Superior 100 – A DNF Race Report

Superior 100 for those who do not know is a 100 mile race that takes place up on the north shore of Lake Superior along the Superior Hiking Trail. I first learned of this race several years ago and the description of the race immediately resonated with me.

The Superior 100 Mile Trail Race is a point-to-point (95% trail) ultramarathon which traverses the Sawtooth Mountains on the Superior Hiking Trail in the far reaches Northern Minnesota near the Canadian Border .  The course parallels the North-Shore of Lake Superior, the greatest freshwater lake in the world, climbs to near 2000′ peaks with breath-taking vistas of the lake and inland forests and crosses countless whitewater rivers and serene streams and meanders through mystic Boreal forests. 

Known as being rugged, relentless and remote, this race is extremely technical and features 21,000 feet of gain/loss. Part of me wanted to think there was some exaggeration to how difficult this race is, with its 38 hour cutoff (much longer than most 100’s) I thought perhaps they were just being nice to back of the pack’ers. But alas, that trail is no joke.

After running 3 ultramarathons last year I decided to make a go for it in 2016 and ran a few more races this year in preparation. I knew it would be hard, but I was certain I could finish.

The race starts at the Gooseberry state park visitor center, so I booked a campsite there for the night before and we drove up that day for the pre-race meeting and spaghetti dinner. The energy was great, and it was cool that this community is like a big family. Runners, friends, kids, parents, grandparents, everyone was there. One of the veterans of this race-Kevin Langton-even wrote a book about it. Of course I bought it and though I’ve not yet read much of it, I can already tell it is going to be a great read.

Early in the year, I had asked my brother if he would crew for me. Lucky for me he accepted as I didn’t really have any other help. My training would go pretty well, I debated running a 50 miler somewhere in the mix but opted to go for an early ‘fast’ (fast for me) 50K so I signed up for the Trail Mix 50K in April. Did lots of speed work and more miles than I had ever in the past. Unfortunately I overshot and went out too fast, bonked hard and though it was my fastest 50K yet it was still much slower than my goal. I then did the Afton 50K and treated it as more of a long training run. Kept my heart rate low and waited until the end to push for a strong finish. I was worried if I threw a 50 mile effort in too close to Superior that I wouldn’t be recovered in time. So I just opted for consistent miles running almost every day and averaging just over 50mpw.

Putting in more miles than I did in all of last year, I felt prepared. My goal was a 30 hour finish and thought if everything went my way a sub 30 hour finish was possible. Over the course of the day it gradually became very apparent to me just how much of a pipe dream all of that was.

Gooseberry to Split Rock – 9.7m

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We walked over to the start from our campsite with about 30 mins left to the start of the race. The time went by pretty fast and I was anxious to get going. After some brief words from John Storkamp the Race Director we were on our way. Finally the moment I had been waiting for, it was a huge relief just to be moving. Making the adventure I had been thinking about for months, a reality.

This year-just as last year-the race started on a bike path before getting onto the Superior Hiking Trail. It was nice to be able to spread out a bit and was pretty relaxed. I started to feel some weird rubbing going on with my big toe on my left foot which I had not experienced before in all the miles I had worn the shoes I chose. I don’t know if it had something to do with being on hard flat ground or what. It almost felt as though there was already a hole in my sock but I knew that wasn’t right. I tried to put it out of my head.

Pretty quickly we were on the SHT and while I was moving at a nice relaxed 11-12min mile pace it didn’t really feel as slow as that normally would for me. My heart rate was staying low but perhaps not as low as normal for that pace. That had me a little concerned but I just focused on the trail, figured it would come down and was due to all the excitement of finally doing this.

Before long we hit the spur trail to the first aid station. I had carried a handheld from the start filled with amino energy drink which I had finished. Volunteers helped me refill my 2 17oz soft flask bottles and I briefly thought I should fill my handheld with water as well but this aid station was chaotic and I decided to quickly move on. In hindsight this was big mistake as it would be 10.3 miles to the next aid station.

2:13 elapsed

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Split Rock to Beaver Bay – 20.1m

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I remember this section being pretty slow. Long lines of people and no real way to get to the front of them. Although it felt a bit too slow for me, I knew there was a long day ahead so I didn’t really try to pass people unless out of necessity.

Eventually I would run out of water and with the slow long line I had no hope of being able to speed up to get to the next aid station any faster.

4:50 elapsed

Beaver Bay to Silver Bay – 25.0m

During this section I got stung by a yellow jacket on my left achilles, literally right on the tendon. Several other people got stung, one guy got it bad and was laid out on the side of the trail from dizziness after being stung. Several of us briefly slowed down to make sure he was ok, another runner was sitting with him so we moved on.

Coming into Silver Bay aid station I was feeling pretty dehydrated. I asked my brother how far the car was as I really wanted the watermelon I had packed in the cooler. He ran back to the car for me to get it while I refilled my water and ate some pb&j. After eating a ton of watermelon I was back on my way, feeling pretty good but the heat and humidity was really starting to become a factor for me.

