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2017 Superior 100 Mile Trail Race Report

Reading Time: 16 minutes

At the start, ready to go!

I had to go back.

Last year’s disastrous DNF at mile 50 hit me hard. So in January 2017 I thought I’d let chance be my decider. If I got picked in the lottery it was a sign I should go back and redeem myself. Chance was on my side. Now I had nine months to prepare.

Good news. I finished the race with a personal record. 32:00:32. A full 1 hour and 55 minutes faster than my previous best on the trails.

Here are 10 lessons from this year’s race. Plus one more – because this 100 mile race is really 103.3 miles! The Spinal Tap of 100s!

  1. Embrace the mud.
  2. Beaver pools are refreshing.
  3. Bees don’t like it when you step on their home.
  4. Eliminate expectations.
  5. Pain is in the head.
  6. Apples are better than candy.
  7. Bacon!
  8. GPS watches are heaven.
  9. Soften your eyes.
  10. You can’t run last year’s race this year.
  11. You don’t need a pacer. But sometimes one will show up.

 

Embrace the mud.

In 2014 I ran into a lot of mud on the trails. I wasted time stepping gingerly around the mud. I’d navigate each patch hoping to avoid soaking my shoes. I still lay some blame on the mud for of my slow finish.

Muddy legs early on in the race!

That changed this year. The amount of mud was about normal for the SHT. But I was determined to run right through it. And I did. In most cases that was the best choice. The mud was thick and not too wet. My shoes got caked. My feet not too wet. I changed socks at every aid station where I had a drop bag. Six new pairs of socks. That tactic worked well to keep my feet from getting too wrinkled.

That doesn’t mean all the mud was fine. At about 3 a.m., somewhere between the Manitou and Caribou rivers, I was running with a two other guys, Eric and Kevin. I was leading and saw that there was mud in front of me. Most mud was not more than 6 inches deep and of a caramel consistency; you could pick any path through it and be safe. It was unlikely the mud would slow you up. But this patch was different. I stepped into the mud at a fast-hike pace. It was soupy and wet. I was immediately up to my calf in mud. I pulled out quickly and paused to assess another route. Kevin, behind me, chose a different route. His leg plunged up to his thigh in thick mud. He stopped mid-stride – he was frozen instantly. He called for help because he was about to lose his shoe in the mud. If the shoe came off three feet under the mud at 3 a.m., we would never find it. Slowly he twisted his leg and foot to shimmy it out of the thickness. Schluck! Out came his leg, shoe intact. We kept moving and joked for about the next 30 minutes about how horrible that mud was.

Beaver pools are refreshing.

Leading up to the race, John Storkamp, the race director, had warned that the bridge over Split Rock River was completely out. It was a rickety old bridge with a cable system attached to secure it from wobbling. It even had a sign saying, “One Hiker at a time – ONLY”. John said we’d likely have to ford the river this year. But not to worry it wouldn’t be more than ankle deep.

But at the pre-race meeting, John noted a new problem. The river crossing would still happen. But – about 6 miles later the local beavers had built up a dam. And the pond created by the dam was about waist-deep – covering the trail. It was unavoidable. “We looked for a re-route. No luck. We tried to check in with the beavers. But they weren’t home,” he joked at the pre-race meeting.

So out on the course, John was right. The Split Rock River crossing wasn’t that bad. You run along the river bank for a while so you know it’s coming. There’s plenty of time to navigate the water and plenty of exposed rocks. Very doable.

But the beaver pond.

Oh. My. God.

The only reason you know it’s coming (it’s deep in the woods) is from hearing people ahead of you scream. It’s like a 20-foot in diameter lake appears in the woods out of no where. Boom – 3 feet of water! Nothing to think about just head right in.

Here’s the funny thing – it was rather refreshing. Unlike the mud, the pond is fresh and cool. It cleans, cools and calms the legs. Once out of the water your legs dry quickly and feel much better. I’d welcome more beaver ponds in place of the mud for next year.

Bees don’t like it when you step on their home.

Every year at the pre-race meeting John warns of bees and how they’ll sting you. But I’ve never actually encountered any on the trail. Until this year.

At one point someone ahead of me got stung twice along the Split Rock River. But I didn’t see any bees at that point. So I wasn’t worried. Onward I went.

