An interview with 2017 Moose Mountain Marathon winner and Course Record Holder Emma Spoon (ES) – Interview conducted by Kevin Langton (KL)
KL: Emma, congrats on an incredible race and course record. Please tell us how your race played out.
ES: Full disclosure: The race was after my first four days of the school year (I’m in my second year of teaching in Grand Marais) and six days after my wedding. I am sure that is not the recommended way to prepare for any race, let alone my first marathon. I had a fantastic summer of training and then had a terrible two-week taper, thanks to the distractions of wedding celebrations and getting back into the teaching routine after a summer of travel. That was a long-winded way of saying that I didn’t have the time or experience to have a fully developed strategy in mind. I had only ever raced as far as 25k previously, so there were many unknowns. I had to embrace the steep learning curve and focus on putting one foot in front of the other rather than trying to envision the way each mile would play out. My mantra in training and during the race was, “One step, one minute, one mile.” Without having a long-distance training and racing background, I really took it in baby steps and celebrated each step and each mile of progress I made toward finishing my longest race (and run!) ever. Overall, it went better than I could have imagined. Being able to wake up in my own bed and drive to the starting line was comforting, and the ideal weather made it a perfect day for a run of any kind! I loved that I could easily break the race into quarters based on the aid stations. Those natural pauses made the distance feel manageable and each stop renewed my energy thanks to the amazing support of volunteers, fans, and my husband. I was able to run my own race and enjoy the quiet of the woods, but I also cherished the chances I had to run with other marathoners and to exchange words of encouragement with the 100-milers I passed along the way.
KL: Were you going for the course record from the start or did you stumble into it? At what point did you know it was within reach and how did that feel?
ES: After setting a course record this past spring in the Superior 25k, I knew that I was getting better at trail racing and could set more ambitious goals. I had looked at the course record and had my husband calculate out my splits for each aid station based on 4-hour and 4:10 pace. I hoped that if my body and mind held up through the miles, I would be able to break the marathon record. My moonshot goal was to break 4 hours. That will have to wait for another year. I was ahead of pace through each of the aid stations, but with my knowledge of the course, I knew the final 7+ miles from Oberg to the finish would be the most difficult. I was right. The Moose Mountain climb was tough, and I took a hard fall on top of the mountain that slowed me for the final few miles. I watched four hours come and go, and the minutes were ticking by as I pushed to get off the SHT and to the finish. I wasn’t sure that I would get the record until I was on the pavement and nearing the turn-off to the finish line. It was stressful but so meaningful to have to work that hard to beat the record.
KL: This isn’t your first win on the SHT. You also won the spring 25k (and according to Ultrasignup, a win in 2014 as well). Living in Grand Marais, you’re probably the closest runner who can call this a home course. Did you spend a lot of time on the trail in preparation and if so, what part did that play in your race?
ES: My husband/training partner and I consider ourselves very lucky to live and train on the North Shore. We enjoy the home-field advantage that the Superior Spring and Fall Races offer us, and we try to make the most of that advantage by getting on the SHT as often as we can. That played a large role in my comfort on the course and my ability to execute a great race despite never having run over 24 miles before race day. As a teacher, I took advantage of my summer break and was away from the North Shore for six weeks. I wish I could have trained on it all summer, but I was able to spend three weeks running at altitude in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado, which was perfect base-building. When I returned to Grand Marais in early August, I got on the SHT most days and made sure to run most of the race segments during training runs. That was invaluable, as I knew when I could push the pace and when to conserve energy.
KL: What is something besides running that helped your race? How did it help?
ES: Since moving to the North Shore two years ago, rock and ice climbing have become new passions of mine, thanks to my husband’s enthusiasm and knowledge. We climb as often as we can, which means most weekends and the occasional week night. While balancing time for climbing with running can be challenging within an already-busy schedule, I know that climbing has helped make me “strong all over,” which is what my collegiate coach used to emphasize as necessary to be the best runner one could be. I don’t always enjoy hitting the weight room, but I will never pass up an opportunity to spend a day at Palisade Head rock climbing or at the Manitou River ice climbing. These pursuits help balance my body and mind, and they have given me new ways to appreciate each season in turn. This is especially important in the winter when running routes are very limited. In past years, I have been rock climbing at Carlton Peak as racers have gone by. It was a powerful feeling to be on the trail myself and to enjoy reaching the top of that long climb to pass by the familiar landmarks along the cliffs as I tried to catch my breath and regroup.