6:26 elapsed

Silver Bay to Tettegouche – 34.9m

Here I came across a guy who I would end up spending a lot of miles with. He was moving pretty good but asked if I wanted to get around as I approached. I said I was fine and just then he bent down and picked up a headlamp someone had dropped. He joked about how I would have been the one to find it if he had let me pass. We talked for a bit and eventually I moved on as he needed a brief stop.

Later I ended up falling into a nice groove behind a couple of guys chatting that were veterans of this race and so I latched on hoping some of their wisdom might rub off. We chatted a bit and one point the guy right in front me reached back looking for his headlamp that wasn’t there. I asked if it was a Petzl with an orange band and sure enough it was. Told him about the runner who picked it up and initially he seemed ready to go back to look for him but his buddy convinced him to keep moving, he had a spare at the next aid station anyway.

One of the main things I recall about this section was the mud. Literally miles of mud. I am usually not one to mind running straight through mud but this was so deep and sloppy and such long sections of it that it really didn’t seem worth trying to go straight through it. Aside from the mud though there were some amazing views, stunning views, just one right after another.

Coming in to Tettegouche and I would finally get to see my wife and youngest son. Though I had been feeling pretty relaxed during most the race and my legs were fresh, the miles were definitely taking a toll. I felt a bit like I had not had enough calories along with being behind on my hydration. Seeing my wife and son made me feel a bit emotional but I tried to focus on the task at hand, refueling and directing my brother with what I needed. We switched out my bottles for my 2 liter bladder.

As I was getting ready to leave I saw the runner who had found the dropped headlamp. Let him know I came across the guy who’s light it was and he said he was able to return it to him.

Kissing my wife and son as I left, my brother walked with me for a bit. He was mentioning to me a friend of his that was coming to pace another runner named Steve and right as he told me his bib number the runner in front of us turned around and asked what he said. It was the same guy who had found the headlamp and sure enough his name was Steve. We all introduced ourselves and then he went off ahead as I took my time to settle back into my groove.

9:34 elapsed

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Tettegouche to County Road 6 – 43.5

I recall this section being really tough. Soon enough I caught up to Steve and we would basically spend the entirety of the section together trading places as we were grinding out the miles.

We traded places a bit with a couple of other runners who were chatting and as it grew dark it turned out one of them had not picked up his headlamp at the last aid station. I ended up running behind him with my lamp lighting the way for both of us and another runner he knew in front of him with a light.

It really started to set in that if I was going to finish this race it was going to take a very long time. But I enjoyed the company of the other runners and though the day was starting to wear on me, the comradery, the experience, pushed me forward.

13:07 elapsed

County Road 6 to Finland – 51.2

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Coming into County Rd 6 my brother, wife and son were waiting for me with a nice comfy chair to sit in. I ate some chicken noddle soup (which was extremely delicious at this point) and decided to put a long sleeve shirt on. Later I realized this was probably a mistake.

As I continued on my way I started to notice some serious chaffing setting in. I’ve never had an issue with chaffing but then I’ve never run for more than 10 hours and that was in cool weather where sweating all day wasn’t an issue. I had used vaseline before the race on all areas of my crotch etc… and even reapplied it a couple of times when I initially noticed an issue but apparently it was not working. This along with the long sleeve heating me up as the night stayed fairly warm and humid made me start to worry.

I had let my brother know I wanted my second amino energy drink at County Rd 6 so I had drank that before leaving. It really did help and with this section being some of the easiest trail I recall out of the whole race I was moving a at decent clip toward Finland.

15:38 elapsed

Finland to Sonju Lake Road – 58.7

Arriving at Finland I was exhausted, the high from the energy drink was over and I was hitting a pretty hard low. The chaffing was getting really bad and I was worried things were going to start bleeding down there.

My brother was there with my mom coming to help with the overnight crewing. She works nights as a nurse so she is used to staying up all night. It was nice to see her. I had some more soup and changed my shorts hoping a fresh pair would help with the chaffing. I briefly thought about changing my shirt back to a t-shirt but knew I was going to be moving a lot slower from here on out.

Just before I was ready to keep going my other brother arrived with his daughter and my oldest son. My wife and youngest were there as well. It was a good boost of morale to have most of my family all there together. After some hugs and kisses I was off.

This is where things really went down hill for me. It would be a roller coaster where the lows lasted a lot longer than the highs. I tried to stick with a group of other runners for a bit, one of them being the legendary Stuart Johnson who has-now-finished this race a record 19 times. It was nice to be in a group chatting for awhile, listening to stories etc… but eventually we would all spread out and I went ahead of some, while others were keeping a better pace than I could and I ended up alone.

These were some lonely miles, though I didn’t mind too much. It was the exhaustion that was really starting to set in. My stomach started to feel pretty awful and I just felt crappy overall.

