An Interview with 2018 Superior 50K Women’s Winner Michelle Pratt (MP) – Interview conducted by Kevin Langton (KL)
KL: Congrats on the win, Michelle. First female with a time of 4:53:07 is impressive. Please tell us how your race played out.
MP: Thanks, Kevin! Well, I’ll start with a short bit from the day before (sorry, I’m an academic… so I talk a lot, and I write even more). While driving up to Lutsen, I received an email from a friend with a link to a post on the American Birkebeiner Instagram page. It was a photo of me running during their trail marathon in the fall (2017) with the caption that includes “skiers are made in the summer”, which is hilarious, because I don’t ski! But it also made me smile because what happened at that race, for me, is just the craziest story (more on that in a later question).
Anyways, fast forward to race morning… my plan was to run relaxed for the first 10 miles, which was definitely tough off the start knowing that the race course narrows to single-track pretty quickly, but I had enough restraint to not go out with the leaders. Unfortunately, but fortunately, I really didn’t feel great during the first few miles. My stomach was off and while it was a cool morning, I actually thought it was quite humid. It definitely made me slow down a bit, which certainly helped me in the end.
Coming into the first aid station, I think I may have been in 4th or 5th. I flip flopped and ran with Deborah Hudleston for a while, which was fun since we drove to the race together! (It was her first 50k and she absolutely crushed it.) Then, I hit my low point somewhere along the way to the next aid station. Running with a few other runners definitely saved me. Then, maybe around mile 11 or 12, I started to just feel really good. I clicked off a quick mile for mile 13 and that’s really the first time I felt ready to race. Then, the unthinkable happened: the GPS on my watch shut off. Thankfully, it went into some super power-save mode so I could still see the time of day, but I had to run totally on feel. I think it actually made me run faster (that, and the fear of being caught)!
Since the course is an out and back, I knew coming down Carlton I wasn’t too far off 1st. At that point, I was in 3rd, and between me and the first place woman was Laura Albares, who I had met two weeks earlier at The Willow 20 Miler (she beat me there). Over the next few miles, I would catch up to her (and her husband Neil) and then they would speed away and drop me. It felt like forever before I finally got in front and pulled away.
The next few miles were quiet and peaceful. I found a rhythm, listened to the sounds and took in the smell of the pines. It was everything I love about trail running. For a while, the only person I saw was a man on the trail with a shovel fixing patches of mud. He had a great energy about him and was super encouraging. At that point I figured I must be getting close to an aid station… because I probably wouldn’t carry a shovel too many miles into the woods. Sure enough, I rolled into Oberg and could see the lead woman (Heidi Skildum) leaving. It was also the first time I realized I might break 5 hours. As long as I kept moving I figured it wouldn’t take me more than 70 minutes to finish, so just based on time of day (and the assumption that the race started on time, which I’m pretty sure it did), I knew sub-5 would be comfortable.
After moving into first shortly after Oberg, I hung in the delicate balance of trying to pull away and not get caught but maintain enough energy that if needed, I could kick it up a gear and run a head-to-head race. At the same time, I was also thinking there probably weren’t too many men ahead of me, and thought I might have a chance of breaking into the top 10 overall. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but I did move up a few spots in the final miles.
Running through the 25k runners was also a blast — they were all encouraging and it was great to see so many people in the final miles. From the top of Mystery Mountain (the most I had seen of the SHT prior to the race), I knew it was (basically) all downhill, and if there is one thing I like to run, it’s downhill. Coming onto the road, I saw Kevin (who gave me a very stern warning the day before to make sure I smile for the camera) and that’s the first time I felt like I really had the race. I was actually kind of sad the race was over because I felt so good! But at the same time I was just elated — Minnesota has become so much like home to me, that even though it says “Albany, NY” next to my name in the results, this really felt like a hometown win.
KL: It appears this is your first race in the midwest. Welcome! What brought you to the area? What made you choose this race and what were your impressions of the Superior Hiking Trail?
