Superior Trail 100

Leaving Boston...

...for some Minnesota love

“And now she’s got her face deep in someone elses ass! Right between the cheeks!”

7:00 AM on a long, remote and lonely road in Northern Minnesota four grown men are laughing their asses off at the Sirius XM porn radio show. We were on our way to the start of the Superior Trail 100. The tagline “Rugged, Relentless, Remote” would prove to be spot on, less the sound of traffic in portions of the race. A deceptive course that wears you down in small increments like the stone shore yielding to Lake Superior.

My pre-race jitters had reached an all time low as I mulled about at the start line. An 8 AM start time was super luxury. The race start was at a park headquarters so there was running water and flush toilets. The amenities at the start, finish and pre-race meeting were all stellar. The night before we had a spaghetti dinner in a large warehouse, provided by the local 4-H. As a matter of tradition we had hung out at the pre-race meeting to hear the RD's speach. The beautiful finisher awards were on display consisting of large sheet metal trophies in the shapes of wolves, bears and moose. I remember thinking to myself that the buckle looked about two sizes too large but after finishing the race I realized the size matched the toughness of the course.

Race night prep.

Awards table.
Back at the start, the race director gave us a brief pep talk and sent us on our way. We meandered down a walking path till we hit the actual trail and wouldn’t really leave beautiful trails (a large portion single track) till the end of the race. The entirety of our time was spent on the Superior Hiking Trail with the exception of a few spurs to get to aid stations, this made getting lost an unlikely occurrence. 

As usual my early morning grump disallowed me from enjoying myself till the crowds dispersed a bit. I set out at a comfortable pace and was soon covered in sweat. The morning wasn’t too hot but the humidity was rather intense. A downside to the luxury of an earlier start is getting stuck in the heat earlier. The trails themselves were beautiful rolling hills littered with rocks and root systems. The roots seemed to get larger and more obtrusive as the day and night winded on. Very reminiscent of a Blue Hills skyline run, including some scrambling up slabs. Vistas along the course included birch infused forests and the deep aqua blue of Lake Superior. The birch trees inched higher over adjacent growth and contrasted themselves with their brilliant bark.

Not on the course, but you get the gist.
The first aid station is always a polarizing experience for me. The routine of the day which consisted solely of running is switched up with the stopping for food and refill. Paces are jumbled and groups disperse. I was carrying one ~20oz Ultimate Direction bottle and a 2L bladder in the AK vest. Starting at Mile 25 of the race I would have powder mix to add to the bottle while relinquishing the bladder to clear fluids. At this first aid station I was dismayed to see how little fluid I had actually taken from the bladder. I don’t commonly train with it and don’t drink nearly enough from it. 

The first aid station spur was a long, long way down. Coming back out required something like 10 minutes of hiking while I shoved boiled potatoes down my throat. My stomach was already sickening me with a little resistance. The next 15 miles of the course would do the majority of damage to my mental state. As we approached the high heat of the day we entered areas of very exposed sections where the full effects on the sun were felt. By Mile 20 I was full on nauseous and knew I was suffering from a lack of heat acclimatization. It wasn’t cumulative fatigue from the recent races as much as it was the detraining that happened in between them that affected me the most.

By the time I pulled into the 25 mile aid station I heard murmurs of the drop rate steadily increasing. One individual who I was running with for some time came limping in shortly after me and proclaimed he was done. I think his finish the year prior stuck in his mind and he didn’t feel the need to relive it on anything less than an optimal day. I knew I needed some time, so I sat in a chair and chugged an entire bottle of Gu brew and a bottle of clear water. Rationalizing that a lack of heat training meant my body was dumping large amounts of sodium through sweat, I also upped my S-Cap intake. Over the next few sections it didn’t feel to be getting any worse but it certainly didn’t get better. I slowed my pace dramatically and forced down what I could, biding my time till the sun went down.

Trails slipped on seamlessly as I ran/walked where I could and tried to stay out of the sun. I was filling my hat with ice at each aid station and pouring water down my back in between. I reminded myself of the minor amount of weight I had placed on finishing this race and made peace with not being able to make cut offs later in the race. As time wore on it became clear that I could make all the cutoffs but the last one at the finish and that remained the plan until much later in the race.

