Sunday, October 27, 2019

Race Report: 2019 Snowdonia Marathon

On October 26, I ran the Snowdonia Marathon in Llanberis, Wales.  This race goes through Snowdonia National Park.  The course goes around Mt. Snowdon, which is the highest peak in Wales.

Photo credit:  David Bayley

Here’s a map of the marathon route.

This is a popular race.  It fills up about an hour after registration opens.  Registration for this year’s race opened up on the morning of December 1st.  In my time zone, it would have been 2 AM.  My friend David, who lives in England, offered to sign me up at the same time he was signing up.  The race filled in 45 minutes.  Next year, they’re going to have a lottery.

The closest international airports were all in England.  I got the best airfare by flying into Manchester, which is about 100 miles from Llanberis.  From there, it’s possible to get to Wales by public transport, but it takes a combination of trains and buses, and the journey takes between four and five hours.  If I rented a car, I could drive there in about two hours.

I don’t usually rent cars in other countries, although I’ve done it on a few occasions.  In England and Wales, they drive on the left side of the road.  I’ve done that before, in The Bahamas, but it still makes me nervous.  Reluctantly, I decided to rent a car for this trip.

Thursday, October 24

I arrived at the Manchester airport in the early afternoon after an overnight flight and a layover in Amsterdam.  I never sleep on overnight flights.  Knowing I would need to be alert enough to drive, I drank several cups of tea on my flights.

Having a car gave me the opportunity to do some additional sightseeing.  I’ve never been to Liverpool before, and it was kind of on the way, so I spent my first night there.

The drive to Liverpool went OK until I was about half a mile from my hotel.  Then I missed my exit from a roundabout.  Of all placed to make a wrong turn, I found myself entering the Queensway Tunnel, with no chance to exit until two miles later, when I was on the other side of the river.  Then I had to get turned around and take the tunnel back, paying the toll both ways.

In Liverpool, I stayed at the Doubletree, which is in the heart of downtown.  From there, I could walk to everything.  After parking the car in a nearby ramp, I was happy to be done driving for the day.

Liverpool was the birthplace of The Beatles.  Before they were famous, they performed frequently at the Cavern Club.  The Cavern Club was torn down in 1973, but it was rebuilt in its original location 11 years later.  Today, it looks much as it did when the Beatles played there.

Many of the regular performers at the Cavern Club are Beatles tribune bands.  While I was there, Richard Batty was performing.  About half the songs he sang were Beatles songs.  The rest were other well-known songs from the 60s and early 70s. 

After hanging out at the Cavern Club for a while, I had dinner at a pizzeria called Crust.  Then I went to the Philharmonic Dining Rooms to meet my guide for a tour of Liverpool.  By now, it was already getting dark.  I don’t usually do walking tours after dark, but this was a walking and drinking tour.  It including stopping for beers at three different pubs.

When I arrived, I saw two guys talking outside.  One asked me if I was David.  Then he told me he was my guide and I was the only one who signed up for the tour that night.  That made it possible for him to customize the tour.  I’m a Beatles fan, so he made it a private guided tour of the history of the Beatles.  We visited various sights with connections to the Beatles.  Each of the pubs we stopped at was a place where the Beatles used to go drinking.  During our drinking stops, my guide filled me in on some of the other details of the Beatles early years, including their gigs in Hamburg.

I got back to the hotel after 9:00 and got to bed around 10:00.  By now, I had been awake for almost 36 hours.  I had no trouble getting to sleep that night.

Friday, October 25

During the night, I got up to go to the bathroom, and I stubbed my little toe on a chair that was near the bed.  It hurt quite a bit at first, but the pain gradually subsided enough that I could get back to sleep.  When I eventually got up, I could still feel it.  I don’t think I broke anything, but there was some bleeding.  That’s just what you want the day before a race.

After breakfast, I left Liverpool to drive to Llanberis.  I thought I could get there by noon, but the drive turned out to be an adventure.  I was counting on my phone to give me turn by turn directions.  I set it up before starting the car.  It seemed to be working, but as I started the car, it said, “GPS signal lost.”  I was in a parking ramp, so I assumed it would pick up the signal as soon as I got outside.

I knew how my route started.  I took the Queensway Tunnel to Birkenhead and got onto A41 going south toward Ellesmere Port.  I assumed my phone would pick up the GPS signal once I was outside the tunnel.

I was expecting my phone to tell me where to exit from A41, but it never did.  I realized I had gone too far south, when I started to get into Chester.  I found a gas station where I could pull over, and I checked my phone.