MP: Technically, it’s my first ultra in the Midwest. I actually ran my first race in the Midwest back in 2011 or 2012 in Indiana (I think it was 2012)… it was a low key trail half marathon in Brown County State Park. I was pursuing my Master’s degree at Purdue University at the time. I have also run a few other non-ultra trail and road races in Minnesota and Wisconsin since moving to Minnesota in August (2017).
So, to answer your questions… I moved here for (more) graduate school! I’m currently pursuing my PhD in Applied Economics with a concentration in Resource and Environmental Economics and a minor in Population Studies at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities). When I was getting ready to move out here, everyone familiar with the area said two things: (1) “Are you sure you want to move out there? It is really cold.” And (2) “You have to run one of the Superior races.” Turns out they were right about both things.
I chose to enter the Superior 50K lottery for a few reasons but mostly because I knew I wanted to run an ultra in Minnesota and the date of the Spring races was well positioned in the academic calendar (one week after final exams). And let’s just say the Superior Hiking Trail did not disappoint. My only regret is that I didn’t get to see more of it. I also may have gotten a little too in the zone and missed important moments, like taking 5 seconds to enjoy the view at Carlton. My fiancé, Josh, and I took a trip up to Lutsen in March with the intentions of running the course over two days. On day one, we made it to the top of Mystery Mountain and then were post-holing in 2+ feet of snow. We ended up doing a lot less running than planned and a lot more relaxing in the hot tub (which I don’t regret one bit). That was my only experience on the trail, so I really didn’t know what to expect. Overall, I thought it was quite runnable but a lot less rocky than I was expecting. Regardless, it was the closest I’ve come to East (Beast) Coast trails out here.
KL: Are there any differences you’ve noticed in Midwestern trail running compared to the east coast trail communities you’ve known?
MP: Honestly, trail runners are just the best no matter where you go. There doesn’t seem to be too much of a difference in the communities. What surprised me, however, was just how big the trail, and more specifically the ultra running, community is here. I feel like everyone that trail runs is also an ultra runner and has accomplished so many amazing things. Coree Woltering was recently quoted in an article in Trail Runner Magazine as saying “People don’t think the Midwest is a real trail-running place.” To be honest, I was probably guilty of that thought before moving here. My only prior Midwest experience was living among the cornfields of Indiana, and you really don’t hear about people going on a run-cation to Minnesota or Wisconsin. But, seriously, they are missing out. And let’s be honest, there are some seriously bad-ass athletes that hail from the Midwest too.
The biggest difference between the Midwest and East Coast is the trails themselves. Out east, we have smaller mountains than the West, but the rocks will destroy your soul. And it’s steep; lots of up and down over short distances. I feel like out East, fast road speed doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll dominate on the trails. Here, the trails are more tame and runnable, but are still trails with rocks, roots and mud, that you have to have raw speed and trail legs. Midwestern runners seem to have that combo down, which makes them so darn tough.
Oh, and out East, I’ve never met anyone who has done a sled race, like Arrowhead or Tuscobia. Apparently that’s a big thing here—or, I’ve just happened to get mixed up with the craziest of the crazy!
KL: Are you related to Cassie Pratt, the women’s winner of the 25k?
MP: Not that I’m aware of! What a crazy coincidence! Go Cassie!
KL: What’s something non-running that helped you at Superior?
MP: Do I have to pick one?! There are so many things! For starters, the people (volunteers and other runners) at Superior were amazing and so encouraging. For most of this year, I have also been working with a strength coach, Elizabeth Azze of Mountain Peak Fitness, and am feeling strong. The week of Superior, I also officially started working with David Roche. Even though he had technically only been my running coach for 5 full days at that point, his positivity and support was immensely motivating. Finally, even though Josh wasn’t able to be at the race, having his all-around support means the world to me. The thought of being able to call him when the race was over and tell him about it, and knowing how happy that would make him, can’t be understated.
KL: Did you have any low points during the race? If so, what helped you through it/them?
MP: Aside from the moment when I face planted in the mud and just lay there for a few seconds while perhaps muttering an expletive? Yes, definitely. Actually, the first 10ish miles were kind of rough. As I mentioned, my stomach was off and I wasn’t moving as smoothly as I would have liked to so early on. Coming out of Oberg, I felt pretty flat and had the “this is going to be a long day” moment, but I soon caught up to another runner who was walking. He came with me when I passed by and ended up keeping my pace for a while. We settled into a nice rhythm and started chatting; just having someone to talk to and take my mind off of how I felt was just what I needed at that point.