Later on heading into Beaver Bay I was walking up a hill. When you run ultras, you usually walk up hills to conserve energy. So I was walking. I looked down and saw about 15 bees swarming around my feet. Then, OUCH! I felt the pinch of a sting on my calf. And saw more bees. I screamed out and thought, “Fuck, now I have to run up this hill!” With adrenaline pumping I kicked it into high gear trying to outrun the bees. I made it about 50 yards up the hill and didn’t see any following me so I slowed down. Phew! I could walk again. But boy did my calf hurt. Quickly I got over it – I still had 80 miles to go.

My calf is still red and itches a week later. Oh well…

Eliminate expectations.

In previous years I’d always put together an elaborate spreadsheet for my race plan. How long each leg would take. How long I’d stay at each aid station. What pace would I have. I’d refer to that plan throughout the race to see if I was on track.

The side effect of this for me was what I call the “let down of measurement”. When you miss a time for a leg you try to make it up on the next leg. Thinking you can catch up at some point. But in this race there is no such thing as an average leg. My split times range from 12:22 per mile to 26:03 per mile. That’s a 2x range. There’s no way to manage expectations around that. It’s better to let them go.

So I did.

I kept my broad goals. Get into Finland (the halfway point) between 9 and 11pm (I arrived at 9:15pm). Get to Sugarloaf Rd before sunrise. Finish before 6pm.

But I didn’t look at my pace for each leg. I didn’t compare any of them to pre-race expectations. I just kept moving.

And it worked. I trimmed 1:55 off my PR.

Sometimes managing things too closely causes thrashing. Too fast at one point trying to make up time – wears you down. Too slow – causes you to want to go fast later. Much better to drop the management and just run.

Pain is in the head.

Still smiling at mile 85!

Over the couple of months I’ve read a some articles about how pain is totally in your head. The premise is that different people experience different levels of pain for the same physical experience. If you work at it you “don’t dwell on the pain, and don’t try to fix it — no props, no pills. Eventually the mind should let go.”

I practiced this a lot in this year’s 100 miler. I’ve said many times before that this race is all about the head. If your head isn’t in it there’s no way for the rest of you be in it.

As I experienced any little pains on the trail I started by just observing them. I let the worry flow out of my head. Returned to my steps. Kept moving.

Early on I’d hit the mud in a weird way and my foot would ache. Like a stress fracture. Instead of worrying about how that pain would deteriorate later in the race. I decided to just let it go. No need to adjust anything.

I was astounded at how effective this was.

In the last bit of the race I was heading down a steep incline. Normally after 98 miles your quads are unable to lower your body without severe pain. So downhill sections can go slow. In the past I’ve hated that last downhill stretch. Each leg aches when you lower yourself.

This year I decided to be mindful about the pain. I didn’t focus on the pain of lowering myself down a hill. I didn’t dread the next set of rocks that dropped down two feet. I just moved through fluidly. Let each step happen. Let myself feel what that step was like. And let go for the next step. I moved down those downhill sections with speed and grace. Passing by marathoners and having them say, “Wow! You’re really doing the 100 mile race? You look great!”

 

Apples are better than candy.

The past two times I’ve done this race, my stomach either caused problems or did me in. In 2014, I had heartburn so bad on the second day I couldn’t consume but the smallest amount of food. And in 2016, I felt the same thing happening.

When your stomach is not in the race, your head is not in the race.

So I decided this year I would change up my food plan completely.

In the past, I could eat just about anything. Gummie bears. Cookies. Pizza, Burgers. Potato chips. Coke. You name it. In 2014 I think I ate 200 Swedish Fish! You need a lot of calories to keep going for 30+ hours.

In 2016, I discovered that apples tasted really good and seemed to work wonders on my stomach (albeit not enough wonders to repair the damage from the quesadilla I ate at Tettegouche!) So I would use apples as the base of my plan.

At the hotel outside of Two Harbors I cut 7 apples into thin slices and divided them into baggies. I added some grapes too. I then made sure every one of my 6 drop bags had one of these snack packs in them. I would ration out the apple slices as I moved along. I’d stuff one of the pockets of my backpack with a bag of apples. Then I would eat 1-2 slices per mile.

At each aid station I largely avoided gluten (probably a product of living with my gluten-free wife for over 20 years). But I would drink one Coke – the caffeine and sugar infusion does wonders. Eat some potato chips. Have cup of soup (usually chicken noodle). And maybe a banana. Based on Dan B.’s advice I made sure to have an electrolyte drink also.