It was raining, and I had a spotty data connection.  I couldn’t get navigation to work.  I eventually got back onto A41 going north and started watching for signs for North Wales.  I kept following them until I got unto A55 toward Conwy.  I knew my route would take me through Conwy and Bangor, so I followed A55 until I reached Bangor.  Then I started seeing signs for Llanberis and was able to follow those for the rest of the way.

It would have been a scenic drive if not for the weather.  I drove past rustic hillsides and within sight of the Irish Sea.  Rain and low clouds, however, obstructed most of the views.

The last five miles were on narrow two lane roads.  All the rain was causing large puddles to encroach on the road, making that part of the drive unpleasant.  When I finally got into Llanberis, I pulled over to see if I could get my phone working for the last part of the drive.  Now that I was in town, it worked.

In Llanberis, I stayed at Y Gwynedd Inn.  They have their own parking area, but it’s small, and I wasn’t scheduled to check in until 5:00.  I found street parking about half a block away, but I could only park there for 45 minutes.  I parked the car and walked over to see if there was room in their lot.  There was.  I went in to ask if it was OK to park there even though I hadn’t checked in yet.  Not only was it OK to park there, but I was able to check in early.

My room was small, but the location couldn’t have been better.  The finish line was right in front.  By the time I moved the car and unpacked my things, it was already 1:00.  Street parking in Llanberis is hard to find.  Everything in town was within a mile, so now that the car was parked, I left it there and just walked to everything.

My first order of business was lunch.  There was a pizzeria I wanted to try, but it was on the other end of town.  I got my umbrella and started walking.  Even with the umbrella, I got wet, particularly my shoes and pant legs.  I was looking forward to getting indoors and warming up.  Then I discovered they aren’t open for lunch.  I had to walk back into the center of town.  I ended up having fish & chips at Pete’s Eats, which is the most popular restaurant in town.

After lunch, I walked over to the event village, which was in the parking lot of Electric Mountain Visitor Center.  I picked up my race packet and walked back to the hotel.  I changed into dry clothes, but my only dry pair of shoes was the pair I was saving for the race.

I had planned to spend the afternoon sightseeing, but it wasn’t a good day for it.  It rained all afternoon, and you couldn’t see the mountains.  Now that my shoes were wet, I didn’t feel like going back out until they dried.  In the meantime, I changed into my race shoes and hung out at the bar, and eventually had dinner there

Later, David and some of his friends from England arrived.  I met them at Pete’s Eats, where they were having dinner, and I joined them for beers after dinner.

Saturday, October 26

Saturday was race day.  The race didn’t start until 10:30 AM, so I didn’t need to get up early.  I set my alarm for 7:30, but I woke up at 4:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep.  I made myself some tea and had a pastry that I bought at a convenience store across the street.

I usually organize my race clothes the day before a race, but this time I waited until morning, so I could see what the weather was like.  It looked a lot like Friday.  It was raining when I got up, and it looked like the rain wouldn’t stop until mid-afternoon.

I didn’t know what the wind would be like, so I erred on the side of being warm enough.  Temperatures were in the low 40s, but I dressed like I normally would for 30s.  In addition, I wore a plastic rain poncho.  If the rain stopped, I would be too hot, but I was willing to risk that.

The starting line was about a 15 minute walk from the inn where I was staying.  Because of the rain, I waited until 10:00 before leaving the inn.

This is a hilly course.  It’s mostly on roads, but there are three tough climbs.  There are also two steep descents.  Here’s the elevation profile (in meters).

After David signed me up for this race, he challenged me to try to break four hours.  At the time, I could barely do that on a flat course, but I’m in much better shape now.  At first I didn’t know how much a hilly course would slow me down.  Then I noticed something on the elevation profile above.  In the upper right corner, it says this course is equivalent to a flat course that’s 29.32 miles.  I’m not sure how they arrived at that, but if you take my time from the Chicago Marathon and scale it to 29.32 miles, it works out to 3:45:40.

I took that with a grain of salt.  First of all, the Chicago Marathon was my best effort on a course that suits me well.  It’s the type of course I’ve trained for.  I haven’t trained much for hills, so I expected to be slow on the long climbs.  Also, this course has two sections on trails, and they’re both downhill.  I descend well on roads, but I don’t descend well on trails.  Finally, I didn’t dress optimally for running fast.  I knew I was probably overdressed.  If the rain stopped, I’d probably overheat, and that would slow me down.