19:17 elapsed

Sonju Lake Road to Crosby Manitou – 62.9

Coming into Sonju Lake aid station I was a mess. There is no crew access at this aid station but it was warm and inviting. I could tell I was visibly looking like shit as some of the volunteers appeared to be concerned if I was ok. One woman in particular was really awesome, she sat me down asked what I needed and offered some encouraging words. I was so out of it that it probably seemed to her to fall on deaf ears but her caring demeanor even without her words was what I really needed in that moment.

As I started moving again I felt a bit dizzy and light headed. There was a nice stick sitting off to the side of the trail that made a perfect walking stick so I quickly picked it up to use to help keep my balance. My right ankle/achilles had started to bother me so it was nice to keep some weight off of it.

There had been thunder and lightning for a few hours by now and a slight drizzle that was starting to pick up. All I could think about was keeping moving, laser like focus on the trail and not slipping on wet roots and rocks.

As I was going along at a decent hiking pace it seemed like the stick was making my knee on the other side hurt from the uneven balance of weight so I dropped it. I started stumbling around as my equilibrium was thrown off from losing the stick. I slowly dragged my ass toward Crosby Manitou.

Coming out of the trail onto a T intersection there was a line of cars going one way and a road in front of me which apparently led to Crosby aid station. By now it had been pouring out for at least an hour and I stupidly had only carried a very light jacket which did nothing in the pouring rain. The road seemed to go on forever with no idea when the aid station would appear.

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Finally I reached the aid station. Eager to find my brother and get a change of clothes/shoes/socks but he was no where to be found. I wandered around the aid station looking for him before I took a much needed bathroom break. After that I looked some more, debating what to do. I knew if I dropped out of the race without any crew to get me out of there I could be waiting for hours. I thought perhaps they had missed me and went on to the next aid station, one guy mentioned this aid station was hard to find and perhaps they were still on their way (he then snapped this picture of me). As I stood in the pouring rain by the fire, dejected and cold questioning if I had it in me to keep going, knowing some of the hardest trail was just around the corner, my brother popped out of nowhere.

He took me to his car where I began to remove my shoes and socks, I got one sock off and a new one halfway on as I sat there feeling completely done for. Tears started to well up in my eyes. It was over, I knew it was over for me but I didn’t want to admit it. I wanted nothing more than to finish this race, I had trained all year, I had visualized, fantasized and dreamed of making it across that finish line every day for months. How could it end this way? DNF’ing had never even crossed my mind before this moment. I was frustrated, in shock, every emotion balled up into one. I was completely disappointed in my performance, angry at the trail and how unrunnable so much of it was for me.  I thought about all the time, the sacrifice I and my family had made. People coming to help crew, to support me, to see me finish. At nearly 23 hours into the race with so much left to go I knew I would be lucky to finish before the cutoff. In the back of my mind the slight possibility I could have trudged on lingered but I couldn’t make myself do it, I froze. I dropped.

22:20 elapsed

The aftermath

We got to our hotel where my wife was wide awake as she was completely unable to sleep. I immediately hugged her and profusely apologized for not finishing as I shed tears of disappointment and shame. I never imagined it would end this way. Coming to this race I was expecting a life changing experience, that is what I wanted and I didn’t think I got it. I didn’t get the buckle, or the sweatshirt. I didn’t get to hang out at the finish having completed one of the toughest races around and bask in my accomplishment with the other finishers. Most of all I didn’t get to be the hero for my two boys. Instead I got a feeling of being completely broken. When my oldest son woke up and I told him I didn’t finish he started to cry. It broke my heart. I had pushed myself all the way to the edge and the trail had brought every bit of darkness inside me to the surface.

After a day of wallowing in self pity, I woke up the next day and realized that although I didn’t get what I wanted, maybe I got what I needed. I needed to be broken, to find my limit, so that I can regroup, rebuild and become a better me. After all, that is what this is all about, that is why I do this. And that’s why I will do it again. Ultrarunning, more than anything else in my life, has manifested immense spiritual growth within me. The trails are my church and running my ritual.

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What I learned

I learned a lot from this race. I learned that my training was inadequate, that not only did I not do enough but that I really should have spent time out on the course. I learned that its not enough just to have other people helping you, my brother did an amazing job for his first time crewing and knowing little about ultrarunning (in fact he had a lot of passion and really seemed to be enjoying the experience as much as me, perhaps a future pacer?). But for an event like this it takes serious planning and strategy. Not knowing the course, or knowing other people out there, people who have run it before, a pretty big mistake right off the bat. Most of all, I learned a lot about myself. Not only about my limits and what I am truly capable of. I realized how important being a part something bigger than myself, being a part of a community is to me. So in the end I am grateful, grateful to family, to friends offering their support, to all of the other runners, the volunteers who put so much effort into making such an amazing event happen, to the race director and his family and the sacrifices they make to make it all possible. And not least of all, I am grateful for the trail, for mother nature. She chewed me up and spit me out and I will never be quite the same.

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