough to be slippery. No matter where I tried to plant my foot, it slipped. There was nothing to grab onto. I tried to make progress on all fours, but my hands slipped too.
I kept grinding to a halt, because I couldn’t get a firm footing. Sometimes I fell backward. The first ten to fifteen vertical feet after the stream were agonizingly slow. After that it got better. It was still steep, but at least there was dry footing. The rest of the climb was slow and tiring. Then we got to do it again … and again … and again … for two miles.
After the power lines, we reached the Grand Portage aid station. I had put 15.5 miles behind me, but I realizing now I would be doing well to break six hours. The toughest section was behind me, but other tough sections were still ahead of me.
After Grand Portage, we headed back into the forest. It was more single-track trail, but with a steady uphill trend. This section was slow going. I ran where I could, but mostly I walked. I was tired, and I was hot. It didn’t help that I caught my foot on a root at one point and hit the trail. I wasn’t hurt, but I once again had some mud on my hands. Relief came in the form a brief section of paved bike trail. Unlike two earlier paved sections, where I could pick up my pace, here I was slow. I ran, but at a snail’s pace. We were still going slightly uphill.
The next aid station was Peterson’s. This was the only station where runners could have drop bags. I didn’t have a drop bag, but I asked for a paper towel, so I could wipe the mud off my hands. I didn’t need any water to rinse them. There was more than enough sweat.
The next three miles had a few stream crossings. Getting across wasn’t a problem. Stepping down to the stream without tripping was a little bit tricky, but manageable. The tough part was always climbing up the opposite side. The first few steps were steep. There were natural footholds, but they were always too far apart for my short legs. One time, while trying to reach up to the next foothold with my left foot, I felt a flash of pain in my right leg. I was putting too much of a stretch on my injured muscles. The pain was only momentary, but I almost fell back down to the stream. After that, all of the similar stream crossings were uncomfortable. I was hurting.
After three slow uncomfortable miles, I finally reached the Forbay Lake aid station, where we crossed a dam at one end of the lake. From here, it was only 5.7 miles to go. I glanced at my watch. If enough of it was runnable, I could still break six hours.
I got my wish. I had wide paths with level footing all the way to the next aid station. At this point, I couldn’t run very fast, but at least I could run the whole way.
After about two miles, we were alongside the St. Louis River. I saw a path to the river where I could get a picture, so I briefly detoured off the trail.
A minute later, I saw a spot where I could get views of these rapids, so I stopped again. I regretted taking so much time to take the previous picture. I started to wonder if these stops would cost me a chance to break six hours.
Next, I reached the Jay Cooke aid station. I saw runners up ahead turning to cross the swinging bridge. As a volunteer filled my bottle, I took a picture of the bridge.
As soon as I turned onto the bridge myself, I realized the best views were from the bridge. As I stopped to take three more pictures, I was pretty sure I was giving up any chance of breaking six hours.
I had 3.3 miles left to go. I glanced at my watch. To break six hours, I had to run them in 37 minutes. It was doable if enough of the remaining trail was runnable. Then I stepped off the bridge and saw this.
To my left, I saw a nice normal trail. Do we go that way? No. We go straight ahead – right over a pile of rocks.
It was a slow climb up the rocks, but then the trail leveled off again. There are two routes that are used in alternate years. I had heard horror stories about Jarrow’s beach. That’s a quarter mile of climbing over boulders. Fortunately, we didn’t go that way this year. Our route seemed more runnable … at first. Then I discovered that instead of big rocks, we had big roots.
They got worse before they got better. There were long sections where I had to walk so I could step carefully over the roots. I tried to hurry as much as I could, still hoping that the trail would become runnable soon. It was a long wait. When we ran out of roots, we had six inch rocks. Then we had more roots. Then I started to catch the runners ahead of me. I wasn’t speeding up, so they must be slowing down. Why were they all slowing down? Then I got here.
This looks like a view of the trail from above. It’s actually a view of the trail from the trail. I had to climb down to continue.
I climbed down, but it slowed me down. Many times, the trail got somewhat runnable, but then I’d encounter more roots or rocks, and I’d have to walk again. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much, but I was still clinging to hope of breaking six.
When the trail finally got runnable, I let my guard down. There were still a few roots, and I hit one going pretty fast. I rolled onto my shoulder as I slammed into the ground. It was a hard landing, but on a soft surface. I didn’t hit any rocks or roots, and the ground was just moist enough to be soft. The next runner helped me up. He had to ask me twice if I was OK. I was, but my fall probably looked much worse than it was.
I took off running again. I was racing the clock. I knew how much time I had, but I didn’t know how far it was to the finish. At one point, I asked another runner. He said. “less than a mile.” I looked at my watch. I had eight minutes. It better be a lot less than a mile.
Then he recognized the turn ahead and said, “half a mile.” We were making the final turn onto a paved bike path that would take us to the finish line in Carlton. With eight minutes to cover half a mile and a good running surface, I took off. I pushed all the way and finished in 5:56:11. It turns out it was less than half a mile.
Betty and John were both waiting at the finish line. I got my finisher medal and shirt, but almost forgot that I had a drop bag.
After a brief visit with Betty and John and a few finish line snacks, I drove back to the motel. I stopped on the way to buy ice at a gas station. I didn’t know how my leg was doing, but an ice bath was the best thing I could do to minimize inflammation. I bought more ice than I needed. It was the coldest ice bath I’ve ever had. I hope it was worth it, because it wasn’t comfortable.
I had two goals for this race. The first was to finish. The second was to avoid making my leg worse. I accomplished the first. The jury is still out on the second one. Right now, I feel surprisingly good. I don’t know how I’ll feel tomorrow.