Breaking four hours was in the back of my mind as a goal, but I was so sure I couldn’t do it that I brought a camera with me to take pictures along the route.

For a race in a remote area that’s partially on trails, this race is surprisingly large.  I got some sense of that at packet pickup, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I got to the start area.  There were a lot of runners.

I lined up a fair distance back from the starting line.  The first two miles are relatively flat, so I thought it would be reasonable to start at the same pace I would in a flat race.  With so many runners lined up in front of me, I was surprised that they all went out as fast or faster.

We started out running through a valley.  The first mile had a slight downhill trend, but felt flat enough that I had a chance to find my rhythm.  I ran that mile in 7:57.  The second mile had a slight uphill trend to it.  I slowed to 8:25.  On average, I was going a little bit slower than I would on a flat course, but I knew what was coming.

In the third mile, we began the first of three long climbs.  This was the climb to Pen-y-Pass.  The climb started out gradual.  I was pleasantly surprised to run that mile in roughly nine minutes.  That’s the pace I needed to average for a four hour finish.  If I could do that in an uphill mile, I was in good shape.

In the first two miles, I didn’t feel at all overdressed with the rain poncho.  That began to change on the climb.  In the first mile of the climb, my hands were still cold, but under the poncho, I was warming up.

The fourth mile had a more noticeable grade.  I wouldn’t call it steep, but it was gradually wearing me down.  Now I started to feel hot under the poncho.  In that mile, I slowed to about 10 minutes.  That wasn’t too surprising.  I expected the climbs to be slow.

In the fifth mile, the climb got steep.  I had to slow down, but I was determined to run the whole way.  Now I was getting uncomfortably hot.  My poncho had a hood, and I had to take it off my head so heat could escape.  My hands were feeling warm now, but I kept my gloves on.  I was working up a sweat on the climb, but soon I would begin descending.

The summit of the first big climb was at Pen-y-Pass, which came just before the five mile mark.  At the top, there was an aid station and some spectators.  Up until now, I had resisted the urge to stop and take pictures, but I had to get a photo of this couple.  That's the Welsh flag.

The fifth mile took almost 11 minutes, but now I was done climbing.  As I began descending, I got my first view of a different valley.

At first, the descent let me recover from the climb.  Then I started to pick up speed.  It was steep enough that I didn’t have to work to run faster.  I was actually putting in so little effort that I wasn’t generating much heat.  I cooled off nicely here.

At six miles, we left the road for a trail.  We were still in the middle of a long descent.  Thankfully it wasn’t as steep here.  There were enough rocks in the trail that I had to slow myself down and watch my footing carefully.  Other runners started passing me.  I made no effort to keep up.  I just wanted to feel like I was under control.  I don’t descend well over uneven footing, so I just let everybody go by.  Over the next two miles, I must have been passed by 100 runners.  Even though I was going downhill, my pace slowed to nine minutes per mile.

At eight miles, we went up a short hill to get back to the road.  On the trail, I was always watching my footing, so I couldn’t take in the views.  Now that I had sure footing again, I was able to take in the views of my surroundings.

Over the next five miles, there was a gentle downhill trend.  My mile times varied, but they ranged between eight and nine minutes.

It was somewhere around 10 miles that I realized it wasn’t raining any more.  I’m not exactly sure when the rain stopped.  I was too focused on other things to notice.  I regretted my choice of rain ponchos.  The one I was wearing covered me from my head to my ankles.  I had another one that doesn’t cover as much of my arms and legs.  I wished that I had chosen that one instead, but I couldn’t do anything about it.  I was getting hot again, and I just had to hope it wouldn’t slow me down too much.  I’m sure that was the only reason I couldn’t run eight minute miles on this section.

With a low cloud ceiling, we couldn’t see the mountain tops, but there was plenty of scenery closer to the road.  At different times, we ran by lakes on either side of the road.

At 13 miles, we passed through the town of Beddgelert.  This was the largest town we would see before returning to Llanberis.  The crowd support here was great.

There wasn’t a marker for halfway, but based on my 13 mile split, I ran the first half in less than 1:54.  Now I was cautiously optimistic.  I was easily on pace to break four hours, but it’s worth noting that the second half has a tougher elevation profile.  Beddgelert was at the bottom of a valley.  We weren’t even out of town yet before we began climbing.  This was the second of the three tough climbs.

At first, the slope was gradual.  Early in the climb, I paused to take a picture of the fall colors.  That brief rest break energized me enough that I was ready to tackle the rest of the hill, even as the grade got more challenging.

