I have a feeling this is going to be a long post, so I’m going to summarize it up front. The Superior Fall Trail Races are everything that trail racing should be (in my humble opinion). For me, this everything includes: incredibly well organized, amazing venue, super hard amazing course, and awesome people. The race director, John Storkamp, has done a stellar job with this event along with his team and a small army of volunteers. With that, I’ll go ahead and try to articulate what brought me to this conclusion.
My older brother (Mike) and a lifelong friend (David) made the beautiful drive down to Lutsen from Thunder Bay in time for Friday evening registration. Our focus that night was to hang out at the condo, without giving into the temptation of consuming all of the cheap American beer we had procured on the way down. We had our doubts, but managed to succeed in meeting this first goal. We got to bed at a reasonable hour which was important for me given that I had to be on the shuttle bus at 4:15 AM Saturday to get out to the 50 Mile start line in Finland, MN. Mike and David were both running the marathon with a slightly more civilized start time of 8AM.
I woke up for the first of 4 alarms I had set and made it to the bus on time. 45 bouncy minutes later our school bus pulled into the start line and everyone paced around waiting for 6AM when we could start our day. It was still quite dark, and I was really glad I decided to bring a headlamp. When John told us to go, we started out down a gravel road, then turned onto the singletrack where it was tough to see the ground in the dark. I made sure to jump in with the lead group on the road so I wouldn’t get bottlenecked as everyone tried to single file into the narrow trail. I was probably 7th or 8th into the trail. The lead woman was in front of me, but didn’t have a light. She let me go ahead and I thought she would follow and use my light but she must have slowed down until it got lighter because I didn’t see her again.
So the race was on, but I was not. I’ve never experienced a total lack of mental commitment like I had for the first part of this race. Two hours in and I was coming up with excuses to just pack it in and go back to the condo and relax for the day. I got stung by a bee in my achilles tendon, and was wishing it would swell up and give me an excuse to stop. It didn’t. I went out too fast and thought maybe that was a good reason to quit. I just kept thinking of excuses – I was just being lazy! Finally I told my whiny brain to shut up – I realized that I felt great, and needed to finish this race. I also started running into some of the 100 Mile runners. I thought about the fact that the first of these folks I saw had already been running for 24 hours, wouldn’t have a chance of making the cutoff, and were still going. What was wrong with me for wanting to quit after 3 hours? With this inspiration, I woke up and started enjoying my race. I felt like I got stronger with every kilometre that passed. I honestly felt better after 11 hours that I did during the first hour that day.
The Superior course was basically this: climb, descend, cross a beautiful river. Repeat this about a thousand times and then the finish line appeared. Almost the entire course was beautiful, but damn hard, singletrack that was littered with roots and rocks. This made it hard to ever get into a rhythm and added to the amazing challenge of this course.
Beyond the rugged trail, there was a distinct lack of flat parts on the course. The first half of the course had lots of smaller ups and down, but the last 25 miles was where the real climbing happened. Carleton Peak was tough – a long grind up along the Temperance River and a final stretch that is basically scrambling over boulders near the peak. After a bit of recovery, the next challenge was Moose Mountain which seemed a bit shorter, but was straight up climbing for a long way. The last big climb was up and over Mystery Mountain. It was much less steep with switchbacks the whole way up, but it seemed to go on forever, and the descent was the same. Added to this was the fact that I could hear the finish line but knew I had a bunch more distance to cover before I would see it. Finally I popped out of the singletrack onto a gravel road which was the first time I recognized where I was the whole day. I knew it led to a bridge and then up to the main chalet at Lutsen. I was so close and still felt surprisingly good. The last stretch was down the asphalt road to the Caribou Highlands Resort where the finish line waited for me. I saw my brother halfway down the road and challenged him to a race to the finish line – he said he knew a shortcut so he’d beat me for sure! It was really cool finishing with a bunch of friends and my parents down there to cheer me on which made it easy to finish with a smile on my face! My brother and friend both had great races for their first marathons – I doubt 26.2 miles comes much harder than this one anywhere so it was awesome that they pulled it off.
In terms of overall placing, I was in almost the same position all day. After starting out in the morning with a group of about 4 others, I checked my pace a bit and dropped back. I was still in top 10, but wasn’t expecting that to last. I ran into another 50M runner in the first half of the course and passed him. At some point in the second half a 50M runner passed me, but then he had some trouble and I ended up passing him around the second last aid station. Other than these two, I didn’t see another 50M runner all day. I was surprised about that. So I ended up crossing the line in 11hrs 17 minutes which put me in 8th place overall. I was happy to have finished feeling as good as I did, and top 10 made it even better.
The aid stations at this race absolutely made my day. I was on my own almost the whole race and felt like I had all the attention at the aid stations. From the cheering when I would enter to all the helpful volunteers that would grab my pack and bottle to fill it, I felt like an elite runner! The ice in my bottle at every stop was what pushed me to get to the next station all afternoon! And whoever the guy was at the Cramer Rd (I think) aid station that rubbed ice cubes on the back of my neck while I went through my drop bag was my hero! Another surprise was spotting my friend Jessica waiting for me at the second last aid. That gave me a huge boost, and then she and my parents (who have never seen me race) were at the last aid which added even more energy.
The atmosphere around the finishing area was great, and kept getting better as the 8PM awards and 10PM cutoff neared. Lots of runners came back to hang out and cheer in the runners that were still finishing from all 3 distances. During the awards ceremony, John would stop every time a runner was coming in so the whole crowd could cheer for them. I was thinking I should aim to come in at night next year so I get to experience this when I cross! This atmosphere was one of my favourite parts of the weekend and I was definitely glad we decided to stay down Saturday night as well.
Kudos to John, his amazing crew, and all the volunteers – this is an awesome race, and I can’t wait to be back!