My First 100 Mile Trail Race…
100 Miles. It’s a distance that has been a goal since May 2012. Back then I had a couple of road half marathons under my belt but I was blown away by the scenes streaming on my laptop while watching Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji – runners spending all day, night, and part of another day running trails around this iconic mountain. When I watched Adam Campbell cross the line in second place at the first UTMF I had my sights set. Fast forward 2 years, and I had climbed a few rungs of the ultra running ladder – 50km, 50 miles, 100km. It was time to attempt something I wasn’t completely sure I could finish… 103 miles of tough, Northern Minnesota trails. The Superior 100 Mile Trail Race.
It was 7:55 AM at Gooseberry Falls Park. Nervous energy flowed like the countless rivers we would cross that day. I picked my way through the seemingly large crowd of 200+ starters, with a hidden unease reflecting my lingering self-doubt. I tried to push it down but it was there. The finish line loomed FAR in the distance. As the Race Director John Storkamp bid us adieu, a mass of feet started shuffling forward, and I smiled – this was finally happening.
The singletrack came quickly, and we strung out into long trains of runners through the first aid station (AS). I longed for a bit of serenity where the crowds would thin and necessarily concentrating on each step over the rugged terrain would be easier. The masses waned by the time we reached AS 2 and I felt alone in the woods and more in my element.
My race plan consisted of a series of small goals – simply to make it safely from one AS to the next. I didn’t rush my stops. Patience. I valued the time I could eat, drink, and reflect – how was my body coping? I felt good. Everything was working. The day passed quickly, one AS to the next. My main crew, Nat, knew what I needed and I never had to worry. She planned to be at every aid station (aside from the 2 of the 14 that were inaccessible for crews) and I quickly found myself appreciating how much she supported me mentally and physically. My brother Mike (aka Monkey) also met me at the County Rd 6 AS in the late afternoon and I was happy to sense that he was surprised with how fresh I looked – confirmation of my own feelings. Out on the trail the views were amazing and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss any of the beautiful scenes. Bean Lake, where I encountered Ian Corless taking amazing photos and talking about eagles, was a highlight. (Ian hosts the TalkUltra podcast and travels the world shooting amazing photos and reporting on races. I was excited to meet him after spending many hours listening to him on long training runs.)
During the day I was comfortable in my Salomon SLAB shorts and a HoneyMaxx running shirt. For nutrition and hydration I carried two handhelds, one for water and one for HoneyMaxx and I used a Salomon SLAB waist belt to carry Clif Shot Gels and Shot Bloks. I kept a Buff on my head all day, and stuck with the same Salomon Sense Pro shoes for the whole race. At the aid stations I found myself eating lots of PB&J sandwiches, along with the odd potato and tortillas rolled up with PB&J. I’ve never tried PB&J in a race before, but it seemed to work perfectly in this race. Later in the day I took a few S-caps to supplement the electrolytes in my HoneyMaxx. Between aid stations I would eat a Clif Shot Gel or two and a sleeve of shot bloks to keep my energy up. I had no nutrition, hydration, or gear issues all day.
Night was coming and I made the decision to take a super conservative approach in the dark to power hike vs run. My power hiking pace was keeping up with others’ running strides. Not running was safer – less risk that an ankle roll or fall would end my race. Conserve energy for the final push when the sun came up. I knew that the marginal time gains trying to run this terrain in the dark made power hiking a smart choice. Patience. I kicked off the long night section with another AS visit from my brother Monkey along with my friend Dave. We hung out around the Christmas lights and campfire, and it felt like old times in the woods. I wanted to stay, but I had to go. Darkness brought none of the issues that I had been concerned about. The odd bat flying past my headlamp was the only wildlife I noticed. The aid station parties after hours of silent darkness were a welcome contrast. My friend Jess arrived at some point in the night, and from then on my AS crew was two – Nat and Jess.
During the night I used my Petzl NAO headlamp on the lower light setting – it was more than adequate and the battery lasted for the whole night. I put on my Ultimate Direction AK vest, mainly to carry a light jacket and a spare headlamp battery. I used the front pouches to carry some extra water in small soft flasks and stuffed Clif Shots/Bloks in the pockets of my SLAB Shorts. I changed shirts and put on my Arc’teryx Incendo Jacket almost immediately as dusk brought cooler temperatures. I kept a Buff on my head, and threw a second one around my neck to keep the night chill away. The only food change I made was to drink some soup at the AS’s at night. Again, I made it through the night with no food, drink, or equipment problems. I was starting to get some rubbing at the back of my heels from the amount of debris that was getting into my shoes – the course was quite muddy in sections, and inevitably some of it was coming over the top of my shoes.