This hill wasn’t as long as the first one.  I slowed down, but not as much.  At 15 miles, the climb was over.  I didn’t lose too much time there, so I thought more about what it would take to break four hours.

In contrast to the first climb, this one wasn’t followed by a steep descent.  Instead, we had a gentle downhill trend over the next six miles.  I realized this was my best chance to pick up my pace.  I still had one tough climb remaining.  I knew I would lose time there.  I also knew the final descent would be mostly on trails, so I couldn’t count on making up time there.  My goal over the next six miles was to put enough time in the bank that I could afford to be slow on the last big climb.

I wanted to run the next six miles with times between eight and nine minutes.  I succeeded at that and even ran one of them in less than eight minutes.  That boosted my confidence.

I was passing other runners somewhat regularly now.  I wondered how many of them were the same runners that passed me between six and eight miles, when we were descending on trails.

On this part of the course we had a headwind.  At times, it felt tiring, but it kept me from overheating.  My hands started to get really cold here.  I reminded myself that I would warm up on the last climb.

As I passed the 21 mile mark, I was surprised that I wasn’t to the big climb yet.  With 5.2 miles to go, I could afford an average pace of 11 minutes per mile.  I was focused on breaking four hours, and I liked my chances.

We were almost to 22 miles when the climb finally started.  The change in grade was unmistakable.  This one was steep from the very start.  I couldn’t run very fast, but I was determined to run the whole thing.

As the grade got steeper, I started seeing more and more people walking.  I was one of the few people still running.  I got lots of cheers of “good job, mate” from everyone I passed.

After 23 miles, the grade got even steeper.  I looked ahead and saw what I thought might be the top.  As I got there, I realized it was a false summit.  The climb continued.  This happened a few times.  Looking at the hills around us, it seemed like we were about to go over the top.  Then I’d get closer, and I could see more hills that went higher.

I finally had to take a walking break.  I knew I could afford it if I didn’t walk for too long.  I walked for about a minute.  Then I forced myself to run the rest of the way.  Finally, at 24 miles, I was at the top of the steep part of the climb.  I checked my watch.  Did I succeed in limiting the damage?  That mile took only 10 minutes, in spite of the walking break.  Now I had it in the bag.

Right at 24 miles, we left the road for a trail.  We were descending now, but only slightly.  There were puddles all over the trail.  Some I could avoid; some I couldn’t.  My shoes were filling with water.  That’s just what I wanted before a long steep descent.  Insole problems were almost inevitable.

The trail turned slightly uphill again.  We had crossed one summit, but there was still a second summit before the final steep descent.  Now there was water all the way across the trail.  It was like running upstream through a river.

Finally, at about 24.5 miles, I reached the highest elevation on the course.  It was less than two miles to the finish, but it was treacherous.  What’s worse than a steep descent over uneven footing?  How about adding mud to the mix?  It was steep, and it was slick.  I had to slow my pace and choose my footing carefully.  This is why I wasn’t going to gain any time on this section.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

On one section of the trail, there was a long puddle running down one side.  Everyone else avoided that side.  One runner raced right through it, splashing mud waist high on everyone she passed.  I didn’t appreciate that.

The sky was clearing up, and I came to a spot with a nice view overlooking the valley below.  I stopped to take a picture, but my camera’s viewfinder was completely white.  I didn’t know if it was moisture on the lens of something else.  My camera was wet.  I took a few pictures without knowing if I was aiming it right.  I had no idea if they would even turn out.  I don’t think I got the angle I was trying for, but this is the one that was closest.

Some sections were steeper than others.  On one particularly steep section, I felt my insoles slipping forward in both of my shoes.  That’s a common problem for me when I’m running down a steep hill with water in my shoes.  Usually, it’s just uncomfortable.  This time, it affected my running.  I could feel my feet slipping back and forth inside my shoes with each step.  Not only was the trail surface slick and unstable, but the insides of my shoes were as well.

I was right about not making up time on the downhill.  Mile 25 actually took longer than mile 24, which had been all uphill.  Still, I had more than 16 minutes for the last 1.2 miles to finish within four hours.

Next, I got onto a section of the trail that was paved.  It was still uncomfortably steep, but at least I had solid footing.  I was coping with the discomfort of having insoles that were bunched up under my toes.  Then I reached a section that was even steeper, and I felt something else going on in my shoe.  This was something I had never felt before.  It was extremely uncomfortable.  I actually wondered if the back of my foot had come out of my shoe.  Nope.  As I tried to keep running, I realized what it was.  One of my orthotics had slipped forward in my shoe.  That’s never happened before.