My stomach felt great. No problems whatsoever. In fact my whole body felt good. No aching quads when going down hills in the last 10 miles. Mostly ease running in the last miles.

Diet and drink helped that feeling of ease.

Candy and bacon! (Don’t worry – they cooked the bacon for us.)

 

Bacon!

While the apples helped on the run the food reward this year was – BACON! At three aid stations they had thick, fatty strips of bacon ready to eat (one even had hash browns!) I kept going back for more bacon. It’s the perfect blend of fat, protein, and salt.

When I was running later in the race, one of the folks I was running with suggested that he would always carry jerky or pepperoni sticks on ultras. That’s a good idea. I’ll add that to my apples for next round.

GPS watches are heaven.

I needed a better strategy for measuring the race. When each mile can take you as little as 10 minutes and as much as 27 minutes, you can’t rely on time alone as an accurate indicator of progress. You might be thinking a 4-mile leg will take 50 minutes. But if you are really running 20-minute miles then you are looking at an hour-twenty. That extra 30 minutes can send your head spinning. “What the hell happened? Am I falling apart? How will I ever finish this?!”

The solution is a GPS watch that measures miles instead of relying on time. (I know every ultra marathoner is saying, “Duh!” right now.)

There’s one problem though. Very few GPS watches last more than 10-12 hours. The race is easily 30 hours and can be 34+ for me.

I did my research (probably more than necessary – “Stupid internet!”). It was between the Suunto Ambit3 Peak and the Epson Runsense SF-710.

In the end the $200 cheaper Epson made it the winner. Despite my problems getting it delivered via the USPS – hour-long hold times with USPS, disconnected phone numbers, no note from the USPS, and finally my hand-written note pleading with our postal carrier – it was well worth it.

The watch lasted 28 hours. And it made all the difference. I could now reliably ration out my apples based on how many miles I’d run. I could tell if I was half-way through the 10-mile stretch in the middle of night. I could see my pace for each leg. I could see my cumulative average pace.

This made managing my head much easier. Less freak outs when stretches between aid stations felt long. More being present on the trail.

Soften your eyes.

The view from Carlton Peak (taken on Sunday after the race). But we do climb this peak at about mile 90!

Before I started my wife said to me, “Running is a very pitta activity. Be sure to stop and soften your eyes. Relax them in their sockets. Take in a wider view with your peripheral vision.”

I listened to her but didn’t fully understand what she was getting at. I trust her fully on things like this. No need for me to ask questions. Just do.

When there was a chance to do take in a vista, say at the top of a climb or when near a river, I would pause on the trail. And I would let my eyes relax to take in the landscape. I wouldn’t do it long – maybe 60 seconds.

But it was soothing.

What I realized is that when you run you are forever looking forward. Focusing your eyes on the near horizon – maybe 10-20 feet ahead of where you are. Furthermore, the trail causes you to narrow your field of vision even more. You have to watch for rocks and roots all the time. You have to make sure your footing is solid with each step. All of this has the effect of straining your eyes. And straining your perspective. It feels like striving. And when you are running for 30+ hours – striving is dangerous. Much better to find the ease. Settle in to the rhythm.

 

You can’t run last year’s race this year.

I have a running rule I’ve shared with others: “Don’t make up for yesterday’s run with today’s.” What I mean is that you need to be present in the run you are doing. If yesterday’s run was supposed to be a race-pace 10 miler but you only had time for 3 miles, don’t try to do the race-pace 10 miler today. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from previous runs. Just don’t try repeat them.

I’ve thought a lot about last year’s failure. I reread what I wrote after the race last year. Doing that quickened my resolve to complete it this year. There was very little that would prevent me from finishing in 2017. I’d even decided that a rain storms wouldn’t stop me. In the past I’d said I would drop if it rained a ton.

Part of running this year’s race was to improve my average. Last year’s drop put me at 66%. But a finish in 2017 would put be back at 75%. That’s above the historical completion rate for the race (which hovers near 65-70%).

But no matter how many more times I complete this race I’ll never hit 100%. If I run it 100 times I’ll still have that one drop. No way to change that.

I so wish last year’s DNF didn’t happen. Even after my PR finish this year.

