It has taken me a several weeks to sit down and write about this race and my experience. The experience was phenomenal. The environment, the race and the runners were all top notch and I recommend this race to anyone looking to run the hardest race I’ve ever attempted. The race was ran September 9-10.
After driving to Duluth from the MSP airport, I had a few hours to kill so I enjoyed visits to the Duluth
Running Company and Duluth Trading Company. At the running store, I chatted up the race with employees and another runner who had stopped in. It was a friendly store with standard running items and many references to Grandmas Marathon. I picked up a long sleeve store branded tech shirt and moved down the road to Duluth Trading Company. You may have seen their commercials… The cartoon tough guys with clothes able to withstand bears and beaver attacks. I picked up a bar of soap with the naked cartoon guy who in the TV add dances around with freedom from tight underwear. The soap is for my son who laughs at that kind of thing.
Packet pickup was scheduled for 5:00 Thursday night at Two Harbors 4H fairgrounds. I arrived a few minutes early and since they were still setting up, I hung out in the parking area with other runners doing the same. I immediately notice these runners were all fit. They “looked the part”. In other races I’ve been a part of that included shorter distances, the crowd at pickup was certainly more diverse,… physically. Here, these runners were all running 100 miles, with 21,000 feet of vertical climb. This race was certainly not meant to be a first time 100 miler race.
I picked up my packet which included a t-shirt with an artistic graphic unique to Rock Steady Running (RSR) races. I held my number, 61, while my picture was taken that would later be published with other “Faces of Ultra”. The entire pickup experience was very well done. RSR had a couple tables set up with merchandise for sale: hats, hoodies, shirts, posters… And a book recently published about the Superior 100. Author Kevin Langton was selling his book and autographed my copy with, “Mark – Dude we are going to have so much fun this weekend! Enjoy the book and the run. – Kevin Langton”.
I put my race packet in the car and returned to feast on a plate of spaghetti/salad/cookie sold by the local 4H club. I picked a spot at an open table next to a guy I saw pull up next to me when I arrived. He had appeared to have a California vibe to him. Turns out Mark Gilligan was from Semi Valley and is the founder of Ultra Signup. We chatted about the race and about the race directors he knew in Texas, including Rob Goyen of Trail Racing Over Texas (TROT). He gave me the story of how Ultra Signup was created before he left to mingle in the crowd.
I did my own mingling and met several runners, two of note were each previous one-time finishers. Ben from Staples, MN was last year’s final finisher, just making the cut off. He was a soft spoken, kind hearted man in his 40’s. The other was a younger guy, I’ll call him Jason. He was standing with his family with a grin taking in the scene. He told me about the race and what to look out for. I made as many mental notes as possible.
About the time the hall was packed with runners and their support crews, John Storkamp addressed the group. Having posed for a selfie with John earlier in the evening, my first impression of him was solidified. He is a funny, personable guy with a twinkle in his eye. A twinkle of support, kind heartedness and maybe a bit of a secret. He addressed the crowd regarding logistics of the race and course before recognizing runners by the number of Superior 100 finishes they had. There were many first timers with me, but also several with over 10 finishes. Many were wearing their black Superior 100 sweatshirts with a string of orange stars sewn down the sleeve. I thought to myself, this must be a special race and my excitement was swelling.
I left Two Harbors and drove the 65 roadway miles to Caribou Lodge where I would stay the night and was also the site of the finish line. The Lodge was a standard ski lodge. I checked in and prepared for the early morning shuttle ride to the start. Not having a crew with me, I had spent a lot of time earlier in the week at home planning my drop bags and race morning needs. I had left my drop bags where indicated at packet pickup. I laid out my gear and hit the bed at 10:00, falling asleep immediately, having been up since 4:30 that morning.
