Superior 100 Trail Race
The Superior Trail 100: 100 miles point to point, crossing fewer than 5 paved roads, 14,000 ft. up and 14,000 ft. down. Parallels the shore of Lake Superior, which contains 10% of the fresh water on earth.
"The Superior Trail 100 Mile in Northern Minnesota is probably my favorite race. It's got 7 miles of dirt road, and all the rest is single track trail. I really like it because it's always changing: it's up, it's down, it's right, it's left. It goes down and turns at the same time, so it's really a technical course. That makes it a whole lot of fun."
Eric Clifton, RW interview 12/97
The ST100 was a trip into the unknown for me. I had never tried a 100 before, and my ultra resume is very short- three 50k's, a 50 miler, and a 100k road race, all within the last 14 months. A handful of marathons over the last few years. However, I knew from my climbing experiences that going for 24+ hours was feasible for me. The hardest part would be to exhibit the mental toughness needed to keep going when dropping out is physically so easy to do - just stop at an aid station and sit down. On a long climb, quitting is generally not an easy option, which provides the incentive to succeed.
What was a reasonable target pace? What sort of splits were appropriate? For the big-time races a veritable encyclopedia awaits you on the web these days. For this race I had a set of splits from a few years back, plus some personal knowledge of the trail and terrain. I'd hiked maybe 15 miles of the trail prior to the race. What to eat? What to drink? Luckily I took the SUCCEED approach, Clip and electrolyte caps. I lose a lot of electrolytes and wish I'd discovered these earlier. A roasted turkey breast for sandwiches was in the cooler being carted around by my crew: my wife Kathy and college-student-son David.
Teaching committments meant that we couldn't leave St. Paul until after 1pm, but we got to Silver Bay for the pre-race briefing and then went up to Finland for a pre-race meal of steak, baked potato, and a glass of wine. Back to the Whispering Pines Motel for organization and sleep. I've managed over the years to learn to sleep before the early starts needed for alpine climbs, and slept rather well before this race. The alarm still went off way too early.
Pancakes at 3:30, then a 5am start, a warm 50 degrees. A few minutes up the paved streets of Silver Bay, then turn onto the trail. I ran with others along this first 12 mile stretch. Time passes quickly as we talk- the only thing I remember is that one fellow was from Utah. Go slow, don't race; red glowsticks, be careful... there's a lake 200 feet below, we're atop a cliff. Finally enough light to see the gorgeous maples that were a visual treat throughout the day. All of a sudden we're at the first aid station at Tettegouche State Park, strip off clothes, refill Clip bottles, off I go. All of a sudden I'm alone for the first time. Am I on course? Yup, there's some flagging. I run alone for virtually the rest of the race.
Most of the aid stations are along roads that run up valleys that are perpendicular to the trail. I cross Highway 1 and head up a major climb onto the main ridgeline. A major bit of walking here. The first 50-mile runner (and eventual 2nd place finisher) goes by at an ungodly pace. From the ridgeline one can look inland to the next ridge, ablaze in brilliant reds from the sugar and red maples. The sky is deep blue, the lake is sparkling, temperatures are moderate; this was one of the nicest days I've ever spent outdoors.
Now the road section. A landowner won't allow the trail to be built through his property, so we must detour along Highway 61. Lots of traffic and no shoulder for most of it; a digusting stretch mentally. Many 100 milers pass me, but I ignore the urge to race. Some I see later that night, too exhausted to continue.
The rest of the first 50 miles passes. The race is very rhythmic. Aid station, uphill climb to the ridge, ups and downs, longish downhill, aid station. I stop many times to admire the scenery, look at the cateracts, check for boats on the lake. I meet up with somebody and we make it across a railroad track just before a train goes by. We are so proud of ourselves that we miss a trail turnoff and run a quarter mile out of our way. Just short of the halfway point I climb to Carlton Peak on a trail packed with tourists. "Hi... excuse me... coming through". The 50-milers turn off here and head down to Tofte and their finish. They have been my main company during the day as they go past, if only for a moment. I briefly examine the anorthosite dome of Carlton Peak and make a mental note to get back here and climb next summer.
