After focusing on improving my marathon and 50K times, I was excited to attempt another 50 miler this summer. I researched several different races in the upper Midwest and finally decided on the Minnesota Voyageur 50 Mile Trail Ultramarathon. According to their website:
“Founded in 1982, the Minnesota Voyageur 50 Mile Trail Ultramarathon is one of the oldest trail ultras in the nation. The race follows a rugged, varied, out-and-back course that takes runners on a journey from Carlton, MN through Jay Cooke State Park and heads northeast over difficult, rough woodland trails to Duluth, MN and back. Enjoy scenic overlooks of Duluth, MN and Lake Superior, the iconic Swinging Bridge over the St. Louis River, and the infamous Power Lines.”
As with the Marquette 50, I used a training plan from “Relentless Forward Progress” but this time I chose one with more weekly mileage. Since I trained specifically for the Cellcom Marathon in May, I only used the final 8 weeks of the plan to prepare for the Voyageur. I recovered quickly from the marathon, and was able to hit most of the weekly mileage goals, except the week when we went on vacation. I did have some calf and knee issues towards the end of training, but overall my body felt strong and ready to race.
We decided to camp for the weekend instead of getting a hotel. It had been a few years since we’ve gone camping, and the whole family was looking forward to it. Jay Cooke State Park was already sold out so we camped at the KOA which was only 1.5 miles from the start of the race. The forecast for the weekend was low 70s, sunny and beautiful. Great camping and running weather! We arrived at the campsite around 3:30, set up the tent, started a fire and enjoyed a nice pre-race meal of bean burritos, cantaloupe and s’mores.
I was hoping to get a good night’s sleep, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. There was a band playing at the nearby Carlton Daze festival, and we could hear them until well after midnight. While I enjoyed the 90’s rock songs, and sang along in my head, I would have preferred a few more hours of sleep. Luckily I slept well in the days leading into the race so I knew one restless night wouldn’t hurt too much. After laying awake most of the night I got up at 4:00am, showered, eat a Clif Bar, drank some caffeinated Tailwind Nutrition, dragged the kids out of their sleeping bags, and we headed to the start.
The race starts at 6:00am at Carlton High School. We arrived to the start area around 5:15 to register and hand off my drop bag. We hung out inside the school for while because it was about 50 degrees. Just before 6:00 the race director gave his pre-race speech including a shout out to a couple of runners who ran the first one in 1982 and were running it again this year.
The race starts on the streets of Carlton before heading to the paved Munger Trail, and then onto the Jay Cooke Carlton Trail. The road and paved section allowed the faster runners to quickly move to the front, and everyone else settled into the pack. The first trail section was full of rocks and roots, and with the mass of people it was slow going until we reached the swinging bridge over the St. Louis River. This was one of the most scenic parts of the course. The views of the river were amazing. The pictures don’t do it justice. Next time I would love to camp in the park and explore the area.
After the Swinging Bridge we hit the first aid station. There are 8 aid stations along the course, and one at the turnaround. Since it’s an out and back course we would have 17 stops during the 50 miles with no more than 3.4 miles between stations. Because of this, I decided I only needed to carry one handheld bottle and a small waist pack to carry my nutrition. My nutrition plan was to eat whatever looked good at the aid stations, and mix in some gels and Tailwind between the aid stations. I also planed to take an S-cap hourly since cramping has been an issue in the past.
I had three goals in mind. Finish and have fun, beat my time from Marquette (12:16), and if everything went well I really wanted to break 10 hours. I needed to average 12 minute miles for the entire race to hit 10 hours. I set one of the data fields on my watch to Average Pace, and tried to stay as close to that as possible.
At the first aid station I quickly grabbed a PB&J and headed back out. The next several miles were mostly flat and pretty smooth so I picked up the pace. I was running smoothly and enjoying the cool temps. I kept telling myself “quick light steps, and run tall”. I also really focused on my breathing.
A little under 11 miles in I came into the Grand Portage aid station feeling good. I quickly filled my handheld with water and Tailwind, ate some fig bars, and left ready to tackle the hardest section of the course. The next section includes the two big hills of Purgatory and the famous Power Lines. Luckily the trail was dry this year which made climbing and descending much easier. My goal was to power hike up the big climbs, and keeping moving as fast as possible. In past races I’ve hiked/walked the uphills too slowly. This time I was able to catch or pass many runners on the uphill sections. While the most challenging part of the course, the Power Lines weren’t as difficult as I had feared. I read many race reports to prepare, and most talked about how difficult this sections was. At the end of the Power Lines I caught up to a small group of runners, and ran with them to the Seven Bridges aid station.