At 5:15 my phone alarm rang and I sprung out of bed and 30 minutes later I was standing at the shuttle pickup. Ben was there, having car camped in the parking lot. We spoke briefly, each excited for the race to begin. The shuttle ride took almost an hour and on the way the sun arose out of Lake Superior. It was beautiful. We were traveling west so most of the runners probably missed it, but looking over my shoulder I took it in and thought about the whole concept of seeing another sunrise before I finished this race. Jodeci’s “Bringin’ the Funk” was playing in my iPod… I was ready to bring the funk. Bring all I had. No DNF this time. I had traveled too far and planned too long, let alone too much money, to fail at this race.
The race start area at Gooseberry Falls State Park provided an open pavilion with restrooms and a hallway to stay warm. I found a piece of floor and prayed. I prayed for a successful adventure. For health, for my family at home, and for good weather. The forecast all week showed rain showers all weekend at one point, but at the start, the sky was blue. I held my breathe praying for good weather. My feet don’t do well in rain. Opening my eyes, I found Ben sitting next to me. We chatted more, trading stories of Texas and Minnesota racing and mission trips to Mexico and Honduras. Ben has a glow to him and it shined brightly when he spoke of his mission trips to Copper Canyon in Mexico. Yes, that Copper Canyon. He indicated he was going back next spring and we spoke of possibly running TROT’s Lone Star 100 near El Paso.
John Storkamp counted down through the megaphone and we were off. I started in the back, fully committing to the slow, steady and methodical approach I intended to take. The first 10K or so was all on paved bike path between the highway and the lake shore. The morning was cool, but warmer than I anticipated. Over my Houston Ara Trail Runners (HATR) race tank I had both my new long sleeve Duluth Running Co shirt as well as my Salomon windbreaker. Too much. I also had car keys tied to my shorts string. I debated with myself leaving them at the start, but I had no bag and certainly didn’t want to risk losing these items. “Fail #1” I thought to myself. Oh well, I eventually tied both around my waist and banged on. I reminded myself of the short YouTube video my cousin shared with me. The message was to keep my head down and keep banging. Don’t look up to see what place I’m in, what my pace is, or do math to check my finishing time. Keep banging and eventually the goal will be had.
About the time we turned off the paved portion, I befriended John (name forgotten), a runner from Minnesota. He was a veteran of the race and the Superior Hiking Trail. He attempted to describe the course as I wanted to know what I was going to encounter. His description that I translated into my mind’s eye was not quite right. This was a good thing at the time. We chatted friendly in the conga line as we snaked through the Split Rock River
valley. Finally, an opportunity to pass presented and since I felt fresh, warmed up and ready to run, I did. I passed the conga line and ran fast. It was a blast flying over tree roots, jagged rocks and along the rushing stream. The cool air was truly a welcome divergence from the Houston humidity.
I arrived at the first aid station, Split Rock, after traveling down the out-and-back trail spur. This was my first opportunity to see the faces of the runners in front of me. Everyone was happy and enjoying the race. On my way away from Split Rock I ran into John Storkamp and we bumped forearms. He still had that kindness radiating from his eyes. I like this guy, I thought to myself.
The race continued up and down for the next 10 miles. I traded attendance with the several small groups that would tend to develop. Most runners were obviously running with a friend and I would enjoy listening to their stories and banter.
At 15 miles or so, I decided to take a couple coffee beans. I wanted a little pick me up along that stretch which was the longest between aid stations in the race. A few minutes later, my heart began racing. “Uh, oh” I thought. I’ve had this happen in the past and even visited a cardiologist about it. For a couple minutes, longer than I’ve ever experienced prior, I slowed to a walk, then a stance, then a lean on a tree, all the while trying to slow my heart beat. The regular solutions were not appearing to work. Coughing would usually reset the rate, but it was not working. I even felt a bit faint. I was in a real predicament. I was 5 miles from both ends of this trail stretch. I decided to keep banging, albeit slowly. Runners passed me but I didn’t give them any indication of my situation. Eventually, my heart rate did drop back to a regular pace. I took a deep breath and began trotting again. If it came back I would have to drop, if it didn’t, I would never tell anyone…. (until this blog). Luckily, it never came back.
