Wow. What a difference a year makes. This race went from a total bummer last year, to my new favorite 50 miler. The volunteers were fantastic, the weather perfect, and the trails in pristine shape. What a great way to end the season. And what fun it was.
Surf the Murph is a series of three races set in the 2,800 acre Murphy Hanrehan Reserve in Savage, MN. A single loop of the park nets a little less than 17 miles, so we get races at 25k, 50k and 50 miles depending on the number of loops you feel like suffering though. The terrain varies from dirt road to technical singletrack with about 2,000 of elevation for each loop.
This race is a bit unique to the ones I tend to choose. Ignore the trail markers at any time, at your peril. You’ve got to pay attention. On every loop. The RD’s worked a great, well-marked course, and it is our job to follow it and not create our own. As I tend to zone out on long runs, this always proves a challenge. And as I know, I can be attention-challenged.
My goal for this race was a top-10 finish, under 9:30. I find this course a challenge to move through quickly, especially on the final loop, so I may have been a bit delusional. The first loop was a planned easy glide, the second a major push, and the third, well, whatever I had left in the tank, if anything. Also, after getting pretty dehydrated at North Face, I committed to drinking plenty and keeping the electrolytes coming.
Before the race – I’ve been trying something new with pre-race nutrition: starting on the Monday prior, I greatly reduced my starch intake (no pasta, no potatoes). Then on Friday I snacked all day on a trough of mashed potatoes. 4:00 Saturday morning saw a cup of oatmeal, a banana and a caffeine-free Gu about 20 minutes prior to the 6:00 am start. Though nutrition is probably my weakest link, this plan seemed to have worked well this year.
The temperature at the start was upper 20’s and felt vastly better than the 22° at last year’s start. I was wearing a technical long-sleeve turtleneck with compression shorts, gloves and a knit cap. I brought lots of clothes along though, because I knew the temps would be rising. Though the aid stations were close-spaced, most people carried water. I had mine in the form of a single 22 oz bottle in a waist-pack. The parking, check-in and pre-race brief went very smoothly.
And then we were off – About 50 bobbing headlamps trundled into the woods for the first of three loops. This initial portion of the loop consisted of about 5 miles of wooded hills, which seemed like the bulk of the elevation for the course. My easy glide was working fine for me. I kept telling myself to ignore the other racers and focus on my pace. I know it sounds silly, but the urge to race at mile 2 of a 50 mile race was so strong. Like being first into aid station 1 was the goal. Way to go.
I didn’t mind these hills in the dark when I couldn’t see them approaching; so much easier to zen through. Before we knew it we were through the cheerful aid station 1. What a great group of volunteers; I drew on their fantastic energy (and their orange gels, mmm). The hills weren’t done yet though. Among the challenges following aid-1 there was a series of three step hills that gave you a steep 370 feet of slogging. If someone has named these, I’d love to hear about it; I like cursing them with their proper names.
Into Aid-2 – It was still dark when I met my wife Beth at the second aid station. This station doubled as aid-4 as well, and had room for crew. As I rolled in I was met with a “Hey Hon”, followed by a chorus of “Hey Hon”s from the aid station volunteers. What a great group; they cracked me up.
Beth and I planned a quick pit stop and it worked pretty well. I exchanged my (almost) empty bottle with a fresh one filled with warmish water. That aid station water can get cold, and very uncomfortable to drink. Beth also warmed up a gel in her arm pit. Tasty Tropical! And then I was gone.
Smooth and Flatish – While the first 5 miles of the course had some hills I tended to hike, the remainder were mostly of the short or unsteep variety, and thus pretty runnable. And the sunrise was gorgeous! What a wonderful feeling to be in the first 10 miles of a trail run, early on a clear Saturday morning, at sunrise, among friends. Ahhh. Hmmm. Uhhh, I haven’t seen a trail marker in a bit. At about this time someone yelled “Trail!” behind me, and saved me from a long, unplanned excursion. Thanks.
In and Out of Aid-3 – The third aid station was a bit more business-like, really getting us in and out fast. Great energy. I grabbed another gel, (tropical again) and was out, down a mouse path through the woods, with a limbo tree thrown in for free. I knew that I would curse that tree by the third loop.
Following some very relaxing trail running, we started the first of two technical, wooded singletrack areas called Smurph Village. I loved this section. It was like the snowshoe section at Afton, only a bit more technical (and shorter). The signs placed throughout were humorous, but I’d have to stop if I wanted to read them. I needed to keep my eyes on the terrain. At this time, three deer came flying like missiles though the woods, toward a group behind me. The deer just put their heads way down and turned on the turbos. Yikes.