At the mile 31ish aid station I felt a little better and got in a little bit of solid food, munching on some noodles and soup. The drops were far more evident here with people curled up in blankets, shivering. When I sat down to eat I instantly went from overheating to shivering. No middle ground body temperature. One of the runners from Boston I had entered the race with was at this station and initially in my fatigued state I couldn’t wrap my mind around why he was there. I eventually caught on that he dropped but seeing him and his crew rejuvenated me a good bit. The aid station workers went above and beyond to make sure we were okay and the roar of the crowd coming into each of the “big” stations was immense.

This aid station is also the first one I came upon after an unfortunate pit stop that required the use of some hand sanitizer. The course was missing the crucial mile 25 porta potty. Before mile 80 or so I think there was only 1 toilet on the course.

Time went pretty quickly after I realized it took me 9 hours to do the first 50k, which just about equates to a long pemi loop I am told. The night brought no relief from the heat. There would be pockets of cool air that felt like stepping into an air conditioned building but quickly another corner would throw a hot blast of humid air in your face. The roots and rocks edged me closer to frustration and I found myself, alone in the woods, screaming and cursing at them. There was a single 7-8 mile stretch at night that I went without ever seeing another human being. Big trails with active maintenance communities have the advantage of wooden walkways over water ridden sections. It seemed there were miles of wooden 2x4 bridges on the course. Some of them simply traversed muddy terrain where others supported you a few inches above murky water. Wet foot prints acted as a cautionary tale about losing your balance or misstepping into the muck.

I continued through the night eating Gu chomps on the course and vegetarian chili at the aid stations. One of my favorite moments of the whole run happened early in the morning, long before the sun was up. The course dropped us onto a long climbing dirt road lined with cars for the aid station at the top, a staple section of course in any Ultramarathon I feel. As soon as I began the climb I clicked off my headlamp and looked into the sky. My initial night blindness prevented me from seeing anything. A dull blue darkness filled my eyes and the silhouette of pine trees formed the bottom border of my vision. Slowly stars began fading into view. The immensity of the universe took me. The signals of pain and fatigue were lost as noise to the multitude of energy sources arriving at my skin. The sound of insects, warm summer air, light at millions of years old, the small of dirt and rock.

Topping the hill at the aid station a booming voice greeted me letting me know that particular stop was home to Peet’s coffee! I sat with my chili and began to do the math for the cutoff. Everyone, trained to keep us moving, informed me I had plenty of time to make the remainder of the trip. I indulged myself in a very, very tall cup of black coffee. As I hit the trail with cup in hand I couldn’t help but smile and think of my parents. The sound of my dads hands rubbing dryly on a paper coffee cup as he twisted it in his hands is burned in my memory. It brought me back to cold mornings car camping with them when they would travel down the road to get us jelly donuts. They’d enjoy walking in the early morning, cup in hand, to the beach to watch the waves. I briefly sat down on a rock to cultivate the feeling.

For a short while I moved well again. The coffee was motivating and the trail became slightly more runnable. As has become common at this distance I have the hardest time staying awake right before and after dawn. By the time 9:30 AM was rolling around I was moving less than 3 miles an hour and the math for the cutoffs wasn’t working out in my head. One aspect of the race that began to play with my head was the extra few miles of the course. Advertised on the website as being 103.x miles, I had heard it could possibly be longer. I wasn’t about to bitch about it except for the fact that I didn’t know if the mileage was mixed somewhere into the race, or tagged on at the end. I consistently felt like the aid stations were farther apart than they said but that was a byproduct of how slowly I was moving on the trails. If it was all tagged on at the end, that could have taken me another 1-2 hours at the pace I was moving at.

The order of events begins to get jumbled in my head around this point in time. There was a good 3-4 hours in the earlier morning where I felt deja vu constantly. It felt almost as if my brain was stuck on “Making Memories” mode and I was remembering things instantly as they happened. I ran along a field with wildflowers on my left hand side that was very smooth with a steep decline on my right towards highway 61, which the course followed. At every stump and slight turn my mind screamed at me. You’ve been here before! Remember that log? Remember that patch of flowers? You had a tough time through here before. I shook my head and said to myself aloud, “You’ve never even been to Minnesota!”