I could finally see the beginnings of a glow on the horizon, signalling the start of another day. Same race, different day. It felt like an achievement to have made it to this point, but there were miles left to go. A tendon issue in my lower shin and ankle had flared up, and felt like it was getting worse. I was slow as I gingerly stepped down the technical, rocky downhill sections. I knew I could make it, but it wasn’t going to be the fast, strong finish I was hoping for. Patience. The section up and over Carlton Peak was a high point that morning – I felt strong in the face of a climb I had feared for months. Coming over the backside of that climb and into the next AS I was able to pick up the pace. I was soaking in the AS comforts by this point – soup, coffee, and PB&J sandwiches still seemed perfect. I knew I needed to keep pushing to the end so off I would eventually go. I had a great surprise from a friend and her kids who brought a sign to the last AS to cheer me on! With a smile on my face I headed into the last section over Moose and Mystery Mountains and into the finish line. This was the longest and hardest part for me – the steep painful downhills on Moose demoralized me, but I knew it was a matter of time at this point. Patience. The switchbacks down Mystery Mountain seemed endless when all of a sudden I heard my younger brother shouting encouragement from up ahead. Hallucination? No, there he was hopping down from his perch on a large boulder or log, I don’t recall specifics.
He walked out to the road with me, and we headed towards the finish. We ran in the last section, and the effort felt… effortless. I stopped. It was done. I got my medal and let myself drown in a sea of support. Nat who had been at every AS with me for the entire 28 hour race. Jessica who spent all night and morning supporting me. Monkey and David who I have shared this race weekend with for the past 2 years. My parents, brother, sister-in-law and new nephew who had driven down from Thunder Bay to see the finish. Two years of thinking of the potential of this moment had culminated in the possible.
We hung out at the finish for a bit, went back to our condo and napped for a bit, and then headed back to the finish line around 8:30 to cheer in the last few runners who managed to beat the sweepers and make the 10PM cutoff. I can’t imagine setting off into a second round of darkness, but many in this race do just that. We clapped until 10PM and Superior was over for another year. I was asked many times if I would do it again. I couldn’t answer at the time, but I can now. 2015. Patience.
The Superior 100 Race Itself
I thought of the first words that came to mind when I reflected on my 2014 experience. I want to expand briefly on each of them to give a sense of what made this race special.
Scenery – the landscapes I encountered during this race were massive and incredibly beautiful. The namesake, Lake Superior, presides to the right of the course, coming in and out of view in its ocean-like majesty. The endless miles of forest, cliffs, and inland lakes made it hard to maintain the required focus on my feet. I made sure to stop and soak in many of these views.
Organization – This race has been around a long time and with its history comes a totally dialled in setup. I found everything to be without issue, including pre-race info, course markings, crew maps, aid stations, and post race festivities.
Terrain – you can’t afford to lose focus during this race. The terrain was technical underfoot, and constantly moving up or down. It was a challenge, and that is part of the draw for this tough race.
Volunteers – A point-to-point 103 mile course needs a ton of volunteers to be successful, and this one had so many amazing people from start to finish. The Aid Station support was phenomenal – everyone knew what they were doing, worked hard, and encouraged harder.
Tradition – This race has endured from the early days of 100 mile racing in North America. It has been around since 1991 and there are some old traditions and new ones that make it special. Worthy of mention is the sweatshirt that each 100 mile finisher receives after they cross the finish line. Finishers receive a star each year they complete the course to sew on the sleeve – its amazing and inspiring to see arms lengths of stars on some of the veterans sleeves.
Location – I grew up on Lake Superior, and spent a lot of time on the North Shore in Minnesota. I feel at home in these woods, and love showing them to new people. It was incredible to be up on a high point of land, and look out to see nothing but wilderness and water.
Atmosphere – This is what made me most want to come back to this race. My favourite time was coming back to the finish line at the end of the day on Saturday when all of the finishers are gathered around the campfire toasting their accomplishments, and interrupting their stories anytime a runner approaches the finish line. Just before 10PM everyone is focused on applauding the last few runners to battle the clock and finish ahead of the course sweepers. The final finisher likely gets 10 times the applause that the winner got many hours before, and this is something amazing to be a part of.