Wild Duluth 50k Race Recap
It was still pitch black out as we pulled into the UMD Outpost parking lot just outside of Carlton, Minnesota. We somehow managed to be the first to arrive. No sign of any other runners (or the starting line) left us wondering if we were in the right place, so we took a second and third look at the map in the race packet. A few minutes later a large truck pulled in carrying portable toilets. We must be in the right place. Eventually cars started to pull in and then a big yellow school bus filled with the runners that had taken the shuttle from the finish line. It finally started to feel like the starting line of a race, kind of. Well, it felt like the starting line of a trail race with 112 runners.
Since we drove from Minneapolis that morning, we still had to check in and get our bibs. A lady standing next to her truck with a clipboard seemed like the right person to talk to, so I walked over, checked in and got my race number. As I checked in I was quickly reminded that it was only 30-something degrees out, so I went back to my car to warm up, pin my bib on my shorts and get ready.
The Start to mile 3.5
As the 8:00 AM start time neared, people started to congregate in an area behind some cones on the far side of the parking lot. I made my way over and anxiously awaited the start of the race. Perched up on the back of a pickup truck, the race director yelled out the names of some people that hadn’t checked in yet, to verify those runners who did not start (DNS). Once the DNS list had been double checked we were given a few warnings and cautions about the wet and muddy trails and road crossings. Then, the race director counted down with a “Down, Set…GO!” And we were off.
The start was a little congested as everyone tried to both hurdle over slippery rocks and take in an amazing view of the St. Louis River to our right, but it cleared quickly as we made it past the rocks onto the only paved section of the course. Besides some road crossings and the finish line, this 3 mile section on the Willard Munger bike trail was the only pavement we’d run on. The bike path was long, straight and boring, but it was a good opportunity to warm up and find a rhythm before the mud, rocks and hills that the trails brought. At mile 3.5 miles we reached the first aid station, and the end of the pavement. I refilled my water bottle, grabbed some food and headed down a wide grassy trail that was the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT), which we followed for the remainder of the race.
Miles 3.5 – 11
The trail eventually narrowed into single-track, following the St. Louis River for a short while then veering back into the woods where we started to traverse a few small, but steep hills. I settled into a comfortable pace with a group of about 4-5 other runners. We chatted and the miles passed by quickly. Before I knew it, I was at the Munger Trail Aid Station, 11 miles into the race. A quick refill and a bite to eat and I was on my way to the most difficult and technical climb of the race, Ely’s Peak.
The climb up Ely’s Peak was steep and the trail surface was mostly a big smooth rock that was still wet from the rain, making it very slippery. Naturally the pace slowed quite a bit as we tried to avoid a nasty fall. We reached the top of Ely’s Peak and caught the first glimpse of the amazing views looking over Lake Superior and Duluth, filled with fall colors. The bright yellow and red leaves were so vibrant in some places that it almost seemed unnatural, like it was illuminating the forest. I soaked it all in as I ran down the trail, and despite the challenging ascent I had just finished, I felt energized.
Miles 11 – 17
Feeling pretty good, I settled into a comfortable pace and was chatting with a couple of guys from Austin, Minnesota that were running their first ultramarathon. Our conversation helped me lose track of time and before I could think about it, I was at the 3rd Aid Station (mile 15.3) and about halfway through the race. I filled my water bottle and grabbed some food, then continued down a gravel road for about a quarter of a mile until orange flags and a big arrow directed us back onto the SHT. We headed towards Spirit Mt. just a couple miles away, and for the first time my legs started to feel a little heavier and my energy started to drop. I knew that this meant the challenging part of the race was just beginning. Arriving at the Spirit Mt Aid Station I refilled my handheld water bottle and ate a few bites of food and half of a GU. 17.7 miles complete.
Miles 18 – 22
I continued pushing down the trail for another couple miles, but started feeling nauseous for the first time, so I slowed my pace. I was really starting to hurt, both physically and mentally. Nausea had set in, so I drank some water and ate a baby food pouch, hoping it would help. It didn’t. Two more miles until the next aid station. I walked for a while then tried to run a few steps, but my stomach quickly reminded me that I wasn’t going anywhere fast. Doubts of finishing the race started to run through my head for the first time. I felt like I couldn’t go on like this, but I made myself push all the doubts to the back of my mind and kept moving forward until I finally reached the next Aid Station (mile 22.2). I grabbed my Gingerade Kombucha that I had packed last minute in case of stomach issues and started to drink it as I explained my issued to my buddy who was also my support crew for the day.
The amazing volunteers at Highland/Getchell Aid Station saw that I wasn’t doing well and were perfectly helpful, offering me a chair, remedies for my stomach issue and words of encouragement. I sat in the chair they offered, under the tent and it started to rain. I couldn’t convince myself to continue or drop out, so I just sat there. 15 minutes passed and I had started feeling better, so I got up and headed down the trail again, hoping for the best. Only 9 miles to go.
Miles 23 – FINISH
The next section of the course was filled with amazing fall colors and more breathtaking views of Lake Superior as the trail followed the high ridge above Duluth. The rain had stopped and the sun was even peeking out from behind the clouds a little bit. In the distance ahead I could see the Enger Tower, which is where the descent to the finish begins. My nausea seemed to have disappeared as I continued running at a slow but steady pace to the last aid station. I refilled my water and grabbed some food to eat as I continued running down the trail. Only 3.1 miles to go, most of it downhill. I reached Enger Tower tower about a mile later, which meant it was time for the final descent!
Downhill running on trails is my thing, so the last section of the race was ideal. I took off down the last section of trail, letting gravity and momentum pull me down the hill, and I quickly reached the end of the trail. Not quite to the finish yet, I crossed a road and met up with a pedestrian bridge that went over 35. After the bridge just a couple more quick turns and I was running into Bayfront Festival Park to cross the finish line in 6:32:10! 36th place overall wasn’t bad for me given the stomach issues I had.
After crossing the finish line I was handed a custom “Wild Duluth 50k Finisher” soup mug, which I was able to turn around and use to eat the post-race soup from Grandma’s Restaurant – a perfect way to finish a wet and muddy day on the trails.
The Wild Duluth 50k was an impressive challenge on a perfect course, with amazing volunteers and unbeatable scenery. I especially appreciated how everything about the race was done simply and minimally, yet effectively. There were no fancy arches at the start or finish, just cones and a few flags. No mile markers, just orange ribbons along the trail and a few small signs with big black arrows guided us on some of the turns. Tents were set up at each aid station to protect the food and all the great volunteers from any inclement weather. And the greatest trail in Minnesota provided us with 31 miles of muddy trails, slippery rocks, steep hills and breathtaking views. These are the things that make the Wild Duluth 50k what it is – an experience that I’m already looking forward to repeating next year.