Back in the rhythm of the race, I listened to the forest. It was eerily quiet. Usually in the forest you hear leaves rustle, birds chirp or even squirrels run across the ground. But here at this time it was quite… until the fighter jets screamed overhead. Apparently there is an air force reserve base nearby and F-16’s were doing their training over the lake. The Canadians were not invading after all. Running along, I thought of my grandfather who had worked on the design of the F-16 as an engineer so many years ago.
I came into aid station Beaver Bay where I had my first drop bag. I changed my socks which would be protocol at every drop bag location. I took everything in my drop bag and left plenty of sweaty clothes and those keys. It was 20.1 miles into the race and I was now finding myself pretty much on my own. The runners had spread out enough now that I let myself tune in my iPod.
Leaving the 3rd aid station, Silver Bay, I had decided I had discovered the one food that was going to be my go to… vanilla sandwich cookies. I had found them at each aid station and loved them.
The trail remained in great condition and the weather was phenomenal. Occasionally there was a wet area, but they were easily avoided by traversing the trail edge. Keeping my feet dry was top priority. There was significant climbs that required tall steps and even a hand on the rocks. These conditions presented vista views of the Sawtooth mountains, perched lakes and occasionally a glimpse of Lake Superior.
Near mile 40 the trail was heavily canopied and the shadows were making seeing difficult. I pulled out my small Petzle headlamp as the lady behind me passed. “About that time, isn’t it?” She asked. “Yep. I wanted to hold on as long as I could ’cause it is going to be a long night” I replied. The sky had clouded so I could not see the sunset. There was a brief moment, however, when I saw the sun shine beneath the clouds. It was beautiful as it painted the thunderheads on the opposite horizon in oranges and reds. Through the beauty though, I saw a wet future.
Pulling into County Road C Aid Station where I had my second drop bag, I changed socks, ate a melted peanut butter cup and switched to my Petzl Nao. I grabbed some vanilla sandwich cookies and read notes from my family. The temperature was getting cool and changing shirts made me shiver a bit, but I grabbed a cup of ramen soup and ran into the darkness feeling great.
At mile 51 the sound of generators providing power to strings of Christmas lights lead me to aid station Finland. It was the start location for the 50 miler later that morning, but for me it was half way. The volunteer staff offered me soup, coke and a hot dog. “Hot dog?” I asked. Apparently this is common in Minnesota races. I passed on the hot dog, but enjoyed more hot noodle soup. Another strategy I had was to fully take advantage of food at the aid stations. This was the first 100 attempt without my beloved Skratch Labs rice cake portables. I knew I couldn’t live on just gels, even Accel Gel with protein that I recently turned on to.
Having passed the midway point, a renewed sense of life came back to me. I could hear another rushing creek again in the darkness and was running strong. At 1:15 am my happy place was interrupted by the far off sound of thunder. “Oh no.” I began playing a game with the sound. I would hear it every 5 minutes or so I would try to determine how far away it was. I could see the flash then a pause and then the thunder. Each second was a mile. The sound got louder and the flash brighter. I ran along the single track just waiting for that first drop. Then it happened. Now, rain in Houston is
rain. Real rain drops that will knock you over and wind that drives it. This rain was not Houston rain. It was wet, but that is the end of the similarities. It was soft, gentle rain. Maybe the tree canopy was dampening it, but the trail conditions did not immediately become soup as they would have in Houston.
I had my rain coat on in preparation of potential rain, but mainly it was to keep me warm. It comfortably fit over my hydration pack so I didn’t feel cold or soaked. In the middle of the toughest rain, the trail seemed to be getting taken over by leaning brush branches. I had entered a bottom land and the ground was covered in a black, thick mud. Luckily there were stretches of raise wooden planks to traverse the worst. I did struggle though, looking down to follow the 2-ft wide board while brush branches whacked me in the face and their wet leave reflected the bright light on my forehead. My headlamps reactive technology would then dim just as the leave passed the light so the trail footing became dark. This went on for quite a stretch. I finally lost it! I grabbed an offending bush and pulled, yelled and beat the hell out of it in frustration. A runner following some distance behind asked calmly, “Are you okay?” “Yes,” I replied. “Just had to beat up a bush for a second.” I laughed at myself and kept on. Kept on banging. Kept moving forward.