I couldn’t run that way.  The back edge of my orthotic, which normally stays behind my heel, was cutting into the bottom of my foot.  It was painful, but more significantly, I was afraid it would cause an injury.  I had to stop and fix it.  I took off the shoe, moved the orthotic back to where it belonged, removed the insole, unfolded it and put it back in the proper place, replaced the shoe, and tied it.  That took time.

I resumed running, and as soon as I hit another steep section, the orthotic moved again.  I didn’t have time to keep doing this, but I also couldn’t run like that.  My solution was to run on my toes, so the back of my foot wouldn’t strike my orthotic.  Going downhill, that was uncomfortable, but I was in Llanberis now.  I only had about half a mile to go.

After another minute or two, I finally got onto streets I recognized.  I knew the grade was going to level out soon.  When I made the last turn onto High Street, it leveled out completely.  Now I could run on my toes more comfortably as I sprinted to the finish. Despite all the mishaps that cost me time, I finished in 3:54:48.  To say I’m pleased with that time would be an understatement.

Instead of a finisher medal, the tradition at this race is for each finisher to get one of these slate coasters.  In case you're wondering, "Eryri" is the Welsh name for Snowdonia.  We also each got a water bottle, which conveniently was already filled with water.

After finishing, I had to go around the finish line fences, but then I was only about 100 feet from the door to Y Gwynedd Inn.  Getting to my room, however, was like an obstacle course.  First, I had to get through the crowd of spectators.  Then I had to go through about five doors, and the sleeve of my rain poncho got caught on every door handle.  It also got caught on a knob as I rounded the top of the staircase. Needless to say, that was the first thing I removed when I got to my room.

I was wearing multiple layers of clothes, and they were all soaking wet.  Some were wet from the rain; others were wet from sweat.  It took time to peel them off and find places to hang them up to dry.  I also had to clean the mud from my shoes.

After showering and changing clothes, I walked over to the event village to attend the awards ceremony.  I was impressed with how fast some of the other runners ran this course.  The winner of my age group finished in 3:07!

David invited me to join his running club for a post-race dinner at the Royal Victoria Hotel.  I joined a few of them for beers in town, and then we walked to the hotel.  Better late than never, I finally had pizza in Wales.  For those keeping score at home, that makes 38 countries.

After dinner, I was tired enough that I could’ve fallen asleep immediately.  There was a band performing at the inn, and my room was directly above their stage.  The bass was so loud that it was making things in my room vibrate.  There wasn’t any point going to sleep until they were done.  That was 11:00.

Remember that toe I stubbed?   It never bothered me during the race, but when I climbed into bed, it was the only thing that hurt.  Nevertheless, I had no trouble getting to sleep.

Sunday, October 27

I joined my friends for breakfast at Pete’s Eats.  Then we watched a rugby match at a nearby inn that had several large TVs.  Wales was playing in the semifinals of the World Cup, so it was a big deal for local rugby fans.  It was an exciting game, but ultimately Wales lost to South Africa.

I had plans to visit Conwy Castle in the afternoon, but I had another driving adventure.  A few minutes after I left Llanberis, I got a “check tire pressure” indicator.  I stopped at a gas station and walked around the car.  One tire was dangerously low.  The car had been parked for two days, so I didn’t know how quickly it was losing air.  I added air, but I didn’t know how well the tire would hold air.  I decided the safest course of action was to drive straight to Manchester, without making any sightseeing stops.  It was a nice sunny day, so at least I got to enjoy a scenic drive through north Wales.  Before returning the car, I stopped to fill the tank.  The tire was still holding air, but better safe than sorry.

I don’t fly home until tomorrow morning.  For tonight, I’m staying at an airport hotel.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  3:54:48
Average Pace:  8:57
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  390
Countries:  38

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Race Report: Surf the Murph Marathon

On October 19, I ran the Surf the Murph Marathon.  This is a trail marathon held in Murphy-Hanrehan Park Reserve in Savage, MN.  They’ve had ultramarathons on these trails for several years.  Last year, they added a marathon.  One of my long-term goals is to run every marathon in Minnesota, so I had to add this one to my list.  By the time I found out about the marathon, it was already too late to register for last year’s event.  I had to wait until this year.

I was initially unsure if I could fit this race into my schedule this year.  I ran the Chicago Marathon last weekend, and I’m running the Snowdonia Marathon in Wales next weekend.  It helps that this race is close to home for me.

