August 12th, 2020
The Superior Races: 26.2, 52 or 100-miles in northern Minnesota
Saturday September 12th, 2009
The Superior Hiking Trail is a welcoming but brutal host, much like that overbearing relative who says, "Sure we'd love to have you stay with us -- come any time," and then greets you with a life-choking bear hug and offers you a mattress seemingly made of rocks and thistle. "Stay as long as you like! We are so glad that you are here!!"
On the weekend of September 11-12 the trail hosted guests for three events: the Moose Mountain Marathon, the Superior 50 (52 if you want to be picky) and the Sawtooth 100.
Like Goldilocks checking out the Bear family beds, I found the 100 to be too long, the marathon to be too short but the 50-miler to be JUST RIGHT. Now, where is that porridge?
If you haven't heard, the Superior Hiking Trail is tough, tough, tough. Long climbs, wicked descents, boulder-climbing, mud-jumping and lots of high knee drills across trails strewn with rocks and anaconda-like roots in the hunt for vulnerable ankles.
To prepare for the day's adventures I had a pasta dish the night before that featured "wild game" "It's our chef's special tonight," said our server. Sounded interesting.
"What kind of wild game is it?"
"Don't know. Whatever the chef can get his hands on."
What the heck, I decided to be daring and order it (I was the only one out of our table of nine to do so). "But I am curious about what I am eating," I said to the server. "Can you ask the chef what kind of wild game he is using tonight?"
When my dish arrived I asked again. "So, what is it that I am about to eat?"
"Not sure," said the server.
"Did you ask the chef?"
"Yeah, but he isn't sure either." So, for all I know I fueled myself with the hindquarters of a few dead squirrels but it did taste good and seemed to be excellent starter fuel for the 50-miler.
AWAY WE GO
I love races in which competitors take a bus from the end point to the start. The long drive puts into perspective the length of the race. "This is taking awhile to get to the start, do you think that we are almost there?" asked my seat-mate.
Such terror a simple, one-word response can evoke.
We were starting in Finland, and while the long ride made it feel like we were actually going to Finland -- the country -- we were instead going to Finland, Minnesota. Most of the 100-mile runners had already passed though our start point since their race began 22 hours earlier and 50 miles further south. Later, we would see some of them nearing the the finish line. "The zombie walkers" we began to call them, as many had the burned out look of the walking dead. Some of us 50-milers were feeling that way after only 30-40 miles. We empathized with the zombies and held them in awe.
I've been lucky enough to do some tough events around the country, including Badwater. But the idea of doing 100 miles on the Superior Hiking Trail scares me much more than any sunny afternoon in the midst of Death Valley's fry-an-egg-on-the-road heat. The people who complete 100 on the Superior Trail really are in a superior league of ultrarunners.
I was in a nice little train of runners from the start to the first aid station. Some were new to the distance, some were simply new to the course. With relatively easy footing in the first miles a few of the newbies mentioned that "this isn't really as bad as I thought it would be."
What a tease our Superior Hiking Trail is. Remember -- the Superior is a lovely but brutal host. "You will find your rock-filled mattress soon," I thought to myself. At some point, most runners in the Superior Trail races find themselves face-down on her rocky bed.
And soon we did find those rocks. After a few miles the cars on the train de-coupled and many of us were on our own. Bumbling along I came upon a steep descent, accidently kicking a small boulder at the top. Tip-toeing down the hill I heard what I thought was another runner rapidly catching up to me. I looked around to find that the runner was instead the large rock that I had dislodged. I felt like I was in a scene from "Raiders of the Lost Arc" as I tried to out-run the rock whose pace was rapidly exceeding mine.
"What is the appeal of running with the bulls?" I thought to myself as I jumped to the side of the trail at the bottom of the hill, watching the boulder break a small tree as it rolled to its stop.
By now you should have a sense that the Superior course is a challenging one. But we veterans expected the rocks, roots and endless hills. What little twist could Superior toss at us this year?
How about some heat and humidity? A bit of rain? What the hell!
Northern Minnesota, on the edge of frigid Lake Superior. The land of fleece was suddenly hot and humid. WTF? Just a few days earlier the weekend weather prediction was for cold temps and rain. And while Thursday's and Friday's forecasts hinted at warmer weather, no one seemed to believe it could be possible. I had a jacket and gloves in my hydration pack during most of the race, just sure that a surprise snowstorm was around the corner.
And even when we did get hot, we still couldn't believe it. Midway into the race a runner next to me said, "Boy, I feel hot; I wonder if my electrolytes are off?" Evidently the idea that it actually WAS hot didn't occur to him. And in reality, for summer, it really wasn't all that hot. Mid-70s But rarely does northern Minnesota, just a few miles south of Canada, have 90% humidity in September. As grandpa always said, it's not the heat but the humidERY that gets you.
Feeling like I was running in a plastic bag I hoped that the predicted chance of showers would soon become a reality. Careful what you wish for! First, there were a few refreshing drops, but then -- downpour. A downpour on a course filled with rocks and wooden plank bridges means down-runners too. Slip-splat, slip-splat... slip sliding away...
But, it was a short-lived storm. Just enough to bump the humidity up for the last hours.
My goal was to try to make it to the finish line without turning my headlamp on. Just as I plunged down the hill earlier in the day, trying to beat the on-coming boulder to the bottom, I was racing the sun, hoping to make it to the finish line before it met its resting place at the bottom of the horizon.
Barely did I get out of the way of the boulder and barely did I beat the sun, sliding into the finish line only minutes before the orb called it a day.
And what a hoot the finish is -- the patio of the Caribou Highlands Resort was filled with runners, crew, family and friends cheering finishers through to the wee hours of Saturday night. And how do I know this? Well, at first I was among the cheerleading squad, having traded out my dirty running duds for my cheerleading togs (a clean tee and shorts). But eventually 13-and-a-half hours on the trail caught up with me and I headed to bed... in a room with a porch right above the finish line. Periodically I awoke to the cheers of another happy finisher -- some were 50-milers like me, others were 100-milers who had started at 8 a.m. on Friday. I went to bed at 10 p.m. on Saturday, so you have a sense of how long some of these people were on their feet.
So another excellent visit to our brutal but welcoming host, the Superior Hiking Trail. Of course, thanks to RD Larry Pederson and the volunteers. A shout-out and congrats to our TP finishers, including Jim Blanchard, Cathy Drexler and Gardar Middleton in the marathon, John Rodee, Kathryn Dunn, Deb Vomhof and Jeff Mallach in the 50 mile, and Kathy Rytman, Kevin Grabowski and Scott Meyers in the 100-mile. I'm bound to have missed someone -- my apologies if I have.
Results will be at http://www.superiortrailrace.com/fall/index.html
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