However, shortly after, I felt my right shoe loosen. I had broken a shoe lace. The Salomon quick lace broke and it was impossible for me to thread the frayed cord through the eyelet. I tied it up bypassing the bottom eyelets. I would just have to make it to the next aid station. Suddenly, my phone alarm went off. It was 5:15 am. I had officially been awake for 24 hours.
Eventually, daybreak broke around mile 66. The rainy night was over. The rain and darkness was behind me. Again, a new sense of life fell upon me. Getting through the night is always a trying time for me. Soon I found myself at Sugarloaf Aid Station and drank some hot soup and feasted on grilled cheese. Oh, that glorious grilled cheese sandwich!
Continuing on towards the next aid station at mile 78, Cramer Road, I was fixated on my next drop bag with a fresh pair of shoes. I was almost salivating over the idea of new dry shoes. The thought was even stronger when I realized my left shoe string was now broken. Going into the race, I did notice my Salomon Mantra 2’s were showing some wear in the laces, but I figured they were worn in and I didn’t want to try anything different. I even debated the need to bring a second pair of shoes. I’m sure glad I did!
Arriving at Cramer Road, I changed socks again and this time my feet were definitely feeling the effects of the wet conditions. They were wrinkled, but not ripped up. The fresh socks and foot powder did wonders. As did the new shoes. Just two weeks prior I bought a pair of Altra Lone Peaks, the new 3.0’s that just came out. I had only run in them a couple times, but I had to have faith they would treat me right and bring me the 40 miles to the finish. My feet were wet, but essentially blister free. My plan of constant sock change and avoiding the big puddles and mud when possible was paying off. (I would even venture out of my way through the woods on the side of the trail to avoid a stretch of mud/water).
It was at Cramer, mile 78, while I was again feasting on grilled cheese, that the first 50 miler runner passed me. Holy cow, what a flash. I was excited to begin seeing 50 milers run by. Not just to see the “elites” but to hear them call out encouragement to us 100 milers. John Storkamp had given each 100 miler a long pink ribbon to attach to our back to signify to the 50 milers who we were. It was a great concept. Each time a 50 miler would pass, their encouragement meant something different than the encouragement provided by other 100 milers. These guys were in awe of us. They were in a struggle, but only half the struggle we were going through!
As we ran, I knew some deep descents to Temperance River and climbs back out were coming. I began wondering when Jeremy Alm would run up on me. Jeremy is a friend from long ago who was running the 50 miler. We talked about him catching me and us finishing the race together. “Would he see me running or walking,” I thought. I needed to run to save face. So I imagined my other friend, Jeremy “Handsome” Hanson. You see, he often posts a Facebook profile pic of him running with a smile and thumbs up. That was my new running pose. Whenever I would need motivation to push a bit, I would think of Jeremy’s thumbs and just “yog” as he would say. “Yogging is fun” I would hear him say. It was a trick to got me going several times along that trail.
The trail was now dry and I bombed down the long downhill. I was passing people and would hear comments like, “great job!”, “way to go” and “You look awesome!”. I was feeding off those comments. The sun was shining strong again and I knew I was about the start the steep climb. I had to push my pace as much as possible before the inevitable vertical climb. And what a climb it was. Finally, at the top, a photographer was there. I’ve tried to locate that picture he took, just to see my condition. I was mentally breaking again.