This was my sixth consecutive weekend with a marathon, and I have another one next weekend.  I’ve been going all out week after week, so it was time to dial it back and just stay within my comfort zone.  I knew it wasn’t going to be fast anyway.  I’m not a good trail runner.  I’ve never run on these trails before, so I didn’t know exactly how difficult they were.  I braced myself for something comparable to the Moose Mountain Marathon or the Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon.  If these trails turned out to be less technical, I could be pleasantly surprised.  In any event, my only goal was to finish.

In all, there were five race distances.  The course for the 100 mile race was a 16.7 mile loop that they ran six times.  The 50 mile race ran the same loop three times.  The “50K” race ran this loop twice.  I put 50K in parentheses, because two loops add up to about 54K.  The “25K” race ran this loop once, which is more like 27K.  The marathon was the only distance that didn’t just run the same loop.  We ran the 16.7 loop once and then ran a shorter version of the loop that was only 9.5 miles.

The marathon and “25K” didn’t start until 7:30 AM, but the longer races started earlier.  Packet pickup was on the morning of the race, near the start/finish area.  They had limited parking near the start.  I assumed the close parking would already be full by the time I got there, but I decided to check anyway.  They were almost full, but I got there in time to get one of the last spots in the close parking lot.

When I registered, they mailed me a “Training for Surf the Murph” T-shirt.  With my race packet, I got another T-shirt, a packet of Hammer Gel, and a couple different muscle recovery products.

Because it’s close to Halloween, this is a costume race.  I didn’t have any new ideas for a costume, and I didn’t want to wear anything bulky.  I opted to wear the same cheetah outfit I wore last weekend in Chicago.  The weather this weekend was warmer than Chicago was, but it was still cool enough that I could wear tights without getting too hot.  It helped that I was going at a slower pace.

When I got back to the car, I checked the weather again.  My weather app said it was going to start raining in about an hour.  That surprised me, because there wasn’t any rain in the forecast.  The hourly forecast now showed showers for the next two hours.  I looked at the radar.  There was nothing nearby, but there was a large band of rain over northern Iowa that was moving in our direction.

I took off my warm-up clothes and went to have my picture taken for the costume contest.  After making a bathroom stop, I made one last stop at the car.  It wasn’t raining yet, but I tied my Tyvek jacket around my waist, so I would have something to keep me warm if we had a long period of heavy rain.  Then I went to the starting line for pre-race instructions.

We started out on a nice wide grassy trail.  I didn’t initially notice any rocks or roots.  I was relieved to see that this course wasn’t too technical, but I quickly discovered that it had lots of steep hills.  In the first mile, I was running most of them.  In the second mile, I realized that running the hills was going to wear me out.  I started taking walking breaks on anything steep.  My first mile took about 10 minutes, but over the next few miles, my pace was between 11 and 12 minutes.

We had a dry start, but I started noticing a few drops of rain early in the second mile.  I wasn’t in any rush to put on my jacket.  I took a wait and see approach.  I wasn’t cold, so I waited to see if it would rain harder.  The rain picked up a little, but it never rained hard.

Most of the time, we were running through the forest.  Occasionally, we ran near the edge of a pond.

About three miles into the race, I reached the North aid station.  On average, the aid stations were about four miles apart.  Runners doing the longer distances were all wearing fuel belts or other hydration systems.  I didn’t want to carry that much extra weight, so I just drank at the aid stations.  Not carrying fluids with me really lightened my load.  I didn’t want to count on them having cups, so I used a small cup that I could clip to my fanny pack.  I wasn’t sweating that much, so I was able to get by just fine drinking one cup of HEED at each aid station.

After about four miles, I was past the worst of the hills.  I started to notice more rocks and roots in spots, but the hills got more gradual.  I could avoid the rocks and roots if I wasn’t on a steep downgrade.

At 5.5 miles, I reached the Horse Camp aid station.  This is where the marathon route deviated from the route used by the other races.  On my first lap, I turned left, to continue on the full 16.7 mile loop.  On my second lap, I would need to turn right here, to take a shorter route to the finish.

It still wasn’t raining hard, but the trail surface started to get slick.  I had one scary moment where I felt my feet sliding as I was running down a hill.  I didn’t feel like I was under control again until I reached the bottom of the hill.

The next obstacle was a wide mud pit.  It seemed too deep to run straight through it.  I did my best to tiptoe around it, but I still got my shoes wet.

The next few miles were the easiest part of the course.  We were running through a meadow.  There were gentle rolling hills, but I rarely had to walk any of them.