But I talked with my wife, Heather, about whether last year’s DNF had to happen. Only through last year’s crucible would I emerge a better ultra performer. Only through last year’s stomach issues would I correct my diet. Only through last year’s desire for a vacation would I learn to stay more present in the race. I needed these lessons to bring into this year.

Here’s the paradox.

I wish last year never happened. I’d like it erased.

Yet without the 2016 failure, the success of 2017 wouldn’t be possible.

Ugh! And, Yes!

You don’t need a pacer. But sometimes one will show up.

Early on in the race I mentioned to a woman named Lindsey that I was running pacer-less. Normally folks will have a pacer for the overnight period or the last parts of the race. I’ve had my dad join me (first 100) and my cousin too (second 100). Even my mom joined me for a leg in my second 100.

This time around I decided not to involve anyone else in the race. Only my wife was coming with to support me.

This was for two reasons. First, after last year’s disaster of dropping out at 50, I didn’t want to involve anyone in my pain if it fell apart. When you bring others into the race you feel responsible for them. People enjoy coming along for the crazy ride. I couldn’t handle that responsibility this year. I needed to focus on my needs (as selfish as that sounds). I knew if I had a pacer I’d feel the pressure to meet them on time. I’d feel I’d let them down if I dropped again.

Second, I wanted to go deeper. I needed to feel the loneliness of the woods. I wanted to find the edge.

Lindsey joked she had so many pacers that I could probably borrow one of hers. I told her I’d probably (hopefully?) be fine.

Through the night I was lucky enough to run with two guys named Kevin and Eric. Kevin mentioned how he didn’t like running with a pacer either. He felt the pacer would either push him to run too fast or too slow. You feel tied to the pacer.

The three of us would trade off taking the lead. Usually the trade was determined by whoever had to go pee – dropping from the group for a minute. The leg outta Crosby-Manitou took us 4 hours. So you have lots of switching lead and plenty of conversation. And sometimes just quiet. It worked.

With the night behind me I was feeling good coming into the last 15 miles. Just two aid stations left – Sawbill and Oberg. Once you hit Oberg Mountain you only have 7 miles left – easy peasy. But that 7 miles feels like it takes forever! That’s because it’s hard to stay present. So much of the race is about realizing the heaven you are in – and staying there. Noticing the trees. The views. The mud. But in the last 7 miles you are ready to be done. It’s hard to remember that being “done” still takes 2 hours.

On the climb up to Carlton peak, before arriving at Oberg, I ran into a man named Steve. He was doing the Moose Mountain Marathon which started at 8 a.m. that morning. I ran with him and his running partner, Susan, for about 15 minutes. We chatted quite a bit. He’d done the marathon on the trails 8 times before. And he’d done the 50k in the spring a number of times too. He was from Two Harbors and knew the last sections of the trail quite well. He commented that I looked really good for being at the 90 mile mark. I felt good. I knew for sure I’d finish. Just didn’t know when.

Eventually I outpaced Steve and his partner as we headed into Oberg. I know the path into Oberg well (hiked it many times!) and was picking up speed. I wanted to feel the adrenaline of the last aid station. Leaving Oberg I always feel a rush of energy and a bit of sadness. Tears swelling in my eyes as I walk away from the food tables. At this point that I know I’m going to make it – I always say, “It’d take two broken legs to stop me from finishing once I’m past Oberg!” I’m also sad it’s going to be over. I love the trail!

I ran for a bit with two other marathon runners. They were complaining about how much hell the marathon was. At the time they didn’t realize I was a 100 miler. I talked with them a little about how they were feeling. They talked about taking ibuprofen just before this leg which gave them a boost of energy (by masking the pain!)

Even though I knew I’d finish I was a little worried about how long it might take. My watch had completely died. I had no idea how many miles I’d gone nor did I even know what time it was. I was running blind on a section of the course that can be a maze and demoralizing – going up and down the mountains of the Lutsen Ski Resort. I stuck with people so I could ask them the time to gauge how long things were taking.

We eventually reached the climb up Moose Mountain. This climb culminates in what I call the “Stairway to Heaven”. One final piece of the switchback where you are climbing what feels like straight up, heading south with the sun coming through the opening in the trees at the top of hill. Heading toward the light. With legs that can’t lift you!

In the midst of that climb Steve arrived again. Which meant I’d either slowed down or he’d sped up. I think it was a little of both.