I continued down the trail in an on-and-off trot. I had been awake for 30+ hours and had covered 83 miles. I was extremely tired, but my body was relatively pain free. I did take an Advil earlier, but I had no painful blisters, knee pain or chafing. What I did begin to experience was mental exhaustion. I thought I had experienced hallucinations before, but after seeing what I saw during Superior 100, I know I hadn’t previously. Since I was frantically looking for signs of the next aid station, the final one before the finish, my mind was playing tricks on me. I would look down the trail and see people sitting next to the trail. I would see cabins and houses and even RV’s. My spirit would lift as I thought I was closing in on the aid station, but as I approached they would vanish or turn into a fallen birch tree! At one point I was looking down the double track trail and saw an opening in the trees like a cul-de-sac. This had to be the parking lot where the aid station was. I blinked and the scene completely changed to a single track as far as the eye could see. No double track, no opening in the forest.
Eventually, I reached Oberg, the final aid station. When the volunteer asked what I needed I simply said, “Calories.” I knew my mind needed some quick energy. As I munched on grilled cheese, quesadilla and cookies… all the cookies, I relayed my hallucination stories. As I spoke I thought, “why are you telling this guy how bad your brain is? He is going to pull you!” He didn’t pull me. I guess this condition must have been prevalent in many runners! He did however encourage me to beat the sunset because the hallucinations become really scary at night. When I said I was excited to only have 7 miles left, he told me I actually only had 5 to go! I jumped up and ran out of there fist pumping. I was going to make it!
That last 5 miles was both brutal and magical. I was so tired, but I caught up to a runner and his pacers (his dad and possibly his brother). I hitched my walk-with-purpose to them. When the pacer said it was time to run it in, I begrudgingly followed suit. We made the last two climbs and then all I was doing was looking for the road I had heard of. I was running like the wind. From the outside observer I was probably just crawling, but I felt like Carl Lewis. I found the road and as I came out of the forest canopy, I looked up and right in front of me was a single puffy cloud with a vivid rainbow set against it. A lady was standing next to the road clapping. I asked her if she was real and she said yes. She pointed to the rainbow and said that was also real. It was for me! A tear welled in my eye. I thought of my family. I missed them so.
I continued down the blacktop road and finally saw the Lodge. There were chair lifts and everything that a ski lodge has that I never saw two nights before. Turning on off the road, I closed in on the lodge and then rounded the corner around the Lodge through the grass. I passed over the chip reader mat and knew that that meant they would likely read off my name over the PA as I finished. I rounded the final corner, then through the shoot, and there was the finish. I crossed and stopped. In slow motion I thought, “I just stopped for the first time in a day and a half. Weird.” I heard the announcer call my name, Katy, Texas, and yelled “hook ’em horns!” A photographer took my picture and the time was 34:50. I had beat 36 hours. I had beat the sunset. I had beat my own shortcomings and finished my hardest race ever. Best ever though, was seeing a friendly face. Jeremy Alm was standing there, next to John Storkhamp. John handed me the wooden medallion and my new favorite buckle, then Jeremy and I embraced with Jeremy exclaiming, “GMC!” Quite the moment!
The rest of the evening included me sitting at the buffet table stuffing my face, listening to Jeremy’s race report
and barely holding my eyes open. My body trembled from cold as I gathered my drop bags in the return area. I finally found my car keys, grabbed my luggage, found Jeremy’s room and showered a gloriously warm shower. I looked for Jeremy back in the darkness and the full-on party atmosphere, but after not seeing him went back to the room and crashed.
The next morning, my phone alarm went off at 5:15 am as it had done the last two mornings. It was across the room and I frantically hobbled to turn it off. From the other side of the room I heard Jeremy say, “If I could walk right now, I’d come over and punch you in the thigh!” A while later when we finally rolled out of bed, I caught up with Jeremy and made a new friend in Pat Johnson. Pat came from Bismarck with Jeremy and had passed me somewhere along the route as he ran the 50 miler very well. After a while, they left for Bismarck and I ventured to Luften for breakfast.
Finding a small cafe/gift shop, I sat and ordered food. A lot of food. Looking up I saw Jason standing there. He had walked over from across the room and said, “Since you are wearing your new sweatshirt I know you finished! Congratulations!”