It feels weird to present another race report, given how all races last year were virtual. However, that’s where I find myself after last weekend’s outing at the Eugene Curnow Trail Marathon. I’ve volunteered at this event in the past, but had never run the course (or Voyageur 50). I decided that 2021 was as good a year as any to give it a shot.
The course goes from the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth and heads southeast to Carlton, MN utilizing a variety of trails along the way. The majority of the race is on typical North Shore singletrack (root-y and rocky), but much of it is very runnable and tame. The exception being the first 9.5 miles of the race which brings you through a section called Jarrow’s Beach and up around Ely’s Peak. Jarrow’s Beach is basically a boulder field that you need to slowly navigate through to get to the other side. It’s filled with large, uneven, rocks and cracks that test your ankles and your proprioception. Although some of the elite runners might be able to tiptoe through this minefield, us mere mortals need to be very careful and slow.
The reward for your effort is a climb to the top of a peak that gives you a sweeping vista of the surrounding area. It doesn’t quite feel worth it when struggling to decide where to place your foot between boulders and moss filled holes, but trust me… it is amazing.
Rewinding slightly, my friends and I began our day at the crack of dawn, arriving at the start line around 5:30am (for a 6am start). We got to see people we haven’t seen in over a year, and had a great time pretending that last year just didn’t exist. We were soon reminded of 2020 with an announcement that we were still doing a casual and voluntary rolling start, to keep us spaced out on the course. A handful of fast runners lined up for the 6am gun, but most of us continued to hang around the start and slowly trickle through the flags. My friends and I headed out around 6:04am.
Due to the pandemic the total number of aid stations was severely reduced. That meant that our first aid wasn’t until 9.5 miles, after some of the most difficult sections of the course. I didn’t mind though, and was happy to get these difficult sections done and behind me. In fact I powered through this first area better than I had intended. Between feeling good and wanting to keep up with folks I knew, I pushed myself a lot harder than I should have. That would come back to bite me in the future.
We came into the first aid station and I downed some electrolyte drink, a few cups of water, and was right back on the trail. I was moving strong and was invigorated by the notion that the worst was past. The next sections were beautifully runnable and our little pack formed a great pace line together through the trees. In the past, this area is home to a section known as the “Power Lines”. These were (thankfully) closed for a few year due to erosion issues, and so we took a modified set of trails to get to the next junction.
The Power Lines are a series of incredibly steep hills that run along a section of electrical towers. They are brutally steep in both directions, as well as completely exposed to the summer heat. They have claimed the soul of many a runner who’s desire to continue on was demolished before the next aid station. We didn’t escape all of them, and a small down->up->down trail (which I believe is known as Purgatory) still remained on the course. By the time we hit this, the powering-through of the early miles started to catch up to me.
As I descended the first steep hill I slipped and gracefully landed on my butt. In a muddy year I would have most likely just kept sliding down the hill. However, we’re in the middle of a drought and the trail was dry as a bone. I stood back up and continued working my way through this difficult section. My compatriots were pulling away from me, and I knew trying to keep up would be an exercise in frustration. I relegated myself to the impending “bonk” and kept moving forward as best I could.
A “bonk” is a term using in running to describe when the body hits its low point and it feels like nothing you do will pull you out of it. It usually happens when you haven’t been eating enough food or drinking enough liquid. Your energy stores are tapped, along with any motivation to keep plugging along. Many people hit this bonk stage and decide to just drop. With experience comes the knowledge that very few things that happen in a race are forever, and just because you feel bad now, doesn’t mean you’ll feel bad in a little while. I’ve been in this bonking situation enough to know that nothing I was feeling needed to impede to my goal of finishing the race.
I took some time and ate a bunch of food and drank water. I arrived at the next aid station at mile 17.5 and immediately started downing electrolyte drink. The heat of the day was starting to set in, and I knew I needed to keep things in balance or I would end up in a bad place. The volunteers asked me how I was doing and I calmly said, “I’m bonking, but it’s no biggie. I’ve been here before, it’ll be fine.” I’m sure I got some strange looks, but I finished up drinking and eating and kept going. My friends were also still at the aid station so I stuck with them for a little bit, but even if I recovered I knew I’d still be slower than them and I let them move on ahead.
The next three miles to the final aid station were uneventful. I started to pull myself out of the hole and was able to hike pretty well. I attempted some interval running, but due to the changing terrain and elevation (despite a short pavement section), I struggled to get into a good rhythm. I got to the aid station and decided to stop pushing so hard and just go with the flow and gut it out as best I could. I wasn’t as famished as before and I had enough water to get to the finish, so it was time to put my head down and just keep moving.
The final five miles were different this year. Normally the race takes participants over the iconic swinging bridge at Jay Cooke State Park. Due to the pandemic, the race was not allowed to use the bridge, or the rocky (but shaded) Carlton Trail. That meant that after noodling around along the north side of the river in the park we ended up on 3 miles of bike trail pavement to reach the finish. This bike trail was very exposed, and it was a horrible slog to the end as the sun beat down on us. I played leapfrog with a few random folks and it felt like it took forever before we could see the finish chute.
After 6 hours and 18 minutes I crossed the finish.
I had set some goals for myself, and the most realistic was a 6 hour 30 minute finish. I would have been happy with anything, but I really felt like 6:30 was well within my grasp. Even though I was excited to finish in 6:18, I was still wrapped up in my head about how I should have executed better. I had just finished a perfectly executed race at the Sugar Badger 50K, and was hopeful I could do it again. That isn’t a realistic expectation. Perfect races don’t happen every time, and I had to get out of my head and realize what I had done. I beat my goal time, and managed my bonking with experience and grace.
I wandered over to where my friends were sitting and took a chair to recuperate. As we sat and watched others finishing my mood began to change and I started to let my frustrations go, and revel in the community I was in. I was finally back among my friends, at a race, doing something I love, and it was all OK.
I’m happy I took the opportunity to run Curnow this year. With a reduced capacity, pared down aid stations, and a staggered start it felt different than normal. But, it also felt the same. It felt like a return to something special, and for that opportunity I am very grateful.
I doubt I’ll ever run the full Voyageur (Curnow out and back), but I’m happy that I got to experience the runner side of the race. In two weeks I return to my post, volunteering at Voyageur and cheering on the runners, seeing friends, and soaking in the trail running community.