The Final Bits – Into aid-4 (same location as aid-2) I did another bottle swap, along with an S-cap and gel, and a quarter of a PB&J with a potato chip inside. This seemed to work very well at keeping my stomach happy as I had no digestive issues throughout the race.
The final 4.5 miles of the loop had gentle hills and nice flats. That is, except for the second technical, wooded singletrack, called the Fun Zone. Last year I missed the turnoff for this section. Twice. And it really set my mood for the remainder of the race. I was bound and determined not to miss the turnoff this time. The RD’s placed what looked like a billboard at this turnoff this year. Thanks. I guess I was not the only dork not paying attention last year. The Fun Zone was pretty short, but had a nasty climb and descent in the middle. The trail was covered with leaves the first time through, and thus traction was very difficult to maintain.
And then the first loop was complete! As the temperature was climbing (mid 30’s I think), it was time for a technical tee and a pair of running sleeves. After a gel (still caffeine-free), S-cap and PB&J, I was into my second (and toughest) loop.
Loop-1 plan: 3:10, actual: 2:50
Second Loop – After an easy glide on loop-1, this loop was to be the one where I pushed myself. But not in the hills. I tried to take the first 5 miles with an easy perceived effort; I knew I would see these one more time. On the flats following aid-2, I started my push to about 7:30 miles. My legs were not happy, and I went through my first difficult phase. My respiration climbed and I was afraid I would not be able to hold that pace. After what seemed like about 5 miles (shortly after aid-3) my respiration relaxed. I did go off-course again in Smurph Village, though not very far. I also cut back on the gels to about every 45 minutes; instead of the every 20-30 minutes.
Following aid-4, I started with the Double Espresso-flavored Clif Shots. I can’t stand the taste of coffee, and these gels make me gag. But wow, what a kick in the shorts they gave! I loved those things. I also dropped the running sleeves, as the temperature was now in the low 40’s.
Loop-2 plan: 3:00, actual: 2:55
Into My Last Loop – I was feeling great heading into the hills for the last time, and was very optimistic. I knew that a sub-9 hr race was within reach. Of course, it was easier to be optimistic before the hills. I was trumpeted in to aid-1 by one of the volunteers. Awesome! The crew here was very energetic and supportive. I heard that trumpet booming for the next 2 miles or so, accompanied every so often by a drum. I flew through aid-1 with a smile and a thanks, unlike last year when I slogged up to the table in pretty sad shape. What a difference a year makes.
Following aid-1, there was a gate we needed to squeeze by followed by an immediate left. It was here that I took my biggest off-course excursion. I went straight after taking the left correctly on the first two loops. Agh! This was almost exactly a 1 mile off-course jaunt which cost me about 10 minutes. I was really upset with myself. It took a bit of self-phych to get myself back into the race. After getting back on course a guy with a skeleton shirt on flew by me, racing up and down the hills. I think it might have been the first-place 50k racer. Wow did he look fresh and friendly. Way to go!
Following aid-2 my legs felt as useless as tree trunks. Ugh. My respiration was fine, so I did what I needed to do and concentrated on keeping my stride and pace consistent. Finally working though that, the flats went by quickly.
Out of aid-4 I was told I was in 9th place. That felt pretty cool. As this was the start of the final 4.5-mile portion, I dropped my hat and gloves. The cold became my motivation to finish fast. I passed a racer who was looking pretty beat up and tried my best to motivate her with encouragement, stating she was “very near the finish”, and “as good as done”.
And then I was Done – The best pace I could manage into the finish was about 7:00, but that felt right. My time was 9:12, well under my 9:30 goal. At first I was hard on myself for the 10+ minutes I spent off-course, but not for long. Paying attention is a big part of this race, and those ahead of me did that well. I finished in 11th place (vice the reported 9th), with the elusive top-10 only 26 seconds ahead. Motivation for next year!
Also, that racer I tried to motivate in the last loop bypassed the finish mat and headed back out again. She was just starting her third loop. I can only imagine what she was thinking when I told her she was “as good as done.” Way to persevere!
What a great way to end the season. I felt I ran a strong race and took from it motivation to run stronger and smarter next year. Thanks to the RD’s and volunteers for a great race. Thanks to God for the wonderful gift of running and the freedom and peace it brings.Now it's time to relax (a bit) and get fat (for a bit). Until next year.