KL: Bonus question: Please make your own question (and answer) that reveals something you think we should know about.
MP: What races do you have coming up?
MP: I’m planning on running my first 100 miler next year, so I’ve loaded up this year on 50ks and plan to run my first 100k in the fall. In June, I’m running the Vegan Power 50k in Pittsfield, MA and the Finger Lakes 50k in Hector, NY. Then in July, I’ll run the Escarpment Trail Run, which is a 30k in the Catskills that eats its young and is the brainchild of the incredible Dick Vincent (who also happens to be the person marrying Josh and me in December). In August, I’ll take a break from running races to direct the Thacher Park Trail Running Festival just outside of Albany, NY — we have a 10k, half, marathon, and 50k. Then in September, I plan to run the Rut 50k in Big Sky, MT and finally in October I’m registered for Javelina 100k.
KL: You mentioned a crazy story for the Birkie Trail Marathon. Tell us what happened.
What happened at the Birkie Trail Marathon is hands down the craziest thing that has ever happened to me at a race or on a run (except for maybe the time a woman gave Josh and I a bottle of whiskey while we were running Rim to Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon and told us we should get married if we could stand running with each other for so long — we were just friends at the time).
Back in August (2017), during my first week in Minneapolis, Josh and I went out to Theo Wirth park to run. We kept crossing paths with a mountain biker and ended up chatting with him. He was the first person we met out here and he was so nice and helpful — he even took our emails and sent us a full list of places to trail run. It was amazing! We ran with him a few times in the fall, and he kept saying to me, you have to run the Birkie. So, a few weeks before the race, I decided to register.
I drove out the night before and stayed at a hotel about 15 minutes from the start. I got to the race a bit early, grabbed my bib, and ended up sitting in my car since it was a bit cool out. Another woman who was running ended up joining me. She was great to chat with while we were waiting, but at some point I realized we were getting close to the start of the race and I hadn’t yet put on my sneakers or put on my bib. We had maybe 15 minutes until the race started and I went to put on my sneakers and realized I only had one shoe. I searched my car inside and out and resigned to the fact that I might be running the race in the shoes I had on, which were basically slippers from Target.
At this point, there were about 10 minutes until the race started. In any other circumstance, I’m pretty sure I would have been, pardon my language, royally @&#!ed. BUT, there happened to be an expo — at a trail race! Gear West had a booth so I ran over and rapidly word vomited that I only had one shoe and would take whatever they had in a size 9. The man helping me was very kind, but clearly not in as much of a rush as I was. He was running through different options and was shocked I didn’t want to try them on first (I think he thought I was running the half, which started a bit later). I was adamant that I would take the Altra Superiors in a size 9 as I had worn a pair of them before. But then, he mentioned their credit card reader wasn’t set up yet and they would have to write down my information. The race was literally starting in two minutes — Jan, the owner over at Gear West was there, and I gave her a deal: you let me take the shoes now and I’ll leave my credit card with you and you can charge it while I’m gone. Thankfully, she was okay with this, and I was able to make it to the start line with about 30 seconds before the race began. PHEW. But, the story doesn’t end there.
I ran the whole race convinced that there was at least one other woman in front of me. In my mind, I was chasing her. No one ever said to me that I was in first, or how far behind I was, so I figured I just must be really far behind and the volunteers didn’t want to crush my spirits. When I finished, a photographer was taking a lot of photos of me and I was so surprised I asked him if he knew what place I had finished. His response: “Uhh, you won.” Honestly, I had no idea! And, I was third overall! And you know what part of my prize for winning was? A pair of Salomon shoes. To top it all off, on my way back to Minneapolis, I stopped at the hotel I had stayed at to see if I had dropped my shoe in the parking lot or left it in my room. Sure enough, they had it at the front desk. Someone had found it in the hallway between my room and the exit. I just feel sorry for the person who had picked it up—let’s just say that pair of shoes was not new.