Between Seven Bridges and Fond du Lac aid stations, I ran along with two other guys for several miles. I settled in behind them and let them set the pace. They were running the race for the second time, and gave me some info about the upcoming sections of the course. It was nice to talk with someone since I had been mostly running solo. I do all of my training runs by myself so I’m used to it, but during a race it’s good to have the distraction of talking with people.
Around 20 miles in I was just over my pace goal of 12 minute miles and feeling good. My left ankle was sore, but nothing that prevented me from running normally. This has happened in training, but it never progressed to anything more than annoying. I started to pick up the pace going up Skyline Drive and had a surge of energy. I didn’t know how long it would last but I wanted to ride it as long as possible. At the Skyline aid station (mile 22) we had access to our drop bags. I had some coke, PB&J, restocked my gels and Tailwind, and took an Ibuprofen.
Right before the turnaround, we ran across the top of the Spirit Mountain ski slopes, and had great views of Superior, Duluth and the St. Louis River. I reached the turnaround just under 5 hours, and feeling great. Sarah and kids were planning on meeting me there but I arrived faster than expected so I texted her to tell her to meet me at the next aid station.
When I reached the Skyline aid station for the second time, I was excited to see my family. It always gives me a boost seeing them. I grabbed a few things from my drop bag and was off. I really tried to minimize my time in aid stations which paid off. The volunteers at all of the aid stations were great!! They would refill my water bottle while I grabbed something quick to eat. I alternated between PB&J, fig bars, and potatoes dipped in salt. I also drank Coke or Ginger Ale at most aid stations. Most of the time I walked out of the aid station while eating instead of stopping to eat.
My goal for the second half of the race was to stay under 10 hour pace as long as I could. I knew if I could get past the Power Lines section around my goal pace, I had some very runable sections left that I could make up some time. My legs felt great all day. The only issues were my left ankle and my right hamstring . A few times my hamstring felt like it was about to start cramping which had been a problem for me last summer at the Luna-Tics 50k. Whenever I felt a cramp coming on I would stretch it out and take another S-Cap. Luckily the cramps never developed.
I ran most of the second half of the race alone. I was able to pass several runners, and was only passed by one guy. The surge of energy I had at mile 20 pretty much stayed with me for the rest of the race.
When I hit the Power Lines for the second time I caught up to and ran with another runner. He was running his 7th ultra of the year! We talked about training, and he gave me some info about other races in the area.
Between the Grand Portage and Jay Cooke aid stations I kept gaining on my goal of averaging 12 minute miles. I came into the Jay Cooke aid station around 9 hours which meant I had an hour to run the final 3.4 miles to reach my goal. When I saw Sarah at mile 28 I told her she should meet me at the Jay Cooke aid station which was the final aid station of the race. I wanted her and the kids to check out the park. My phone died so I wasn’t able to give her updates for the last few hours, and since I was well under my goal they hadn’t arrived yet!
I exited the last aid station feeling great. As long as I stayed upright and didn’t trip and hurt myself I would hit my goal. I ran part of this section with a runner who also was a teacher. He told me that a few years ago the runner in second place fell and hit his head and needed an ambulance ride. That gave me extra focus to pick up my feet and take it easy over the rocks and roots.
I finished the race in 9:48:26. Well under my ultimate goal, and almost a two and half hour PR. I was 60th out of the 271 finishers. I was so happy that I executed my race plan almost perfectly. I didn’t have any stomach or nutrition issues, no blisters (thank you Injinji socks!!), and no real leg soreness. My pacing was also spot on. I ran the second half almost 8 minutes faster than the first half. We were blessed with great weather and trail conditions which helped to run a fast time.
After crossing the finish line, I borrowed someone’s phone to text Sarah that I was done. They were still at the last aid station, and were surprised that I was already finished. I hung out at the finish line to watch some of the runners that I had run with finish. There was a nice meal in the school cafeteria, but my stomach didn’t feel like eating yet so I just grabbed a protein drink and water.
Now I see why the Minnesota Voyageur is one of the oldest and most revered 50 milers in the Midwest. The course has a great mix of technical trails, smooth runable sections, and challenging climbs. It was well marked with ribbons and signs so I never worried about being off course. The aid stations are close together, well stocked, and have amazing volunteers.
My recovery in the days after the race has been good. Some light quad soreness, and my left ankle was a little swollen, but I was able to go for a six mile recovery run on Wednesday. I’m also enjoying eating whatever and whenever all week longmto put back some of the weight lost during training. I’m also starting to plan ahead for my next race. I’m leaning towards the tBunk Endurance Challenge 50 miler in November which takes place in the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest.
Injinji Run 2.0 Original Weight
Brooks Infiniti II Notch Shorts
C9 Sleeveless T
Nathan QuickDraw Plus
Ultimate Direction Jurek Essential