He said, “My partner and I agreed to split up for the last leg. So I’m going a little faster now.”

We ran together for bit along the top ridge of Moose Mountain. He then said, “You are looking really good. I figure I can help pace you all the way to the finish. I’ll take the lead. Just tell me if you want me to slow down. Or tell me to speed up. I’ll stick with you.”

My pacer had arrived!

Steve had run the last leg of this course probably 25 times. He knew every inch, every turn, every downhill, every switchback.

And he was giving the gift of his knowledge and his less worn out legs to help me finish strong. I was elated he offered to lead.

He had a personal goal to finish by 4 p.m. It was about 3:20 as we were heading through the back side of Mystery Mountain. That stretch feels as winding and lost as the name of the mountain. I didn’t know if we could do it in 40 minutes. But I was game.

Steve shared the story about how he had been bike riding last spring and hit by a car. He sustained three broken ribs and a severely dislocated shoulder. It put him out of running commission for months. He was biking in Missouri after a race he’d done. A driver on meth hit him and he rolled completely over the car. He was lucky to land on his shoulder because his shoulder joint bore the brunt of the impact. No head impact. But his shoulder was so severely dislocated that it still hurt a little to run. And this was 4 months later.

But he was happy to be back on the trails again. Doing the thing he loved. And I was happy he shared his stories. It distracted me from the never-ending trails before the finish.

I slowed us a couple of times because I had so much water in me that I had to pee every 10 minutes. Steve always waited or slowed up so we could stay together.

As you get within a mile and a half of the finish you can hear the roar of the Poplar River coming down from the mountains. It’s a glorious burst of white noise echoing through the woods. I heard it as we passed through some downhill switchbacks. The finish is so close!

We crossed the Poplar River. I thanked Steve, “I could’ve never made it with such ease through this last section without your help.”

I picked up the pace and Steve matched mine. He said it was 3:51 p.m. All of a sudden I got it in my head that I could do this in under 32 hours. That would be awesome! But I didn’t know if I could make the last bit, which is mostly on a road, in less than 9 minutes. I was feeling good. I was moving fast. But there’s only so much in you after 31 hours.

I outpaced Steve and he said, “Go! You look good!”

The road running felt like forever. As I rounded the last corner toward the finish there were two women cheering me on. I yelled to them, “What time is it?”

Steve at the finish. He helped me finish on time!

As I passed by one of them said, “3:59.”

Ugh! It would be hard to finish the last 200 yards in less than 1 minute.

I put it all in for the last grassy section around the back of the pool. Pushing hard. Crossing the finish line at 32:00:32.

33 seconds beyond where I had hoped. But I’ll take it. I’d cut almost 2 hours off my previous best. I was overjoyed!

I got my “medal” and returned to the finish to wait for Steve.

He came in about 2 minutes later. I greeted him at the finish line. Shook his hand. Gave him a hug. I was so glad he helped me.

I rediscovered how amazing the Superior Hiking Trail is. I love every inch of it. The roots. The mud. The rocks. The beaver ponds. The people.

Lately I’ve been discussing with friends and family about building capacity. Capacity to do more. Capacity to absorb more. Capacity to bring your full self to everything. Too many things we do deplete us. And we’ve convinced ourselves that really hard things will only deplete us more. But if you find the right hard things. With the right amount of awe and wonder and love. Love for the world. Love for each other. Then when you do those hard things you come out the other side with bigger reservoirs. More full reservoirs. Trails build the capacity. The wonder of nature. The ease of movement. The agility to navigate bumps. I’m grateful for that.

 

 

P.S. I’m grateful to have been able to run and talk to Mindy, Kevin, Eric, Steve, and Lindsey. Each of you helped me through a section of the race!

2 Comments

  • ML Rice says:

    When I asked you why you were going back to do this race again, you said “because I didn’t finish it last year.” Knowing you had completed it twice before, I didn’t fully understand your reason. Thanks to this, now, I do.
    Your writing is filled with intelligence, guts, and HEART. It is inspiring and insightful with a healthy dose of personal vulnerability.
    I am grateful for your reflection, your learning and your willingness to teach us.

  • Sally W. Latimer says:

    You are such a beautiful writer I think this should be published in a running magazine. The blog brought tears of joy to read the story. The final lesson is good for all runners and non-runners. “Capacity to bring your full self to everything.” It is finding the things that are right for you. Well said!

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