At about 10 miles, I reached the Natchez aid station.  Right after the aid station, I came to a paved road.  This was right at the boundary of the park.  We ran on the edge of the pavement for about a half mile.  Then the paved road turned into a dirt road.  It was still a firm surface, so I continued to enjoy footing that wasn’t slippery.

As I was running along the dirt road, I looked ahead and saw some clear sky to the west.  Up until now, the clouds were all dark.  Now I was optimistic the rain would let up.  Thankfully, it never rained hard.

As we left the road, we got onto another section of trail that was nice and wide.  It would have been easy if not for two long muddy sections.  The first muddy section was impassible in the middle, but I was a narrow ledge on the right side when I could stay above the mud.  Several other runners had run here already, and it was getting slick.  I was so worried about sliding into the deep mud that I had to slow to a walk.

The second long section of mud was easier to navigate, but it made me wish I had football cleats instead of running shoes.  By now, the rain had stopped.  I knew this was a section of trail I would only need to run once, so I was hopeful the worst of the mud was over.

After the muddy patches, I found myself getting tired.  Then I realized it had been a long time since I had to walk up a hill.  Doing continuous running, I had picked up my pace to the point where it was starting to get tiring.

At about 13 miles, we came to another aid station.  I saw “Horse” in the name.  It seemed curious to me that there were two aid stations with horse in the name.  In fact, we were coming back into the “Horse Camp” aid station.  It didn’t look familiar, because we approached it from a different direction and would also leave it in a different direction.  We didn’t even use the same food and beverage table.  It was more like two aid stations that were right next to each other.

Leaving Horse Camp for the second time, we entered a section of single track trail.  I quickly encountered a muddy puddle of water across the trail.  It was right across the trail, but resembled a pond more than a puddle.  On the left side, I saw a series of five stumps that were arranged like stepping stones.  That looked like a tempting route until I saw they were caked with mud.  The soles of my shoes were also muddy.  I couldn’t help but to remember my experience at the Bighorn Trail 100, where I slipped off a boulder under similar conditions and fell into a stream.

On the right side of the mud pond, there were some logs.  They were arranged like a narrow bridge.  They looked slippery, but I walked across them gingerly.  I started to lose my balance, but by then I was able to hop onto some soft ground.  I got across without plunging my shoes into muddy water again.

I continued on the single-track trail.  There weren’t any rocks or roots here, but the trail was narrow, and the ground was slick in spots.  I took the rest of this section at a cautious pace.

Just past the 14 mile mark, I turned onto a wider trail.  Then I encountered a hill that was steep enough that I had to walk part of it.  It was the first time in several miles that I had to walk a hill.

There were a couple of hills that I needed to walk, but this section wasn’t as difficult as the hills in the first four miles.

I was a bit disheartened when I reached a section of single-track trail with fallen branches and a fallen tree.  Here, I had to slow down and step carefully.  Fortunately, this section was short.

The rest of the loop had good footing.  There were two more hills that made me walk, but I felt like this section was still much easier than the first four miles.  Soon, I completed the loop and ran through the start/finish area to begin my second loop.

After 16.7 miles, I was easily on pace to break five hours.  I knew what the first 5.5 miles of the second loop would be like, because they were the same as the first loop.  They were also the hardest 5.5 miles.  I didn’t know what to expect after that.  I assumed the last four miles would be over a section of trail I hadn’t seen yet.

In the first mile of my second loop, I was surprised how hilly it was.  I had to walk up three of the hills.  At most, I walked one hill the first time I ran that mile.  The next two miles were worse.  Instead of just walking the steepest part of each hill, I was walking all the way up the hill.  On one particularly steep hill, just walking up the hill was difficult.

Up until now, I hadn’t seen other runners in costume.  I think I was the only one doing the marathon in any type of costume, unless you count all the people dressed as trail runners.  The longer races all started at different times.  I had passed some of those runners along the route, but there were probably several others I hadn’t seen yet.  As I got close to the North aid station, I saw a runner dressed as a witch, complete with broom.

As I passed the witch, I complimented her on her costume.  I didn’t recognize her yet.  As I paused to drink at the aid station, I looked back, and I finally recognized her.  It was Karen Gall.  I see Karen every year at FANS.

Leaving the north aid station, I still had one more really hilly mile.  After that mile, I checked my watch.  Over the first four miles of the second loop, I was averaging 13 minutes per mile.  The first time I ran this section, I averaged somewhere between 11 and 12 minutes per mile.  Clearly, the second loop was going to be slower.  I had another mile and a half to get to the Horse Camp aid station.  I knew this section was easier, but I didn’t know what the last four miles would be like.  I was really hoping they would be as tough as the first four miles of the loop.