KL: What was the lowest point of your race? What helped you get through it?
ES: The low point for me was taking a bad fall along the flat on top of Moose Mountain. In the past, that stretch of trail has been my favorite segment of the 25k race, as it allows for nice recovery and flowing running before a technical descent and one last challenging climb on Mystery Mountain. I was trying to find that happy place and refuel after a brutal hike up Moose when I found myself on the ground. I didn’t even have a chance to catch myself with my hands, so my hip ended up breaking my fall when it hit a rock or root that was protruding up from the trail. It was a very sharp pain, and though I got up quickly, I had to walk for a bit to evaluate and clear my mind. Each step hurt, and I can only assume that the adrenaline from the fall, as well as the anticipation of the finish line four miles ahead, is what gave me the strength to begin running again. The clock was my enemy at this point, and I felt the record slipping away. Luckily, I was able to find a rhythm again and get up Mystery Mountain without too much trouble. The fall added injury to insult, and my body was completely exhausted when I crossed the finish line. As I finally sat down on the ground to remove my mud-covered shoes, I quickly realized how badly I had hit my side. I had some road rash, and a deep bruise developed over the course of the day. As the ache set in, I figured out that I must have strained or torn my external oblique ab muscles. It’s been two weeks since the race, and I haven’t run a step. I knew that I would need time off, but it’s been hard to cope with school stress and not have my usual outlet. Luckily, it’s begun to turn a corner, so I’ve been testing my running in the hallways at school. I’m eager to get back out on the SHT and enjoy the fall colors!
KL: What’s something we should know about you that doesn’t have to do with running?
ES: My casual interest in climbing has become a full-blown passion. If I can’t talk about running, I will readily tell you about how amazing climbing is and how incredible this region is for vertical pursuits on both rock and ice. Our proximity to Canada creates additional opportunities, as we can do day trips to the Thunder Bay area, which is full of rugged cliff lines and little known natural areas. While ice climbing can be tough in the sub-zero temperatures of mid-winter, it’s an incredible way to appreciate ice in a new way and to see places that are inaccessible in the warmer seasons. Additionally, it has been difficult to race as often as I would like while living so far from large cities that support regular races, so I’ve appreciated the opportunity to push my limits and set new goals while climbing. It complements and supplements my competitive fire in running.
KL: Bonus question! Please make up a question you think we should know about and answer it.
ES: What led me to join the trail running community? I think this is an important question and one that I enjoy asking of those I meet at the Superior races. Every runner has a unique story, and the trail running community seems especially diverse and wealthy in incredible life experiences and journeys.
I personally have become a trail runner after many years of competitive cross-country and track racing in high school and college. I continued with road racing, as do many post-collegiate runners, but I have struggled with a chronic side ache injury that is aggravated with longer races at fast speeds. After a blow-up at Garry Bjorklund this spring, I’ve hung up my road-racing flats for now and am excited to pursue more trail racing opportunities. The soft surfaces, strategy, and slower speeds required for trail running are a great fit for my strengths as a runner and seem much more forgiving to my body. My biggest success in the marathon was being able to run for 4+ hours without having to slow due to a side ache. I have a great appreciation for my health and each day that I can enjoy pain-free running is a blessing. The biggest bonus to the friendliness of the trails on my body is the camaraderie within the trail running community. I feel lucky to be a part of such a stellar group of committed athletes on the trails who are also amazing people in their day-to-day lives. Also, one fun fact to share: Jake Hegge and I ran high school cross country together. We were two years apart at Verona Area High School in southern Wisconsin. Now we’re both course record holders at Superior! It was great to reconnect with him at the race.