Halfway at 11:45. I have no idea if that's good or bad at this point. I'm running by feel, and I feel pretty good at this point. I'm toying with ideas of a fast time and at the same time I know better. The sun sets as I pass by the overlooks of Lake Superior on Oberg Mountain, probably the best viewpoint on the course. I'm eating turkey sandwiches from my crew and soup from aid stations now, and I put on more clothes at the last aid station. I had rigged my Petzl Zoom headlamp with an extension cord to allow me to put the battery pack on my waist - that worked well.
As soon as it gets dark, I lose time on my predicted splits. Here's where I really regret running alone. I knew I didn't need a pacer to finish at this point, but I had hoped to fall in with some folks to pass the night away. Didn't happen. While the course was in excellent shape, it had rained a couple of days earlier and many maple leaves had fallen onto the trail. They hid the rocks and roots quite well, making it hard for me to see these nasty obstacles in my increasingly fatigued state. Progress slowed to a fast walk or slow trot from about 11pm until dawn. A fair bit of time was lost changing batteries. My night vision is not the greatest so I use the halogen bulbs, which eat AA batteries. I'll always use the 4.5V flat batteries in the future, and carry a spare normal bulb. My little backup light, a single AAA light, was invaluable for changing batteries.
The low point of the race for me was the 9.4 miles leading to Cascade State Park at mile 81.1. That stretch never seemed to end, primarily because I had miscalculated the location of the Midway aid station along that stretch. I reached Cascade at 3am, 1.5 hours behind schedule, having just done the last stretch at a blistering 22:00/mile pace. David was there to greet me with a sandwich and a comment to the effect of "where have you been"? I wondered myself.
Now for the four miles labelled as the 'toughest stretch of the race'. It suckers you in for the first 3.0 miles - then the last bit, less than a mile, takes nearly 30 minutes to complete. By this time my quads are dead, and the steep descents with big steps were torture. David met me at the next aid station and then went back to Grand Marais for some sleep. At this point I have less than 15 miles to go and the first hints of dawn are about. It is also cold. The night air drains into the meadows, leaving the first frost of the season for me. It gets down to 26 F at two of the aid stations. Glad I have gloves, and the bandanna serves as a hat.
I reach an aid station just as I no longer need my light. Kathy is there, and I'm 15-20 minutes behind the next runner. With daylight comes new energy and with 10 miles to go, the hope of a sub-28 finish. The course gets easier, mostly flat travel through meadows and along some snowmobile trails. I almost fall into a pond as I slide along the frost-covered remnants of a bridge. I catch a couple of folks; now I can pretend I am racing again, using this mental tool to keep moving.
As I approach the Gunflint Trail (a major highway), a sub 28 still seems possible. Then I hit a steep, loose downhill leading to the road. My quads have ceased to function on downhills and I side-step and back down this slope. After crossing the Gunflint I assume it is all downhill for a mile or so into town. Of course the trail head back left and up; exactly the direction I don't want to go! Finally the trail bends to the right and heads downhill. Only a few minutes left to make my sub 28. I pass a fellow runner less than 1/3 mile from the finish, somewhat embarrassed that I don't stop and walk with him. The flagging steers me to the right, behind a building, between some bushes, and then onto the Grand Marais football field for the final 100 yards and the finish at 27:53:57. The crowd of 6 or 7 (the RDs, my crew, and a runner and pacer that just finished) applauded and I smiled.
My crew did a wonderful job. They were surprised how busy they were, but I let them off for a while and they got to go for a hike Saturday afternoon.
The RDs put on a great race and my thanks for their efforts, and the efforts of all the volunteers involved.
What I learned/tips/equipment: SUCCEED: Clip and electrolyte caps are great. I have since quit running in my Addidas Response TRs. The heels are way too soft and my ankles were getting beat up (I assumed it was the trail running, but a road race confirmed that it was the shoes). My Nike compression-short length tights were great. No crotch seam, no chafing. I wore a UD single bottle belt with a small Lowe camera case as a carrying pocket. For this race under good conditions, that's enough. I carried a UD bottle as well until dark. My Petzl Zoom headlamp w/ extension cord allowed me to put the battery pack in the Lowe case and carry the headlamp in my hand (most of the time) or put it on my head. I will use the 4.5v batteries in the future and keep the halogen bulb.
I probably lost 40 minutes by sitting down at the aid stations after I got tired. Future crew will be instructed to get my butt out of the chair after everything is ready to go. Add about 20 minutes lost due to battery changes on the trail and that's an hour. At least another hour could have been saved by running with somebody at night. Lots of quad workouts would have cut another hour off my time.