At Horse Camp, I told the volunteers I was finishing the marathon and asked them which way to go.  I started running in the direction they pointed.  I saw a mile marker, but I was seeing it from the back.  That seemed odd.  Then I saw orange flagging around a bend to my right.  They said to go right, so I followed the flagging around the corner.

I got onto a section of single-track trail that seemed familiar.  The farther I ran, the more familiar it seemed.  Then I reached a muddy puddle across the trail.  On the left side, I saw a familiar series of five stumps.  This was the same puddle I encountered with four miles to go in the first loop.

I finally connected the dots and realized I had gone through the Horse Camp aid station twice during the first lap.  The last four miles weren’t going to be anything unfamiliar.  I was repeating the last four miles of the loop.  They shortened the second loop to 9.5 miles by having us skip the middle section.

As it turns out, the section we skipped on this loop was by far the easiest part of the course.  I didn’t mind that.  I was just happy I knew what to expect.  It wasn’t as easy as the middle section of the loop, but it was definitely easier than the first four miles.  I could handle this.

I found this section of single-track trail to be easier this time.  It had been about two hours since the rain stopped, and the trial no longer felt slippery.  I tried to remember what was next.  It was a wider section of trail.  It had a few steep hills, but not too many.

There was one thing I forgot.  I realized it only when I got there.  I forgot about the short section of single-track trail where I had to step over branches.  Fortunately, it’s short.

As I got back onto wide trail, I knew nothing else was too difficult.  I was picking up my pace over the last few miles.  I had to walk two more hills, but all the most difficult sections were behind me.

With 1.7 miles to go, I checked my watch.  I was still on pace break five hours by a wide margin.  With a strong finish, I would get done in about 4:52.  I couldn’t think of any other goals within reach.  I couldn’t bring my average pace down below 11.  That was well out of reach.  I certainly couldn’t run negative splits.  That ship sailed when I had to do so much more walking in the first four miles.  I picked up my pace a little, but I didn’t have any incentive to run up the last two hills.

With a half mile to go, I started hearing cheering from spectators.  I’m pretty sure they were all in the same family, but they were spread out along the trail, so they each cheered for me separately.

At the end of the loop, you turn right to start the next one or you turn left to finish.  I made the left turn and ran under the finish line balloon arch.  I finished in 4:52:41.  Instead of a medal, I got one of these.

They made these impressions on the wood using branding irons.  They had a fire pit just past the finish line to heat them.

After finishing, I was told to go the same building where I picked up my race packet.  I won one of the costume awards.  My award included a large jar of electrolyte drink powder, another shirt, a car seat cover, a cooling towel, and a large bottle of pain relief cream.

While I was there, I saw two other runners who won awards.  They were both dressed as bees.  Karen was still on the trail, but I assume she won an award for her witch outfit.

I paused in the finish area to have a sandwich and some soup.  As I started walking back to my car, I opened the front of my fanny pack to get my car keys.  I couldn’t find them.  They were supposed to be right next to my camera.  As I continued feeling for them, I discovered a hole in my fanny pack.  My keys weren’t there.  They had fallen out during the race.

My keys could be anywhere along 16.7 miles of trail.  Twice, I stepped off the trail to take pictures of ponds.  I ran through deep patches of mud.  Parts of the trail are covered with leaves.  Even if I had time to walk the entire loop, it’s unlikely I would find them.  It also seemed unlikely another runner would find them, unless I lost them right at an aid station.

My phone was in my car, but the car was locked.  I had to borrow a phone to call Deb.  She has a cold, so I knew she wouldn’t want to drive to the park, but that’s the only way I was going to get another set of keys.

While I was talking to Deb, the race officials sent text messages to all the aid station captains.  Someone found my keys and turned them in at the North aid station.  I got a ride to the aid station to pick them up.  I’ll never know where I lost my keys or who found them, but I’m grateful.  After only a minimal delay, I was able to drive home.

As I mentioned above, one of my long-term goals has been to run every marathon in Minnesota.  This was the last one.  I’ve run them all.  My victory dance will be short, however.  Next year, there will be at least two new ones.  This is the sort of goal that you can never really be done with.  That’s OK.  It’s not about the destination.  It’s about the journey.  If the journey continues, that’s not a bad thing.

Race Statistics
Distance:  26.2 miles
Time:  4:52:41
Average Pace:  11:10
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  389
Minnesota Marathons:  57