Fire Tower Trail Races

I participated in the Fire Tower Trail Races 100k in Minnesota's St. Croix State Park, near Hinckley, on October 1, 2022.  I'm a citizen runner, and I was very much a novice participant, as my first ultra event was the 2021 Fire Tower 50k, and this was my third ultra race overall.  I could quibble here or there about decisions I made along the way, but as I finished I couldn’t have been happier with how it went. But more about that later.

The event itself is warm and welcoming.  The directors, volunteers and every participant I crossed paths with were friendly and encouraging.  As explained later, I walked a lot, and I received a steady stream of encouragement and “good jobs.”  My limited experience with ultras has left me with the impression that some courses are more challenging, given that this one is pretty flat.  My watch had a total elevation gain of 1,414 feet over the 100k, and that included the fire tower (once).  But while it’s flat, the terrain keeps you on your toes, as it were.  On some horse trails, you’re deciding between a sandy track with a mushy feel or longer grass on the edges, and I often found myself sliding across to the best option between multiple tracks and medians.  On others, the horses have left it pockmarked and uneven.  Ankles beware!  There are also rocky stretches on a single track along a riverbank that keep you picking each step carefully, which is unfortunate because you’re not able to look around to appreciate the beautiful setting.  

To cover 100k, you take two laps around a 50k loop, and, as this was my first shot at the 100k distance, my key early objective was to conserve energy and my legs in the first lap.  Time didn’t matter.  I resolved to walk 80% of the first lap, and I stuck to the plan religiously.  I walked a ton in training, so my walking was at a brisk pace, but the 20% I jogged I did at a very light pace.  I eventually strolled across the you’re-not-actually-finished-yet first lap finish line as fresh as a daisy (well, an October daisy).  Aside from saving my legs, the walk-heavy strategy also helped me eat, as I was guessing my lower heartrate would enable me to handle real food.  And there was real food at the aid stations!  I ate pancakes at mile 9, grilled cheese sandwiches at 15 and 20, PB&J at 28, half a burger at 32 and bacon at 41.

After my warm-up lap, I planned to ramp up both the amount I was running, to 40%, and the intensity, but here I turned cautious.  I thought: You still have 50k to go, you can’t just cut loose.  So while I did bump up the running portion to 40%, I was still jogging more than running.  And after about 15 miles of that, I realized I wasn’t gaining any time at all!  Due to general fatigue, what I was gaining in jogging time I must have been losing in pace.  This was a problem for me, because while I planned to run (walk) a conservative race, I was not without goals.  For starters, since I was intentionally sacrificing the first lap, I wanted to run the second lap faster (negative split, reverse split, whatever the term).  I also didn’t want to dig my headlamp out and put it on again to finish.  Based on my pace with a quarter of the race to go, those were both in jeopardy, so I finally decided it was time to go all out (using the phrase very loosely).

It ultimately worked for me.  I ran on and off the rest of the way, still walking 50-60%, and I emerged out of the growing darkness to cross the finish line, for real this time, about 20 minutes faster than my first lap.  I probably should have had my headlamp on, but didn’t, as I knew the final stretch pretty well by then.  I set no land speed records, but there were 63.5 miles behind me, and while daylight may have been fading, I felt I wasn’t, at least not badly.  That’s why I was happy with the day.

Little stories from the day:

  • The race directors, Lisa and Jamison, have been so kind the last two years.  They knew I was a beginner last year (perhaps if I hadn't told them, the email I sent asking what a drop bag was may have given me away), and they've gone out of their way to make me feel welcome.
  • To start, it was really dark, and I felt like I needed to focus on the course, so no music.  Since I walked initially, the glow from the headlamps of runners ahead of me quickly rounded corners and were lost from view, and I was alone in the dark shortly after starting.  I really didn’t want to miss a turn and get lost in the dark, hence the concentration. Thankfully the course was well marked.
  • I train with music, but listened sparingly on the day.  Too much to think about.
  • I arrived at the fire tower just as the sun started its day.  I said to the runner descending the tower as I climbed: No matter what else happens today, we won the sunrise. 
  • Wow, did the grilled cheese hit the spot!  Thanks to all the volunteers for their extra efforts all day.
  • It was fun seeing the runners of the other distances as our paths crossed.  Tons of encouragement all around.
  • At times in the second lap, I realized I hadn’t paid attention to my route in a long time; I was just on autopilot.  I thought: I hope I see an orange flag pretty soon.  And I always did.
  • There were a lot of “civilians” on the riverbank trails in the afternoon.  They were fun, and generally astounded at the day’s distance when they asked.  One girl asked her mom: If he’s a racer, why is he walking?
  • There were a number of boggy patches in the last ten miles or so.  The first time through, I managed to stay fairly dry, but the second time I took a hasty misstep and plunged a whole shoe in, which led quickly to blisters.  It turns out that you can take the shoe out of the swamp, but you can’t take the swamp out of the shoe, so this pair has since been binned.
  • I admit that in the second lap, I did think: This is stupid, what is the point of this?  I don’t really know, but it is an adventure.  It’s living life more fully.

To quantify the tale:

  • I finished 11th of the 15 finishers.  My first half split was 7:20:26, the second half 7:00:30, for a total of 14:20:56.
  • The first 26.2 miles took about 6:05.  The last 26.2 miles about 5:43.
  • I was the only finisher to have reverse splits.  Also, I ran the fourth fastest second lap.  That's understandable given the strategy, but nice to see it play out.

It’s a great event, and I hope to do it again.  I may try to be more aggressive, but that’s a mistake for another day.

30 seconds before kickoff

Sunrise from the fire tower

The lovely trail

And more

Less lovely

Meandering toward the first half finish line
(Photo by Lisa Brecht)