Close to the 70 mile mark, I was a few hundred feet from the aid station and I saw one of the members of my friends crew (His Mother) waiting on the path. We walked in together and talked about how my night was. Inside the aid my friend was waiting and he helped me through the station quickly. He had to witness me spending 20+ mins at an aid during the TARC100 so he knew it was best to get me in and out if he could help it. I consumed oranges and walked out of the station with him a bit. I told him that I’d make all the cutoffs but the last one and expect me to come crossing the finish line after the 38 hours. He understood and we talked briefly about how the heat affected everyone and that the DNF rate was approaching 50% already.

With that I began another quicker spell that turned into a destroyed hobble through the woods. The terrain had become much easier but I couldn’t motivate myself to move very fast. I didn’t fully trust my stomach and it was already starting to get a little hotter. At times I was able to increase my pace and even cautiously consume a gel.

The crux of my race came “85” miles into it. I had done the math enough times to considering dropping. I was 10 hours from the end of the race and *at least* 15 miles from the finish. If all the extra mileage is at the end of the race I could be looking at up to 19 more miles. I was moving really, really slow and my feet were starting to ache. The heat was back, not as bad, but I was actually sweating a bit which meant I wasn’t totally dehydrated and destroyed. I weighed these things back and forth and watched a few people come into the aid who I had not seen since the start. With the odds not in my favor I decide it was best to at least try. In retrospect, had my friend and his crew been at that aid my day really might have ended there.

But it didn’t. I got up and downed 3 cups of coke and awkwardly walked back out onto the trail. Eventually I began to get angry with myself. There was no way in hell I was going to miss a cut off after being in this race for nearly 28 hours. I dug in and passed a few of the people who had recently overtaken me. We ran along a lot of rivers through the day (I think it was actually the same one) and crossed over it on bridges that ranged from super sturdy to super sketchy. At this time of day the trails had people hiking on them and the sound of children playing in the banks of the river could be heard. Shortly after that last aid station was the most vertical climb of the day, Carlton Peak. It started with a gentle dirt road and gave way eventually to rock scrambling. I was sweating furiously and pounding with aggression.

After cresting the climb I ran every step at a good click till the next aid station. Towards the end of the stretch I could feel the caffeine and calories wearing off but was able to take another Gu. The excited, feverish state of having calories and caffeine would slowly fade away as I progressed between the aid stations. Existence got more painful and it became harder to run in a straight line and stay awake. It would all dull in the excitement of a stop and the world would be hopping and flowing and breathing again.

At the next aid station I slammed oranges, coca-cola and took some water. My friends entire crew was waiting for me there and cheering. I smiled and told them things were picking up and I had a little better chance of actually finishing. I gritted my teeth and took off down the trail again, passing several groups of people. I trusted my legs and stomach could get me there if I just kept focused and fed.

I hit the next aid station and utilized a hanging shower system they had there to get my hair wet. Just as I was about to take off, I was packing my hat with ice, my friends crew showed up again. They remarked that I was moving much quicker than I said I was moving. More grinding. The next aid station had my friend waiting for me. I was full of piss and vinegar so I tried to get him to race me in the parking lot. Slammed some more coke and started towards the finish line.

It was a long 7 to the finish, a seriously steep climb was the last heart pegger of the day. Descending on the back side was slow and painful and I didn’t want to eat because I was so close. The last few miles wind around in the woods and you can hear the screams of the finish line the entire time. Just as you start to run towards the sound of them you turn away and shoot off into the woods. When I finally emerged from the trees onto the final road my friend was waiting for me. We ran in together as best I could. With the finish so close I couldn’t muster much more angst.

The finish was at a fancy little ski lodge and had a loud group of people to cheer on the finishers. I talked briefly with the race director to let him know that he almost got me. I was indeed surprised I finished and didn’t have to walk it in. I think I did a better job of managing my water/s-cap/gu brew intake as I didn’t vomit at any point. Being able to take Gu in on the second morning was a huge help.

All in all, an epic way to end this year of 100 mile races. I went 5 for 6 with my second DNF at Leadville. I don’t think I’ll ever do that many again and feel it’s best to aim for 2-3 as a max. I am looking forward to getting my speed back up and trying for some shorter races. Next year is a little uncertain in terms of where I’ll be living so I’ll pick out my races when I figure that out. I have unfinished business with 24 hours around the lake so if I stick around here I want to give that one another go. I still believe I have a sub 20 hour finish in me, I just have to find the right day and the right amount of effort throughout.

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